Bizzaro Earth Finally Discovered

US researchers have claimed to have discovered a planet similar to Earth some 15 light years away. . .Newplanet1

“This planet answers an ancient question. Over 2,000 years ago, the Greek philosophers Aristotle and Epicurus argued about whether there were other Earth-like planets. Now, for the first time, we have evidence for a rocky planet around a normal star,” said team leader Geoffrey Marcy, professor of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley.

more here.


Mind trips and psychotic inventions at annual Asian series

Film

From The Village Voice:

Count our blessings. No sooner does the screaming summer-movie emptiness begin to envelop the city than Subway Cinema’s annual fest of new East Asian pop cinema uncorks a refreshing cataract of psychotic invention, genre excess, and meditative derangement—often in the shape of movies that have no chance of distribution or a slot in a tonier local venue. Who knows what chances the fresh Seijun Suzuki film has under any other auspices—Princess Raccoon is a self-mocking operetta whose song styles range from Nippon-ized Jacques Brel-ishness to ’70s album rock, set on deep-dish-Dada ballet sets that are regularly subsumed by digital mythopoeia and headlong design nuttiness. Some kind of Snow White fable with Kabuki accents—let’s not care about content, because Suzuki doesn’t—it’s a movie unlike any other ever made by an octogenarian. With its 2-D stiffness and trite songmaking, it’s not Pistol Opera, and yet any ambivalence about Princess Raccoon‘s “success” has to be reckoned against Suzuki’s insurrectionary resilience and his nearly half a century of movies that, though nattering on about assassins or prostitutes or princesses, speak in their own unique visual tongue.

More here.

Snake Phobias, Moodiness and a Battle in Psychiatry

From The New York Times:Freud_1

A college student becomes so compulsive about cleaning his dorm room that his grades begin to slip. An executive living in New York has a mortal fear of snakes but lives in Manhattan and rarely goes outside the city where he might encounter one. A computer technician, deeply anxious around strangers, avoids social and company gatherings and is passed over for promotion. Are these people mentally ill? In a report released last week, researchers estimated that more than half of Americans would develop mental disorders in their lives, raising questions about where mental health ends and illness begins.

In fact, psychiatrists have no good answer, and the boundary between mental illness and normal mental struggle has become a battle line dividing the profession into two viscerally opposed camps.

More here.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Making it easier to imitate nature

Also from The Economist:

“Velcro is probably the most famous and certainly the most successful example of biological mimicry, or ‘biomimetics’. In fields from robotics to materials science, technologists are increasingly borrowing ideas from nature, and with good reason: nature’s designs have, by definition, stood the test of time, so it would be foolish to ignore them. Yet transplanting natural designs into man-made technologies is still a hit-or-miss affair.

Engineers depend on biologists to discover interesting mechanisms for them to exploit, says Julian Vincent, the director of the Centre for Biomimetic and Natural Technologies at the University of Bath in England. So he and his colleagues have been working on a scheme to enable engineers to bypass the biologists and tap into nature’s ingenuity directly, via a database of ‘biological patents’. The idea is that this database will let anyone search through a wide range of biological mechanisms and properties to find natural solutions to technological problems. . .

Surely human intellect, and the deliberate application of design knowledge, can devise better mechanisms than the mindless, random process of evolution? Far from it. Over billions of years of trial and error, nature has devised effective solutions to all sorts of complicated real-world problems.”

Modelling the Human Brain

From The Economist:

“THE most complex object known to humanity is the human brain—and not only is it complex, but it is the seat of one of the few natural phenomena that science has no purchase on at all, namely consciousness. To try to replicate something that is so poorly understood may therefore seem like hubris. But you have to start somewhere, and IBM and the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), in Switzerland, propose to start by replicating ‘in silico’, as the jargon has it, one of the brain’s building blocks.

In a partnership announced on June 6th, the two organisations said they would be working together to build a simulation of a structure known as a neocortical column on a type of IBM supercomputer that is currently used to study the molecular functioning of genes. If that works, they plan to use future, more powerful computers to link such simulated columns together into something that mimics a brain.”

NYT Coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Is there an imbalance in New York Times‘ coverage of deaths in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians? One study tries to answer the question.

“Our findings indicate significantly distorted coverage by The New York Times of these topics. In the first study period The Times reported Israeli deaths at a rate 2.8 times higher than Palestinian deaths, and in 2004 this rate increased by almost 30%, to 3.6, widening still further the disparity in coverage. The Times’ coverage of children’s deaths was even more skewed. In the first year of the current uprising, Israeli children’s deaths were reported at 6.8 times the rate of Palestinian children’s deaths. In 2004 this differential also increased, with deaths of Israeli children covered at a rate 7.3 times greater than the deaths of Palestinian children.”

(Hat tip: Sughra Raza)

Mary Kaldor tries to answer the question, Was there an Alternative to War in Iraq?

In OpenDemocracy, Mary Kaldor tries to answer a difficult question for those who believed that Saddam Hussein had to go but were critical of the war.

“Was and is there an alternative to war in Iraq? The most important strategy in the new type of war is the restoration of legitimate political authority. This is no less true in Iraq than in other new wars, both before and after the invasion.

In the period before the invasion, the best justification for war was regime change. Saddam Hussein’s regime was one of the most brutal in the world – millions had died from his maniacal foreign adventures, from the suppression of uprisings in the north and south, from purges and repression, as well as economic devastation. So was there another way to achieve regime change? From discussions with the opposition inside Iraq, I believe that there was a real possibility of ‘opening up’ the regime rather in the way that happened in east-central Europe in the 1980s as a result of a combination of pressure both from outside based on the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, and from below.

There was much more going on inside Iraq than was realised. Indeed the expatriate opposition and Saddam Hussein had a shared interest in suppressing this reality. There were underground movements and parties – including the Da’wa party (Shi’a Islamist), the Communist Party, the General Union of Students, and the League of Iraqi Women. There were also various efforts to create public spaces by artists and intellectuals.

Most interestingly perhaps was the way in which the mosques, both Sunni and Shi’a, were leveraging Saddam’s new emphasis on religion to create more open space within the mosques, in a strategy reminiscent of the Catholic church in Poland.”

Read the whole piece, here.

Immigration and an Aging Population in Finland

From The Washington Post, Finland considers an aging population, immigration, and multiculturalism.

“Finns often support the idea of immigration. In an interview, Eero Huovinen, the Lutheran bishop of Helsinki (Lutheranism is Finland’s official religion), noted that the state had ‘been very careful, sometimes too much so,’ about immigration. But he added, ‘For human, moral and practical reasons, I think we have to take more people, people who are willing to work here.’

Finland is the only major European country that has generated no far-right, anti-immigrant political party. Some Finns suggest that may be because their egalitarian Lutheran values simply won’t tolerate an open appeal to racist sentiments, though they admit that such feelings exist.

Yet Finnish laws and regulations discourage immigration — as do the difficulties of the Finnish language and the long, dark winters here.”

Zipped Structure May Explain Protein Clumping in Brain Disorders

From The National Science Foundation:Zipper_f_1

After years of intense work, researchers have discovered the 3-dimensional structure of a miniscule–yet mighty–region of a protein that forms deleterious rope-like structures in the brain. Known as amyloid fibrils, the proteins are associated with the degenerative brain disorders Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases, and so-called prion diseases like mad cow. This particular region of the protein catalyzes the formation of a “molecular zipper,” which pulls proteins together to form the stubbornly stable clumps.

Knowing the structure will help researchers devise new treatments for the more than two-dozen human diseases associated with fibrils, which are attributed to killing neurons and other types of cells. Effective therapeutics may reverse the zipping to break down persistent fibrils or prevent them from forming in the first place. The work appears in the June 9 issue of the journal Nature.

More here.

Negotiations: 2: After Basquiat

I arrived at the Basquiat exhibit in a suspicious and haughty frame of mind, like an obstinate mule towing my stupidity along behind me. The first thing I noticed about his paintings is that they were made with the express purpose of being noticed. Basquiat embedded in his canvases little tricks and riddles and hints in order to keep the viewer’s gaze on them for as long as possible. He designed them with his viewer in mind. This added to my annoyance; though, to his credit, Basquiat was forthright about it. He admitted that he would write words into his canvases and then scratch them out, not to hide them but to draw attention to them. He knew that the eye enjoys lingering over what appears to be hidden or erased rather than what is right there in front of it in plain view. This meant that I was obliged to look at his paintings and think to myself, “Now I am looking at this painting and I am noticing it further because the painter has performed a little magic show here that is not the painting itself or its subject matter but the tricks that draw me into it and keep me lingering over it.”

My companion laughed at me. “What did you expect?” he said. “Basquiat was a graffiti artist. If it doesn’t gain your attention, according to its own criteria, it is a failure.” I am nothing, but the criteria of graffiti art are not my criteria.

I found this “need-to be-noticed” in Basquiat very vexing at first, because I tend to art that doesn’t seek attention for itself. Why sign your work? I like art that erases the ego of the artist; I like the stuff that points me in certain oblique angles or reorients my gaze so that it searches for things beyond the canvas or beneath it. Unless I happen to own the work and can therefore live with it, mining its secrets and limning its meanings, my experience of it can only be temporary anyway—so why build in these little tricks to gain notice and hold my attention when my attention can only ever be a fleeting thing? Yeccch.

I tend to abhor cleverness in art. It’s a dead-end. A Jeff Koons. An ego trip. An act of self-promotion. Even those paintings that claim to be about nothing more than their own materiality (their “flatness,” in a word) succeed because they avoid the pitfalls of cleverness, because they end up pointing to something beyond themselves. I went in expecting to despise what I was about to see, and I was disappointed. Basquiat, I realized, is the last of the New York painters; and his work knocked my little world on its ass.

New York is a beachhead that one must (if one lives here) attempt to gain every-fucking-day. The opportunities for humiliation, abasement and defeat are endless. Just yesterday morning I had to slap a punk on the subway because he was up in my jock and talking smack. He was right: I was hung-over and I looked like piss, but who needs the obvious pointed out to them? The ego exists here in a state of siege. The city is an enormous grinding machine, and it chews up and digests nothing so quickly as ego, which means that memory doesn’t stand a chance. If you linger too long in the past you will disappear, because every day erases the previous one, which has erased all the days before it. New York doesn’t care about you.

This is of course one of the reasons that those of us who love the city love the city: it forgets everything. It isn’t catty. It doesn’t hold grudges. It moves on. But it is precisely this quality of the urban experience that is New York that also lends our existence within it a deep and abiding poignancy. We move through it but we are nothing to it. We recognize things, we welcome certain changes and deplore others, but it is already ahead of and beyond us. It has no memory. It exists only in the present and forces us to straddle the fault line between what was—once upon a time–and is now gone, and what is here today, at the edge of the future. In other words, it is nothing so grand as Death that one is forced to confront here; it is rather the possibility of non-existence, the nothingness that haunts our consciousness. The city does not notice us.

Against my will, I have felt raw and exposed since having seen the Basquiat exhibit. His genius (if I may be so bold as to claim to recognize it) lay in his ability simultaneously to make manifest his present and to bury it like a secret, preserving it within his paintings. That is the direction to which all his hints and riddles and scratched-out words and “Notice me! Stay with me!” signposts point: not to the paintings themselves but to the maelstrom of experience that animated them. They point to New York. If I could lick one of his paintings it would taste like the day upon which he made it. Entering his work involves stepping into a moment that is eternally and irretrievably lost to us. His paintings are time machines. Looking at one of them, noticing it, lending oneself to its artifice, is to gain access to a New York City that will never again exist: the New York of 1980, when being bohemian was (incredibly!) a life choice rather than a style, when Madonna was a performance artist you could pick up in a bar, when you had to take your life in your hands after dark in the East Village, and when the precondition for transcendence was commitment to the holiness of the present.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Reunification Palace — A Photo Essay on Vietnam

Morgan Meis in the Old Town Review:

Viet10In late April of 1975 the army of North Vietnam (NVA) completed its final defeat of the South Vietnamese army (ARVN) and headed toward Saigon. The mad dash to get out of Saigon created such indelible images as the scramble from the US embassy (actually a building nearby) onto the last few helicopters. When the NVA finally crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace an historical era was over.

Interestingly, the communists decided to preserve parts of the Palace just as it was during the final days of Saigon, 1975. The place is, thus, something of a museum to a moment. Now, Saigon is Ho Chi Minh City, but the moment of victory, liberation, collapse, call it what you will, is eerily preserved in the basement of the Presidential Palace.

More here.

11 steps to a better brain

From New Scientist:

It doesn’t matter how brainy you are or how much education you’ve had – you can still improve and expand your mind. Boosting your mental faculties doesn’t have to mean studying hard or becoming a reclusive book worm. There are lots of tricks, techniques and habits, as well as changes to your lifestyle, diet and behaviour that can help you flex your grey matter and get the best out of your brain cells. And here are 11 of them.

More here.

WELL MATCHED

From Ms Magazine:

Rivals In women’s professional tennis today, the spiciest and most thrilling rivalry is between two women who don’t even want to compete against each other — sisters Serena and Venus Williams.

In the 1970s and ’80s, though, the two greatest female competitors weren’t stymied by blood relation. They went at it, unconstrained, over the course of 16 years and an unfathomable 80 matches, with first one then the other proving unbeatable, yet neither backing down. Along the way, they formed their own surprising bond, which transcended a lack of almost any similarity beyond their unswerving drive to win.

Chris Evert: cool, metronomic, girlish; a baseline player from a devout Catholic family in suburban Florida . Martina Navratilova: overemotional, unpredictable, jockish; a serve-and-volleyer from Communist-run Czechoslovakia . Chris, the girl next door; Martina, the defector from a seemingly alien world. Chris, straight; Martina, gay.

Yet they hit it off from their first meeting at a tennis tournament as teenagers. When they weren’t running each other ragged on the court, they could joke and laugh and put The Game aside. Only when Navratilova came under the sway of early-1980s girlfriend Nancy Lieberman — who felt rivals should barely be civil to each other — did the friendship waver, but they reconnected once Lieberman left the scene.

More here.

More on war, peace, and post-tsunami reconstruction in Sri Lanka

Also in the recent Boston Review, Alan Keenan looks at post-tsunami reconstruction, war and peace in Sri Lanka.

“[T]he problems bedeviling the distribution of tsunami relief are only the latest example of the limitations inherent in the Norwegian and international approach to peace-building, which focuses on only the two main actors. By systematically downplaying the importance of human rights and pluralism as central components in any process of trust-building and de-escalation, the bipolar approach has weakened the middle—those Sinhalese and Tamils and Muslims interested in compromise. The fact that representatives of Muslim political and civil society have been almost entirely ignored in the negotiations to devise the joint mechanism, even though Muslim communities in the eastern province suffered devastating and disproportionately severe effects from the tsunami, only further undermines the potential benefits of the proposal. The concerns of Muslims must be placed at the center of post-tsunami reconstruction and conflict-resolution efforts.

The central goal for the international community, then, should not be to devise an impossibly neutral intervention, but rather to help increase the space for Sri Lankans of all ethnicities to engage in their own independent democratic politics. The two most pressing political questions in this regard are interrelated: can foreign governments and international agencies devise effective ways to put pressure on the Tigers to curtail their worst policies—without simply letting the Sri Lankan state and Sinhalese majority off the hook? And can foreign donors learn how to support the development of forms of independent local civil-society activism capable of defending human rights more effectively?”

Chomsky on Language and Rights

In the recent issue of The Boston Review, Noam Chomsky discusses what he’s usually reluctant to discuss, on the unversailty of language and rights, and (a little) on the possible connections. 

“With each step toward principled explanation in these [genetic, experiental, and computational] terms, we gain a clearer grasp of the universals of language. It should be kept in mind, however, that any such progress still leaves unresolved problems that have been raised for hundreds of years. Among these are the mysterious problems of the creative and coherent ordinary use of language, a core problem of Cartesian science.

* * *

We are now moving to domains of will and choice and judgment, and the thin strands that may connect what seems within the range of scientific inquiry to essential problems of human life, in particular vexed questions about universal human rights. One possible way to draw connections is by proceeding along the lines of Hume’s remarks that I mentioned earlier: his observation that the unbounded range of moral judgments—like the unbounded range of linguistic knowledge—must be founded on general principles that are part of our nature though they lie beyond our ‘original instincts,’ which elsewhere he took to include the ‘species of natural instincts’ on which knowledge and belief are grounded.”

Mapping the divide

From The Guardian:

Soueifmccabe128_1A few weeks ago, as she often does these days, Ahdaf Soueif ascended a stage, and addressed a large crowd. This time it was the premiere of the Palestine Film Festival, in London, and though she was somewhat hesitant, and shuffled her papers nervously, her voice was clear, her message clearer: when she was six years old, she told the assembly, her father took her to a film in which a little boy entered a forbidden room and encountered a monstrous robot. It advanced and advanced and advanced, and entered her nightmares for years to come. “Sometimes it seems that that’s what’s happening in Palestine.” The documentary she was introducing, Arna’s Children, about Jewish pro-Palestinian activist Arna Mer Kemis, is moving, but also troubling: in her zeal to teach them to express themselves, to channel their anger, Arna seems to be encouraging the children in her theatre group to participate in the intifada; by the time they reach their 20s many are dead.

Soueif has just returned from speaking engagements in Qatar, Santa Fe and Vienna when we meet, and is looking forward to a few clear months working on fiction at home in Wimbledon before the annual summer trip to Egypt, where she was born. She perches on the edge of a blue divan in the bay window of her living room. Traffic sweeps past outside. The low table in front of her is piled high with books – Letters from Lexington: Reflections on Propaganda by Noam Chomsky; Human Cargo by Caroline Moorehead; Derailing Democracy: The America the Media Don’t Want You to See, by David McGowan; an exhibition catalogue, Cleopatra of Egypt: From History to Myth; various volumes in Arabic. Soueif is like a weathervane, open to gusts of passi on, of emotion, just controlled; she smokes furiously, talking through the deep breaths, pushing heavy black hair away from her face. But intensity also switches quickly to laughter; she is warm, and empathetic, and generous, and when her son Ricki, 16 this month, gets back from school, loving and sharply solicitous about his GCSE art coursework.

More here.

Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior

Julia Reed reviews Judith Martin’s book in the New York Times Book Review:

The use of tacky note cards is hardly the only subject about which Miss Manners expresses such strong feelings. Wedding reception cash bars, for example, are ”disgusting.” The only excuse for declining an invitation to be a pallbearer is ”a plan to have one’s own funeral in the near future.” One ”never, ever drinks to oneself,” though ”babies being toasted at their christenings are among the few people to know this.” Even the young are not spared. When a 6-year-old reader asks what is important enough to tell his mother when she is talking to company, Miss Manners provides a very short list of examples that includes ”Mommy, the kitchen is full of smoke.”

Though I myself am a transgressor, I find such passionate certitude not only refreshing — and often hilarious — but also extremely comforting. There should be more areas in life where there is so little room for doubt.

More here.

DEEP THROAT AND A FILM TRILOGY OF PARANOIA

Elbert Ventura in The New Republic:

Lest we forget, it wasn’t until the movie version of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s All the President’s Men was released in 1976 that the popular image of Deep Throat–an indistinct whisperer given to spy-game skullduggery and cryptic hints–really took hold in the collective memory. Felt’s revelation brings the parabola of the myth back to its origins in the realm of facts. The reemergence of the troika of Woodward, Bernstein, and Ben Bradlee in the public eye 31 years later seems nothing so much as a stab at reclamation, a reminder of the real men behind the myth. But if the events of the past week have loosed an onrush of nostalgia for that heady period of journalism, it should also spark an appreciation for another golden age: that of the movies.

More here.

Cats

From Brent Rasmussen’s Unscrewing the Inscrutable:

Wild_catsThey serve as Icons for sports teams and multinational corporations, they live in lands of snow and ice, on mountain tops, and deep in lush, steamy, jungles. They can see in the dark, their ears are sensitive to a range of frequency fully three times broader than ours and sounds ten times as faint. They can run at 70 miles per hour across uneven ground and turn on a dime. They possess the strength, balance, and raw power any human athlete/gymnast would kill for. And, if they happen to lock in on you while you’re unarmed, helplessly alone in the twilight wilderness, their preternatural eyes gleaming, their toothy maws yawning in ghoulish anticipation of easy prey, you might as well cut your throat; before they do it for you.

More recently one version has ensconced themselves firmly into our domiciles, ensuring their evolutionary success for the next eon or two, whilst retaining more than any other domestic creature their feral, independent nature, enlisting humans not as owners, but as staff.

How did this diverse group of profoundly graceful predators arise and what makes them so successful?

More here.