T. A. Frank. in The New Republic:

If present trends continue, the term “liberal” may eventually come to mean something like “conservative who occasionally disagrees with G. Gordon Liddy.” To fight back, TNR Online has decided unilaterally to reclaim the parameters of the debate. We’ll allow the Bush administration to hold down the right end of the spectrum, but no longer will we permit The Nation to represent the far left–that job will instead fall to the dedicated journalists at KCNA, the news agency of North Korea. As for the middle, that can still be represented by David Gergen. (We would have chosen David Broder but, unlike Gergen, Broder has occasionally been unavailable for televised comment.) …


1. About Condoleezza Rice, I agree with:

A. George W. Bush: “America has benefited from the wise counsel of Dr. Condoleezza Rice and our family has been enriched by our friendship with this wonderful person.”

B. David Gergen: “Listen, there’s nothing to say that she won’t be a terrific secretary of state. She may well be. She’s obviously a woman of enormous stature.”

C. North Korea: “Condoleezza Rice [is] a handmaid of the United States’ aggressive external policy and a faithful spokeswoman for the U.S. munitions monopolies.”

Correct answer: B. While North Korea deserves credit for use of the terms “munitions monopolies” and the under-used “handmaid,” the correct liberal answer is Gergen’s, since it’s true that Rice’s tenure may indeed prove “terrific”–in the original (example: “terrific conflagration”) sense of the word.

Rest of the test here.

The artist as neuroscientist

Patrick Cavanagh in Nature:

Monet_1Although we rarely confuse a painting for the scene it presents, we are often taken in by the vividness of the lighting and the three-dimensional (3D) layout it captures. This is not surprising for a photorealistic painting, but even very abstract paintings can convey a striking sense of space and light, despite remarkable deviations from realism.

The rules of physics that apply in a real scene are optional in a painting; they can be obeyed or ignored at the discretion of the artist to further the painting’s intended effect. Some deviations, such as Picasso’s skewed faces or the wildly coloured shadows in the works of Matisse and other Impressionists of the Fauvist school, are meant to be noticed as part of the style and message of the painting. There is, however, an ‘alternative physics’ operating in many paintings that few of us ever notice but which is just as improbable. These transgressions of standard physics — impossible shadows, colours, reflections or contours — often pass unnoticed by the viewer and do not interfere with the viewer’s understanding of the scene. This is what makes them discoveries of neuroscience. Because we do not notice them, they reveal that our visual brain uses a simpler, reduced physics to understand the world. Artists use this alternative physics because these particular deviations from true physics do not matter to the viewer: the artist can take shortcuts, presenting cues more economically, and arranging surfaces and lights to suit the message of the piece rather than the requirements of the physical world.

In discovering these shortcuts artists act as research neuroscientists, and there is a great deal to be learned from tracking down their discoveries.

More here.

Clues to History of Human Migration in Pig DNA

Rosie Mestel in the Los Angeles Times:

The pig work provides a new tool for tracking movements of prehistoric humans, the authors said. By assessing the genes of local domestic pigs, researchers could learn where the animals’ wild boar ancestors hailed from — and uncover ancient trade routes and human migration paths.

The pig DNA data have suggested that a theory about Pacific Islanders originally coming from Taiwan is incorrect. The data show that pigs in Hawaii do not match wild boars from Taiwan, the authors said.

More here.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Making Black Holes

An experiment at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) may have created a black hole, or its analog.

“A fireball created in a US particle accelerator has the characteristics of a black hole, a physicist has said.

It was generated at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) in New York, US, which smashes beams of gold nuclei together at near light speeds.

Horatiu Nastase says his calculations show that the core of the fireball has a striking similarity to a black hole.”

Nastase’s paper which

“argue[s] that the fireball observed at RHIC is (the analog of) a dual black hole. In previous works, we have argued that the large behaviour of the total QCD cross section is due to production of dual black holes, and that in the QCD effective field theory it corresponds to a nonlinear soliton of the pion field. Now we argue that the RHIC fireball is this soliton. . . . RHIC is in a certain sense a string theory testing machine, analyzing the formation and decay of dual black holes, and giving information about the black hole interior.”

can be found here.

String Theory is like a 50-year-old woman wearing way too much lipstick

Keay Davidson in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Already, the split over string theory has caused tensions at some of the nation’s university physics departments. “The physics department at Stanford effectively fissioned over this issue,” said Laughlin, now on sabbatical in South Korea. “I think string theory is textbook ‘post-modernism’ (and) fueled by irresponsible expenditures of money.”

The dispute could become explosive this year, with the publication of contrarily minded books by two of the best-known and most eloquent scientific popularizers of physics, string theorist Michio Kaku of City University of New York and astrophysicist-particle theorist Lawrence Krauss of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Skeptics have long mocked string theory as untestable, because experimental studies of it would require machines of huge scale, perhaps even as big as the solar system. In his new book “Parallel Worlds” (Doubleday), Kaku disagrees and argues that the first experimental evidence for string theory might begin to emerge within several years from experiments with scientific instruments such as a new particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, which opens for business near Geneva in 2007.

More here.

Diane Arbus at the Met

Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker:

Nudist_campThe revolutionary photographer Diane Arbus, who died in 1971, at the age of forty-eight, said, “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.” That’s not quite right, on the evidence of “Diane Arbus: Revelations,” an indeed revealing, though gratingly worshipful, retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum. Confronting a major photograph by Arbus, you lose your ability to know—or distinctly to think or feel, and certainly to judge—anything. She turned picture-making inside out. She didn’t gaze at her subjects; she induced them to gaze at her. Selected for their powers of strangeness and confidence, they burst through the camera lens with a presence so intense that whatever attitude she or you or anyone might take toward them disintegrates. Arbus’s fine-grained black-and-white film and minimalist form—usually a subject centered in a square format—act with the virtual instantaneity of punchy graphic design. The image starts to affect you before you are fully aware of looking at it. Its significance dawns on you with the leisureliness of shock, in the state of mind that occupies, for example, the moment—a foretaste of eternity—after you have slipped on an icy sidewalk and before you hit the ground. You may feel, crazily, that you have never really seen a photograph before. Nor is this impression of novelty evanescent. Over the years, Arbuses that I once found devastating have seemed to wait for me to change just a little, then to devastate me all over again. No other photographer has been more controversial. Her greatness, a fact of experience, remains imperfectly understood.

More here.

DNA gets a fake fifth base

Emma Marris in Nature:

Helix One of the first things any biology student learns is that DNA, the recipe for life, is written with four letters. But what if you could add extra ones? Researchers who have managed to build, and replicate, DNA with an ersatz fifth letter are on their way to finding out.

Getting the modified DNA to work requires the team to answer all sorts of basic biochemistry questions. But the ultimate hope is that a few of these artificial letters could be sprinkled into the genome of a living microbe, to track its adaptation and evolution.

The four letters that occur naturally in DNA are chemical bases called adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C) and thymine (T). The sequences that code for the different proteins to be built within a cell are spelled out using these four letters.

Floyd Romesberg and his colleagues at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, have developed a fifth base, called 3-fluorobenzene, or 3FB. The bases in a zipper of DNA pair up across the molecule’s two strands: A always pairs with T, and G always pairs with C. The 3FB pairs with itself, forming a completely new base pair.

More here.

Outsourcing Innovation…And Everything Else

Paul Craig Roberts in CounterPunch:

A country cannot be a superpower without a high tech economy, and America’s high tech economy is eroding as I write.

The erosion began when US corporations outsourced manufacturing. Today many US companies are little more than a brand name selling goods made in Asia.

Corporate outsourcers and their apologists presented the loss of manufacturing capability as a positive development. Manufacturing, they said, was the “old economy,” whose loss to Asia ensured Americans lower consumer prices and greater shareholder returns. The American future was in the “new economy” of high tech knowledge jobs.

This assertion became an article of faith. Few considered how a country could maintain a technological lead when it did not manufacture.

So far in the 21st century there is scant sign of the American “new economy.” The promised knowledge-based jobs have not appeared. To the contrary, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a net loss of 221,000 jobs in six major engineering job classifications.

Today many computer, electrical and electronics engineers, who were well paid at the end of the 20th century, are unemployed and cannot find work.

More here.

The Whole-House Machine

Brad Lemley in Discover:

HouseinventorIn a sunny laboratory at the University of Southern California, a robotically controlled nozzle squeezes a ribbon of concrete onto a wooden plank. Every two minutes and 14 seconds, the nozzle completes a circuit, topping the previous ribbon with a fresh one. Thus a five-foot-long wall rises—a wall built without human intervention.

The wall is humble but portentous. “If you can build a wall, you can build a house,” says Behrokh Khoshnevis, an engineering professor, as he watches the gray mixture squirt out in neat courses from what he calls a contour crafter, a machine about eight feet tall and six feet wide. If all goes as planned, Khoshnevis will use a larger, more advanced version of the device later this year to erect the first robotically constructed house in just one day.

Khoshnevis believes his contour crafter will revolutionize building construction, dragging it into the digital age.

More here.

Genetics: The X factor

Erika Check in Nature:

This January, Harvard University president Larry Summers incited a near riot by suggesting that men might be better than women at science. The resulting pandemonium has revealed few genuine insights into male and female mental abilities — although it has shown that old prejudices linger on campus, and beyond.

In contrast, biology presents a challenge to those who still believe women are better off at home than in the hallowed halls of universities. As geneticists search for the roots of humanity’s unique mental abilities, they are beginning to pay close attention to the ‘feminine’ X chromosome. Women have two copies of this chromosome, whereas men have only one. And the complete sequence of the X chromosome, published in Nature this week1 (see also News and Views, page 279), confirms that an unusually large number of its genes code for proteins important to brain function.

Why this should be the case is sparking debate among evolutionary biologists. And some are even suggesting that the X chromosome will tell us why we are different from our closest relatives — why we can write poetry and design nuclear weapons, but chimpanzees can’t. In a sense, they argue, the feminine chromosome could hold the secrets of humanity.

More here.

Top 20 Villains of Fiction

Michelle Pauli in The Guardian:

According to Waterstone’s, the baddies have the edge over the good guys every time if you’re after a gripping read, and the bookshop chain has launched a campaign celebrating great fictional villains and anti-heroes. It has compiled a list of the top 20 novels it believes feature the best villains, from Lord of the Flies and Fight Club to The Catcher in the Rye, American Psycho and Lolita…

1. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (Penguin)
The devil goes down to Moscow.

2. Perfume by Patrick Suskind (Penguin)
A vile crime carried out by an eloquent criminal makes for moral confusion.

3. Lord of the Flies by William Golding (Faber)
The thin line between human reason and animal instinct is crossed.

4. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (Vintage)
Much nastier than the film. A cocktail of hatred, anger and destruction.

5. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (Penguin)
The ultimate novel of teenage delinquency…

More here.  And click here to submit your own nomination for top villain in 50 words or less, to win all 20 books.

Brain dead

Short review of The 21st-Century Brain: Explaining, Mending and Manipulating the Mind by Steven Rose, in The Economist:

“The 21st-Century Brain” promises, in its subtitle, to explain how neuroscience will allow the mind to be mended and manipulated, and to categorise what the possible implications of this mending and manipulation may be. This is a fascinating topic; indeed, there are few more interesting questions in science today. It is a shame, then, that Mr Rose waits until the last quarter of his book to begin addressing the subject in earnest. And when he does, it is in prose that somehow manages to be both hurried and laggardly at the same time, jumping back and forth between scientific research papers, television popularisations of neuroscience, and apocalyptic novels (primarily Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”) in such a way that the thread of his argument is all too often lost.

More here. There is a rosier review in The Times:

Rose’s timely book warns of the self-fulfilling prophecies of reductionist explanations of human nature for future policy in mental-health and the criminal-justice system. In order to behave freely and responsibly, he argues, it is crucial we believe we are free. We have to grasp the authenticity, scope and limits of human freedom. The spread of “neurogenetic” determinism (the idea that everything is fated in our genes and brain chemistry), he warns, could lead to a state of affairs in which a Twinkie Defence could be invoked for any and every human action and circumstance. This is not a matter, as Rose points out, of merely excusing crimes: it could result in the not too distant future in our locking up as “dysfunctional” individuals diagnosed genetically or through brain scans before they have done anything deemed to be dangerous. “Our ethical understandings may be enriched by neuroscientific knowledge,” he asserts, “but not replaced.” Rose insists that only through confirming our belief in freedom and moral agency can we “manage the ethical, legal and social aspects of the emerging neurotechnologies”.

More here.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Israel: A Call for Divestment

Shamai Leibowitz in The Nation:

After years of failed political efforts by the Israeli and international human rights community aimed at ending the occupation, it is clear that new approaches must be implemented. It is time for American civic institutions to support a multi-tiered campaign of strategic, selective sanctions against Israel until the occupation ends. Since the Israeli government is flagrantly disobeying the ICJ decision, international law mandates the use of sanctions to force Israel to comply with UN resolutions and human rights treaties.

The first step for American institutions is to engage in selective divestment–withdrawal of their investments from companies that are, directly or indirectly, funding the occupation.

More here.

Fast-Food-Fat-Fighting Additive

Sarah Graham in Scientific American:

FfWallace H. Yokoyama of the United States Department of Agriculture and his colleagues fed a group of hamsters a diet with a fat content similar to that of typical American fast food–that is, with about 38 percent of its calories derived from fat–for four weeks. A second group of animals ate a low-fat diet with 11 percent of the total calories coming from fat. At the end of the study period, the high-fat eaters developed insulin resistance–a precursor to diabetes–whereas the control animals did not. The initial results corroborated previous findings in similar studies. But when the scientists repeated the experiment with the addition of a cellulose derivative known as hydroxypropylmethylcellulose (HPMC) to the high-fat food, the animals on that diet did not develop insulin resistance.

More here.

Fostering the next generation of cybertools for research

The NSF is soliciting grant proposals for a new program.

“Researchers in the social and behavioral sciences and computer and information sciences have many important synergistic relationships.One way in which this is manifest is in the development and utilization of data. On the one hand, social and behavioral scientists find new ways to create and analyze data in their endeavors to describe human and organizational behavior. On the other hand, computer and information scientists conduct research that yields new ways to improve both domain-specific and general-purpose tools to analyze and visualize scientific data — such as improving processing power, enhanced interoperability of data from different sources, data mining, data integration, information indexing and data confidentiality protection – or what we have termed cybertools.

This solicitation invites proposals for ‘information infrastructure testbeds’, each of which would include the development of the next generation of cybertools applied to data from various sources collected in two areas of research fundamental to social and behavioral scientists: organizations and individuals. The tools that are developed on these platforms must not only change ways in which social and behavioral scientists research the behavior of organizations and individuals, but also serve sciences more broadly.”


Amit Asaravala in Wired:

NanobacOlavi Kajander didn’t mean to discover the mysterious particles that have been called the most primitive organisms on Earth and that could be responsible for a series of painful and sometimes fatal illnesses.

He was simply trying to find out why certain cultures of mammalian cells in his lab would die no matter how carefully he prepared them.

So the Finnish biochemist and his colleagues slipped some of their old cultures under an electron microscope one day in 1988 and took a closer look. That’s when they saw the particles. Like bacteria but an astonishing 100 times smaller, they seemed to be thriving inside the dying cells.

Believing them to be a possible new form of life, Kajander named the particles “nanobacteria,” published a paper outlining his findings and spurred one of the biggest controversies in modern microbiology.

More here.

Clinton Library Design

Alan G. Brake in Architecture Magazine:

ClintoncenterIt took no time for pundits to joke about the cantilevered form of the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Center. Its namesake, while universally acknowledged for his intelligence, charisma, and broad appeal, has always been prone to potshots. But politics and personality aside, the Clinton Center is a major work of American architecture that fuses building, landscape, program, and site into a dynamic urban composition…

An exoskeleton of V-shaped trusses connects the sleekly modern museum to the formal vocabulary of the bridge. The downtown-facing side of the building is clad entirely in glass, allowing unbroken views of city, park, and river. A fritted-glass brise soleil protects this side of the building from the elements. The 420-foot-long building cantilevers 90 feet over the sloping landscape, echoing the adjacent bridge and, to an extent, the highways, while dramatizing the views out and leaving the riverbank untouched.

More here.

replenishing Iraqi libraries

AFP report in the Beirut Daily Star:

Around 300 Arab publishing houses will take part in a 10-day book fair in the Jordanian capital this week aimed at restocking Iraqi libraries, victim of UN sanctions and wars. The fair opening Thursday is aimed at “rebuilding Iraqi libraries which have long been isolated from the rest of the world … as a result of international sanctions between 1990 and 2003,” the organizers said in a statement.

Moex International Exhibitions said U.S., British and Indian publishing houses will also take part in the fair.

More here.

The Unorthodox Linguist

Ann Hurst writes about Geoff Nunberg in Stanford Magazine:

Nunberg_portrait2_dogNunberg, who will be 60 in June, has forged an unorthodox path that has made him perhaps the second most famous linguist in the country after MIT’s Noam Chomsky, and he’s done it, remarkably, without the perch of a tenured university appointment. While his linguistics research over the years has been substantial, his primary intellectual mission has been to relate linguistics to society, a path considered both courageous and unthinkable to most academics. He manages to make linguistics not only palpable but attractive to the public, demonstrating that in language lie clues to understanding even the most divisive issues…

Prolific and accessible, Nunberg’s writing reflects broad knowledge of the humanities, a discerning ear for usage, an openness to different language forms, and disdain for self-appointed grammar police and traditionalists.

More here.

Charity begins at Homo sapiens

Mark Buchanan in New Scientist:

Over the past decade, experiments devised by Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich in Switzerland, among others, have shown that many people will cooperate with others even when it is absolutely clear they have nothing to gain. A capacity for true altruism seems to be a part of human nature. It is a heartening discovery, yet one that has also touched off a firestorm of debate.

The experiments at the centre of the controversy are as simple as they are illuminating. They ignore theory-based preconceptions about how individuals ought to behave and focus instead on finding out what they actually do when playing games in which there is real money at stake.

One of the most basic of these games is the “ultimatum game”.

More here.