A new state of matter: a supersolid

“Quantum mechanics has done it again. In an experiment with supercooled helium, researchers at Penn State say they have found that as a solid ring spins around, part of it can remain perfectly still.

At ultracold temperatures, matter often behaves far differently than it does in everyday experience. For instance, many materials turn into superconductors, able to conduct electricity with no resistance, because electrons coalesce and move in synchrony without hitting the surrounding lattice of atoms.

In a similar way, other materials at low temperatures become superfluids, which flow without viscosity to slow them down.

The new experiment suggests a new state of matter: a supersolid.”

More here from the New York Times.

In Nicaragua, a Language Is Born

“Since 1977, deaf children in Nicaragua have been creating an increasingly sophisticated system of hand signals to communicate. Successive generations of children have, on their own, introduced new features that are found only in true languages, according to a report published today in Science. ‘They’re creating language out of gesture,’ says lead author Ann Senghas of Barnard College.”

More here from Scientific American.

Does politicisation of history adversely affect its study?

Via politicaltheory.info and touching on some earlier posts (this and this) on what’s happening to history in the subcontinent, six prominent Indian historians try to answer the questions:

“Does politicisation of history adversely affect its study? Are historians hesitant to publish findings that might provoke certain political or religious factions?

Have intimidation tactics by the right wing worked? Have incidents like the violent backlash to James Laine’s book on Shivaji cast a ripple of fear amongst scholars?

If truth is the first casualty in the war to define our identity as Indians, are historians the next victims?”

The Economists’ Voice is finally out

The first issue of The Economists’ Voice is out. The Economists’ Voice

” . . . is a non-partisan forum for economists to present innovative policy ideas or engaging commentary on the issues of the day. Readers include professional economists, lawyers, policy analysts, policymakers, and students of economics. Articles are short, 600-2000 words, and intended to contain deeper analysis than is found on the Op-Ed page of the Wall Street Journal or New York Times, but to be of comparable general interest. Regular columnists with voices from across the political spectrum write several ‘Columns’ each year. Our ‘Features’ section welcomes submissions from any professional economist and is peer reviewed. . .

Why this journal?

Although much of what economists write is ‘inside baseball’ – written for a small audience of specialists — economists have much to contribute to the public debate on a wide range of policy issues. We believe that anyone concerned about the central issues of the day, whether they are students, policy makers, or other citizens, would benefit from hearing economists debate what should be done about problems from budget balancing to global development, from intellectual property to outsourcing, from health care reform to how to provide old age security. The Economists’ Voice creates a forum for readable ideas and analysis by leading economists on vital issues of our day.”

It’s edited by Joseph Stiglitz, J. Bradford De Long, and Aaron Edlin. Columnists include three Nobel Prize winners– George Akerlof, Douglass North, and Joseph Stiglitz–and some very accomplished economists, legal experts, and management theorists (Paul Krugman, Richard Posner, and Glenn Hubbard, to name three).

Check out the first issue. (Posner has a piece that illuminates the issue of copyright which I touched on in my earlier posts about open source: certainly worth a read.) Or check out the synopses of the articles in the first issue by De Long on his blog.

Florida Redux

From alternet.org:

“In some states, Republicans are threatening to conduct widespread vote challenges in heavily minority areas. In others, recent events suggest that poll workers may wrongly turn away voters. In still others, new laws passed or enforced by Republicans have erected hurdles to trip up the minority vote. And on Election Day itself, say advocates, Republicans may direct numerous tricks at Democratic districts in an effort to confuse or frighten voters.

Here’s a rundown of what’s happening in several swing states.”

For a different side to this debate, see Sughra Raza’s recent post on the ubiquitous nature of electoral fraud.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Art for your Mobile Phone

Relating to my recent post about films for cell phones, Marko Ahtisaari has just pointed this out:

Connect to Art is a collection of modern art for your mobile Nokia phone. This new media of art is innovative and inspiring. It’s always with you, you can create a collection of your own!

Connect to Art represents art from known and established artists aswell as interesting new comers. New exhibitions open up frequently.

This website is an introduction to the mobile art collection. To experience the art, connect to our mobile site and download the work of art into your phone. The easiest way to download art is to send a WAP link into phone – from the left corner of each page. The link can also be typed manually.”

Go here for the art.

‘On the Wing’: You Are What They Eat

“Alan Tennant’s ‘On the Wing’ [is] a straightforward narrative that gradually evolves into a complex narrative that connects the origins of life with its uncertain future.

It begins in a battered single-engine Cessna Skyhawk 2,000 feet above a sandy plain the size of Connecticut — great tidal flats off Padre Island on the Gulf Coast in Texas, home to more than 300 species of resident, wintering and migratory birds, including Falco peregrinus tundrius, the fabled arctic peregrine falcons. These tiny acrobatic raptor-hunters are perfectly adapted creatures of the air. They fling themselves into surging updrafts to be lofted into the high, thin sky from which their astonishing eyesight lets them spot the smallest prey. Then, tucking in their wings, they fall, heaven-thrown darts, unfolding at the last moment to expose razor-sharp talons. Unwary doves, luckless cormorants or distracted gulls never quite know what’s hit them when the falcon rips past at suicide velocity, leaving behind a curved gash to the bone.”

Book review here by Homer Hickam in the New York Times.

A Celebration of Cell-Phone Film

“As filmmaking and digital technology grow ever more intertwined, scores of internet-related film festivals are creating forums to celebrate the marriage. But now one of the pioneers of such events is taking the film festival onto altogether new ground: the cell phone.

This month, Zoie Films, an Atlanta producer of independent films and festivals, began accepting entries for what it says is the world’s first cell-phone film festival. And while it might be difficult for some to imagine films that would work on 1- or 2-inch screens, Zoie’s founder, Victoria Weston, thinks the medium offers filmmakers — who are already used to creating films for computer screens — a rich palette with which to work.”

More here from Wired.

Nature talks to Bush and Kerry on science policy

From Nature:

“In the build-up to the US presidential election, science is making a sizeable impact on the political agenda. But what will another four years of George W. Bush mean for science, compared with a term under Democratic challenger John Kerry? . . . To find out, Nature has asked the two candidates 15 questions about their science policies.”

Their answers are available in an interactive form as well as in a printable pdf version.

My new favorite search engine

Here’s a new search engine, which, as near as I’ve been able to gather, is awesome. A9.com, in its own words:

We are inventing new ways to take search one step farther and make it more effective. We provide a unique set of powerful features to find information, organize it, and remember it—all in one place. A9.com is a powerful search engine, using web search and image search results enhanced by Google, Search Inside the Book™ results from Amazon.com, reference results from GuruNet, movies results from IMDb, and more.

A9.com remembers your information. You can keep your own notes about any web page and search them; it is a new way to store and organize your bookmarks; it even recommends new sites and favorite old sites specifically for you to visit. With the A9 Toolbar all your web browsing history will be stored, allowing you (and only you!) to retrieve it at any time and even search it; it will tell you if you have any new search results, or the last time you visited a page.

Deconstructing the Gaze of Rembrandt

“There was his sensitivity to human character, his grasp of light and shade, his virtuoso hand with a brush. But Rembrandt’s self-portraits reveal another characteristic that may have contributed to his genius: a walleye.

Having studied 36 of those rather unforgiving self-portraits, a neuroscientist suggests that Rembrandt was stereoblind – that is, because his eyes did not align correctly, his brain automatically used one eye for many visual tasks. This may have allowed him to flatten images automatically as he observed the world, and then transfer that perspective onto the two-dimensional canvas, says Margaret S. Livingstone, a professor of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School.”

More here from the New York Times.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

A new manifesto from France

Via Dissent, an unemployed French-Muslim proofreader and unionist has written this manifesto of liberties. (In French, here.) It appears to be more a Mulsim manifesto aimed at fighting reactionary politics.

“Etre de culture musulmane et contre la misogynie, l’homophobie, l’antisémitisme et l’islam politique.” [trans–“We are of Muslim culture, we oppose misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism and the political use of Islam. We reassert a living secularism.”]

It’s attracting a number of signatories; see here and here.

Ajami on Terror

Ajami has a tendency to get people riled up. Some see him as an aplogist for all that’s wrong about American Imperialism. Others simply have their doubts. And another group simply values the voice he brings to the table. Probably it is best to decide for oneself. Here is an influential article he wrote last year. Here is something brand new. Something on Al Jazeera. An interesting response to Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilations’ thesis can be found here. Finally, his minor classic The Arab Predicament is worth reading whatever one thinks of the man.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

On the significance of anti-Americanism in Eastern Europe

Fareed Zakaria has this to say about the rest of the world these days:

“[I]n recent elections in Brazil, Germany, Pakistan, Kuwait, and Spain, the United States became a campaign issue. In all these places, resisting U.S. power won votes. Nationalism in many countries is being defined in part as anti-Americanism: Can you stand up to the superpower?”

I think that anti-Americanism is in fact plural. French anti-Americanism sounds more a judgment on culture and civilization, a lament of a telos lost, whereas those of others such as Latin Americans appear much more a criticism of policies, unadorned and unframed by grand evaluations of the prospects for world-history. Similarly, the role anti-Americanism plays in European nationalisms (and whatever embryonic European supra-nationalism exists) is very different from the one it plays in say Latin American nationalisms. In the former, I personally hear echoes of resentiment, even when I agree with Europe. Only Germany and the Netherlands have majorities which are opposed to increasing defense expenditure in order to become a military superpower. It’s this sort of stuff that makes European anti-Americanism irritating.

But there are greater worrisome trends. Eastern Europe has generally not embraced anti-American sentiment. Instead, it had been a bastion of support for the United States. And given their own experiences of occupation and subjugation, they were largely enthusiastic about the invasion of Iraq, seeing in it a wish that the US had done likewise and overthrown Eastern European dictatorships in earlier decades. But that appears to have changed as this survey taken by the German Marshall Fund and the Compagnia di San Paolo suggests. (Via politicaltheory.info.) Taking a close look at the details of the findings, one is surprised to find that Poland, once the most pro-American of European states, is now least supportive of having troops in Afghanistan. Poles are also the most likely to believe that European should spend more on their militaries in order to “protect” their interests separately from the United States. All of this is a mere 2 years.

Friday, September 17, 2004

The restricted diet for pregnant women

A pregnant Sara Dickerman wonders about why she can’t eat what she isn’t allowed to eat.

I’m in my eighth month of pregnancy, and so far I have sheepishly eaten several slivers of air-dried Serrano ham, a few crumbles of blue cheese, and one shimmering piece of yellowtail nigiri. Then, there’s the red wine. It started with furtive thimblefuls (just to taste a new wine at the restaurant where I work!) but has spiraled out of control into a biweekly half-glass. All of these items are on the do-not-consume list for pregnant women, but no one seems to be able to tell me how much of a risk occasional lapses like mine pose to my baby.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Religion and education in the subcontinent

That history, culture and religion are being tortured in schools across South Asia is disputed only by those who design and endorse the curriculum. Most of the focus is, of course, on the madrasses in Pakistan, especially following 9/11 and the renewed interest in the Taleban. (Here’s a fairly detailed look at madrasses in Pakistan.) Much less attention has been paid to the 20,000 Vidya Bharati schools run by the Sangh parivar. This review of D. N. Jha, The Myth of the Holy Cow by Susan Watkins published sometime ago in The New Left Review may help people become aware of the neglected side of indoctrination in the subcontinent.

“That Jesus roamed the Himalayas, absorbing Vedic wisdom from the gurus he encountered; that the human race originated in Tibet; that the gods reside in the body of the cow, mother of us all—all this has long been taught as established fact in the 20,000 Vidya Bharati schools run under the auspices of the Sangh parivar, the hardline Hindu-nationalist network that lies behind India’s ruling party, the BJP. The Vidya Bharati agenda has already been introduced into primary and secondary schools in BJP-run states, where education policy is often a pawn in coalition deals with regional parties. In 2001, the Sangh-dominated National Council of Educational Research and Training began deleting and rewriting sections of the history textbooks—removing, among other things, any reference to Indian traditions of eating beef. In January 2002, NCERT produced a new history syllabus, founded on its ‘value-based’ national curriculum framework for the country’s schools, which had proposed introducing courses on Vedic mathematics and a ‘spirituality quotient’ as a form of academic assessment.”

Review of The First Idea

Via politicaltheory.info, here’s a review of The First Idea: How Symbols, Language, and Intelligence Evolved from our Primate Ancestors to Modern Humans by Stanley Greenspan and Stuart Shanker.

“Here is a book that gives new meaning to the old saying, ‘The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.’ Its authors, one a psychiatrist and the other a psychologist and philosopher, have teamed up to tackle the momentous question of how humans developed language. Fearing not to challenge some of the heavyweights of modern science, from Jean Piaget to Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker, they present their own theory: The development of language is connected primarily with affect rather than cognition, with the emotional learning that occurs in infants in the arms of those who love them. That is, language is rooted not in genes, not in the wiring of brains, but in behaviors we have learned over millenniums.”

Voting cats (and dogs)

Here’s an eye opener:

“A RECENT story that didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved was the New York Daily News report that 46,000 registered New York City voters are also registered to vote in Florida. Nearly 1,700 of them have had absentee ballots mailed to their home in the other state, and as many as 1,000 have voted twice in the same election. Can 1,000 fraudulent votes change an election? Well, George W. Bush won Florida in 2000 by just 537 votes.”
Writes Jeff Jacoby in today’s Boston Globe, who goes on to say:

” … I registered my wife’s cat as a voter in Cook County, Ill., Norfolk County, Mass., and Cuyahoga County, Ohio, and then requested absentee ballots from all three venues. My purpose wasn’t to cast illegal multiple votes but to demonstrate how vulnerable to manipulation America’s election system has become.

It was a simple scam to pull off. “Under the National Voter Registration Act — the `Motor Voter Law’ — states are required to accept voter registrations by mail,” …

… The drift toward Third World-caliber elections in the most advanced democracy in the world is scandalous. Then again, if Americans can’t be bothered to scrub the voting rolls or to make sure that voters are properly ID’d, maybe they’ve got the election system they deserve.”

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Linux, Wikipedia and Karl Marx

Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber points to this paper by Dan Hunter at Wharton on the open source movement. (The comments to Farrell’s post are worth considering as well.)

Hunter sees in the open source movement the specter of Karl Marx.

“[M]uch of copyright and patent has come under attack from those who suggest that capture by private interests has had a pernicious influence on public policy. In the related areas of telecommunication spectrum management and internet regulation there have emerged strong arguments for not allocating private property interests, and instead considering these domains as commons property. I suggest that, together, these developments form part of a culture war, a war over the means of production of creative content in our society. I argue that the best way to understand this war is to view it as a Marxist struggle. However, I suggest that copyright and patent reform – where commentators have actually been accused of Marxism – is not where the Marxist revolution is taking place. Instead I locate that revolution elsewhere, most notably in the rise of open source production and dissemination of cultural content.”

Hunter is not the only one who sees a different mode of production based on a type of common property. Of course, it does help that software, unlike say oil or land, is not exhausted in its use and for which consumption is not rival (my use of the good doesn’t come at the expense of your use). In effect, software is sort of “super-abundant”.

I’m not sure how useful Marxism is here. Copyright has always posed a problem for Marxian theory. As a product of law, copyright is a superstructural effect that is determined by the forces of production (and the imperative of its development). The problem is that for intellectual property, copyright enables its development by provding an incentive to develop (the development comes at the expense of optimal use). Developers can capture much if the value of their intellectual effort. The law, part of the “superstructure”, to use Marxian terminology, determines part of the “base”, the productive force, and does not merely stabilize it. The “effective power” over the property here is produced by law, and not vice versa.

But something is clearly going on. There are nearly 4,000 free software programs (some very sophisticated at that) at gnu alone, all of which have been copylefted. (See also Brad de Long and Michael Froomkin’s thoughts on open source in this paper.)

What motivates people to provide these goods is a huge question. Of course, between state and market are a host of social formations with complex incentive structures–family, community and even the individual with his/her own psychic gratification in producing things, to take three. Economics is trying hard to integrate the phenomenon and answer the question. Those interested can find possible answers here, here, here, here and here.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Hearing Colors, Tasting Shapes

“When Matthew Blakeslee shapes hamburger patties with his hands, he experiences a vivid bitter taste in his mouth. Esmerelda Jones (a pseudonym) sees blue when she listens to the note C sharp played on the piano; other notes evoke different hues–so much so that the piano keys are actually color-coded, making it easier for her to remember and play musical scales. And when Jeff Coleman looks at printed black numbers, he sees them in color, each a different hue. Blakeslee, Jones and Coleman are among a handful of otherwise normal people who have synesthesia. They experience the ordinary world in extraordinary ways and seem to inhabit a mysterious no-man’s-land between fantasy and reality. For them the senses–touch, taste, hearing, vision and smell–get mixed up instead of remaining separate.

Modern scientists have known about synesthesia since 1880, when Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, published a paper in Nature on the phenomenon. But most have brushed it aside as fakery, an artifact of drug use (LSD and mescaline can produce similar effects) or a mere curiosity. About four years ago, however, we and others began to uncover brain processes that could account for synesthesia. Along the way, we also found new clues to some of the most mysterious aspects of the human mind, such as the emergence of abstract thought, metaphor and perhaps even language.”

Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Edward M. Hubbard write about synesthesia here in Scientific American. (See also my earlier post about V.S. Ramachandran here.)