Richard Dawkins, Clive Greated, Simon Singh, and Joao Migueijo review a… Movie!

From The Guardian:

Bleep1The year’s most unexpected indie hit in American cinemas – a film about quantum physics – is about to open here. But how are ordinary mortals to judge its assertions about the nature of matter, mind, and the universe? We asked some of Britain’s best scientific brains to give us their verdicts…

More here.

The People’s Movement

Rachel Zabarkes Friedman in The National Review:

Iran_1 Mehrangiz Kar is a renowned Iranian human-rights lawyer and writer. In the January 2003 issue of the Journal of Democracy, she laid out a concise and powerful case against Iran’s theocratic constitution, detailing the structural impediments that make reform within the current constitutional framework impossible. Iran’s repressive government is a sham democracy: Even those branches that are elected by popular vote are subordinate to the clerical Guardian Council, appointed by Supreme Leader Ali Khameini. While some Iranians and outside observers maintain that reform-minded politicians such as current President Mohammad Khatami can liberalize the Islamic republic from within, Kar’s argument implies that only fundamental constitutional change can produce a truly representative government in Iran.

Kar has suffered severe consequences for expressing her views. Like countless other Iranians who have criticized their government (see these alerts from Reporters Without Borders for just a few recent examples), she was imprisoned in 2000 after participating in an international conference at which she discussed constitutional change. Her husband was later arrested as well. Yet despite Tehran’s persistent efforts to prevent the airing of calls for meaningful governmental reform, Kar’s views have gained prominence through a new movement advocating a nationwide vote, or referendum, on whether to keep Iran’s Islamic constitution.

More here.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Harvard Task Forces on Women release findings and recommendations

Task_force_1 From Harvard University Gazette:

Harvard’s Task Forces on Women Faculty and on Women in Science and Engineering, appointed three months ago to address concerns of women faculty and women in science throughout the University, today released reports calling for large-scale changes in the way the University recruits faculty and supports women and underrepresented minorities pursuing academic careers.

Emphasizing the need for prompt, but sustained, action by the University, the Task Forces propose a series of reforms and enhancements to the way women pursuing science and engineering are treated at every point along the “pipeline” from undergraduates, to graduate students, to post-doctoral fellows, to the faculty ranks. In addition, they propose various measures to enhance the diversity of the faculty ranks at Harvard across all fields and to improve the climate and prospects for faculty once on campus. A centerpiece of the recommendations is the appointment of a Senior Vice Provost for Diversity and Faculty Development – a new position to be created in the University’s central administration to oversee faculty appointments processes, with a particular charge to increase the representation of women and other under-represented groups within Harvard.

More here.

Hey Google, Map This!

From Wired News:

Housingmaps0513_f_1 When David Yang recently looked for a new apartment in Chicago, he took an aerial tour of the city. As a 22-year-old on a limited budget, Yang couldn’t afford to hire a helicopter for his visual inspection of Chicago. Instead, he turned to HousingMaps, a hack that combines craigslist real estate listings with city maps from Google Maps. It lets users pinpoint locations, along with one-click access to photos and descriptions, of dozens of available apartments in more than 20 North American cities. “It’s like flying around the city looking at real estate,” said Yang, a consultant for Deloitte. “If I know where my friend lives, or I know where an El (train) stop is … I can just zoom in and see what’s convenient to me.”

HousingMaps, created by Paul Rademacher, a 3-D graphic artist from Santa Clara, California, is just one of several innovative hacks giving users new ways to use information since Google launched its maps service. Google Maps offers detailed maps of nearly anywhere in the United States or Canada on which users can quickly zoom in or out.

More here.

Why humans grow old grungily

From The New Scientist:

Old MY ATTIC is a sad sight, a jumble of frayed carpet offcuts, half-empty cans of congealed paint, broken videos, dead computers and inoperative exercise bikes. Just the thought of dragging it all to the dump tires me out. Something similar is happening inside my body’s cells – at least according to a new theory about why we age. The rubbish is piling up, and while I could clear it all out, that would take a lot of effort. So my metabolic cleaning systems are set to “don’t bother”, and the result is that harmful garbage is accumulating.

Junk plays a central role in many theories of ageing. The “free radical” theory, for example, suggests that ageing is caused by highly reactive oxygen species that gradually turn DNA and proteins into toxic rubbish. But now there is a new take on junk, where it comes from, and how it causes us to get old. By analysing unusually long-lived variants of the tiny nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans, David Gems and Josh McElwee of University College London’s Centre for Research on Ageing have found that free radicals are just one part of a much bigger story.

The story begins in 1993 when Cynthia Kenyon of the University of California, San Francisco, discovered that some strains of C. elegans with mutations in a gene called daf-2 lived more than twice as long as normal. This appeared to show that ageing was controlled by genes, contradicting the widespread view that it was largely the result of wear and tear inflicted by free radicals. Not surprisingly the results caused a stir. Many researchers were puzzled about how genes for ageing could evolve through natural selection.

More here.

Decoding the Cambrian Radiation

Derek E.G. Briggs reviews On the Origin of Phyla by James W. Valentine, in American Scientist:

The recent surge in interest in the origins of multicellular animals (metazoans) is fueled by new evidence from three major sources: molecular sequencing, the study of evolutionary development and the discovery of exceptionally preserved fossils of Precambrian and Cambrian age, particularly from China. Genetic sequences provide a means of analyzing how the major animal groups are related and of estimating their time of origin (using the molecular clock)—a means that is independent of morphological data and the record of evolutionary events the fossils reveal. The study of developmental processes in an evolutionary framework (“evo-devo”) provides the link between genetics and morphology. These new approaches have prompted molecular biologists to join forces with paleontologists to focus on the sequence of events leading to the origin of body plans before and during the Cambrian Period (543 to 500 million years ago).

Few if any authors can embrace these fields with the experience and authority of James W. Valentine, professor emeritus of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, who has been publishing novel and provocative ideas on the origin and nature of phyla for more than 30 years. His most recent book, On the Origin of Phyla, is an homage to the greatest biologist who ever lived by one of the greatest living paleobiologists.

More here.

Smoking bans have triumphed from Boston to Bhutan

A.S. Hamrah in The Boston Globe:

No_smoking_signDoes the apparent triumph of smoking bans from Boston to Bhutan — not to mention the ruinous cigarette taxes that have sent smokers to websites instructing them on how to buy cigarettes from out-of-state sources using untraceable money orders — prove that if the 20th century was a century of smoking, the 21st will end up smokeless? Will smoking become the bad habit of a few criminalized holdouts, or will this brand of prohibition re-glamorize a vice once seen as sophisticated and cool?

Inevitably, another public-health report will let us know. Until then, two recent books that investigate smoking and its place in society — one via photography, the other through the lens of cultural studies — show that for all the efforts of the anti-smoking movement, smoking has a hold on American culture that’s stronger than addiction and deeper than the pocketbook.

More here.

Jawaharlal Nehru’s fallen reputation

Ramchandra Guha looks at Jawaharlal Nehru’s legacy and fallen reputation in the Economic and Political Weekly.

“Forty years after his death, Jawaharlal Nehru is a visible presence in our public and political life. His name is invoked often, but almost always in a negative sense, as an object of derision or abuse. . . Just before the general elections of 2004, the Delhi monthly National Review interviewed two stalwarts of the political firmament: Lal Krishna Advani, then home minister and deputy prime minister in the government of India, for many years now the leading ideologue of the Hindu right; and Ashok Mitra, the former finance minister of the government of West Bengal, and a still serving ideologue of the radical left. This, without first checking with one another, is what they said about Nehru’s practice of secularism:

Lal Krishna Advani: ‘We are opposed to Nehruvian secularism. We accept Gandhian secularism. Nehru started off with the assumption that all religions are wrong. For Gandhi, all religions are true, and they are different paths to the same goal. We thought many of Gandhi’s political policies were not sound, but we accepted his idea of secularism.’

Ashok Mitra: ‘Nehru turned the meaning of secularism upside down. Secularism, he thought, was embracing each religion with equal fervour. And which he exemplified by frequent visits to mandirs and mosques, to dargahs and gurdwaras, to churches and synagogues. But once you embark on this slippery path, you end up identifying the state’s activities with religious rituals such as bhumipuja and breaking coconut shells to float a boat built in a government workshop. This was inevitable because since Hindus constitute the majority of the state’s population, Hindu rituals came to assert their presence within state premises.’

Which of these assertions is correct? Did Nehru hate all religions equally, as Advani suggests? Or did he love all equally, as Mitra claims? Perhaps it does not really matter. Perhaps these statements tells us less about Nehru’s actual beliefs (or policies), and more about the political preferences of his contemporary critics.”

Perry Anderson reviews Between Sex and Power, Göran Therborn on the family

I’ve long been a fan of Göran Therborn’s work, ever since I came across his 1977 New Left Review piece on the rule of capital and the rise of democracy.  Perry Anderson reviews his latest book Between Sex and Power in this week’s The Nation.

“Surveying the world, Therborn distinguishes five major family systems: European (including New World and Pacific settlements), East Asian, sub-Saharan African, West Asian/North African and Subcontinental, with a further two more ‘interstitial’ ones, Southeast Asian and Creole American. Although each of the major systems is the heartland of a distinctive religious or ethical code–Christian, Confucian, Animist, Muslim, Hindu–and the interstitial ones are zones of overlapping codes, the systems themselves form many ‘geocultures’ in which elements of a common history can override contrasts of belief within them. . . Most striking of all, in a field so dominated by social or merely technical registers, is the political construction Therborn gives to the history of the family in the twentieth century.

What are the central propositions of the book? All traditional family systems, Therborn argues, have comprised three regimes: of patriarchy, marriage and fertility (crudely summarized–who calls the shots in the family, how people hitch up, how many kids result). Between Sex and Power sets out to trace the modern history of each.”

Applying Human Rights to Undocumented Migration

Jacqueline Bhabha argues for a more human-rights based approach to undocumented migration in the upcoming Boston Review:

“A more constructive, rights-based policy needs to make progress in two directions. It needs to look inward to protect all undocumented or irregular workers and their families living within the jurisdiction of the state. But it also needs to look outward, to take stock of circumstances in countries of origin and conditions of transit for irregular migrants, so that the exclusion, expulsion, and deportation policies recognize at least a minimum of rights for all, including irregular migrants with no apparent lawful immigration claim.

States must take into consideration the policies of the states to which irregular migrants would be deported. States are responsible for human-rights violations committed against those they have exported or expelled even once they are outside the borders; they are obligated to preempt reasonably foreseeable harm.”

Monday Musing: I Love Airports

People look at me truly aghast when I reveal to them that I often book flights with the most amount of connections possible. I love airports.Images_2 Probably it is a sickness of some kind and a personal problem. I like to be in airports. Images1I like to wander around in them. I like the way they smell and the way the world feels inside of them. I like grandiose and beautifully constructed airports but I like crap airports too. I like the airports of the first, second, and third worlds. I like regional airports and airports where you have to walk out onto the tarmac to board your plane. Images2I like picking people up at airports. I like waiting for them. I like airport bars and the way margaritas taste at airports.

If you had to pick a symbolic structure for the 20th century it might very well be the airport. Through all the disappointments, failures, violence and horror of the 20th century it is also the century that took flight. The airplane, metal birds, improbable sky captains. They are funny things and they are beautiful. I like to watch them, from inside of them and from without. I like the fact that when you enter an airport you leave the particular and enter the universal. I like the comings and goings of the airport because it feels like an intensification of all possibilities.

Images3_1I was joking with a friend recently, at an airport, about what it would mean to become ‘airport man’. Airport Man is a version of Nietzsche’s overman withImages4_1out all the contempt for everyday experience. The Airport Man is able to adjust his own experiences to the fact that the airport is a site for modern experience. If you aren’t comfortable in an airport, you aren’t adequate to the present age and you aren’t preparing yourself for the future. You must love the airport, you must become one with the airport. You must will that all experience be airport experience.

We imagined a re-writing of literature. “Lady Chatterley’s Airport”. “Airports in the Time of Cholera”. “Catcher in the Airport”. “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Airport”. “Remembrance of Airports Past”. “The Airport of Wrath”. “The Unbearable Airport of Being”.

Images5Images6Perhaps the most interesting thing about the airport is its basic assumption: people need and want to go other places to deal with other people. This is one of the most lovely aspects of human need. The world can be a fascinating and joyful place. The airport is the strange, anonymous, beautiful, ridiculous vehicle for that need. The airport is good.

I love airports.

Happy Monday.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

More on Pop Culture and Smartness

Malcolm Gladwell has an interesting review of Steven Johnson’s “Everything Bad is Good for You.” It’s another nail in the coffin for all those cultural conservatives on the Left and the Right who love to tell their grand stories about the decline of all things in our stupid modern age.

Johnson… imagine[s] what cultural critics might have said had video games been invented hundreds of years ago, and only recently had something called the book been marketed aggressively to children:               
Reading books chronically understimulates the senses. Unlike the longstanding tradition of gameplaying—which engages the child in a vivid, three-dimensional world filled with moving images and musical sound-scapes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements—books are simply a barren string of words on the page. . . .
Books are also tragically isolating. …
But perhaps the most dangerous property of these books is the fact that they follow a fixed linear path. You can’t control their narratives in any fashion—you simply sit back and have the story dictated to you.

The Chattering Masses

From The New York Times:

Adda Some facts you had better get used to: you will never get to eavesdrop on Sartre and Genet at the Cafe de Flore, or watch Irving Howe and Philip Rahv getting worked up about Roth and Mailer at the Tip Toe Inn on the Upper West Side. And if you wander into Le Figaro Cafe you won’t find Kerouac and Ginsberg hollering at each other in holy ecstasy — just some N.Y.U. kids talking about relationships.

But the tradition of freestyle intellectual conversation lives on in Calcutta. The city (officially renamed Kolkata in 2001) has an oral culture as lively and cerebral as that of 1950’s New York or Paris. Bengalis love to talk, especially about exalted topics (the notion that some topics are exalted still holds currency there, even among postmodernists).

Talk is cheap: students of the University of Calcutta discuss topics like Dostoyevsky and demographics over samosas at an adda at Puttiram’s Cabin cafe (in the picture).

More here.

Central Asia?

The tumultuous political events in many of the central Asian republics over the last months ought to be a much greater source of discussion and commentary than they have been. Uzbekistan is the latest to catch fire.

_41145543_bodyafp203President Islam Karimov blamed the violence on Islamic extremist “criminals”. He said about 10 soldiers, and “many others”, were killed.

However, witnesses said troops opened fire on unarmed civilians. Some said they had seen at least 200 bodies.

The government said it was back in control of the city on Saturday, and had retaken administrative buildings.

But huge crowds were on the streets, shouting “killers, murderers” and demanding the president step down.

“What kind of government is this?” one of the protesters said to the Associated Press.

“People were raising their hands up in the air showing they were without arms but soldiers were still shooting at them.”

Saturday, May 14, 2005

The Autumn of the Autocrats: The meaning of Lebanon

Fouad Ajami writes in Foreign Affairs:

They quarreled with Rafiq Hariri’s way of rebuilding Beirut, dismissing his renewal project as an assault on the capital’s archaeological heritage and the graceful old city of fabled memory. They wrote off his ambitious economic policy, pointing to the vast public debt that accumulated under his stewardship. Many Lebanese saw Hariri as Saudi Arabia’s man, never quite taking to the swashbuckling way he climbed to the heights of power. But on February 14, when the former prime minister was struck down by a huge bomb that shattered his motorcade as it passed near Beirut’s swank hotels and sea front — in the very district his construction company had remade from rubble — Lebanon had its first “martyr” in many years.

The entrenched systems of control in the Arab world are beginning to give way. It is a terrible storm, but the perfect antidote to a foul sky. The old Arab edifice of power, it is true, has had a way of surviving many storms. It has outwitted and outlived many predictions of its imminent demise.

But suddenly it seems like the autumn of the dictators. Something different has been injected into this fight. The United States — a great foreign power that once upheld the Arab autocrats, fearing what mass politics would bring — now braves the storm. It has signaled its willingness to gamble on the young, the new, and the unknown. Autocracy was once deemed tolerable, but terrorists, nurtured in the shadow of such rule, attacked the United States on September 11, 2001. Now the Arabs, grasping for a new world, and the Americans, who have helped usher in this unprecedented moment, together ride this storm wave of freedom.

More here.

Fiction: Broken Verses by Kamila Shamsie

From The London Times:

Shamsie The Sufi notion that “Hell is nothing more or less than the absence of the Beloved” lies at the heart of Kamila Shamsie’s ambitious but overwrought new novel. Set in present-day Karachi, it is nar- rated by Aasmaani, a 31-year-old woman obsessed by her mother, Samina, who disappeared 14 years ago. Being the daughter of a political activist and feminist icon was never going to be easy in Pakistan, but Aasmaani was also partly abandoned when Samina embarked on a passionate and very public affair with a dissident writer known as “the Poet”. “For a good part of the first 12 years of my life the Poet was either in prison or self-imposed exile,” Aasmaani recalls, “and wherever he was she wasn’t far behind.” Nor is Samina far behind when the Poet is murdered: she never returns from a walk on the beach and everyone except Aasmaani believes she has committed suicide.

More here.

9/11 and the American Empire

From Neutopia Magazine:

911 In what is perhaps the most detailed and accessible refutation of the “official” story of 9/11, author and theologian David Ray Griffin breaks new ground with this transcript of a lecture delivered at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on April 18, 2005, and first broadcast on C-Span2 and BookTV, April 30, marking the first time any mainstream media source has consented to air any material challenging the “official” story. What resulted was a tour-de-force of logic and reason, and a clarion call to people of faith everywhere to build a mass-movement to end the American Empire.
“I will begin by unpacking the key terms in the title of my talk: “9/11,” “American empire,” and “religious people,” beginning with the last one.

1. Religious People

Although I am a Christian theologian, I am in this talk addressing religious people in general. I am doing so because I believe that religious people should respond to 9/11 and the American empire in a particular way because of moral principles of their religious traditions that are common to all the historic religious traditions. I have in mind principles such as:

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors’ oil.
Thou shalt not murder thy neighbors in order to steal their oil.
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbors, accusing them of illicitly harboring weapons of mass destruction, in order to justify killing them in order to steal their oil.”

More here.

Of Two Minds

Jim Holt in The New York Times:

Mind Opportunities for observing the human mental circuitry in action have, until recent times, been almost nonexistent, mainly because of a lack of live volunteers willing to sacrifice their brains to science. Today scientists are able to get some idea of what’s going on in the mind by using brain scanners. In the current issue of Nature Neuroscience, however, Frank Tong, a cognitive neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University, and Yukiyasu Kamitani, a researcher in Japan, announced that they had discovered a way of tweaking the brain-scanning technique to get a richer picture of the brain’s activity. Now it is possible to infer what tiny groups of neurons are up to, not just larger areas of the brain.

Last year, Tibetan Buddhist monks, with the encouragement of the Dalai Lama, submitted to functional magnetic resonance imaging as they practiced ”compassion meditation,” which is aimed at achieving a mental state of pure loving kindness toward all beings. The brain scans showed only a slight effect in novice meditators. But for monks who had spent more than 10,000 hours in meditation, the differences in brain function were striking. Activity in the left prefrontal cortex, the locus of joy, overwhelmed activity in the right prefrontal cortex, the locus of anxiety. Activity was also heightened in the areas of the brain that direct planned motion, ”as if the monks’ brains were itching to go to the aid of those in distress,” Sharon Begley reported in The Wall Street Journal. All of which suggests, say the scientists who carried out the scans, that ”the resting state of the brain may be altered by long-term meditative practice.”

More here.

‘A Slight Trick of the Mind’: Old Man Holmes

From The New York Times:Holmes

Mitch Cullin’s new novel imagines Holmes, in extreme old age, as witness to the birth of our own era — a time, as Cullin puts it, ”of lonely, searching souls.”

This is a novel about the fraying of reason under the stress of unanswerable emotional demands. Back home in Sussex, 14-year-old Roger, the housekeeper’s boy, has taken Holmes on as a surrogate father. Holmes likes the boy’s way with bees, and has encouraged the affection, in his stoic way. Added to these overlapping narratives is a third, this one in the form of an unfinished first-person tale written by Holmes concerning an old romantic infatuation, uncovered by Roger in Holmes’s study. Roger reads this story (and Holmes finishes writing it) before our eyes. Each one of these plots turns on Holmes’s reticence, his willful refusal to express what he feels in his heart; in each case, this decorum proves finally unsustainable, and the book ends in a swirl of intense, nearly animal, pain.

More here.

Rockin’ feet

Preview87 A somewhat bizzare collection of rock stars’ shoes and feet photographs was taken by German rock photographer Roland Owsnitzki in the last 20 years. The project is called “Feet Me

“Roland Owsnitzki is not a foot fetishist. “No, no, no, no,” says the 50-year-old German photographer from Berlin. “I’m not into that sort of thing.” So you haven’t got a pervy Helmut Newton thing going on? “Not at all. I just find feet really expressive.”