Comedian for Senator? Don’t Laugh

From The New York Times:

Al_2 The swells who showed up before Al Franken’s speech at a Democratic fund-raiser to down finger food and punch were thrilled to see him, all the more so because he continues to make threatening noises about running for the Senate here in 2008. Mr. Franken grew up in St. Louis Park, a Minneapolis suburb, and was admitted to Blake, a competitive and expensive prep school, because, he said, “they needed some Jews to get their SAT scores up.”

“In this country, we are going through a very dark period,” he told his audience, “and someday your grandchildren are going to ask what you did, and you are going to tell them, ‘I worked my butt off,’ ” he said, exhorting the audience to work to turn out the current administration. He is a public person who likes his public and enjoys a microphone.

More here.

Faulty Biological Clock Genes Could Influence Addiction

From Scientific American:

Cocain According to a report published online this week by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, circadian rhythm genes help to regulate the brain’s reward system and could influence the addictive properties of drugs such as cocaine.

Colleen A. McClung of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and her colleagues studied mice lacking a circadian rhythm gene known as Clock. Compared to control animals, mice without Clock were hyperactive and became even more so after being given cocaine. What is more, they also found the drug more rewarding than normal mice did. Finally, Clock-deficient animals exhibited increased activity in the dopamine neurotransmitter system in the brain, which is heavily stimulated by cocaine use. “We found that the Clock gene is not only involved in regulating sleep/wake cycles, but is also very involved in regulating the rewarding responses to drugs of abuse,” McClung says.

More here.

William Dean Howells and the novel of New York

Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker:

Howell6_1Almost the first thing that every essay about the nineteenth-century American novelist William Dean Howells announces is that no one writes essays about William Dean Howells anymore; his eclipse is his identity. Yet in every decade since his death, in 1920, he has found strong advocates—and, although one might think that he needs to be argued for because he is distant from us, each new Howells has oddly resembled the critic who offers him. Howells is somehow both the road not taken and the street where we live.

More here.

Hashing exploit threatens digital security

Celeste Biever in New Scientist:

Cryptographers have found a way to snip a digital signature from one document and attach it to a fraudulent document without invalidating the signature and giving the fraud away.

The development means that attackers could potentially forge legal documents, load certified software with bogus code, or turn a digitally-signed letter of recommendation into one that authorises access to private information.

Digital signatures are used to authenticate website connections, emails and legal documents in some countries. They work because they are unique to the file or software that is signed, as they are created from the contents of the signed file. Therefore, if someone tries to cut a digital signature from one document and stick it to another, the signature fails because it no longer matches the document.

More here.

Stone Age Pornography Unearthed

Matthias Schulz in Spiegel Online:

010204351600New pornographic figurines from the Stone Age have been discovered in Germany. But researchers can’t agree on what the 7,000-year-old sculptures mean. Were our ancestors uninhibited sex fiends, or was reproduction strictly controlled to improve mobility? An increasing number of finds seem to indicate the Stone Age was an orgy of sexual imagination.

The project itself was far from extraordinary. Workers near the Eastern German city of Leipzig were digging a ditch for a new gas line. Hum drum. But what they discovered was far from routine. A backhoe unearthed a 7,200-year-old, Stone Age garbage pit — and it was filled with refuse from some of the first farmers on the European continent. Moreover, upon rushing to the site, archeologists discovered an 8.2 centimeter (3.2 inches) clay torso buried underground. The legs, abdomen and head were missing, but, according to the lucky archeologists, the figure still had its most important features intact: a “well-shaped behind” and a “short, but impressive” penis.

More here.

Terrorism in the Grip of Justice

Christopher Hitchens in Slate:

A favorite slice of reality TV in today’s Iraq is the melodramatically named program Terrorism in the Grip of Justice. Aired on state-run Al Iraqiya, which doesn’t require a satellite dish, it shows the confessions of captured “insurgents,” mainly foreign fighters. When possible, it also shows the videos that these people have made, so that, for example, a man can be viewed as he slices a victim’s throat and then viewed, looking much less brave, as he explains where he comes from, how he was taught to rehearse beheadings and throat-slittings on animals, and other insights into the trade. On occasion, these characters are confronted with the families of their victims. At other times, they have been able to tell the families of the missing what happened to their loved ones. The aim is to demystify the holy warriors and also to encourage civilians to call in with further tips…

Terrorism in the Grip of Justice could only be shown once the transfer of sovereignty to an Iraqi government had been made. The United States could not have put any of these people on television, because the Geneva Conventions forbid the exhibiting of prisoners.

More here.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

From Sumo Wrestlers to Professors

John Allen Paulos explains how numbers can suggest fishy business, in his column at ABC News:

Apr_japan_sumo_050531_tLooking at large data sets and deriving loud conclusions from the reams of whispering numbers is often enjoyable. Herein are three quite disparate examples.

The first concerns sumo wrestlers and comes from “Freakonomics,” a fascinating new book by economist Steven Levitt and writer Stephen Dubner, that employs Levitt’s quirky economic insights to illuminate many everyday activities and practices. The second is simply a study I reported on in a book I wrote on the stock market, and the third comes from a simple analysis I recently made of grade distributions for a required math course at my university.

More here.

John Updike on the post-Cold War spy novel

From The New Yorker:

The spy thriller still pines for the Soviet Union. No post-Iron Curtain intrigue, no replay of the British Empire’s Great Game in Afghanistan or its intrusions into the Middle East, no elaborate “security measures,” no double-double cross in the murk of C.I.A.-F.B.I. rivalry can match, for heart-stoppingly high geopolitical stakes, the good old days when, in terms of John le Carré’s fiction, M.I.6’s Smiley matched wits with the K.G.B.’s Karla on the global chessboard. There was an intelligibility if not a friendly intimacy in the old contest, one between two large, idealistic, rough-mannered nations seeking to maintain their spheres of influence short of tripping nuclear war. As one hardened undercover functionary cozily tells another in Robert Littell’s new book, “Legends: A Novel of Dissimulation” (Overlook; $25.95), “We all came of age in the cold war. We all fought the good fight. I’m sure we can work something out.” The so-called war on terror has no such surety; “working out” is just what the other side, or sides, doesn’t want. Littell conscientiously covers the new ground—the post-Soviet Russia of the oligarchs; the potential for financial shenanigans opened up by worldwide computerization; the stagnant antipathy between Israel and its neighbors; Bosnia; Chechnya; and (news to me) an international smugglers’ cove where the borders of Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina meet and whores dance sleepily in one another’s arms—but he remains most excited by, and most at home with, occupants of the old U.S.S.R. as they strike up fresh relations with capitalism and the C.I.A.

More here.

A Culture of Death

Diane Martindale in Scientific American:

In the underworld of assisted suicide and euthanasia, Russel Ogden examines the means and methods–even as he is shunned by academia and chased by the law:

0009b98148c51289837d83414b7ffe9f_1In 1990 David Lewis, a Vancouver man living with HIV, went to a local newspaper and announced that he had assisted eight friends, all suffering from AIDS, in committing suicide–an act of murder in the eyes of Canadian law. For many people, the news simply affirmed what they had long suspected was happening in the AIDS community. But to Russel Ogden, a criminology graduate student at Simon Fraser University looking for a research project, it was an opportunity to go where no scientist had ventured before.

“I had a population in my backyard that had been living with euthanasia issues for some time,” recalls Ogden, who is believed by many to be the first researcher in North America to have formally studied the practices of underground assisted suicide and euthanasia.

More here.

The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies

Joshua Foer reviews Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies — and What It Means to Be Human by Joel Garreau, in The Washington Post:

HandFar-fetched as it may sound, the first person who will live to be 1,000 may already walk among us. The first computer that will think like a person may be built before today’s kindergarteners graduate from college. By the middle of this century, we may be as blasé about genetically engineered humans as we are today about pierced ears. These sorts of predictions have a habit of sounding silly by the time they’re supposed to come true, but there’s a certain logic to them. Joel Garreau calls that logic “The Curve.”

The Curve is the untamable force of exponential growth that propels technological progress. It’s the compound interest on human ingenuity. The fact that computing power has doubled every 18 months, right on schedule, for the last four decades is a manifestation of The Curve. So is the rapid expansion of the Internet and the recent boom in genetic technologies. According to the inexorable logic of The Curve, if you want to get a sense of how radically our world will be transformed over the next century, the best guide will be looking back at how much things have changed, not over the past century, but over the past millennium.

More here.

And the Unreadability Award Goes To…

We have no proof as to what the most unread book of the last twenty years may be, but we can certainly hazard a guess: A Brief History of Time has long been mocked by publishers and comedians alike as the quintessential book that flies out of stores, only to collect dust at home. This year, Jim Wallis’s latest, God’s Politics, will join Hawking’s effort on your bookcase’s highest shelf , where it will remain ever after as a source of mild guilt. It’s easy to see why the Brief History goes unread: Physics is hard. Most people were traumatized in high school and don’t feel qualified to broach the subject. “Time” itself is so abstract as to seem unfriendly, and many of us like our books with people in them. By comparison, the unreadableness of God’s Politics is a mystery.’

From Leora Bersohn at The Revealer.

The Way to China is the Way to America

Looking at art in New York’s Chelsea can be a boring affair. So much painting, so much stuff for rich people. But that’s OK. There are things to be discovered. The Plum Blossom gallery has been doing a good job of showing quality work from Asia even if it is often suspiciously buyable. The current show, The Way to China is the Way to America hGo0013detail1_2as good stuff by Ji Dachun:

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And by Zhang Hongtu:

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The challenges facing academic presses

Via Crooked Timber, John Thompson looks at the problems of publishing academic books. (In The Chornicle of Higher Education.)

“Whereas the ‘long decade’ from the early 1980s to 2000 was a buoyant period for many presses in the field of academic publishing, including many university presses, the period since 2001 has brought a rude awakening. Growth rates of university presses have fallen to the lowest levels in many years, returns from booksellers have reached unprecedented heights, and some university presses have been faced with the prospect of imminent closure. Nor has it been plain sailing for the big college-textbook publishers. Accustomed to annual growth rates of 6 percent to 8 percent, textbook publishers have suddenly found themselves faced with declining unit sales and surrounded by allegations that they are fleecing students with inflated prices.

Why do academic publishers find themselves in such difficult circumstances, and what, if anything, can they do about them?

To understand the problems of academic publishers today, we have to see that their current predicament is the outcome of a long process of development that stretches back to the 1970s and before.”

Bizzaro Earth Finally Discovered

US researchers have claimed to have discovered a planet similar to Earth some 15 light years away. . .Newplanet1

“This planet answers an ancient question. Over 2,000 years ago, the Greek philosophers Aristotle and Epicurus argued about whether there were other Earth-like planets. Now, for the first time, we have evidence for a rocky planet around a normal star,” said team leader Geoffrey Marcy, professor of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley.

more here.

Mind trips and psychotic inventions at annual Asian series

Film

From The Village Voice:

Count our blessings. No sooner does the screaming summer-movie emptiness begin to envelop the city than Subway Cinema’s annual fest of new East Asian pop cinema uncorks a refreshing cataract of psychotic invention, genre excess, and meditative derangement—often in the shape of movies that have no chance of distribution or a slot in a tonier local venue. Who knows what chances the fresh Seijun Suzuki film has under any other auspices—Princess Raccoon is a self-mocking operetta whose song styles range from Nippon-ized Jacques Brel-ishness to ’70s album rock, set on deep-dish-Dada ballet sets that are regularly subsumed by digital mythopoeia and headlong design nuttiness. Some kind of Snow White fable with Kabuki accents—let’s not care about content, because Suzuki doesn’t—it’s a movie unlike any other ever made by an octogenarian. With its 2-D stiffness and trite songmaking, it’s not Pistol Opera, and yet any ambivalence about Princess Raccoon‘s “success” has to be reckoned against Suzuki’s insurrectionary resilience and his nearly half a century of movies that, though nattering on about assassins or prostitutes or princesses, speak in their own unique visual tongue.

More here.

Snake Phobias, Moodiness and a Battle in Psychiatry

From The New York Times:Freud_1

A college student becomes so compulsive about cleaning his dorm room that his grades begin to slip. An executive living in New York has a mortal fear of snakes but lives in Manhattan and rarely goes outside the city where he might encounter one. A computer technician, deeply anxious around strangers, avoids social and company gatherings and is passed over for promotion. Are these people mentally ill? In a report released last week, researchers estimated that more than half of Americans would develop mental disorders in their lives, raising questions about where mental health ends and illness begins.

In fact, psychiatrists have no good answer, and the boundary between mental illness and normal mental struggle has become a battle line dividing the profession into two viscerally opposed camps.

More here.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Making it easier to imitate nature

Also from The Economist:

“Velcro is probably the most famous and certainly the most successful example of biological mimicry, or ‘biomimetics’. In fields from robotics to materials science, technologists are increasingly borrowing ideas from nature, and with good reason: nature’s designs have, by definition, stood the test of time, so it would be foolish to ignore them. Yet transplanting natural designs into man-made technologies is still a hit-or-miss affair.

Engineers depend on biologists to discover interesting mechanisms for them to exploit, says Julian Vincent, the director of the Centre for Biomimetic and Natural Technologies at the University of Bath in England. So he and his colleagues have been working on a scheme to enable engineers to bypass the biologists and tap into nature’s ingenuity directly, via a database of ‘biological patents’. The idea is that this database will let anyone search through a wide range of biological mechanisms and properties to find natural solutions to technological problems. . .

Surely human intellect, and the deliberate application of design knowledge, can devise better mechanisms than the mindless, random process of evolution? Far from it. Over billions of years of trial and error, nature has devised effective solutions to all sorts of complicated real-world problems.”

Modelling the Human Brain

From The Economist:

“THE most complex object known to humanity is the human brain—and not only is it complex, but it is the seat of one of the few natural phenomena that science has no purchase on at all, namely consciousness. To try to replicate something that is so poorly understood may therefore seem like hubris. But you have to start somewhere, and IBM and the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), in Switzerland, propose to start by replicating ‘in silico’, as the jargon has it, one of the brain’s building blocks.

In a partnership announced on June 6th, the two organisations said they would be working together to build a simulation of a structure known as a neocortical column on a type of IBM supercomputer that is currently used to study the molecular functioning of genes. If that works, they plan to use future, more powerful computers to link such simulated columns together into something that mimics a brain.”

NYT Coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Is there an imbalance in New York Times‘ coverage of deaths in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians? One study tries to answer the question.

“Our findings indicate significantly distorted coverage by The New York Times of these topics. In the first study period The Times reported Israeli deaths at a rate 2.8 times higher than Palestinian deaths, and in 2004 this rate increased by almost 30%, to 3.6, widening still further the disparity in coverage. The Times’ coverage of children’s deaths was even more skewed. In the first year of the current uprising, Israeli children’s deaths were reported at 6.8 times the rate of Palestinian children’s deaths. In 2004 this differential also increased, with deaths of Israeli children covered at a rate 7.3 times greater than the deaths of Palestinian children.”

(Hat tip: Sughra Raza)

Mary Kaldor tries to answer the question, Was there an Alternative to War in Iraq?

In OpenDemocracy, Mary Kaldor tries to answer a difficult question for those who believed that Saddam Hussein had to go but were critical of the war.

“Was and is there an alternative to war in Iraq? The most important strategy in the new type of war is the restoration of legitimate political authority. This is no less true in Iraq than in other new wars, both before and after the invasion.

In the period before the invasion, the best justification for war was regime change. Saddam Hussein’s regime was one of the most brutal in the world – millions had died from his maniacal foreign adventures, from the suppression of uprisings in the north and south, from purges and repression, as well as economic devastation. So was there another way to achieve regime change? From discussions with the opposition inside Iraq, I believe that there was a real possibility of ‘opening up’ the regime rather in the way that happened in east-central Europe in the 1980s as a result of a combination of pressure both from outside based on the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, and from below.

There was much more going on inside Iraq than was realised. Indeed the expatriate opposition and Saddam Hussein had a shared interest in suppressing this reality. There were underground movements and parties – including the Da’wa party (Shi’a Islamist), the Communist Party, the General Union of Students, and the League of Iraqi Women. There were also various efforts to create public spaces by artists and intellectuals.

Most interestingly perhaps was the way in which the mosques, both Sunni and Shi’a, were leveraging Saddam’s new emphasis on religion to create more open space within the mosques, in a strategy reminiscent of the Catholic church in Poland.”

Read the whole piece, here.