Smithsonian 4th Annual Photo Contest Finalists

From Smithsonian Magazine:

We have selected 10 Finalists in each of the five categories—Americana, The Natural World, People, Altered Images, Travel—and you can now view those photographs here.

We plan to reveal the Grand Prize Winner and the five Category Winners in a summer 2007 issue of Smithsonian. Likewise, we will reveal the winners here, on our Web site.

Botanical garden in Slovenia
Damjan Voglar
Ljubljana, Slovenia


Shoppers crossing a glass floor
David Mendelsohn
Brooklyn, NY


More here.

Meet Mr. Polytope

Tony Rothman reviews King of Infinite Space: Donald Coxeter, the Man Who Saved Geometry by Siobhan Roberts, in American Scientist:

Fullimage_20072594638_846Less than the time needed to open a book is required for a prospective reader to understand that the publishers of King of Infinite Space, Siobhan Roberts’s new biography of geometer Donald Coxeter, have cheerfully absorbed the precepts of Hollywood marketeers: Packaged with enthusiastic blurbs from physicist Freeman Dyson, mathematician John Conway, writers Martin Gardner and James Gleick, and historian Peter Galison, not to mention a foreword by Gödel, Escher, Bach author Douglas Hofstadter, the whole is designed, much like full-page movie ads in the New York Times, to render harmless slings and arrows hurled by errant reviewers. In this case, though, one can sympathize with the tactic: It’s a safe bet that few people outside of narrow mathematical circles have ever heard the name Donald Coxeter, despite the fact that many mathematicians regard him as the greatest geometer of the 20th century.

Coxeter’s lack of name recognition is only the first challenge Roberts faces…

More here.

Less carbon, more community building

Bill McKibben in the Christian Science Monitor:

Screenhunter_02_apr_01_1721Earlier this month, a draft White House report was leaked to news outlets. The report, a year overdue to the United Nations, said that the United States would be producing almost 20 percent more greenhouse gases in 2020 than it had in 2000 and that the US contribution to global warming would be going up steadily, not sharply and steadily down, as scientists have made clear it must.

That’s a pretty stunning piece of information – a hundred times more important than, say, the jittery Dow Jones Industrial Average that garnered a hundred times the attention. How is it even possible? How, faced with the largest crisis humans have yet created for themselves, have we simply continued with business as usual?

The answer is, in a sense, all in our minds. For the past century, American society’s basic drive has been toward more – toward a bigger national economy, toward more stuff for consumers. And it’s worked. Our economy is enormous; our houses are enormous. We are (many of us quite literally) living large. All that “more” is created using cheap energy and hence built on carbon dioxide – which makes up 72 percent of all greenhouse gases.

More here.

Fodor vs. Dennett on Darwinism

Via Political Theory Daily Review, in science blogs Jerry Fodor against Darwinism :

This started out to be a paper about why I am so down on Evolutionary Psychology (EP), a topic I’ve addressed in print before. (see Fodor, 19xx; 19xx). But, as I went along, it began to seem that really the paper was about what happens when you try to integrate Darwinism with an intentional theory like propositional attitude psychology. And then, still further on, it struck me that what the paper was really really about wasn’t the tension between Darwinism and theories that are intentional (with a `t’), but the tension between Darwinism and theories that are intensional (with an `s`).1 The latter is more worrying since Darwinism, or anyhow adaptationism, is itself committed to intensionally individuated processes like `selection for.’ So the claim turned out to be that there is something seriously wrong with adaptationism per se. Having gotten that far, I could have rewritten this as straightforwardly a paper about adaptationism, thereby covering my tracks. But I decided not to do so. It seems to me of interest to chart a route from being suspicious of Evolutionary Psychology to having one’s doubts about the whole adaptationist enterprise.

Daniel Dennett responds:

As often before, Jerry Fodor makes my life easier, this time by (1) figuring out a persuasive reductio ad absurdum argument for my views, (2) absolving me of any suspicion that I’m creating a straw man by resolutely embracing the absurd conclusion, and (3) providing along the way some vivid lessons in How Not to Do Philosophy. The only work left for me to do is (a) draw attention to these useful pedagogical aids, (b) point out the absurdity of Jerry’s expressed position and (c) remind you that I told you so.

The reductio, nicely indented and numbered (though step (v) seems to have vanished), has the startling conclusion:

Contrary to Darwinism, the theory of natural selection can’t explain the distribution of phenotypic traits in biological populations.

Now this really is absurd. Silly absurd. Preposterous. It is conclusions like this, built upon such comically slender stilts, that give philosophy a bad name among many scientists.

Controversy over PBS’s “America at a Crossroads”

In the NYT:

For six consecutive nights beginning April 15 PBS will turn over two hours of prime time to “America at a Crossroads,” a series of 11 programs, including Mr. Perle’s, meant to engage debate over contentious post-9/11 issues, from the origins of Islamic fundamentalism to the perceived tradeoffs the United States has made between security and liberty.

Getting past the epithets hasn’t been easy. The series was conceived in 2004 by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the entity that administers federal money for public radio and television, to prove to Congress that public television was worthy of its more than $300 million annual subsidy. Even now Congress is debating the White House’s request to cut public broadcasting’s funds by 25 percent.

The corporation financed the series with $20 million in federal money, an enormous sum for chronically struggling independent filmmakers. But, perhaps inevitably, such a charged project became caught up in the nation’s culture wars.

At a “Crossroads” briefing in New York in March 2004 filmmakers angrily vented concerns that the series was being politically manipulated. Their ire was directed at Michael Pack, then the corporation’s senior vice president for television. He had been brought in the year before to diversify the voices on public television, a mandate that included financing more conservative programming to balance a lineup that his superiors perceived as overly liberal.

Is Wikipedia the New Town Hall?

Pat Aufderheide in In These Times:

The public sphere is the informal part of our lives where we manage the quality of our shared culture. Church, the post office, sidewalks, Starbucks, the water cooler—they are all places in the physical world (or what our digerati friends like to call “meat space”) where people bring along their experience with the media. It is an informally structured set of social relationships, where power can be mobilized against large institutions such as the state and large corporations.

Mass media have acted as a pseudo-public sphere. Broadcast news services were stand-ins for our collective, top-priority concerns of public life. Popular programs were, similarly, pseudo-public culture, distilled examples of how a culture understands itself—or at least as corporate broadcasters would like it to.

Public broadcasting has been a protected, if compromised, zone that provides some higher-quality opportunities for people to learn about each other and their problems, and to share a common cultural experience of consuming the same media. But public broadcasting is still a stand-in for public communication, because it is a mass medium. The broadcasters speak to the many, who then talk to each other.

Can digital media change this? Can new technologies bring media made by, with and for the public? Could pubcasters be part of it?

Patnaik and Stiglitz on India’s Economy and Economic Future

At Columbia University’s Heyman Center for the Humanities, a video of the February 13th discussion between Joseph Stiglitz and Prabhat Patnaik on “An Emergent India: Prospects and Problems“:

A public conversation between Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate economist, and Prabhat Patnaik, perhaps India’s most distinguished left wing economist.

Democracy’s Prophet: How a young 19th-century French aristocrat grasped America’s character

From The Washington Post:

Toq Alexis de Tocqueville is a towering figure in 19th-century political thought, on a par with Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill and more prophetic than either of them. It is therefore a bit confounding to realize that, despite all the books and essays about Tocqueville’s masterpiece, Democracy in America, there was no full-scale biography in English of the man himself.

Now there is. Hugh Brogan’s Alexis de Tocqueville is a magisterial account, 50 years in the making, that follows the precocious French nobleman through the swirling history of post-revolutionary France, the rutted roads of backwoods America, the bewildering comings and goings of different royalist and republican French governments, all the way to Tocqueville’s somewhat controversial final hours in 1859, when the question of his religious convictions at the end remains blurry. If this is not the definitive life, it is only because no such thing is possible. It is surely the authoritative life for our time.

More here.

Was Great Pyramid built from inside out?

From MSNBC:Pyramid2_hmed_11a

A French architect says he has cracked a 4,500-year-old mystery surrounding Egypt’s Great Pyramid, claiming that it was built from the inside out. Scientists have long wondered how the Egyptians placed the Great Pyramid’s 3 million stone blocks, which each weigh about 2.5 tons. Previous theories have suggested that the tomb of Pharaoh Cheops (Khufu), the last surviving example of the seven great wonders of antiquity, was built using either a vast frontal ramp or a ramp in a corkscrew shape around the exterior to haul up the stonework.

But flouting previous wisdom, Jean-Pierre Houdin said advanced 3-D technology has shown that the main ramp used to haul the massive stones to the apex was contained 30 to 50 feet (10 to 15 meters) beneath the outer skin, tracing a pyramid within a pyramid. According to his theory — shown in a computer model — the builders put up an outer ramp for the first 140 feet (40 meters), then constructed an inner ramp in a corkscrew shape to complete the 450-foot-high (137-meter-high) structure.

More here.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Fooling around

Ever since the 1840s, when the Boston Post persuaded hundreds of readers to go searching for a hoard of pirate treasure in the pouring rain, we have been suckers for an April Fool. And from Panorama’s spaghetti trees to Google’s spoof moon base, the media has been happy to oblige them. As the big day looms, Martin Wainwright recalls some of the silliest tricks…

From The Guardian:

Screenhunter_01_mar_31_1706Leap of imagination, 1976

Patrick Moore was an ideal presenter to carry off an astronomical hoax. As weighty as Richard Dimbleby, with an added air of batty enthusiasm that only added to his credibility, he announced on TV on April Fool’s Day 1976 that a “unique astronomical event” was going to occur at 9.47am. As the little planet Pluto passed behind Jupiter, he said, a “gravitational alignment” would reduce the Earth’s gravity for a few moments. Anyone who jumped into the air at 9.47 would experience a strange floating sensation.

They did too – or at least hundreds of them thought they did. The BBC was flooded with appreciative calls from people claiming to have floated, including a woman who said that she and 11 friends had been wafted from their chairs and orbited gently around the room.

More here.

Reverse Foreign Aid

Tina Rosenberg in the New York Times Magazine:

25idea190_1Economic theory holds that money should flow downhill. The North, as rich countries are informally known, should want to sink its capital into the South — the developing world, which some statisticians define as all countries but the 29 wealthiest. According to this model, money both does well and does good: investors get a higher return than they could get in their own mature economies, and poor countries get the capital they need to get richer. Increasing the transfer of capital from rich nations to poorer ones is often listed as one justification for economic globalization.

Historically, the global balance sheet has favored poor countries. But with the advent of globalized markets, capital began to move in the other direction, and the South now exports capital to the North, at a skyrocketing rate. According to the United Nations, in 2006 the net transfer of capital from poorer countries to rich ones was $784 billion, up from $229 billion in 2002. (In 1997, the balance was even.) Even the poorest countries, like those in sub-Saharan Africa, are now money exporters.

How did this great reversal take place? Why did globalization begin to redistribute wealth upward?

More here.


Paul Broks in Prospect:

Essay_broksOne day I’ll be dead. The thought swirled by on a summer’s evening in Crete. There was cold beer at my elbow and my sandalled feet were up against the trunk of a pine. A book lay open in my hands but I wasn’t reading. I was noticing colours: the bark running blue-grey to rust, the red geranium. I was noticing insects and animals: the tiny green bug on my forearm, the microscopic orange thing that dropped on to the book, no bigger than a full stop, the ginger cat stretching in the shade. The air was filled with the din of cicadas and Mediterranean scents. I sipped my beer and savoured the moment.

The open book was Nicholas Humphrey’s Seeing Red: A Study in Consciousness. I’d stopped reading by the second page, derailed by Joe King’s email. Joe is 20 years old and severely disabled. He is writing to tell Humphrey of his concern that, when he dies, “this crippled body might be all I have.” Yes, Joe, I’m afraid so. “Do u believe consciousness can survive the death of the brain?” he writes. No, Joe, it can’t. Why kid ourselves? These were my answers, not Humphrey’s. I turned them over as the sun sank. I could imagine Joe’s disappointment. Humphrey would give us his reply in due course, but, for now, he was focusing on the young man’s question because it revealed something important about the nature of consciousness, which is that consciousness matters to us. It matters more than anything. Of course it does. Yet the fact of its mattering so much goes mostly unremarked by scientists and philosophers of mind.

One day I’ll be dead. It’s an oddly exhilarating thought. Something unimaginable—nothingness—awaits us all.

More here.

most prized film music

Chris Campion in The Observer:

From Psycho to Singing in the Rain, Slade in Flame to Shaft, our star-studded panel of big screen connoisseurs select the greatest soundtracks in cinema’s history …

Why everyone’s a friend of Dorothy

Oz2 1. The Wizard of Oz
Composer: Herbert Stothart. Songs by Harold Arlen / EY Harburg

Film soundtracks are a broad church, encompassing classic orchestral scores and pop jukebox compilations, spoken word and sonic effects. So we’ll be having none of this ‘incidental scores only’ snobbery in our list. Fitting, then, that our number one contender is a cross-generic masterpiece (is it a jolly kids’ singalong? A dark adult fairy tale? A subversive camp classic? Even a snuff movie?) which won Oscars for both original score (for Herbert Stothart) and best original song (Arlen and Harburg).

More here.

Rian Malan on the rainbow nation

Tim Adams interviews the writer in Johannesburg for The Observer:

For years, Rian Malan has unflinchingly dared to say the unsayable about his native country, believing murder, corruption and disharmony will tear the rainbow nation into its separate colours. It’s a conviction that has cost him his marriage and almost his sanity.

Voter128 ‘Foreigners think we’re nuts coming back to a doomed city on a damned continent,’ Rian Malan once wrote about Johannesburg, ‘but there is something you don’t understand: it’s boring where you are.’ When I go to meet Malan, South Africa’s most controversial and charismatic writer, in his home city, I see the force of both halves of that statement.

Three stories are dominating the Jo’burg headlines. The first is the brutal murder of the ‘white Zulu’ David Rattray, friend of Prince Charles, who told the story of Rorke’s Drift from the African perspective. Rattray was shot in his bedroom by a local Zulu, a man he knew, in a botched robbery. The second story exercising the phone-in shows concerns an attempt by the First National Bank to draw attention to violent crime – murders are running at 50 per day – in an advert which talked of ‘mobilising the population’. The ANC government, jumpy about such language, had pressured the bank to withdraw the campaign. And the third story was about the extraordinary popularity of an Afrikaans song, ‘De la Rey’, a homage to a general who had fought the British with the Transvaal Bittereinders and helped forge the Afrikaans nation. The song called for the return of General De la Rey – ‘We are ready’ – and suggested that the Boer ‘nation will rise up again’.

More here.

Deutsche Borse Photography Prize 2007

From Lensculture:

Walid Raad /The Atlas Group (b. 1967, Lebanon), is the winner of the £30,000 prize for his significant contribution to the medium of photography in Europe.

…The project was undertaken by Walid Raad between 1989 and 2004 to research and document the contemporary history of Lebanon. However, the authenticity of the photographic and video documents in this archive are continuously queried, leaving the viewer uncertain how history — in particular one marked by the trauma of civil war — can be told and visually represented. The ‘documents’ in the exhibition appear based on a person’s actual memories but also draw on cultural fantasies constructed from the material of collective memories.


From the series We decided to let them say, “we are convinced,” twice, 2002
© The Atlas Group/ Courtesy Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London.

More here.

Humans Wear Diverse “Wardrobe” of Skin Microbes

From The National Geographic:

Skinmicrobes_big High magnification reveals a host of bacteria underneath a human toenail. A new analysis has shown that the billions of bacteria that inhabit human skin are not only highly diverse but also change their composition over time. Understanding how and why the microbes change could lead to better treatments from chronic skin disorders such as psoriasis and eczema. When we change our soap [or] shampoo [or] laundry detergent, when we change whether we’re wearing a cotton shirt or a wool shirt, all of these are going to have an effect on our skin flora.

More here.

Tête-à-Tête in Brazil


It all began, as so many things do these days, with an e-mail. The sunshine was sneaking through my mustard-colored paper blinds, the jackhammers had just begun pounding at the nearby construction site, which meant it was 7 am in Manhattan, and when I swung out of bed, turned on my computer, and clicked into my e-mail, there, among the night’s fresh haul in my in-box, was a message titled “Tête-à-Tête in Brazil.” A man called Carlos Carvalho, from the publishing house Objetiva, in Rio de Janeiro, had written to say my book was going to be released in Brazil: Would I be willing to talk to the Brazilian press?

He meant phone interviews, of course, with me straying no further than my apartment. The “tête-à-tête” bit referred to my book Tête-à-Tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre (2005). But looking back, I believe that beguiling title line in my in-box seeded something in my head. Sure, I was willing to be interviewed, I wrote back. And I had another idea: Wouldn’t it be good if we could find someone who had spent time with Sartre and Beauvoir on their trip to Brazil in 1960?

more from Bookforum here.

a deeply admirable book by a deeply admirable man


How does one regard a good man in a dark time? With joy, obviously, but also with sorrow. Seneca said in one of his letters that you must either hate the world or imitate it, but there are few things in this world so stirring as a man who neither hates it nor imitates it, but in the name of what is best in it resists what is worst in it. Such a man secures hope against illusion, and by example refutes any argument against the plausibility of historical action. It would be too hard to act if decency itself had still to be invented. And yet the uncommonness of such a man casts a long shadow over the faith in eventual justice or eventual peace, because the figure is so lonely against the ground. The good man in a dark time is the unrepresentative man. He has the honor of an anomaly. He marks the distance that still has to be traveled. And how much, after all, can a single individual accomplish, all the uplift notwithstanding? Heroes are not policies.

Sari Nusseibeh’s book provokes such an ambivalence — more precisely, such a double-mindedness — about the malleability of history, but not an ambivalence about itself.

more from the NY Times Book Review here.

The Good Mother

From The New York Times:Garr190

We are living in — take your pick — a glorious renaissance era of writing about parenthood or a bathetic swamp of diaper blogs. Deborah Garrison’s latest collection of poems is the highbrow analogue to this cultural boom. Now Garrison is back with this new subject, motherhood. Her once-freewheeling narrator has three children and lives on the other side of the Hudson. And she is astonished to find that she is no longer that high-heeled girl strutting down the street, full of “self-ish pleasure”; instead, she has entered “the shuttered room / where life is milk” and when she walks in Midtown, she is merely headed home. But despite moments of nostalgia, this narrator loves her new life, where a child’s clutching fingers remind her of a lever “ringing in the first / jackpot of many, with coins / and cries, heavenly noise, / a crashing pile / of minor riches.”

In “Sestina for the Working Mother,” she salutes her own busy day, layered with a brief, sentimental fantasy of what it would be like if she stayed home — more NPR, more volunteerism. In “A Midnight Bris,” she recalls a beloved obstretician who had held “my cervix, and me in thrall,” and who gets teary during their final meeting. “But you … so many patients,” she murmurs. “ ‘They’re not all the same,’ he said. / We let that stand.” Such moments feel too self-congratulatory by half.

More here.

Friday, March 30, 2007

How the U.S. Army broke in Iraq

Phillip Carter in Slate:

MilitaryusarmyThe U.S. Army broke in the 1970s in the wake of the Vietnam War and the end of the draft. But if you ask officers who served during that period, few will recall the sounds of creaking planks, snapping beams, or rupturing buildings as the institution disintegrated. Instead, the crumbling occurred over time, becoming apparent only decades later.

Today’s Army is stretched past its breaking point by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The sounds of its collapse may be faint enough for policymakers in Washington to ignore, but they are there. An exodus of junior and midlevel personnel illustrates the crisis. Their exit has forced the Army to apply tourniquets like “stop loss” to halt the hemorrhaging, and it has also dropped its standards for recruiting and retention.

Four years into the war, the Army still has too few troops to persevere in Iraq and Afghanistan and too few deployed in each place to win. To surge its forces in Iraq, the Army has dipped deep into its well, returning units back to combat after less than a year at home, leaving many with little time to train incoming soldiers and come together as a team.

More here.