From Scientific American:

When word got around that Hans Moravec had founded an honest-to-goodness robotics firm, more than a few eyebrows were raised. Wasn’t this the same Carnegie Mellon University scientist who had predicted that we would someday routinely download our minds into robots? And that exponential advances in computing power would cause the human race to invent itself out of a job as robots supplanted us as the planet’s most adept and adaptive species? Somehow, creating a company seemed … uncharacteristically pragmatic.

But Moravec doesn’t see it that way. He says he didn’t start Seegrid Corporation because he was backing off his predictions. He founded the company because he was planning to help fulfill them.

More here.

You can lead a whore to culture but you can’t make her sing

Tom Wolfe defends himself after winning the “Bad Sex” award. (See my earlier post here.) Dan Glaister writes in The Guardian:

Wolfe_1 It has often been said that Americans have no sense of irony. Now the American author Tom Wolfe has turned the tables, saying that the British literary judges who awarded him a prize for the year’s worst sex in fiction simply did not understand that his description of a first encounter was meant to be ironic.

“There’s an old saying – ‘You can lead a whore to culture but you can’t make her sing’,” he told Reuters. “In this case, you can lead an English literary wannabe to irony but you can’t make him get it.”

Wolfe, 74, best-known for his novel Bonfire of the Vanities and for his eccentric dress – he normally wears a white suit and carries a cane – was awarded the Bad Sex award by the Literary Review last month for his novel I Am Charlotte Simmons, the story of a naïve, country girl who attends an Ivy League college. To research the novel, Wolfe, a former journalist, spent a lot of time interviewing students and observing campus life.

More here.

Boxing Day: What is it?

From Wikipedia:

There is much dispute over the true origins of Boxing Day, but one common story of the holiday’s origins is that servants used to receive Christmas gifts from their employers on the first weekday after Christmas, usually December 26, after the family celebrations. These were generally called their Christmas boxes. Another story is that this is the day that priests broke open the collection boxes and distributed the money to the poor.

More here.

Richard Dawkins, exploding the myth of Christmas

I am very flattered that we at 3QD were not the only ones to have celebrated December 25th as a day to remember Isaac Newton. Richard Dawkins writes in The Dubliner:

Dawkins For better or worse, ours is historically a Christian culture, and children who grow up ignorant of it are diminished, unable to take literary allusions, actually impoverished. I am no lover of Christianity, but I’d far rather wish you “Happy Christmas” than “Happy Holiday Season”. Fortunately, this is not the only choice. December 25th really is the birthday of one of the greatest men ever to walk the earth, Sir Isaac Newton. His achievements might justly be celebrated wherever his truths hold sway. And that means from one end of the universe to the other. Happy Newton’s Day!

Read the whole article here.

Rushdie Redux? A.C. Grayling: You can be too tolerant

“Sikhs have every right to protest against an offending play, but the law needs reinforcing if increasing moves by extremists to curtail free speech are to be resisted.”

See my earlier post here.

More from The Independent:

This week the theatrical world, and the arts world more generally, has been up in arms. You might think this happens quite a lot, arts people being fairly passionate folk. But it isn’t every week that fully 700 people – many of them very eminent – put their names to a letter to a national newspaper protesting about the cancellation of a play that has offended a number of Sikhs. Well, I’m with them. Freedom of speech is not a decorative amenity in a liberal democracy. It’s fundamental to its structure. Without it, other rights and freedoms are effectively empty, because they cannot be asserted, and still less defended, when free speech is forbidden.

So far, so conventionally liberal. But things are changing. The increasing assertiveness of religions in recent years is prompting a crisis. Under the generic cloak of claiming to be “offended” by whatever they do not like, religious conservatives and fundamentalists seek, with increasing insistence, to silence others and to impose on society not merely tolerance of their own preferences but actual solicitude. Thus, Britain is being asked to become a place where no criticism or challenge can be offered to any religion, whether or not we agree with its treatment of women, its practice of female circumcision, its intolerance towards the liberal attitudes of the majority, or its tendentious and sectarian education of children.

At the extreme, devotees have countered “offence” against their religion by committing mass murder, as in the 11 September 2001 atrocities, and individual murder, as of Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands. The former was an expression of hatred towards a system, and the country that most exemplifies it, that many Muslims find threatening to their traditional values. The latter was an act of censorship designed to frighten people into not criticising Islam.

More here. Thanks to R.D. for bringing this to my attention.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Today, We Celebrate one who connected Heaven to Earth

He changed the way we view ourselves, our world, the universe itself. On this day, we celebrate the birth of possibly the greatest intellect of all time: Isaac Newton. He was born 362 years ago in the manor house of Woolsthorpe, near Grantham in Lincolnshire. It is shocking how few realize what he did. When asked what Newton’s achievement was, most people reply, “He discovered gravity.” When pressed to say what exactly that means (after all, people had known that things fall down, not up, for quite some time), many will say, “Well, he quantified gravity.” When told about Galileo’s laws, and how we knew quite a bit (quantitatively) about how gravity affects objects well before Newton, most people become confused. But when told about Kepler and his laws of planetary motion, and how Newton realized that they and Galileo’s discoveries about balls rolling down inclined planes could be explained in one fell swoop using a couple of equations, and shown to be the result of the same phenomenon (gravity), they are usually and finally suitably impressed. Hence, Newton connected what was known about the heavens (Kepler’s Laws) with what was known about earth (Galileo’s Laws). This stupendously imaginative act of integration is what encouraged Einstein to do the same with the electromagnetic theory of Maxwell, and the experimental results of Michaelson and Morley regarding the speed of light. And it is what keeps physicists today hopeful about one day discovering the one true Theory Of Everything.

To celebrate Sir Isaac’s birthday, give yourself a gift, and read S. Chandrasekhar’s (yes, Nobel, physics) Newton’s “Principia” for the Common Reader:

Representing a decade’s work from one of the world’s most distinguished physicists, this major publication is, as far as is known, the first comprehensive analysis of Newton’s Principia without recourse to secondary sources. Chandrasekhar analyses some 150 propositions which form a direct chain leading to Newton’s formulation of his universal law of gravitation. In each case, Newton’s proofs are arranged in a linear sequence of equations and arguments, avoiding the need to unravel the necessarily convoluted style of Newton’s connected prose. In almost every case, a modern version of the proofs is given to bring into sharp focus the beauty, clarity, and breathtaking economy of Newton’s methods. Chandrasehkar’s work is an attempt by a distinguished practising scientist to read and comprehend the enormous intellectual achievement of the Principia.

Buy it here or elsewhere.

Friday, December 24, 2004

3QD Editors Pick Their Favorite Books of 2004

When I posted the “10 Best Books of 2004” according to the New York Times, Matt Jones responded by asking what the 3 Quarks Daily’s editors’ favorite books were. Being suckers for this kind of flattery, we are happy to give a top ten list of our own, in no particular order (the other editors declined to pick books):

1.  Cruising Modernism by Michael Trask

“A literary critical exploration of early twentieth-century apprehensions of class consciousness and desire, for example in the commingled alarmism over sexual deviancy, vagrancy and consumerism.  A strong feature of the book is its wide-ranging attention to the aesthetic (Henry James, Stein, Hart Crane, Cather), the philosophical (pragmatism), the political (Progressive reformers) and the social-scientific (early sociology), making a strong case for its argument’s historical validity.” –Asad Raza

2.  A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness by V.S. Ramachandran

“Not very many people realize that over the last couple of decades, cognitive scientists have quietly been mapping the brain, figuring out how we think and perform the mental miracles that we do even in routine mentation. One of the most interesting figures in this effort has been V.S. Ramachandran, a man who has designed and performed ingenious experiments to show how the mind actually works. This is no mere theorizing, à la Freud; this is hard science, and the brain is shown to be a thing of extreme beauty. Rama, as he is affectionately known, delivered the 2003 Reith Lectures for the BBC, which have been collected into book form here. Rama is a writer of sharp wit, and his delightfully wry sense of humor shows frequently in his lively prose.” –Abbas Raza

3.  Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies by Ian Buruma & Avishai Margalit

“An interesting attempt to defend urban cosmopolitanism from an Internationalist non-Eurocentric standpoint.” –Morgan Meis

4.  Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror by Mahmood Mamdani

“Mamdani lays the responsibility for 9/11 at the doorstep of Reagan and his cold war policies, especially as pertaining to Afghanistan, in the most cogent and logically progressive argument I have read anywhere. Filled with important historical details, the author demonstrates an extraordinary grasp of current events and Mamdani sounds almost better than Chomsky in his criticism of the West’s War on Terror.” –Azra Raza

5.  The Complete Elegies of Sextus Propertius, new translation by Vincent Katz

“It is tough to translate the amazing Roman poet who feels so damn modern. Vincent Katz does an admirable job.” –Morgan Meis

6.  Desperately Seeking Paradise by Ziauddin Sardar

“Sardar shows that Islam is as complex and contradictory and full of tensions and as resistant to simplication, as Christianity or Judaism. This is a wonderfully enlightening book, full of information and informed opinion, even revisiting the Rushdie affair in an interesting way.” –Sughra Raza

7.  The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

“In this fictional account of the events surrounding the 1940 US elections, the pro-Nazi Charles Lindbergh wins against FDR. Roth describes the events as a 7 year old Jewish boy in NJ and graphically exposes the Fascist government’s attempts to assimilate the Jews into mainstream America. As the world this family has known comes crashing down in slow motion through a series of terrifying incidents, the fear being experienced by the tender little boy, the brave father, the converted older brother and the incredibly stable and brave mother is palpable. I finally understood what Arendt meant by the banality of evil.” –Azra Raza

8.  Selected Poems 1963-2003 by Charles Simic

“It is too hard for me to describe Simic’s surreal hypnotic voice. He constantly tries to wrench meaning and hope out of dark places, and so can be deeply uplifting.” –Abbas Raza

9.  The Artificial White Man by Stanley Crouch

“There is no one so relentlessly Crouchy as Stanley Crouch. A unique American hero.” –Morgan Meis

10. The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins

“This is Dawkins’s best book in years, and he has never written less than a brilliant book. The literary conceit which lends the book its title is, of course, that of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Dawkins’s tale is that of all of life. Starting in the present he travels back in time to meet the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees, then further back to meet other ancestors connecting us to other life forms, and so on, until we are at the origin of life itself. At close to 700 dense pages, the book is filled with a massive amount of biological information. The sweep of Dawkins’s erudition is truly astounding, and if you find yourself getting exhausted at times by the relentless and seemingly endless litany of facts, keep going: at some point toward the end, I had the supremely ecstatic experience of being absolutely awed at the majestic grandeur, variety, and tenacity of the whole history of life, as well as at the prodigious effort that has gone into classifying and understanding it.” –Abbas Raza

HAVE A GOOD HOLIDAY! And please add other suggestions as comments…

World cities to celebrate Don Quixote, 400 years on

Cities on five continents will next year hold a series of cultural events in honour of Don Quixote, 400 years after Miguel de Cervantes brought the character to life, Spain’s Culture Minister Carmen Calvo said.

Many consider Cervantes’ work “The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha” — one of the earliest novels written in a modern European language — to be the greatest Spanish book in history.

The masterpiece will be celebrated with events throughout Spain but also in cities such as Dallas, Mexico City, Paris, Brussels, Oran and Saint Petersburg, set to host a string of plays, debates, exhibitions, concerts and films.

The first edition of Don Quixote came off a printing press in Madrid on December 20, 1604, and the book was made available to the public on January 16, 1605 — becoming the world’s first best-seller.

More here.

Pliable solar cells are on a roll

From New Scientist:

Imagine wearing a jacket or rucksack that charges up your mobile phone while you take a walk. Or a tent whose flysheet charges batteries all day so campers can have light all night. Or a roll-out plastic sheet you can place on a car’s rear window shelf to power a child’s DVD player.

Such applications could soon become a reality thanks to a light, flexible solar panel that is a little thicker than photographic film and can easily be applied to everyday fabrics. The thin, bendy solar panels, which could be on the market within three years, are the fruit of a three-nation European Union research project called H-Alpha Solar (H-AS).

The new solar panels will be cheap, too, because they can be mass-produced in rolls that can be cut as required and wrapped around clothes, fabrics, furniture or even rooftops. “This technology will be a lot easier to handle than the old glass solar panels,” claims Gerrit Kroesen, the physicist from Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands who led the development team.

More here.

Sikhs are the real losers from Behzti

Gurharpal Singh writes in The Guardian:

The cancellation of the play Behzti (Dishonour) following protests by Sikhs in Birmingham was not, as a Sikh spokesperson claimed, without winners or losers. If anybody has lost it is British Sikhs. In a single act the community has overturned years of hard work and reverted to type as a militant tradition fixated with narrow communal interests. Doubtless the mobilisation will be seen as another nail in the coffin of freedom of speech, coming close on the heels of the murder of Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands and the proposed legislation on incitement to religious hatred. What these interpretations overlook, however, is the pioneering role of Sikhs in framing British multiculturalism, the contribution – unwittingly – of the British state in promoting the idiom of religion in public life, and the deep tensions within the Sikh community itself that have produced such a play.

More here.

Digital inheritance raises legal questions

From CNN:

As more of our personal lives go digital, family members, estate attorneys and online service providers are increasingly grappling with what happens to those information bits when their owners die.

Sometimes, the question involves e-mail sitting on a distant server; other times, it’s about the photos or financial records stored on a password-protected computer.

This week, a Michigan man publicized his struggle to access the Yahoo e-mail account belonging to his son, Marine Lance Cpl. Justin M. Ellsworth, 20, who was killed November 13 in Iraq. Though Yahoo’s policies state that accounts “terminate upon your death,” John Ellsworth said his son would have wanted to give him access…

To release those messages in such circumstances, Yahoo said, would violate the privacy rights of the deceased and those with whom they’ve corresponded.

More here.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Yuletide Trotsky

Presumably set to coincide with the onset of holiday gift-giving madness, Verso has reissued the three-volume biography that at one time was considered to be “the most delicious gift to smuggle to an East European intellectual.” Neal Ascherson reviews Isaac Deutscher’s monumental biography of Leon Trotsky in the London Review of Books:

…Reissued by Verso in three paperback volumes, Deutscher’s biography is still tremendous. The power and excitement of his prose knock the reader down. His command of the language, late Victorian in its freedom and in the absence of secondhand imagery, in some ways surpasses that of his fellow Pole Joseph Conrad. The scholarship is enormous and – given that the Moscow archives were closed to him – comprehensive. Above all, there is Deutscher’s own enthusiasm, a sort of majestic urgency. He believed that his subject mattered. Not just because of the tragic, even messianic shape of Trotsky’s life, but because Deutscher was convinced that in writing about this dead man, he was also writing about the future.

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Continuing with the seasonal theme, try juxtaposing these two pieces: the current fate of Bethlehem, followed by an account of how the dollar’s weakness is affecting New York chefs’ ability to use truffles.

But if you really want to think about the twisting striations of culture, capitalism and religion this time of year, you could read this sharp and thoughtful digest analyzing the meaning of Christmas songs.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Invisible bias (and some interesting tests to take)

“A group of psychologists claim a test can measure prejudices we harbor without even knowing it. Their critics say they are politicizing psychology.”

Chris Berdik in The Boston Globe:

Inside the wood-paneled confines of the Harvard Club, about 200 Bostonians gathered recently to tap into their subconscious. Literally. Audience members were told to move as quickly as possible through a series of faces and words projected on a screen, tapping their left knees for a young face or a “good” word (joy, sunshine, love), and their right knees for an old face or a “bad” word (bomb, agony, vomit). It took about 15 seconds for most to finish. But when asked to switch, to pair young faces with “bad” words and old faces with “good” words, the rhythm faltered and the tapping slowed. Audience members shook their heads and giggled. Some threw up their hands.

To the Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji, who presided over the event, the demonstration showed that most of the audience — like most of the people who have been subjects in this type of experiment — have a harder time associating old people (or nonwhite people, or homosexuals) with “good” when given no time to think. These are all examples of what Banaji calls implicit prejudice, and their importance extends way beyond an intellectual parlor game. Implicit prejudice, she argues, can affect our decisions and behaviors without our even knowing it, undermining our conscious ideas and best intentions about equality and justice.

Read more here.

Here’s the fun bit: when you are done with that article, click here to take a few Implicit Association Tests for yourself (click on the Demonstration button once you are there). There are many different kinds, each of which measures one type of prejudice you may hold. If you took a test about race, for example, it will tell you whether you have a strong, moderate, slight, or no preference for black people over white ones, for example.

I took five tests. Here are my results:

  • I have a strong association between science and males, and liberal arts and females.
  • I have a moderate preference for young people over old.
  • I have a slight preference for other religions relative to Judaism.
  • I have a slight preference for other people relative to Arabs or Muslims.
  • I have a slight preference for straight over gay people.

So, I turn out to be a sexist, ageist, anti-semitic, self-hating (as a Muslim), homophobe. At least slightly. Who woulda’ thunk it! But before you judge me, take a few of these tests yourself, and report the results honestly. It’s kind of fun to do.

Please report the results of any tests you take in a comment to this post. I am very interested to see what other people come up with. Thanks. Now try it!

Sunday, December 19, 2004

‘Isherwood’: The Uses of Narcissism

Brook Allen reviews Isherwood: A Life Revealed, by Peter Parker, in The New York Times Book Review:

Isherwood184 Isherwood never quite fulfilled the extraordinary promise of his early work (W. Somerset Maugham, voicing the opinion of many, once claimed that the young Isherwood held the future of the English novel in his hands). His career peaked when he was still in his 30’s, with the publication of ”Mr. Norris Changes Trains” (1935) and ”Goodbye to Berlin” (1939), now usually published in tandem as ”The Berlin Stories” and popularized by ”Cabaret,” the musical and film they inspired. After his 1939 move — or, as some branded it, flight — from England and the impending European war to a softer life in Southern California, he struggled to find a new, American voice, though continuing to work his distinctive vein of thinly veiled autobiography. While the American books tended to lack the sparkle and gaiety that had marked his English ones, they eventually succeeded on quite a different level — as bleakly scrupulous confessionalism in which the once irrepressible humor reappears in a sardonic, disabused form.

More here. (W.H. Auden stands behind Isherwood in the photo.)

A THEORY OF ROUGHNESS: A Talk with Benoit Mandelbrot

MandelbrotwgoA recent, important turn in my life occurred when I realized that something that I have long been stating in footnotes should be put on the marquee. I have engaged myself, without realizing it, in undertaking a theory of roughness. Think of color, pitch, loudness, heaviness, and hotness. Each is the topic of a branch of physics. Chemistry is filled with acids, sugars, and alcohols — all are concepts derived from sensory perceptions. Roughness is just as important as all those other raw sensations, but was not studied for its own sake.”

More here at Edge.org, with an introduction by John Brockman.

A rotting corpse is a perfect gift

Robin McKie rounds up the best science books of 2004 at The Guardian:

Tired of your usual New Year’s good resolutions? Given up hope of ever losing weight, of cutting down on booze or giving up ciggies? Then try this little list of ‘must dos’: swim in a bioluminescent bay; walk on lava; extract your own DNA at home; visit Hiroshima; stroke a tiger; read On the Origin of Species; see the aurora borealis; visit an impact crater; or drive through Death Valley.

All are culled from the pages of 100 Things to Do Before You Die (Profile £3.99), a tiny guide to scientific exotica that has been put together by an illustrious assembly of researchers and public figures, including John Sulston, father of Britain’s human genome project, Susan Greenfield and Adam Hart-Davis, with each providing a few paragraphs of witty text to accompany each entry.

Continue reading here.


Eric J. Chaisson reviews Giant Telescopes: Astronomical Ambition and the Promise of Technology, by W. Patrick McCray, at American Scientist Online:

As an arriving student at Harvard more than 30 years ago, I sought out some famous astronomers at a reception to welcome newcomers. As I approached them, planning to introduce myself, I couldn’t help overhearing the end of a conversation that shocked me: A visiting astronomer was telling the observatory director heatedly, “Your observatory is getting too damn big!” He glanced at me with disdain and walked away. Welcome, indeed, to the big leagues of astronomy.

The visitor that day was Jesse Greenstein of Caltech, a powerful champion of small, elite academic programs designed to serve only a few astronomers, giving them private access to the biggest telescopes. And the recipient of his ire was Leo Goldberg, whose Harvard College Observatory took a team approach to astronomy and space science; Goldberg often supported drives to build national telescopes for use by all astronomers.

More here.

The Fox Is in Microsoft’s Henhouse (and Salivating)

From the New York Times:

FIREFOX is a classic overnight success, many years in the making.

Published by the Mozilla Foundation, a nonprofit group supporting open-source software that draws upon the skills of hundreds of volunteer programmers, Firefox is a Web browser that is fast and filled with features that Microsoft’s stodgy Internet Explorer lacks. Firefox installs in a snap, and it’s free.

Firefox 1.0 was released on Nov. 9. Just over a month later, the foundation celebrated a remarkable milestone: 10 million downloads. Donations from Firefox’s appreciative fans paid for a two-page advertisement in The New York Times on Thursday.

More here.