The arrogant adventurer

David Ewing-Duncan in The Guardian:

Reflections_venterWhat would it be like to know all the details of your own personal programming, every A, C, T and G that swirls along the long, sinewy strands of your own double helix? J Craig Venter knows.

He became the first life form on Earth to possess this self-knowledge when in April 2002 he confirmed what many had already suspected: that the human genome sequenced by Venter’s former company, Celera, largely comprised Venter’s own DNA. An act of supreme ego, it flouted one of the prime directives of modern science: that a healthy ambition is fine, even desirable, but only if a person doesn’t tout his own greatness and shows the proper awe and sensibility about the scientific enterprise.

No matter what people think of Craig Venter, he shook things up mightily during the race to sequence the human genome. He had, and continues to have, outrageous ideas that the scientific establishment frequently proclaims are unworkable. Yet Venter has succeeded, drawing on a potent arrogance and self-confidence that have transformed this previously obscure researcher into possibly the best-known molecular biologist in the world after Watson and Crick.

More here.

Every dictatorship is aggravated by great literature

Penar Musaraj in The Globe and Mail:

1231_2Though Ismail Kadare has been lauded for years as a leading figure in contemporary world literature, news of him winning the first ever Man Booker International Prize recently was a surprise to many in literary circles.

In a competition with a shortlist that included Margaret Atwood, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Philip Roth, Milan Kundera, Gunter Grass and John Updike, the Albanian writer was given odds of 100 to 1 by The Complete Review, a quarterly literary publication.

Kadare was stunned to find out he was the jury’s choice. “I heard of [the prize] through my editor, and I told him: ‘Are you sure?’ . . . because I have been on the Nobel shortlist of at most three or four authors, a dozen times, but never made it through,” Kadare says, adding he was getting used to being so close to the ultimate stamp of approval, the Nobel Prize for literature.

At 69, Kadare is Albania’s most beloved literary export and one of the central cultural figures in the recently troubled Balkan region — but unlike many other Eastern Europeans writing under socialist regimes, he was no dissident.

More here.

Beethoven (1.4m) beats Bono (20,000) in battle of the internet downloads

Charlotte Higgins in The Guardian:

BeethovenForget Coldplay and James Blunt. Forget even Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which, in the version performed at Live8 by Sir Paul McCartney and U2, has become the fastest online-selling song ever. Beethoven has routed the lot of them.

Final figures from the BBC show that the complete Beethoven symphonies on its website were downloaded 1.4m times, with individual works downloaded between 89,000 and 220,000 times. The works were each available for a week, in two tranches, in June.

Sgt Pepper could well end up as the best-selling online track of all time. But its sales figure of just 20,000 online in the two weeks since it has been available contrasts poorly with the admittedly free Beethoven symphonies. (Sgt Pepper cost 79p on the iTunes website.)

More here.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Blood vessel drugs halt cancer growth

From The Harvard Gazette:

12folkman_1 Nobody believed Judah Folkman when, in the 1960s, he claimed that the growth of cancers could be stopped, even reversed, by blocking the tiny vessels that feed them blood. Over the years, however, he has survived peer rejection of his theory, and gone on to develop drugs that did what he predicted they would do. In 1998, endostatin, one of several anti-blood-vessel growth drugs developed in his lab, was hyped by the media as a “cure” for many different cancers. A scant seven years later, Fortune magazine derided it as a “failure.” Both statements turn out to be high exaggerations.

A related drug, called Avastin, was approved for use in the United States in February 2004. Since then, 27 other countries have OK’d it for treating colon cancer. Avastin is also being tested on patients with kidney, breast, and ovarian cancers. In addition, another blood-vessel-growth blocker, Tarceva, has been approved for treatment of lung cancer in the United States.

More here.

Butterfly unlocks evolution secret

From BBC News:Butterfly_1

Given our planet’s rich biodiversity, “speciation” clearly happens regularly, but scientists cannot quite pinpoint the driving forces behind it. Now, researchers studying a family of butterflies think they have witnessed a subtle process, which could be forcing a wedge between newly formed species. The team, from Harvard University, US, discovered that closely related species living in the same geographical space displayed unusually distinct wing markings.

These wing colours apparently evolved as a sort of “team strip”, allowing butterflies to easily identify the species of a potential mate.

More here.

Monday Musing: Babel

Tower_of_babel_painting
Babel. Whenever I say the word it’s electric. My fingers tingle. Babel goes to the very heart of things. Babel is at the center of the human experience. As Aristotle once mentioned, perceptively, human beings are the social animal. Humans, therefore, go together with cities in a rather essential way. For cities are ‘socialness’ mapped out, put into play, thrown down on a grid. And they are things you have to build. Humankind: the social animal, the builder.

And in every act of building there is a glimmer of hubris built in too. To build is to take up a little cry against the given, against conditions handed down, meted out, fated. Every act of building is a small fist raised up in defiance of the Gods, or Nature, or the immutable Laws.

Babel: a monument to Hubris.2027br

That’s precisely how the Hebrews saw it and it’s why we have that remarkable passage from the Old Testament.

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

Towerbabelgenesis

But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel [c] —because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

What an amazing, utterly stupendous passage. What a terrifying and beautiful idea. And in turns out, in fact, that the story is based in historical fact. There really was a Tower of Babel. It was probably Etemenanki that the Hebrews were referring to, and Etemenanki was the product of the amazing Babylonian/Assyrian empire which, itself, birthed what are almost surely the first urban landscapes human hands and minds devised. We’re talking the Cradle of Civilization here. The Tigris and Euphrates. The great ur-cities like, well, Ur, Nippur, Sippar, and Babylon. The more the archeologists and historians work the more it is clear that the Near East is where it’s at. Greece, Rome, Istanbul, Paris, New York. It all starts at Babel.

Cuneiformintro_1
In order to manage things with their complex empire and international trade, the Assyrians started playing around with symbols and a few centuries later they had definitively invented writing. It all came out of cities; managing them, trading stuff with other people, fighting within and between them.

Cosmopolitanism is nothing new. It’s a product of the dumb daily shit of cities. The scholar Gwendolyn Leick writes that: “The most remarkable innovation in Mesoppotamian civilization is urbanism. The idea of the city as heterogeneous, complex, messy, constantly changing but ultimately viable concept for human society was a Mesopotamian invention.” Complexity emerges from cities like viral infections. Weird things, idiotic religions, Byzantine political arrangements, the polymorphous perversity of social interaction. The messy stink of the city is like a festering laboratory of human possibility.

Babel.

The ancient Hebrews were enslaved at Babylon and in no great mood to sing the praises of Babel. ‘Wickedness’, they said, and who can blame them? But that’s not the point. The point is that they got the essence of it right. To be able to make a thing like Babel was to announce a kind of arrival. It was to put the Gods on notice, even if unintentionally. It’s the same thing captured so wonderfully by the Greeks in the Prometheus myth. Oh shit, realizes Zeus, give them fire and we’re screwed. They won’t need us anymore. We’ll be written out of the cosmic loop. We’re only a step or two away from the oblivion of the intermundi, complete irrelevance.

Historically, of course, the Babylonians had no such intentions. They built the tower in honor of their own gods. They were thinking of Marduk and their religious pantheon. But the Hebrews, from the outside, saw the problem more clearly, even in their disdain. They saw that the Babylonians were reaching out for something a little more than they bargained for. They were trying to achieve a sort of cosmic autonomy. As punishment, the Hebrews imagined an enormous diaspora, and profusion and multiplying of languages. A Great Babeling. And in a way, they were right about that too. A vast network of cities and civilizational overlaps and urban places with their own languages and customs and cultures now covers the earth. But its founding moment, insofar as every activity is also an idea, has a name. Babel.Towerab

Coming soon . . . an explanation of how Babel is related to my obsession with Earth and Land art. This leads to what I see as Flux Factory’s (the art collective of which I’m a founding member) great future project, which will both destroy and redeem us. It will be called Babel: A Monument to Hubris.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Matisse’s Pajamas

Hilary Spurling in the New York Review of Books:

MatissegreenstripeBy the start of the twentieth century Matisse was well on the way to inventing a new, disturbing, and at that stage virtually incomprehensible visual language. He was a familiar figure, loping about the streets of Montparnasse in a black sheepskin coat turned wrong side out—some said it looked more like a wolfskin—clutching a roll of crazy paintings no other artist could make head or tail of. But almost from one day to the next Matisse drew back from the brink of modernity and started turning out relatively conventional figure and flower pieces. This regression took place in 1902–1903, a phase often referred to by art historians following Barr as Matisse’s Dark Period. His behavior suggested on its face a character of bourgeois timidity: someone who, having stumbled on a potentially disruptive discovery, failed to follow it up because he lacked the courage of his convictions.

In fact, Matisse turned out to have been caught up without warning in a major political and financial fraud, the Humbert Affair, a scheme carried out by one of the Third Republic’s best-known power couples, Frédéric and Thérèse Humbert. The affair rocked France in 1902–1903, causing a trail of bankruptcies, suicides, and bank failures, even threatening at its height to bring down the government. By the time the scandal broke in May 1902, the villains had fled, leaving as scapegoats their housekeeper and her husband, an unsuspecting couple who had for years provided the Humberts with an innocent front. Their name was Parayre, and Matisse had married their daughter. Their public exposure, followed by the arrest and trial of his father-in-law, left Matisse as the sole breadwinner for an extended family of seven. This is why he switched to painting canvases that were at least potentially saleable.

More here.  [For Jack Barth.]

Whale Collisions Spur Call for Speed Limits at Sea

Stefan Lovgren in National Geographic News:

050721_whalesAlarmed by the deaths of eight North Atlantic right whales in the past 16 months, some scientists are calling for immediate protections. Listed as endangered by the U.S. government, the whales are now believed to total about 300.

Four of the right whales were killed by human activities—three by ship collisions and one by fishing gear. A fifth whale was probably also killed in a ship collision.

The deaths were particularly worrying to conservationists, because six of the whales were adult females, three carrying near-term fetuses.

More here.

In Search of the Characters of New York

Randy Kennedy in the New York Times:

Type2184If you are not the sort of person who cares deeply about the Old World subtleties of Fournier, the retro-hipster swirl of Ministry Script or the plain-vanilla, rock-ribbed dependability of Helvetica – nor the sort immediately able to identify the typeface you are reading right now as 8.7-point Imperial – then you were probably not aware that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg declared this week Type Week in New York City.

You also might have assumed that a group of a dozen people wandering around the Upper East Side on Thursday morning, snapping pictures of the unremarkable words “Public School 6” inscribed into stone above an unremarkable red door on East 81st Street were tourists in possession of a badly translated guidebook…

These pilgrims were among about 500 people, some from as far away as Brazil and Finland, who have converged on the city for TypeCon, a yearly gathering of typographers, printers, designers, calligraphers and assorted, self-described font freaks and type nerds who can argue about kerning into the wee hours.

More here.

The belief system of a virtual mind

Margaret Wertheim in LA Weekly:

Sm35quark2Until very recently, artificial-intelligence researchers believed that modeling the mind was simply a matter of simulating rational cognition, an activity that was seen to be epitomized by strategical games such as chess and go — but over the past decade, computer scientists have come to understand that a virtual mind needs a virtual psychology. To “think” requires not just an ability to carry through a chain of logical inferences; it also requires a mental environment, or psychic context, in which such rationalizations can be given meaning.

More here.

Put your sweet lips . . .

Keith Thomas in the London Times:

Look at these people! They suck each other! They eat each other’s saliva and dirt! — Tsonga people of southern Africa on the European practice of kissing, 1927

Angel20kissIn what must still be the longest single work devoted to the kiss — Opus Polyhistoricum . . . de Osculis — the German polymath Martin von Kempe (1642-83) assembled 1,040 closely packed pages of excerpts from classical, biblical, legal, medical and other learned sources to form a sort of encyclopaedia of kissing. He listed more than 20 types of kiss. These included the kiss of veneration, the kiss of peace, the kisses bestowed by Christians on images and relics, and by pagans on idols, the kissing of the Pope’s foot, the kiss bestowed by superiors on inferiors, the kiss used in academic degree ceremonies, the lovers’ kiss, the lustful and adulterous kiss, the kiss exchanged by couples sealing their marriage vows, the kiss of reconciliation, the kiss carrying contagion, the hypocritical kiss and the kiss of Judas.

More here.

AN EPIDEMIOLOGY OF REPRESENTATIONS

From The Edge: A talk with Dan Sperber:

Spader How do the microprocesses of cultural transmission affect the macro structure of culture, its content, its evolution? The microprocesses, the small elementary processes of interest, are both those which happen inside individuals’ mind — the cognitive psychological processes, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the interactions among individuals through the changes they bring about in their common environment, and in particular, communication.

Just as the human mind is not a blank slate on which culture would somehow imprint its content, the communication process is not a xerox machine copying process from one mind to another. This is where I part company not just from your standard semiologists or social scientists who take communication to be an unproblematic copying system, a transmission system, biased only by social interest, for instance, almost in intentional distortion but that otherwise would guarantee a kind of smooth flow of undistorted information. I also part company from Richard Dawkins who sees cultural transmission as based on a process of replication, and who assume that communication, imitation, provide a robust replication system.

More here.

The playboy of Glenageary

From The Guardian:

Syngeaaa_1 Inspired by real events in the life of JM Synge, Joseph O’Connor imagines the playwright in love: There is a part of the garden, by the cluster of sycamores, near the bend in the drive where the gravel is wearing thin. If he stands there, quietly, on a still Sunday morning, when none of the servants is around to annoy him, and when Mother is up in her room at her scriptures, he can hear the distant approach of the train from Dublin: the windborne shush-and-chug that means she might be coming to him again. He is thirty-six now, already very ill. Painful years have passed since he stopped believing he could be loved. The power of what is happening terrifies him.

More here.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Study: Hospitals better under monitoring

From CNN News:

From July 2002 through June 2004, the hospitals improved as much as 33 percent on 18 indicators of quality care, though some went up just 3 percent, the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations found. Those indicators include urging patients to quit smoking; giving heart attack victims aspirin and clot-busting drugs quickly; promptly prescribing antibiotics to people with pneumonia; and checking how well the heart’s main pumping chamber was working in heart-failure patients.

More here.

Time bomb

From Science:Brain_3

Nuclear bomb testing in the 1960’s is providing a way for researchers to tell when cells in the brain were “born”. The bombs released large amounts of carbon-14, which was quickly taken up as CO2 by plants and animals. Measurements of this isotope indicate that neural cells in the cerebral cortex are as old as the individual, researchers report in the 15 July issue of Cell, providing further proof that neurons in adult brains do not regenerate. (Photo credit, (abomb) clipart.com; (brain) corbis).

More interesting news here.

She Stoops to Conquer

From The New York Times:

Hillary_3 Edward Klein’s new book, ”The Truth About Hillary,” is not a biography, to be evaluated in terms of how well or poorly it relates to real events or a real person; it is something much more revealing — a kind of cultural dreamwork, like that in 18th-century penny ballads that linked real political figures to folklore, giving them supernatural traits. In the stories that Klein tells, we can clearly see the collective unconscious of our culture at work, throwing up vivid, even lurid fantasies that emerge out of the shifting balance of power between women and men.

It is in his subtext about lesbianism that Klein’s id-projections veer into truly illuminating hysteria: he sees a lesbian under every bed. One of Clinton’s advisers ”looked like the Marlboro man in drag.” Another is a ”dominatrix.” ”Melanie” — actually Melanne — Verveer is called ”her dark-haired mannish-looking chief of staff.” (All of these women are heterosexuals, but never mind.) Klein quotes rumors about Donna Shalala and Janet Reno’s sexuality — ”their orientations are shrouded in deep ambiguity.” Twice, he manages to assign lesbianism to Hillary while never claiming she is attracted to or involved with women: ”To Arkansans, she walked like a lesbian, talked like a lesbian and looked like a lesbian. Ergo, she was a lesbian,” he writes.

More here.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Lest We Forget Darfur

Aatish Bhatia of Swarthmore College has brought to my attention that “today is the anniversery of US congress branding the events in Sudan a genocide.” He also points out the site beawitness.org which has a video and other information on the Darfur crisis. Check it out.

Sudanese20refugees20fleeing20darfur20apr

Also, from today’s Sudan Tribune:

7977166_daaf36d7feLeading non-governmental organizations in the United States, France and Great Britain are urging their countries to immediately sponsor a United Nations Security Council resolution that will mandate peace enforcement operations in Darfur, Sudan.

“This joint declaration is important because it recognizes the influence that the US, the UK and France can have in urging the international community to get involved in stopping the genocide in Darfur,” said Dr. Antonios Kireopoulos, Associate General Secretary of the National Council of Churches USA for International Affairs and Peace.

Estimates for Darfuri Africans killed since February 2003, range from 180,000 to 400,000. Over 2.5 million have been displaced and remain at mortal risk today, facing continued violence, malnutrition and disease.

More here. There was also this article in The New Yorker last year. And there is a lot more information at the Human Rights Watch page on Darfur here.

Logic and Strategy in Suicide Bombings

A while ago Christopher Brown suggested to me that terrorism in democratic societies is aimed at its polity so that it can place pressure on its government.  I thought it was wrong at the time, and still do to a large extent.  But there seems to be some evidence that this logic holds for suicide bombings, which has been largely used in and against representative democracies.  Robert Pape discusses his research in The American Conservative.

“Many people worry that once a large number of suicide terrorists have acted that it is impossible to wind it down. The history of the last 20 years, however, shows the opposite. Once the occupying forces withdraw from the homeland territory of the terrorists, they often stop—and often on a dime.

In Lebanon, for instance, there were 41 suicide-terrorist attacks from 1982 to 1986, and after the U.S. withdrew its forces, France withdrew its forces, and then Israel withdrew to just that six-mile buffer zone of Lebanon, they virtually ceased. They didn’t completely stop, but there was no campaign of suicide terrorism. Once Israel withdrew from the vast bulk of Lebanese territory, the suicide terrorists did not follow Israel to Tel Aviv.

This is also the pattern of the second Intifada with the Palestinians. As Israel is at least promising to withdraw from Palestinian-controlled territory (in addition to some other factors), there has been a decline of that ferocious suicide-terrorist campaign. This is just more evidence that withdrawal of military forces really does diminish the ability of the terrorist leaders to recruit more suicide terrorists.”

Also see this overview of the latest research, including Pape’s, in Slate. (Hat tip: Ram)

The new periodic table

StewartOxford ecologist Philip Stewart has designed a new periodic table of the elements, and it’s a hit. American schools are placing orders daily for Stewart’s table, and the Royal Society of Chemists recently sent a copy to every British secondary school. Stewart’s is the only remake to achieve widespread adoption since Dmitri Mendeleev invented the original periodic table in a fit of brilliance in 1869. “

More here, and don’t miss the slideshow.

Thornton Wilder

From The Village Voice:

Thornton The most cosmopolitan cracker ever to play Santa Claus and Davy Crockett, Billy Bob Thornton is a walking contradiction, reconciling the conflicting aesthetics of Northern and Southern truth and fiction. In person, he seems to have fewer of those sharp, hillbilly angles than appear on screen. He has skin that could advertise an L.A. salon (despite the scrollwork of tattoos up and down his arms). And while he’s wearing cowboy boots, he bought them—as the cowboy sneers in the salsa commercial—in New York City!

More here.