‘The Last Witchfinder’

From The New York Times:Morrow184

Unlike you humans, a book always remembers its moment of conception. My father, the illustrious Isaac Newton, having abandoned his studies at Trinity College to escape the great plague of 1665, was spending the summer at his mother’s farm in Woolsthorpe. An orchard grew beside the house. Staring contemplatively through his bedroom window, Newton watched an apple drop free of its tree, driven by that strange arrangement we have agreed to call gravity. In a leap of intuition, he imagined the apple not simply as falling to the ground but as striving for the very center of the Earth. This fruit, he divined, bore a relationship to its planet analogous to that enjoyed by the moon: gravitation, ergo, was universal – the laws that governed terrestrial acceleration also ruled the heavens. As below, so above. My father never took a woman to his bed, and yet the rush of pleasure he experienced on that sweltering July afternoon easily eclipsed the common run of orgasm.

Twenty-two years later – in midsummer of 1687 – I was born. Being a book, a patchwork thing of leather and dreams, ink and inspiration, I have always counted scholars among my friends, poets among my heroes, and glue among my gods. But what am I like in the particular? How is the Principia Mathematica different from all other books? My historical import is beyond debate: I am, quite simply, the single greatest work of science ever written. My practical utility is indisputable. Whatever you may think of Mars probes, moon landings, orbiting satellites, steam turbines, power looms, the Industrial Revolution, or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, none of these things is possible without me. But the curious among you also want to know about my psychic essence. You want to know about my soul.

More here.

You Scratch My Back, I’ll Scratch His

From Science:Toucan

Biologists studying organisms that rely on each other have traditionally focused only on a pair of species. Researchers have also tended to assume that each participant contributes equally to the relationship. But these models are limited, says ecologist Jordi Bascompte. That’s because most organisms depend on a network of species, to varying degrees. Until now, he says, quantitative models failed to take these complexities into account.

To address the issue, Bascompte and his colleagues at the Donana Biological Station in Sevilla, Spain, along with collaborators at the University of Aarhus in Denmark studied data from 26 communities of plants, seed dispersers, and pollinators all over the world. The researchers then calculated the extent to which dozens of species in each of these communities rely on one another. According to their results–published today in Science— these networks are dominated by asymmetric relationships: When a plant is highly dependent on a particular animal, that animal tends to rely only somewhat on the plant. The Cazorla violet of Spain needs a particular species of moth to disperse its seeds, for example, but the moth feeds on a variety of plants. This inequality may help interdependent groups survive even when species in the network are threatened. In an equal relationship, “if the plant declines, the animal will follow,” says Bascompte. “Because the animal is now also in trouble, the plant has no chances to recover.”

More here.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Gender Equality Leads to Better Sex Lives

In addition to justice, gender equality has other things to recommend it (in Science Daily).

Older couples who live in Western countries and who enjoy more equality between men and women are most likely to report being satisfied with their sex lives, according to a new study on sexual well-being, aging and health that was conducted in 29 countries by a University of Chicago research team.

In contrast, older people reported less satisfaction with the physical and emotional quality of their sex lives in countries where men have a dominant status over women, such as nations in East Asia, and to a lesser extent, the Middle East, according to the results of the Global Study of Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors.

The study involved surveying about 27,500 people between the ages of 40 and 80, including equal numbers of men and women. The study is the first of its kind to document and compare sexual behavior and related satisfaction among middle-aged and older people worldwide. Across most of the countries surveyed, substantial majorities of people with partners remain sexually active throughout the second half of their lives.

A Roundatable Discussion on Tolerance and Multiculturalism

For those in New York City, PEN American Center and signandsight.com are presenting a roundtable discussion on the “Limits of Tolerance? Multiculturalism Now”, with Pascal Bruckner, Necla Kelek, Navid Kermani, and Richard Rodriguez (moderated by Kwame Anthony Appiah). (Friday, April 28, 2006 at 6:00 PM at the New York Public Library.)

In distinctive American and European variants, Multiculturalism is embattled from left and right as never before, even as both continents absorb unprecedented numbers of immigrants. Can the Enlightenment ideal of tolerance survive a resurgence of religious extremism? A diverse group of American and European observers look at Multiculturalism today.

Said on “Lateness” in Music and Literature

Paul Griffiths reviews Edward Said’s On Late Style in Bookforum.

Said’s reflection starts out from the notion of timeliness in human doings, and so of how certain things become possible, or available, in later years. One of time’s gifts is widely held to be wisdom, but Said is attracted much more by lateness “as intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction.” The wise elders—Shakespeare, Verdi, Rembrandt, Matisse, Bach, Wagner—are saluted, then dismissed. Kept for later and longer scrutiny are those who, like ancient trees, grew ever more gnarled.

It is at this point, on the fifth page, that Adorno enters the argument; he will be there to the end. For Said, Adorno is not only a great analyst of lateness but also an exemplar, whose writings took shape within a whole culture entering a late phase. Adorno is accordingly Said’s touchstone in discussing late Beethoven (in the first chapter) and Richard Strauss (in the second), and there is a strong Adornian presence in the chapter on Glenn Gould. Music, of course, is a concern Said shares with Adorno, and this book is full of it, other late masters invoked including Mozart and Britten.

turing today, turing tomorrow

The complicated relationship between the field of AI and Turing’s legacy goes back to the beginning. Professors Marvin Minsky of M.I.T. and John McCarthy of Stanford are considered the founders of Artificial Intelligence as a formal discipline or research program, and both are still active as of this writing. In a survey article in the Proceedings of the IRE in 1961, Minsky defends the idea that computers might think by saying that “we cannot assign all the credit to its programmer if the operation of a system comes to reveal structures not recognizable nor anticipated by the programmer,” implying that at least some part of such a surprising result must be due to thinking by the machine. He caps his argument with the words: “Turing gives a very knowledgeable discussion of such matters.” He quotes nothing specific, just appeals to Turing’s stature and authority. But in 2003, Minsky expressed his disappointment and frustration at the lack of progress made by AI toward achieving Turing’s goals: “AI has been brain-dead since the 1970s…. For each different kind of problem, the construction of expert systems had to start all over again, because they didn’t accumulate common-sense knowledge…. Graduate students are wasting three years of their lives soldering and repairing robots, instead of making them smart. It’s really shocking.”

Raj Reddy, another winner of the Turing Award and former president of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence, takes a much rosier view of the matter. In a 1996 paper, Reddy begins with the usual bow to Turing, then says, “Since its inception, AI has made steady progress.” As an illustration, he mentions a wide variety of accomplishments, such as playing high-level chess, guiding an automobile down a road, and making possible the “electronic book.” But he nowhere mentions attempts to pass the Test or do anything remotely like it. Instead, he attacks those who minimize AI’s achievements, like Hubert Dreyfus, author of What Computers Can’t Do…

more from The New Atlantis here.

a day in the multiverse


The idea that many different laws of physics are possible has been the subject of speculation for years, but a firmer foundation has emerged recently from string theory, the “theory of everything” in physics. As a leading string theorist, Leonard Susskind is well placed to explain these developments. In 2003 (see http://arxiv.org/abs/hep-th/0302219), he coined the term landscape to summarize two related ideas. The first is that the mathematical edifice of string theory predicts many possible consistent laws of physics, not only the ones that we happen to observe. Furthermore, it is possible within modern inflationary cosmology to have a “multiverse” where all these possibilities actually exist in different regions. Not all string theorists accept this conclusion; if true, it represents the crushing of their dream that string theory would ultimately explain why nature has had to function in the way that it does.

Because the landscape idea has broad implications, it is good to see that in his new book, The Cosmic Landscape, Susskind has cast the arguments into a form suitable for a general readership. It is clear, though, that Susskind is not just intent on educating readers—he wants to pick a fight.

more from American Scientist here.

The Party’s Over

From The New York Times:

Salman_6 In the past few years, the book party as buzz-generator has been eclipsed by the elegant prepublication lunch, where publishers invite a few dozen editors and critics to a three-course meal at a swish restaurant to promote one or more titles they’re pushing that season. Publishers may also organize small events nationwide to start the chattering classes chattering. “It’s more helpful in getting attention city by city with influential people in the book world,” said the literary agent Ira Silverberg. “You could take over Yankee Stadium for Salman Rushdie and I don’t know if it’s going to matter to an independent bookseller in Pasadena.”

Decoded, today’s book party invitations often read something like this: Four friends of the author — two married money, one inherited it, the other made it — invite you to celebrate the publication of this wonderful new book at the house of whoever in the group has the biggest living room. Even in the most elegant venue, you’re likely to find a credit card machine and books for sale. Of course, there are the glamorous exceptions. Tina Brown, who with her husband, Harry Evans, still entertains in style at their Sutton Place apartment, recalled a party she held for Sidney Blumenthal, a former White House adviser, when his “Clinton Wars” was published in 2003. “Bill turned up with Barack Obama, and then was the last to leave,” Brown said.

More here.

Paint-On Lasers

From Science:Laser

To most people, a laser means eyeball-scorching rays of light shooting out of a bulky box or a pointer pen. But a new type of laser can literally be painted onto any surface, including silicon chips. The development could help save the multibillion-dollar computer chip industry from a looming crisis: the point when microchips can’t get any faster. The chips that make up a computer keep getting speedier, but actual performance of the whole unit lags behind.

Now, a team at the University of Toronto in Canada has demonstrated the first laser to come close to meeting these conditions. The researchers suspended quantum dots–nanometer-sized particles of semiconductors–in a liquid and painted the suspension on the inside of a tiny glass tube. “It’s just a goop that you splash on,” says Ted Sargent, a nanotechnology researcher and the lead author of the study published 17 April in Optics Express. The substance can be applied to anything, including silicon, and the particles are the perfect size to emit infrared light, the wavelength needed in telecommunications.

More here.

never apologise, never explain


All Muriel Spark’s novels are fiercely composed and devoutly starved. Her brilliantly reduced style, of “never apologise, never explain”, seems a deliberate provocation: we feel compelled to turn the mere crescents of her characters into round discs. But while some of her refusal to wax explanatory or sentimental may have been temperamental, it was also moral. Spark was intensely interested in how much we can know about anyone and in how much a novelist, who most pretends to such knowledge, can know about her characters. Lest this seem like an abstract preoccupation, observe how beautifully she pursues this inquiry in her best-loved work. By reducing Miss Brodie to no more than a collection of maxims, Spark forces us to become Brodie’s pupils. In the course of the novel we never leave the school to go home, alone, with Miss Brodie. We surmise that there is something unfulfilled and even desperate about her, but the novelist refuses us access to her interior. Brodie talks a great deal about her prime, but we don’t witness it, and the nasty suspicion falls that perhaps to talk so much about one’s prime is by definition no longer to be in it.

more from James Wood at Guardian Unlimited Books here.

philosophy made simple


The quarrel between philosophy and literature has been around so long that even Plato referred to it in “The Republic” as “ancient.” The rivalry not only has a history as old as Western civilization itself. It also circles around one of the deepest questions of all: which gives the truest perspective on human life? Is philosophy’s sublimely abstract distance — the view, as Spinoza put it, sub specie aeternitatis (under the guise or form of eternity) — the optimal place from which to glean essential truths? Or can they be yielded up only within the vivid intimacy of experience — if not the immediate experiences of our own lives, then the mediated experiences that narrative art affords? Does the view sub specie aeternitatis, in leaving out all the good stories, miss those large truths that are wrested out of the unexpected twists and turns that make us susceptible to love’s abandonment and grief’s annihilation? It is a good question, and Plato’s highhanded way of trying to resolve it in favor of philosophy — going so far as to recommend banishing poets from utopia — has fortunately not laid it to rest. Robert Hellenga’s sweet and lovely new novel, “Philosophy Made Simple,” may appear far removed from the quarrelsome old rivalry. But as Plato warned, appearances can be deceptive.

more from the NY Times Book Review here.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Religious Practice and Immortality

In the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Karen Armstrong on religion and immortality:

Religion is about transformation; by ritual and ethical practice we become fundamentally different. Religion is not about preparing for the beatific vision in Heaven; it is also about living a fully human life in this world. By becoming one with these paradigmatic figures, losing our flawed, everyday selves in their perfection, we too can become perfect and inhabit an eternal dimension even in this world of pain and death.

Like any other religious truth, immortality must become a present reality. It is liberation from the constraints of time and space, and from the limitations of our narrow horizons. It involves a profound realization that the deepest core of our being is inseparable from what has been called God, nirvana, brahman, or the Dao. Like any myth, it is a program for action. The traditions teach us how to effect this radical internal transformation; they cannot tell us what this immortal state is, because it is so different from our normal consciousness that it is ineffable, but they provide us with a method that will help us to change. Unless we put that method into practice, we are in no position to say whether we have an immortal self or not. Immortality is not a matter of waiting for the next life, but in perfecting our humanity here and now.

Not many of the world religions are as preoccupied with Heaven, Hell, and judgment as Christianity and Islam; these faiths absorbed much of the apocalyptic vision of Zoroastrianism, which was unique in the ancient world. Many of the great sages were wary of speaking about the afterlife. The afterlife has never been a major preoccupation in Judaism. St. Paul told his converts, “Eye hath not seen, ear hath not heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man what things God has prepared for those that love him.” When asked whether a Buddha who had achieved the enlightenment of nirvana continued to exist after his death, the Buddha replied that this was an improper question, because we have no words to describe this state. It was, therefore, pointless to discuss it.

What is an International Monetary Fund to Do?

The IMF finds itself with apparently little to do these days, in the Economist.

Apart from generating reams of analysis, the fund’s job is to furnish foreign exchange to countries that have temporarily run short. It can call on about $220 billion of hard currency in the first instance. That sounds like plenty. But some of its former customers now have big, shiny fire-engines of their own. South Korea, for example, has $217 billion in its vaults. Between them, eight East Asian countries (Japan, Singapore, Indonesia, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and South Korea) command reserves worth about ten times the IMF total. These countries have even begun to pool a small fraction of their combined hoard, under what is called the Chiang Mai Initiative.

Lately no one has been calling on the fund’s own supply. Brazil and Argentina have both repaid their debts. Only Turkey and Indonesia still owe it money on any scale. Quiet times are lean times for the IMF. Like any bank, it covers its running costs (which will amount to over $900m in the year to April 2007) from the interest it earns on its loans. But this financing model “is no longer tenable”, Mr de Rato’s report says. By its own projections, the IMF will live beyond its means by almost $300m in 2009-10. The belt-tightening this implies has not gone down well with staff, who show little taste for the austerity they are notorious for prescribing to others.

There are lots of ways to plug this gap (the fund sits on 103m ounces of gold, for example). But is the fund worth the price?

Atomic Inconstants

In Nature:

It seems that nothing stays the same: not even the ‘constants’ of physics. An experiment suggests that the mass ratio of two fundamental subatomic particles has decreased over the past 12 billion years, for no apparent reason.

The startling finding comes from a team of scientists who have calculated exactly how much heavier a proton is than an electron. For most purposes, it is about 1,836 times heavier. But dig down a few decimal places and the team claims that this value has changed over time.

The researchers admit that they are only about 99.7% sure of their result, which physicists reckon is a little better than ‘evidence for’ but not nearly an ‘observation of’ the effect. If confirmed, however, the discovery could rewrite our understanding of the forces that make our Universe tick.

This is not the first time physicists have suspected physical constants of inconstancy.

In 1937, the physicist Paul Dirac famously suggested that the strength of gravity could change over time. And arguments about the fine-structure constant, [alpha] , have raged for years (see ‘The inconstant constant?’). The fine-structure constant measures the strength of the electromagnetic force that keeps electrons in place inside atoms and molecules.

Mexican Democracy Veers Towards Video Politics

In openDemocracy, is media consolidation leading Mexican democracy the way of Italy’s and Russia’s?

A key battleground is the electronic media, which has been able to increase its power and wealth thanks to privileges granted by Vicente Fox’s administration. Mexico’s media barons decided to turn the electoral contest to their advantage by exploiting the vulnerability of candidates who depend on airtime to circulate their ideas and proposals (together, Televisa and TV Azteca command more than 95% of Mexico’s television audience). True, it makes sense in strict business terms that the broadcasting industry seeks to defend its investments, but the method it chose and the political reception it received were alike scandalous: these giant corporations prepared a bill that was presented before a complicit, ignorant and/or frivolous house of representatives.

The bill, which made countless concessions to the ambitions of the media barons, was presented to the lower house in December 2005. The noteworthy, the incredible, the banana of it is that representatives from all political parties approved it unanimously – in seven minutes! The public learned only later that most of the legislators who voted for it had not even read, much less understood, a piece of legislation so crucial to Mexican modernity.

The document was sent to the upper house; by that stage, growing opposition to the law across Mexican society meant that senators could no longer hide behind their ignorance. Among the protestors were government agencies that regulate media; the main electoral authority; public and cultural media; academics and civil-society organisations; and a handful of professional politicians. Even the Mexican office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights released statements reminding people that the law violated international agreements signed by Mexico.

lingua franca, dead but not forgotten


Time to rewrite the history of contemporary journalism? Most recent discussion of that history has been about the New Journalism, the New New Journalism, memoir fictionalizing and “truthiness” in general. Important, but something’s been happening that somehow hasn’t been given due recognition: the rise of a revivified “journalism of ideas,” writing about thinking. Not thinking as in punditry, but thinking about fundamental things, those things that run deeper than political allegiances and positions: thinking about the nature of human nature and human society, the nature of the cosmos, the nature of the mind itself (thinking about factors that underlie all politics). The kind of writing about ideas that once found a home at a now-dead magazine called Lingua Franca and has since—with the assistance of many talented Lingua Franca alumni, both writers and editors—succeeded in changing the face of serious journalism for the better.

more from the NY Observer here.

richard harris defends faith

There is a paradox about the current bout of media atheism. It is producing a great deal of sound and fury, but most ordinary, fair-minded people I talk to find it increasingly lacking credibility. Richard Dawkins has produced two films suggesting that religion, not the love of money, is the root of all evil and he has a new book on the subject out later in the year. Daniel Dennett has been touring the broadcasting studios plugging his book, Breaking the Spell, about the evolutionary origins and purpose of religion, and Lewis Wolpert has just written a book about believing six impossible things before breakfast.

Yet for all the polemic and literary fireworks, all this remains a show to watch rather than a serious engagement with the truth. This is because of four fundamental failures.

more from The Observer here.

moving mountains, etc.


The exhibition of Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘Combines’, which opened recently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, is a glorious testament to the artist’s explosive, proto-Pop vision. It traces the decade (from 1954 to 1964) when the artist broke through the picture plane to embrace the flux and flotsam of everyday life. While Rauschenberg’s unbridled creative energy and paradigm-shattering gestures cannot be disputed, what struck me about the exhibition was how quaint the work seems today. The faded newsprint, old paisley fabrics, rusting wires and shabby plumage of taxidermied birds made the three-dimensional collages look like relics; emblems of a once radical moment when the real world promised to penetrate and forever alter the aesthetic realm. But it was less the physical condition of the works than the attitude they conveyed that made me think about their ultimate failure to change anything beyond the inventory of materials available for image- or object-making. Artists no longer had merely to represent the world; they could now actually use it as fodder for their work. The world, however, stayed pretty much the same.

At approximately the same time that Rauschenberg was mating tyres and angora goats with splattered paint in New York a group of artists, filmmakers and theorists in Europe were also contemplating the intersection of art and life, but to more critically engaged political ends.

more from Frieze here.

Consolation, by Wislawa Szymborska

They say he read novels to relax,
But only certain kinds:
nothing that ended unhappily.
If anything like that turned up,
enraged, he flung the book into the fire.

True or not,
I’m ready to believe it.

Scanning in his mind so many times and places,
he’d had enough of dying species,
the triumphs of the strong over the weak,
the endless struggles to survive,
all doomed sooner or later.
He’d earned the right to happy endings,
at least in fiction
with its diminutions.

Hence the indispensable
silver lining,
the lovers reunited, the families reconciled,
the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded,
fortunes regained, treasures uncovered,
stiff-necked neighbors mending their ways,
good names restored, greed daunted,
old maids married off to worthy parsons,
troublemakers banished to other hemispheres,
forgers of documents tossed down the stairs,
seducers scurrying to the altar,
orphans sheltered, widows comforted,
pride humbled, wounds healed over,
prodigal sons summoned home,
cups of sorrow thrown into the ocean,
hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation,
general merriment and celebration,
and the dog Fido,
gone astray in the first chapter,
turns up barking gladly
in the last.

from Poetry Magazine.