Forgotten Prophet of Genetics

Robert Olby reviews The Man Who Invented the Chromosome: A Life of Cyril Darlington by Oren S. Harman, in American Scientist:

Cyril Darlington was an impressive figure: Well over six feet tall with a frame to match his height, handsome and debonair, a fresh rose in his jacket lapel, Oxford’s Sherardian Professor of Botany looked the part. Although he was, in his day, one of the foremost cytologists in the world, he was also an enthusiastic student of history and a devoted gardener. He learned to garden as a child and subsequently expressed this enthusiasm in the genetic garden he created at the University of Oxford and in the historic Botanic Garden there; he also planned two arboreta (both achieved). His passion to account for history in genetic terms led him to write a mammoth book, The Evolution of Man and Society (1969).

The son of a Lancashire schoolmaster, Darlington graduated from Wye College with a London University degree and found unpaid work at the John Innes Horticultural Institute, which was directed at that time by William Bateson, an “apostle” of Mendelism. Sixteen years later Darlington became director. By the time he left in 1953 (after 30 years) to assume the chair of botany at Oxford, he had built for himself and the institute an international reputation.

More here.

Healthier in lungs, poorer in spirit

George Blecher in Spiked:

BurmasmokingpeopleBut cigarette smoking wasn’t only about good and bad; it was also about the awareness of death. (Clean-air fanatics might go much further and insist that smoking isn’t about death but murder and suicide. That feels a little overwrought to me.) Though I gave it up years ago, I still miss it, and certainly don’t hate those who continue to smoke. Partly thumbing one’s nose at death, partly flirting with it, part defiance, part acceptance – each breath of smoke was all of these, and when we smoked together in bars and clubs, at parties or at home, the consciousness of our mortality may even have coaxed us into making the most of the limited time that we knew we had.

More here.

Friday, February 11, 2005

‘In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs’: Reflections on Iran

Pico Iyer reviews Christopher de Bellaigue’s book in the New York Times:

Debellcover583In his impenitently stylish and arresting debut book, [Christopher de Bellaigue pitches] us into the very heart and streets of the Iranian revolution today, its troubled consciences, and [gives] us so jolting a sense of ordinary lives and human losses that we can no longer see the country in simplistic, public-policy terms of ‘conservatives versus reformists.’ A young British journalist who writes for The Economist, de Bellaigue aims to complicate from within a world that too many of us associate only with turbaned ayatollahs and slogans of ‘Death to America.’ …

Read the review here.

I Am Not a Jackass

An essay by A.J. Jacobs in the New York Times Book Review about the review his book received there:

Jacobs But nothing — absolutely nothing — was as strange as the review I received in these very pages. This was no ordinary write-up. After a blissful monthlong honeymoon with the critics, my book — called ”The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World,” a lighthearted account of the year I spent reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica — got one of the most mean-spirited reviews in the 154-year history of The New York Times. The writer — a humorist named Joe Queenan — seemed genuinely angry with me, as if I had transported his niece across state lines. He called me a simpleton. He said I was so dumb, I wasn’t even ”the smartest person at Entertainment Weekly” (the magazine where I used to work). He referred to me as a ”jackass.” A jackass. In The New York Times Book Review. I flipped around to the other reviews. Did they call Philip Roth a doofus? Did they call Gish Jen a nitwit? No, just me. A jackass. The review was so vicious it was written up in The Village Voice, on several blogs and, oddly enough, in Women’s Wear Daily. Yes, when your book review is mentioned next to articles about taffeta, you know it’s bad.

More here.

The heart healer

Pekka_puska “Pekka Puska was born in Vaasa, northern Finland, in 1945. He was director of the North Karelia Project in eastern Finland from 1972 to 1997. Between 2001 and 2003 he was director of the department of non-communicable disease prevention at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. He has a PhD in epidemiology and has published more than 400 scientific papers. He has also served as a member of the Finnish parliament. He is married with two young children.”

Pelle Neroth interviews Puska in New Scientist:

Did all this effort pay off?

Between 1972 and 1997, when the North Karelia project ended, the number of deaths from coronary heart disease dropped by 82 per cent. Life expectancy among men went up eight years, from 65 to 73. Blood cholesterol in the population dropped 20 per cent. It was like putting the whole population on cholesterol-reducing drugs. The consumption of fruit and vegetables went from the lowest in Europe to the highest in northern Europe. In 1972, 90 per cent of the population put butter on their bread; now only 7 per cent do. Salt consumption halved. Smoking went down drastically among men, though it increased among women. In Finland as a whole, between 1969 and 2002 deaths from chronic heart disease dropped by 76 per cent among men aged 35 to 64. People used to come up to me and shake my hand and say, “Thank you Dr Puska, you have saved my life.” It amused me. Perhaps health experts are the modern priests.

More here.

Death of a playwright: Arthur Miller 1915-2005

Xan Brooks in The Guardian:

MillerredArthur Miller, a giant of American drama for nearly 60 years, is dead. According to reports, the 89-year-old playwright passed away at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut. He had been suffering from cancer, pneumonia and a heart condition.

The son of Polish-Jewish immigrants, Miller’s comfortable middle-class New York childhood was shattered when his father lost his fortune during the Great Depression. The experience would later form the basis of his breakthrough play, 1949’s Death of a Salesman, a savage assault on the American dream. “He had the wrong dreams,” Biff says of his father, the hapless, desperate Willy Loman. “All, all wrong.”

More here.

And the New York Times has this by Marilyn Berger (and a bunch of other stuff):

…his reputation rests on a handful of his best-known plays, the dramas of guilt and betrayal and redemption that continue to be revived frequently at theaters all over the world. These dramas of social conscience were drawn from life and informed by the Great Depression, the event that he believed had had a more profound impact on the nation than any other in American history, except possibly the Civil War.

“In play after play,” the drama critic Mel Gussow wrote in The New York Times, “he holds man responsible for his and for his neighbor’s actions.”

More here.

And Harold Pinter had this to say at BBC News:

He had a wonderful kind of velocity about him. He was as tough as a rock, really. He looked like a bit of a rock too. That was one of the other things that made him remarkable – his actual physical presence was quite formidable.

This certainly embodied itself when we both went to Turkey together for this memorable trip in which we were nearly arrested and there was a military decree out for our arrest in Istanbul.

We just managed to get away by the skin of our teeth. They didn’t like us at all over there because we were very independent and he was a landmark, he was a leader, and I was extremely attached to him.

I’m pretty convinced he was writing until the day of his death. He was born with the pen in his hand.

More here.

Cell: Supercomputer on a Chip

Will Knight in New Scientist:

Details of a novel microprocessor design that could supercharge many computing applications were released at an industry conference in California, US, on Monday.

The microprocessor architecture – known as Cell – will appear in the Playstation3 games console, scheduled for release in 2006. But experts say it could ultimately find its way into many home entertainment devices, high-end computers and even supercomputers.

Details of the chip were disclosed at the International Solid State Circuits Conference in San Francisco, stirring debate over the possible implications for the computer industry.

Developed jointly by IBM, Sony and Toshiba, the microprocessor is fundamentally different from the chips that power most computers today. It incorporates eight separate processing cores, or “synergistic processing elements”, which are capable of communicating with one another at high-speed. A standard chip has single, larger processor.

More here.

Criticizing Christo

A day before Christo’s project “The Gates” opens in Central Park, the critics are already doing, well, what they do. Jed Perl in The New Republic:

If Christo and Jeanne-Claude did not exist, somebody would have to invent them. The husband-and-wife team whose latest project, “The Gates,” opens in New York’s Central Park on Saturday, are the hardworking, irrepressible promoters of a series of avant-garde-meets-pop-culture happenings that sweep people right off their feet. This fusion phenomenon, with its mix of modernist obscurantism and feel-good communalism, is bohemianism for the masses. There isn’t much of anything left once you’ve stripped these fun-with-fabric extravaganzas of all their logistical complexities. But the sheer bravado of Christo and Jeanne-Claude–who have wrapped buildings and coastlines–can pass for visionary power right now, when so many people are unclear as to where cultural experiences end and life-style choices begin. The acres of saffron cloth that Christo and Jeanne-Claude are unfurling across Central Park are a fashion statement, nothing more. It’s public art for the cocooning generation. It’s aestheticism lite.

More here.

Central Park, gated & unfurled

Gates “On February 12 (weather permitting), celebrated artists, Christo and Jeanne-Claude will unfurl the fabric panels for THE GATES, CENTRAL PARK, NEW YORK CITY, 1979-2005. On view for only 16 days, the 7,500 gates will transform Central Park by following the edges of 23 miles of walkways and footpaths from 59 th street to 110 th street. Saffron-colored fabric panels will hang seven feet above the ground, blowing in the wind and delighting the public walking beneath with a warm glow of translucent color. The gates will seem like a golden river appearing and disappearing through the bare branches of the trees. The exhibit is free for all New Yorkers and visitors to enjoy and will not interfere with normal Park activity.”

From an article included in complete multi-media coverage of the Gates, New York’s largest ever public art event, here:

“It is one thing to guard a Fabergé egg or the Mona Lisa. Any experienced security expert can list the basic tactics: velvet ropes, glass display cases and infrared beams. But how to protect art made up of 7,500 gates sprawled over 23 miles of trail in an 843-acre park whose entrances are never fully closed, even at night?”

Peter Blank discusses Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude in a Stanford Presidential Lecture in the Humanities and Arts:           Christo_jc

“Individual aspects of the Christos’ art may be linked to any number of artistic precursors, yet in its totality their work is truly unique. Their oeuvre has been approached critically via its resonance with Constructivism, Nouveau Rèalisme, happenings, conceptual art, land art, and the tradition of draped figures in art, especially those of Giotto and Rodin. Yet any single point of entry must be left behind if one is to fully appreciate the Christos’ unparalleled achievements.”

And here is the website where you can order your own hand signed art prints of the Central Park Gates projects, as well as other “Gates” memorabilia. All proceeds benefit the organization “Nurture New York’s Nature”. And the “official” Gates website.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Letting the Masses Decide?

On the gossipy, weird, and telling side, here’s Michael Totten’s account of a conversation between Hitchens, some Iraqis, and himself.

Christopher Hitchens said to Ghassan Atiyyah: ‘If the Iraqis were to elect either a Sunni or Shia Taliban, we would not let them take power.’ And of course he was right. We didn’t invade Iraq so we could midwife the birth of yet another despicable tyranny. ‘One man, one vote, one time’ isn’t anything remotely like a democracy.

But Atiyyah would have none of that. He exploded in furious rage. ‘So you’re my colonial master now, eh?!’ You have to understand – this man’s voice really carries.

Suddenly, Atiyyah did have defenders at the table. I could see that coming in the shocked expressions on the faces of the other Iraqis when they heard what Hitchens said. Ahman al Rikaby, intriguingly, was an exception. He just looked at Atiyyah with a cold and sober stoicism. But Hitchens had a defender, too. He had me.

‘I agree with Christopher,’ I said. ‘We didn’t invade Iraq to let it turn into another Iran.’ I knew damn well all the Iraqis at the table were staunch opponents of religious fascism. This shouldn’t have been a point of contention. But, boy, was it ever.

‘Who the hell are you?’ Atiyyah said to Hitchens as if I weren’t the last one to speak.”

The Logic of Open-Source Moves to Biotech

From The New York Times, open-source is no longer simply restricted to software and information technology.

“The open-source movement, which has encouraged legions of programmers around the world to improve continually upon software like the Linux operating system, may be spreading to biotechnology.

Researchers from Australia will report in a scientific journal today that they have devised a method of creating genetically modified crops that does not infringe on patents held by big biotechnology companies.

They said the technique, and a related one already used in crop biotechnology, would be made available free to others to use and improve, as long as any improvements are also available free. As with open-source software, the idea is to spur innovation through a sort of communal barn-raising effort.”

For more information, here’s the hompage of Biological Innovation for Open Society.

Wednesday, February 9, 2005

Skocpol responds to David Brooks on Changes in American Politics

David Brook’s op-ed in the February 5th The New York Times has provoked a response from Theda Skocpol, whom he used to explain his take on changes in the American political landscape.

“Are and HowardDean, who is about to be named chairman of the Democratic National Committee, major threats to democracy in America — and bastions of elitism within the Democratic Party? That is what David Brooks would have us believe. His Feb. 5 Op-Ed column in the New York Times invoked my 2003 book, ‘Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life,’ in support of the notion that a secularist, ‘newly dominant educated class’ is using advocacy groups and Internet fundraising to take over the Democratic Party. In Brooks’ vision of politics, Republicans have meanwhile morphed into a true party of ordinary people.”

Rushdie on the proposed anti-religious hate law

Salman Rushdie comments on the proposed law against inciting hatred on religious grounds.

“[H]ere in Britain I discover another kind of Anschlussof liberal values in the face of resurgent religious demands. One of its results is the proposal by Tony Blair’s government – under the auspices of its Serious and Organised Crime and Police Bill – to introduce a ban on the ‘incitement to hatred on religious grounds’.

. . . It seems we need to fight the battle for the Enlightenment all over again in Europe as well as in the United States. . . Most of our contemporary ideas about freedom of speech and imagination come from the Enlightenment. We may have thought the battle won. If we aren’t careful, it is about to be ‘un-won’.

Offence and insult are part of everyday life for people in Britain. All you have to do is open a daily paper and there’s plenty to offend. Or you can walk into the religious books section of a bookshop and discover you’re damned to various kinds of eternal hellfire, which is certainly insulting, not to say overheated.

The idea that any kind of free society can be constructed in which people will never be offended or insulted is absurd. So too is the notion that people should have the right to call on the law to defend them against being offended or insulted.”

Geertz on the what became of the revolutionary promise of the third world

Cliffor Geertz tries to decipher the trajcetory of that began with national liberation more than half a century ago.

“Between 1945 and 1965, about fifty-four, depending on how you count, new, independent states, with borders, capitals, armies, leaders, policies, and names appeared in the world. Between 1965 and the end of the century, depending again a bit on how, and whom, you count, fifty-seven more appeared. . . The world resegmented, refounded, and reformatted in the space of a few decades. It was, clearly, some sort of revolution. But what sort-what it was that was turned around, and in which directions-was, and still is, imperfectly understood.

Indeed, its thrust and import, what it signifies for our common future, seems less clear today than it did at its outset, when the infinite grandeur of beginnings that attends all mold-breaking political transformations in the modern age clothed it in a dense symbology of selfhood, progress, solidarity, and liberation. In the Bandung Days of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the charismatic hero-leaders . . . projected a heady vision of radical nationalism, cold war neutrality, collective opposition to Western imperialism, and great-leap-forward material progress: a vision that was bound to come apart as the diversity of the interests, the variousness of the histories, and the incoherence of the worldviews it was designed to contain became apparent. Within ten or fifteen years, a generation of parochial and hard-fisted leaders appeared . . . replacing popular mobilization and national cheerleading with the pressures and calculations of disciplinary rule. That approach, too, in good part a product of the great-power alliance-balancing and aid-brokering that the spread of the cold war beyond Europe and its regional intrusions and intensifications made possible, didn’t last. A few relics or throwbacks, like Mugabe or Niyazov, or isolate outliers like Than Shwe or Ben Ali, aside most of the present-day leaders of the now not-so-new states . . . are suited and circumspect managerial politicians, not mini-leviathans or world-stage superstars.

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that things have come full circle.”

More Male Female Differences

To continue the theme of ” men are like this, women are like that”, here’s another finding, albeit with no claim to innate differences at the root. 

“That sought-after trait in a mate — ‘good sense of humour’ — is more complex than originally thought. In fact, men and women define it differently.

Eric Bressler, a graduate student at McMaster University who is studying the role of humour in personal attraction, discovered in a survey of 150 students that to a woman, ‘sense of humour’ means someone who makes her laugh; to a man, a sense of humour means someone who appreciates his jokes.”

And here are some related findings.

Robert Trivers on Ernst Mayr


Ernst Mayr is dead at a hundred years of age, as lordly a cedar as ever stood in evolutionary biology and life more generally. He was full of vigor right up to the end. A stronger phenotype I never saw, personal quality matched to intellectual power. Everyone needs a moral compass in life and for a time in my life Ernst was exactly that, integrity, honesty, and a life based on sound moral principles — a standard to which one could turn for self-criticism and inspiration. His intellectual powers were legendary. He had a photographic memory, which only gave way in his 50s. He kept it hidden in his youth, in part because it gave him a rather unfair advantage in the German educational system built on rote learning. Later it gave him an additional power to those of analysis and synthesis that permitted such great books as Animal Species and Evolution (1963) and (with Jared Diamond, 2001) The Birds of Northern Melanesia. The distinctions he emphasized were fundamental, meaning vs mechanism, for example. Mechanism is what most biologists study, how does the machine work. But what about meaning? Why has the machine evolved to work the way it does? What is the meaning of the mechanism? Put that way, it is obvious that evolutionary biology deals with the profounder of the two halves.

More here.

The Economics of “Open Source”

From The Economist:

The characteristics of information—be it software, text or even biotech research—make it an economically obvious thing to share. It is a “non-rival” good: ie, your use of it does not interfere with my use. Better still, there are network effects: ie, the more people who use it, the more useful it is to any individual user. Best of all, the existence of the internet means that the costs of sharing are remarkably low. The cost of distribution is negligible, and co-ordination is easy because people can easily find others with similar goals and can contribute when convenient.

The question is, can sharing be used to supply more than just information? One of the most articulate proponents of the open-source approach, Yochai Benkler of Yale Law School, argues in a recent paper that sharing is emerging for certain physical, rivalrous goods and will probably increase due to advances in technology. Where open source was about sharing information by way of the internet, what is happening now, Mr Benkler notes, is the sharing of the tangible tools of technology themselves, like computing power and bandwidth. This is because they are widely distributed among individuals, and sold in such a way that there is inherent (and abundant) unused capacity.

More here.

Iraq is not Vietnam

Christopher Hitchens in Slate:

Hitchens2Whatever the monstrosities of Asian communism may have been, Ho Chi Minh based his declaration of Vietnamese independence on a direct emulation of the words of Thomas Jefferson and was able to attract many non-Marxist nationalists to his camp. He had, moreover, been an ally of the West in the war against Japan. Nothing under this heading can be said of the Iraqi Baathists or jihadists, who are descended from those who angrily took the other side in the war against the Axis, and who opposed elections on principle. If today’s Iraqi “insurgents” have any analogue at all in Southeast Asia it would be the Khmer Rouge…

I suppose it’s obvious that I was not a supporter of the Vietnam War. Indeed, the principles of the antiwar movement of that epoch still mean a good deal to me. That’s why I retch every time I hear these principles recycled, by narrow minds or in a shallow manner, in order to pass off third-rate excuses for Baathism or jihadism. But one must also be capable of being offended objectively. The Vietnam/Iraq babble is, from any point of view, a busted flush. It’s no good. It’s a stiff. It’s passed on. It has ceased to be. It’s joined the choir invisible. It’s turned up its toes. It’s gone. It’s an ex-analogy.

More here.

Stalin Nostalgia

Jaroslaw Anders reviews Monumental Propaganda by Vladimir Voinovich, translated by Andrew Bromfield, in The New Republic:

Stalinface In 1999, in the Siberian town of Ishin, some 1,250 miles southeast of Moscow, a three-foot-tall bust of Stalin was discovered buried in a local garden. Apparently, it was hidden there by an anonymous idolater at the time of Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization campaign. For years the tyrant’s name was unmentionable, and his effigies were scrupulously removed from public view. Under Brezhnev, he enjoyed a partial comeback as the nation’s great war leader, but it was only in the new and supposedly free post-communist Russia that Stalin’s likeness could be displayed once more. In Ishin, the local “Committee to Study Stalinist Heritage,” led by a feisty pensioner named Tamara Sazhina, had the miraculously recovered bust mounted in a city square as part of a monument to the heroes of World War II. 

This true story illustrates a phenomenon that the Russian commentator Eugenie Ikhlov calls Stalinshchina, “Stalin fashion” or “Stalin nostalgia.” It can be seen in the growing popularity of Stalin memorabilia and repeated calls to restore Stalin’s name to various monuments and public facilities. Groups of World War II veterans have been demanding for some time that the city of Volgograd restore its wartime name of Stalingrad. That has not happened yet, but the appellation was recently placed on a plaque in the Kremlin commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of what was possibly the bloodiest battle in the history of humanity.

More here.

Marine biology: Whale fall

“The fatty bones of dead whales provide rich pickings for creatures on the sea floor. Amanda Haag meets the scientists who go to extreme and unpleasant lengths to study the unique ecosystems on these corpses.” From Nature:

433566ai1_1 In 1987, a manned submersible called Alvin was making a routine dive along the muddy plains of the deep sea when its pilot spotted what he thought was the fossilized remains of a dinosaur. Instead of an exotic underwater beast, it turned out to be the 21-metre-long skeleton of a blue whale. But atop this mass of bones the pilot did find something exotic: a carpet of creatures, including bacteria and worms, similar to those found on the flanks of underwater volcanoes.

The Alvin team had happened upon what have since become known as ‘whale falls’ — communities of creatures that thrive among the sulphur-laden ooze of decaying whales. Just as windfalls deliver a sudden bounty of ripened fruit, whale falls see the death of a whale bring a host of nutrients to the sea floor. The falls are few and far between, and difficult to track and study, but researchers are learning ever more — sometimes through extreme measures — about the new species to be found among the remains. Some 39 of the species discovered so far are thought to be especially suited or even unique to this environment.

More here.