The Evolution of the Eye, Part II

About three weeks ago I posted something by Carl Zimmer on the evolution of the eye here, but then forgot to post the second part. Here it is:

AstyanaxIn my last post, I went back in time, from the well-adapted eyes we are born with, to the ancient photoreceptors used by microbes billions of years ago. Now I’m going to reverse direction, moving forward through time, from animals that had fully functioning eyes to their descendants, which today can’t see a thing.

This may seem like a ridiculous mismatch to my previous post. We start out with the rise of eyes, a complex story with all sorts of twists and turns, with gene stealing, gene borrowing, gene copying; and then we turn to a simple tale of loss, of degeneration, of a few genes mutating the wrong way and–poof!–billions of years of evolution undone.

In fact, loss is never such a simple matter. I can illustrate this fact with two disparate beasts: fleas and cavefish.

More here.

March 11, 2005

harnessing the creativity of their customers

From The Economist:

Last November, engineers in the healthcare division of General Electric (GE) unveiled something called the “LightSpeed VCT”, a scanner that can create a startlingly good three-dimensional image of a beating heart. This spring Staples, an American office-supplies retailer, will stock its shelves with a gadget called a “wordlock”, a padlock that uses words instead of numbers. In Munich, meanwhile, engineers at BMW have begun prototyping telematics (combining computing and telecoms) and online services for a new generation of luxury cars. The connection? In each case, the firm’s customers have played a big part (GE, BMW) or the leading role (Staples) in designing the product.

More here.

Fragmentation of the Blogosphere

Some very good posts by Sean Carrol at Preposterous Universe today. First, there is this:

A post you shouldn’t miss (and likely have already seen) from Kevin Drum. This is a map of links between political blogs, taken from this study. Blue for liberals, red for conservatives.


There’s been a lot of discussion about the fact that conservatives tend to link to each other more than liberals do; I have no idea why. But the obvious disconnect between the hemispheres is more obvious as well as more interesting: liberal blogs tend to link to each other, as do conservative blogs, and not so much across the divide. (The bloggy version of a phenomenon that has already been noticed in book-buying habits.) And it’s a shame, much as I am guilty of it as anyone else.

Then, there is this, followed by Sean’s schedule for his late night talk show:

  • Mon:Steven Weinberg, Jeanette Winterson, Angelina Jolie
    Musical guest: Medeski, Martin and Wood
  • Tue: Larry Summers, Lisa Randall, Cornel West
    Musical guest: Robert Randolph and the Family Band
  • Wed: Sir Roger Penrose, Jonathan Lethem, Christopher Walken
    Musical guest: The Bad Plus
  • Thu: Richard Dawkins, Tom Stoppard, George Clooney
    Musical guest: Luciana Souza
  • Fri: Gary Wills, Richard Friedman, Sister Wendy
    Musical guest: Leonard Cohen
  • Mon: Sir Martin Rees, Toni Morrison, Shaquille O’Neal
    Musical guest: Jason Moran
  • Tue: Kathleen Sullivan, Karl Iagnemma, Sir Ian McKellen
    Musical guest: Queen Latifa
  • Wed: Donald Rumsfeld, Howard Zinn, Uma Thurman
    Musical guest: Bootsy Collins
  • Thu: Wendy Freedman, Richard Posner, George Carlin
    Musical guest:
    Sergio Assad
  • Fri: Brian Greene, Barak Obama, Jodie Foster
    Musical guest: Either/Orchestra

And check out Michael Bérubé’s post which started the late nite idea, here.

Gary Kasparov retires from chess

I’ve never really been a fan of Gary Kasparov’s style (personal style, that is, not his style of chess).  But his retirement is a milestone in chess, which in the 1970s and 1980s became a symbol and surrogate for the grand political fissuers in the world.  More importantly, the reasons for retirement seem to me to be quite decent ones, especially given the course of politics in Russia under Putin.

He said Friday he wanted to concentrate more on politics in Russia. He has emerged as an outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin and is playing a leading role in the Committee 2008: Free Choice, a group formed by prominent liberal opposition leaders.

‘As a chess player, I did everything I could, even more. Now I want to use my intellect and strategic thinking in Russian politics,’ Kasparov said Friday in a statement cited by the Interfax news agency.

‘I will do everything in my power to resist Putin’s dictatorship. It is very difficult to play for a country whose authorities are antidemocratic,’ he said.

Alexander Roshal, chief editor of a popular Russian chess magazine called 64, said Kasparov had no peers in the chess world.

‘There’s no one else of his caliber. No one comes close. He saw that, and said ‘you go on without me,” Roshal said.

Protest Narendra Modi’s Visit to the United States

Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat, is visiting the United State to deliver the keynote address for the Asian American Hotel Owners Association Conference.  Modi is a long-time member of the RSS, a quasi-paramilitary organization that forms the core of the Hindu fascist movement in India, and is in many ways an heir of the Black Hundred and the SA. (Textbooks in Gujarat paint a generally favorable account of Hitler and Nazism, and contain only a one sentence mention of the Holocaust and no mention of political repression and Nazi totalitarianism.)

Under his ministership Gujarat suffered some of the worst communal violence in post-independence India.  An estimated 2,000 Muslims were slaughtered over four days in the end of February and beginning of May 2002.  A Human Rights Watch report concluded that the  government was complicit in the pogrom and members of it were deeply involved in its organization. 

“In April 2002, Human Rights Watch released a 75-page report titled “We Have No Orders to Save You”: State Complicity and Participation in Communal Violence in Gujarat. The report, based on investigations conducted in Ahmedabad in March 2002, revealed that the violence against Muslims was planned well in advance of the Godhra massacre [an alleged massacre of Hindu nationalist activists in a train by some Muslims, though the commission set up by the Railway Minister to investigate the fire concluded that it was an accident] and with extensive state participation and support. State officials of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu nationalist party that also heads India’s national coalition government, were directly involved in the attacks. In many cases, the police led the charge, killing Muslims who tried to block the mobs’ advance. The violence was unprecedented in its organization and unmatched in its brutality in the state of Gujarat. Pregnant women’s bellies were cut open and fetuses were pulled out before the women were killed. When a six-year-old boy asked for water, he was made to drink petrol. According to eyewitnesses, “A lit matchstick was then thrown inside his mouth and the child just blasted apart.”

The groups most responsible for the anti-Muslim violence include the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council, VHP), the Bajrang Dal (the militant youth wing of the VHP), and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps, RSS). Collectively they form the sangh parivar (or “family” of Hindu nationalist groups). The BJP is the political wing of the sangh parivar.”

Modi belongs to the BJP, which has taken no steps to discipline him.

There is a campaign to protest his visit to the United States. 

“Activists in groups such as the Coalition Against Genocide are trying to get the organization to rescind its invitation. They have failed. AAHOA is unrepentant. Another speaker at the convention is [was] Chris Mathews of Hardball, but even he has so far not succumbed to the pressure. The campaign needs help from one and all. Call Chris Mathews’ assistant, Tina Urbansky (202-737-7901) and let her know what you think. Write to AAHOA’s current president: Fred Schwartz, AAHOA, 66 Lenox Pointe, NE, Atlanta, GA. 30324. If you live in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida or thereabouts and want to be involved in the protest against this state terrorist, check out the website”

(Chris Mathews apparently will not speak at the convention.)

Here, you can find a petition that calls for:

“The Indian government take immediate steps to punish the perpetrators of the pogrom and to rehabilitate the victims.

AIANA and AAHOA rescind their invitation to Mr. Modi and appeal to the co-sponsors of the AAHOA convention to withdraw their support.

The Indian and the US governments work together to curtail the fund-raising and other activities in the US of hate groups such as the one Mr.Modi belongs to.”

Clarice Lispector

Julie Salamon writes in the New York Times:

LispWhen Gregory Rabassa talks about Clarice Lispector, it is evident that his infatuation with her isn’t purely literary. “Those blue eyes, right out of Thomas Mann, ‘The Magic Mountain,’ ” he sighed, during a recent interview. “She was so beautiful.”

Mr. Rabassa is a renowned translator, of Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Amado and Mario Vargas Llosa – and of Lispector, who became, in the mid-20th century, one of Brazil’s most influential writers, described as the Kafka of Latin American fiction. Her works have been translated into film and dance and she is famous in literary circles. But she is almost unknown outside of them, particularly in the United States, where all her books combined sell a few thousand copies a year, mainly in Latin American studies courses on college campuses.

More here.


Sean Wilsey writes about Rats: A Year with New York’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Robert Sullivan, in the London Review of Books:

And then there is Robert Sullivan’s delightful and revolting Rats, the most exhaustive, nauseating and pleasurable compendium of rat facts ever set down. Facts such as: wherever there are human beings, there are rats. China is where the rat originated, and where you can find it on restaurant menus. Rat populations increase in times of war. New York City battled an epic rat infestation at the World Trade Center site after 9/11, and was obliged to fill the ruins with poison. A third of the world’s food supply is consumed or destroyed by rats. Rats have eaten cadavers in the New York City coroner’s office. Rats have attacked and killed homeless people sleeping on the streets of Manhattan. There are more rodents currently infected with plague in North America (mostly in rural western states: Wyoming, Montana, Colorado) than there were in Europe at the time of the Black Death. Whenever we see a rat, it’s a weak rat, forced into the open to look for food; the strong ones stay out of sight. Brown rats survived nuclear testing in the Pacific by staying deep down in their burrows. There have always been rats in the White House…

More here.

Der Befreier

Yehuda Elkana writes in Sign and Sight:

Einstein_1Einstein was a Freigeist, and his self-appointed, conscious task was to be a liberator –- a Befreier. In this he continued a great German cultural tradition established by Kant, Goethe, and simultaneously with Einstein, by Ernst Cassirer.

Einstein was a Befreier from all conventions, constraints, limitations – from everything that might be in the way of a free rein of the imagination (Fantasie).

Einstein’s all-important five papers, all written in the period of a few months in 1905, while he was a clerk in the patent office in Bern, and thus not part of a university, were the first clear demonstration of using his unfettered imagination.

More here.

the omnididact’s tale

Alex Beam writes in his column at the Boston Globe:

A new microgenre of what passes for literature has appeared on the scene: the omnididact’s tale.

Perhaps because everyone feels so stupid, we witness the impulse to get smarter, preferably by reading one book. A tongue-in-cheek version of this quest unfolds in A.J. Jacobs’s recent outing, ”The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World.” The New York Times called Jacobs’s journey through the 44-million-word Encyclopedia Britannica ”mesmerizingly uninformative.”

The widely admired Bill Bryson swung at a similar pitch not so long ago, in ”A Short History of Nearly Everything.” The casual observer might be forgiven for confusing Bryson’s self-described ”intellectual odyssey of a lifetime” with science writer Timothy Ferris’s ”The Whole Shebang: A State of the Universe(s) Report,” a book that purported to ”summarize what we know about the cosmos and how we know it.”

More here.


David S. Goodsell reviews Soft Machines: Nanotechnology and Life, by Richard A. L. Jones, at American Scientist:

Richard A. L. Jones, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Sheffield, has provided a new entry to the burgeoning literature on nanotechnology. In Soft Machines: Nanotechnology and Life, he touches on a variety of subjects in this ever-widening field. These include, to use his classification, top-down methods (such as photolithography of silicon), which are now reaching nanoscale levels; bionanotechnology, “the ‘Mad Max’ or ‘Scrap-heap challenge’ approach to nano-engineering”; biomimetic nanotechnology, which takes its lead from biology but uses the tools of chemistry for construction; and the “radical nanotechnology” of mechanosynthesis in the style of K. Eric Drexler (author of the influential 1986 book Engines of Creation).

Like a knowledgeable host making dinner conversation, Jones moves from topic to topic with a stream of lively banter. We ask “What is it like down there?” and our host tells us about Brownian motion and dispersion forces, using Raquel Welch in Fantastic Voyage to spice up the conversation.

More here.

March 10, 2005

does an e-bay model of borrowing spell the end of traditional consumer finance?

The promise of Internet commerce has been easing matching, lowering search costs, and allowing new entrants access to larger markets by de-territorializing them.  While there are Internet banks, this model of consumer borrowing is new and perhaps the beginning of a real revolution in finance.

“This week saw the latest twist on what’s come to be known as the ‘eBay model’ with the launch of Zopa [in the UK] – an online loans service that works in a similar way. Anyone with some spare cash can offer it up for a loan, through Zopa. Lenders set their own interest rates and can choose which borrowers to lend to, based on their credit rating.

Borrowers, meanwhile, can pick a rate that’s right for them and because Zopa is simply assisting the transaction, not lending its own assets, it claims to take a smaller cut (1% of the amount borrowed) than a bank. Safeguards are built in to help prevent lenders being fleeced and the whole outfit is sanctioned by the FSA – Britain’s financial services watchdog.”

Annoying songs take root in your auditory cortex

From Science Editor Alan Boyle’s weblog:

Brain At one time or another, everyone’s had a tune pop into their head and stay there, even though you wish it would just go away. Those meddlesome melodies are known as sticky songs, or “earworms,” and over the past couple of years, hundreds of Cosmic Log readers have sent in contributions to the earworm list. In Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature, researchers report that they have discovered the place in the brain where earworms hide out. It should come as little surprise that the center for earworm activity is the auditory cortex, the same place where sounds are perceived.

Researchers from Dartmouth College and the University of Aberdeen worked with 15 experimental subjects to develop individualized playlists — including songs with lyrics, such as the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” as well as instrumental pieces such as the theme from “The Pink Panther.” (Are those earworms working on you yet?)

Each listener tagged certain tunes as familiar, and others as unfamiliar. Then the tunes were played while the listener was lying in a magnetic resonance imaging scanner. At various points in the soundtrack, the music went silent for 3 to 5 seconds, and researchers watched how the brain responded.

During the gaps in the unfamiliar music, activity in the auditory cortex diminished. But when there was a gap in a familiar tune, the auditory cortex kept working away. “It’s like the brain is still hearing the music,” one of the researchers, Dartmouth’s David Kraemer, told me today. “It’s still activating that part of the brain that’s activated when you’re hearing the music. … And it’s interesting to note that we didn’t instruct them to imagine the silent part. It’s something that they just did spontaneously.”

The researchers also saw a difference between the vocals and the instrumentals: Songs with lyrics activated an area known as the auditory association cortex, or Brodmann’s area 22 — which links sounds with other aspects of experience, such as word recognition. The instrumental tunes sparked a more basic level of processing in the primary auditory cortex. Kraemer speculated that when you hear a song with words, you use the words as a shorthand for the full melody — while a wordless melody forces your brain to go farther back to the notes themselves. “You react only as far back as you need to, to reconstruct the relevant part of the experience,” he said. Perhaps this explains why songs with lyrics tend to be “stickier” than instrumental tunes, and why it’s so hard to stop an earworm in its tracks. Your auditory cortex wants to run through the entire experience of “Who Let the Dogs Out,” even though the rest of your brain is longing to stop the music.

Read more here.

Modigliani: Misunderstood

Doug Stewart writes in Smithsonian Magazine:

ModiglianiLate in 1919, in a squalid Paris studio strewn with wine bottles, Amedeo Modigliani painted a wistful portrait of his 21-year-old lover Jeanne Hébuterne. A few months later, on January 24, 1920, the impoverished artist died of tubercular meningitis at age 35. The following evening, Hébuterne, eight months’ pregnant with their second child, leapt to her death from a fifth-story window.

During Modigliani’s short and difficult life, the going rate for his elegant, oddly distorted paintings was less than $10, and takers were few. A landlord who confiscated some of his work in lieu of rent used the canvases to patch old mattresses. This past November an anonymous bidder at Sotheby’s auction house in New York City paid $31.3 million for the Hébuterne portrait.

One of the many ironies of Modigliani’s career is that so tortured a life could produce so serene a body of work. His art managed to bridge the stylistic chasm between classical Italian painting and avant-garde Modernism.

More here.

Jupiter Acts as Giant Mirror to Sun’s Back-Side Activity

Robert Roy Britt writes in

050307_jupiter_xrays_01Space weather forecasters have it even tougher than regular weather forecasters. In trying to predict long-range solar activity, they have to rely on a picture of just the half of the Sun they can see. Storms brewing on the backside are hidden from view until they rotate to the front.

Jupiter to the rescue. The giant gas planet reflects solar activity, scientists have learned. And when Jupiter is on the other side of the solar system, it can act as a mirror for flare-ups from the back side of the Sun.

Scientists had previously measured X-rays emanating from the Jovian atmosphere. Those coming from the equator were theorized to be related to solar activity.

More here.


This article wouldn’t normally pass muster for inclusion here at 3QD, lacking as it may be in intellectual depth. I don’t care. If I can help a single Pakistani or Indian New Yorker find chaat somewhere, I will no doubt be alloted at least 36 virgin brides in heaven. For some unfathomable reason, chaat is impossible to make well at home. There are millions of recipes floating around, but it just doesn’t come out right. In Pakistan, it is best bought from the filthy cart of a street vendor, and best swallowed along with a prophylactic dose of Cipro. Trust me, it is worth the Delhi-belly. I have been trying to explain to people what chaat is for some time, and trying to describe its incomparable simultaneous explosion of a million flavors and crispy textures on the palate, always without success. Finally, we have a professional to do the job.

Julia Moskin writes in the New York Times:

09chaatAsking Indians in America about chaat, India’s national snacks, is like asking Americans in India about burgers: the word unleashes unbearable cravings, nostalgia and homesickness. “I remember going to Kwality Snacks for papri chaat when I was a boy,” said Gandar Nasri, 74, a retired New York City taxi driver, who moved from Delhi in 1955. “Nothing will ever taste like that again.”

Taste a good chaat, and you understand why it is not soon forgotten.

Chaats are jumbles of flavor and texture: sweet, sour, salty, spicy, crunchy, soft, nutty, fried and flaky tidbits, doused with cool yogurt, fresh cilantro and tangy tamarind and sprinkled with chaat masala, a spice mixture that is itself wildly eventful. The contrasts are, as one fan said, “a steeplechase for your mouth,” with different sensations galloping by faster than you can track them.

All Indians in America are homesick for the same thing, said Mitra Choudhuri, a software engineer from Gujarat, who lives in Fort Collins, Colo. “There is no chaat here, only curries,” he said.

But in the New York region that has finally changed.

Thank God! Get the lowdown here.

Literary Novelists Address 9/11, Finally

Edward Wyatt writes in the New York Times:

In time, inevitably, cold truth is recast and reshaped into literature.

After three years of near silence about the attacks of Sept. 11, the literary world has begun to grapple with the meanings and consequences of the worst terrorist attack ever to happen on American soil.

A half-dozen novels that use 9/11 and its aftermath as central elements of their plot or setting, from some of the most acclaimed literary novelists and the most respected publishing houses, are being released later this year. A similar number have already made their way into bookstores in the last few months.

More here.

Anthropology for Mathematicians

Brian Hayes reviews Symmetry Comes of Age: The Role of Pattern in Culture, edited by Dorothy K. Washburn and Donald W. Crowe, and Embedded Symmetries, Natural and Cultural, edited by Dorothy K. Washburn, at American Scientist:

On a visit to the Alhambra some years ago, I toted along a copy of Symmetry in Science and Art, a weighty text by A. V. Shubnikov and V. A. Koptsik, as a field guide to the carvings and tilings that decorate that extravagant palace overlooking Granada. The two books under review here would probably serve as better field guides—Symmetry Comes of Age even includes a useful flowchart for classifying the symmetry groups of patterns—but I suspect that the authors and editors would not entirely approve of this use of their work. The tourist who stalks the halls of the Alhambra trying to complete a checklist of the 17 two-dimensional symmetry groups is not their ideal student of “the role of pattern in culture.” When one is looking at an artifact such as a tiled floor or a woven fabric or a beadwork ornament, identifying crystallographic groups is at best the beginning of understanding the object. The classification might tell you something about the meaning of the work in the context of Western mathematics, but it is unlikely to reveal much about the object’s meaning within the culture that created it.

This point is made emphatically by Branko Grünbaum—a mathematician who certainly knows his symmetry groups—in a previously published article on ancient Peruvian textiles that is reprinted in Symmetry Comes of Age.

More here.

March 9, 2005

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

John Updike reviews Jonathan Safran Foer’s new novel in The New Yorker:

Jonathan Safran Foer, born in 1977, came out swinging in 2002, with the publication of his astounding, clownish, tender, intricately and extravagantly plotted novel “Everything Is Illuminated.” From the hilarious overreacher’s English of the Ukrainian tour guide Alexander Perchov to the passionately fanciful evocations of a Polish-Jewish shtetl from 1791 to 1942, the prose kept jolting the reader into the heightened awareness that comes with writing whose exact like hasn’t been seen before. Foer’s second novel, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (Houghton Mifflin; $24.95), continues on a high plane of inventiveness and emotional urgency, while taking place on the solid turf of New York City in the aftermath of that most familiar of recent catastrophes, the 2001 World Trade Center blitz.

More here.

A code to rival Da Vinci’s

In 1912, a bookseller rummages through trunks full of illuminated medieval manuscripts in a remote Italian castle converted to a Jesuit school. A small volume, not much bigger than a paperback, catches his eye. The bookseller—a Lithuanian immigrant whose past is shaded by run-ins with revolutionaries, anarchists and spies—realizes that the book is clearly older than the rest. It is also full of unusual drawings and is written in cipher.

The Friar and the Cipher: Roger Bacon and the Unsolved Mystery of the Most Unusual Manuscript in the World is the story of that code and the effort to decipher it. It is also the story of Roger Bacon, known as “Doctor Mirabilis”—the miraculous doctor—by his contemporaries, and of his bitterest rival, Thomas Aquinas.

More here.