The first issue of The Human Security Report

From the inaugural issue of The Human Security Report:

The extent of the change in global security following the end of the Cold War has been remarkable:

° The number of armed conflicts around the world has declined by more than 40% since the early 1990s (see Figure 1.1 in Part I).

° Between 1991 (the high point for the post–World War II period) and 2004, 28 armed struggles for self-determination started or restarted, while 43 were contained or ended. There were just 25 armed secessionist conflicts under way in 2004, the lowest number since 1976.

° Notwithstanding the horrors of Rwanda, Srebrenica and elsewhere, the number of genocides and politicides plummeted by 80% between the 1988 high point and 2001 (Figure 1.11).

° International crises, often harbingers of war, declined by more than 70% between 1981 and 2001 (Figure 1.5).

° The dollar value of major international arms transfers fell by 33% between 1990 and 2003 (Figure 1.10). Global military expenditure and troop numbers declined sharply in the 1990s as well.

° The number of refugees dropped by some 45% between 1992 and 2003, as more and more wars came to an end (Figure 3.1).

Reconsidering an Islamic Reformation

In the August Ekklesia, Giles Fraser offers an interesting response to the calls for a Islamic Reformation.

Salman Rushdie has now joined those who insist that Islam needs a reformation. What better place to assess such a demand than in the new Musée International de la Réforme in Geneva? Here familiar portraits of Luther and Calvin magically appear in a mirror to lip-synch the glories of the 16th-century Reformation – a revolution against a corrupt Catholic church that ripped off the gullible by selling passports to heaven. By translating the Bible into the vernacular (one of the earliest and most influential English Bibles was produced in Geneva in 1560), the reformers bypassed the power of the Catholic clergy to interpret the word of God to ordinary believers. The parallels with a religion that refuses to accept the authenticity of translations of the Qur’an are superficially powerful.

Even so, Islam already resembles a reformed religion a great deal more than Rushdie acknowledges. Reformation pamphleteers railed against the papacy as the whore of Babylon, yet there is no equivalent centralised authority in Islam. Nor is there a hierarchical clerical establishment. The sober dress of Muslim leaders and the absence of fancy vestments to mark them out as special are clearly reminiscent of post-Reformation austerity.

So too is the thoroughgoing commitment to iconoclasm.

The Michelin Guide to New York City is out

In the New York Times:

IT may have been only one more review among many, but when Michelin announced its first ratings for restaurants in New York City yesterday morning, superstar chefs and proprietors reacted with joyous tears, resignation and, in some cases, dismay.

Four restaurants – Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, Jean Georges, Le Bernardin and Per Se – received the top ranking, three stars. But Daniel, long considered to be in the very top rank of New York’s restaurants, had to settle for two, along with Masa, Bouley and Danube.

And in some of the more surprising rankings, the Spotted Pig, a no-frills Greenwich Village pub with an idiosyncratic menu, got a star, putting it up with restaurants like Babbo and Gramercy Tavern, while respected restaurants like Chanterelle, Felidia, the Four Seasons and Union Square Cafe got no stars. Scott Conant, one of the city’s most admired young chefs, failed to win a star for either of his restaurants, L’Impero and Alto.

Is science driven by inspired guesswork?

From The Edge:

Ianmcewan150 History abounds with examples of how instinct, not data, led to discoveries. Even Einstein’s theory of relativity had to wait decades for verification, says Ian McEwan. Some science appears true because it is elegant – it is economically formulated, while seeming to explain a great deal. Despite fulmination against it from the pulpit, Darwin’s theory of natural selection gained rapid acceptance, at least by the standards of Victorian intellectual life. His proof was really an overwhelming set of examples, laid out with exacting care. A relatively simple idea made sense across a huge variety of cases and circumstances, a fact not lost on an army of Anglican vicars in country livings, who devoted their copious free time to natural history.

Steven Weinberg describes how, from 1919 onwards, various expeditions by astronomers set out to test the theory by measuring the deflection of starlight by the sun during an eclipse. Not until the availability of radio telescopy in the early Fifties were the measurements accurate enough to provide verification. For 40 years, despite a paucity of evidence, the theory was generally accepted because, in Weinberg’s phrase, it was “compellingly beautiful”.

In James Watson’s account, when Rosalind Franklin stood before the final model of the DNA molecule, she “accepted the fact that the structure was too pretty not to be true”. Nevertheless, the idea still holds firm among us laypeople that scientists do not believe what they cannot prove. At the very least, we demand of them higher standards of evidence than we expect from literary critics, journalists or priests.

More here.

Hormone levels predict attractiveness of women

From New Scientist:Women

Feminine beauty, the subject of philosophical and artistic musings for millennia, can be predicted by something as basic as hormones – in women, but not men. Researchers at the University of St Andrews in Fife, UK, have found that women’s facial attractiveness is directly related to their oestrogen levels. Miriam Law Smith and colleagues photographed 59 women, aged between 18 and 25, every week for six weeks. On each occasion, they provided a urine sample for hormone analysis and gave information on where they were in their menstrual cycle. None of the women wore make-up, nor were they taking the contraceptive pill. The researchers then selected the photograph of each woman that had been taken at the time of her highest urine-oestrogen level. As expected, this correlated to the point of ovulation in the women’s menstrual cycles. These photographs were rated by 14 men and 15 women, also aged 18 to 25, for attractiveness, health and femininity.

The group also rated two composite face images. One composite was an amalgamation of the 10 women with the lowest peak-oestrogen levels, while the other image was a combination of the 10 women with the highest levels (see image). “There was a very strong and direct correlation between the level of each woman’s oestrogen and how attractive, healthy and feminine they were found to be, showing that fertility is related to attractiveness,” Law Smith told New Scientist. The faces considered most healthy and feminine were also deemed the most attractive.

More here.

John Updike on Gabriel García Márquez

John Updike in The New Yorker:

GabrielThe works of Gabriel García Márquez contain a great deal of love, depicted as a doom, a demonic possession, a disease that, once contracted, cannot be easily cured. Not infrequently the afflicted are an older man and a younger woman, hardly more than a child. In “One Hundred Years of Solitude” (1967; English translation 1970), Aureliano Buendía visits a very young whore:

The adolescent mulatto girl, with her small bitch’s teats, was naked on the bed. Before Aureliano sixty-three men had passed through the room that night. From being used so much, kneaded with sweat and sighs, the air in the room had begun to turn to mud. The girl took off the soaked sheet and asked Aureliano to hold it by one side. It was as heavy as a piece of canvas. They squeezed it, twisting it at the ends until it regained its natural weight. They turned over the mat and the sweat came out of the other side. Aureliano was anxious for that operation never to end.

Her condition is pitiable:

Her back was raw. Her skin was stuck to her ribs and her breathing was forced because of an immeasurable exhaustion. Two years before, far away from there, she had fallen asleep without putting out the candle and had awakened surrounded by flames. The house where she lived with the grandmother who had raised her was reduced to ashes. Since then her grandmother carried her from town to town, putting her to bed for twenty cents in order to make up the value of the burned house. According to the girl’s calculations, she still had ten years of seventy men per night, because she also had to pay the expenses of the trip and food for both of them.

Aureliano does not take advantage of her overexploited charms, and leaves the room “troubled by a desire to weep.” He has—you guessed it—fallen in love:

He felt an irresistible need to love her and protect her. At dawn, worn out by insomnia and fever, he made the calm decision to marry her in order to free her from the despotism of her grandmother and to enjoy all the nights of satisfaction that she would give the seventy men.

This curious blend of the squalid and the enchanted—perhaps not so curious in the social context of the author’s native Colombia in the years of his youth—returns, five years later, in the long short story “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother” (translated 1978), which was made into a movie from a script by the author.

More here.

The case against scientific protectionism

Caroline S. Wagner and Calestous Juma in

The steady growth of scientific capacity, the expansion of the Internet, and the hyper-mobility of knowledge has enabled new knowledge producers to join the United States in global science and technology communities.

The issue here is whether the United States can come to see this as a resource rather than a source of competition.

In a networked world, no nation leads or lags in some competitive race. Thankfully, that 20th century technological paradigm is swiftly changing.

Space research is a case in point. In the 1950s and 1960s, the United States and the former Soviet Union were both racing to win the big prizes in the field. When the United States eventually reached the Moon first in 1969, it was seen as a validation of US scientific prowess, which had been shaken by the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite.

Cooperation in space science has since replaced this competitive mentality. Today, scientists from Russia, the United States and many other nations work side by side as partners on joint projects. They live and learn together in space, expanding the frontiers of human knowledge.

More here.

Aesthetic splendour, cognitive power, and wisdom: An interview with Harold Bloom

“Pre-eminent American literary critic Harold Bloom’s twenty-ninth book, Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?, was officially launched a few hours after this conversation took place in his Manhattan apartment on 26 October 2004.”

Ieva Lesinska in Eurozine:

IL: Do you posess wisdom?

HB: No.

IL: No?

HB: No. If I posesed any wisdom, I would not write a book called Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? I am very unwise, I can asure you. Unwise in all things. I think I am a good teacher of literature, particularly of Shakespeare. At Yale on Wednesdays I give an undergraduate seminar. Of course, I am a one-man department, I divorced the English department back in 1976, I convinced them to reappoint me as a “profesor of absolutely nothing” – I give courses in something called humanities. And on Wednesdays I give a course, year by year, where we read all of Shakespeare together. And on Thursdays I give a course called “The Art of Reading Poetry”. I regard myself as a teacher. I remark in this new book that I have only three criteria for whether a work should be read and reread and taught to others, and they are: aesthetic splendour, cognitive power, and wisdom.

More here.

A hip new tome and an avant-garde musical piece

Andrew Cohen in Newsweek:

0404_composers_nicoMaira Kalman, an illustrator and children’s book author best known for her New Yorker covers, including the popular “Newyorkistan” map of few years ago, told The New York Times she was so taken by the colorful examples used in Strunk and White to illustrate their grammatical points that she wondered why anyone hadn’t illustrated them before.  Thus, her illustrations for the book contain such captions as: “Polly loves cake more than she loves me,” “It was a unique eggbeater,” “None of us is perfect” and “Well, Susan, this is a fine mess you are in.”

Her zeal for the book has since spilled over into the musical realm. She shared her enthusiasm with family friend Nico Muhly, a Juilliard-trained composer who wrote an operatic song cycle based on the book, “The Elements of Style: Nine Songs,” which had its gala premier Oct. 19 in the main reading room of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue.

More here.  [The picture is of Nico Muhly, who is also a friend of my family.]

Alan Sokal on the Grad student strike at NYU

As grad students at NYU prepare to go on strike, Alan Sokal offers some arguments in support.

3) Some red herrings.

We can save a lot of time by recognizing that certain questions are NOT relevant to our current debates.

One question that is NOT relevant (for us as faculty, that is) is whether unionization is in the best interests of grad students. It is an accepted principle of a democratic society that adults are permitted to determine their own interests. (There are at least two reasons for this: people are ordinarily better-informed about their own situation than outsiders are; and people are more likely to have their own interests fully at heart than outsiders are.) Everyone is free to try to persuade others about what their own interests are; but no one is allowed to substitute his or her view of other people’s interests for those people’s own view.

For these reasons, I as a faculty member do not purport to suggest to grad students whether or not they should support unionization — much less whether or not they should strike. I simply support grad students’ right to decide these issues for themselves.

The only valid argument in support of the Administration’s anti-union position would be that, through collective bargaining, the grad students would infringe unfairly on the interests of_other_ segments of the university community — so unfairly, in fact, that the latter’s interests would override the grad students’ democratic rights.

Thinking about new dimensions

In American Scientist, Sean Carroll reviews Lisa Randall’s Warped Passages and Michio Kaku’s Parallel Worlds.

A distinctive feature of Warped Passages is the discussion of two different ways of extending physics beyond the Standard Model: the bottom-up, model-building “Harvard” approach; and the top-down, string-theory “Princeton” approach. Both philosophies are interesting and important, and the study of extra dimensions has brought them into close collaboration. The perspective of someone who has been immersed in the details makes the discussion of this dichotomy an especially valuable feature of the book.

Michio Kaku’s Parallel Worlds: A Journey Through Creation, Higher Dimensions, and the Future of the Cosmos, although superficially similar to Randall’s book, actually differs significantly from it. Although Kaku worked on string theory in its early days, he has become well known more recently as a popularizer of physics, and this is evident from the text. Parallel Worlds is not written from the viewpoint of an insider relating developments as they occurred. It is telling, for example, that the bibliography consists solely of other books for a general audience, with no citations of the primary literature. Nonetheless, the presentation is extremely polished, and the discussion is invigorated by the inclusion of numerous interesting and revealing anecdotes about the participants.

Kaku is also very attuned to the fact that what interests the general reader is not always what interests the professional physicist. He is quite willing to discuss the possibility of life on other planets, or even the religious implications of the work he describes.

Extracts from Backpacker

Also in 3 a.m., an excerpt from what seems a little like a contemporary riff on Sei Shonagan, Hillary Raphael’s Backpacker.

most satisfying sex binges

piazza duomo, firenze, italy/ male nurse ginza business hotel, tokyo, japan/ female nurse kruger national park tent, south africa/ jeep driver rice farming collective, guilin, china/ farmer residential tower, new york, usa/ consul general of denmark ramon crater, negev desert, israel/ rescue helicopter pilot roman coliseum, el jem, tunisia/ dog sledder las pirámides, lake atitlán, guatemala/ vision quest guide desert suites, las vegas, nevada, usa/ mc donald’s cashier hut, tromsø, norway/ interpreter

What can be said to spread ecstasy from one person to another? It’s a lost detail, a subtle movement at the center of a million coarse ones. It’s a vibrating wave connecting seemingly unrelated instants in thematically-linked compartments. It’s stepping onto the metro in a new city and eavesdropping on a conversation about someone you know, and remembering the vague miracle of meeting anyone, ever. Ecstasy is recalling something precious lost and not minding at all.

An Interview with the Artist Coco Fusco

3 a.m magazine interviews Coco Fusco about her performance art, globalization and sex workers.

3AM: Your show works round a real story.

CF: The thing that got me going was that five years ago I was in Australia performing another piece and I was talking to all these artists and critics and I was talking to an artist and I was telling him that I’d done a piece about a year before in which I was in a coffin. He said ‘Do you like to lay dead? And have you heard of this guy from California who went to Mexico and bought a dead woman and had sex with her as performance art?’ I had never heard of this and I thought this was outrageous and appalling and I asked for more details. And he said that he didn’t know very many details but there was some allusion to it in some very trashy book about the art world. I asked for the name of the book and then I ran into the bathroom and wrote in on the back of my hand because I didn’t want him to know that I was really intrigued by this. Then I went back home and found the allusion. It didn’t name the guy but it said that he’d made an audio tape of this thing that he’d wanted to have exhibited in museums. He had gone to this museum director who works in California and he had been horrified and made it known that he would never do it. But he describes the tape in the book. And that was it! Now it turned out that I knew that museum director vaguely so I had to figure out how I was going to approach him twenty years later top talk about this.

Finally, I just sent him an e–mail. He replied saying that he vowed never to mention this guy again and would never do anything to help him in his career because he was so horrified. OK, so he was really affected by this. This guy was from LA, seventies, the body art scene, where all these weirdoes were nailing themselves to cars and shooting themselves and throwing themselves in lockers and doing all sorts of strange things. So I thought I must be able to figure out who he was, someone who knew about this, or had known him and so on. There must be someone who was there who witnessed the confession.

The greatest intellectual

Emma Brockes in The Guardian:

Chomsky1 Despite his belief that most journalists are unwitting upholders of western imperialism, Noam Chomsky, the radical’s radical, agrees to see me at his office in Boston. He works here as a professor of linguistics, a sort of Clark Kent alter ego to his activist Superman, in a nubbly old jumper, big white trainers and a grandad jacket with pockets designed to accomodate a Thermos. There is a half-finished packet of fig rolls on the desk. Such is the effect of an hour spent with Chomsky that, writing this, I wonder: is it wrong to mention the fig rolls when there is undocumented suffering going on in El Salvador?

Chomsky’s activism has its roots in his childhood. He grew up in the depression of the 1930s, the son of William Chomsky and Elsie Simonofsky, Russian immigrants to Philadelphia. He describes the family as “working-class Jews”, most of whom were unemployed, although his parents, both teachers, were lucky enough to work. There was no sense of America as the promised land: “It wasn’t much of an opportunity-giver in my immediate family,” he says, although it was an improvement on the pogroms of Russia, which none the less Chomsky can’t help qualifying as “not very bad, by contemporary standards. In the worst of the major massacres, I think about 49 people were killed.”

More here.

Intelligent Evolution

E.O. Wilson in The Harvard Magazine:

Darwin_4 The adventure that Darwin launched on all our behalf, and which continues into the twenty-first century, is driven by a deceptively simple idea, of which Darwin’s friend and staunch supporter Thomas Henry Huxley said, and spoke for many to follow, “How extremely stupid of me not to have thought of that!” Evolution by natural selection is perhaps the only one true law unique to biological systems, as opposed to nonliving physical systems, and in recent decades it has taken on the solidity of a mathematical theorem. It states simply that if a population of organisms contains multiple hereditary variants in some trait (say, red versus blue eyes in a bird population), and if one of these variants succeeds in contributing more offspring to the next generation than the other variants, the overall composition of the population changes, and evolution has occurred.

More here.