Reports from Gleneagles

The terrorist bombings in London displaced attention on the G8 and its discussions on poverty and debt relief in Africa.  Although, we were unlikely to hear any sustained account of how argicultural subsidies in the West depress food prices in the Third World to levels where local farmers cannot compete, thereby lose their livelihoods, and fall into poverty.  Of course, given the fact that rural voting blocks are powerful in the United States, France and elsewhere, ending subsidies may be an enormous, if not wholly insurmountable hurdle.  Focusing on aid and debt relief may be a second best solution.

Michael Holman offers some thoughts on the meeting at Gleneagles.

“Is Africa better off after Gleneagles? The continent’s profile is higher, debate about its crisis is better informed and more vigorous. That can only be a good thing. And yes, there will be more money, though that is not necessarily beneficial – and we need to read the fine print that accompanies this largesse. Trade reform, which is vital to Africa’s recovery, will have to wait until the WTO round in Hong Kong in December. So it is too early for a confident assessment of what after all is a process, and not an event. Of just one thing do I feel certain: the politicians (Tony Blair and Gordon Brown) outmanoeuvred the pop stars (Bob Geldof and Bono). . .

By the end of the summit, Geldof and Bono were defending an outcome that, whatever its merits, clearly fell short of their original demands.”

(Read the other commentaries here.)

The Dictionary of Sensibility

Our old friend Kent Puckett has been working on an online Dictionary of Sensibility (with a number of collaborators, of course).  An example of an entry, “Delicacy/Modesty”:

“Like ‘sensibility’ itself, ‘delicacy’ has two interwoven frames of reference that complicate and enrich its significance. There is ‘delicacy of constitution’ and ‘delicacy of mind,’ ‘heart,’ or ‘soul;’ and each of these facets of meaning informs the other. Thus, delicacy can describe a physical sensitivity, on the one hand–an exceptional susceptiblity to stimuli from the senses–or it can indicate a sensitivity (often gendered female) to social or ethical punctilios.

The refinement inherent in ‘delicacy’ leads it sometimes to be opposed to ‘vulgarity.’ In this way the term takes on moral and socioeconomic associations as well.

‘Modesty’ seems less complex, and often appears as an epiphenomenon of delicacy.

We are no longer able to see the sun set

Andrew Rubin on Israel’s construction of the so-called security fence, in Al Ahram:

WallA comparison between the 1993 maps of the Oslo Accords and the existing plans for all three phases of the wall incontrovertibly shows that the wall is nothing less than the physical and concrete institutionalisation of precisely those aspects of Oslo that Israel had agreed to: the establishment of tiny cloisters and pockets of Palestinian self-rule, with no meaningful sovereignty, that Edward Said compared to the bantustans which the British had devised as a means of exerting colonial authority in Africa. Yet the comparison with British form of colonial rule ends with the establishment of numerous, non-contiguous bantustans. Whereas from 1918-1948 in British Mandate Palestine, Britain had dredged and designed the Port of Haifa, constructed six power stations for Palestinians and Jews, built public roads and buildings for everyone, all Israel has done is to shore up its military presence with more check-points, more prisons, more expanding settlements, more rerouted irrigation systems (for the settlements), more de- development (of Palestinian infrastructure and agriculture), more barriers and more of its massive $3.4 billion wall. In others words, it is colonialism without development, or “de-development” as Sara Roy called it, the sole aim of which is the complete destruction of the foundations of all aspects of Palestinian civil society.

More here.

Chaotic Computers

From New Scientist:

If you think the complex microchips that drive modern computers are models of deterministic precision, think again. Their behaviour is inherently unpredictable and chaotic, a property one normally associates with the weather.

Intel’s widely used Pentium 4 microprocessor has 42 million transistors and the newer Itanium 2 has no fewer than 410 million. “Their performance can be highly variable and difficult to predict,” says Hugues Berry of the National Research Institute for Information and Automation in Orsay, France.

Berry, Daniel Perez and Olivier Temam say that chaos theory can explain the unpredictable behaviour. The team ran a standard program repeatedly on a simulator which engineers routinely use to design and test microprocessors, and found that the time taken to complete the task varied greatly from one run to the next.

But within the irregularity, the team detected a pattern, the mathematical signature of “deterministic chaos”, a property that governs other chaotic systems such as weather.

More here.

Eye-to-Eye with a Black Hole

Michael Schirber at

Hf_mm_bhjupiter_050711_01“The idea is to try to answer the question of what does a black hole look like,” said David Kornreich. 

The simple answer is “black” because light cannot escape the gravitational pull of a black hole.  But light traveling just outside a black hole will be bent — similar to what happens in a lens.

Kornreich and his student Bryant Gipson have figured out how images of landscapes and planets would be distorted by having a black hole sitting in the foreground. 

Such mathematical calculations have been done before for stationary black holes, but this is the first time it has been done for spinning black holes, Kornreich told  Most black holes in the universe are thought to be rotating — many at high speeds.

In a stellar black hole, which forms when a giant star dies explosively, the rotation is a logical remnant of the star’s spin. Just as a skater speeds up when she pulls her arms in, the dead star’s rotation picks up dramatically as remaining material collapses into a small, dense black hole.

More here.

Textual Healing

Paula Fredriksen reviews Augustine: A New Biography by James J. O’Donnell, in The New Republic:

AugustineIt is hard to love Augustine. He stands as the source of some of the most baleful traditions of thought in Western culture. All humans, he held, are born indelibly marked, indelibly marred, by original sin. Human desire, especially sexual desire, is a premier sign and effect of Adam’s fall. Unbaptized babies go to hell. Salvation is a question not of human effort, but of divine predestination. The church, to propound spiritual truth and to protect it, should avail itself of the coercive power of the state. These are all Augustinian teachings.

And yet it is hard not to love Augustine. He states his questions and his convictions about the human condition with such ardor that the flames of his ideas leap across the chasm of sixteen centuries from his lifetime into our own.

More here.

Neuron Network Goes Awry, and Brain Becomes an IPod

From The New York Times:Music_1

Seven years ago Reginald King was lying in a hospital bed recovering from bypass surgery when he first heard the music. It began with a pop tune, and others followed. Mr. King heard everything from cabaret songs to Christmas carols. “I asked the nurses if they could hear the music, and they said no,” said Mr. King, a retired sales manager in Cardiff, Wales. Last year, Mr. King was referred to Dr. Victor Aziz, a psychiatrist at St. Cadoc’s Hospital in Wales.

Dr. Aziz explained to him that there was a name for his experience: musical hallucinations.

More here.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Rushdie on India and Pakistan’s Code of Dishonor

Op-ed from the New York Times:

…Now comes even worse news. Whatever Pakistan can do, India, it seems, can trump. The so-called Imrana case, in which a Muslim woman from a village in northern India says she was raped by her father-in-law, has brought forth a ruling from the powerful Islamist seminary Darul-Uloom ordering her to leave her husband because as a result of the rape she has become “haram” (unclean) for him. “It does not matter,” a Deobandi cleric has stated, “if it was consensual or forced.”

Darul-Uloom, in the village of Deoband 90 miles north of Delhi, is the birthplace of the ultra-conservative Deobandi cult, in whose madrassas the Taliban were trained. It teaches the most fundamentalist, narrow, puritan, rigid, oppressive version of Islam that exists anywhere in the world today. In one fatwa it suggested that Jews were responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Not only the Taliban but also the assassins of The Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl were followers of Deobandi teachings.

Darul-Uloom’s rigid interpretations of Shariah law are notorious, and immensely influential – so much so that the victim, Imrana, a woman under unimaginable pressure, has said she will abide by the seminary’s decision in spite of the widespread outcry in India against it. An innocent woman, she will leave her husband because of his father’s crime.

More here.

Claude Simon, winner 1985 Literature Nobel, dies

From the AFP:

He emerged in the 1950s as a leading exponent of the nouveau roman, or “new novel”, writing in a style characterised by interior monologues and an absence of punctuation.

His works include “Le Tricheur” (The Trickster, 1945), “Le Vent” (The Wind, 1959) and “La Route des Flandres (The Road to Flanders, 1960).

His publishing house, Editions de Minuit, said he died on Wednesday and was buried in Paris on Saturday.

Born on October 10, 1913, in Antananarivo, Madagascar, which was then a French colony, he went on to study in Paris, Oxford and Cambridge.

Simon was just 10 years old when his mother died and he was sent to live with his grandmother in the southern French city of Perpignan. His father had been killed in World War I, a year after he was born.

More here.

Psyching Out Evolutionary Psychology

JR Minkel interviews David J. Buller in Scientific American:

Philosopher of science David Buller has a bone to pick with evolutionary psychology, the idea that some important human behaviors are best explained as evolutionary adaptations to the struggles we faced tens to hundreds of thousands of years ago as hunter-gatherers. In his new book, Adapting Minds, the Northern Illinois University professor considers–and finds lacking–the evidence for some of the most publicized conclusions of evolutionary psychologists: Men innately prefer to mate with young, nubile women, while women have evolved to seek high status men; men are wired to have a strong jealous reaction to sexual infidelity, while women react to emotional infidelity; and parents are more likely to abuse stepchildren than their genetically related children.

More here.

Don’t dare ever call him “Chris”

Peter Wilby reviews Love, Poverty and War: Journeys and Essays by Christopher Hitchens, in The New Statesman:

Many left-wing opponents of the Iraq war will therefore want this collection to be bad: full of windbaggery, loose judgements, bad writing, and so on. Hitchens was never that good, was he? We on the left can manage without him, can’t we? Alas, no. Hitchens is just too damn good. You will find here the most brilliant anti-capital punishment piece you have ever read; the most thoughtful piece on Israel and anti-Semitism; a marvellously vivid report on North Korea (“I found a class of tiny Koreans solemnly learning Morse code . . . Nobody has told them that the international community abandoned Morse two years ago”); a hilarious account of how Hitchens gave evidence to a Vatican commission on the beatification of Mother Teresa; and a gloriously rude demolition of Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11.

More here.  And if you missed it, check out J.M. Tyree’s brilliant dressing down of The Hitch here.

Srebrenica remembered

This story may be a bit newsy for 3QD, but it’s important to note that it is the 10th anniversary of one of more sad and shameful events in UN and post-War European history, the massacre at the UN safe haven in Srebrenica.  From the BBC:

“Tens of thousands of people have been attending ceremonies marking the 10th anniversary of the massacre of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica.

Grieving relatives buried more than 600 newly identified dead, after prayers and words of support from international and local officials.

About 8,000 men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb forces in 1995 in Europe’s worst atrocity since World War II.

Serbian officials led by President Tadic paid respects for the first time.”

Radovan Karazic and Ratko Maldic, wanted for genocide, crimes against humanity, and violations of the laws and customs of war, remain at large. 

Literature: Comfort Food?

‘If you’re going to name a book after units of time, you’d better have something to say on the subject, and in ”A Day, a Night, Another Day, Summer,” Christine Schutt certainly does. Whether or not readers will find her voice comforting is another matter.’

So begins David Kirby’s NYT review (Reg Req’d) of Schutt’s new collection of stories. LitBlog Beatrice rightly noted that NYT completely missed Schutt’s work until her novel Florida was nominated for the National Book Award.

One further remark. Maybe it’s just because I’ve been reading a lot of Faulkner recently to try to keep up with the Oprah Book Club, but I have to ask…Since when is literature supposed to be comforting? Mr. Kirby, meet The Idiot.

Professor Lets Her Fingers Do the Talking

From The New York Times:

Math Dr. Taimina, a math researcher at Cornell University, started crocheting the objects so her students could visualize something called hyperbolic space, which is an advanced geometric shape with constant negative curvature. Say what? Well, balls and oranges, for example, have constant positive curvature. A flat table has zero curvature. And some things, like ruffled lettuce leaves, sea slugs and cancer cells, have negative curvatures. This is not some abstract – or frightening – math lesson. Hyperbolic space is useful to many professionals – engineers, architects and landscapers, among others. So Dr. Taimina expected some attention for her yarn work, especially from math students destined for those professions. But her work has recently drawn interest from crocheting enthusiasts.

More here.

Blind Sea Creature Hunts With Light

From National Geographic:Redlight

Many deep-sea creatures use blue or green luminescent light to defend themselves, but this relative of the jellyfish has twitching appendages that glow red—apparently to lure fish to their death. Steven Haddock of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and his colleagues collected three Erenna specimens off the coast of California during a deep-sea dive in a submersible. The animals, which cannot themselves see, belong to a new species of siphonophores, the group that includes jellyfish and corals. They are the first marine invertebrates known to produce red luminescent light, and they’re all the more surprising because researchers have generally believed that deep-sea animals can’t detect red light.

More here.

Negotiations 4: Smithson Sightings

The dirty little suspicion in the heart of every aesthete is that he is no better than a tourist. The appreciation of art and the activity of sightseeing are as old as culture, and their relationship is a lot closer than any of us would like to admit. There have been “art tours” to Florence since the Renaissance; Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water is all at once a sight to see, an art experience, and a tourist destination; art museums increasingly become sights one visits for their intrinsic artistic merit, whatever objects they might contain (Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao comes to mind); and then there is Land Art, wherein the artist chooses a remote area or deserted suburb (a “site”), “works” it in some way or another, and returns it to us (or invites us to come see it) as a sight which is itself, after the artist’s intervention, a work of art.

Distinctions between the tourist and the traveler notwithstanding, the trajectory I have traced above, from art tourism to tours as art, recapitulates the trajectory of art in the 20th century from its Representational to its Conceptual phase. One of the pieces of baggage that art was supposed to have lost along the way was the “aura” that objects carried. They went from being singular, authentic objects that were invested with the individual artist’s genius, which was itself invested with and an expression of Nature, or Truth, or the Sublime, to becoming everyday objects or representations of the same that were at times indistinguishable from objects we see every day: a snow shovel, a brillo box, graffiti scrawled across a broken wall, an inflatable flower. If you want to experience one of the last, great examples of Auratic Art, stand in front of one of Jackson Pollack’s giant canvases. The paint on those things is still wet, still dripping and pooling; they shimmer and shiver; they pulse; they emanate aura. When asked if he painted nature, Pollack famously replied, “I am nature.” He was the apogee and, in a certain sense, the end of the auratic in art.

The Robert Smithson retrospective currently at the Whitney, which is a “must-see” for the art tourist, turns this history on its head. One of the earliest practitioners of Land Art, Smithson began by transforming sightseeing into site-seeing, which then became blind-spot-seeing (Patterson, New Jersey) and in turn, finally, seeing sight. His early work is about making you “see” your sight. Mirrors are framed as sculptural objects in such a way that, looking at them, you can’t tell whether you are looking at the thing itself or at the reflection of the thing. These are uncanny, mind-bending works. In a single move, Smithson makes material the assault that Duchamp led, conceptually, upon the retina. Smithson gets behind the lines and forces the collapse of the eye. The entire structure of art as something-one-sees falls in a frenzy of reflections, and one is catapulted into the realm of the conceptual. Language not being up to experience, the only thing one can say at this point is, “Aaaah… now I see!”

After working you over with these mirrors that reflect the frames in which they are placed, thereby creating things that do not exist(!), Smithson introduces an organic element. Now he incorporates seashells, earth, rock salt and stone, so that there is a crossover and a junction between absolute nothingness (the mirror, the surface that only reflects) and elemental matter. I grew giddy at this point. I suddenly realized that I was standing in a room of Robert Smithson’s works, but he hadn’t made a single one of the pieces at which I was looking. They had been assembled not by Smithson (who died in 1973), but by the artslaves of the Whitney. The idea (Pour ten bags of basalt crystals on the floor. Bury a mirror in each one.) was of course Smithson’s, but the objects I was studying had been “made” in that space by someone else. Smithson had not placed each one of those tens of thousands of pebbles there and he had not left diagrams for where each one of them were to be placed in the pile. These were purely conceptual works; and since ideas are immaterial, they prohibit the auratic. Ideas are not wet and nothing sticks to them, neither genius nor nature nor intent—therefore, no aura. Ideas are atemporal. They neither accumulate experience nor decay in time. They escape entropy: hence, the third stage in Smithson’s oeuvre.

At a certain point in his career, Smithson was sponsored (by Yale, I think) to go to Mexico and look at some of the Mayan and Aztec monuments and do something down there. Make some art. What he returned with (and here the difference between the tourist and the traveler makes all the difference) was a series of slides of an old hotel, still functioning but in an advanced state of decay. Smithson had discovered entropy as an idea worthy of aesthetic exploitation. The most famous of the works he would create from this conceptual field, before his tragic death, was Spiral Jetty.

With Spiral Jetty, Smithson does something that I haven’t seen any other artist, anywhere, at any time, do: he renders a concept material, without loss or compromise either to the concept or to the materiality of his art. (The piece that comes closest would have to be van Gogh’s Sunflowers, which are like—but not yet—material sunlight.) I don’t know how Smithson is able to achieve this. It might be because he is not dealing with just a concept but with a universal law; but Spiral Jetty—the object itself—is not just a representation of entropy. It is entropy. It is the very thing it points to. Spiral Jetty is one of those sites (and artists are creating more and more of them) where one can go as witness to and celebrant of a universal sacrament: in this case, the second law of thermodynamics. And in these secular-sacred places, to which all and sundry tourists are invited, the aura, undeniably, returns and abides.

Not a postscript: Some of us have been having a very interesting little discussion as a result of Morgan Meis’s delightful, compelling post on Jeff Koons last Monday. Check it out; leave a note. We’re at over 9,000 words already (scroll down to the comments).

Monday Musing: Ghettos of the Mind, or What tells us about ourselves

It’s been a while since I’ve indulged my fascination with how the Internet allows us to glean some insights about ourselves.  In the past I’ve posted about the research of Edward Castranova, who has done studies of trade and norms in the worlds of massive multiplayer online role playing games. I was then taken by the work of the linguist who used “Hot or Not” to test if names added to whether we find someone attractive or not.

I was reminded of these uses of the net recently when reading an article about Edward Klein’s The Truth About Hillary Clinton.  The book, by all accounts, is a shrill screed about the deviousness and radicalism of Hillary Clinton, and takes as one of its main charges that she’s either a lesbian or infused with the culture of lesbianism (whatever that may mean). “To Arkansans, she walked like a lesbian, talked like a lesbian, and looked like a lesbian.”The book itself sounds uninteresting, and may be so over the top that prominent conservatives have distanced themselves from it.

The article mentioned that an search reveals that those who purchased the book also purchased Unfit for Command and How to Talk to a Liberal, and books with titles like Treachery and The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, which, by the way managed to revolt The Weekly Standard. My first reaction to the list was to echo Wilde and think, “Wow, patriotism really is the virtue of the vicious.”

But my second reaction was curiosity.

About a year ago, I posted about an APSA [American Political Science Association] panel on blogs and mentioned the concern that Cass Sunstein raised in

“See only what you want to see, hear only what you want to hear, read only what you want to read. In cyberspace, we already have the ability to filter out everything but what we wish to see, hear, and read. Tomorrow, our power to filter promises to increase exponentially. With the advent of the Daily Me, you see only the sports highlights that concern your teams, read about only the issues that interest you, encounter in the op-ed pages only the opinions with which you agree. . . . Is it good for democracy? Is it healthy for the republic? What does this mean for freedom of speech?”

A dystopic future, resulting from personalization?  Maybe.

I did a similar search on Michael Oakeshott, to see what people who’d purchased Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, specifically, had also purchased. While there was a lot of Leo Strauss, there was also Hannah Arendt, Richard Rorty, John Rawls, Sheldon Wolin, and Alasdair McInstyre (though I’m never clear where to put McIntyre on the political spectrum, save far away from me, that’s for sure).

Trying Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom produced an even wider spectrum of thinkers—from Marx, to Sen, to Heilbroner, to Keynes, Schumpeter, Bhagwati, Smith and Ricardo, before hitting Thomas Sowell and von Hayek on the right. (Incidentally, people who purchased The Communist Manifesto also purchased Freidman, Keynes, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Darwin and Hobbes.)

Now, while I didn’t think it, I did have to see whether it was possible that people on the Left—using as a proxy popular books on the Left rather than things like A General Theory of Exploitation and Class—read more broadly than those on the right, as long as the books weren’t a screed. So I decided to see what people who were reading Arundhati Roy’s Power Politics were reading. Unsurprisingly, lots of Chomsky, lots and lots of Chomsky.

I decided to try Michael Moore—I was one anti-war, lefty who really, really didn’t like Fahrenheit 9/11. Amazon returned a lot of Al Franken, as well as Molly Ivins, Craig Unger. My first reaction to this was, “well, but these aren’t screeds,” before I decided that my own ideological dispositions made me more tolerant of them. I still think they’re more reasonable than their equivalents on the other side, but I’ll also acknowledge that the fact that they validate and echo more of my beliefs may color my judgment.

One thing was for sure, below some threshold of intellectual “seriousness”, people weren’t exposing themselves to a diversity of opinion.  This was clear. In so much as they were exposing themselves to information from the other side, it was filtered.

Not too long ago, Eszter Hargittai posted the findings of some of her research on Crooked Timber. She and her collaborators were testing Sunstein’s hypothesis, at least as he laid it out in

“Our work has focused on addressing two questions. First, we are interested in seeing the extent to which liberal and conservative bloggers interlink. Second, we want to see what kind of changes we may be able to observe over time. Sunstein’s thesis suggests that we would see very little if any cross-linking among liberal and conservative blogs and the cross-linking would diminish over time. We go about answering these questions using multiple methodologies. We counted links and calculated some measures to see how insular the conversations are within groups of blogs. We also did a content analysis of some of the posts in our sample. We continue to work on this project so these are just preliminary findings.”

Their preliminary conclusion:

“Overall, it would be incorrect to conclude that liberal bloggers are ignoring conservative bloggers or vice versa. Certainly, liberal bloggers are more likely to address liberal bloggers and conservative bloggers are more likely to link to conservative bloggers. But people from both groups are certainly reading across the ideological divide to some extent.”

But whether liberal bloggers and conservative bloggers, or liberal writers and conservative writers for that matter, are ignoring each other is not the question.  It’s clear that they’re not. Chomsky’s read a lot of Kissinger, and Al Franken has read a lot of Rush Limbaugh, just as Nozick thoroughly read Rawls. Rather the issue is whether, as readers, we get our information about what the other side thinks filtered through those who we agree with and look up to. Arguing with someone does require that we have an open enough mind to change our positions in the face of goods reasons.  You don’t have to sign on to whole of the Habermasian project to recognize that.

The very sad thing is that discussions have become almost entirely strategic and less communicative, as it were.  That strategy may solidify one’s base and insulate it from being convinced of anything else. But these reading habits point to increasingly entrenched ideas and outlooks (though there are exceptions), and sadly to a world in which people argue less and less, in that real way where we can hope to change each other’s minds.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Memoirs of a survivor

Ten years ago, at the age of 42, observer literary editor Robert McCrum suffered a devastating stroke which left him paralysed down his left side. during his extended convalescence, he wrote a memoir. It was meant to close the door on his illness, but instead it opened another into a parallel world of other people’s pain.”

From The Guardian:

Is it for our 10 fingers that we think in decades? The Twenties for jazz and the great crash; the Sixties for sex and flower power; the Eighties for greed; some decades stick out like a sore thumb. Others make no impression. I have my own millennial decade. It doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in the sight of eternity, but it means a lot to me. Ten years ago, I could look at my hands resting in front of me on the bedsheet, but not count beyond five. Ten years ago, my left side – hand, foot, arm and leg – was paralysed, lifeless. I was recovering from a stroke. Most doctors who looked at me said I could expect years, even decades, of immobility, possibly in a wheelchair. At the time, I was quite grateful. According to the statistics, I was lucky to be alive. Of the 150,000 strokes that occur in Britain each year, one third are fatal. So 28 July 1995 is a date I won’t forget in a hurry. Ten years on it seems like a dream, a hallucination, or a nightmare. Occasionally, in the morning, I will wake and wonder, “Did it really happen?” But of course it did; I have what doctors call the ‘deficits’ to prove it. For me, amid all the late-Nineties talk of the millennium, the apocalypse came early.

More here.

Where has all the money gone?

Ed Harriman follows the auditors into Iraq. From the London Review of Books:

Cred_rep_wingsPilfering was rife. Millions of dollars in cash went missing from the Iraqi Central Bank. Between $11 million and $26 million worth of Iraqi property sequestered by the CPA was unaccounted for. The payroll was padded with hundreds of ghost employees. Millions of dollars were paid to contractors for phantom work: $3,379,505 was billed, for example, for ‘personnel not in the field performing work’ and ‘other improper charges’ on a single oil pipeline repair contract. An Iraqi sports coach was paid $40,000 by the CPA. He gave it to a friend who gambled it away then wrote it off as a legitimate loss. ‘A complainant alleged that Iraqi Airlines was sold at a reduced price to an influential family with ties to the former regime. The investigation revealed that Iraqi Airlines was essentially dissolved, and there was no record of the transaction.’ Most of the 69 criminal investigations the CPA-IG instigated related to alleged ‘theft, fraud, waste, assault and extortion’. It also investigated ‘a number of other cases that, because of their sensitivity, cannot be included in this report’. At around this time, 19 billion new Iraqi dinars, worth about £6.5 million, were found on a plane in Lebanon which had been sent there by the American-appointed Iraqi interior minister.

More here.

The Mpemba Effect (or ‘an apology to Morgan’)

Last Friday night (yes, this is how we spend our weekends) Morgan asked Robin and me a question: is it true that hot water will freeze faster than cold water? Apparently, he had gotten into an argument with someone who pointed to the obvious absurdity of the statement, and Morgan couldn’t remember exactly why this is true, but Materials_lab1 did remember reading somewhere that it is in fact true. In a manner superior and smug enough to indicate my superior knowledge of physics, I informed Morgan that he was wrong, and as a reference, told him that I remember Cecil Adams tackling this silly myth in The Straight Dope column some years ago. Sure enough, a quick search of The Straight Dope archives revealed this:

Dear Cecil:

I have a friend who insists that filling an ice cube tray with warm water will cause the cubes to form more quickly than they would if you started with cold water. He said it had something to do with the air circulation around the trays being affected by the temperature.

Not knowing much about frigidity myself, but being contrary, not to mention skeptical, by nature, I expressed doubt. Cecil, was I right, or is there indeed some basis in fact for this foolishness? –Mary M.Q.C., Santa Barbarba, California

Cecil replies:

You were smart to let me handle this, Mary. God knows what would happen if you tried to experiment with ice cubes on your own.

Needless to say, I conducted my research in the calm and systematic manner that has long been the trademark of Straight Dope Labs. First, I finished off a half a pint of Haagen-Dazs I found in the fridge, in order to keep my brain supplied with vital nutrients.

Then I carefully measured a whole passel of water into the Straight Dope tea kettle and boiled it for about five minutes. This was so I could compare the freezing rate of boiled H20 with that of regular hot water from the tap. (Somehow I had the idea that water that had been boiled would freeze faster.)

Finally I put equal quantities of each type into trays in the freezer, checked the temp (125 degrees Fahrenheit all around), and sat back to wait, timing the process with my brand new Swatch watch, whose precision and smart styling have made it the number one choice of scientists the world over.

I subsequently did the same with two trays of cold water, which had been chilled down to a starting temperature of 38 degrees.

The results? The cold water froze about 10 or 15 minutes faster than the hot water, and there was no detectable difference between the boiled water and the other kind. Another old wives’ tale thus emphatically bites the dust. Science marches on.

However, a reader wrote in to say that Scientific American had an article about why hot water freezes faster than cold, and old Unca Cecil had to revise his conclusion:

I know it must unnerve you to find that a supposedly infallible source of wisdom can make mistakes, so let me hasten to reassure you: Scientific American did not screw up. My results and theirs (specifically, those of Jearl Walker, author of SA’s “Amateur Scientist” column) are consistent–we were just working in different temperature ranges.

I found that cold water (38 degrees Fahrenheit) froze faster than hot water out of the tap (125 degrees F). I chose these two temperatures because (1) they were pretty much what the average amateur ice-cube maker would have readily available and (2) I couldn’t find a mercury thermometer that went higher than 125 degrees.

Jearl, who is not afflicted with penny-pinching editors like some of the rest of us, was able to get his mitts on a thermocouple that could measure as high as the boiling point, 212 degrees F. He found that water heated to, say, 195 degrees would freeze three to ten minutes faster than water at 140-175 degrees. (There were differences depending on how much water was used, where the thermocouple was placed, and so on.)

Jearl suggested that the most likely explanation for this was evaporation: when water cools down from near boiling to the freezing point, as much as 16 percent evaporates away, compared to 7 percent for water at 160 degrees. The smaller the amount of water, of course, the faster it freezes.

In addition, the water vapor carries away a certain amount of heat. To test this theory, Jearl covered his lab beaker with Saran Wrap to prevent water vapor from escaping. The freezing rate difference was greatly diminished. Conceivably convection (motion within the water) also plays a role.

Fascinating as all this no doubt is, all it basically proves is that very hot water freezes more slowly than very VERY hot water. The ordinary fumbler in the fridge, on the other hand, is dealing with temps more like the ones I was measuring, in which case cold freezes faster than hot. I rest my case.

You can see the Straight Dope page here. However, this is not the whole story either. Apparently the phenomenon in question is known as the Mpemba Effect after a Tanzanian high school student who discovered it in 1969. There is more to the story, and the possible mechanisms behind this anomalous effect here, here, here, here, and from Scientific American’s “Ask the Experts” column here.

My apologies to Morgan. (But I did double check. Can I get partial credit?)