From Scientific American:

Nanobodies Antibodies, often described as magic bullets, are actually more like tanks: big, complicated and expensive. Tinier “nanobodies,” derived from camels and llamas, may be able to infiltrate a wider range of diseases at lower cost. That is the hope, at least, of one small start-up in Belgium. Like many biotech companies, Ablynx emerged from the confluence of a serendipitous discovery, an open window of opportunity and an unreasonable ambition. Housed on two floors in a nondescript gray laboratory on a technology campus outside the university town of Ghent, Belgium, the three-year-old company employs just 45 people, 33 of them scientists and bioengineers. It is a minimal staff with a simply stated mission: find the tiniest sliver of protein that will do the job of a full-size antibody, then turn it into a billion-dollar medicine–or better yet, into the first of a whole new class of “nanobody” drugs against cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, perhaps even Alzheimer’s disease. 

More here.


From The Edge:

Einsteingodel_1 A true Realist, a true Platonist will not stoop to choose between Beauty and Truth, he will have the tenacity to stick it through until Truth is caught shining in her own Beauty. Sure there are messy proofs, we have to bushwhack trough a wilderness of ad hoc arguments, tours de force, combinatorial jungles, false starts and the temptations of definitions ever so slightly off target. Eventually, maybe not in our own lifetime, a good proof, a clear and beautiful proof will be honed out. That, I think, is the belief of the true Platonist. What Gödel and Einstein were doing when walking together over the Institute’s grounds may have been just that; bush whacking, comparing mental notes and encouraging each other not to give up while getting all scratched and discouraged. 

More here.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

As I Lay Reading

3 Quarks Daily‘s own J. M. Tyree has a superb essay on Oprah’s recent book club summer choice, William Faulkner, in The Nation:

Tyree202While bookstores and literary supplements were studiously dumbing down their lists of summer book picks, Oprah Winfrey announced that her Book Club would be embarking on an ambitious program called “A Summer of Faulkner.” Faulkner? Oprah? Really? The announcement amounted to nothing less than a sneak attack on the whole idea of beach reading–and on the intelligentsia’s perception of her as the Queen of Midcult. Not that we should have been that surprised: For some time now, Oprah has been ignoring pleas for a return to contemporary fiction, instead sending the likes of Tolstoy, Steinbeck and García Márquez up the charts. Still, as a sheer challenge, Faulkner is a quantum leap up from other classics.

By proposing to read not one but three works by a dead white male whose prose laid siege to the conventions of narrative fiction, and whose furiously lyrical exploration of race and the American South still manages to unsettle readers, Oprah is taking a major gamble on her audience’s attention span and political sensitivities. Once again, she has proved she is a more serious reader than many people–that is, anybody besides her millions of fans–reckoned. The woman Forbes magazine recently dubbed the most powerful celebrity in America seems intent on using some of her cultural capital for the brave if improbable purpose of a Faulkner revival–a project that reflects her belief in uplift through education.

More here.

Beards and scarves aren’t Muslim. They’re simply adverts for al-Qaeda

From The London Times:

Talibanflag Muslims everywhere need to get to grips with a phenomenon that threatens all Muslim countries and Islamic communities in the West. The first is to discard the notion that anyone who is not a Muslim is an “infidel” and thus not a proper human being. Next, it is important to reject the belief that, since the goal of converting mankind to Islam is a noble one, any means to do so are justified. Since there is no power of excommunication in Islam the terrorists cannot be formally banned from the community. But the community can distance itself from them in accordance with the Islamic principle of al-bara’a (self-exoneration). This means that a Muslim must publicly dissociate himself from acts committed by other Muslims that he regards as sinful. One way of doing this would be to organise a day of bara’a in all British mosques — and hopefully in mosques throughout the world — to declare that terrorism has no place in Islam.

Muslims could also help by stopping the use of their bodies as advertising space for al-Qaeda. Muslim women should cast aside the so-called hijab, which has nothing to do with Islam and everything to do with tribal wear on the Arabian peninsula. The hijab was reinvented in the 1970s as a symbol of militancy, and is now a visual prop of terrorism. If some women have been hoodwinked into believing that they cannot be Muslims without covering their hair, they could at least use headgears other than black (the colour of al-Qaeda) or white (the colour of the Taleban). Green headgear would be less offensive, if only because green is the colour of the House of Hashem, the family of the Prophet. (Taliban Flag shown in picture).

More here.

Mindful of Symbols

From Scientific American:

Symbol What most distinguishes humans from other creatures is our ability to create and manipulate a wide variety of symbolic representations. This capacity enables us to transmit information from one generation to another, making culture possible, and to learn vast amounts without having direct experience–we all know about dinosaurs despite never having met one. Because of the fundamental role of symbolization in almost everything we do, perhaps no aspect of human development is more important than becoming symbol-minded. The first type of symbolic object infants and young children master is pictures. No symbols seem simpler to adults, but my colleagues and I have discovered that infants initially find pictures perplexing. The problem stems from the duality inherent in all symbolic objects: they are real in and of themselves and, at the same time, representations of something else. To understand them, the viewer must achieve dual representation: he or she must mentally represent the object as well as the relation between it and what it stands for.

More here.

The coming Saudi oil shock and the world economy

John Gray reviews Twilight in the Desert: the coming Saudi oil shock and the world economy by Matthew R Simmons, in The New Statesman:

Sl_sunsets_84aMatthew R Simmons is convinced that Saudi oil production is near its peak, or indeed may have passed it, a development with awesome implications. Simmons, a veteran oil finance insider who has been an important adviser to the Bush administration, has done a huge amount of research and bases his conclusions on carefully sifted evidence, not large theories. Yet his view is consistent with the theory of M King Hubbert, a Shell geophysicist who argued in 1956 that production rates for oil and other fossil fuels exhibit a bell curve: when roughly half the oil has been extracted, production declines. No one took much notice of Hubbert at the time, but he predicted that oil production in the continental United States would peak and start declining in the late 1960s or early 1970s – as it did. Since then a number of large oilfields have also peaked, including the North Sea in 1999. When oil peaks it does not run out – there is usually a slow decline that can be spun out by new technologies – but the unavoidable result is falling production.

Could we be near a global oil peak? Simmons believes that point may already have passed and warns that the idea that technology can arrest the decline may be a delusion. In his view, Saudi oil production has been boosted by the use of technologies which actually reduce the future supply of recoverable oil. The impli-cation is that Saudi production has peaked, and with it global oil production, at a time when demand is rising inexorably.

More here.

Did bitter tasters do better?

Ishani Ganguly in The Scientist:

2005072602toc_1An improved ability to distinguish the bitter taste of natural toxins in foods may have made a difference in the survival of early humans as they radiated out of Africa, according to a genetic analysis by researchers led by a group at University College London, appearing in the July 26 issue of Current Biology. The new study suggests that a particular allele for the G protein-coupled taste receptor TAS2R16-which mediates the response to bitter cyanogenic glycosides found in many food plants-has been favored by human evolution.

“There is a general understanding that higher primates and humans in particular are losing some of their sensory capabilities because we have replaced sensory perception with other means of protecting ourselves-cooking food, for instance, or even changing diet,” said coauthor Nicole Soranzo.

However, these results suggest that there is more to the evolutionary story, said John Glendinning, of Barnard College in New York, who did not participate in the study. “This is the first study that’s really looked seriously at the functional consequences of one of these [receptors] as it relates to bitter taste ecology,” Glendinning told The Scientist.

More here.

A Better Pill To Swallow?

“The debut of an oral contraceptive for women helped fuel a sexual revolution in the 1960s. Will the birth of a male pill once again change our understanding of gender roles?”

Kimberly Roots in Science & Spirit:

16“Historically, of course, before the advent of the pill in 1960, it had been the male responsibility to buy condoms,” says University of Chicago sociologist Edward O. Laumann, who is arguably sex researcher Alfred Kinsey’s most prominent intellectual heir. “The balance of decision-making authority over that sort of thing has shifted pretty definitively to the woman and to having control over her own body.”

We may be on the brink of another shift. Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and a Norwegian biotechnology company called SpermaTech announced they are close to developing a male contraceptive pill. If the project—or any of a number of other male contraceptive research efforts currently under way around the world—is successful, men may have their first real chance in forty-five years at having a voice in the reproductive rights discussion. The question is: Do they want one?

Sociologists familiar with the situation say wide acceptance of a male pill would come only after a serious overhaul of the way both women and men think about male identity.

More here.

The Eisenman Principle

David Dudley in Cornell Alumni Magazine:

EisenmanIf you’re looking for architectural anxiety, Eisenman is your man. Since his arrival on the stage in the 1960s as one of a league of loosely affiliated American followers of Le Corbusier known as the “New York Five” (the others were Meier, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey, and John Hedjuk), Eisenman has been all but synonymous with a heady theory-driven audacity that tends to leave both admirers and critics baffled. He designed a deviously unlivable house based on the linguistic principles of Noam Chomsky, collaborated with Jacques Derrida in an effort to find an architectural equivalent to the French philosopher’s theory of deconstruction, and generally pushed the practical envelope of what the discipline was capable of. “Peter had a lot to do with turning architecture into an intellectual pursuit,” says his friend Phyllis Bronfman Lambert ’48, founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. “His influence was enormous. If he hadn’t come along, I don’t know where we’d be.”

More here.  And here is something I had posted some time ago by Richard Rorty on Eisenman.

The Drama of Iraq, While It Still Rages

Alessandra Stanley in the New York Times:

27stanTiming is the questionable element in “Over There,” Steven Bochco’s 13-episode series about soldiers fighting in Iraq. It is not only the first television drama about the conflict, but also the first American television series that has tried to process a war as entertainment while it was still being fought.

School shootings, presidential scandals and even abuse of Iraqi prisoners are now routinely sifted into “Law & Order” subplots; viewers have become just as inured to the fictionalization of real life on so-called reality television. But even in our hyperaccelerated media culture, “Over There” is fast work.

And that is both troubling and comforting. “Over There,” which begins tonight on FX, is a slick, compelling and very violent distillation of the latest news reports and old war movies and television shows. That alone could make it seem like a show business atrocity, a commercial abuse of a raw and unresolved national calamity.

Except that exploitation is not necessarily a bad thing.

More here.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Should Roe Go?

Katha Politt in The Nation:

Pollitt_1Should prochoicers just give up and let Roe go? With the resignation of Sandra Day O’Connor, more people are asking that question. Democratic Party insiders quietly wonder if abandoning abortion rights would win back white Catholics and evangelicals. A chorus of pundits–among them David Brooks in the New York Times and the Washington Post‘s Benjamin Wittes writing in The Atlantic–argue that Roe‘s unforeseen consequences exact too high a price: on democracy, on public discourse, even, paradoxically, on abortion rights. By the early 1970s, this argument goes, public opinion was moving toward relaxing abortion bans legislatively–New York got rid of its ban in 1970, and one-third of states had begun to liberalize their abortion laws by 1973. By suddenly handing total victory to one side, Roe fueled a mighty backlash (and lulled prochoicers into relying on the courts instead of cultivating a popular mandate). In 1993 Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg caused a flurry when she seemed to endorse this view: Roe, she declared in a speech, had “halted a political process that was moving in a reform direction and…prolonged divisiveness and deferred stable settlement of the issue.” It’s not an insane idea, even if most of its proponents (a) are men; (b) think Roe went too far; and (c) want abortion off the table because they are tired of thinking about it.

More here.

Trick Allows Scrutiny of Pluto’s Moon

Michael Schirber at

Near midnight of July 11, several telescopes in Chile caught a rare and wonderful sight:  the shadow of Pluto’s moon, Charon, as it passed in front of — or occulted — a distant star.

The observations, now being analyzed, may pin down the size of the moon and whether or not it has an atmosphere.  Preliminary indications from one group seem to suggest little or no gaseous envelope.

Charon blocked the light of the relatively faint star C313.2, casting a shadow that was roughly the same size as the moon itself — around 630 miles wide.  A previous occultation by Charon of a different background star was observed in 1980, but only one telescope — with limited precision — managed to observe that event. 

To have eight major telescopes and three separate astronomy teams recording this most recent alignment is considered very fortuitous — especially since a year ago no one knew that this shadowy event would happen at all.

More here.

A Long Time Coming

Christopher Orr in The New Republic:

A Very Long Engagement is all that its title promises. At two and a quarter hours, it is the longest film yet by French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet; happily, it is also the most engaging, a stylish and satisfying epic of love and war, hope and memory.

After an early career of directing shorts and commercials, in 1991 Jeunet and partner Marc Caro broke into feature films with the post-apocalyptic black comedy Delicatessen. This was followed by City of Lost Children, another meticulously designed dystopian nightmare. Jeunet and Caro then went their separate ways, with Jeunet pinballing from the embarrassment of Alien: Resurrection to the redemption of Amélie. Throughout this period, it was easy to view Jeunet as essentially a technical director, a kind of Gallic Tim Burton, with a gift for visual dreamscapes but an uneven knack for storytelling. Even in Amélie, his most successful film, the breathless whimsy and directorial gimmickry that made the first hour such a delight began wearing thin well before the film was over.

More here.


Well, what is synaesthesia? Everybody knows the word ‘anesthesia’ which means no sensation.

Synaesthesia means joined sensation, where two or more of the senses are hooked together, so that my voice for example is not only something that they hear but also something that they see or taste or touch.

The most common form of synaesthesia is colored letters and numbers. That is, joining color to integers. That accounts for about two-thirds of cases. The next big group would be sight and sound synaesthesia, or what is called colored hearing. In this, voices, music, environmental sounds will make people see colored photisms—these are shapes that arise, they change and metamorphose a little bit and fade away. Think of it as a little bit like fireworks. So they have a location and space they move around. And they enjoy it very much. There is almost a eureka sensation with this. They can’t imagine what listening to music is like for the rest of us. Of how do we remember people’s names or phone numbers if there is no color there to help us?

more here.

The Science of Lance Armstrong: Born, and Built, to Win

From The National Geographic:

Armstrong His oversized heart can beat over 200 times a minute and thus pump an extraordinarily large volume of blood and oxygen to his legs. His VO2 max—the maximum amount of oxygen his lungs can take in, an important measurement for an endurance athlete—is extremely high. Early in his career Armstrong showed only average muscle efficiency—the percentage of chemical energy that the muscles are able to harness to produce power. Higher muscle efficiency means greater production of power. From 1992 to 1999, the year of his first Tour de France win, Armstrong was able to increase his muscle efficiency by 8 percent through hard and dedicated training. Coyle says Armstrong is the only human who has been shown to change his muscle efficiency.

More here.

A New Face: A Bold Surgeon, an Untried Surgery

From The New York Times:

Face_2 In an emergency room at a Finnish hospital, a man sprawled unconscious on an operating table as surgeons labored to reattach the hand he had lost hours earlier while chopping wood. Thirty years later, microsurgery is a commonplace marvel, and as director of plastic surgery research at the Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Maria Siemionow, 55, is a leading practitioner.

But the career that began in a Helsinki hospital has brought her, and her profession, to an extraordinary moment. A team led by Dr. Siemionow is planning to undertake what may be the most shocking medical procedure to occur in decades: a face transplant.

More here.

The World Is Round

John Gray reviews The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century by Thomas L. Friedman, in the New York Review of Books:

Friedman_thomas20030410The centrally planned economies that were constructed to embody Marx’s vision of communism have nearly all been swept away, and the mass political movements that Marxism once inspired are no more. Yet Marx’s view of globalization lives on, and nowhere more vigorously than in the writings of Thomas Friedman. Like Marx, Friedman believe that globalization is in the end compatible with only one economic system; and like Marx he believes that this system enables humanity to leave war, tyranny, and poverty behind.

More here.

The arrogant adventurer

David Ewing-Duncan in The Guardian:

Reflections_venterWhat would it be like to know all the details of your own personal programming, every A, C, T and G that swirls along the long, sinewy strands of your own double helix? J Craig Venter knows.

He became the first life form on Earth to possess this self-knowledge when in April 2002 he confirmed what many had already suspected: that the human genome sequenced by Venter’s former company, Celera, largely comprised Venter’s own DNA. An act of supreme ego, it flouted one of the prime directives of modern science: that a healthy ambition is fine, even desirable, but only if a person doesn’t tout his own greatness and shows the proper awe and sensibility about the scientific enterprise.

No matter what people think of Craig Venter, he shook things up mightily during the race to sequence the human genome. He had, and continues to have, outrageous ideas that the scientific establishment frequently proclaims are unworkable. Yet Venter has succeeded, drawing on a potent arrogance and self-confidence that have transformed this previously obscure researcher into possibly the best-known molecular biologist in the world after Watson and Crick.

More here.

Every dictatorship is aggravated by great literature

Penar Musaraj in The Globe and Mail:

1231_2Though Ismail Kadare has been lauded for years as a leading figure in contemporary world literature, news of him winning the first ever Man Booker International Prize recently was a surprise to many in literary circles.

In a competition with a shortlist that included Margaret Atwood, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Philip Roth, Milan Kundera, Gunter Grass and John Updike, the Albanian writer was given odds of 100 to 1 by The Complete Review, a quarterly literary publication.

Kadare was stunned to find out he was the jury’s choice. “I heard of [the prize] through my editor, and I told him: ‘Are you sure?’ . . . because I have been on the Nobel shortlist of at most three or four authors, a dozen times, but never made it through,” Kadare says, adding he was getting used to being so close to the ultimate stamp of approval, the Nobel Prize for literature.

At 69, Kadare is Albania’s most beloved literary export and one of the central cultural figures in the recently troubled Balkan region — but unlike many other Eastern Europeans writing under socialist regimes, he was no dissident.

More here.

Beethoven (1.4m) beats Bono (20,000) in battle of the internet downloads

Charlotte Higgins in The Guardian:

BeethovenForget Coldplay and James Blunt. Forget even Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which, in the version performed at Live8 by Sir Paul McCartney and U2, has become the fastest online-selling song ever. Beethoven has routed the lot of them.

Final figures from the BBC show that the complete Beethoven symphonies on its website were downloaded 1.4m times, with individual works downloaded between 89,000 and 220,000 times. The works were each available for a week, in two tranches, in June.

Sgt Pepper could well end up as the best-selling online track of all time. But its sales figure of just 20,000 online in the two weeks since it has been available contrasts poorly with the admittedly free Beethoven symphonies. (Sgt Pepper cost 79p on the iTunes website.)

More here.