Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie

Brenda Maddox in the New York Times:

Hindsight is the bane of biography. Feminism is one of the most distorting of lenses. To see Marie Curie forced to sit among the audience in Stockholm while her husband, Pierre, gave the Curie184 lecture following their joint receipt of the Nobel Prize in 1903 is infuriating. What a way to treat a woman! One of the strengths of ”Obsessive Genius,” Barbara Goldsmith’s excellent short biography of Marie Curie, is its suppression of anger.

Goldsmith, whose books include ”Little Gloria . . . Happy at Last” and ”Johnson v. Johnson,” tells the remarkable story of the first woman to win a Nobel Prize without anachronistic editorializing. The facts of a working woman’s life in the late 19th century speak for themselves. After the birth of her first child in 1897, Curie would come home from the laboratory to breast-feed. When that took too much time, she hired a wet nurse, then passed much of the child-care duty to her widowed father, who joined her household. What mattered was to get back to the lab.

More here.


Ancient Roman Rest Stop Discovered

“Underneath a German bus terminal, archaeologists have found the remains of a 2,000-year-old Roman roadside rest stop that included a chariot service station, gourmet restaurant and hotel with central heating.

The building complex indicates that citizens of the Roman Empire traveled in relative comfort, according to press releases from the Press Office for the City of Neuss, Germany.

Historians theorize that similar road stops were located approximately every 20 miles along the Roman Long Road, which linked the North Sea coastal region to the tip of southern Italy.”

More here at Discovery.

From Bollywood to Hollywood

From Newsweek:

041130_briderai_hd In India Aishwarya Rai needs as little introduction as a Hindu goddess. Since being crowned “Miss World” in 1994, the emerald-eyed beauty has starred in over 30 blockbuster Bollywood movies, been the face of Pepsi and L’Oreal in India and last year became the first Indian actor to be a judge at the Cannes Film Festival. Now 31, Rai is the Hindi film industry’s highest paid star, the object of more than 17,000 Web sites and has been dubbed “the most beautiful woman in the world” by none other than Julia Roberts.

Not content to rest on those laurels, the crowned Queen of Bollywood is set on expanding her kingdom. December sees the American release of Rai’s first English film “Bride and Prejudice,” an all-singing, sari-swirling Bollywood-inspired take on Jane Austen’s classic from “Bend it Like Beckham” creator Gurinder Chadha. Though British press panned the film last month for bastardizing Austen, Rai herself was credited with a charismatic performance. Rai’s Western credentials are growing fast: next year she’s starring alongside Meryl Streep in “Chaos” and Brendan Fraser in “Singularity.” NEWSWEEK’s Emily Flynn spoke to “Ash,” as she is known by her fans, by telephone from her studio in Mumbai about what it’s like to bring Bollywood to Hollywood.

More here.

The Y Files

0006331bc855119a885583414b7f0000_1 “Ever since he picked up and inspected a random piece of DNA in 1979 as a young researcher and later learned that the glob contained a piece of the Y chromosome, Page has devoted much of his working life to the study of the genetic package that confers maleness. The very idea of investigating the Y chromosome offends those feminists who believe that it serves as nothing more than a subterfuge to promulgate an inherent male bias in biology. And, in Page’s view, some reputable scientists have even pandered to these sentiments by writing books and papers that predict the extinction of men–or the Y’s disappearance…

Bemused and unrehabilitated, Page can point to a long list of scientific papers with his name on them that demonstrate that the Y is an infinitely richer and more complex segment of the genome than ever imagined and one that does not fit neatly into the prejudices of gender-based interpretations of science.”

More here by Gary Stix in Scientific American.

Inside the Leviathan

“Wal-Mart is an improbable candidate for corporate gorilla because it belongs to a sector, retail, that has never before produced America’s most powerful companies. But Wal-Mart has grown into a business whose dominance of the corporate world rivals GM’s in its heyday. With 1.4 million employees worldwide, Wal-Mart’s workforce is now larger than that of GM, Ford, GE, and IBM combined. At $258 billion in 2003, Wal-Mart’s annual revenues are 2 percent of US GDP, and eight times the size of Microsoft’s. In fact, when ranked by its revenues, Wal-Mart is the world’s largest corporation.”

More here by Simon Head in the New York Review of Books.

Novel held clue to writer’s illness

Murdoch “Iris Murdoch’s last novel, Jackson’s Dilemma, was about a mysterious disappearance. But it tells another story, according to neuroscientists today. It subtly reveals the onset of Alzheimer’s disease before the author herself could have known.

Peter Garrard, of the institute of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, and colleagues compared early novels of Iris Murdoch – Under the Net and The Sea, The Sea – with her final work, and found that her vocabulary had dwindled and her language become simpler. Alzheimer’s is difficult to establish with certainty until after death, but the evidence was there in her last work, diagnosed by computer-based analysis of word use, Dr Garrard reports in the December issue of the journal Brain.”

More here by Tim Radford, science editor at The Guardian.

How a Struggling Colony Became an Economic Colossus

“The United States occupies 6 percent of the world’s land mass and has 6 percent of its people, but it accounts for nearly a third of the world’s gross domestic product and leads in nearly every category of economic competition. How did this happen?

That is the question addressed by John Steele Gordon in his colorful, entertaining history of the American economy, ‘An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power.’ Mr. Gordon, a columnist for American Heritage who has written a history of Wall Street and the laying of the trans-Atlantic cable, does not offer much in the way of analysis. Rather, he presents the essential ideas and innovations that have propelled the American economy since its earliest days, and illustrates them with striking examples. He has produced the written equivalent of a PBS ‘American Experience’ documentary, a gaudy cavalcade of facts, outsize personalities and fascinating inventions that moves along at a brisk clip.”

More here by William Grimes in the New York Times.

What’s your law?

In an interesting bit of fun, John Brockman of Edge.org sent the following request to a number of famous thinkers:

There is some bit of wisdom, some rule of nature, some law-like pattern, either grand or small, that you’ve noticed in the universe that might as well be named after you. Gordon Moore has one; Johannes Kepler and Michael Faraday, too. So does Murphy.

Since you are so bright, you probably have at least two you can articulate. Send me two laws based on your empirical work and observations you would not mind having tagged with your name. Stick to science and to those scientific areas where you have expertise. Avoid flippancy. Remember, your name will be attached to your law.

Quite a few (164) replied with interesting answers, for example:

W. Daniel Hillis’s [of Thinking Machines Corp. fame] Law:

The representation becomes the reality.

Or more precisely: Successful representations of reality become more important than the reality they represent.

Examples:

Dollars become more important than gold.
The brand becomes more important than the company.
The painting becomes more important than the landscape.
The new medium (which begins as a representation of the old medium) eclipses the old.
The prize becomes more important than the achievement.
The genes become more important than the organism.

Check out the others, including Steven Pinker, Brian Eno, Dan Dennett, J. Craig Venter, Richard Dawkins, Nassim Taleb, Esther Dyson, Jamshed Bharucha, here.

Thursday, December 2, 2004

Revolutionary Morality

In addition to being the centenary of Weber’ Protestant ethic, this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first installment of Isaac Deustcher’s trilogy on the life of Leon Trotsky: The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Unarmed, and The Prophet Outcast.  It’s one of my favorite political biographies, and it covers much of the history of the political fault line that defined most of the 20th century. 

Deutscher was sympathetic to Trotsky, except for Trotsky’s attempt to establish a 4th International, and writes from a sympathetic perspective.  He wasn’t ignorant of the horrors of Stalinism, which he opposed, Lenin’s use of terror, or even the objections that a vanguard party would lead to a dictatorship.  But he did believe in the project.  Neal Ascherson explains it this way.

“The real abyss separating Deutscher from modern historiography is a moral one. An average British history graduate today will have been taught to evaluate revolutions on a simple humanitarian scale. Did they kill a lot of people? Then they were bad. Showing that some of those killed were even more bloodthirsty than their killers is no extenuation. Neither is the plea that violence and privation, the sacrifice of the present, may be the price of breaking through to a better future. George Kline dismissed this in The Trotsky Reappraisal (1992) as ‘the fallacy of historically deferred value . . . a moral monstrosity’. Monstrous or not, it’s a bargain with the future which, as anyone over 60 will remember, Europeans of all political outlooks were once accustomed to strike. But today ‘presentism’ rules, and the young read the ‘short 20th century’ as the final demonstration that evil means are never justified by high ends.

Isaac Deutscher saw history differently. His standards are not those of Amnesty International. Instead, he measures everything against the cause of the Revolution. The Trotsky trilogy has a spinal column of moral argument running through it which can be reduced to this question: did this or that course or idea help to fulfil the Revolution, or divert it from its true purpose? In the value of that ultimate purpose, Deutscher has solid faith.”

Brad  Delong  raises an objection to this.

“The rejection of Trotsky’s project today is not because ‘today ‘presentism’ rules, and the young read the ‘short 20th century’ as the final demonstration that evil means are never justified by high ends.’ The rejection of Trotsky’s project is because we all recognize today that Trotsky deployed evil means not for high ends but for no worthwhile ends at all. The right attitude to take toward the Bolsheviks is that of Willard to Colonel Kurtz at the end of Apocalypse Now: Willard: ‘They told me that you had gone totally insane, and, uh, that your methods were unsound.’ Colonel Kurtz: ‘Are my methods unsound?’ Willard: ‘I don’t see any . . . method at all, sir.’

The Bolsheviks had no more idea of how to build a utopian society of abundance, democracy, and liberty than America’s Silliest DogTM has of how to install a printer driver.

This is not a retrospective judgment. Smart people recognized it at the time.”

But is that all there is to the problem of this moral justification?  There’s certainly no “‘A’ for effort” in politics and ends certainly justify means . . . but are ends the only constraint on means?  What if people didn’t recognize the limits of the project at the time?  Would that have made it more palatable?  Defenders of Bolshevism do point to Stalinist industrialization and the defeat of the Nazis as achievments.  But can this absolve say the engineered famine in the Ukraine?

The standard “did this or that course or idea help to fulfil the Revolution, or divert it from its true purpose?” which admits of no doubt and no value to revision seems a road to brutality since it must reject the idea that we do not know what we will know in the future.  Karl Popper’s objections still ring true.  Even Rosa Luxemburg recognized this in her chapter on The Problem of Dictatorship in her pamphlet, The Russian Revolution.  And note that the objection came from someone who thought the project could and, in the end, would work.

“The tacit assumption underlying the Lenin-Trotsky theory of dictatorship is this: that the socialist transformation is something for which a ready-made formula lies completed in the pocket of the revolutionary party, which needs only to be carried out energetically in practice. This is, unfortunately — or perhaps fortunately — not the case. Far from being a sum of ready-made prescriptions which have only to be applied, the practical realization of socialism as an economic, social and juridical system is something which lies completely hidden in the mists of the future. What we possess in our program is nothing but a few main signposts which indicate the general direction in which to look for the necessary measures, and the indications are mainly negative in character at that. Thus we know more or less what we must eliminate at the outset in order to free the road for a socialist economy. But when it comes to the nature of the thousand concrete, practical measures, large and small, necessary to introduce socialist principles into economy, law and all social relationships, there is no key in any socialist party program or textbook.”

But read the review.

An Interview with Richard Dawkins

Richard “Richard Dawkins, champion of Darwinism and scourge of religion, is a courtly and attractive man, although not much given to humor. If one finds oneself smiling frequently in the presence of this Oxford don—who was recently voted Britain’s No. 1 public intellectual—it is out of sheer enjoyment at his gift for rendering the most subtle evolutionary ideas absolutely lucid.

The other week, Dawkins was in New York to promote his book The Ancestor’s Tale. I had the chance to chat with him for an hour or so in the lobby of his hotel, as a particularly noisome soft-jazz Muzak system droned in the background.”

More here by Jim Holt in Slate.

What Reagan could have taught Bush about the falling dollar

“It’s a scary time when economists wax nostalgic for the Reagan administration, but that’s exactly what’s going on today. Reagan, though no less an advocate of free markets than Bush, recognized the need for coordinated intervention when, during the mid-1980s, the dollar rose too high against European currencies. The pricey dollar was making U.S. exports exorbitantly expensive, leading both the White House and Europe to conclude that without immediate action Congress would follow through on protectionist threats. So in 1985 Treasury Secretary James Baker and Fed Chair Paul Volcker sat down at the Plaza Hotel in New York with European finance ministers and hashed out a deal, later known as the Plaza Accord, to flood the market with dollars. The market got the message, and over the next two years the greenback fell from more than 3 deutschmarks to 1.85.”

More on the tricky economics of the falling dollar here by Clay Risen in The New Republic.

Chelsea: Baroque?

Lehmannmaupin
Roberta Smith’s recent article on the Chelsea gallery scene in the Sunday New York Times was informative Arts & Leisure fare, defending the neighborhood’s exponential expansion in recent years as a boon–not something to bemoan–while also offering useful guidelines for the casual Chelsea visitor.

She suggests that despite it’s megamall development, the neighborhood stretching from roughly w 13th St. to 29th St. along Tenth Avenue is in fact quite complex:

“The Chelsea gallery scene is exactly the opposite of monolithic or homogeneous: astoundingly diverse, a series of parallel worlds catering to different audiences and markets, from avant-garde to academic, blue-chip to underground. With art fresh from places as far apart as China and Williamsburg, Chelsea is messily democratic, the most real, unbiased reflection of contemporary art’s global character.”

But she also raises a provocative incidental point that would be interesting to pursue further. In the section titled ‘Big Dogs Acting Like Bigger Dogs,’ Smith asserts that, “The galleries that make up Chelsea’s elite often present shows that, in their ambition, expense and importance, are tantamount to museum exhibitions…When [they] serendipitously stage related exhibitions, the effect can be overwhelming, an unplanned mega-exhibition more exciting and convincing than many museum efforts.”

Given that admission to almost all Chelsea galleries is free to the public, this strikes a chord in the wake of MoMA’s new twenty-dollar admission. How might we further concieve the counterpart relationships between private (and commercial) and public institutions in the cultural sphere? As galleries continue to produce more elaborate, historically contextualized programs, how might this change an understanding of their essential market-oriented position? In the age of advanced corporate cultural sponsorship, is there potential for more open coordination between private, for-profit capital and institutional, not-for-profit funding (as well as intellectual resources) in the production of culturally significant exhibitions?

Wednesday, December 1, 2004

What is Project Life Line and why is it worthy of our support?

As we are all too depressingly aware, there are scores of armed conflicts raging in the world today. These often result in displaced populations, which leaves the UN and other relief agencies scrambling to provide temporary shelter, water, medical care, etc., mostly in the form of what end up as tent-cities. In addition, populations all over the world are regularly subject to famine, storms, earthquakes, and other disasters which also result in large numbers of displaced people.

Shabby_unit_1 Shabbir Kazmi is an upcoming New York architect who has thought up an elegant and brilliant solution of the why-hasn’t-anyone-else-done-this? variety, for the provision of medical care, shelter, drinking water, and energy for these situations: he has designed medical mobile-units which can pump and purify ground-water and also collected rain water, which deploy solar-panels and wind-turbines for electricity, and which fit right into standard shipping containers. The beauty of this scheme is that these containers are cheaply available, and most important of all, they are designed to be shipped, so, can be gotten anywhere in the world in large numbers very quickly, by ship and/or train, and then by truck. There are several types of container-based units that can be deployed to an afflicted region, such as mobile medical-units, mobile dwelling-units (which may contain other emergency supplies, such as food aid, blankets, etc.), and school and dormitory units.

Architecture is a field which usually brings to mind the glamorous housing of the rich, the glitzy office towers of commerce, or the fancy designs of the buildings which in our secular society function as shrines to high art: museums. It is a testament to Shabbir’s inventiveness, as well as to his acutely developed moral sense, that he has chosen to apply his ample architectural talents in a socially conscious way. As he said to me, “Architecture is not just a luxury profession, we can actually save lives.”

Shabbir has started a non-profit organization called Project Life-Line which will build the first prototypes for these container-based systems in the next few months. They are raising funds and are having a benefit concert on December 6, 2004, this coming Monday, in Manhattan. Please check out details of the project at http://www.project-lifeline.org and do come to the concert if you can. (Click on “Who We Are” and on “Project” at the site.) This is surely a very worthwhile project, please support it as best you can. Thank you

Phones as Hackable Platforms

Douglas RushKoff, of New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, reports on a talk that our own 3 Quarks editor Marko Ahtisaari gave at NYU:

The mobile industry is stuck. But don’t start printing out those resumes quite yet. A new romance may give the industry just the kick it needs, if we are to put faith in the words of the intriguing director and head of user experience at Nokia’s Insight and Foresight unit, Marko Ahtisaari.

In a talk he provocatively called “Phones as a Hackable Platform,” the Helsinki-born technologist shared a dark and rarely uttered truth: “If we look at this industry and the speed of innovation, innovation has largely stopped.” Speaking before a packed house of open minds at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (where I run The Narrative Lab), he did not equivocate: “What have we had? We’ve had mobile voice, which was the lead application and still is the lead application. Texting, person-to-person, one-to-one messaging. And, recently, the only dominant functionality that we’ve added is the camera. We need new innovation on this platform for it to grow.”

Ahtisaari understands that the most promising and compelling software innovations have always been born in the hands of playful users. Now more than ever, the mobile industry needs to put some faith in a history borne out during the Internet era. Just as the most successful companies in the software and networking markets have already learned, often the best way to develop a product is to let the users do it. In other words, follow the lead of the alpha-geeks, or those Japanese schoolgirls that Wired and other industry magazines have begun to champion so enthusiastically.

Defining hacking loosely as the “ability to manipulate a product either through hardware or software to one’s own ends and apparently in a way that no one has guessed before,” Ahtisaari offered appropriately diverse illustrations of this kind of creativity.

Read more here at TheFeature.

On the Way to the Hospital, a Novel Is Born

Burke583_1 Nancy Ramsey in the New York Times:

“Write what you know.” That literary dictum has sent first-time novelists down some dark paths, and on some days and nights, the one chosen by Shannon Burke, the author of “Safelight,” was as harrowing as they come.

Mr. Burke is a former night-shift paramedic whose experiences with life and death on the streets of Upper Manhattan inspired “Safelight” (Random House), the gritty, moving story of Frank Verbeckas, a paramedic and photographer in his 20’s who, while struggling to recover from his father’s suicide, falls in love with a young woman who has AIDS. Reviewing the novel in The New York Times Book Review, Julia Livshin called it an “accomplished and haunting debut” and “a minimalist tour de force.”

More here.

Computers confront the art experts

“Automated method seems to spot forgeries as well as a connoisseur does… The technique, devised by computer scientist Hany Farid and colleagues at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, identifies the artist by analysing an individual’s characteristic brush or pen strokes. It is able to distinguish eight drawings by Bruegel, deemed authentic by art experts, from five acknowledged imitations.

Farid’s program suggests that a painting attributed to the Italian Renaissance artist Pietro Perugino was in fact produced by at least four different artists (presumably Perugino’s apprentices in his workshop). This analysis is also supported by the judgement of art historians.”

More here from Nature.

How do Internet search engines work?

Javed Mostafa, the Victor Yngve Associate Professor of information science and director of the Laboratory of Applied Informatics at Indiana University, Bloomington, explains in Scientific American:

There is a multitude of information providers on the web. These include the commonly known and publicly available sources such as Google, InfoSeek, NorthernLight and AltaVista, to name a few. A second group of sources–sometimes referred to as the “hidden web”–is much larger than the public web in terms of the amount of information they provide. This latter group includes sources such as Lexis-Nexis, Dialog, Ingenta and LoC. They remain hidden for various reasons: they may not allow other information providers access to their content; they may require subscription; or they may demand payment for access. This article is concerned with the former group, the publicly available web search services, collectively referred to here as search engines.

Search engines employ various techniques to speed up searches. Some of the common techniques are briefly described below.

More here.

Abdul Sattar Edhi, Pakistan’s Shining Star

Edhi Abdul Sattar Edhi is nothing short of a phenomenon, a miracle even, and a ubiquitous one no matter where you are in Pakistan. His ambulances are everywhere, his clinics and homes for the destitute help millions. His story is truly inspiring. The following is from an article by Richard Covington in Saudi Aramco World: (Thanks to my friend Nazo Kureshy for bringing this to my attention.)

For more than half a century, Abdul Sattar Edhi, now 76 years old, has been living proof that a determined individual can mobilize others to alleviate misery and, in so doing, knit together the social fabric of a nation. Firmly refusing financial support from both government and formal religious organizations, this self-effacing man with a primary-school education has almost single-handedly created one of the largest and most successful health and welfare networks in Asia. Whether he is counseling a battered wife, rescuing an accident victim, feeding a poor child, sheltering a homeless family or washing an unidentified and unclaimed corpse before burial, Edhi and Bilquis, his wife of 38 years, help thousands of Pakistanis each day.

Starting in 1951 with a tiny dispensary in Karachi’s poor Mithadar neighborhood, Edhi has steadily built up a nationwide organization of ambulances, clinics, maternity homes, mental asylums, homes for the physically handicapped, blood banks, orphanages, adoption centers, mortuaries, shelters for runaway children and battered women, schools, nursing courses, soup kitchens and a 25-bed cancer hospital. All are run by some 7000 volunteers and a small paid staff of teachers, doctors and nurses. Edhi has also personally delivered medicines, food and clothing to refugees in Bosnia, Ethiopia and Afghanistan. He and the drivers of his ambulances have saved lives in floods, train wrecks, civil conflicts and traffic accidents. After the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, he donated $100,000 to Pakistanis in New York who lost their jobs in the subsequent economic crisis.

Remarkably, the lion’s share of the Edhi Foundation’s $10-million budget comes from private donations from individual Pakistanis inside and outside the country. In the 1980’s, when Pakistan’s then-President Zia ul-Haq sent him a check for 500,000 rupees (then more than $30,000), Edhi sent it back. Last year, the Italian government offered him a million-dollar donation. He refused. “Governments set conditions that I cannot accept,” he says, declining to give any details.

Read the rest here and take a look at the Photo Essay as well. The Edhi Foundation’s website is here.

The Weird Uncle: Albert Jay Nock

Hero_nock“In the popular histories of political ideas, there’s no more omnipresent figure than the godfather–as in, Irving Kristol, godfather of neoconservatism, or William F. Buckley Jr., godfather of modern conservatism. But intellectual historians tend to unjustly neglect a very important influence when they trace their genealogical lines: the weird uncle. For American conservatives that figure is Albert Jay Nock–a man who died a decade before the first issue of National Review but who shaped its spirit nonetheless.

Nock didn’t try hard to obscure his strangeness. In fact, he carefully tended his eccentric image on nearly every page of his Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, published in 1943. During his long career as a writer for New York’s little magazines like The American Magazine and Harper‘s, these foibles became enshrined in myth. A misanthropic character, who considered Western civilization to be on a road to perdition, he viewed himself an atavistic figure from premodern times and occasionally wore a cape to symbolize his preference for the past. This sartorial detail also had the intended effect of enshrouding him in mysteriousness. During a stint as editor of the Freeman, he declined to give his colleagues his home address or to reveal more substantive details about himself. Van Wyck Brooks recounted a rumor that contacting Nock required leaving a note under a rock in Central Park. None of his New York friends or colleagues knew that Nock had spent decades as an Episcopal priest or that he had abandoned his wife and children. Had they read his Memoirs they would not have come to know these facts either.”

More here by Franklin Foer in The New Republic.