Early Black Holes May Have Heated the Universe

Michael Schirber in Space.com:

Though invisible, big black holes are not hard to find. Astronomers have noted evidence in the center of many galaxies for supermassive black holes weighing millions to billions of times our Sun.

Where these huge holes came from is an open question. One theory is that they are the result of a progressive build-up of smaller black holes, starting from the stellar mass black holes that formed from the explosions of the first stars.

If this hierarchical formation is true, then some of the middle stages between the 10-solar-mass acorns and the billion-solar-mass oaks should still be around. Yet confirmation of these intermediate mass black holes has been difficult to come by.

More here.

Emails ‘pose threat to IQ’

Martin Wainwright in The Guardian:

The distractions of constant emails, text and phone messages are a greater threat to IQ and concentration than taking cannabis, according to a survey of befuddled volunteers.

Doziness, lethargy and an increasing inability to focus reached “startling” levels in the trials by 1,100 people, who also demonstrated that emails in particular have an addictive, drug-like grip.

Respondents’ minds were all over the place as they faced new questions and challenges every time an email dropped into their inbox. Productivity at work was damaged and the effect on staff who could not resist trying to juggle new messages with existing work was the equivalent, over a day, to the loss of a night’s sleep.

More here.

Murakami and the Aesthetics of Imperfection

‘…this tale of two people’s struggles to escape/fulfill an unknowingly shared fate is at once absurdly fun and highly sentimental. Murakami’s voice — detached but not indifferent, sympathetic but never mawkish — comes through most clearly in that of a supporting character, a young androgyne librarian, who says to Kafka, “A certain type of perfection can only be realized through a limitless accumulation of the imperfect. And personally, I find that encouraging.” Perfect.’

From Jon Zobenica’s Atlantic review of Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore.

Highly Sentimental? Not the right words for Murakami’s aesthetic, although when you try to think of another phrase it isn’t easy. But with his emphasis on imperfection, Zobenica is on to something.

He’s Right: The novel is rich and strange and exceedingly wonderful. It shouldn’t work, but it does. The Murakami sensation is one of the most positive signs I’ve seen about the existence of under-served intelligent young American readers.

Whatever happened to machines that think?

Justin Mullins in New Scientist:

In the next few months, after being patiently nurtured for 22 years, an artificial brain called Cyc (pronounced “psych”) will be put online for the world to interact with. And it’s only going to get cleverer. Opening Cyc up to the masses is expected to accelerate the rate at which it learns, giving it access to the combined knowledge of millions of people around the globe as it hoovers up new facts from web pages, webcams and data entered manually by anyone who wants to contribute.

Crucially, Cyc’s creator says it has developed a human trait no other AI system has managed to imitate: common sense. “I believe we are heading towards a singularity and we will see it in less than 10 years,” says Doug Lenat of Cycorp, the system’s creator.

More here.  And also see my earlier post about Cyc here.

The “Virtue” of Lust?

W. Jay Wood reviews Lust by Simon Blackburn in Christianity Today:

Blackburn is a prolific writer of both popular and professional philosophy, an outstanding essayist, and an insightful reviewer of books, whose sparkling prose customarily displays philosophical skill and evident wit. Lust doesn’t lack in stylistic grace and wit, but its ground note is a smirking satisfaction with its own provocations, and its treatment of opposing views falls well below Blackburn’s usual standard.

At least the reader is forewarned. Blackburn announces at the outset that he has no intention of writing a book about the sin of lust, an intention he admirably fulfills—which may be all to the good, since he appears to lack any developed notion of sin and, even if he has one, he doesn’t think lust qualifies as a sin. He knows quite well, of course, what reputation religious tradition, common sense, and ordinary language have assigned to his subject: “Lust is furtive, ashamed, and embarrassed”; “Lust pursues its own gratification, headlong, impatient of any control, immune to reason”; “Lust looks sideways, inventing deceits and stratagems and seductions, sizing up opportunities”; “Lust subverts propriety” and is “like living shackled to a lunatic.”

More here.

Monday, April 25, 2005

More on Capote

The trouble with being a bad boy is that people don’t remember you were once very, very good. In author Truman Ca­pote’s last years, his cringingly public displays of drunkenness and drug use caused old friends to wring their hands over his squandered talent. By his death in 1984, the shambles of his personal life had dwarfed his literary reputation.’

From The Wilson Quarterly’s Periodical Observer, on Brooke Allen’s “Capote Reconsidered,” in The New Criterion.

Monday Musings: On Suicide Killers

Our friend Ram recently gave a talk at the Asia Society here in New York on the tsunami and peace in Sri Lanka. It touched on a larger question, or an antecedent question: can you negotiate with people who use suicide bombers?

The LTTE in Sri Lanka has been responsible for the majority of suicide bombings in the recent decades, and it has done so for explicitly secular nationalist reasons with bombers who are largely Hindu and Christian. Ram’s take is that while he doesn’t know whether you can negotiate peace with those who use suicide killers, he thinks that negotiations can delay war. The Sri Lankan state, of course, has little choice, given the balance of forces.

Certainly, states negotiate with people who use terrorism quite often. And the world accepts people who used terrorism to achieve political aims. This is as true of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir (their Irgun and Lehi past respectively) as it is of Arafat or the ANC. And most terrorist groups, I suspect, would gladly trade resources and methods with their adversaries.

Suicide bombing conjures up different images. Morally, there is little difference from a suicide bomber who kills civilians and a terrorist who fires a rocket propelled grenade into a crowd of civilians, except that the latter may still be left to carry out another attack. But we have this image of suicide bombers as beyond reason, negotiation, and self-interest. That is, it’s hard to imagine what could possibly reach them, what, short of total surrender could appease them if they’re willing to so far as kill themselves in this way.

This image, of course, confuses the bombers themselves, with those who use them. (Or perhaps not entirely.) One can’t really imagine the Old Man of the Mountain, the leader of the Assassins, one of history’s early suicide killers, himself carrying out a suicide attack, or beyond negotiation. Bin Laden’s video message just before the elections seemed in this line and an offer to negotiate. Needless to say, this is not at all the same as saying that one should in this instance, but rather it is to raise the question of can one (in the sense of possible) negotiate with those who use suicide terrorism.

My old classmate Mia Bloom, author of Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror, met with the LTTE in 2002, as she was conducting surveys of Tamils in LTTE controlled regions. Her impressions and experience are telling.

“I remarked how friendly everyone was and asked the guard, ‘Is he [Secretary-General of the LTTE Peace Secretariat S. Puleedevan] a killer?’

The guard smiled: ‘Oh yeah.’ I never expected terrorists to be so pleasant.

. . .

Puleedevan acknowledged that after Sept. 11, 2001, the tactics that had worked so well for them in the past were no longer appropriate.”

What that all says and means is unclear? If those who use suicide bombers appear more open to reason, to appeals of self-interest, and negotiation, then they seem more morally culpable than before, as the actions seem less born of insanity than of strategic calculation and moral choice. And if that’s the case, then perhaps some states do not have the luxury of not talking to them and trying to appeal to reason.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Could cyberspace be the novel’s best friend?

From the Village Voice:

Shakespeare_1 Literati are increasingly turning to the blogs for discussion, gossip, analysis, and a sense of community. Inevitably, publishers have noticed the power of these informal networks to generate word-of-mouth buzz—the holy grail of marketing—and are looking for ways to harness it. In turn, many bloggerati are on the verge of becoming that contradiction in terms, the professional enthusiast. So what happens now, when these amateurs are faced with the chance to wield influence and become insiders?

More here.

The Psychology of Abu Ghraib: Elite Thought and Iraqi Prisoner Abuse

From Newtopia Magazine:

Abughraib_1 The Shadow, the fictional hero of pulp magazines and classic radios, used to begin every show with the rhetorical question, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” Recent reports of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib have had the world asking the same question. According to a United States Army report, the abuses included:

  • Punching, slapping, and kicking detainees; jumping on their naked feet;
  • Forcibly arranging detainees in various sexually explicit positions for photographing;
  • Forcing detainees to remove their clothing and keeping them naked for several days at a time;
  • Forcing naked male detainees to wear women’s underwear;

More here.


Sanford Schwartz in the New York Review of Books:

For well over half a century, Salvador Dalí has been internationally famous for the sexy and deranged subject matter of his paintings, for his personal nuttiness, flamboyance, and grandiosity, and for the demoralizing way in which he destroyed the borders between creativity and commercial self-promotion. He was a huge character; indeed, he often said, in that simultaneously boastful, cynical, and self-deprecating manner that he perfected, that it was his “personality” that was his greatest achievement. At other times he might announce to the world that his writing was his real achievement, and his painting the “least” of him. Yet what is most solid and substantial about Dalí is very specific and not wildly complex qualities: the particular gleaming surfaces of his paintings, with their often large areas of a single, pulsating color; his feeling for the transient, soft light of dawn or dusk and for the brilliantly hard light of a sunny summer afternoon by the Mediterranean; and his astounding ability to delineate and make us feel the simmering strength in tiny, tightly wound concentrations of lines, dots, or shapes.

More here.

Mess with the body clock at your peril

Helen Phillips in New Scientist:

The way patterns of shift work are organised could be causing major health problems, according to a pair of reports commissioned by the UK government body that regulates workplace safety.

The reports, prepared for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), show that offshore oil workers adopting the most popular shift pattern have a higher risk of heart disease and diabetes. This pattern also makes workers more tired and inattentive, increasing the chance of accidents and mistakes.

More here.

If you can’t master English, try Globish

Mary Blume in the International Herald Tribune:

It happens all the time: during an airport delay the man to the left, a Korean perhaps, starts talking to the man opposite, who might be Colombian, and soon they are chatting away in what seems to be English. But the native English speaker sitting between them cannot understand a word.

They don’t know it, but the Korean and the Colombian are speaking Globish, the latest addition to the 6,800 languages that are said to be spoken across the world. Not that its inventor, Jean-Paul Nerrière, considers it a proper language.

More here.

Watching TV Makes You Smarter

I knew there must be a reason I watch so much TV! Steven Johnson in the New York Times Magazine:

For decades, we’ve worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a path declining steadily toward lowest-common-denominator standards, presumably because the ”masses” want dumb, simple pleasures and big media companies try to give the masses what they want. But as that ”24” episode suggests, the exact opposite is happening: the culture is getting more cognitively demanding, not less. To make sense of an episode of ”24,” you have to integrate far more information than you would have a few decades ago watching a comparable show. Beneath the violence and the ethnic stereotypes, another trend appears: to keep up with entertainment like ”24,” you have to pay attention, make inferences, track shifting social relationships. This is what I call the Sleeper Curve: the most debased forms of mass diversion — video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms — turn out to be nutritional after all.

I believe that the Sleeper Curve is the single most important new force altering the mental development of young people today, and I believe it is largely a force for good: enhancing our cognitive faculties, not dumbing them down.

More here.

THE BUTCHER OF AMRITSAR: General Reginald Dyer

From The London Times:

Amritsar_1 When the Queen visited India in 1997, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of independence, the Duke of Edinburgh put his foot in it in the customary way. Entering Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, he saw a plaque that stated, “This ground is hallowed with the mingled blood of about 2,000 innocent Hindus, Sikhs, and Mussulmans who were shot by British bullets on 13 April, 1919.” The duke suggested that the figure was an exaggeration. There were protests in Delhi by Sikh organisations and an official banquet was cancelled. Almost as inflammatory as the Amritsar massacre was Dyer’s insistence a few days later that Indians using a street where an Englishwoman had been assaulted would have to crawl down it. The local press saw the order as a racial insult, and Gandhi viewed it as more serious than the massacre itself.

More here.

Treasure Island vs. Star Wars

Bruce Sterling writes in Domus magazine (on-line registration required) about the similiarities of science fiction and design, using an unrealized project for a sci-fi version of stevenson’s novel “Treasure Island”880isola_15_big1

“Forty years ago, it was unheard of to turn a science fiction movie into a springboard for product design. But it almost happened. And it almost happened in Italy, where famed industrial designer and architect Achille Castiglioni and his brother Pier Giacomo once did the set design for a Space Age science fiction film. The director in question was Renato Castellani, an Italian neorealist and man-about-Milan who had met the Castiglioni brothers at university. For some reason – probably sheer youthful brio – Castellani became obsessed with Robert Louis Stevenson’s adventure classic, Treasure Island.”

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Slime-mold Beetles Named for Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld

From Live Science:

Three new beetles of the genus Agathidium have been named after members of the current administration: A. bushi, A. cheneyi and A. rumsfeldi.

Beetle_01 Two former Cornell University entomologists, Quentin Wheeler and Kelly Miller, were in charge of naming 65 new species of slime-mold beetles, which they discovered while studying the insects’ evolution and classification. Wheeler, who is now head of entomology at the Natural History Museum in London, said that the choice to name beetles after President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was out of admiration for their principles, not because they look like the beetles.

More here. (Thanks to Dr. James Rooney).

Friday, April 22, 2005

Einstein and Darwin: A tale of two theories

Alan Boyle in MSNBC:

Q&A with ‘Origins’ astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson

Einstein_darwin_combo One scientist came up with a new way of explaining how biology works. A generation later, the other one came up with a new way of explaining how physics works. Today, after a century of scrutiny, both explanations still pretty much hold up. But in popular culture, physicist Albert Einstein is idolized, while biologist Charles Darwin’s legacy is clouded  with controversy.

More here.

Dig down to the roots

Book_3 From The Guardian:

Tabish Khair admires Siddhartha Deb and Aamer Hussein, two storytellers who combine the cosmopolitan with the provincial in Surface and This Other Salt
The narrator of one of Aamer Hussein’s stories invokes the familiar exilic image of trees and roots. Only he is not talking of rooted trees but of transplanted ones: “A tree removed from its native soil and planted elsewhere puts down new roots, twisted ones, perhaps, but its trunk grows heavy.” This oblique use of a familiar image says a lot about Hussein’s subtle art; it also reveals a link between Hussein and Siddhartha Deb. Their roots might twist through many cultures and histories, but the foliage of their storytelling is remarkably lush – and not just cosmopolitan.

More here.