About the Bike

Edward Koren reviews Bicycle: The History by David V. Herlihy in the New York Times:

Herlihy184_1Herlihy’s descriptions of the bicycle’s birth start with very early efforts to replace the horse with a human-powered mechanical substitute that would not only surpass the animal in speed and practicality but also be widely affordable — what would come to be known as the ”people’s nag.” The first primitive human-powered mechanical horse — the draisine or velocipede (Latin for ”fast foot”) — was introduced in Germany by Karl von Drais in 1817, and quickly after in France, England and the United States. The rider sat in a saddle, supported by a brace suspended between two equally sized carriage wheels. Propulsion was provided by the rider, walking or running, much like the present-day two-wheeled child’s scooter, dependent on pushing away with a foot on the ground for momentum. Drais estimated that the draisine could achieve a speed of 5 or 6 miles per hour at a walking gait; running, it could reach up to 12 miles an hour.

More here.

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Tool for Thought

Steven Johnson in the New York Times Book Review:

The word processor has changed the way we write, but it hasn’t yet changed the way we think.

Changing the way we think, of course, was the cardinal objective of many early computer visionaries: Vannevar Bush’s seminal 1945 essay that envisioned the modern, hypertext-driven information machine was called ”As We May Think”; Howard Rheingold’s wonderful account of computing’s pioneers was called ”Tools for Thought.” Most of these gurus would be disappointed to find that, decades later, the most sophisticated form of artificial intelligence in our writing tools lies in our grammar checkers.

But 2005 may be the year when tools for thought become a reality for people who manipulate words for a living, thanks to the release of nearly a dozen new programs all aiming to do for your personal information what Google has done for the Internet. These programs all work in slightly different ways, but they share two remarkable properties: the ability to interpret the meaning of text documents; and the ability to filter through thousands of documents in the time it takes to have a sip of coffee. Put those two elements together and you have a tool that will have as significant an impact on the way writers work as the original word processors did.

More here.

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January 28, 2005

Down the tubes

Short review of The Subterranean Railway: How the London Underground was Built and How it Changed the City Forever by Christian Wolmar, and The City Beneath Us: Building the New York Subways by Vivian Heller and the New York Transit Museum, in The Economist:

London’s was the first underground railway—nearly all of it built in the half-century after 1860—and one of the trickiest. It runs under streets so twisty that they could not simply be dug up in order to lay track—the “cut and cover” method used for much of New York’s system. Another difference is London’s historic lack of civic government, which meant that the money had to be scrounged, mainly from private investors, all of whom had their own ideas on how the system should work.

More here.

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Making Memories Stick

R. Douglas Fields writes in Scientific American:

[The] transition from the present mental experience to an enduring memory has long fascinated neuroscientists. A person’s name when you are first introduced is stored in short-term memory and may be gone within a few minutes. But some information, like your best friend’s name, is converted into long-term memory and can persist a lifetime. The mechanism by which the brain preserves certain moments and allows others to fade has recently become clearer, but first neuroscientists had to resolve a central paradox.

More here.

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MMORPG sweatshops

A while ago, I’d posted on some papers and articles on the Internet as a research lab, and had pointed to studies that measured the real world value of MMORPGs (massive multi-player online role playing games).  Edward Castronova, who pioneered this research, had estimated that the average wage of the Everquest world of Norrath was US$3.42 per hour, a value that could be measured through the phenomenon of trading items such as virtual magical swords on e-bay. 

John Quiggin at Crooked Timber reports on a related but unsurprising phenomenon.

“At the Creative Commons conference last week, I heard a story to the effect that when the owners of one of these games tried to prohibit item trading they were sued and, in the course of litigation discovered that the plaintiff ran a sweatshop in Mexico where workers participated in the game solely to collect salable items. Clearly as long as the wage is below $3.42 there’s an arbitrage opportunity here. More technically sophisticated arbitrageurs have replaced human workers by scripted agents, working with multiple connections. Either way, arbitrage opportunities can’t last for ever, and are likely to be resolved either by intervention or inflation.

The positive economics of all this are interesting enough. But how about policy analysis? Who benefits and who loses from this kind of trade, and do the benefits outweigh the costs?”

Read on.

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Abbas stands for the politics of cool and clear rationality

Hussein Agha and Robert Malley in the New York Review of Books:

Mazen_abu20050210Abu Mazen is, like Arafat, a rarity: a genuinely national Palestinian figure. But he is so in radically dissimilar fashion. Where Arafat attained national status by identifying with and belonging to every single constituency and factional interest, Abu Mazen did so by identifying with none. Arafat immersed himself in local politics; Abu Mazen floats above it, his service being to the national movement as a whole. Abu Mazen’s world is more rooted in what is familiar and recognized by most people as the order of things. His language is of the acceptable, more everyday variety, his reality far less animated by the ghosts of the past. Instead of the politics of ambiguous and creative intensity, he stands for the politics of cool and clear rationality.

Read the article here.

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You Can’t Ignore My Wrath

Kristen Philipkoski in Wired News:

You can try, but you can’t ignore that angry voice yelling at you, or anyone else. Whether it’s your dad, your girlfriend, your sister or a stranger, you must pay attention.

Human brains are just wired that way, according to a study published in the Jan. 23 issue of Nature Neuroscience. Wrathful voices trigger a strong response in the brain, even when we are trying not to pay attention or the comments are meaningless, say researchers at the University of Geneva.

More here.

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Blog Overkill

Jack Shafer in Slate:

The premature triumphalism of some bloggers indicates that they haven’t paid attention to how Webified journalists have become. They also ignore media history. New media technologies almost never replace old media technologies, they merely force old technologies to adapt and find new ways to connect with their audiences. Radio killed the “special edition,” but newspapers survived. When television dethroned radio as the hearthside infobox and cratered the Hollywood box office, radio became a mobile medium, and Hollywood devoted itself to spectaculars that the tiny TV set couldn’t adequately display. The competitive spiral has continued, with cable TV, VCRs and DVDs, satellite TV and radio broadcasters, and now Internet broadcasters entering the fray. The only extinct mass medium that I can think of is the movie house newsreel.

More here.

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The Coming Wars

Seymour M. Hersh writes in the New Yorker:

George W. Bush’s reëlection was not his only victory last fall. The President and his national-security advisers have consolidated control over the military and intelligence communities’ strategic analyses and covert operations to a degree unmatched since the rise of the post-Second World War national-security state. Bush has an aggressive and ambitious agenda for using that control—against the mullahs in Iran and against targets in the ongoing war on terrorism—during his second term. The C.I.A. will continue to be downgraded, and the agency will increasingly serve, as one government consultant with close ties to the Pentagon put it, as “facilitators” of policy emanating from President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney. This process is well under way…

In my interviews, I was repeatedly told that the next strategic target was Iran. “Everyone is saying, ‘You can’t be serious about targeting Iran. Look at Iraq,’” the former intelligence official told me. “But they say, ‘We’ve got some lessons learned—not militarily, but how we did it politically. We’re not going to rely on agency pissants.’ No loose ends, and that’s why the C.I.A. is out of there.”

More here.

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The Incredible Inkjet

Jason Daley in Popular Science:

If you were to toast the most dazzling gadget in your home, you might compose an ode to your plasma TV, recite a limerick about your computer-controlled telescope, or maybe sing the praises of your video conferencing, nose-hair-trimming espresso maker. But the invention most deserving of your adoration, the contraption that will one day sit in the pantheon of great American machines alongside the telephone and the transistor radio, is something far more prosaic. It is the inkjet printer, and it is much more than a peripheral. Its core technology may seem simple—an array of nozzles that moves back and forth, depositing tiny droplets of ink on paper—but its breadth of uses has turned out to be nothing short of astonishing, so much so that the humble inkjet is driving innovation in disciplines from aerospace engineering to pharmacology.

How does a printer go from spitting out pictures of Uncle Bob to powering jet planes? The secret of the inkjet’s unheralded versatility lies in its print head—a silicon or composite plate a tenth of an inch wide studded with as many micro-nozzles as a manufacturer can cram onto it. The nozzles fill with ink, and either heat or an electric charge forces out uniform droplets [see “Inkjet 101,” below]. Refined over the past 20 years from heads with 12 nozzles to ones with more than 3,000, the inkjet is the first cheap, mass-produced machine to control minute pearls of fluids—it ultimately jump-started the field of microfluidics. This precise control of ever-smaller droplets (some now a small fraction the size of a pinpoint), coupled with faster printing speeds has opened up dozens of new and decidedly more glamorous applications: printing cellphones and human livers, delivering drugs more efficiently and without side effects, producing fuels without nasty by-products.

More here.

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The Joy of Sexology

“Does it matter that Alfred Kinsey enjoyed his work more than he let on?” asks Christina Larson at the Washington Monthly:

Bio_kinsey_092004_bigIn September, Fox Searchlight, a film studio known for such offbeat sleeper-hits as Thirteen and Bend It Like Beckham, arranged one of the first screenings of its upcoming movie, Kinsey, which stars a tweed-clad Liam Neeson as 1940s sex researcher Alfred Kinsey… Radio host Laura Schlessinger and Judith Reisman, author of a book titled Kinsey, Sex, and Fraud, tried to place ads in a Hollywood trade publication alleging Kinsey was a pervert and a pedophile. (Their ads were declined as obscene.) Focus on the Family and Concerned Women for America, two social conservative organizations, later bombarded newspaper film critics with mailers impugning Kinsey’s character and research. When Kinsey opened to the public, the Abstinence Clearinghouse, a network for chastity educators, organized foot soldiers to picket theaters and hand out pamphlets titled “Casualties of Kinsey.” The group’s director, Leslee Unruh, explained that “Kinsey should be looked upon in the history books as Hitler, as Saddam Hussein.”

Other 20th century avatars of sexual open-mindedness don’t draw comparisons to perpetrators of mass genocide, including those who came earlier and yelped louder than Kinsey… Why does Kinsey hold such a distinct place in conservative crosshairs?

More here.

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Righting Copyright: Fair Use and “Digital Environmentalism”

Roberst S. Boynton in Bookforum (via Arts & Letters Daily):

Who owns the words you’re reading right now? if you’re holding a copy of Bookforum in your hands, the law permits you to lend or sell it to whomever you like. If you’re reading this article on the Internet, you are allowed to link to it, but are prohibited from duplicating it on your web site or chat room without permission. You are free to make copies of it for teaching purposes, but aren’t allowed to sell those copies to your students without permission. A critic who misrepresents my ideas or uses some of my words to attack me in an article of his own is well within his rights to do so. But were I to fashion these pages into a work of collage art and sell it, my customer would be breaking the law if he altered it. Furthermore, were I to set these words to music, I’d receive royalties when it was played on the radio; the band performing it, however, would get nothing. In the end, the copyright to these words belongs to me, and I’ve given Bookforum the right to publish them. But even my ownership is limited. Unlike a house, which I may pass on to my heirs (and they to theirs), my copyright will expire seventy years after my death, and these words will enter the public domain, where anyone is free to use them. But those doodles you’re drawing in the margins of this page? Have no fear: They belong entirely to you.

More here.

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January 27, 2005

The Einstein Flip

As we all know by now, 2005 is the hundredth anniversary of Einstein’s “Annus Mirabilis.” Dennis Overbye writes in the New York Times:

The International Year of Physics, as the United Nations has officially designated 2005, has already had its zany moments of physics fun, with more to come. This month, Ben Wallace, 18, a professional stunt cyclist, flew off a ramp in the London Science Museum and did a back flip 12 feet in the air while folding his bicycle sideways – a maneuver designed by a Cambridge physicist who said she was inspired by a tale that the 26-year-old Einstein had invented his theory of relativity while riding a bicycle.

Never mind that there is no evidence that Einstein even had a bicycle as a young man. Never mind that the “Einstein flip” itself, as complicated and carefully plotted as it was, relies strictly on the old-fashioned laws of Isaac Newton.

If bicycle stunts aren’t your cup of tea, perhaps you would take in “Constant Speed,” a ballet inspired by relativity, which the Rambert Dance Company will perform in London starting May 24. Maybe you would like to download the rap song “Einstein (Not Enough Time)” by DJ Vader, adopted by Britain’s Institute of Physics for an educational computer game, or the Einstein@Home screen saver, which will allow your computer to process signals from the cosmos for the twitches and vibrations of space-time known as gravitational waves.

Or maybe you would like to try the Pirelli Group’s contest for the best five-minute multimedia explanation of relativity. (The prize is 25,000 euros, or about $32,500.)

Read more details of the planned celebrations here.

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New York Students Dominate Intel Science Contest

Lily Koppel in the New York Times:

Students from New York State again dominated the list of 40 finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search announced yesterday.

New York had 13 finalists, followed by California, Florida, Illinois and Maryland with four each. Connecticut and New Jersey had none.

The contest, founded in 1942 and formerly known as the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, is regarded as a sort of junior Nobel Prize. Intel, the world’s largest computer chip maker, became the sponsor in 1999.

A list of the finalists and descriptions of their projects can be found on the Web at www.sciserv.org/sts/64sts/finalists.asp.

More here.

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Primo Levi on the Liberation of Auschwitz

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  Norman Geras offers this remarkable passage from Primo Levi’s The Truce.

“At the beginning of The Truce, Primo Levi tells of his own moment of liberation in January 1945, when the Russians – for him, ‘four young soldiers on horseback’ – arrived at Auschwitz:

‘They did not greet us, nor did they smile; they seemed oppressed not only by compassion but by a confused restraint, which sealed their lips and bound their eyes to the funereal scene. It was that shame we knew so well, the shame that drowned us after the selections, and every time we had to watch, or submit to, some outrage: the shame the Germans did not know, that the just man experiences at another man’s crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist, that it should have been introduced irrevocably into the world of things that exist, and that his will for good should have proved too weak or null, and should not have availed in defence.

So for us even the hour of liberty rang out grave and muffled, and filled our souls with joy and yet with a painful sense of pudency, so that we should have liked to wash our consciences and our memories clean from the foulness that lay upon them; and also with anguish, because we felt that this should never happen, that now nothing could ever happen good and pure enough to rub out our past, and that the scars of the outrage would remain within us forever, within the memories of those who saw it, and in the places where it occurred and in the stories that we should tell of it. Because, and this is the awful privilege of our generation and of my people, no one has ever been able to grasp better than us [translation modified here – NG] the incurable nature of the offence that spreads like a contagion. It is foolish to think that human justice can eradicate it.'”

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Shazia Mirza, Muslim Comedienne

From The Telegraph:

Shazia_2 Shazia Mirza is fast becoming the world’s most wanted Muslim woman. She is highly sought after because she tells jokes about Osama bin Laden.

As Britain’s only Muslim woman known to be performing stand-up comedy, Mirza, 26, is becoming a favourite with comedy club promoters and radio discussion programmes.

Demand for the Birmingham-born comic is also now coming from two countries at the heart of international events: America and Pakistan.

In America, she has been asked to appear on Oprah Winfrey’s television programme and take part in a benefit event to raise money for families of the victims of the World Trade Centre attack.

In Pakistan, where her parents were born, she is wanted for a one-woman show in Lahore. In another career boost, she collected a Young Achiever of the Year prize in this week’s GG2 Leadership and Diversity Awards, which recognise success stories within the Asian community.

More here. Take a look at Shazia’s homepage here. She is doing a show in New York City on February 15th, and in Boston on the 16th. Details about that here. Thanks to Sughra Raza for bringing this to my attention.

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January 26, 2005

John Updike on Haruki Murakami’s new novel

From the New Yorker:

Haruki Murakami’s new novel, “Kafka on the Shore” (translated, from the Japanese, by Philip Gabriel; Knopf; $25.95), is a real page-turner, as well as an insistently metaphysical mind-bender. Spun out to four hundred and thirty-six pages, it seems more gripping than it has a right to be and less moving, perhaps, than the author wanted it to be. Murakami, born in 1949, ran a Tokyo jazz club before he became a published writer, with the novel “Hear the Wind Sing,” in 1979. Though his work abounds with references to contemporary American culture, especially its popular music, and though he details the banal quotidian with an amiable flatness reminiscent of Western youth and minimalist fiction in the hungover nineteen-seventies, his narratives are dreamlike, closer to the viscid surrealism of Kobo Abe than to the superheated but generally solid realism of Mishima and Tanizaki. We often cannot imagine, while reading “Kafka on the Shore,” what will come next, and our suspicion—reinforced by Murakami’s comments in interviews, such as the one in last summer’s Paris Review—is that the author did not always know, either.

More here.

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Animaris Rhinoceros Transport

Lakshmi Sandhana reports in Wired News:

4_f Theo Jansen wants to make “life” and he figures the best way to do it is to start from scratch.

A self-styled god, Jansen is evolving an entirely new line of animals: immense multi-legged walking critters designed to roam the Dutch coastline, feeding on gusts of wind. Over the years, successive generations of his creatures have evolved into increasingly complex animals that walk by flapping wings in response to the wind, discerning obstacles in their path through feelers and even hammering themselves into the sand on sensing an approaching storm.

A scientist-turned-artist, Jansen’s bizarre beach animals have their roots in a computer program that he designed 17 years ago in which virtual four-legged creatures raced against each other to identify survivors fit enough to reproduce. Determined to translate the evolutionary process off-screen, Jansen went to a local shop and found his own alternative to the biological cell — the humble plastic tube.

More here.

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