Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

John Updike reviews Jonathan Safran Foer’s new novel in The New Yorker:

Jonathan Safran Foer, born in 1977, came out swinging in 2002, with the publication of his astounding, clownish, tender, intricately and extravagantly plotted novel “Everything Is Illuminated.” From the hilarious overreacher’s English of the Ukrainian tour guide Alexander Perchov to the passionately fanciful evocations of a Polish-Jewish shtetl from 1791 to 1942, the prose kept jolting the reader into the heightened awareness that comes with writing whose exact like hasn’t been seen before. Foer’s second novel, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (Houghton Mifflin; $24.95), continues on a high plane of inventiveness and emotional urgency, while taking place on the solid turf of New York City in the aftermath of that most familiar of recent catastrophes, the 2001 World Trade Center blitz.

More here.

A code to rival Da Vinci’s

In 1912, a bookseller rummages through trunks full of illuminated medieval manuscripts in a remote Italian castle converted to a Jesuit school. A small volume, not much bigger than a paperback, catches his eye. The bookseller—a Lithuanian immigrant whose past is shaded by run-ins with revolutionaries, anarchists and spies—realizes that the book is clearly older than the rest. It is also full of unusual drawings and is written in cipher.

The Friar and the Cipher: Roger Bacon and the Unsolved Mystery of the Most Unusual Manuscript in the World is the story of that code and the effort to decipher it. It is also the story of Roger Bacon, known as “Doctor Mirabilis”—the miraculous doctor—by his contemporaries, and of his bitterest rival, Thomas Aquinas.

More here.


George Dyson in Edge.org:

Machines that behave unpredictably tend to be viewed as malfunctioning, unless we are playing games of chance. Alan Turing, namesake of the infallible, deterministic, Universal machine, recognized (in agreement with Richard Foreman) that true intelligence depends on being able to make mistakes. “If a machine is expected to be infallible, it cannot also be intelligent,” he argued in 1947, drawing this conclusion as a direct consequence of Kurt Gödel’s 1931 results.

“The argument from Gödel’s [theorem] rests essentially on the condition that the machine must not make mistakes,” he explained in 1948. “But this is not a requirement for intelligence.” In 1949, while developing the Manchester Mark I for Ferranti Ltd., Turing included a random number generator based on a source of electronic noise, so that the machine could not only compute answers, but occasionally take a wild guess.

More here.  And as usual, Marvin Minsky brutally cuts through the seemingly (at first) profound nonsense:

Mr. Foreman complains that he is being replaced (by “the pressure of information overload”) with “a new self that needs to contain less and less of an inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance” because he is connected to “that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.”

I think that this is ridiculous because I don’t see any basic change; there always was too much information. Fifty years ago, if you went into any big library, you would have been overwhelmed by the amounts contained in the books therein. Furthermore, that “touch of a button” has improves things in two ways: (1) it has change the time it takes to find a book from perhaps several minutes into several seconds, and (2) in the past date usually took many minutes, or even hours, to find what you want to find inside that book—but now, a Computer can help you can search through the text, and I see this as nothing but good.

Indeed, it seems to me that only one thing has gone badly wrong. I do not go to libraries any more, because I can find most of what I want by using that wonderful touch of a button! However the copyright laws have gotten worse—and I think that the best thoughts still are in books because, frequently, in those ancient times, the authors developed their ideas for years well for they started to publicly babble. Unfortunately, not much of that stuff from the past fifty years is in the public domain, because of copyrights.

New physics tool 27 kilometres long

Sean Carrol over at Preposterous Universe writes:

Cernmagnet_1The good news is: the first superconducting magnet has been lowered into the tunnel for the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. It was a big one, coming in at 15 meters long and 35 metric tons. Now there are only 1,231 identical magnets left to install. The magnets will be used to accelerate protons and antiprotons zipping in opposite directions around a 27-kilometer tunnel, before they collide with an energy of about 14 trillion electron volts. (For comparison purposes, using E=mc2, the energy of a proton at rest is about one billion electron volts.)

The bad news comes in the form of the cringe-worthy sound bites that accompany the articles. One tech-blog posting is entitled CERN’s Black Hole Maker LHC on Track, which is a tad misleading. There is a chance, if various optimistic speculations all come out just right, that we might be able to make black holes at the LHC; but it’s an awfully small chance, and you don’t want that to be your standard of success. The BBC refers to the Higgs boson as the God particle, a horrible quip for which we can all blame Leon Lederman. Unlikely as black holes may be, I’m quite certain we won’t be making God at the LHC. Yet another article is entitled New physics tool 27 kilometres long, accompanied by an unmistakably phallic picture. Those crazy Canadians.

One way to think about the Large Hadron Collider is as the largest microscope ever built.

Can Reading Make Civil Servants Better?

Joseph Brodsky thought that art, especially literature, was a form of “moral insurance”, and had suggested that public policy advocate its wider dissemination.  In his open letter to Havel (reprinted in On Grief and Reason), he called for a democracy of (before?) culture. 

Via Anna Hall, the BBC reports on a new experiment along these lines in Mexico City.  Can reading books help alleviate corruption and indolence in the police force?

Police in Mexico City, one of the most crime-ridden capitals in the world, have been told they must read at least one book a month or forfeit promotion.

The mayor of the district where the scheme is being implemented believes that it will improve their work.

There is a popular conception that Mexican police are corrupt, incompetent and lazy.

Mayor Luis Sanchez believes he can fight low standards in the force by encouraging higher levels of literacy.

Along with guns, bullet-proof vests and handcuffs, police in the district of Nezahualcoyotl will now have to take a book with them.

The pulp poetry of Charles Bukowski

Adam Kirsch writes in The New Yorker:

Charlesbukowski Fittingly, for a poet whose reputation was made in ephemeral underground journals, it is on the Internet that the Bukowski cult finds its most florid expression. There are hundreds of Web sites devoted to him, not just in America but in Germany, Spain, the Czech Republic, and Sweden, where one fan writes that, after reading him for the first time, “I felt there was a soul-mate in Mr. Bukowski.” Such claims to intimacy are standard among Bukowski’s admirers. On Amazon.com, the reader reviews of his books sound like a cross between love letters and revival-meeting testimonials: “This is the one that speaks to me to the point where each time I read certain pages, I cry”; “This book is one of the most influential books of poetry in my life”; or, most revealing of all, “I hate poetry, but I love Buk’s poems.”

More here.

Misconceptions about the Big Bang

Charles H. Lineweaver and Tamara M. Davis in Scientific American:

Forty years ago this July, scientists announced the discovery of definitive evidence for the expansion of the universe from a hotter, denser, primordial state. They had found the cool afterglow of the big bang: the cosmic microwave background radiation. Since this discovery, the expansion and cooling of the universe has been the unifying theme of cosmology, much as Darwinian evolution is the unifying theme of biology. Like Darwinian evolution, cosmic expansion provides the context within which simple structures form and develop over time into complex structures. Without evolution and expansion, modern biology and cosmology make little sense.

More here.

The MacGuffin that is Happiness

Robert McHenry writes in Tech Central Station:

Consider, instead, the possibility that Jefferson was on to something. Although he died more than a century before Alfred Hitchcock would invent the notion, perhaps he would have agreed that happiness is not truly the goal but rather the MacGuffin, the thing that seems important as it gets the story moving and keeps it accelerating but that, in the end, is itself not of much consequence. Maybe the promise, or just the chance, of happiness is what helps get us started on doing other things, things like thinking and learning and building and dreaming. And maybe those things that we do, under the impression that we are on the way to happiness, are of some account in themselves, especially if they open up new possibilities for those who come next. And maybe that’s good enough.

More here.


A reasonably engaging radio show on the sometimes annoying Radio Lab at WNYC about stress and current scientific thinking on the matter.

Friday, February 11, 2005

The body has a system for getting out of trouble. Back when trouble meant being chased by a tiger, that system gave us a real survival edge. But these days, “trouble” is more likely to mean waiting in traffic… and “the system” is more likely to make us sick. Stanford University neurologist (and part-time “baboonologist”) Dr. Robert Sapolsky takes us through what happens on our insides when we stand in the wrong line at the supermarket and offers a few coping strategies: gnawing on wood, beating the crap out of somebody, and having friends.


It features the generally delightful Dr. Robert Sapolsky.

Tuesday, March 8, 2005

Clouds Over Iran

Stephen Kinzer writes in the current issue of the New York Review of Books:

Consumed by the conflict in Iraq, the Bush administration has been unable to find either the political or military resources to deal with Iran, which poses both greater dangers and greater opportunities. That is fortunate. During the surge of messianic zeal that drove the Bush administration in its early days, there was heady talk about the prospect of “liberating” Iran as soon as the United States Army was able to break away from the waves of gratitude that were expected to engulf it in Baghdad. That fantasy collapsed when the Iraqi insurgency broke out.

If the Iraq invasion had gone as its planners expected, with the occupied nation embracing its conqueror and quickly transforming itself into a Jeffersonian paradise, American troops might well have been sent across the border into Iran. There they would have had to fight a huge army filled with people who detest the theocracy that tyrannizes them, but who also have a profound sense of patriotism, an ancient tradition of resistance, and a religiously driven thirst for martyrdom. Iraqis who rose up against the American occupation may have done the world, and especially the United States, a good turn by making an invasion of Iran all but impossible.

More here.

A Changing Mood in Indo-Pakistani relations, on the ground level

The BBC reports on an India-Pakistan cricket match:

Most parts of the stadium were packed to capacity and flowing beards and sherwanis – jackets beloved by men on both sides of the India-Pakistan border – could be seen at every corner of the ground.

Ticketless residents enjoyed the match from the roof-tops.

‘Cricket has definitely built bridges. This electrifying atmosphere is what I was looking for. Our Punjabi brothers have been gracious hosts,’ says Kaman, a student in Lahore.

Mexican waves around the stadium, chants, banners and trumpet-blowing – all was done with unflagging enthusiasm by fans of both countries.

It was like a festival of love.

The Conductor

I’m often underwhelmed by the fiction published in the New Yorker. But a recent story by Aleksandar Hemon called “The Conductor” has continued to stick in my mind. It’s about a (fictional, I think) Bosnian poet known as Muhamed D. Here’s a selection from somewhere midway through the story.

Finally, I selected, reluctantly, some of my poems to show to Dedo. I met him at the Table early one afternoon, before everyone else arrived. I gave him the poems, and he read them, while I smoked and watched slush splatter against the windows, then slide slowly down. “You should stick to conducting,” he said eventually, and lit a cigarette. His eyebrows looked like hirsute little comets. The clarity of his gaze was what hurt me. These poems were told in the voice of postmodern Old Testament prophets; they were the cries of tormented individuals whose very souls were being depleted by the plague of relentless modernity. Was it possible, my poems asked, to maintain the reality of a person’s self in this cruelly unreal world? The very inadequacy of poetry was a testimony to the disintegration of humanity, etc. But, of course, I explained none of that. I stared at Dedo with watery eyes, pleading for compassion, while he berated my sloppy prosody and my cold self-centeredness, which was exactly the opposite of soul. “A poet is one with everything,” he said. “He is everywhere, so he is never alone.” Everywhere, my ass—the tears dried in my eyes, and with an air of triumphant rationalism I tore my poetry out of his hands and left him in the dust of his neo-romantic ontology. But outside—outside I dumped those prophetic poems, the founding documents of my life, into a gaping garbage container. I never went back to the Table, I never wrote poetry again, and a few days later I left Sarajevo for good.

Hemon wrote a book a few years ago called The Question of Bruno that is worth a read. It is part of what I hope will be an ever increasing body of work coming from the Bosnian experience.

PS Being a work of fiction, I suppose that the fragments of Muhamed D.’s poetry in the story were actually written by Hemon himself. If so, what a delightfully surreptitious way for the prose writer to get a few knocks over on the poets (take that Joseph Brodsky). The great thing is that the poetry aint half bad.

Nobody is old anymore—either dead or young.
Your wrinkles straighten up, the feet no longer flat.
Cowering behind garbage containers, flying away
from the snipers, everybody is a gorgeous body
stepping over the dead ones, knowing:
We are never as beautiful as now.

Genetic testing hits the home market

Being an oncologist, I am often asked the question by family members accompanying the patient whether cancer is hereditary and if they should be tested for a predisposition towards it. Even though the answer in most cases is unknown or in the negative, some malignancies do manifest an inherited genetic component and it could be potentially useful to test family members for the presence of known marker genes. So far, such testing is a complicated and expensive process, and even when results show a predisposition towards developing a particular kind of cancer, it is difficult to decide what steps to take. The following report for the Associated Press by Paul Elias provides some interesting alternatives:
An increasing number of online startups are marketing tests that can show predisposition to any number of maladies, from breast cancer to blood clotting. They are exploiting the blizzard of genetic discoveries reported almost daily since scientists published the complete map of all human genes five years ago. The tests are cheap, easy to administer, often just a cotton swab inside the cheek, and the results are available online, cutting out the visit to the doctor’s office.

Plus, the companies note, the test results aren’t usually jotted down on official medical histories, which keeps sensitive information away from insurance companies. “We are empowering patients with knowledge,” said Ryan Phelan, who recently launched the San Francisco-based testing company DNA Direct.The company currently offers genetic testing, a la carte with prices ranging from $199 to $380, for a predisposition to cystic fibrosis, blood clotting, iron overload and a heightened risk for lung and liver diseases. Testing positive can help customers make lifestyle changes to prevent the onset of disease.

This week, in a small but dramatic move validating the popularity of the online approach, DNA Direct will begin offering two popular breast cancer tests created and conducted by Myriad Genetics, the most visible player in the field of “predictive medicine.”

“As often is the case, science is running ahead of public policy,” said Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the National Human Genome Research Institute and leader of the government team that published the human genetic map.

The map was a scientific milestone that has made many of these companies possible. Collins said most patients still need doctors and genetic counselors to help them interpret their test results, services most online companies don’t offer. He said it appears DNA Direct is a cut above most genetic testing companies because it employs doctors and genetic counselors.

Read more here.

Guy Davenport, 1927-2005

Sitting just a few feet from me on a bookshelf is a copy of The Geography of the Imagination by Guy Davenport, a remarkably insightful collection of literary essays. I was introduced to Davenport’s writing through his friend, Hugh Kenner, whom I knew briefly at Johns Hopkins. Recently, I had enjoyed his eccentric book reviews in Harpers, so I was saddened to just learn that he died a little over two months ago.

Guy Matt Schudel in the Washington Post:

Guy Davenport, 77, an erudite author, poet and critic whose subtle and demanding works won him a loyal literary following, died Jan. 4 of lung cancer at a hospital in Lexington, Ky., where he lived.

Mr. Davenport, who taught at the University of Kentucky for nearly three decades, was a man of wide learning who freely dropped references to ancient cave paintings, classical poetry and 18th-century French philosophy throughout his work. His essays and short stories were often written in a distinctive, original style.

More here.  And there is a longer article in The New Criterion:

It is with great sadness that we note the passing of Guy Davenport, poet, novelist, book illustrator, essayist nonpareil, raconteur indefatigable, master of humane inquiry. Guy was entirely sui generis, an autodidact of the old school who managed to sample Duke, Merton College at Oxford, and Harvard University (Ph.D. on Ezra Pound) with no visible deformation. He taught for decades: at the University of Washington in St. Louis, at Haverford College, and at the University of Kentucky from 1963 until 1991 when a MacArthur “genius” award (for once they got it right) set him free, free at last. Yet if Guy was in, he most certainly was not of, the academy. A less academic personality is difficult to imagine. Indeed, although Guy was a gentle, accommodating soul, someone whose unextinguishable curiosity generally left him amused rather than indignant at the spectacle of human foibles, he made an exception for the arid, the pedantic, the politically correct, in short, for the academic—the one term, so far as we can recall, that was for him invariably a term of diminishment, a term of contempt.

More here.  And in case you are interested, Guy Davenport had written the obituary of Hugh Kenner when he died two years ago, also in The New Criterion:

HughHis command of any subject was such that he could lecture without notes or script. He usually had a folder of blank pages, or letters from friends, that he pretended to be reading from, to assure audiences that he’d written out what he was saying. When he gave the Alexander Lectures at Toronto and was asked for the manuscript, so that they could be printed, he had to say, “Well, there isn’t one.”

Nor did he own a comb. His hair over the years became Einsteinisch. Being very hard of hearing, he repeated carefully what interlocutors said to him, to make certain he’d heard correctly. He therefore did most of the talking in a conversation. He once talked for three days at my house, when he was planning The Stoic Comedians. Part of his discourse was a recitation of Beckett’s unpublished novel Mercier et Camier that he’d memorized.

More here.

Predicting Addiction

Lisa N. LeGrand, et al, in American Scientist:

In 1994, the 45-year-old daughter of Senator and former presidential nominee George McGovern froze to death outside a bar in Madison, Wisconsin. Terry McGovern’s death followed a night of heavy drinking and a lifetime of battling alcohol addiction. The Senator’s middle child had been talented and charismatic, but also rebellious. She started drinking at 13, became pregnant at 15 and experimented with marijuana and LSD in high school. She was sober during much of her 30s but eventually relapsed. By the time she died, Terry had been through many treatment programs and more than 60 detoxifications.

Her story is not unique. Even with strong family support, failure to overcome an addiction is common. Success rates vary by treatment type, severity of the condition and the criteria for success…

Studies of twins are particularly useful for analyzing the origins of a behavior like addiction. Our twin pairs have grown up in the same family environment but have different degrees of genetic similarity. Monozygotic or identical twins have identical genes, but dizygotic or fraternal twins share on average only half of their segregating genes. If the two types of twins are equally similar for a trait, we know that genes are unimportant for that trait. But when monozygotic twins are more similar than dizygotic twins, we conclude that genes have an effect.

More here.

Young composer poised for a major career: Nico Muhly

Alex Ross, music critic, writes about young composers in The New Yorker:

Nicostripes2Of the composers I heard, the one who seems best poised for a major career is Nico Muhly, a twenty-two-year-old, spiky-haired, healthily irreverent student of Corigliano’s at Juilliard. He has formed his own private repertory, running from the purest, hootiest English choral music to minimalism in its raw, classic phase. These tastes reflect two sharply different musical experiences—singing in a boys’ choir and working in Philip Glass’s electronic studio. He also listens to a lot of off-kilter pop, like Björk, Múm, Ladytron, and Fischerspooner. “Nothing is better than Prince,” he advised me. On a recent afternoon, he enjoyed motets by William Byrd, Khia’s salacious hip-hop track “My Neck, My Back,” John Adams’s “China Gates,” and Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung”—the last for a school paper.

More here.  And listen to some of Nico’s music at his website, here.

Monday, March 7, 2005

Hans Bethe, Father of Nuclear Astrophysics, Dies at 98

William J. Broad in the New York Times writes:

Hans_bethe Hans Bethe, who discovered the violent force behind sunlight, helped devise the atom bomb and eventually cried out against the military excesses of the cold war, died late Sunday. He was 98, among the last of the giants who inaugurated the nuclear age.

Except for the war years at Los Alamos, N.M., Dr. Bethe lived in Ithaca, N.Y., an unpretentious man of uncommon gifts. His students called him Hans and admired his muddy shoes as much as his explaining how certain kinds of stars shine. For number crunching, in lieu of calculators, he relied on a slide rule, its case battered. “For the things I do,” he remarked a few years ago, “it’s accurate enough.”

For nearly eight decades, Dr. Bethe (pronounced BAY-tah) pioneered some of the most esoteric realms of physics and astrophysics, politics and armaments, long advising the federal government and in time emerging as the science community’s liberal conscience. During the war, he led the theoreticians who devised the atom bomb and for decades afterwards fought against many new arms proposals. His wife, Rose, often discussed moral questions with him and, by all accounts, helped him decide what was right and wrong.

Dr. Bethe fled Europe for the United States in the 1930’s and quickly became a star of science. As a physicist, he made discoveries in the world of tiny particles described by quantum mechanics and the whorls of time and space envisioned by relativity theory. He did so into his mid-90’s, astonishing colleagues with his continuing vigor and insight. In a 1938 paper, Dr. Bethe explained how stars like the Sun fuse hydrogen into helium, releasing energy and ultimately light. That work helped establish his reputation as the father of nuclear astrophysics, and nearly 30 years later, in 1967, earned him the Nobel Prize in physics. In all, he published more than 300 scientific and technical papers, many of them originally classified secret.

Politically, Dr. Bethe was the liberal counterpoint (and proud of it) to Edward Teller, the physicist and conservative who played a dominant role in developing the hydrogen bomb. That weapon brought to earth a more furious kind of solar fusion, and Dr. Bethe opposed its development as immoral. For more than half a century, he championed many forms of arms control and nuclear disarmament, becoming a hero of the liberal intelligentsia. His wife called him a dove, Dr. Bethe once told an interviewer, adding his own qualifier: “A tough dove.” His gentle manner hid an iron will and mind that had few hesitations about identifying what he saw as error, hypocrisy or danger. “His sense of duty toward society is so deeply ingrained that he isn’t even aware of its being a sacrifice,” a close colleague, Dr. Victor F. Weisskopf, once remarked.

Read more here.