MIT Nerds

From Discover Magazine:
Mitgathering As dozens of Nobel Prize winners can attest, students at this university aren’t exactly normal. There is a place or persona or maybe a state of mind called Tetazoo. That stands for “Third East Traveling Animal Zoo,” the name of a dormitory hall at MIT. At the moment, several of its scruffy denizens, including Sam Kendig, 22, are ramming sectional couches down a corridor of classrooms as fast as low-tech human power can, past lab-coated professors and graduate students, none of whom blink an eye. After all, it’s the weekend of the amazing Mystery Hunt—more about that soon—when such peculiar behavior is normal. And in the institute’s 140-year history, these corridors have been traversed by 59 Nobel laureates and 30 astronauts, as well as Dr. Dolittle author Hugh Lofting, architect I. M. Pei, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, inventor Raymond Kurzweil, Ford Motor Company honcho William C. Ford, suspected Al Qaeda agent Aafia Siddiqui, and NPR’s “Car Talk” guys. At a guess, none of them were normal, either. No one seems to be normal at MIT.

Think about it. The World Wide Web was born at MIT in 1994. That same year, firms founded by MIT graduates generated $232 billion and employed a million people worldwide. Now Treo phones and Google are part of everyday life. We’re all nerds. And there’s a pretty good case to be made that whatever the students on the MIT campus are interested in at this moment will utterly change our lives again in about a decade. The MIT culture is a fecund environment where some of the finest creative minds on the planet not only nurture ideas but also figure out how to use them. The definition of technology is, after all, “the science of the application of knowledge to practical purposes.”

More here.

Richard Adams on Thomas Friedman’s New Book

From The Guardian:

In her introduction to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, Zadie Smith says of Alden Pyle, the American of the title: “His worldly innocence is a kind of fundamentalism.” She goes on: “Reading the novel again reinforced my fear of all the Pyles around the world. They do not mean to hurt us, but they do.”

Greene has Pyle travelling with books such as The Role of the West and The Challenge to Democracy. A modern-day Greene could substitute the works of the real-life Thomas Friedman – a contemporary quiet American. Like Pyle, Friedman is “impregnably armed by his good intentions and his ignorance”. In The World Is Flat Friedman has produced an epyllion to the glories of globalisation with only three flaws: the writing style is prolix, the author is monumentally self-obsessed, and its content has the depth of a puddle.

More here.

Critics: Once almighty arbiters of American taste

Husain Naqvi wrote of the waning influence of cultural critics yesterday in his Critical Digressions column here at 3QD. This is by Scott Timberg in the Los Angeles Times:

In the 1950 movie “All About Eve,” the theater critic is a dapper, cynical charmer with the Old World moniker Addison DeWitt. He’s no hero, but his wry assessments can make or break a production. Characters repeat his phrases throughout the film, in both scornful and reverent tones.

Almost a half-century later, the television show “The Critic” presented an animated schlemiel, paunchy and balding, voiced by the nerdy comic endomorph Jon Lovitz. This character’s influence on the world in which he lives is nonexistent: His impact comes down to serving as the butt of jokes.

Does the 1994-95 series tell us something about the way Americans view those who make cultural judgments for a living? In the decade since that show’s run, many critics report, they’ve gotten even less respect. Or ceased to matter entirely.

More here.

The Quran and Paper Bags

Christopher Hitchens in Slate:

Toward the end of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, when music had already been banned and women excluded from Islamic rituals by being immured in their homes, and when new non-Quranic punishments—such as being buried alive—had been promulgated for homosexuals, an arcane point arose among the fierce Islamists who ran the place: Should paper bags also be haram, or forbidden? The point was an exquisitely delicate one. It was known that such bags were made from recycled paper. It had been alleged that old and torn copies of the Quran had been thrown, or must have been thrown, somewhere and sometime, into the vats of pulp. Was there, therefore, not a real risk that each paper bag might contain a profaned fragment of the divine word? The thought of toilet paper being made in this manner may have been too obscene even to consider, but in the event, paper bags were banned, just as most reading material had already been.

It’s essential that we understand the deep irrationality that underlies all faith and that can take these fetishistic forms…

More here.


Joel Kotkin in The New Republic:

Hip cities like San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Boston are the new role models, [Richard] Florida has argued; and non-hip locales are duly forewarned, as a headline in The Washington Monthly put it, that cities “without gays and rock bands are losing the economic race.”

In some respects, of course, the last ten or so years have been a good time for American cities. Most urban areas, particularly New York, became safer and cleaner than they were in the ’80s. And, certainly, we are no longer living in the dark days of the ’70s–an era symbolized by the 1981 cult classic Escape from New York. These trends have made urban life more attractive to some and thereby stimulated residential construction as well as slowed–and in some cases reversed–the flight from cities of jobs.

But these developments notwithstanding, the renaissance of American cities has been greatly overstated–and this unwarranted optimism is doing a disservice to cities themselves…

More here.

Is it true that food cravings are our body’s way of telling us that we are lacking certain nutrients?

Also from Scientific American:

Food craving, defined as an intense desire to eat a specific foodstuff, is a common occurrence across all cultures and societies. These yearnings, and those associated with nonfoodstuffs such as pagophagia (the practice of consuming ice) and geophagia (literally earth-eating), are not linked to any obvious nutrient insufficiency. In some individuals food cravings and dietary restriction may be related; however, these observations are inconsistent with the majority of published studies.

More here.

Inconstant Constants: Do the inner workings of nature change with time?

John D. Barrow and John K. Webb in Scientific American:

Some things never change. Physicists call them the constants of nature. Such quantities as the velocity of light, c, Newton’s constant of gravitation, G, and the mass of the electron, me, are assumed to be the same at all places and times in the universe. They form the scaffolding around which the theories of physics are erected, and they define the fabric of our universe. Physics has progressed by making ever more accurate measurements of their values.

And yet, remarkably, no one has ever successfully predicted or explained any of the constants. Physicists have no idea why they take the special numerical values that they do. In SI units, c is 299,792,458; G is 6.673 X 10-11; and me is 9.10938188 X 10-31–numbers that follow no discernible pattern. The only thread running through the values is that if many of them were even slightly different, complex atomic structures such as living beings would not be possible. The desire to explain the constants has been one of the driving forces behind efforts to develop a complete unified description of nature, or “theory of everything.” Physicists have hoped that such a theory would show that each of the constants of nature could have only one logically possible value. It would reveal an underlying order to the seeming arbitrariness of nature.

More here.

Role Reversal: Planet Controls a Star

Michael Schirber in

PlanetstarIn a reversal of roles, a planet has gravitationally bullied its star to rotate in step with the planet’s orbit. The star’s behavior is similar to that of our Moon, which turns just fast enough to keep one face always pointing at the Earth.

It is unusual, however, to see the larger body – in this case a star 1.4 times the mass of the Sun – being tidally locked by a smaller body.

“This is truly a stellar story of ‘tail wags dog,’” said Jaymie Matthews of the University of British Columbia at the annual meeting of the Canadian Astronomical Society in Montreal last week.

More here.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Need a tutor? Call India

Anupreeta Das and Amanda Paulson of the The Christian Science Monitor, via USA Today:

Somit Basak’s tutoring style is hardly unusual. The engineering graduate spices up lessons with games, offers rewards for excellent performance, and tries to keep his students’ interest by linking the math formulas they struggle with to real-life examples they can relate to.

Unlike most tutors, however, Mr. Basak lives thousands of miles away from his students — he is a New Delhi resident who goes to work at 6 a.m. so that he can chat with American students doing their homework around dinnertime.

Americans have slowly grown accustomed to the idea that the people who answer their customer-service and computer-help calls may be on the other side of the globe. Now, some students may find their tutor works there, too…

More here.  [Thanks to Winfield J. Abbe.]

What’s on the 22nd Century News-stand

Newsweek_3Futurist Andrew Zolli on the imaginary cover stories from the future created by members of industry body Magazine Publishers of America:

What’s particularly interesting is not just the consistency of themes (robots, cloning and climate change are heavily represented) but a kind of consistent visual rhetoric of technology used by the editors. The “future” is still conveyed with a kind of cliche’d visual language that’s all about shiny, hard, quantitative, often ‘consumable’ technology gadgets…

…None of the participants envision a future of integrated, organic technologies that are likely to appear, or new political and personal realities, for instance.

More on Zolli and the business of predicting the future from the March edition of I.D. magazine.

Kerry – McCain

The New Yorker publishes a piece about Kerry and McCain’s friendship around Vietnam from back in 1996.

The site of the nightmare from which America found it so difficult to awaken is becoming a place in which tourists sleep; the unlikely friendship of two American politicians made it possible. “John Kerry and John McCain did a noble service to this country,” Senator Kennedy told me. “I know that kind of talk doesn’t ring any bells anymore, but it’s true. A noble service.” In Vietnam, they are revered as the men who ended the war. And the most potent symbol of the new era is what has become of the Hanoi Hilton. As for the hotel replacing the prison, McCain told me, “When I saw it, they asked me what I thought. I said, ‘I hope room service is better than it was when I was here.’ “

Critical Digressions

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,

Perusing the bargain shelf at the Harvard Bookstore this weekend, we picked up a bruised copy of the Kenneth Peacock Tynan’s biography and found ourselves charmed yet again by the man, his persona, and the caliber of his critical output. Hailed as “the greatest theater critic since Shaw,” Tynan is up our alley: an intellectual dandy. He had the following pinned above his desk: “Rouse tempers, goad and lacerate, raise whirlwinds.” We appreciate his aphorisms, observations, worldview: “A critic is a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car”; “The buttocks are the most aesthetically pleasing part of the body because they are non-functional. Although they conceal an essential orifice, these pointless globes are as near as the human form can ever come to abstract art”; “Art and ideology often interact on each other; but the plain fact is that both spring from a common source. Both draw on human experience to explain mankind to itself; both attempt, in very different ways, to assemble coherence…”

Tynan_1 Of Tynan, a commentator once wrote, “He was the sort of character every era needs to polarize opinions and sort out its prejudices.” As we attempt assembling coherence here, we muse: where is today’s Tynan? We are unfamiliar with contemporary theater critics but Tynan’s heirs in literary criticism, Dale Peck and James Wood, either bark or bite, and their legacy is uncertain. Peck, the enfant terrible of contemporary literary criticism, has already been swallowed up by the earth, much like Rumpelstiltskin. And the venerable Wood, who has become of the most important critics today, could prove to be a fad. (After all, presently, postmodern prose is out and Henry James and George Eliot are in.)

Altogether, they really don’t compare.

So who in recent memory polarized opinions and sorted out our prejudices? Edward Said perhaps? Since Said’s demise, the landscape of discourse seems oddly barren, doesn’t it? Of course, Said was marginalized by mainstream media a long time ago. And now the likes of Bernard Lewis – the half-witted dinosaur – lumber through the corridors of power while the feted jackass, Thomas Freidman, passes gas for wisdom. Perhaps our expectations are too high. And perhaps we digress, attempting to straddle ideology and art.

Skywalker_1 Actually, our beef with contemporary criticism and discourse has to do with something more mundane, our other weekend activity: a coerced viewing of the horrible “Revenge of Sith.” A.O. Scott of the New York Times – arguably one of the most important film critics today – gushes: “This is by far the best film in the more recent trilogy, and also the best of the four episodes Mr. Lucas has directed. That’s right (and my inner 11-year-old shudders as I type this): it’s better than ‘Star Wars.’” This assertion, ladies and gentlemen, is not only preposterous but irresponsible: whether we like it or not, film critics are today’s public intellectuals. We’ve had beef with Scott before but this time our inner thinking man shudders: Scott doesn’t know the way and can’t drive the car. Our sensibilities cohere with Anthony Lane’s: “The general opinion of ‘Revenge of the Sith’ seems to be that it marks a distinct improvement on the last two episodes…True, but only in the same way that dying from natural causes is preferable to crucifixion. He continues: “it takes a vulgarian genius such as Lucas to create a landscape in which actions can carry vast importance but no discernible meaning, in which style is strangled at birth by design, and in which the intimate and the ironic, not the Sith, are the principal foes to be suppressed. It is a vision at once gargantuan and murderously limited, and the profits that await it are unfit for contemplation. Lane is no Tynan but he sure sticks it to Scott.

Perhaps the age of intellectual dandies and public intellectuals has come to pass: Capote, Vidal, Mailer, in this part of the world; Josh, Manto and Sadequain, in mine; and, of course, Tynan and Said, who straddled divides. It seems that in our coarse times, we have to rely on our own sensibilities.

The Massacre of Fort Dearborn at Chicago

From Harper’s:

Gathered from the traditions of the Indian tribes engaged in the massacre, and from the published accounts. Originally from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, vol. 98, no. 586, pp. 649-656, March 1899. By Simon Pokagon, Chief of the Pokaoon band of Pattawapomie Indians.

Gathered from the traditions of the Indian tribes engaged in the massacre, and from the published accounts. Originally from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, vol. 98, no. 586, pp. 649-656, March 1899. By Simon Pokagon, Chief of the Pokaoon band of Pattawapomie Indians. My father, Chief Leopold Pokagon, was present at the massacre of Fort Dearborn in 1812, and I have received the traditions of the massacre from our old men. Since my youth I have associated with people of the white race, and sympathize with them as well as with my own people. I am in a position to deal justly with both. Whatever I may say against the dealings of white men with the Indians, I trust no reader for a moment will think that Pokagon does not know, or does not appreciate, what is now being done for the remnant of his race. He certainly does, and with an overflowing heart of gratitude and pride he reviews the lives of those noble men and women who in the face of stubborn prejudice have boldly advocated the rights of his race in the ears of politicians and government officials. In order to present the facts as nearly as possible, I shall rely on the written history; but the earliest detailed account I have been able to find was written by a woman, who claimed the story was told her by an eye-witness twenty years after occurrence, and she did not publish it until twenty-two years later. Thus the account was traditional when first published.

More here.

DEVOLUTION: Why Intelligent Design Isn’t

H. Allen Orr in The New Yorker:

OrrphotoAlthough the movement is loosely allied with, and heavily funded by, various conservative Christian groups—and although I.D. plainly maintains that life was created—it is generally silent about the identity of the creator.

The movement’s main positive claim is that there are things in the world, most notably life, that cannot be accounted for by known natural causes and show features that, in any other context, we would attribute to intelligence. Living organisms are too complex to be explained by any natural—or, more precisely, by any mindless—process. Instead, the design inherent in organisms can be accounted for only by invoking a designer, and one who is very, very smart.

All of which puts I.D. squarely at odds with Darwin…

More here.

The goodness of scientific and technological progress

Charles T. Rubin in The New Atlantis:

The ambiguity in the meaning of moral progress is at the heart of a 1923 debate between biochemist J. B. S. Haldane and logician Bertrand Russell, two of the greatest and most argumentative public intellectuals of twentieth-century Britain. Haldane, who would go on to an extremely distinguished career as a biochemist and geneticist, spoke under the auspices of the Cambridge Heretics discussion club. Russell, already a famous philosopher, answered him as part of a speakers series sponsored by the Fabian Society under the general title, “Is Civilization Decaying?” The published version of Haldane’s remarks created no little controversy; even Albert Einstein had a copy in his library. There is also little question that Haldane’s work influenced two of the greatest British critics of scientific and technological progress: Julian Huxley and C. S. Lewis.

The titles of the essays, Haldane using Daedalus and Russell Icarus, support the common idea that Haldane writes as an advocate of progress and Russell as a skeptic. While this view is understandable, it is hardly exhaustive. Haldane freely highlights horrible possibilities for the future, and he is quite blunt about the socially problematic character of scientific research and scientists. Russell, on the other hand, can imagine circumstances (albeit unlikely ones) where the power of science could be ethically or socially constrained. The real argument is about the meaning of and prospects for moral progress, a debate as relevant today as it was then. Haldane believed that morality must (and will) adapt to novel material conditions of life by developing novel ideals. Russell feared for the future because he doubted the ability of human beings to generate sufficient “kindliness” to employ the great powers unleashed by modern science to socially good ends.

More here.

Last century, physics was the superstar of the sciences

John S. Rigden in Science & Spirit:

In 1918, following the end of the Great War, people were emotionally exhausted and desperately wanted the world to make sense. In Berlin, a physicist working quietly, using only the power of his mind, predicted a subtle behavior of nature. When his prediction—that starlight would be deflected as it grazed the edge of the sun—was proven correct in 1919, the world welcomed the news, and Einstein became a celebrity.

In the decades that followed, physicists were regarded as heroes. During World War II, they developed radar, which won the war, and the atomic bomb, which ended the war. Throughout much of the twentieth century, physicists commanded the lion’s share of media attention as they identified the basic building blocks of matter, invented the transistor and the laser, probed the eerie consequences of quantum mechanics, and uncovered evidence about how the universe began.

Over the last thirty years, however, physics has been nudged from the spotlight by the life sciences, which were transformed by the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA in 1953…

More here.

Simon Blackburn on Hume, Davidson, Rorty…

John Banville reviews Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed by Simon Blackburn, in The Guardian:

Simon Blackburn is professor of philosophy at Cambridge, and the author of fine popularising books such as The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy and Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics. He is learned, astute, admirably sensible, and possesses an elegant and clear prose style. Truth is based on the texts of the Gifford lectures delivered last year at the University of Glasgow, and on other, occasional lectures and articles written over the past four or five years. One would never use the word ragbag to describe a work by such a graceful synthesiser, but some parts of the book have the air of having been shoehorned in, for instance a short, closing chapter defending David Hume’s philosophical cosmopolitanism against attacks by the likes of Donald Davidson, and part of another chapter spiritedly repudiating what might be termed Richard Rorty’s radical pragmatism; both these excursuses have the air of being frolics of their own.

Blackburn opens his introduction with a rousing call to arms, which might be a preparation for an assault on the likes of Rorty and other “fuzzy” – the adjective is Rorty’s own – postmodernist philosophers and pundits…

More here.

Monday Musing: Bandung and the Birth of the Third World

A week ago, I realized that the 50th anniversary of the Bandung Confererence (the first Afro-Asian Summit in Bandung, Indonesia) had come and gone. There was no real mention of the anniversary in the papers. The blogosphere ignored it, including on its left-wing. Speaking of the left, neither Z Magazine, nor, nor The Nation had anything on it, at least that I could find. I found one article in Le Monde Diplomatique, on the lost illusions of Bandung (subscription required).

Bandung What surprised me was that it was passed over in relative silence by the media in the Third World itself. The Indian press, which I occasionally look at, said very little. The pieces that were in places like Al-Ahram, which I also occasionally look at, read more like encyclopedia entries telling their readers of the event, or used the anniversary of the Bandung Conference as a frame to discuss American power and its wars.

One exception seemed to be the Chinese press, which did say a lot, which in turn was odd since China had been the odd one at Bandung in 1955—so many of the participants were suspicious of or hostile to Communism. Abdel Nasser, with his hatred of Communists, hadn’t recognized the PRC, and wouldn’t do so until 1956. Still, Hu Jintao, Manmohan Singh, and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono stood and walked in place of Zhou En Lai, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sukarno, with no one to stand in for Abdel Nasser.

Zhouel This silence was strange, and the classroom tone of what wasn’t passed over in silence was surprising, because it was after all the 50th birthday of the “Third World”, though the term itself was coined and the place (as opposed to places) noticed in 1952 by a French economic demographer and historian, Alfred Sauvy. In 1955 at Bandung, the Third World had taken care to formally notice and assert itself. That desire was neither tragedy nor farce, and reading of it now, it strikes me how much the conference struck the tone of promise, however precarious that promise was in hindsight. (Reading Nehru’s and Sukarno’s speeches, I’m surprised by how precarious it all sounded even at its inception.)

Three years earlier in 1952, Sauvy, writing of this region that was lost in what had become the Cold War, had called on the rest of the world to take note of the newly decolonized and decolonizing states, “…because, this ignored, exploited, scorned Third World like the Third Estate, wants to become something too.” Nowadays it seems that the countries that make it up would like the Third World to be forgotten, after the decades of non-aligment, aligment, coups, wars, posturing, degenerations of societies into personal fiefdoms, and, in its worst moments, a murderous local fascism, at times justified with the rhetoric of Third Worldism.  Or I should say that they would like the Third World to be forgotten, save in the most anodyne form possible.

Perhaps it was inevitable.  Of the conference, Richard Wright had written in The Color Curtain:

“The despised, the insulted, the hurt, the dispossessed—in short, the underdogs of the human race were meeting. Here were class and racial and religious consciousness on a global scale. Who had thought of organizing such a meeting? And what had these nations in common? Nothing, it seemed to me, but what their past relationship to the Western world had made them feel.”

A strange cause of a birth, and a strange thing to be born. But it was a birth nonetheless, by an experience that captures the vast majority of humanity. So, I offer a belated but sincere Happy 50th birthday to the Third World!

Happy Monday.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

‘The Friend Who Got Away’: A Girl’s Best Friend

From The New York Times:Girls

Women, especially girls, aren’t always nice to one another, and writers and movie directors have tried to document this pathology as if it were a sociological ill to be cured. The catty and bullying few were recast as Queen Bees and Mean Girls and Tyra Banks; even the feminist Phyllis Chesler published a book called ”Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman.” Of course, woman-to-woman cruelty has always existed (we all have mothers, don’t we?), and it certainly wasn’t Margaret Atwood who broke the news that women could be sociopathic misogynists (though her women may be the freakiest). Still, it’s all a little hysterical, isn’t it?

More here.

Brand Hillary

From The Nation:

Hillary_2 The political classes tend to offer us two tidy Hillary narratives to choose from. The first (courtesy of Dick Morris and company) is that Clinton has given herself a moderate makeover designed to mask the fact that she’s really a haughty left-wing elitist, in order to appeal to moderate Republicans and culturally conservative, blue-collar Democrats who are deserting their party. The opposing narrative line (courtesy of her supporters) is that Clinton, a devout Methodist, has revealed her true self as a senator; she’s always been more moderate than is generally thought, and, as Anna Quindlen wrote recently in Newsweek, “people are finally seeing past the stereotypes and fabrications.”

Yet if you watch Clinton on one of her upstate swings, as I did earlier this spring, it becomes clear that neither story line gets it right. What’s really happening is that Clinton, a surprisingly agile and ideologically complex politician, is slowly crafting a politics that in some ways is new, and above all is uniquely her own.

More here.