the stuff of fairytales?

Julio Godoy at The Other News:

Islands could fall off the map: Sylt, the largest of Germany’s Frisian islands, in the North Sea, lost at least 800,000 cubic metres of sand from its beaches in the last two months, because of heavy storms and flooding that have marked the northern hemisphere autumn and winter seasons.

On the other side of the planet, in the south-western Pacific Ocean, Tuvalu, a tiny archipelago of nine atolls and reefs, with the highest point just five metres above sea level, is suffering a similar loss of land, and for the same reasons.

“Tuvalu is drowning!” is the alarm that the island’s officials have been sounding for years.

Sylt, Tuvalu and dozens of other islands, like those of the Caribbean, are the most vulnerable to the continued rise in the Earth’s average temperatures, which according to the Fourth Assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), presented Feb. 2 in Paris, could reach a 4-degree Celsius increase by 2100.

Global warming, produced by emissions of gases that cause the greenhouse effect in the Earth’s atmosphere, is making sea levels rise as polar ice melts, as well as intensifying storms and hurricanes, with stronger winds and heavier rains, taking a heavy toll on humans and the natural environment.

According to the IPCC assessment, in this century the sea level could rise 28 to 43 centimetres as a result of climate change. For the people living on Sylt, Tuvalu and similar islands, this could literally mean their disappearance from the world map.

More here.

numbers as colorful figures

Richard Johnson interviews Daniel Tammet in The Guardian:

Danielportrait Daniel Tammet is an autistic savant. He can perform mind-boggling mathematical calculations at breakneck speeds. But unlike other savants, who can perform similar feats, Tammet can describe how he does it. He speaks seven languages and is even devising his own language. Now scientists are asking whether his exceptional abilities are the key to unlock the secrets of autism.

Daniel Tammet is talking. As he talks, he studies my shirt and counts the stitches. Ever since the age of three, when he suffered an epileptic fit, Tammet has been obsessed with counting. Now he is 26, and a mathematical genius who can figure out cube roots quicker than a calculator and recall pi to 22,514 decimal places. He also happens to be autistic, which is why he can’t drive a car, wire a plug, or tell right from left. He lives with extraordinary ability and disability. Tammet is calculating 377 multiplied by 795. Actually, he isn’t “calculating”: there is nothing conscious about what he is doing. He arrives at the answer instantly. Since his epileptic fit, he has been able to see numbers as shapes, colours and textures. The number two, for instance, is a motion, and five is a clap of thunder. “When I multiply numbers together, I see two shapes. The image starts to change and evolve, and a third shape emerges. That’s the answer. It’s mental imagery. It’s like maths without having to think.”

Tammet is a “savant”, an individual with an astonishing, extraordinary mental ability. An estimated 10% of the autistic population – and an estimated 1% of the non-autistic population – have savant abilities, but no one knows exactly why. A number of scientists now hope that Tammet might help us to understand better. Professor Allan Snyder, from the Centre for the Mind at the Australian National University in Canberra, explains why Tammet is of particular, and international, scientific interest. “Savants can’t usually tell us how they do what they do,” says Snyder. “It just comes to them. Daniel can. He describes what he sees in his head. That’s why he’s exciting. He could be the Rosetta Stone.”

More here.

Tammet’s website including blurbs about his book “Born on a Blue Day” here.

Reviewing “Reality”: New York Times columnist Frank Rich views political life through a theatrical lens

From Harvard Magazine:

Rich President George W. Bush emerged from a navy jet that had just landed on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003. Swathed in flight gear, he cradled a helmet under his arm and told the press that he had flown the plane, and “I miss flying, I can tell you that.” Hours later, he reappeared on deck wearing a business suit and spoke beneath a huge banner reading Mission Accomplished.

Image wins out over reality more and more in the battle for attention and belief. Virtually every public event now arrives filtered through a lens, laptop computer, or recording device, and hence nearly all our daily news has been “produced” and woven into some kind of narrative. Old-fashioned, relatively unmediated reality at times appears obsolete. In this environment, Rich’s New York Times columns attempt to redress the balance as he rips holes in the scenery of the image manipulators to reveal stagehands frantically hauling on ropes, and drags unwelcome truths onstage.

More here.

Being a Muslim American

Reza Aslan in The Washington Post:

Book_19 AMERICAN ISLAM: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion By Paul M. Barrett

Paul M. Barrett’s well wrought and engaging new book, American Islam, seeks to change perceptions by providing an intimate group portrait of Muslim Americans as they struggle to combat the threats, prejudices and stereotypes that have dogged them since 9/11. Barrett, a longtime Wall Street Journal reporter who’s now at BusinessWeek, uses his journalistic skills to insinuate himself into the lives of his subjects — no easy task in a time of heightened suspicions. The book traces the lives of seven American Muslims, from the wily Dearborn, Mich., publisher and political activist Osama Siblani to the energetic journalist and Islamic feminist Asra Nomani, whose crusade to tear down the wall of separation between men and women in her Morgantown, W.Va., mosque made her a media superstar in the United States and, to her surprise, a scourge in her own community.

While it is dispiriting to read about the bungling overzealousness of a government that has more often treated American Muslims as part of the problem of Islamic extremism than as part of the solution, there is nevertheless something oddly hopeful in Hussayen’s unflinching faith that the rights and freedoms for which the United States has for centuries been admired throughout the world would ultimately protect him from harm. Perhaps generations from now, when the war on terror has become little more than a somber footnote in our nation’s great history, that may once again be true.

As Muslims say, “Inshallah.” God willing. ?

More here. (Thanks to Krusty for the correction).

the surging tide of 1980s excess


The nine minutes of Simon Martin’s compelling, memorable film Carlton (2006) are devoted to a cultural philosophical meditation upon the Carlton cabinet, designed by Ettore Sottsass in 1981, and a founding example of the work made by the radical design group Memphis, established in Milan that same year. Outlandish, mischievous, heroically quirky – riding a perilous back-curve between supreme aesthetic poise and assuredly knowing kitsch – Memphis design was as much the articulation of an anti-historicist mission statement as it was a deft-footed style surf on the surging tides of 1980s excess.

more from Frieze here.

the communicativeness of our nature


Samuel Taylor Coleridge made quite a splash with his first book, a small volume of Poems on Various Subjects printed and published in Bristol in the spring of 1796. He was a young man, 23 years of age, well-known in the Bristol area as a lecturer and dissenting lay preacher, and notorious as a political radical, or–to use the language of the time–a “democrat” and “liberty man.” He now took the opportunity to expatiate in verse on his commitment to “equality,” his “joy” at the blood-red French Revolution, his longing to live in a community without “individual property” and his hopes of moving to America with his democratic friends to “follow the sweet dream,/Where Susquehannah pours his untam’d stream.” He compounded the provocation with a long philosophical poem in which his energetic Christianity was harnessed to the heretical themes of Unitarianism and pantheism and further onslaughts on private ownership as the root of all evil. But what really stirred up Coleridge’s readers, at a time when poetry was debated with as much passion as politics or religion, was his peculiar literary style.

more from The Nation here (via TPM).

hawkinson on the move


In spite of the intervening dry spell, the new work is of a kind with classic Hawkinsonia — obsessively realized misunderstandings that resonate with spiritual, psychological and phenomenological depth. He shows me a predictably amazing array of works in progress for the New York show: a sensory homunculus buckskin outfit for a sensory homunculus scout, a giant woven bamboo sculpture of a Klein bottle that he’s considering mounting on a multiaxle rotational motor “like a giant three-dimensional screen saver,” a 12-foot quilted topological map of the sole of his foot, and a half-dozen more. Chances are these works won’t be seen in L.A. until his next retrospective, but the Getty works are at least as impressive.

more from the LA Weekly here.

Behind the Sunni-Shi’ite Divide

Bobby Ghosh in Time Magazine:

It has come to this: the hatred between Iraq’s warring sects is now so toxic, it contaminates even the memory of a shining moment of goodwill. On Aug. 31, 2005, a stampede among Shi’ite pilgrims on a bridge over the Tigris River in Baghdad led to hundreds jumping into the water in panic. Several young men in Adhamiya, the Sunni neighborhood on the eastern bank, dived in to help. One of them, Othman al-Obeidi, 25, rescued six people before his limbs gave out from exhaustion and he himself drowned. Nearly 1,000 pilgrims died that afternoon, but community leaders in the Shi’ite district of Khadamiya, on the western bank, lauded the “martyrdom” of al-Obeidi and the bravery of his friends. Adhamiya residents, for their part, held up al-Obeidi’s sacrifice as proof that Sunnis bore no ill will toward their Shi’ite neighbors across the river.

Eighteen months on, one of the men who jumped into the river to help the Shi’ites says al-Obeidi “wasted his life for those animals.” Hamza Muslawi refuses to talk about how many he himself saved, saying it fills him with shame. “If I see a Shi’ite child about to drown in the Tigris now,” says the carpenter, “I will not reach my hand out to save him.”

More here.

The 200th Anniversary of the Slave Trade Act

March 25th will mark the 200th anniversary of “An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade”, which, as the title suggets, abolished the slave trade in the British Empire. In the Economist (via Normblog):

In its tactics, boycotts, moral zeal, lobbying, research and its use of images, the British campaign was a template for many later ones—against slavery in the Belgian Congo in the late 19th century; against apartheid in South Africa; and against segregation in the American south.

For all the fervour of its opponents, the slave trade would not have collapsed without rebellions by the victims. The most important was in 1791 on St Domingue. Within two months the slaves had taken control of the island, led by the remarkable Toussaint L’Ouverture. His guerrillas saw off the two greatest imperial armies of the day, the French and British; this led to the establishment of the republic of Haiti in 1804 and to the emancipation of about 500,000 slaves. It was clear that European armies would find it hard to contain many more uprisings, a point proved again on the British islands of Grenada and Barbados. Samuel Sharpe’s uprising on Jamaica in 1831 was put down at great cost; the British feared that if slavery continued, they would lose some colonies altogether. So in 1833 slavery was abolished throughout their empire.

Britain was not the first to outlaw the slave trade in its territory; the Danes had done so in 1803, the French temporarily in 1794 and several northern American states had also done so before 1807. But as Britain was the big sea power of the day, it alone could enforce abolition throughout the world, as its navy resolutely tried to do for the rest of the 19th century. Other European nations, notably the Portuguese, persisted with the trade into the 1860s.

Robots hold key to evolution of language

Roger Highfield in The Telegraph:

Screenhunter_03_feb_23_1250They may look like toys, but these robots have helped to back one theory of the origins of language.

Sometime between seven million years ago, when we shared our last common ancestor with chimps, and 150,000 years ago, when anatomically modern humans emerged, true language came into being.

One idea of how it emerged from the “primordial soup” of communication in the animal kingdom, whether primitive signalling between cells, the dance of bees, territorial calls and birdsong, goes as follows.

Early humans had a few specific utterances, from howls to grunts, that became associated with specific objects. Crucially, these associations formed when information transfer was beneficial for both speaker and listener. And in this way, the evolution of cooperation was crucial for language to evolve.

But this theory has been impossible to prove, given the lack of time machines or lack of fossil evidence of ancient tongues.

Now backing for the role of cooperation has come from experiments with robots – both real and virtual – that possess evolving software. The study is described today by a group including Dario Floreano of Ecole Polytechnique of the Fédérale de Lausanne, in Switzerland, and Laurent Keller of the University of Lausanne, in the journal Current Biology.

More here.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, It Seems, Never Met Lewis Lapham

Gary Shapiro in The New York Sun:

Lewislapha_count_4864096_400F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there are no second acts in American lives, but he never met Lewis Lapham.

In September, the silver-haired septuagenarian former editor of Harper’s Magazine is set to launch Lapham’s Quarterly, a journal of history.

With a patrician demeanor and cigarette often in hand, Mr. Lapham has for decades punctured pomposity with wry observations on American society. An editor at Verso, Tom Penn, described his crystalline prose as “rapierlike.”

In a glass-enclosed office on Irving Place, Mr. Lapham sits in a gray scarf and immaculately tailored suit, leaning over a desk, writing in longhand on a legal-size notepad — no computer.

His journal will examine current topics from numerous historical perspectives. With a sheaf of historical texts alongside reflection by contemporary essayists, each issue will, according the Web site, open “the doors of history behind the events in the news” and be a bulwark against “the general state of amnesia.” In the office lay paperback copies of Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey.”

This is fitting, as the first issue is about war.

More here.

Folding Under Pressure

A couple of days ago I posted an article from The New Yorker about Robert J. Lang and his amazing origami. Now Jason Kottke has dug deeper and found more cool stuff:

Lang’s creations are truly astounding, almost to the point of being magical, because the comparison of the finished product to a flat, uncut sheet of paper is so dissonant. Here are two views of one of Lang’s signature “bugs”, a 7″ silverfish he folded in 2004. The folding pattern is followed by the completed product:


In 1987, Lang folded a 15″ long cuckoo clock out of a single sheet of paper. The clock, which “made Lang a sensation in the origami world”, took him three months to design and six hours to fold. These days, he uses a computer program he wrote called TreeMaker to design his creations and a laser cutter borrowed from Squid Labs to gently score the paper for quicker & easier folding.

Squid Labs is responsible for a site called Instructables, which allows people to share step-by-step instructions for how to do just about anything, from broiled peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to origami. Lang doesn’t seem to have any instructions for his designs up on Instructables, but he shares the site’s open source and collaborative spirit…crease patterns for many of his most complex creations are available on his site and TreeMaker and ReferenceFinder are free to download (with the source code released under the GPL).

(Speaking of Instructables, here’s an easy way to get started with origami. Just grab that stack of Post-It Notes sitting on your desk (the square ones, not the letterbox ones), peel the top one off, and follow these simple instructions to make a little box out of it. It’ll take you 5 minutes…here’s mine that I did this morning.)

More here.

Mapping the Cancer Genome

From Scientific American:Cancer_1

“If we wish to learn more about cancer, we must now concentrate on the cellular genome.” Nobel laureate Renato Dulbecco penned those words more than 20 years ago in one of the earliest public calls for what would become the Human Genome Project. “Either try to discover the genes important in malignancy by a piecemeal approach, or sequence the whole genome.”

Dulbecco and others in the scientific community grasped that sequencing the human genome, though a monumental achievement itself, would mark just the first step of the quest to fully understand the biology of cancer. Over the span of two decades Dulbecco’s vision has moved from pipe dream to reality. Less than three years after the Human Genome Project’s completion, the National Institutes of Health has officially launched the pilot stage of an effort to create a comprehensive catalogue of the genomic changes involved in cancer: The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA).

When applied to the 50 most common types of cancer, this effort could ultimately prove to be the equivalent of more than 10,000 Human Genome Projects in terms of the sheer volume of DNA to be sequenced. The dream must therefore be matched with an ambitious but realistic assessment of the emerging scientific opportunities for waging a smarter war against cancer.

More here.

Advanced geometry of Islamic art

From BBC News:

Islamic Researchers in the US have found 15th Century examples that use the concept of quasicrystalline geometry. This indicates intuitive understanding of complex mathematical formulae, even if the artisans had not worked out the underlying theory, the study says. The discovery is published in the journal Science.

The research shows an important breakthrough had occurred in Islamic mathematics and design by 1200. “It’s absolutely stunning,” Harvard’s Peter Lu said in an interview. “They made tilings that reflect mathematics that were so sophisticated that we didn’t figure it out until the last 20 or 30 years.” The Islamic designs echo quasicrystalline geometry in that both use symmetrical polygonal shapes to create patterns that can be extended indefinitely.

More here.

Of wildflowers and weed

David Sedaris in The New Yorker:

Screenhunter_01_feb_22_2045In Paris they warn you before cutting off the water, but out in Normandy you’re just supposed to know. You’re also supposed to be prepared, and it’s this last part that gets me every time. Still, though, I try to make do. A saucepan of chicken broth will do for shaving, and in a pinch I can always find something to pour into the toilet tank: orange juice, milk, a lesser champagne. If I really got hard up, I suppose I could hike through the woods and bathe in the river, though it’s never quite come to that.

Most often, our water is shut off because of some reconstruction project, either in our village or in the next one over. A hole is dug, a pipe is replaced, and within a few hours things are back to normal. The mystery is that it’s so perfectly timed to my schedule. This is to say that the tap dries up at the exact moment I roll out of bed, which is usually between ten and ten-thirty. For me this is early, but for Hugh and most of our neighbors it’s something closer to midday. What they do at 6 A.M. is anyone’s guess. I only know that they’re incredibly self-righteous about it, and talk about the dawn as if it’s a personal reward, bestowed on account of their great virtue.

More here.

A Poem by Christine Klocek-Lim

From The Pedestal Magazine:

Partial Building Collapse

Debris fluttered beneath the quiet frame
of police tape as I passed: feathers and dross
lay dazed on the pavement. Fourteen years ago
the possibility of destruction did not frighten me.
Then the pigeons returned to roost on the raw
edges of what had been broken.

Today’s leafy debris has crumbled beneath the sodden
edge of rain. I ignore the rawness, scuff some rocks
on my way to the mailbox. I know the disintegration
of a leaf is nothing to mourn, but I can’t help wishing
for more: perhaps the soft flutter of a feather carving
the wind’s broken corners.

Tomorrow it will snow; I’ll try not to mind the cold
shape of another season. Decay stalks the unwary.
Everywhere I walk, a new path of destruction. Grown
children. A dead mother. Closed doors locked between
all things. Sorrow is familiar and fickle as the wind—
I ignore its mercurial nature.

Rest of the poem here.

A Politically Correct Lexicon

Joel Bleifuss in In These Times:

PcTo help me parse what’s PC and what’s not, I had help from people attuned to the nuances of words, particularly those that describe race, ethnicity and sexual identity. Rinku Sen is a 40-year-old South Asian woman. She is the publisher of Colorlines, a national magazine of race and politics, for which she has developed a PC style manual. Tracy Baim is a 44-year-old white lesbian. She grapples with the ever-evolving nomenclature of sexual identity and politics as the executive editor of Windy City Times, a Chicago-based gay weekly. Lott Hill is a 36-year-old white gay male who works at Center for Teaching Excellence at Columbia College in Chicago. He interacts with lots of young people—the font from which much new language usage flows.

African American: In 1988 Jesse Jackson encouraged people to adopt this term over the then-used “black.” As he saw it, the words acknowledged black America’s ties to Africa. “African American,” says Hill, is now “used more by non-African-American people, who cling to it because they are unsure what word to use.” Sen says, “African American” is favored by “highly educated people who are not black. Whether one uses ‘black’ or ‘African American’ indicates how strong your social relations are with those communities.” And Chris Raab, founder of Afro-Netizen, says, “People who are politically correct chose to use African American, but I don’t recall any mass of black folks demanding the use of African American.”

More here.

Self-Improvement Literature

In the FT, James Harkin on self-help books.

How did our bookshelves become a toolbox of methods for living our lives better? Some valuable clues can be found in Dubravka Ugresic’s gloriously, unashamedly bitchy dissection of the state of the publishing industry, Thank You For Not Reading.

The Croatian academic and critic compares the contemporary books market with the propaganda of the Stalinist school of socialist realism. The only difference is that, where the art of socialist realism promised a bright and shining future for society, these books promise a bright personal future – if only you do what they say.

Visit any large metropolitan bookshop, she says, and the display will be festooned with books about how to improve your personal situation and overcome your demons. There are books about fat people becoming thin, sick people recovering, poor people becoming rich, mutes speaking, alcoholics sobering up, unbelievers discovering faith. This literature of personal transformation, she believes, has so cornered the books market that all writers are now forced to “live Oprah” and the publishing world exploits this shamelessly. The title arrived at for Alain de Botton’s book How Proust Can Change Your Life, one London literary agent told me privately, probably doubled sales of the book. Even weighty works of non-fiction are no longer immune from the functional approach – Heat, the environmentalist George Monbiot’s new book about global warming, was brought to market saddled with the sub-title How to Stop the Planet Burning.

But why stop here? In the current publishing climate, a whole range of classics could surely be touched up to lend them a more contemporary feel. Karl Marx’s Capital: A Critique of Political Economy could become Capital: How to Overthrow the Capitalist System For Beginners; Robinson Crusoe could benefit from the sub-title How to Survive and Thrive On a Desert Island; Pride and Prejudice might shift a few more copies if it were subtitled How to Bag a Rich Husband and Live Happily Ever After.

In a post-cold war age, where political allegiances and ideologies often give us little in the way of guidance, many of us have turned inward in search of inspiration. Ideas, as a consequence, find it difficult to get a hearing unless they promise to turn our lives around or help us to get ahead. If the rise of “how-to lit” is as unstoppable as the rise of the self-help industry from which it takes its cue, perhaps the best we can hope for is for more imaginative attempts to subvert the whole genre.

Joschka Fischer on Iran

In Dissent, Joschka Fischer’s August 1, 2006 speech to the Iranian Center for Strategic Research in Tehran.

Anyone familiar with recent Iranian history knows that its politics have been marked by a constant search for independence and for security from aggression and influence from its neighbors or from greater powers. For Iran, the lack of respect for and recognition of its independence, its ancient civilization, its strategic potential, and the talent and capabilities of its people has been particularly humiliating and indeed insulting throughout its modern history. When the British, French, and German governments decided in 2003 to react positively to President Mohammed Khatami’s letter and subsequently to send their foreign ministers to Tehran to negotiate a nuclear compromise, the main motivating factor was deep concern that, in the aftermath of the Iraq War, no chance for avoiding another military confrontation in the region should be missed. But this initiative was undoubtedly also underwritten by the spirit of mutual respect and recognition. Regrettably, the initiative failed to bring the desired success, though the Europeans took it very seriously in spite of their very realistic evaluation of the facts.

The New Divestment Movement Confronts the University of Chicago

In The Nation:

The Sudan divestment movement is arguably the largest– and most efficacious– student movement on campuses today. Since Harvard students effectively mobilized and forced their university to divest from holdings in Sudanese or Sudan-related companies in the spring of 2005, over 30 universities have either completely or partially divested. As the world continues to do virtually nothing while the 21st century’s first genocide unfolds, American students have been among the only force that has sent shivers through Khartoum regime.

The movement has been so effective, in part, because of the categorically moral nature of the cause. Who, students ask, would continue to financially support genocide once they’ve realized they were doing it? It’s a no-brainer call most administrators have responded to.

But at the University of Chicago, it’s a different story. Last week, U of C became the first major university to refuse to divest. That’s right– the administration actively rebuffed a student movement calling for the divestment of $1 million dollars of Sudan-related investments– a mere pittance of U of C’s $5 billion dollar endowment.