A new electronic guide tailors information to the spot on which you’re standing

Nicholas Roe in The Telegraph:

It’s the size of a postcard and has a small colour television screen with earphones snaking to a slot in the bottom. When I walk a few yards to my right… ping! A bell shrills in my ear and the screen bursts into life.

A cheery voice declares, “You have walked into an interactive area.” And what begins is a visitor experience like no other I’ve had. This tiny electronic prototype, called an Explorer, detects exactly where I’m standing within the 850-acre parkland surrounding Ashton Court, because it’s equipped with an internal Global Positioning System (GPS) based on satellite signals, accurate to within about three yards.

On screen, I see myself as a little red dot moving slowly over the grass. Depending on where I wander, an entirely different heritage or cultural story is presented through a combination of pictures, sound effects and narrative, all related to where I’m standing and what I’m looking at.

I walk to the bottom of the lawn. Ping! With the sweeping façade of Ashton Court spread like a film set, the screen shows me how the building has changed over the centuries, images building upon images as a voiceover explains why the place looks as it does now.

More here.

How ‘Green’ Is Home Cooking?

Janet Raloff in Science News Online:

F6392_168Which is better for the environment: a meal cooked from scratch at home or a packaged frozen or freeze-dried meal cooked up in distant industrial kitchens and trucked to supermarkets? Most consumers would guess the former, notes environmental engineer Ulf Sonesson. Even many food scientists would vote for home cooking as the greener option, he says.

However, those guesses probably wouldn’t be taking into account economies of scale in food companies’ mass preparation of meals, says Sonesson.

Indeed, when he and his team at the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology made calculations including such efficiencies, they found no big difference between the environmental footprints of home-cooked versus ready-to-eat fare. Each means of putting food on the table has environmental advantages and disadvantages that, in the end, “even each other out,” the researchers concluded.

A major reason the resource costs of the two different types of meals are so similar, overall, is that cooking itself contributes comparatively little to environmental costs of a meal. Most impacts instead occur around the farm or in the marketplace—upstream of food preparation—and contribute comparably to meals, regardless of where they’re cooked.

More here.

Katinka Matson’s Scanner Art Fascinates With Intensive Clarity


Andrian Keye at Edge.org:

Ever since Marcel Duchamp mounted the front wheel of a bycicle onto a bar stool, the anarchic use of everyday technologies has been part of the standard repertoire of Modern Art. Usually such works question our perception by distorting reality. The flower images by the New York artist Katinka Matson are different for their exactness and completeness: the surreal aura of her pictures come from their enormous clarity. The flowers seem to radiate from the inside and the details are recognizable into the last fiber as though they were being viewed under a magnifying glass.

More here.

Forgery and Plagiarism

Denis Dutton in the Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics:

Dutton200FORGERY and PLAGIARISM are both forms of fraud. In committing art forgery I claim my work is by another person. As a plagiarist, I claim another person’s work is my own. In forgery, someone’s name is stolen in order to add value to the wrong work; in plagiarism someone’s work is stolen in order to give credit to the wrong author.


The art world is as much infected as other areas of human enterprise by greed and ambition. Artists and art dealers seek recognition and wealth, and they often deal with art collectors more interested in the investment potential of their acquisitions than in intrinsic aesthetic merit. In this climate of values and desires, it is not surprising that poseurs and frauds will flourish. Works of sculpture and painting are material objects whose sometimes immense monetary value derives generally from two aspects: (1) the aesthetic qualities they embody, and (2) who made them and when. The reputations of artists are built on what history and taste decides is high aesthetic quality; forgery is an attempt to cash in on such established reputations.

Forgery and plagiarism are normally defined in terms of work presented to a buyer or audience with the intention to deceive. Fraudulent intention, either by the artist or by a subsequent owner, is necessary for a work to be a forgery; this distinguishes forgeries from honest copies and merely mistaken attributions. But while unintentional forgery is impossible (I cannot simply out of mistake sign a painting I have just finished with “Rembrandt”), it is possible to unintentionally plagiarize.

More here.

Quit tiptoeing around John Roberts’ faith

Christopher Hitchens in Slate:

050801_fw_roberts_tnEverybody seems to have agreed to tiptoe around the report that Judge John G. Roberts said he would recuse himself in a case where the law required a ruling that the Catholic Church might consider immoral. According to Jonathan Turley, a professor of law at George Washington University, the judge gave this answer in a private meeting with Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., who is the Senate minority whip. Durbin told Turley that when asked the question, Roberts looked taken aback and paused for a long time before giving his reply.

Attempts have been made to challenge Turley’s version, and Sen. Durbin (who was himself unfairly misquoted recently as having made a direct comparison between Guantanamo, Hitler, and Stalin when he had only mentioned them in the same breath) probably doesn’t need any more grief. But how probable is it that the story is wrong? A clever conservative friend writes to me that obviously Roberts, who is famed for his unflappability, cannot have committed such a bêtise. For one thing, he was being faced with a question that he must have known he would be asked. Yes, but that’s exactly what gives the report its ring of truth. If Roberts had simply said that the law and the Constitution would control in all cases (the only possible answer), then there would have been no smoke. If he had said that the Vatican would decide, there would have been a great deal of smoke. But who could have invented the long pause and the evasive answer? I think there is a gleam of fire here. At the very least, Roberts should be asked the same question again, under oath, at his confirmation.

More here.

Study: Female Voices Easier to Hear

Jennifer Viegas at Discovery Channel:

Malevoices_gotoThe human brain processes male and female voices differently, according to a recent study that looked at how the human brain reacts to male and female voices.

The research explains why most of us hear female voices more clearly, as well as that we form mental images of people based only on the sound of their voices.

The findings, published in the current journal NeuroImage, also might give insight into why many men tire of hearing women speak: the “complexity” of female voices requires a lot of brain activity.

“It is females’ increased use of prosody, or the natural ‘melody’ of speech, that makes their voices more complex,” said Michael Hunter, one of the study’s authors.

More here.

Tuesday, August 2, 2005

That Feeling of Being Under Suspicion

Tunku Varadarajan in the Wall Street Journal:

After the terrorist bombings in London, and the revelations that many of the perpetrators were of Pakistani origin, I find that I am–for the first time in my life–part of a “group” that is under broad but emphatic visual suspicion. In other words, I fit a visual “profile,” and the fit is most disconcerting.

The fact that I am neither Muslim nor Pakistani is irrelevant: Who except the most absurdly expert physiognomist or anthropologist could tell from my face that I am not an Ali, or a Mohammed, or a Hassan; that my ancestors are all from deepest South India; and that my line has worshipped not Allah but Lord Shiva–mightiest deity of the Hindu pantheon–for 2,000 years? I will be mistaken for Muslim at some point–just as earlier this week in Manhattan five young men were pulled off a sightseeing bus and handcuffed by police on suspicion that they might have been Islamist terrorists. Their names, published in the papers, revealed that they were in fact all Sikhs and Hindus–something few could have established by simply looking at them. (The Sikhs here were short-haired and unturbanned.)

What we had in this incident–what we must get used to–is a not irrational sequence: alarm, provoked by a belief that someone in the vicinity could do everyone around him great harm, followed instinctively by actions in which the niceties of social intercourse, the judgmental taboos that have been drilled into us, are set aside in the interest of self-preservation.

More here.

Rothko Chapel


Dedicated in 1971 as the Ecumenical Chapel for Human Development, but rarely referred to as such, the Rothko Chapel stands conspicuously in an inconspicuous Houston neighborhood. My guidebook compares its exterior to that of a nuclear bunker, which, though rather uncharitable, is not entirely off the mark. From the outside it could be almost anything: a low-slung gymnasium annex, a tiny ordnance, a telecommunications hub.

more here.

King Fahd

FOREIGN POLICY: When King Fahd dies, what will change?

F. Gregory Gause: Not much. Crown Prince Abdullah will become king, and [he] will have a bit more institutional power with the title. The most important power he will have is the ability to name a crown Fahd
prince. Given the politics in the family right now, it is almost inevitable that he will select Defense Minister Prince Sultan to be next in line. That will maintain a family balance, which will basically recreate the situation that the kingdom is in today.

more here.

A New Kind of Birdsong

From The New York Times:

Birdsong Richard Prum, a Yale ornithologist, was hiking through an Ecuadorean forest 18 years ago when he had one of the strangest experiences an ornithologist can have. He watched a bird sing with its wings. Dr. Prum was observing a male club-winged manakin. The tiny red-headed bird was hopping acrobatically from branch to branch in order to attract female manakins. And from time to time, the male would wave its wings over its back. Each time the manakin produced a loud, clear tone that sounded as if it came from a violin. “I was just utterly stunned,” Dr. Prum said. “There’s literally no bird in the world that does anything that prepares you for it. It’s totally unique.” Ever since, Dr. Prum has wondered how the club-winged manakin managed this feat. Now he and a former student, Kimberly Bostwick of Cornell University, believe they have solved the mystery. Club-winged manakins rake their feathers back and forth over one another, using an acoustic trick that allows crickets to sing.

More here.

Nanotechnology kills cancer cells without harming healthy tissues

From BBC News:Cells

The technique works by inserting microscopic synthetic rods called carbon nanotubules into cancer cells. When the rods are exposed to near-infra red light from a laser they heat up, killing the cell, while cells without rods are left unscathed. Details of the Stanford University work are published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The next step was to find a way to introduce the nantubules into cancer cells, but not healthy cells. The researchers did this by taking advantage of the fact that, unlike normal cells, the surface of cancer cells is covered with receptors for a vitamin known as folate. They coated the nanotubules with folate molecules, making it easy for them to pass into cancer cells, but unable to bind with their healthy cousins. Exposure to the laser duly killed off the diseased cells, but left the healthy ones untouched.

More here.

Monday, August 1, 2005

Sentimental Notes After the 3Quarks Birthday Bash

I’ve been contributing to 3Quarksdaily for quite a few months now. Abbas in his characteristic generosity calls me and the other contributors “Editors,” even though we are no such thing. What we are, we’re horrible slackers that Abbas has magically transformed into a group of regular online writers, whipping us into shape to the extent that we even – very occasionally – meet our minimum weekly posting requirements. The truth is that everybody knows that 3Quarks wouldn’t exist without Abbas’ tireless work, and I’m grateful to him for providing a space where I can develop some of my ideas.

From the beginning, there was something different about 3Quarks. It had an all encompassing approach that I had seen done seriously on very few web logs and online ventures. It was classy – if you can use that word for a blog – and intellectually voracious, unabashedly so. If you go back and look at Abbas’ first entries on 3Quarks, you’ll find material on boxing, poetry, Arabic art, and, of course, science.

I guess ultimately web logs are pretty transient fare, up for a moment, then gone, the medium itself a sort of vast Index or infinite series of footnotes to a gargantuan book, the Internet, which is being written by a hundred million different authors, some of it classic, and some of it total crap. Or perhaps blogs are more like tourist guides to a foreign country – try this, try that, this is interesting. Look in on these people, they’re all right. I bet if Borges was alive today he would write a great short story about a group of bloggers who set out to post one link for every human occurrence, recruiting more and more people into their gigantic cause until hundreds of millions worldwide are spending all of their time blogging the details of their immediate surroundings. But as a result, nobody has time to talk, interact, or do anything. In the end, the original purpose of blogging would be gone because there would be no more actual events taking place.

It became clear early on that Abbas wanted to do more than provide interesting links. I think it was his heartfelt and saddening piece of writing about returning home to Karachi, back last November, that was the first indication he wanted 3Quarks to become a place for original writing as well. And now, I think the original writing that appears on the site every Monday is one of the most exciting features, a much anticipated weekly excursion for me, whether it’s Abbas writing about intriguing math problems or Nabokov, Robin’s great political analysis, the ad hoc art manifestoes put up by Morgan and Timothy, or 3QD’s newer columnists (samples await you, reader, just below).

Anyway, all I really want to say, besides, thank you, Abbas, is that to me 3Quarks represents the best thing the web can be: a kind of electronic campfire to gather round, tell stories, dispute ideas, and connect with new people. E. M. Forster once said that the purpose of life could be summarized by the words “Only connect.” 3Quarks has become a lively and welcoming place to do that.

First Annual 3 Quarks Ball a Spectacular Success!

Well, I think it was. Unfortunately, I was having too much fun to remember to take many pictures. Here are the very few I have (yes, some people took their clothes off!):





The impromptu pool party:


One of our older guests:



If anyone else has any pictures, please email them to me and I will post them. Meanwhile, I’d like to thank a bunch of people for all their enthusiastic and energetic help in pulling this off:

  • Flux Factory: This could not have been done without the incredible help of Stefany, Morgan, Jean, Sara, Jackie, Seb, Funky, Aya, Anthony, and the rest of the Flux gang. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
  • Dan Balis: When Dan played Cerrone’s Paradise, I knew we had made the right choice of DJ! Thanks a million Dan, we owe you bigtime!
  • Forro in the Dark: Maura Refosco and his musical crew were undoubtably the best part of the party, and they were very good sports about everything, moving their music outside where (it was a beatiful night) the dancing really took off. Thanks a million, guys!
  • Salin Gauchin: His creative bartending kept everyone in good spirits. Thanks so much, man!
  • Everyone who came: It really meant a lot to us. Thank you, and see you next year for an even more glamorous event!

Monday Musing: The Blogosphere, the Islamist at The Guardian and some things for us to think about

For me, blogosphere triumphalism is usually just a minor irritant. Don’t get me wrong; I was impressed with the speed and thoroughness with which the blog realm raised questions about the authenticity of the Killian (George W. Bush’s National Guard performance) memo that cost Dan Rather his anchor. (Though, as I recall, it was The Washington Post and USA Today that really disproved the authenticity of the documents.) The sadly non-terminal case of self-love and occasional megalomania you find (“the blogosphere will punish”!) seemed more embarrassing than anything else; it also seemed harmless. But the whole Dilpazier Aslam affair has made me rethink this virtual mob.

For those of you who haven’t been following the story, Dilpazier Aslam, a 27-year old Muslim and journalist from Yorkshire, was a trainee for The Guardian. He had been recruited for a year-long apprenticeship under one of its diversity programs.

The Guardian wound up casting its net wider than it had intended. Following the June 7th bombings in London, Aslam wrote a comment on its editorial pages entitled “We rock the boat: Today’s Muslims aren’t prepared to ignore injustices“. In it, he offered some disturbing lines, but, it should be sadly noted (and with litotes, at that), not wholly uncommon ones.

“If, as police announced yesterday, four men (at least three from Yorkshire) blew themselves up in the name of Islam, then please let us do ourselves a favour and not act shocked. Shocked would also be to suggest that the bombings happened through no responsibility of our own. . . . Shocked would be to say that we don’t understand how, in the green hills of Yorkshire, a group of men given all the liberties they could have wished for could do this. . .Second- and third-generation Muslims are without the don’t-rock-the-boat attitude that restricted our forefathers. We’re much sassier with our opinions, not caring if the boat rocks or not.”

Needless to say, the implication that the suicide bombing of civilians is a “sassy” way of expressing opinions was not received well.

And in an era with declining search costs for information, it really didn’t take much time to discover that Aslam belonged to Hizb ut-Tahrir, a radical but legal Islamist group whose chief and predictably tragic-comic-scary objective appears to the reestablishment of the caliphate. (The UK Home Office considers it a “radical, but to date non-violent Islamist group”.) While waiting to undo what Attaturk wrought, Hizb, like many millenarian movements before it, occupies itself by producing conspiracy theories and aiming to be a major player in the growing world market for anti-Semitism.

The story of Aslam’s membership in Hizb was broken by Scott Burgess, a libertarian blogger who lives in London and who oddly had been beaten out for the traineeship by Aslam. (This fact is regularly mentioned in narratives of the whole affair; for my part, I’d like to say that I don’t want to imply that resentment was a factor. Aslam may have been simply brought to Burgess’ attention as a result of the consideration.) Posts from Burgess’ blog (The Daily Ablution) about Aslam, Hizb, the bombings made their way across the Internet and the media. Blogs on the left and right—Harry’s Place, Norman Geras, Andrew Sullivan, and the terrible Michelle Malkin—chimed in and called for his dismissal. And he was dismissed.

For the megalomaniacal wing of the blog realm, the dismissal “has resounded across the blogging universe like a shockwave from a supernova”. And again the blogosphere had triumphed, correcting a crime and a sin. Ablution indeed.

I recall a post, though I don’t recall exactly where, that urged the blogosphere to move into action on Aslam, which it did. And I was suddenly reminded of a mob. Not an SPQR populusque mob; but an Ox-Bow Incident mob. I had read Aslam’s piece and pieces at Hizb’s site and also thought that The Guardian should remove him (unless of course they wanted a radical Islamist journalist, in which case they should’ve come out and said it). But the blogosphere was over the top and was beginning to resemble a drunken bar fight or, rather, frenzy. Its peak (or is it trough?) may have been Dreadpundit’s following statement.

“That’s why I’m issuing a secular fatwah and asking for some loyal Briton to saw off your head and ship it to me (use Fed-Ex, please, so I can get a morning delivery, and do remember the dry ice, also, a videotape of the ‘execution’).”

Though, in fairness, he included a disclaimer in small font, consoling that he was “not really interested in receiving the head of Dilpazier Aslam, nor do I advocate any act of violence against him.”

I raise this whole affair because Richard Posner’s review (as well as my own obsession with cognitive ghettoes, the media, and segmented markets in information) in The New York Times Book Review raised some interesting, if not novel, points, related to it.

“The public’s interest in factual accuracy is less an interest in truth than a delight in the unmasking of the opposition’s errors. Conservatives were unembarrassed by the errors of the Swift Boat veterans, while taking gleeful satisfaction in the exposure of the forgeries on which Dan Rather had apparently relied, and in his resulting fall from grace. They reveled in Newsweek’s retracting its story about flushing the Koran down a toilet yet would prefer that American abuse of prisoners be concealed. Still, because there is a market demand for correcting the errors and ferreting out the misdeeds of one’s enemies, the media exercise an important oversight function, creating accountability and deterring wrongdoing. That, rather than educating the public about the deep issues, is their great social mission. It shows how a market produces a social good as an unintended byproduct of self-interested behavior.”

I’m usually wary of willy-nilly extensions of the market to questions of information—Ken Arrow pointed out a long time ago, you’d have to know the value of information already to assess whether it’s worth the cost of acquiring it, and in some cases you won’t know that until, well, you know the information. And I’m exceptionally wary of Richard Posner’s extensions of the market metaphor and market solution, mostly as a matter of taste, like when he suggested auctioning orphans. But this one, like most of what Posner writes, raises interesting questions and it worth following because he extends it (and then something else to) blogging.

“What really sticks in the craw of conventional journalists is that although individual blogs have no warrant of accuracy, the blogosphere as a whole has a better error-correction machinery than the conventional media do. The rapidity with which vast masses of information are pooled and sifted leaves the conventional media in the dust. Not only are there millions of blogs, and thousands of bloggers who specialize, but, what is more, readers post comments that augment the blogs, and the information in those comments, as in the blogs themselves, zips around blogland at the speed of electronic transmission.

This means that corrections in blogs are also disseminated virtually instantaneously, whereas when a member of the mainstream media catches a mistake, it may take weeks to communicate a retraction to the public.”

That is, the blogosphere, like the market, acts as an information aggregation mechanism.

“The model is Friedrich Hayek’s classic analysis of how the economic market pools enormous quantities of information efficiently despite its decentralized character, its lack of a master coordinator or regulator, and the very limited knowledge possessed by each of its participants.

In effect, the blogosphere is a collective enterprise – not 12 million separate enterprises, but one enterprise with 12 million reporters, feature writers and editorialists, yet with almost no costs.”

The comparison of the blogosphere with the market raises an issue that Posner didn’t fully consider, the question of norms in the market. However imperfect they may be, organizations in the market, in addition to being governed by regulations, also adhere to norms that they have developed over the long haul. There are occasional violators such as Enron, but facets like transparency and accuracy are seen as necessary for its well functioning. These norms have developed partly in response to state regulation or the threat of state regulation, but also in Hayekian fashion—a spontaneous order generated by interactions, which in turn require shared norms to effectively coordinate and execute action. Here, the “contracts” are implicit, not spelled out. And the blogopshere remains in need of them, though the only thing to be done is wait while adhering to deceny and point out when others aren’t

(I was reminded of this problem when I came across this story about the terrible John Lott on Tim Lambert’s blog, and thought that were it not for the decency of the students at the Federalist Society, it would’ve been simply two different accounts.)

Things like a Blogger’s Code of Ethics are not what I’m talking about.  Rather the norms will have to emerge out of actually practices. I hope that self-congratulation is proscribed by these norms, and if so, their emergence can’t be quick enough.  (Fafblog—my nominee for first mover/signaler of the blogoshpere’s self-disciplining mechanism—should make every instance of self-congratulation an object of ridicule.)  But more importantly, calls to gang up on someone should be seen as a “no-no”, even if it did produce the desired results in this instance.

In the meantime, I was struck in the wake of whole Aslam Affair by the feeling that here (the blogosphere) is a thing that I like in the whole but not really so much in its parts—a sort of fallacy of division. (I should clarify, that Brad de Long, Crooked Timber, Majikthise, Three-Toed Sloth and the rest of those on our links page are excluded from “parts”.) But still, blogs, and not just the blogosphere, remain an obsession.

Happy Monday.

Critical Digressions: The Naipaulian Imperative and the Phenomenon of the Post-National

Ladies and gentlemen,

Naipaul Naipaul is brilliant. Indeed, he is one of the finest writers the 20th century has produced. His book covers are often embellished with the following blandishment: “For sheer abundance of talent there can hardly be a writer alive who surpasses V.S. Naipaul.” We agree. His early comedies – Suffrage of Elvira, Miguel Street, and The Suffrage of Elvira – are perceptive, compassionate, even Narayanesque, evoking, reifying a distant, eccentric island – a world populated by real, colorful characters. The culmination of the early period of his career is in A House for Biswas, which, according to James Wood, issued the most enduring literary character in post-WWII fiction. Subsequently, his superb, dark, Conradian novels that include Mimic Men, Guerillas, and A Bend in the River depict seismic shifts in the short history of the “Third World” like few others before him.

But Naipaul’s prose is not the issue. It’s his politics and persona. In a way, Naipaul has not published a book worth the page it’s printed on since 1979, since A Bend in the River, when he almost exclusively pursued “travel writing,” an ill-defined genre, neither fiction nor autobiography, neither journalism not sociology. In a review of Among the Believers, for instance, Fouad Ajami avers,

“…one gets the distinct feeling of superficiality in this book. Of the holy city of Qom, Naipaul writes: ‘Qom’s life remained hidden.’ It is probably fair to say that much of the territory he covered remained hidden to him. The places he went to confused and eluded him, denied him entry. He was in a hurry; he wanted to see ‘Islam in action.’ But the people he wanted to comprehend were ambiguous and guarded, and under no obligation to reveal themselves to a traveler. Inside the large international hotels, visitors came to talk with him, but his questions frequently seem rigged and their answers canned.”

As Naipaul once said, “We read to find out what we already know.”

In fact, over the years Naipaul has fancied and fashioned himself into what can be best described as a “post-national,” a native so progressive that he can scrutinize himself, his society, and context without prejudice. It seems that Naipaul believes that he has progressed, evolved, by stepping on to an airplane. It’s as if he is awed by order: light-switches that function; taps that pour water; well-stocked grocery stores that carry eight varieties of jam; and clean streets that lead to well-lit avenues and those to broad highways. He’s become civilized by moving from here to there, by severing ties with his past, and consequently, he can claim citizenship of the world.

Yet he is a bigot. Of the bindi that adorns the forehead of married Indian women, Naipaul once said, “The dot means: My head is empty.” Naipaul vitriol for Africa and Africans is spectacular. “This place is full of buggers”; “Do you hear those bitches and their bongos?” Mel Gussow notes, “About the influx of Jamaicans into England, he suggested in an article that one way to decrease immigration would be to increase the importation of bananas. His much quoted line was: ‘a Banana a day will keep the Jamaican away.’” Naipaul has managed to package condescension as objectivity.

Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul’s pathology intrigues us endlessly. Both post-national and bigot, his persona remains entirely parochial. In Sir Vidia’s Shadow, his one time friend Paul Theroux comments,

“…[Naipaul] behaved like an upper-caste Indian. And Vidia often assumed the insufferable do-you-know-who-I-am posturing of a particular kind of Indian bureaucrat, which is always a sign of inferiority. It had taken me a long time to understand that Vidia was not in any sense English, not even Anglicized, but Indian to the core – caste conscious, race conscious, a food fanatic, precious in his fears from worrying about the body being ‘tainted.’ Because he was an Indian from the West Indies – defensive, feeling his culture was under siege – his attitudes approached the level of self-parody.”

Recently, old man Naipaul has come full circle, officially reclaiming his heritage by associating himself with the BJP, the Hindu chauvinist party in Indian politics. None other than Rushdie castigated him for being a “cheerleader for the [BJP].” He added, “When Naipaul writes articles that the BJP can use as recruiting material, it’s a problem.”

Rushdie Naipaul is, in a way, a bastard, spawned of disparate narratives, a byproduct of the postcolonial world. He’s uncomfortable here and there, in his native Trinidad and his adopted country, Great Britain: “Indian by descent, Trinidadian by birth, a Briton by citizenship…He has lived in all three societies, and…has bitter feelings about them all: India is unwashed, Trinidad is unlearned, England is intellectually and culturally bankrupt.” Indeed he has become a sort of archetype, a variety of insider who has adopted the outsider’s methodology and worldview and consequently can corroborate the outsider’s perception of the inside. Strangely and sadly, Fouad Ajami, the brilliant author of the Vanished Imam and one time friend of Edward Saeed, typifies this variety. (It should be noted there are many insiders who are not Naipaulian: Walcott, Mahfouz, Marquez, Coetzee.)

More recently, a character named Hussain Haqqani has joined the Naipaulian ranks. Haqqani, though, is no Naipaul; he’s neither bigoted nor brilliant. Known in Pakistan as a charming, slippery, has-been politician, Haqqani – since he stepped on an airplane – has reinvented himself as pundit in the DC think-tank community. Indeed, amongst the multitude of politicians that populate the political landscape, Haqqani has the singular distinction of having served every major political party: he began his career as student leader of the Jama’at – the fundamentalist party – then served both Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, before being dispatched as ambassador to Sri Lanka. Arguably, he possesses the requisite insider’s perspective. He also possesses an eagerness to please. Consequently, Haqqani has been championed not only by Thomas Friedman but by the unsavory Daniel Pipes, as a man who “speaks the truth” (a questionable blandishment, especially as Friedman suggests that “Every quarter, the State Department should identify the Top 10…truth tellers in the world”). Accolades by one are rare and by both, rarer.

AjamiHaqqani’s first book, the alliteratively titled, Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military, has recently been published. To be fair, the book is more substantive than another dissident’s, Hassan Abbas’ horribly written, anecdotal (and alliteratively titled), Allah, The Army and American War on Terror (which apparently is on “the bestseller list in India, where newspapers have carried some of its juiciest tales, but it’s harder to find in Cambridge, where Abbas is a visiting scholar”), but it reads something like Stephen Cohen’s mostly facile, alarmist, (and ambitiously titled), The Idea of Pakistan.

(It’s important to note here that are some intelligent commentators on Pakistan’s politics and history on the inside and outside including the late sociologist Hamza Alvi, Aeysha Jalal, the MacArthur award-winning professor at Tufts; Shahid Javed Burki, an economist; Washington Post correspondent Kamran Khan; BBC’s Pakistan correspondents, Owen Bennett Jones, Zafar Abbas, and Paul Anderson; ex-CIA station chief to Pakistan, Milt Beardon; and possibly, ex-US ambassador to Pakistan, Robert Milam.)

Haqqani’s analysis is reductive and binary as he largely absolves the political establishment of the mismanagement of Pakistan. As Fareed Zakaria points out, democracy and liberalism (or progress, for that matter) are not the same thing. Furthermore, Haqqani uses such constructions as, “if Pakistan had proceeded along the path of normal political and economic development,” which makes us wonder what country is normal, what his comparables are (Argentina? Turkey? South Korea? Malaysia? China? Nigeria? America?), and why his book is hinged on the claim that Pakistan is in some way abnormal. This is the stuff of poor analysis.

Finally and most importantly, Haqqani, like his peers, ignores certain defining characteristics of contemporary Pakistan: the robust economic growth of 8.3% – the third fastest in Asia – has empowered the urban middle class, a class most susceptible to religious recruitment; Musharraf’s startlingly open media policy – not only the freest in the Muslim world but also among countries like Russia or India – which, over a period of three years, has produced a seismic shift in public discourse on matters as varied and previously taboo as the ’71 War or sex; the inability of radical or Deobandi Islam to change the accommodative Barelvi personality of rural Pakistan. Of course, these powerful “counter-mosque” dynamics in contemporary Pakistan do not concern Haqqani as his book’s trajectory is historic. There’s nothing new in it. In that case, his take on history is about as valid as ours. As Naipaul said, “We read to find out what we already know.”

DNA Machine May Advance Genetic Sequencing for Patients

From The New York Times:

A new kind of machine for decoding DNA may help bring costs so low that it would be feasible to decode an individual’s DNA for medical reasons. The machine, developed by 454 Life Sciences of Branford, Conn., was used to resequence the genome of a small bacterium in four hours, its scientists report in an article published online today by the journal Nature. In 1995, when the same bacterium was first sequenced, by Claire M. Fraser, it required 24,000 separate operations spread over four to six months, she said in an e-mail message. The machine uses the chemistry of fireflies to generate a flash of light each time a unit of DNA is correctly analyzed. The flashes from more than a million DNA-containing wells, arrayed on a credit-card-sized plate, are monitored by a light-detecting chip, of the kind used in telescopes to detect the faintest light from distant stars. Then, they are sent to a computer that reconstructs the sequence of the genome.

More here.

Grubs fight parasites with food

From BBC News:

Caterpillar Tiger moth caterpillars have been seen medicating themselves to treat a nasty influx of parasites. Scientists found the caterpillars’ sense of taste actually changed when they became infected with parasites. Instead of avoiding certain alkaloid plants, the caterpillars actually developed a fondness for them. This change in diet helps to beat the creatures’ parasite infection, the researchers report in Nature.

More here.

Dispatches: Disaster!

Critics generally praised Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds for its cinematic virtuosity, citing the panache of his staging of fearful chases, narrow escapes, and random annihilation. This may be true, but the movie still struck me as reheated. Spielberg has done these things much more effectively in other movies – a scene in which a serpentine alien probe searches for the protagonists was lifted from Jurassic Park. From Duel through Jaws through Catch Me if You Can, Spielberg has turned nearly all of his films into feature-length chase sequences, with the heroes chasing a Macguffin as well as being chased by the authorities. This lets him indulge himself in his favorite pastime: the creation of suspense as a species of formal game-playing. To which he usually appends his other favorite pastime: wallowing in nostalgic depictions of the innocence and wonder of childhood and family. Both of these thematics saturate War of the Worlds, which jettisons most of the cynicism of Wells’ novel in favor of its director’s obsessions. His films have done this since the 1970s; nothing new there.

What did seem new about the movie, and reflective of current moods, though, was the scale of destruction it rather casually visits on the world. Asking us to feel remain engaged by the story of a working-class dad’s struggles to become a better parent and get over his divorce while around him the great cities of the world are destroyed and millions die seemed a little odd to me. When unthinkable horror is used as the backdrop for domestic drama, one feels a certain sense of proportion has gone missing. Spielberg’s defenders might argue that this is a response to the Age of Terror, an exploration of the effects of fear on ordinary people. Yet, thinking about it, this apocalyptic conceit had already become extremely common in Hollywood before 2001, with the approach of the millennium. Whether it’s done crudely and jingoistically (as with the repulsive Armageddon), cleverly and presciently (as with the gripping 28 Days Later), quietly (the intelligent Last Night), the disaster movie is perhaps the predominant mainstream genre of our time. I use the word genre very specifically to denote the way the destruction of human civilization has become a cinematic trope, one which barely affects anymore except as a generic form. (The Tristam Shandy of the genre, the work that predates it yet brilliantly satirizes all its features, is of course Dr. Strangelove.)

I think disaster movies have less to do with September 11th than with the status of moviemaking in contemporary culture. If the movies were, as James Agee wrote, the privileged aesthetic form of the twentieth century, then many competing media have disturbed that rank. The crown that the movies wore from silent era through the great studio period (detailed in The Genius of the System) through the nouvelle vague now lies uneasily, challenged by TV, video games, and, most importantly, the web. What’s more, these other, more virtual forms of information are difficult to visualize, making the job of representing modern reality onscreen much harder (there’s nothing less filmic than shots of a computer screen). What disaster movies do, then, is simplify the world, return it to a pre-technological state. By doing so they restore the potency of film narrative and reinstall the primacy of human-scale and embodied physical action: the world before computing. The disaster movie as a generic choice erases the changes that have made the movies themselves less capable of summing up human experience. The desire to annihilate the world is, maybe, really the desire to repress modernity instead of face it: thus, the common combination of disaster with nostalgic sentiment.

A final note: the other major genre that has emerged recently is the fantasy epic. The multi-part sagas of superheroes, of The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Harry Potter are the most successful studio productions of today. Poaching talented directors from outside Hollywood (Peter Jackson, Sam Raimi) and giving them vast technical resources, these films have revitalized the box office and in many cases produced superior popular entertainment. Examples include Alfonso Cuaron’s perfectly judged Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Alejandro Amenabar’s superb The Others, or Christopher Nolan’s enjoyable Batman Begins. These movies are intelligently directed but popularly accessible precisely because they rely on generic narratives: heroic quests, etc. They also replace modernity with a fantasy world in which magic, martial arts, or super powers replace technology.  Like disaster movies, then, they seek refuge in the generic in order to abolish the contemporary world.

Previous Dispatches:
On Ethnic Food and People of Color
Aesthetics of Impermanence

Poison in the Ink: Visiting Trinity

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

–John Donne

I arrive a little before 10, two hours after the gates have opened. From the parking lot, it is a quarter-mile walk along a dusty dirt road to the spot where the atomic bomb was exploded. Ground Zero is a large shallow depression, about 500-yards across and oval-shaped. A tall chain-link fence topped with lines of razor barbed wire rings the perimeter. It is loneliness couched in desolation, a remote forbidden place abandoned for most of the year. Scattered thickets of saltbrush and gray-green clusters of desert grass dot the arid landscape. Beyond the fence, bleak desert terrain stretches out toward jagged horizons where the mountains meet the sky.

Inside ground zero, a squat obelisk made of volcanic rock stands to the right of center. Its stones are dark and porous and a large bronze plaque, weathered and dark, adorns one of its four sides. The inscription reads simply:




ON JULY 16, 1945

Beneath, a smaller plaque identifies Trinity as a National Historic Landmark.

To the left of the obelisk juts a small outcropping of rock. Embedded within are two metal bars, each as thick as a man’s wrist. They are all that remain of the 100-foot steel tower that held the bomb; the rest of the structure was vaporized by the blast. Trinity’s scientists assembled the bomb atop the tower in hopes of reducing the amount of radioactive dust raised by the explosion and because they needed to simulate an air-drop.

Near the edge of the site, a model of Fat Man—the second and last nuclear weapon ever used in war and an exact replica of the bomb tested at Trinity—sits alone on the trailer of a flatbed truck. To the far left, a low-roofed metal shack covers a part of the original blast crater. Small pieces of Trinitite, the green glass formed at the moment of the explosion, lie exposed on the ground for visitors to see.

Here, people walk slowly, heads lowered, eyes searching. A woman kicks repeatedly at a spot on the ground, whipping up a small cloud of dust. Children scamper about and return to their parents with unearthed treasures.

“Is this trinitite?” a small boy asks hopefully.

“No, that’s leavitrite,” his father says. “As in leave-it-rite there cause it ain’t worth a thing.”

A series of weathered photographs hang evenly spaced along a curving portion of the fence. Among them are images that trace the evolution of the blast, captured at haphazard intervals with a high-speed camera. At .006 seconds, it is a ball of concentrated fury, an enormous dome of searing white brilliance that outshines the midday sun. By .025 seconds, a murmur of rising dust has formed around the base of the dome. By .100 seconds the murmur has become a shriek as shockwaves from the blast fling clouds of swirling dust outwards in all directions. The fireball rises, expands, and cools. As it cools, liberated particles of dust and debris begin to fall away and rain to earth. By 15 seconds, the classic mushroom shape is clearly visible. Far above the clouds now, it stops and hangs suspended, like a sculpture made of ash, until blowing winds sweep away its form.

Peggy Shephard saw the blast from her home in Roswell, 90 miles away. She was 21 at the time.

“I was filling up a kerosene lamp to light the fire, and when I turned around, I saw something, and you can’t believe it, you could never describe it, not if you lived to be a hundred,” she says. “But if you would take a rainbow and put it in a little strip like that,”—she gestures with her hands—“and put it in that cloud and mix it like that, you’d get sort of an idea—the colors… oh ….” Her voice breaks in aching remembrance.

Shephard is standing outside Trinity’s entrance, in front of a bungalow that serves as the information center. She has a shock of unruly gray hair, and her pink floral print dressing gown flutters gently in the wind. “It was beautiful,” she says. “I mean purple and orange and blue and black and green, it just walked around like this in the clouds.” Her voice becomes shrill, exasperated. “I could never describe it.”

In 1905 Albert Einstein forever changed our views of time and space, proved the existence of atoms and linked mass and energy with his Special Theory of Relativity. His famous equation, E=mc2, stated that an enormous amount of energy was contained within a tiny amount of matter. This revolutionary idea was only theory at the time, and remained largely unproven until 5:29am on July 16, 1945. On that morning, the first atomic bomb was exploded in the sands of New Mexico, on a patch of barren desert known as Trinity.

Trinity is located within White Sands Missile Range, a private military base and a testing ground for some of the world’s most advanced military equipment. The V2 rocket and the B-2 stealth bomber were tested here. At almost 3,200 square miles, the site is the largest military installation in the country. In centuries past, it was part of the King’s Highway, a road that connected Mexico City and Santa Fe. Spaniards had another name for this place. They called it the “Jornado del Muerto,” the Trail of Death, in grim reference to those who perished from thirst along its route.

Ker1Twice a year, on the first Saturdays of April and October, and for only six hours at a time, Trinity opens to the public. No tickets or reservations are required, and there is no major effort to advertise the event. People typically hear about the open house through word of mouth. Many show up on the appointed day at the fair grounds in Almagordo, New Mexico, and from there drive 170 miles to the test site, snaking across the desert in a caravan lead by military vehicles. Others arrive by different routes, alone and unescorted, or they come as part of packaged tours.

People visit Trinity for different reasons. They come to remember, to give thanks, to pay penance, to make peace, to see a wonder of the modern world: the birthplace of the atomic age. There are older visitors who helped develop the bomb and military veterans who believe that Trinity set off a chain of events that ultimately spared their lives by sparing the country an invasion of Japan. Middle-aged visitors can still recall the duck-and-cover drills from their childhood and the fear of sudden annihilation that pervaded the cold war era. Others come because they are curious, drawn by the knowledge that what happened here helped shape the world in which they live.

“I think a lot of people come here because in one instant the test that happened here changed the world,” says Monte Marlin, a docent at the event. “They want to just appreciate that and try to understand it.”

Marlin sits perched on a wooden stool off to a side within ground zero, conspicuous in a bright orange vest. “A lot of this is also just tourism,” she says. “It’s a site in New Mexico that is rarely open to the public, and they want to have a chance to come see it.”

Around noon, I spot Ben Benjamin standing in front of the bungalow. Benjamin is 73, his hair and mustache are white and the shoulders on his tall frame are slightly stooped. Today, he is wearing a black cowboy hat and a light blue denim jacket that matches his jeans. Benjamin’s large hands are stuffed partway into his jean pockets, and he is gazing around at the crowd, looking like an uncomfortable cowboy surrounded by strangers .

Last night, after a five-hour flight from New York, I drove down to Albuquerque’s National Atomic Museum to hear Benjamin give a talk about Trinity. Benjamin is a military veteran and a member of the engineering division that was responsible for taking pictures of the blast. Approximately 150 people attended the talk, most of them part of a Trinity tour arranged by the museum.

Benjamin began his talk with a photographic transparency of a black-and-white aerial shot of Nagasaki, taken shortly after the city was leveled by Fat Man. In the center of the photograph, a lone shack stood undamaged amidst a sprawling sea of rubble and flattened buildings. No people were visible. The photograph was the first and only reference in Benjamin’s talk to the devastating effects of the bomb. The rest of the lecture was devoted to the story of how Benjamin joined the army and his role in the bomb’s development. After the talk, I discovered that Benjamin was going to be at Trinity the next morning and we arranged to meet again.

Seeing him now, I go up and say hello and we retreat to a patch of shade behind the bungalow to talk. I ask Benjamin to recall the moment of the blast.

“Oh my god, it was the most impressive thing I had ever seen in my life,” he says. “It was incredibly bright, it was just staggering, and the heat on my body, I could just feel the heat from that thing even from 6 miles.”

Benjamin was 23 at the time, and was sitting in a rotating gun turret that was modified to take photographs when he saw the blast. “I’ve witness a lot of atmospheric blasts since then, but none of them were as impressive as Trinity,” Benjamin says. “Nobody knew what was gonna happen here, the physicist weren’t sure what was going to happen and they certainly didn’t know how big it was gonna be.”

I ask Benjamin if the people at Trinity knew how the bomb was going to be used. “When this test went off, the Germans had already unconditionally surrendered,” he says. “So it was obvious that the Japanese were going to be the recipients of it.”

Ker2_2 How did you feel when you heard that Hiroshima had been bombed, I ask. Benjamin doesn’t answer me directly. Instead, he tells me that on August 6, 1945, the day that Hiroshima was bombed, he was visiting his parents in Duluth, Minnesota.

“I said to my mother and father ‘Now, I can tell you what I was doing in New Mexico, I was working on this project.’”

I try again, but this time with a different approach. What were people’s reactions like when they heard the news, I ask.

“Most people felt ‘gee, that’s great, they used the bomb and a few days later the Japanese surrendered,’” he says. “Everyone had been worried considerably that we were going to have to invade Japanese islands and millions of our guys would probably get killed, and millions of Japanese.”

But did people know that the bomb was dropped on civilian centers? How did they feel about that?

Benjamin shrugs. “Everybody was elated as far as I could tell,” he says. I take a moment to let this sink in, and then I decide to drop it. We move on and he begins to describe in detail for me the specifics of the blast.

Later in the day, I speak to Jim Eckles, the public relations manager for White Sands Missile Range and Trinity’s unofficial historian. “A lot of people say that this is the event that ushered in the atomic age,” he says. “There are some people that say this is the most important event of 20th Century or in the history of mankind.”

Eckles is tall and lean and is wearing the same bright orange vest that all the docents wear. He has a silver beard and mustache and wears a black cap. A blue bandana is tied around his neck. For most of the open house, Eckles sits in front of the bungalow entrance, entertaining visitors and answering their questions. As we talk, a number of people stroll up.

“If I were to read all the stuff that you’ve read and know what you know, what is the most jaw-dropping-drop-dead-fact that I would know?” one man asks.

Eckles laughs. “I don’t know.”

“What’s the biggest, the brightest, most important thing to know about Trinity?”

Sheesh , beats the heck out of me,” says Eckles, but he finally relents and tries to give the man something to take home. “I can come up with a lot of things,” he begins. “The interest people have in the site, why they keep coming back, the fact that you can walk on a ground zero area and not die. Those things we grew up with—fearing nuclear weapons, that it was going to be radioactive forever and kill ya—well, that’s not quite true.”

A little while later, Eckles is approached by a husband and wife.

“What’s this over here?” the husband asks.

“Ground zero, it’s where the bomb was exploded. You go down there to get your radiation,” Eckles says.

“And then we’ll glow in the dark huh?” asks the wife.

“Probably not.”

She chuckles. “That would be a good way to entertain grandkids!”

“There you go,” Eckles says.

“I’m disappointed,” says the husband, and he really does look disappointed.

Ker3 Radiation still concerns visitors at Trinity. “Your average American can’t explain their toaster, so they’re not gonna understand this,” Eckles says.

Eckles tells me about some of the myths and theories that exist regarding Trinity. “For instance, some people say that the sands at White Sands were bleached white because of the atomic bombing,” he says. “Well, that’s so nonsensical it’s funny, but there’s stuff like that floating around out there.”

As if on cue, a little while later a guy comes up and asks, “When we were driving in, there were unusual cactus, are they the original…uh…they aren’t mutated cacti?”

Eckles spreads his arms wide. “You mean those giant ones that are normally this big?” he asks. The question is followed by a spurt of wheezy laughter. “There’s no giant cactus down there,” he says finally. “But the yuccas are big.”

A table is set up outside the gates of ground zero to try and educate the public and dispel their fears about radiation. Health physicist Kelly Todd is stationed at the table. “We have a lot of people asking about how dangerous it is and what the [radiation] levels are,” Todd says. “We try to show them that the things that are found here are not dangerous compared to the things found in their own homes.”

Among the items lying on the table are a fire alarm, a dinner plate, a banana and a pack of cigarettes. Todd explains that the fire alarm contains trace amounts of americium 241, a radioactive element required for smoke detection. The clay of the dinner plate, uranium; the banana, potassium 40; and the cigarettes, plutonium 210—an element that nuclear fallout has spread around the globe and which, according to Todd, tobacco plants have a high affinity for. The public affairs office at White Sands maintains that on average, the radiation levels at Trinity are only 10 times greater than the region’s natural background level. They say that a one-hour visit to Ground Zero will result in a whole body exposure of one-half to one millirem. To put this in perspective, a U.S. adult receives 360 millirems on average every year from natural and medical sources .

By 1:15 in the afternoon, the crowd at Trinity has thinned, but John Lyle is just arriving, accompanied by his family. Lyle, 90, moves slowly, aided by a walker. For his first trip to Trinity, Lyle is dressed neatly in a buttoned blue shirt, cream-colored khakis and a brown cap.

A lieutenant colonel in the army during World War II, Lyle had just moved west with his wife when the Trinity shot happened. “The army was forming divisions all up and down the west coast and we were going to get all the ships available and take a military over to Japan,” he recalls.

Lyle speaks slowly, his words spaced by long silences and short shallow breaths. “And we knew that 80 percent—8 out of 10 of us—who made this trip to Japan were going to be casualties.” Lyle laughs, a slightly hysterical, disbelieving laugh.

“I felt sorry for the people,” he says. “It’s a sad thing that it had that devastation, but I accepted it as part of what we had to do.”

A small crowd forms around Lyle as he speaks. “They’ll never put a guilt trip on me though because of what the country did, because we stopped the war,” he says. “We stopped it.”

Lyle’s eyes are wet and his jaw is clenched. “It’s a very emotional experience for him,” says Mary Utrop, Lyle’s daughter. “When my Mom and Dad made that trip across country, they thought it would be the last time they would be together.”

Some historians have argued that dropping the atomic bombs on Japan was unnecessary. They say that Japan was already in the process of preparing for peace negotiations, that the casualties America would have suffered had it invaded Japan would have been far less than one million—the number generally cited—and that not every diplomatic effort had been exhausted before dropping the bombs. But I bring none of this up with Lyle.

Trinity is a site filled with contradictions, and perhaps nothing captures that fact better than the name itself. J. Robert Oppenheimer, lead physicist of the Manhattan Project, christened both the site and the atomic test with the single code-name Trinity. When the Project’s director asked for an explanation, Oppenheimer’s only response was a cryptic reference to a John Donne poem that he knew and loved. The poem is a desperate plea by Donne to the Creator in all his tripartite forms. Its lines beg forgiveness from God and invites the Holy Spirit to batter, break, burn, ravage and destroy the poet’s sinful heart in order that he might be reborn. It is a poem about death and resurrection and redemption through violence.

Sunday, July 31, 2005