13 things that do not make sense

Michael Brooks in New Scientist:

1 The placebo effect

DON’T try this at home. Several times a day, for several days, you induce pain in someone. You control the pain with morphine until the final day of the experiment, when you replace the morphine with saline solution. Guess what? The saline takes the pain away…

7 Tetraneutrons

FOUR years ago, a particle accelerator in France detected six particles that should not exist. They are called tetraneutrons: four neutrons that are bound together in a way that defies the laws of physics.

Francisco Miguel Marquès and colleagues at the Ganil accelerator in Caen are now gearing up to do it again. If they succeed, these clusters may oblige us to rethink the forces that hold atomic nuclei together…

More here.

Fabulous fabrications

From The Economist:

CartoonThe “fab lab”, as Dr Gershenfeld has nicknamed his invention, is a collection of commercially available machines that, while not yet able to put things together from their component atoms, can, according to its inventor, be used to make just about anything with features bigger than those of a computer chip. Among other tools it includes a laser cutter that makes two-dimensional and three-dimensional structures, a device that uses a computer-controlled knife to carve antennas and flexible electrical connections, a miniature milling machine that manoeuvres a cutting tool in three dimensions to make circuit boards and other precision parts, a set of software for programming cheap computer chips known as microcontrollers, and a jigsaw (a narrow-bladed cutting device, not a picture puzzle). Together, these can machine objects with a precision of a millionth of a metre. The fab lab’s purpose is to endow inventors—particularly those in poor countries who lack a formal education and the resources to implement their ideas—with a set of tools that can translate back-of-the-envelope designs into working prototypes.

And it works.

More here.

Mama’s Boys Get Better Milk

Michael Shirber in Live Science:

The tendency of some mothers to coddle their sons may be ingrained, at least in species where males compete for mates.

A recent study of Iberian red deer on a research farm has shown that mothers produce more milk of higher growth-potential for a male calf than a female one. The reason appears to be a genetic advantage, seeing as healthier, stronger males will mate more often – spreading the mother’s genes.

The researchers studied 60 female deer, which – over five years – produced 44 male and 47 female offspring. In collecting milk samples, the researchers took account of the weights of mother and fawn in their analysis.

In equal circumstances, sons were not only given more milk, but the milk was also three percent higher in protein concentration than what females were given.

More here.

The Education of Paul Wolfowitz

Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek:

It is often said in Washington these days that conservatives are full of fresh ideas while liberals defend old orthodoxies. At least in the realm of fighting poverty, the opposite is true. On those few occasions when they think about the subject, conservatives recite a stale catechism of clichés based on virtually no research or experience. You’ve heard them often: foreign aid is a waste, all of it ends up in Swiss banks; poor countries should just free up their markets and they will grow; Africans don’t want to work, etc.

If Wolfowitz is inclined toward these mantras, he should read Jeffrey Sachs’s compelling new book, “The End of Poverty.” Sachs, a distinguished economist who has spent the last three decades working with governments around the world, explains that none of these conventional wisdoms gets it right. Much foreign aid has been very well spent and led to landmark results.

More here.  Oh, and here’s Christopher Hitchens on, yes, Wolfowitz in Slate:

He almost went out of his way to be jeered and hooted at a pro-Israel rally in Washington in the early days of the Bush administration, by telling the gung-ho crowd not to forget the suffering of the Palestinians…

The truth is, he’s a bit bleeding heart for my taste, even though I know some very tough Kurdish and Iraqi and Iranian and Lebanese antifascist militants who would welcome him as a blood-brother. No shame in that, I think.

More here.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Literary Surrealism

John Allen Paulos in his column at ABC News:

PaulosThe Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle (Workshop of Potential Literature), Oulipo for short, was the name of a small group of primarily French writers, mathematicians and academics devoted to the exploration of mathematical and combinatorial techniques in literature. Founded in 1960 (and still somewhat active), the group searched for new literary structures via the imposition of unusual constraints.

Raymond Queneau’s “One Hundred Trillion Sonnets” is a prime example of Oulipo’s combinatorial approach to literature. The work is only 10 pages long with a sonnet on each page. Cut crosswise, the pages allow each of the 14 lines of each sonnet to be turned separately. Thus any of the 10 first lines may be combined with any of the 10 second lines, resulting in 10^2 or 100 different pairs of opening lines. Any of these 10^2 possibilities may be combined with any of the 10 third lines to yield 10^3 or 1,000 possible sets of three lines. Continuing, we conclude that there are 10^14 possible sonnets. Queneau claimed that they all made sense, although it’s safe to say that the claim will never be verified since there is more text in these 10^14 different sonnets than in all the rest of the world’s literature.

Another good example of Oulipo’s work is Jean Lescure’s (N+7) algorithm for transforming a text. Take an excerpt from your favorite newspaper, novel or holy book and replace each noun in it with the seventh unrelated noun following it in some standard dictionary. If the original text is well written, the resulting text is a bit surreal, but usually retains the original’s rhythm and even something of its sense. “Fourscore and seven yeast ago our fathoms brought forth on this continuance a new native, conceived in library and dedicated to the proprietor that all menageries are created equal.”

More here.

A Double Life in Black and White

Patricia Storace looks at a “graphic memoir” by Marjane Satrapi, in the New York Review of Books:

The two volumes of Persepolis, the implacably witty and fearless “graphic memoir” of the Iranian illustrator Marjane Satrapi, relate through an inseparable fusion of cartoon images and verbal narrative the story of a privileged young girl’s childhood experience of Iran’s revolution of 1979, its eight-year war with Iraq, her exile to Austria during her high school years, and her subsequent experience as a university student, young artist, and wife in Tehran after her return to Iran from Europe in 1998. That Persepolis 1, a book in which it is almost impossible to find an image distinguished enough to consider an independent piece of visual art, and equally difficult to find a sentence which in itself surpasses the serviceable, emerges as a work so fresh, absorbing, and memorable is an extraordinary achievement.

In the cartoon world she creates, pictures function less as illustration than as records of action, a kind of visual journalism.

More here.

Nearby Evidence for Dark Energy

Sara Goudarzi at Space.com:

New research suggests evidence of dark energy in our cosmic backyard, but theorists are still divided on explanations for the ever-increasing speed with which the universe is expanding.

Until now, evidence for dark energy, a mysterious antigravity force apparently pushing galaxies outward at an accelerating pace, has only been found in the farthest reaches of the universe. But an international team of researchers has used computer models supported by observations from the Hubble Space Telescope to find hints of dark energy closer by.

More here.

Law and order among insects

Susan Milius in Science News:

A5977_163In a colony of tree wasps, workers on nursemaid duty crawl this way and that along the bottom of their nest, tending the youngsters in the comb. Most of the workers dutifully look after the queen’s offspring, stopping only to spit a runny meal into the mouth of a pale, lumpy larva snug in its cell. But one of these workers is up to no good. This selfish worker stays still for a minute or two in a suspiciously crouched position. She’s laying her own egg in an empty cell.

Such rogue egg laying is a crime against insect society. The wheels of justice, however, don’t require a special caste of investigators and prosecutors. Punishment among insects is meted out by ordinary workers—and sometimes the queen herself—says biologist Tom Wenseleers, who has watched dozens of hours of black-and-white videos from infrared security cameras that he’s trained on nests of tree wasps.

In the most dramatic episodes, the egg sneak finds herself surrounded by a posse of vigilante workers.

More here.

Startling Scientists, Plant Fixes Its Flawed Gene

Nicholas Wade in the New York Times:

Plant184In a startling discovery, geneticists at Purdue University say they have found plants that possess a corrected version of a defective gene inherited from both their parents, as if some handy backup copy with the right version had been made in the grandparents’ generation or earlier.

The finding implies that some organisms may contain a cryptic backup copy of their genome that bypasses the usual mechanisms of heredity. If confirmed, it would represent an unprecedented exception to the laws of inheritance discovered by Gregor Mendel in the 19th century. Equally surprising, the cryptic genome appears not to be made of DNA, the standard hereditary material.

More here.

Missed World Water Day?

Yesterday was World Water Day. ‘So what?’ you’re asking. Well, consider that, according to UNESCO, ‘1 billion people lack access to improved water supply,’ and ‘2.4 billion people lack access to improved sanitation.’ Furthermore:

   – Every day, diarrhoeal diseases cause some 6,000 deaths, mostly among children under five.
   – In 2001, 1.96 million people died from infectious diarrhoeas; 1.3 million were children under five.
   – Between 1,085,000 and 2,187,000 deaths due to diarrhoeal diseases can be attributed to the ‘water, sanitation and hygiene’ risk factor, 90 percent of them among children under five.

1 million die from malaria each year, and 200 million are infected with schistosomiasis, a disease caused by a worm that is often found in irrigation ditches and still river water.

Okay, then comes the doom and gloom of the possible Water Wars, such as the water conflict between Israelis, Palestinians, and Syrians, or between the Egyptians and the Ethiopians.

For a slightly more cheering view, here’s a look at what the UN is doing to try to ameliorate the problem, with some specific case studies.

Pakistan Is Booming Since 9/11

Somini Sengupta in the New York Times:

The country’s economy grew 6.4 percent during the last fiscal year, and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, a former Citibank executive, projects 8 percent annual growth in two years’ time.

“Pakistan is a country today that has gone through a very intensive five-year reform,” Mr. Aziz said in an interview in the capital, Islamabad. “We are seeing the results.”

There are many factors behind the boom…

As an important ally of the United States, Pakistan has been able to slash its external debts. In the last five years, export earnings have doubled to more than $13 billion, mostly from textiles, according to the State Bank of Pakistan. “There’s a lot of confidence in Pakistan’s economy,” said Ishrat Husain, the state bank chief.

More here.

Lost in a labyrinth of theory

Jonathan Jones in The Guardian:

There is no doubting the importance of Art Since 1900, a massive new volume. For a start, it states its own significance in block capitals on the cover: “A LANDMARK STUDY IN THE HISTORY OF MODERN ART”. Not only have the authors written a landmark study – they’ve reviewed it too! In the roundtable discussion that concludes the book, they congratulate themselves on a history that “might have some liberatory effect”. Some liberatory effect? Who speaks like that?

Art historians, that’s who. The four authors – professors Rosalind Krauss, Hal Foster, Yves-Alain Bois and Benjamin HD Buchloh – will mean nothing to many readers, but in the world of art theory they constitute the ultimate team of academic superheroes, mighty wielders of the poststructuralist lexicon…

Well, I have a debating point – this book is the final ludicrous monument to an intellectual corruption that has filled contemporary museums and the culture they sustain with a hollow and boring, impersonal chatter. Art has been lost in a labyrinth of theory. If this sounds anti-intellectual, let me clarify. There is no good work of art that cannot be described in intelligible English, however long it might take, however much patience is required. And yet this book begins with four theoretical essays explaining the post-structuralist concepts the authors believe we need before we can meaningfully discuss a single work of art. It is the supreme expression of an art culture that sneers at “empiricism” as a dirty word.

More here.

Corey Robin and Fear

Corey Robin’s newish book Fear: The History of a Political Idea has generated a great deal of interest and debate, deservedly so, because despite having been conceived before September 11 it finds a deep resonance in our real and imagined terrors. In his New Statesman review, Frank Furedi said:

‘While Robin blames Montesquieu, Tocqueville and Arendt for providing theories that make it possible to separate fear from politics, it is possible to argue that the Hobbesian theory of fear exercises a more significant influence over contemporary debate. Our risk-averse society has turned being fearful into a form of responsible behaviour. And perversely, once fear becomes a custom, it also becomes depoliticised. For fear to be used as a tool of state power, it has to become a common-sense response to reality.’

Actually, Robin has a more complex view of Arendt, arguing that she changed her mind fundamentally about the basics of totalitarianism. Here’s two other short reviews, from Foreign Affairs and The Canadian Journal of Sociology. If there’s one thing Robin gets wrong, it’s probably the extent to which our leaders themselves are in thrall to the fears they propagate – Robin tends to view them more as cynical manipulators, bringing up an old problem in politics and a sense of good ole fashioned false consciousness in the terrified and gullible populace. On the other hand, just look at the news and you see a world of fear unfolding by the minute. Meanwhile, Social Research has come out in its current number with an entire issue dedicated to fear, with introductory remarks on the politics of fear from Albert Gore, Jr.

More on Crime in America

In a somewhat angry and impulsive mood, I posted something here yesterday about crime in American cities, and the shameful lack of outrage about it. This elicited some thoughtful comments, including one by Timo Hartmann who asks:

Abbas, do you really think that in a city where thousands of illegal immigrants live on a daily basis who sleep in overcrowded houses, working on a daily basis so they can send some money home to their families, the crime problem can be solved by locking away more people? Don’t you think as soon as you lock somebody violent away there will be two or three more people who will commit crimes? Don’t you think that the presence of even more undereducated police officers would not also affect your personal freedom in a negative way?

My respective answers to your three questions, Timo, are yes, no, and no–more police will not affect my freedom in a negative way. We could argue theoretically about this until we are both blue in the face, but fortunately someone has bothered to look carefully at the data concerning the huge nationwide drop in crime in the 1990s, and tried to figure out which factors are truly effective in reducing crime rates. In a fascinating and rigorously argued forthcoming book (I happen to have an advance copy), the brilliant and non-partisan economist Steven D. Levitt of the University of Chicago writes:

StevenlevittThe evidence linking increased punishment with lower crime rates is very strong. Harsh prison terms have been shown to act as both deterrent (for the would-be criminal on the street) and prophylactic (for the would-be criminal who is already locked up). Logical as this may sound, some criminologists have fought the logic…

…if the goal here is to explain the drop in crime in the 1990s, imprisonment is certainly one of the key answers. It accounts for roughly one-third of the drop in crime.

In fact, after carefully controlled statistical analysis of the data, Levitt shows that of the following eight most commonly cited media explanations (in order) for the crime drop, only three can be shown to have had any effect at all (can you guess which?):

  1. Innovative policing strategies
  2. Increased reliance on prisons
  3. Changes in crack and other drug markets
  4. Aging of the population
  5. Tougher gun control laws
  6. Strong economy
  7. Increased number of police
  8. All other explanations (increased use of capital punishment, concealed-weapons laws, gun buybacks, and others)

The correct answers are #s 2, 3, and 7. Wide-scale nationwide hiring of police in the 90s accounted for roughly 10 percent of the crime drop.

Timo also adds,

I personally believe that the reason for the high crime rate in the US compared with for example Europe is due to the huge (and growing) social gap in this country.

to which I can only say: the onus is on you to show, controlling for other factors, that this is statistically true. At this time, I simply have no reason to either confirm or deny it.

You can see a list of Levitt’s academic papers on this and other topics here. See especially, “Understanding Why Crime Fell in the 1990s: Four Factors That Explain the Decline and Six That Do Not,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 18, no. 1, (2004), pp. 163-90. I will be posting more here on Levitt’s book when it is publshed. Meanwhile, read this profile of Levitt by Stephen J. Dubner from the New York Times.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Louis Menand on Kazuo Ishiguro

From The New Yorker:

It is always a puzzle to know where Ishiguro’s true subject lies. The emotional situation in his novels is spelled out in meticulous, sometimes comically tedious detail, and the focus is entirely on the narrator’s struggles to achieve clarity and contentment in an uncoöperative world. Ishiguro is expert at getting readers choked up over these struggles—even over the ludicrous self-deceptions of the butler in “The Remains of the Day,” the hopeless Stevens. But he is also expert at arranging his figurines against shadowy and suggestive backdrops: post-fascist Japan, in “A Pale View of Hills” (1982) and “An Artist of the Floating World” (1986); an unidentified Central European town undergoing an indeterminate cultural crisis, in “The Unconsoled” (1995); Shanghai at the time of the Sino-Japanese War, in “When We Were Orphans” (2000). It seems important to an understanding of “The Remains of the Day” that the man for whom Stevens once worked, Lord Darlington, was a Fascist sympathizer.

More here.

On the Making of a Durable World, Part Two

Rochelle Gurstein in The New Republic:

Leafing through Henry James’s Italian Hours, in search of his impressions of the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, I stumbled upon a startlingly beautiful passage inspired by the author’s rides on horseback in the “campagna” just outside of Rome, where he meditates on what he called the “reflective” life. For him, it was another name for the “aesthetic and ‘esoteric’ life.”

Although I have never strolled or driven, let alone ridden on horseback, through the countryside around Rome, James’s vivid portrayal of his delightful rides transported me there in imagination. Reading James today here in New York, after more than 130 years have passed between us, I could still hear “the disembodied voice of the lark,” feel the “languor” of “the Roman air,” see the flowers that “multiply and the deep blues and purples of the hills, turning to azure and violet,” all of which incited in me a deep longing to view Mount Soracte, which “rises from its blue horizon like an island from the sea and with an elegance of contour which no mood of the year can deepen or diminish.”

More here.

Math Puzzle due to Ramanujan finally Solved

Maggie McKee in New Scientist:

RamanujanA number puzzle originating in the work of self-taught maths genius Srinivasa Ramanujan nearly a century ago has been solved. The solution may one day lead to advances in particle physics and computer security.

Karl Mahlburg, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, US, has spent a year putting together the final pieces to the puzzle, which involves understanding patterns of numbers.

“I have filled notebook upon notebook with calculations and equations,” says Mahlburg, who has submitted a 10-page paper of his results to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The patterns were first discovered by Ramanujan, who was born in India in 1887 and flunked out of college after just a year because he neglected his studies in subjects outside of mathematics…

Ramanujan noticed that whole numbers can be broken into sums of smaller numbers, called partitions. The number 4, for example, contains five partitions: 4, 3+1, 2+2, 1+1+2, and 1+1+1+1…

More here.

Jules Verne, France’s sci-fi ambassador, feted 100 years after death

From the AFP:

Julesverne“He was fascinated by progress and he depicted it in his works,” says Didier Fremond, the curator of an exhibition celebrating Verne’s life at the Maritime Museum in Paris, one of a series of events marking the centenary of his death.

From Paris to the western city of Nantes, where Verne was born on February 8, 1828, to the northern town of Amiens, where he died on March 24, 1905, fans will be treated to exhibits, concerts, films and shows in his honor.

Verne ranks among the world’s ten most translated authors, along with William Shakespeare and Vladimir Lenin, according to UNESCO (newsweb sites), the UN’s cultural body, and is revered by fans who have launched clubs around the world.

Many of Verne’s works, like his famed “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea”, revolve around water and voyages to far-off islands. The boat enthusiast, who owned three yachts in his lifetime, once said, “The need to sail consumed me.”

More here.

In Pakistan: A gang rape, a fateful choice and still more battles ahead

Ron Moreau and Zahid Hussain in Newsweek:

050319_pakistanrape_huSoon after Mukhtar Mai was savagely gang-raped on the orders of a village council three years ago, she considered her options. She had never been accused of any crime. (The rape was carried out as supposed retribution for an alleged and implausible affair between Mai’s teenage brother and a 30-year-old woman.) But according to rural Pakistan’s strict Islamic code, she was forever “dishonored.” The local Mastoi clan, which dominates the village council, expected her to keep her mouth shut or simply disappear. Her own Gujar clan refused to support her. “My choice was either to commit suicide or to fight back,” Mai recalled last week. “I decided to fight back.”

She’s still fighting.

More here.