The “econophysics” of wealth distribution

Jenny Hogan in New Scientist:

99997107f1_1The rich are getting richer while the poor remain poor. If you doubt it, ponder these numbers from the US, a country widely considered meritocratic, where talent and hard work are thought to be enough to propel anyone through the ranks of the rich. In 1979, the top 1% of the US population earned, on average, 33.1 times as much as the lowest 20%. In 2000, this multiplier had grown to 88.5. If inequality is growing in the US, what does this mean for other countries?

Almost certainly more of the same, if you believe physicists who are using new models based on simple physical laws to understand the distribution of wealth. Their studies indicate that inequality in market economies may be very hard to get rid of.

Economists will join physicists to discuss these issues next week in Kolkata, India, at the first ever conference on the “econophysics” of wealth distribution. “We are interested in understanding whether there is some kind of social injustice behind this skewed distribution,” says Sudhakar Yarlagadda of the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics (SINP) in Kolkata.

More here.

Shock the Casbah

Jody Rosen in the New York Times:

13rosen_1The Algerian singer-songwriter Rachid Taha, 46, likes to tell the story about the night he met the Clash. In 1981, when he was the leader of Carte de Séjour (“Residence Permit”), a pioneering band from Lyon, France, that combined Algerian rai with funk and punk rock, the Clash played a concert at the Théâtre Mogador in Paris. Mr. Taha, a huge fan, bumped into the band on the street outside the theater and handed them a copy of his group’s demo. He never heard back, but a year later the Clash released “Rock the Casbah,” a raucous sendup of Middle Eastern politics with a suspiciously Carte de Séjour-like sound: slashing electric guitar, a dance beat and a lead vocal by Joe Strummer filled with undulating Orientalisms. To this day, Mr. Taha says he believes that his recordings inspired the song. “How else could they have come up with it?” he asks with a grin.

More here.

Limning

Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian:

Holbein_janesmall1 Ever since its earliest days, limning (to give miniature painting its original name) has been the subject of a certain status anxiety. Practitioners and commentators have worried that it is not art at all, but itsy-bitsy hackwork. Or, conversely, that it is not an artisanal craft suitable for men, but merely a hobby for ladies. Or that it is an instrument of the court, full of pomp but not much else. Or, that it is small and domestic, a toy art.

Yet alongside this anxious babble is the work itself, an unarguable four centuries’ worth of small marvels…

More here.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

The power of broccoli

Broccili_1Reported in Health News:

A University of Illinois researcher is learning about the anti-cancer power of one of the most famous vegetables: University of Illinois researcher Elizabeth Jeffery has learned how to maximize the cancer-fighting power of broccoli. It involves heating broccoli just enough to eliminate a sulfur-grabbing protein, but not enough to stop the plant from releasing an important cancer-fighting compound called sulforaphane.

The discovery of this sulfur-grabbing protein in the Jeffery lab makes it possible to maximize the amount of the anticarcinogen sulforaphane in broccoli.

“As scientists, we learned that sulforaphane is maximized when broccoli has been heated 10 minutes at 140 degrees Fahrenheit,” said Jeffery. “For the consumer, who cannot readily hold the temperature as low as 140 degrees, that means the best way to prepare broccoli is to steam it lightly about 3 or 4 minutes–until the broccoli is tough-tender.”

Read more here.

Maggy Hendry’s top 10 entries from the Dictionary of Women’s Biography

From The Guardian:

MaggyMaggy Hendry has co-edited the third and fourth editions of the Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Women’s Biography alongside the original compiler and editor, Jenny Uglow. In honour of International Women’s Day, she has chosen her top 10 women from the latest edition of the Dictionary, which was published at the beginning of the year. “

1. Madonna
For liberating the brassiere. She is largely responsible for modern blatant bra-wearing. Back in the day, perhaps because we were supposed to have burnt them, we would have died of embarrassment if anyone caught a glimpse of so much as a strap. Bras as outerwear and also their straps have been out of the closet ever since Madonna got together with Jean Paul Gaultier et al.
Dictionary entry: Madona Louise Veronica Ciccone (1958-)

2. Frida Kahlo
For dedication to her art in spite of living a life of pain, and for her brutally honest self portraits which show her with a moustache, a beard and ferociously dark eyebrows that cross in the middle. An excellent role model for the hirsute.
Dictionary entry: Frida Kahlo (1910-54)

3. Jezebel
For a reputation which has been evolving for around three millennia. A woman with a penchant for make-up who lived life on her own terms, Jezebel achieves 597,000 results on the world wide web. She had a second world war missile named after her and appeared in celluloid as a ruthless southern belle played by Bette Davis in 1935. She is still to be seen roaming high streets up and down the land on Saturday nights (according to her mother).
Dictionary entry: Jezebel (c9th century BC)

And read more here:

7. Martha Gellhorn
For her fearless reporting of the Spanish Civil War and other conflicts including the second world war and wars in China, Vietnam and central America. Also for her stormy five-year marriage to Ernest Hemingway.
Dictionary entry: Martha Gellhorn (1908-98)

8. Mary Anning
For finding and unearthing a complete ichthyosaurus at the age of 12, and for discovering the first pterodactyl.
Dictionary entry: Mary Anning (1799-1847)

9. Mary Kingsley
For coming out of the west African swamps with a necklace of leeches, for writing about it with humour and for her insistence on wearing Victorian clothing – layers of petticoats, heavy skirts, boots and highnecked blouses – in all situations.
Dictionary entry: Mary Kingsley (1862-1900)

10. Rosa Parks
‘Mother of the civil rights movement’. For sitting at the front of the bus. Her action sparked off demonstrations, the eventual abolition of the segregation laws and the emergence of Martin Luther King as a national leader.
Dictionary entry: Rosa Lee Parks (1913-)

Creation of a Perfume

Chandler Burr in The New Yorker:

On a sunny afternoon last June, the French perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena arrived at the offices of Hermès, the luxury-goods maker, in Pantin, just north of Paris, to present his first essais—or olfactory sketches—for the company’s next perfume. Ellena, who is fifty-seven years old, had recently been named Hermès’s first in-house perfumer by Jean-Louis Dumas Hermès, the chairman of the company. Dumas Hermès wanted to fix a delicate problem: Hermès had an elegant perfume collection that included classic scents like Calèche and 24, Faubourg, yet they sold only modestly. Chanel, one of Hermès’s chief rivals, made ten times as much money on perfume. (Led by its eighty-three-year-old warhorse, Chanel No. 5, the company’s 2003 sales totalled $1.2 billion.) It might be possible for Hermès to make one of its older scents chic through advertising, but the family had chosen a more daring strategy: it would adopt Chanel’s approach, and set up its own perfume laboratory.

More here.

A Language History of the World

Jane Stevenson reviews Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler, in The Guardian:

This learned and entertaining book starts around 3,300BC and works forwards. Given that it’s a short history of the last 5,000 years, it is remarkably comprehensive as well as thought-provoking. For most people, learning a first language is so ‘easy’ you don’t remember doing it and picking up others later on is a tedious chore.

It therefore seems reasonable that any time one group of people conquers another, the victors should impose their language, but historically, things haven’t always worked like that. Nicholas Ostler’s aim is to look at why some languages survive and spread, while others, for example the Aboriginal languages of Australia, fail.

He identifies three major paths to success: breed your way to majority status (like Chinese), spread by conquest (like Arabic) or give rise to a popular religion (like Sanskrit). But there is also another aspect contributing to the long-term survival of a language, which is to become classical.

More here.

The Interregnum

James Bennet in the New York Times Magazine:

Mahmoud_abbas_1…national coherence and democratic aspiration combine to explain why, on Arafat’s death, the Palestinian public pivoted from Arafat to Mahmoud Abbas and why it did it so smoothly. More than four years into their latest violent conflict with Israel, Palestinians drew together behind Arafat’s longtime No. 2, Abbas, who turns 70 this month, as one of the few national figures remaining — one with the credentials to span the divided populations of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and the diaspora. In an election Jan. 9, he won more than 60 percent of the vote. That he did so well was evidence to Palestinians of their national unity; that he did not do better was evidence to them of the strength of their democratic institutions. Hassan Khreisheh, an opposition member of the Palestinian Parliament, tied these themes together when he proudly declared at the swearing-in of Abbas, ”Our people have put an end to the 99.999 percent that Arab leaders have become accustomed to.” Palestinians were now exceptional, he was saying, because they had democracy.

More here.

Asia’s blood rivals: the India versus Pakistan cricket match

Of the most frequent two contributors to this blog, one is Indian (Robin), one is Pakistani (me), so we like news like this from the New York Times:

_40904159_shivamAs India and Pakistan faced off here in Mohali, in the heart of a divided Punjab Province, for the first test match of a six-week long cricket series, Indians and Pakistanis greeted each other with a mixture of intense curiosity, apprehension, guilt, affection, longing, hope.

Spectators wandered around the stadium here with an Indian flag painted on one cheek and a Pakistani flag on the other. On the streets nearby, sari shops announced discounts for “our friends from Pakistan.” Local families took perfect strangers into their homes and refused to take any money. Inside Indian living rooms, Pakistanis traded stories about weddings and children, the quality of the roads, the price of chickens and motorbikes.

Amid the enthusiasm, ordinary Indians and Pakistanis uttered the unthinkable. “There is no difference between us,” said Naveed Ahmed, of Bahalwalnagar, in the Pakistani Punjab. It was his first time in India.

Adding an explicitly political flavor to the game, President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan is expected to attend a match during the series, most likely on April 2 in the Indian city of Kochi…

The Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, was himself born in what is now Pakistan. The Pakistani president, General Musharraf, was born in New Delhi.

More here. Oh, and the match itself has now ended in a draw. Details here.

Cosma Shalizi on Ray Jackendoff

Cosma Shalizi reviews Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution by Ray Jackendoff:

Still, since we’re all good materialists and mechanists these days, we have to suppose that language is implemented in the brain somehow, and it would be nice to know how. Put a little differently: my version of English has a certain structure to it; therefore there must be something in my mind, in my brain and its interaction with its environment, which corresponds to that structure, just as is true of my ability to throw a frisbee, cook qorma-e-behi, or find my way around downtown Ann Arbor. If there are various ways of describing the mathematical structure of my version of English, which there are, it would be nice to know which one most closely corresponded to the mental mechanisms involved. These could, of course, be totally idiosyncratic, but that would be very odd, and it seems more reasonable to assume that the way I implement English is very similar to the way other speakers of my dialect do. It’s a bigger leap, but it’s not unreasonable to assume that the way I implement my native language has got basically the same organization as the way my cousins in Tamil Nadu implement theirs, even though English and Tamil are not related languages.

Thus the enterprise of generative grammar: characterize the structure of human languages in ways which illuminate the mental mechanisms involved in its use. Jackendoff has devoted his professional life to this ambitious undertaking — in his book The Linguistics Wars, Randy Allen Harris describes him as “Chomsky’s conscience”, the guy who did the hard work of filling in the messy details needed to make Uncle Noam’s proposals actually work, nor has his commitment to generative grammar (as opposed to Chomsky) weakened. But Foundations of Language is not intended just as an incremental advance in generative grammar, or even as a summary of what has been achieved, but rather as a fairly significant reformulation and reorientation.

More here.

Newton’s Penis?

Dylan Evans in The Guardian:

It all started with Stephen Hawking, whose first popular book, A Brief History of Time, hit the bookshops in 1988. Very soon, others (myself included) jumped on the bandwagon, and popular science soon gained its own section in many bookshops.

With the boom, inevitably, there came a torrent of rubbish. The stylistic innovations of the trendsetters soon became, in the hands of the disciples, stale recipes, recycled over and over in formulaic and uninspiring ways. Even the titles began to seem repetitive: The Panda’s Thumb, Galileo’s Finger, Einstein’s Brain … What a pity nobody had the chutzpah to write a book about Newton’s penis.

A decade and a half later, there are signs that the popular science boom is running out of steam.

More here.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

‘Origins’ takes on life, the universe and everything

Alan Boyle reports for MSNBC:

Darwin_1 You’d think explaining the beginnings of the universe would be enough for astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. But no: In “Origins,” a new book and public-TV miniseries, the director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium goes beyond the Big Bang to take on the rise of the solar system, life and intelligence as well. Any one of those subjects is worthy of being covered in a documentary series at least as ambitious as “Origins,” which premieres Tuesday and Wednesday on PBS. And indeed they have been, in productions ranging from “Evolution” to “Life Beyond Earth” to the granddaddy of them all, Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos.”

So why is Tyson tying all these cosmic subjects together in a four-hour package? He says that’s the very point he’s trying to bring home. “Only in the last five years have there been the right kinds of advances in the right kinds of fields to be able to do a miniseries on origins,” he told MSNBC.com. “This is ‘Origins’ with a big O, so it’s not just origins of human beings. This is origins of the whole shebang.” Tyson shows how scientists are blending astrophysics, geology, chemistry, biology and even paleontology to knit together insights about the structure of the universe, the creation of planets and the foundations of life itself.

Read more here.

The Flux Factory

One of the most consistently interesting and eccentric arts collectives in New York City is called The Flux Factory. Headed by the polymathic Morgan Meis, Flux comprises a large gang of diversely talented artists who, in addition to regularly putting up beautifully-curated shows in their own space (a former factory), have graced the city with lovely thought-provoking performances and happenings. Some of my favorites have been: Counter Culture, The Impossible Tea Party, and Classics on Tape. Their recent curated shows have included: Absolute Zero Nowhere, Cute and Scary, What the Book?, and the edible exhibit, All You Can Art.

[Disclosure: Morgan is a 3 Quarks Daily editor, and I am on the advisory board of Flux.]

Holland Cotter writes on the front page of the Sunday New York Times Arts Section:

FluxMaybe because Queens has no cultural center – or rather because it has several, but spread miles apart – it has become the home of many of those self-created communities known as artists’ collectives. One, Flux Factory, occupies a floor in a converted factory in Long Island City, an environment that feels a little like a cross between a youth hostel and a space station.

Much of their work is conceptual and performance based, as was the case in a three-month residency they did a few years ago at the Queens Museum of Art. Wearing bright orange coveralls, they clocked in every morning and more or less made up their work as they went. They began with an empty gallery and continually modified the space with gridlike screens and temporary barriers while doing their own projects: making collages, tabulating statistics, building contraptions. The result was a single installation, an accumulation of accumulations, a combination of theater, child’s play and ritual, a Rube Goldbergian version of everyday life.

This May they will present “Novel: A Living Installation Flux Factory,” in which three novelists – Laurie Stone, Ranbir Sidhu and Grant Baille – will live on-site, dining together, giving weekly public readings and trying to complete their novels by June 4. The point? To present the act of writing as both the private activity and audience-conscious public performance that it is. To suggest that art is always an activity as much as a product, and that any activity can be art. And to remind us that all of art’s sacred-cow concepts – creativity, inspiration, solitary genius – are fit subjects for laboratory testing.

Read the full article here. Morgan published a delightful piece in Harper’s Magazine about their 3-month project at the Queens Museum of Art entitled “The Devil’s Work,” which you can, and should, read here. Finally, Flux is known for their amazing parties, and there is one tonight: Flux Valley High’s Prom Night. If you live in NYC, come by. Oh, and for more information, here is the Flux Factory website.

Pierogi 2000, 10

Pierogi, 2000, now just Pierogi gallery, has been in Williamsburg, New York for ten years. Hard to imagine for anyone who has watched the surprising, often ridiculous, always dynamic, transformation of Williamsburg from toxic wasteland to still basically toxic hipster Mecca. Here’s Francis Richard from Artforum.

So where are the next alternatives, and what will happen as the Williamsburg generation ages? One might as well ask where a new politics will come from, or what if Mayor Bloomberg’s administration really does replace the East River–side waste-transfer station with promised green space? As Ji warns, “The gallery is ongoing. It’s not history, and it’s dangerous to make a summary. Pierogi is very well positioned; its strength is that it’s close to the community and has people who understand the art-making process and have good eyes.” In other words, it’s the conversation that will Article_2keep Pierogi and its environs vital. “The space was designed to be primarily a forum for exchange, and it has kept that quality even as it has evolved,” says another artist, Daniel Zeller. “One feels this upon entering—it’s high-minded without feeling that way. Pierogi is a place where art is the most important thing in the world, but not as important as the people who get to experience it, make it, and talk about it.” Check back in ten years.

Spectacle at the Armory

Cottboots1841Every year at about this time fancy-pantses from around the world pay 1000 bucks or so for the right to roam around the Armory and buy art. As Holland Cotter from the New York Times tells us, the youngsters are in this year.

Once upon a time, when the Armory Show – then called the Gramercy Art Fair – fit into a bunch of bedroom suites in a midsize hotel, artists of extreme youth were a novelty. “He’s barely out of art school, you know. And he’s so unusual. He’s into painting! Can you imagine?”

Well, now we can imagine. Today, in an Armory Show that is big enough to sink the Queen Mary 2, young artists are something of a glut on the market. A fair number are still in art school. Almost all of them paint, or paint and draw, or paint and draw and make collages, and do so well and quickly. . . .Cottfigures1841

For sure, the days of look-alike videos and everyone talking about “identity” and acting worried that there aren’t enough artists of color around are over. Now people are making things you can buy and sell and put on the wall of your loft. Art you can live with, for heaven’s sake. A whole new generation of bond-market collectors is being turned on by drawings the size of stock certificates.

More Salvos in the Lit. Crit. Wars

I posted Gary Sernovitz’s assessment of Dale Peck a couple of weeks ago.

N+1, a pretty interesting new journal, publishes these thoughts on the Intellectual Situation.

For the magazine’s [The New Republic] regular readers, a kind of repetitive stress injury set in. Some of the best critics were sent to do dirty work on minor figures. Lee Siegel, who commenced with deserving targets, was in a few years’ time trolling the publishers’ mid-lists in search of small fry. (He is now the magazine’s TV critic.) Somehow TNR got the best people and encouraged their worst instincts. Academic experts in their own field were invited in to garrote colleagues they didn’t understand. It was called being a “public intellectual. ” So our heroes embarrassed themselves. . . .
It didn’t have to be this way: if only they had allowed more positive individuality, cultivated something new, and still kept an old dignified adherence to the Great Tradition, running continuously to them (as they hoped) from the New York Intellectuals, whose ashes were in urns in the TNR vaults if they were anywhere. This was a magazine that began with Edmund Wilson! They went too far, and they flipped. Even they must be tired of themselves. If you pinned a work of art to their nose in their sleep, they would bat it away with the same gesture. The defense of standards became a new vulgarity. And what can we do? We still have thirty-six weeks on our discount subscription! Forget about it. — We’re young yet: so we’ll go and be among the young.

The Soul of Science

Michael Shermer writes in The American Scientist:

According to Greek legend, Poseidon’s son Theseus sailed to Crete to slay the monster Minotaur. After his triumphant return to Athens, his ship was preserved as a memorial. As the vessel aged, decaying planks were replaced with new ones; eventually, all the original timber was replaced. Philosophers know the story of Theseus’s ship as a classic example of the problem of identity. What was the true identity of the ship, the shape or the wood? A more contemporary example may be found in the form of my first car, a 1966 Ford Mustang with a 289-cubic-inch engine and a speedometer that pegged at 140 m.p.h. As a young man high in testosterone but low in self-control, by the time I sold the car 15 years later there was hardly an original part on it. Nevertheless, my “1966” Mustang was now considered a classic, and I netted a tidy profit. Like Theseus’s ship, its essence—its “Mustangness”—was intact.

The analogy holds for human identity. The atoms in my brain and body today are not the same ones I had when I was born. Nevertheless, the patterns of information coded in my DNA and in my neural memories are still those of Michael Shermer. The human essence, the soul, is more than a pile of parts—it is a pattern of information.

As far as we know, there is no way for that pattern to last longer than several decades, a century or so at most. So until a technology can copy a human pattern into a more durable medium (silicon chips perhaps?), it appears that when we die our pattern is lost. Scientific skepticism suggests that there is no afterlife, and religion requires a leap of faith greater than many of us wish to make.

Whether there is an afterlife or not, we must live as if this is all there is. Our lives, our families, our friends, our communities (and how we treat others) are more meaningful when every day, every moment, every relationship and every person counts. Rather than meaningless forms before an eternal tomorrow, these entities have value in the here-and-now because of the purpose we create.

Humans have an evolved sense of purpose—a psychological desire to accomplish goals—that developed out of behaviors that were selected for because they were good for the individual or the group. The desire to behave in purposeful ways is an evolved trait; purpose is in our nature. And with brains big enough to discover and define purpose in symbolic ways that are inconceivable to millions of preceding and coexisting species, we humans are unique.

Read more here.

Does Gödel Matter?

Jordan Ellenberg writes in Slate:

Godel_3In his recent New York Times review of Incompleteness, Edward Rothstein wrote that it’s “difficult to overstate the impact of Gödel’s theorem.” But actually, it’s easy to overstate it: Goldstein does it when she likens the impact of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem to that of relativity and quantum mechanics and calls him “the most famous mathematician that you have most likely never heard of.” But what’s most startling about Gödel’s theorem, given its conceptual importance, is not how much it’s changed mathematics, but how little. No theoretical physicist could start a career today without a thorough understanding of Einstein’s and Heisenberg’s contributions. But most pure mathematicians can easily go through life with only a vague acquaintance with Gödel’s work. So far, I’ve done it myself.

More here.

Maximus Factor aka Ancient Avon

Jocelyn Selim in Discover Magazine:

RomancreamA Roman-era container of white cosmetic cream, found during an archaeological dig in London, offers a glimpse at vanity 2,000 years ago, when a pale, even complexion apparently was the rage.

Richard Evershed, a chemist at the University of Bristol, analyzed the cream’s ingredients and recreated the ancient recipe, which consisted mainly of rendered animal fat and starch that was probably obtained from boiling grains. “It shows a surprising degree of technological sophistication,” he says, noting that the color came from a white tin oxide which was almost certainly synthetic.

More here.