Life, but not as we know it: A future full of hopes and fears

From BBC News:Chromosomes

The science of complexity is perhaps the greatest challenge of all, Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees believes. The biggest conundrum is humanity and how we came to be. One man who is set on trying to unfold the complexity of life and how we are made up and came to be in order to understand our future is Craig Venter. He was one of the masterminds behind the sequencing of the human genome – the genetic code that creates life. His next big challenge is to create living, artificial organisms from a kit of genes, and he is well on his way. He says an artificial single cell organism is possible in two years.

To unravel the complexity of life on our planet in order to understand more about where humans come from, Dr Venter embarked on a round the world ocean voyage to take samples of seawater every 200 miles. At every stop they found new species. At one location, one barrelful contained 1.3 million new genes and 50,000 new species. One certainty in an uncertain world is clear to Prof Rees: “Whatever happens in this uniquely crucial century will resonate in the remote future and perhaps far beyond the Earth.”

More here.

Saturday, July 16, 2005 is a web site that tracks online newpapers from around the world.  It focuses on how the US is viewed and reported on abroad.  Side by side, the stories paint a diverse, contradictory, disturbing, and rich image of how we’re seen and understood.

Kavkaz Center, July 8, Lithuania

Strange Bedfellows: The Shanghai Cooperation Organization Challenges America
Edited English Text
Original Article (English)

“For Iran, it is more convenient to be at odds with the U.S. in the company of Russia and China than to be so alone.”

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, July 7, U.K.

As America Sinks Into the Mud, Iraq’s Neighbors Breathe a Sigh of Relief
Edited English Text
Original Article (Arabic)

“All the peoples and regimes in the region have had … a single goal: to sink the Americans in the Iraqi mud, and to bury them and their ‘democracy’ with them.”

The Nation, July 13, Pakistan

The Fourth of July Through Pakistani Eyes
Edited English Text
Original Article (English)

“It made me marvel at the American way of life, that despite their different ethnic backgrounds, they are one in espousing their Declaration of Independence.”

Azzaman, June 29, Iraq

Columbus’ Discovery of America: History’s ‘Biggest Mistake’
Edited English Text
Original Article (Arabic)

The service translates the stories into English, but here is an interview with its founder.

(Hat tip: Elke Zuern)

Sunlight emerging as proven treatment for breast cancer, prostate cancer and other cancers

I remember reading about the exceptionlly long and healthy lives that natives of the mountain regions of Pakistan and Turkey enjoy. The two common features about their lifestyles turned out to be the water they drink being thousands of times richer in its calcium content and the fact that each community spends at least 8 hours in the sun everyday. The following story in News Target explains why they live longer:

Taking a daily 10 to 15 minute walk in the sun not only clears your head, relieves stress and increases circulation – it could also cut your risk of breast cancer in half. At least that’s what Esther John, an epidemiologist at the Northern California Cancer Center, recommends. In The Breast Cancer Prevention Diet, Dr. Robert Arnot claims that national rates of breast cancer inversely correlate to solar radiation exposure. In other words, breast cancer occurs at a much higher rate in colder, cloudier northern regions than in sunnier southern regions.

How does this work? There is in fact a scientific answer. The sun stimulates production of a hormone in your skin. Vitamin D3 isn’t exactly a vitamin, but rather a type of steroid hormone that can drastically improve your immune system function. Vitamin D3 also controls cellular growth and helps you absorb calcium from your digestive tract. Most importantly, this hormone/vitamin inhibits the growth of cancer cells. 

More here.

Out of the Closet and Off the Shelf


David Leavitt in The New York Times:

When I learned that after more than 30 years in business, the Oscar Wilde Bookshop in New York — which claimed to be the world’s first gay and lesbian bookshop — was supposed to close its doors, the news provoked a pang of nostalgia. In 1983, I worked there for exactly one day. I was six months out of college, wanted to be a writer, had recently come out, and needed a part-time job. The Oscar Wilde seemed like a good fit.

Once it was revolutionary to publish a gay novel, or open a gay bookshop, but now the time may be upon us when the revolutionary thing to do is to retire the category altogether. I’m for stepping into the post-gay future — which is why, every time I go into a Borders, I move a few books from the gay fiction shelf to the general fiction section, restoring them to their rightful place in the alphabetical and promiscuous flow of literature.

More here.

Lahore to Leeds

From The Guardian:London

Confused young men, torn between cultures, are easy prey for preachers of hatred. Britons must bind their own wounds and be more aware of the impact of their government’s policies – on Iraq, Palestine etc – on Muslims everywhere. But Pakistanis must tackle their own problems. We live in one world: anyone who cares about what happens in Rochdale or Leeds needs to worry about Rawalpindi and Lahore as well.

More here.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Eminent British scholar turned away from JFK

Lindsay Beyerstein at Majikthise:

The Guardian reports that immigration officials at New York’s JFK International airport refused to allow Professor Zaki Badawi, a world authority on Islamic theology and noted ecumenist, to enter the United States.

Dr Badawi has visited the US several times, most recently in 2003. He was given an honorary knighthood, and in 2003 was a guest of the Queen at a state banquet for the US president, George Bush. Earlier this week, Dr Badawi joined other British religious leaders, including Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, in publicly condemning the London bomb blasts, which killed at least 54 people. […]

The US Customs and Border Protection office said Dr Badawi had been refused entry to the country based on information indicating that he was “inadmissible”.

As the unofficial spiritual leader of the Britain’s Muslims, the 82-year-old Bawadi has a spiritual stature comparable to that of the Archbishop of Canterburry. He is also a vocal opponent of Islamic extremism:

When Bin Laden issued a fatwa on Americans, he dismissed it as being without religious authority and declared acerbically: “Fatwas have become a cheap business. Since Ayatollah Khomeini issued his against Salman Rushdie, everyone has opened a fatwa shop.”

More here.

Torque In Time


Following censorship in the 1980s and vociferous scalding by critics, Richard Serra has transcended all odds with a mammoth installation entitled “The Matter of Time” at the Bilbao Guggenheim. As part of the museum’s permanent collection, this installation consists of five Torques, and three other pieces: Snake, Between the Torus and Sphere, and Blind Spot Reversed. This suite of eight sculptures features coiling undulating lines of convex and concave surfaces that somehow move the space within and around the gallery. “The Matter of Time,” an appropriately weighty title for such a massive work, has the feel of a magnus opus: it marks the culmination of ideas that Serra has been working on for the past twelve years.

more here.

Speedreading to review Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

On the release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, a book review race is on, on the blogosphere:

“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince will finally be released to the muggle world at one minute past midnight tonight. . .

And so Culture Vulture will be covering it, in the muggle form of Arts editor Andrew Dickson and me. We’ll be joining the over-excited ankle-biters in our local branches of Waterstone’s – Notting Hill and Brighton – to report on the atmosphere in the bookshops as the frenzied hordes of youngsters up well past their bedtimes and their long-suffering parents queue to get their sticky mitts on the first copies of the book.

Then we will be speedreading the book through the night – blogging as we go – to produce the first review of the book anywhere in the world (we hope. If we can stay awake).”

(Hat tip: Maeve Adams)

The morality of eating foie gras

Michael LeBossiere, at The Philosophers’ Magazine Online, looks at the morality of eating foie gras.

“The debate over the morality of mistreating animals and eating them is clearly philosophically interesting. However, this situation also raises another matter of concern: this debate has clearly revealed that philosophical ignorance is rather widespread among those discussing the matter. This ignorance, one may safely assume, probably extends beyond this issue. A May 2, 2005 article, ‘A Flap Over Foie Gras,’ in Newsweek nicely reveals the nature of the ignorance-all quotes below are taken from that article (page 58).

First, consider the position of American-French chef Rick Tramonto. In response to chef Charlie Trotter’s decision to stop serving foie gras (but to keep serving other meat dishes), chef Tramonto said ‘Either you eat animals or you don’t eat animals.’ While this is a good example of a tautology (a claim that is true in virtue of its logical structure), it also nicely expresses the fallacy known as false dilemma. The idea is that a person present two alternatives, rejects one and then asserts that the remaining one must be correct. This reasoning is fallacious when there are, in fact, more than two alternatives-both of the presented alternatives could be incorrect/false, while a third (or twentieth) alternative is correct/true.

While it is true that one either does or does not eat animals, there certainly are many alternatives lying between not eating animals at all and eating any animal.”

Is Predictability on the Supreme Court a Good Thing?

Cass Sunstein in The American Prospsect on the problem of having a Supreme Court justice whose opinions are entirely predictable:

“Right-wing activists have made it all too clear that they want President George W. Bush to appoint Supreme Court justices who are ‘predictable.’ The longtime refrain of ‘No more David Souters’ has been joined by ‘No more Anthony Kennedys.’ Some groups demand a nominee who does not believe that the Constitution protects abortion or gay rights or even privacy; others insist that the next justice should reliably protect economic interests of which they approve. The activists, and according to some reports the White House itself, do not want surprises.

In the law, predictability is usually important. People need to know the rules, and they cannot plan their lives unless they know the law in advance. We expect predictability from our trial court judges, who are meant to follow the law far more than to make it. And of course we want to be able to predict that Supreme Court justices will not ignore the Constitution, or refuse to protect free speech, or permit racial segregation. But in the hard cases that come to the Supreme Court, complete predictability is terrible, because it compromises judicial independence.”

The Indian Mutiny and the British Imagination

Maya Jasanoff reviews Gautam Chakravarty’s new book on the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857 and how it was woven into the British imagination, in The London Review of Books.

“From the outset, British writers infused the mutiny with ideological and emotive significance. East India Company administrators made a point of stressing its military origins, pointing the finger at the army. Officers, in turn, sought to blame administrators for enacting policies that led to wider discontent, such as the unpopular annexation of Awadh in 1856. Many British commentators condemned the company, continuing a long tradition of Whig criticism; while the Muslim reformer Syed Ahmad Khan, in his 1858 Causes of the Indian Revolt, attributed the rebellion to the company’s unwillingness to incorporate Indian voices in its legislative council.

Apportioning blame for what had happened was one thing. Describing what happened was another.”

A new Evo-psych take on dreams

Also from Evolutionary Psychology, an evolutionary explanation for dreams.

“This paper presents an evolutionary argument for the role of dreams in the development of human cognitive processes. While a theory by Revonsuo proposes that dreams allow for threat rehearsal and therefore provide an evolutionary advantage, the goal of this paper is to extend this argument by commenting on other fitness-enhancing aspects of dreams. Rather than a simple threat rehearsal mechanism, it is argued that dreams reflect a more general virtual rehearsal mechanism that is likely to play an important role in the development of human cognitive capacities. This paper draws on current work in cognitive neuroscience and philosophy of mind in developing the argument.”

Explaining societal differences through evo-psych

Via Political Theory Daily, Nigel Baber offers evolutionary explanations for societal differences in single parenthood in Evolutionary Psychology.

“The new research strategy presented in this paper, Evolutionary Social Science, is designed to bridge the gap between evolutionary psychology that operates from the evolutionary past and social science that is bounded by recent history. Its core assumptions are (1) that modern societies owe their character to an interaction of hunter-gatherer adaptations with the modern environment; (2) that changes in societies may reflect change in individuals; (3) that historical changes and cross-societal differences are due to the same adaptational mechanisms, and (4) that different social contexts (e.g., social status) modify psychological development through adaptive mechanisms. Preliminary research is reviewed concerning historical, societal, and cross-national variation in single parenthood as an illustration of the potential usefulness of this new approach. Its success at synthesizing the evidence demonstrates that the time frames of evolutionary explanation and recent history can be bridged.”

Karl Marx wins BBC Radio 4’s Greatest Philosopher poll

BBC Radio 4’s Greatest Philosopher poll is over. The results:

  1. Karl Marx, 27.93%
  2. David Hume, 12.67% (my vote)
  3. Ludwig Wittgenstein, 6.80% 
  4. Friedrich Nietzsche, 6.49%
  5. Plato, 5.65% 
  6. Immanuel Kant, 5.61% 
  7. St. Thomas Aquinas, 4.83% 
  8. Socrates, 4.82%
  9. Aristotle, 4.52% 
  10. Karl Popper, 4.20%

The top two remind me of a story told by Sidney Morgenbesser

In the late 1960s, Sidney taught the first course on Marx offered by Columbia University’s philosophy department.  His take on Marx was very methodological individualist, and his interpretation was similar to a rational choice reading of Marx that would later come to be called “analytic Marxism”.  A young faculty member, who, as Sidney put it, “was then to the left of me, is now to the right of me,” sat in on the class.  After the course was over, Sidney asked his colleague what he thought of the course, to which his colleague replied, “Sidney, that was the best class on David Hume I’ve ever taken.”

‘The Secret Man’: The Insider

Christopher Hitchens in The New York Times:

Hitchspan IN the spring of 1976 I took myself to the first available screening of ”All the President’s Men,” and sat enthralled in the darkness as Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman and Jason Robards portrayed the men I only wished I could be. When the lights came up at the conclusion, I discovered several of my journalistic colleagues dotted around the cinema, slumped thoughtfully in their seats. Our eyes met glancingly: we all knew what we were covertly thinking. If only. . . . And one day. . . .

More here.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Fictional States!

One of the best gifts I got this year was a subscription to Cabinet magazine. The new issue out now is all about “Fictional States” of various kinds, including the kind described here:

‘Call them micro-nations, model countries, ephemeral states, or new country projects, the world is surprisingly full of entities that display all the trappings of established independent states, yet garner none of the respect. The Republic of Counani, Furstentum Castellania, Palmyra, the Hutt River Province, and the Empire of Randania may sound fantastical, but they are a far cry from authorial inventions, like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia or Swift’s Laputa. For while uncertain territories like the Realm of Redonda might not be locatable in your atlas, they do claim a very genuine existence in reality, maintaining geographical boundaries, flaunting governmental structures, and displaying the ultimate necessity for any new nation: flags. Admittedly they may be little more than loose threads on the patchwork of nations, but these micro-nations offer their founders a much sought-after prize—sovereignty.’

More here from ‘New Foundlands,’ by George Pendle.

The print edition carries a curious leaflet, pasted on top of the masthead page, purporting to be from the printers of Cabinet, who claim that they are tired of having to correct the editors’ lazy proofreading. Fictional states…

‘Pakistan’s girl wonder’ is likely the youngest certified Microsoft expert

There has been a lot of negative attention focused on Pakistanis since it became apparent that the craven idiots who perpetrated the London bombings were of Pakistani origin. One of those bombers, Shahzad Tanweer, (or at least his family) came originally from the city of Faisalabad in the Punjab province of Pakistan. Lest we start making broad generalizations about Pakistanis, I present this item about a young girl, also from the fair city of Faisalabad:

Todd Bishop in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

226arfa14_programmerSitting down for a personal meeting with Bill Gates this week, 10-year-old Arfa Karim Randhawa asked the Microsoft founder why the company doesn’t hire people her age.

Under the circumstances, the question wasn’t so unreasonable.

Arfa, a promising software programmer from Faisalabad, Pakistan, is believed to be the youngest Microsoft Certified Professional in the world. The designation, given to outside experts who prove their ability to work with Microsoft technologies, has also been achieved by some teenagers. But it’s far more common among adults seeking to advance their computer careers.

Arfa received the certification when she was still 9, an impressive accomplishment in its own right, according to older programmers who have gone through the process.

More here, including an interview with young Arfa.  And there is more here, here, and here.  [Thanks to Sahabzada Abdus Samad Khan.]

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Concert Postsecret is a weired and wonderful community art project where people mail-in their secrets anonymously on one side of a homemade postcard. Each postcard reveals something. Some secrets are painful, others are funny, all of them are very private. In a world of instant exhibitionism it is amazing to feel the power of the hidden emotions being released. (via cool Hunting)

“The question I am asked most often is,”which secret is your favorite?” My favorite postcard is one I have never seen. In fact, it was never mailed to me. I learned about it recently from an email I received.

“…I was very excited because I too had a secret I wanted to post. I thought long and hard about how I wanted to word my secret and I searched for the perfect postcard to display it on. After I had created my postcard I stepped back to admire my handiwork. Instead of feeling relieved that I had finally got my secret out, I felt terrible instead. It was right then that I decided that I didn’t want to be the person with that secret any longer. I ripped up my postcard and I decided to start making some changes in my life…”

If someday I find an envelope in my mailbox with the pieces of that ripped-up secret, I will be sure to share it here.

An almost psychotically optimistic hope: Paulos on Penrose

Redes23marzo05_1John Allen Paulos reviews The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe by Roger Penrose, in his monthly Who’s Counting column at ABC News:

The first 400 pages of “The Road to Reality” sketch the mathematics needed to understand the physics of the following 700 pages. Like many mathematicians, Penrose is an avowed Platonist who believes that mathematical entities such as pi, infinite cardinal numbers, and the Mandelbrot set are simply “out there” and have an objective existence independent of us.

PenroseDeveloping his mathematical philosophy a bit with some interesting speculations about the relations between the mathematical, physical, and mental worlds (but never descending to sappy theology), he very soon gets into the mathematical nitty-gritty. He expounds on Dedekind cuts, conformal mappings, Riemann surfaces, Fourier transforms, Grassmann products, tensors, Lie algebras, symmetry groups, covariant derivatives, and fiber bundles among many other notions.

As suggested, the level of exposition and the topics covered make me wonder about the intended audience. Penrose writes that he’d like the book to be accessible to those who struggled with fractions in school, but this seems an almost psychotically optimistic hope. This is especially so because Penrose’s approach to so many topics is so clever and novel.

More here.

Summer Reading

From The Edge:

Summerbooksmosiac It’s Summer, time to lie on the beach and relax with a wonderful book. Here’s a selection of 40 recently published great Summer reads from the Edge community. Read Mandelbrot on “multifractals”, Dawkins on “true heredity”, Penrose on “Clifford bundles”, Marcus on “synaptic strengthening“, Searle on “biological naturalism”, Leroi on “intersex”, Pinker on “biological nature”, Garreau on “the telekinetic monkey”, Seligman on “avoidant people”, Randall on “extra dimensions”, Kurzweil on “the singularity”, Damasio on “neurotransmitter nuclei”, Greene on “quantum weirdness”, Dennett on the “Zombic Hunch”, Diamond on anthropology to zoology, plus many others. You can’t go wrong.

More here.