Global warming ‘past the point of no return’

Steve Connor in The Independent:

A record loss of sea ice in the Arctic this summer has convinced scientists that the northern hemisphere may have crossed a critical threshold beyond which the climate may never recover. Scientists fear that the Arctic has now entered an irreversible phase of warming which will accelerate the loss of the polar sea ice that has helped to keep the climate stable for thousands of years.

They believe global warming is melting Arctic ice so rapidly that the region is beginning to absorb more heat from the sun, causing the ice to melt still further and so reinforcing a vicious cycle of melting and heating.

The greatest fear is that the Arctic has reached a “tipping point” beyond which nothing can reverse the continual loss of sea ice and with it the massive land glaciers of Greenland, which will raise sea levels dramatically.

More here.  [Thanks to Josh Smith.]

Map Projection Site

Via Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance, a site devoted to discussions of different types of map projections:

“There is an endless variety of geographical maps for every kind of purpose.  When looking at two different world maps one can wonder why the differences: do we draw the world as a rectangle, or an oval?  Shouldn’t it be a circle?  Should grid lines be parallel, straight or curved?  Does South America’s ‘tail’ bend eastwards or westwards?  What’s the ‘right’ way (or, more properly, is there one?) to draw our unique planet?

One important concern of cartography is solving how to project, i.e. transform or map points from an almost spherical lump of rock (our Earth) onto either flat sheets of paper or not-so flat phosphorus-coated glass.”

I was intrigued by polyhedral maps, printable cut-out forms of which are provided by the site.

“Several approaches were presented for reducing distortion when Gnomonic_pic transforming a spherical surface into a flat map, including:

  • first mapping the sphere into an intermediate zero-Gaussian curvature surface like a cylinder or a cone, then converting the surface into a plane
    • partially cutting the sphere and separately projecting each division in an interrupted map

Both techniques are combined in polyhedral maps:

  1. inscribe the sphere in a polyhedron, then separately project regions of the sphere onto each polyhedral face
  2. optionally, cut and disassemble the polyhedron into a flat map, called a “net” or fold-out

Intuitively, distortion in polyhedral maps is greater near vertices and edges, where the polyedron is farther from the inscribed sphere; also, increasing the number of faces is likely to reduce distortion (after all, a sphere is equivalent to a polyhedron with infinitely many faces).  However, too many faces create additional gaps and direction changes in the unfolded map, greatly reducing its usefulness.”

Orhan Pamuk to be tried by Turkey

From PEN:

“PEN American Center expressed shock today that world-famous Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk will be brought before an Istanbul court on December 16 and that he faces up to three years in prison for a comment published in a Swiss newspaper earlier this year.

The charges stem from an interview given by Orhan Pamuk to the Swiss newspaper Tages Anzeiger on February 6, 2005, in which he is quoted as saying that ‘thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it.’

Pamuk was referring to the killings by Ottoman Empire forces of thousands of Armenians in 1915-1917. Turkey does not contest the deaths, but denies that it could be called ‘genocide.’ The ‘30,000’ Kurdish deaths refers to those killed since 1984 in the conflict between Turkish forces and Kurdish separatists. Debate on these issues has been stifled by stringent laws, which often result in lengthy lawsuits, fines, and prison terms.

Orhan Pamuk will be tried under Article 301/1 of the Turkish Penal Code, which states, ‘A person who explicitly insults being a Turk, the Republic or Turkish Grand National Assembly, shall be imposed to a penalty of imprisonment for a term of six months to three years.’ To compound matters, Article 301/3 states, ‘Where insulting being a Turk is committed by a Turkish citizen in a foreign country, the penalty to be imposed shall be increased by one third.’ Thus, if Pamuk is found guilty, he faces an additional penalty for having made the statement abroad.”

The New New York Skyline

Christopher Grimes in the Financial Times:

Four years on, there is an architectural renaissance in New York that would have been difficult to imagine in the weeks that followed 9/11. Since the 1960s, the shape of New York’s skyline has been under the control of savvy developers who made fortunes erecting uniform brick apartment towers and boxy office buildings. Architects wanting to do something new had little choice but to look to Europe or Asia. This is changing: New York is once again becoming a city where adventurous architecture can happen. Many of the world’s top architects are, like Foster, working in the city for the first time.

The outbreak of adventurous design is extremely broad-based. There are public works, most spectacularly Santiago Calatrava’s design for a new transportation centre near the World Trade Center site. There are the midtown office towers: Foster’s Hearst building, Renzo Piano’s design for The New York Times and Cesar Pelli’s new office for Bloomberg LP, all departures from the corporate glass boxes that dominate midtown Manhattan. There are great new cultural designs, including Yoshio Tanaguchi’s elegant expansion of the Museum of Modern Art. Restorations include David Childs’ plan to convert the 1912 beaux-arts Farley Post Office into a desperately needed new Pennsylvania Station. And then there is the High Line, one of those priceless ideas that is often conceived but too rarely executed: the plan is to convert a 1.45-mile-long stretch of disused elevated train track into a public park 30 feet above Chelsea and the Meatpacking District. But perhaps the most heartening of all is the return to interesting residential design, spurred on by Richard Meier’s work on Manhattan’s west side.

More here.

Working for the Arts and Women’s Rights

From Jazbah:

Sabihas2_1 Independent filmmaker, Sabiha Sumar, has earned much acclaim for her films which deal with political and social issues such as the effects of religious fundamentalism on society and especially on women. Sabiha’s documentary ‘For a Place Under the Heavens’ features conversations with women from varying backgrounds. The film steps us through Pakistan’s short history and how each government has contributed to the rise of fundamentalism. Though we hear a lot about women’s oppression, the image of four professional, confident and independent women discussing Pakistani politics and religion conveys an important message: Pakistani women are not all passive and silent. One telling moment is the film is when Sabiha talks to Mufti Nizamuddin who is well respected as a Islamic scholar. He asserts that it is the fault of women that they have been left behind and that they have not demanded their rights, “Islam does not stop women from moving forward. They can come forward and take charge.” When asked if men in Pakistan will be willing to give up power if women were to demand it, he responds, “It would take a revolution. No one relinquishes power easily.”

More here.

Spray-On Skin Cells Could Help Burns Heal

From The National Geographic:Burn

Currently doctors treat extensive burns by creating a graft. A piece of healthy skin from a victim is stretched up to six times its original size. The process creates holes in the skin so that it resembles a fine mesh fabric. The graft is then placed over the victim’s burned skin and, as the patient recovers, new skin cells grow to fill in the holes. The new trial will test whether spraying extra cultured skin cells in the holes of the mesh makes burns heal better or more quickly.

More here.

The Hairless Apes of Kansas

This is one of the best bits of writing about creationism/ID/evolution that I have seen, and it is by our own 3 Quarks columnist, Justin E. H. Smith, in Counterpunch:

Compared with the campaigns against abortion and homosexuality, the other two members of that trifecta of Godlessness, evolution may seem unimportant. The first two concern judgments about what is right and wrong, whereas with the latter it is only a matter of truth and falsehood. But it is precisely in debates about what is right and wrong that people should be taking up sides based on preference. When it comes to true-or-false questions, the traditional assumption has been that it does not matter what you prefer; all that matters is what the evidence imposes.

What is most troubling about creationism is how easily its defenders elide it with moral issues that invite us to take up positions based on things like principles. A society that outlaws abortion is just mean-spirited, but not for that reason delusional about the nature of reality; one that supresses a good scientific theory and replaces it with a fairy tale is simply retarded. And I mean this in the very literal sense that it is stunted, held back, left at the intellectual and emotional level of a three- year-old. Creationists would have all Americans frozen at that innocent stage where kitsch coloring books with scenes of smiling hippos on Noah’s ark, available at Christian supply stores (did Christ, by the way, need ‘supplies’?) throughout the country, seem to provide an adequate account of origins.

The advance of creationism, in short, is among the surest signs that in the US truth is increasingly something that is decided upon by preference-based convention, rather than something that is imposed, like it or not, by reality. And what is preferred in this case is infantile submission to the authority of the men who control church, school, and state.

More here.  [Look for Justin’s first column at 3QD on Monday.]

Thursday, September 15, 2005

For Larger Freedom: Pursuit of Peace in Sri Lanka

Last year the President of Sri Lanka, Chanrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, gave a very good speech at the Asia Society, about which I wrote in my very first Monday Musing: Cake Theory and Sri Lanka’s President. The president is again in town for the UN Summit, and I had the pleasure of meeting her again last night, again at the Asia Society, and again, she delivered an excellent speech. Imagine my pleasant surprise, when halfway through the speech, after speaking of John Rawls and Amartya Sen, she referred to my Monday Musing column:

ChandrikaAnd equal civil and political rights are required for people to have equal access to healthcare. The political philosopher John Rawls captures this point by talking not just about equal basic liberties but about the equal worth of basic liberties. Similarly, Professor Amartya Sen refers to “Development as Freedom” in order to emphasize that development is not simply to increase growth rates in order to increase per capita income and purchase more goods, but to improve health, education, housing, so that people will have improved quality of life.

But it is not just political philosophers who are concerned about the practical implications of treating people as equals. We have interesting developments in what is called “game theory” among economists that develops mathematical models for dealing with the technical challenges of equal division of goods among “n” persons in day to day situations. In a friendly critique of the talk I gave last year at the Asia Society, a web blog – pointed out some of these important technical advances in conflict resolution, curiously known as cake theory, because these models use cake cutting as a metaphor for dividing goods equally.

Read the rest of the speech here.

Lolita Turns 50 Today

Stacy Schiff in the New York Times:

Nabokov_1In “circular skirt and scanties,” Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” flounced into print 50 years ago today. But before she tripped off the tongue and into the literary canon, before she lent her name to inflatable dolls and escort agencies, Lolita was a much-rejected manuscript, huddling in a locked drawer. Her author spoke of her only in secret, on the condition that his identity never be revealed. He kept her out of the hands of the United States Postal Service. She was his “time bomb.” The wonder is that – in a confessional culture, in taboo-toppling, hail-Britney times – she still startles and sears.

Humbert Humbert claims to have written the text in 56 days, but Nabokov was less of a madman, and a Cornell professor to boot. He labored over the pages for six years. Only in the summer of 1953 did he first mention his novel “about a man who liked little girls” to an editor. Nabokov was a fairly recent immigrant, but he knew well that no one in America was beating down the door to read the sexually explicit confessions of a European gentleman who several times a day, over the course of two years, rapes his prepubescent stepdaughter.

Nabokov’s wife, Véra, had already warned that the novel was not one for children. The first editor to read “Lolita” did not think it even a book for adults, at least not for adults unwilling to serve jail sentences. In 1955, Paris was a city rather than a celebrity; stars of X-rated films did not write how-to books; and “obscene” was a designation for art rather than a denomination of money. Behind Nabokov’s back, friends agreed that no one would touch the thing. They were right. “I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years,” cringed one editor.

More here.

Lost in Katrina, dolphins ‘flipping’ to be found


Dolphins In an “unheard of” rescue operation, eight dolphins that were swept out of their oceanarium by Hurricane Katrina have been rediscovered hundreds of yards out at sea where trainers are tracking, feeding and caring for them. “To find all eight of them on your doorstep is just unheard of,” said Moby Solangi, president of the Marine Life Oceanarium in Gulfport. “When we first saw them, they were really starving. When they saw their trainers, they were absolutely flipping.” The eight Atlantic bottlenose dolphins were swept out of their tank by the storm surge from Katrina, which then destroyed the oceanarium.

More here.

RNAi Therapy

From Nature:

Rnai_2 It works in the lab, but will it work in our bodies? The normal cellular process, RNA interference, might be exploited therapeutically to fight disease. But a better understanding of RNAi itself, the delivery and specificity of RNA molecules in vivo, and the toxicity and immunological responses is required. Nature’s RNAi Therapy Collection presents primary research, commentary, and news articles on RNAi therapy and features an amazing RNAi animation.

The tragedy of Darfur

“Gérard Prunier offers an incisive analysis of the Sudan crisis in Darfur, the Ambiguous Genocide. The world must act now, says Dominick Donald.”

From The Guardian:

During 2003, occasional reports emerged in the international media of fighting in Darfur, a huge tract of western Sudan bordering Chad. Over the next year the picture became confused, as – depending on who was doing the talking – a minor rebellion became a tribal spat, or nomads taking on farmers, or Arab-versus-African ethnic cleansing, or genocide.

An outside world that understood political violence in Sudan through the simplistic lens of the unending war between Muslim north and Christian/animist south – a war that seemed to be about to end – had to adjust. And nothing that has emerged since has made that adjustment easy. If Darfuris are Muslim, what is their quarrel with the Islamic government in Khartoum? If they and the janjaweed – “evil horsemen” – driving them from their homes are both black, how can it be Arab versus African? If the Sudanese government is making peace with the south, why would it be risking that by waging war in the west? Above all, is it genocide?

Gérard Prunier has the answers. An ethnographer and renowned Africa analyst, he turns on the evasions of Khartoum the uncompromising eye that dissected Hutu power excuses for the Rwanda genocide a decade ago.

More here.

Camera phones will be high-precision scanners

Duncan Graham-Rowe in New Scientist:

The software, developed by NEC and the Nara Institute of Science and Technology (NAIST) in Japan, goes further than existing cellphone camera technology by allowing entire documents to be scanned simply by sweeping the phone across the page.

Commuters in Japan already anger bookstore owners and newsagents by using existing cellphone software to try to take snapshots of newspaper and magazine articles to finish reading on the train to work.

This is only possible because some phones now offer very rudimentary optical character recognition (OCR) software which allows small amounts of text to be captured and digitised from images.

But with the new software entire documents can be captured. As a page is being scanned the OCR software takes dozens of still images of the page and effectively merges them together using the outline of the page as a reference guide. The software can also detect the curvature of the page and correct any distortion so caused, enabling even the areas near the binding to be scanned clearly.

More here.

Why No Depictions of Cricket in Literary Fiction?

While anyone who has ever heard live commentary on cricket matches knows that it is certainly a bona fide literary genre in itself (I grew up listening to the likes of the almost-Nobel-deserving Omar Qureishi, and the more restrained but nevertheless brilliant Chishti Mujahid), Sarah Crompton points out in the Telegraph that there is a dearth of literary treatments of cricket in fiction:

Acck2When Radio 4’s Front Row started to draw up a Literary 11, it got to a Literary 23 within a day – and that was without mentioning Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a massive fan who played for the MCC and once bowled the great WG Grace.

It did find space at 12th man for Samuel Beckett, the only winner of a Nobel prize to make an appearance in Wisden, but he was disqualified from the Front Row team proper because he never wrote about cricket. Tom Stoppard, on the other hand, got to open the batting by dint of his love for the sport and a speech in The Real Thing that compares good and bad writing to a cricket bat.

Harold Pinter made it into the team, not for his own descriptions of the thwack of leather on willow but for the way he made the cricket match a central feature in his adaptation of L P Hartley’s The Go-Between for cinema. Terence Rattigan is also in there, for a feeble screenplay for a long-forgotten 1953 film called The Final Test.

More here.

The Hitch on Koestler’s milestone anti-Stalinist novel

Christopher Hitchens in Slate:

050912_bb_arthurkoestlertn_1There probably is a monograph by somebody, somewhere, on the single subject of Hungarian Jewry in the 20th century, from men of letters to political dissidents to economists to nuclear physicists. Think of the context: the cafe society of the twin cities of Buda and Pest, the end of Austro-Hungary, the cockpit of Bolshevism and fascism, the most ghastly closing scenes of the Final Solution and the first armed revolution against Stalin, all of this transmitted by a diaspora of the brilliant—and much of it mediated though a language that is almost impossible for an outsider to master.

In this demi-monde, the name of Arthur Koestler, who was born in Budapest on Sept. 5, 1905, would be pre-eminent. He is remembered today for his milestone novel Darkness at Noon and for his co-editing of the great anti-Stalinist collection of essays by disillusioned intellectuals The God That Failed. But he also wrote an imperishable series of memoirs relating his adventures and experiences in the Soviet Union, the Spanish Civil War, the partition of Palestine (where he lived briefly) in 1947/8, and the intellectual combats that defined the Cold War from its inception.

More here.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Why people hate fat Americans

Daniel Ben-Ami in Spiked:

If Americans had to be described with one word, there’s a good chance it would be ‘fat’. Americans, we are constantly told, are the fattest people on the planet. Obesity is rife. Compared with other nations the Americans are not just big, but super-size.

Yet this obsession with obese Americans is about more than body fat. Certainly there is a debate to be had about the extent to which obesity is a problem in America – a discussion best left to medical experts. But a close examination of the popular genre on obesity reveals it is about more than consumption in the most literal sense of eating food. Obesity has become a metaphor for ‘over-consumption’ more generally. Affluence is blamed not just for bloated bodies, but for a society which is seen as more generally too big for its own good.

It is especially important to examine this criticism of American affluence in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. An assumption underlying much of the discussion is that, at the very least, wealth did America no good in its battle with nature. An editorial in last weekend’s UK Guardian caught the tone: ‘America is the richest and most powerful country on Earth. But its citizens, begging for food, water and help, are suffering agonies more familiar from Sudan and Niger. The worst of the third world has come to the Big Easy.’ The implication is that America’s wealth is somehow pointless.

More here.


Jed Perl in The New Republic:

Something very strange has happened in the past year or so. Knocking the art world has become the latest art world fashion. I am not referring to the voices of dissent that have been heard for decades from artists and critics who operate at the margins. What’s going on now is that a certain disaffection and even disgust has become an insider’s badge of honor, a mark of sophistication, so that artists and critics and curators who frequent the art fairs and auctions where new stars are crowned can be heard bemoaning the corruption of the scene.   

Jerry Saltz, who writes for The Village Voice, personifies this new breed of insider disgruntlement. Writing about Damien Hirst’s astonishingly amateurish photo-realist paintings, which were at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea earlier this year, Saltz was dead-on accurate when he observed that “they are onlylabels–carriers of the Hirst brand. They’re like Prada or Gucci. You pay more but get the buzz of a brand.” Given all the attention that was lavished on these wanly rancid snapshots of a hospital corridor, a shelf full of pills, and a drug addict’s face, I can understand why Saltz thought he “heard the Drums of Destiny on the horizon” at Hirst’s “glitzy after-party, in an enormous tent on the roof of Lever House–amid dancing models, reveling stockbrokers and the same successful artists and art world showboats you see at every one of these events.”

More here.


From The Edge:

Paulos200 Let me begin by asking how it is that modern free market economies are as complex as they are, boasting amazingly elaborate production, distribution and communication systems? Go into almost any drug store and you can find your favourite candy bar. And what’s true at the personal level is true at the industrial level. Somehow there are enough ball bearings and computer chips in just the right places in factories all over the country. The physical infrastructure and communication networks are also marvels of integrated complexity. Fuel supplies are, by and large, where they’re needed. Email reaches you in Miami as well as in Milwaukee, not to mention Barcelona and Bangkok.

The natural question, discussed first by Adam Smith and later by Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper among others, is who designed this marvel of complexity? Which commissar decreed the number of packets of dental floss for each retail outlet? The answer, of course, is that no economic god designed this system. It emerged and grew by itself. No one argues that all the components of the candy bar distribution system must have been put into place at once, or else there would be no Snickers at the corner store.

JOHN ALLEN PAULOS is a professor of mathematics at Temple University. His books include A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market and Innumeracy.

More here.

Scientists’ Fears Come True

From Science:Katrina

Causing the largest natural disaster in U.S. history, Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast on 29 August with its eye hitting about 55 km east of the city. Although the storm initially brought more destruction to other areas along the Mississippi and Louisiana coast, several levees protecting New Orleans failed the following the day, and the city, about 80% of which is below sea level, filled with water. The floods may have killed thousands, stranded many more, and triggered a massive relief and evacuation effort.

As Katrina traveled through the Gulf of Mexico, unusually warm waters strengthened it into a monster hurricane. According to these models, Katrina’s storm surge should not have submerged the city. Instead of overtopping, the catastrophic collapse of several levees–ones that had been upgraded with a thick concrete wall– apparently sealed the city’s fate.

More here.

How Americans View U.S. Foreign Policy

From Foreign Affairs:

When Americans were asked to name the most important global problems facing the United States, Iraq and terrorism were the two top concerns. Foreign nations’ negative image of this country ranked number three. These and other findings, released jointly by Public Agenda and Foreign Affairs magazine, are part of the new Public Agenda Confidence in U.S. Foreign Policy Index.

The survey also reveals that American thinking about U.S. relations with the Islamic world is a disquieting mix of high anxiety, growing uncertainly about current policy, and virtually no consensus about what else the country might do…

Strong majorities of the public believe the image of the United States is suffering abroad and large majorities are worried about it. Three-quarters say they worry that “the U.S. may be losing the trust and friendship of people in other countries” and that “there may be growing hatred of the U.S. in Muslim countries.” In both cases, four in ten say they worry “a lot” about this, compared to the one-quarter who say they don’t worry at all. A smaller majority, six in ten, say they’re at least somewhat worried accusations of torture against the U.S. will hurt our image.

More here.