Via Crooked Timber:

Lifehacker makes getting things done easy and fun. Delving deep into the technoweb, Lifehacker brings back simple and totally life-altering tips and tricks for managing your information and time. Editor Gina Trapani, coder and computer expert, saucily deciphers the latest in personal productivity technology and reveals the million ways hardware and software can improve our busy lives. At this wild moment in the development of human-oriented technology, Lifehacker is your own personal early adopter, here to guide you through the onslaught of the new. The world is full of fascinating problems waiting to be solved: Lifehacker can help.”

Reinventing Physics: the Search for the Real Frontier

Robert B. Laughlin, a professor of physics at Stanford University and a 1998 Nobel laureate in physics, writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

20040909016l It is a terrible thing that science has grown so distant from the rest of our intellectual life, for it did not start out that way. The writings of Aristotle, for example, despite their notorious inaccuracies, are beautifully clear, purposeful, and accessible. So is Darwin’s Origin of Species. The opacity of modern science is an unfortunate side effect of professionalism, and something for which we scientists are often pilloried — and deservedly so. Everyone gets wicked pleasure from snapping on the radio on the drive home from work to hear Doctor Science give ludicrous answers to phone-in questions such as why cows stand in the same direction while grazing (they must face Wisconsin several times a day) and then finish up with, “And remember: I know more than you. I have a master’s degree in science.” On another occasion my father-in-law remarked that economics had been terrific until they made it into a science. He had a point.

The conversation about physical law started me thinking about what science had to say about the obviously very unscientific chicken-and-egg problem of laws, organizations of laws, and laws from organization. I began to appreciate that many people had strong views on this subject, but could not articulate why they held them. The matter had come to a head recently when I realized I was having the same conversation over and over again with colleagues about Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe (W.W. Norton, 1999), a popular book about string theory — a set of speculative ideas about the quantum mechanics of space. The conversation focused on the question of whether physics was a logical creation of the mind or a synthesis built on observation.

More here. (The essay is adapted from A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics From the Bottom Down, to be published in March by Basic Books.)

Roundups from the World Social Forum

If you missed the World Social Forum last week or any of the reports on it, here are some from across the spectrum.  The overall tone is disappointment, though from different perspectives and in varying degrees.

From The Nation, the most sagnuine account.

“This decentering of the United States and Europe is a major, if undeclared, achievement of the WSF. There’s no way to determine how many of the more than 100,000 participants come from that ‘so-called developed world,’ but Portuguese and Spanish dominate the presentations. It’s not that anyone regards the United States as irrelevant to the struggles described, debated and developed here–indeed, a prominent image in Wednesday evening’s kick-off march was a picture of Bush with the caption ‘Number 1 Terrorist.’ But as this motley movement has self-consciously shifted from protesting problems to proposing solutions, it has shoved the United States upstage. Without issuing manifestos, developing a joint list of demands or even trying to create a consensus political program, the WSF serves as a laboratory for new approaches to entrenched problems, favoring bottom-up organizing to party politics, participatory democracy to old-style hierarchies.”

From one of the reports at OpenDemocracy:

“Most people here will nod if you ask them if the common enemy is neo-liberal global capitalism (or imperialism, take your pick), but on a practical level, the enemies different groups are fighting in their home-countries have real names, addresses, and price tags. The WSF should take them on one by one, and not all in one bite.”

In Slate, Samuel Loewenberg begins on day 1 with . . .

“Call it the left’s version of Davos. Did I mention the Vietnamese couple wearing Ho Chi Minh shirts who handed me a flyer about the U.S. government’s cover-up regarding the use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Did I mention that the man sitting next to me is wearing camouflage pants, sports a compass on his belt, has lots of exposed gray chest hair, and is reading the ‘Dialects’ of Adorno and Horkheimer?” [I think he meant Dialectic of Enlightenment.]

and ends three days later,

“In practice, nonlinear organization meant lots of wasted time. It was typical that when I would go looking for tent K604 to sit in on a meeting about child trafficking, tent K604 was no longer located between tents K603 and K605; rather, it had been renamed K609 and now housed a meeting about justice and African women.

On the other hand, the opening up of the forum meant more people like Chisemphere and Veloso, who were actually doing hands-on work in various fields, and less insider babbling by academics and professionals. It’s probably safest to have a few of each.”

Fred Halliday, in The Observer, offers what sounds like an indictment.

“The Third Dustbin [of history] is that of the contemporary global protest movement, to a considerable degree a children’s crusade of intellectual demagogues, recycled 1960s bunkeristas with their fellow travellers in literary circles, dreamers and political manipulators, of the old and new lefts, whose claim to moral and analytic superiority too often masks a set of unexamined, and themselves often recycled, platitudes . . .

Indeed the contents of this Third Dustbin are familiar enough: a ritual incantantion of ‘no war’ that avoids any substantive engagement with problems of international peace and security, or reflection on how positively to help peoples in zones of conflict; a set of vague, unthought out, uncosted and often dangerous utopian ideas about an alternative world; a pleasing but vapid invocation of global human values and internationalism . . . a complacent attitude, innocent when not indulgent, towards political violence . . . This was a capitulation, that would have shocked their socialist forebears, to nationalist and religious bigots.”

Monday, February 7, 2005

Richard Rorty on Donald Davidson

Rorty reviews the late Donald Davidson’s Problems of Rationality (the fourth in a 5-volume collection of his writings from Oxford University Press) in the Notre Dame Philosophical Review:

As befits a reviewer who is also a fervent disciple, I have used the space at my disposal to expound Davidson’s views rather than to criticize them. I think that most of his critics have failed to grasp the audacity of his outlook—to realize that he is calling for what he once referred to as a “sea-change” in philosophical thinking. That change would make much of contemporary philosophical discussion seem as absurd as scholastic philosophy seemed to Hobbes and Descartes. 

Davidson had no taste for polemics, and he was too courteous ever to adopt a merely dismissive tone toward colleagues with whom he disagreed. But his ideas were as radically subversive of the traditional problematic of post-Cartesian philosophy as were Wittgenstein’s.

Many who have no use for Wittgenstein have none for Davidson, and for the same reason: to adopt the views of either would be to dissolve problems which they have spent the best years of their lives trying to solve.

Wittgenstein is no longer much read in graduate philosophy programs, and perhaps Davidson too will cease to be assigned. But if these five volumes of essays do suffer the neglect presently being suffered by Philosophical Investigations, they will remain, like time bombs, on the library shelves. They will be detonated sooner or later.

More here.

Charles Darwin just as punk as Sid Vicious

Greg Graffin, leader of the punk band Bad Religion, explains how he came to work with Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson in an interview at Seed Magazine:

Bad_religiongreg_graffin1624 You’ve mentioned before that you’ve corresponded with luminaries in your field like E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins—

Yeah, I met Richard Dawkins at his house in Oxford specifically to talk about my PhD project on evolution and religion. He was very kind, and he admired a portion of my work that helped clarify evolutionists’ philosophical beliefs. Likewise, E. O. Wilson was involved in my PhD study—he clarified his own philosophical stance in my dissertation. Essentially, I wanted to round up the best minds of this generation, to see what the prevailing views about evolution and religion were— and all of them were quite divided about whether the two were compatible. Darwin was the original interpreter, and he believed there was no compatibility between the two; he could not see how one could get behind religion. So I chose to survey various opinions.

Do elements of those ideas and conversations ever slip into your music?

Mostly, Dawkins’ and Wilson’s writings helped me form my evolutionary worldview—but they’re only a couple elements of my total evolutionary education. In addition to Dawkins, I met with Ernst Mayr, George C. Williams, John Maynard Smith, Richard Lewontin, and Tom Eisner. With such a privileged experience, it’s impossible to keep my music writing free of [their] ideas. Melding my experience in science with songwriting has helped Bad Religion remain viable and vital without becoming stale and boring, as any band of our age rightly should become!

More here.

Oft Overlooked Challenge of the Future: Droughts

Peter B. deMenocal, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences at Columbia University, writes in Orion Magazine:

…most climate scientists today agree that Earth’s climate is warming and changing as a result of human activity, and that the projected changes in coming decades will affect nearly all parts of the globe. This combination of exceptional risk and uncertainty has led to a lack of clear consensus among policy makers on how to address the global warming crisis. National-level planning and preparation for current and future climate change remain mired in dysfunction and polarized along a scientific/political divide. There are those who are convinced that there is a big problem and those who would make the case that there is no problem at all. A path of least resistance has led to a cul-de-sac of inaction…

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges to society, however, and one often overlooked, is the likelihood of drought events more severe than any we have experienced. The continental interiors, home to the breadbaskets of North America and Eurasia, are projected to become markedly drier in future decades, leading to a greater frequency of protracted regional drought. How a modern, urbanized society of today might respond to a period of pervasive, extended drought is yet to be seen, but climate history may offer some lessons in at least understanding the effects of this aspect of our climatically uncertain future.

More here.

7 Middagh Street

A delightful NYTimes piece from the weekend.

It’s fitting that the house at 7 Middagh Street first appeared to George Davis in a dream.

It was the kind of dream people have in times of stress, full of light-filled rooms and a feeling of transcendence. This was the summer of 1940, when Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and, most incredibly, France had fallen to the Nazis. German troops were patrolling the ghettos of Krakow. Britain would be next.

Davis, an editor whose friends ranged from Bowery burlesque performers to Virginia Woolf, didn’t consider himself political. But he had spent a glorious youth in Paris, mentored by Cocteau, Colette, Man Ray and Janet Flanner, the New Yorker columnist, and he drew on their work in his new job as literary editor of Harper’s Bazaar.

Now it seemed that the time for words was ending. In Europe, the war had effectively killed free speech. In America, a wave of patriotic zeal was having its own depressing effect. The fight to publish good work grew increasingly difficult, and as a result Davis frequently opted not to show up at the office. Instead, he spent time with his new best friend, 23-year-old Carson McCullers, whose debut novel, “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” had just been published.

Often, to McCullers’s delight, Davis took her along on visits to his émigré friends: W. H. Auden, who had recently composed his celebrated poem, “September 1, 1939”; Auden’s close friend, the British composer Benjamin Britten; the singer Lotte Lenya and her husband, Kurt Weill; and Erika and Klaus Mann, the two eldest of Thomas Mann’s grown children, who were organizing the rescue of dissident artists from unoccupied southern France. . . .

Seeing is no longer believing

Susan Llewelyn Leach in the Christian Science Monitor:

StalinThese photos are part of ‘Stories From Russia,’ a current exhibition about the falsification of photos at the Photographers’ Gallery in London…

Airbrushing individuals out of your life is not new. Joseph Stalin routinely erased personae non gratae from official photographs. As his dictatorship progressed, early communist comrades gradually disappeared to the point where Stalin’s entourage started to look quite sparse at times.

Today, with the advent of inexpensive software, the manipulation of digital images is easier, faster, and harder to detect. As a result, the ethics of manipulation – the line between “improving” an image and altering it – are more vital to preserving public trust.

More here.

The Copyright Crusades

Tom Zeller, Jr. in the New York Times:

With the Supreme Court scheduled next month to hear a pivotal case pitting copyright holders (represented by MGM Studios) against the makers of file-sharing software (Grokster and StreamCast Networks), some participants are putting their message machines into high gear.

But winning hearts and minds – of teenagers, consumers and lawmakers – has never been a simple matter…

One side must make people care about obscure technological innovations that they say will be stifled by legislative action or an adverse Supreme Court ruling. The other side battles the image of greedy corporate profiteers and the perception that freely downloading copyrighted works is something other than theft.

More here.

Martin Amis Writes About the Violent World of Young Men in Colombia

From The Times of London:

Martin20amisThe classic venganza, in Cali gangland, is not a bullet through the head but a bullet through the spine. Some thought has gone into this. ‘One month after the attack,’ says Roger Micolta, the young therapist from Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), ‘the victims ask me, ‘Will I ever walk?’ Two months after, they ask me, ‘Will I ever f***?” The answer to both questions is invariably no. So the victims not only have to live with their wound; they have to wear it, they have to wheel it: everybody knows that they have lost what made them men.

At the municipal hospital in Aguablanca, at therapy time in the mid-afternoons, crippled innocents, like limping Bryan, are outnumbered by crippled murderers – by cripples who have done much crippling in their time. They go through interminable sets of exercises: pull-ups, sideways rolls. Girlfriends and sisters take hairbrushes to their legs, to encourage sensation. One young man, inching along the parallel bars, keeps freezing and closing his eyes in helpless grief. Another has a weight strapped to his ankle; he is watched by his mother, who reflexively swings her own leg in time with his.

Read the whole column here.

More by Steven Pinker on the Larry Summers Brouhaha

From The New Republic:

Pinker Anyone who has fled a cluster of men at a party debating the fine points of flat-screen televisions can appreciate that fewer women than men might choose engineering, even in the absence of arbitrary barriers. (As one female social scientist noted in Science Magazine, “Reinventing the curriculum will not make me more interested in learning how my dishwasher works.”) To what degree these and other differences originate in biology must be determined by research, not fatwa. History tells us that how much we want to believe a proposition is not a reliable guide as to whether it is true. 

Nor is a better understanding of the causes of gender disparities inconsequential. Overestimating the extent of sex discrimination is not without costs. Unprejudiced people of both sexes who are responsible for hiring and promotion decisions may be falsely charged with sexism. Young women may be pressured into choosing lines of work they don’t enjoy. Some proposed cures may do more harm than good; for example, gender quotas for grants could put deserving grantees under a cloud of suspicion, and forcing women onto all university committees would drag them from their labs into endless meetings. An exclusive focus on overt discrimination also diverts attention from policies that penalize women inadvertently because of the fact that, as the legal theorist Susan Estrich has put it, “Waiting for the connection between gender and parenting to be broken is waiting for Godot.” A tenure clock that conflicts with women’s biological clocks, and family-unfriendly demands like evening seminars and weekend retreats, are obvious examples. The regrettably low proportion of women who have received tenured job offers from Harvard during Summers’s presidency may be an unintended consequence of his policy of granting tenure to scholars early in their careers, when women are more likely to be bearing the full burdens of parenthood.

Conservative columnists have had a field day pointing to the Harvard hullabaloo as a sign of runaway political correctness at elite universities. Indeed, the quality of discussion among the nation’s leading scholars and pundits is not a pretty sight. Summers’s critics have repeatedly mangled his suggestion that innate differences might be one cause of gender disparities (a suggestion that he drew partly from a literature review in my book, The Blank Slate) into the claim that they must be the only cause. And they have converted his suggestion that the statistical distributions of men’s and women’s abilities are not identical to the claim that all men are talented and all women are not–as if someone heard that women typically live longer than men and concluded that every woman lives longer than every man. Just as depressing is an apparent unfamiliarity with the rationale behind political equality, as when [Nancy] Hopkins sarcastically remarked that, if Summers were right, Harvard should amend its admissions policy, presumably to accept fewer women. This is a classic confusion between the factual claim that men and women are not indistinguishable and the moral claim that we ought to judge people by their individual merits rather than the statistics of their group.

More here.

Sharks and Other Aesthetic Objects

One virtue of conceptual art is that it doesn’t require you to go out of your way. Painting or sculpture or even video make you interrupt your plans to attend galleries or museums, often in far away places, like the west 20s. Freed from its reliance on the object, conceptual art can achieve its aesthetic effects at quite a distance. I can read or be told that Damien Hirst has decorated an entire room like a pharmacy and I’ve pretty much gotten the concept in my mind. I can then use the time I might have taken to go to the exhibit on other things, like reading eighteenth-century novels or lifting weights. All of which makes the afterlife of Hirst’s notorious shark in a tank of formaldehyde from 1991 slightly amusing. Billionaire hedgefund manager Steven Cohen recently purchased the piece only to find the shark in an advanced state of decomposition. Of course, Hirst had little interest in the permanence of the object, which was after all only a way of conveying an idea. The concept endures even as the object decays. Try to explain that to Mr. Cohen.

Sunday, February 6, 2005

John Allen Paulos on the Larry Summers Controversy

In his monthly column at ABC News, John Allen Paulos sheds light on Harvard University president Larry Summers’s remarks about the possibility of innate differences between men and women accounting for the under-representation of women in the mathematical sciences in the academy:

Bigjap …on the math SATs, the average boy’s score is slightly higher than the average girl’s score, but, perhaps more significantly, the variability of boys’ scores is greater than that of girls’ scores…

To appreciate the role of variability, we can imagine 1,000 women taking a math achievement test. Absurdly exaggerating for the sake of clarity, let’s stipulate that 200 of them score around 75 on it, 600 of them score around 100, and 200 of them score around 125. In contrast, we can imagine 1,000 men taking the test, but now we stipulate that 200 of them score around 25 on it, 600 of them score around 100, and 200 of them score around 175.

Both groups’ scores would average 100, but there is no doubt that the men would be disproportionately represented in institutions of higher learning as well as in institutions of other sorts.

…Summers’ remarks (or, rather, crude versions of them) caused an indignant uproar. But there are many biological differences between the sexes, and there is no reason why these should not extend to matters mathematical. In addition to the SAT and other test data, well-known studies have shown that across cultures and on average men do better in navigating through three-dimensional space and visualizing objects therein.

Other studies suggest that women are better at quick calculation and subitization, telling at a glance how many objects are lying about. Calling for the issue to be studied further does not make one a benighted sexist, and Summers, although he probably should have realized how his remarks would be taken, is certainly nothing of the sort.

Read the column here.

Darwin Anniversary

1840Charles Darwin Memorial Lecture:            

The distinguished bioethicist Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, will pose the critical question, “Is it Wrong to Try to Improve Human Nature?,” in a lecture honoring Charles Darwin on February 17. This year marks the 196th anniversary of the birth of the man whom many consider the greatest scientist who ever lived. As we move toward the Darwin bicentennial, the theory of evolution is under increasing attack from American fundamentalists determined to replace science teaching in public schools with biblically inspired speculation about the origins of the universe. At this critical juncture, join us for a celebration of science and reason.

More here.

Christopher, Unhitched

COLM TOIBIN in the New York Times:

Hitchens184Like all polemicists, Hitchens is happiest when he has an enemy and least happy when he is most content. Thus the weakest piece in this book is his account of a journey along Route 66, which he seemed to enjoy, despite wearing pink socks. He does rather better in his trip along Sunset Boulevard. ”If you can fake it here,” he writes, ”you can fake it anywhere.” His tastes and his attitudes are complex: he clearly loves American movies and music; he can enjoy the dizzy hilarity of things, being a connoisseur of irony and duplicity; he can also be immensely fair-minded and calmly intelligent; and, on his pet subjects, he can be mean.

He is mean, once more, to Mother Teresa of Calcutta. He is mean, using clear argument and reason, to Michael Moore. (” ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ is a sinister exercise in moral frivolity.”) He is mean to Presidents Kennedy and Clinton. He is mean to Martha Stewart. He is mean to Mayor Bloomberg and, much to his own amusement, sets about flouting all those strange little laws that govern public behavior in New York, a city he loves.

When he is not being mean and when he is not happy, he can write as well as George Orwell.”

More here.

More on the Larry Summers Affair

Katha Pollitt in The Nation:

Do men have an innate edge in math and science? Perhaps someday we will live in a world free of the gender bias and stereotyping we know exists today both in and out of the classroom, and we will be able to answer that question, if anyone is still asking it. But we know we don’t live in a bias-free world now: Girls are steered away from math and science from the moment they are born. The interesting fact is that, thanks partly to antidiscrimination laws that have forced open closed doors, they have steadily increased their performance nonetheless. Most of my Radcliffe classmates remember being firmly discouraged from anything to do with numbers or labs; one was flatly told that women couldn’t be physicians–at her Harvard med school interview. Today women obtain 48 percent of BAs in math, 57 percent in biology and agricultural science, half of all places in med school, and they are steadily increasing their numbers as finalists in the Intel high school science contest (fifteen out of forty this year, and three out of four in New York City).

More here. (Thanks to Setare Farz for bringing this to my attention.)

Saturday, February 5, 2005

An Affair to Remember

Simon Sebag Montefiore reviews Love and Conquest: Personal Correspondence of Catherine the Great and Prince Grigory Potemkin edited and translated from the Russian by Douglas Smith, in the New York Review of Books:

The story of Catherine the Great and Prince Grigory Potemkin is not only about the most passionate and intimate royal love affair ever revealed in detail, an affair that places Antony and Cleopatra or Napoleon and Josephine very much in the shade. Taking place between Catherine’s seizure of power in 1762 and Potemkin’s death in 1791, it is a chronicle of one of history’s most successful and equally shared political partnerships between a man and a woman. Both were remarkable not only for their political genius but also for their eccentricities, their culture, their uninhibited sexuality, their openness in relationships, and their wit. Obsessed with power and ambition, they not only expanded their empire by force and guile, they also contrived to be among the more humane rulers ever to reign over Russia, even if we take into account the supposedly democratic leaders of post-Soviet Russia.

Not for nothing did Voltaire call Catherine “The Great.” Not for nothing did Pushkin describe Potemkin as “touched by the hand of history,” while Jeremy Bentham called him “Prince of Princes” and the Prince de Ligne (who knew Frederick the Great and Napoleon) thought him “the most extraordinary man I ever met.” Catherine herself, in making Potemkin her imperial partner, called him a “genius” as well as her “tiger,” her “hero,” her “idol,” and her “dearest friend.” In his superb new work, the distinguished scholar Douglas Smith provides the first carefully edited selection from their hundreds of letters.

More here.

Scholar Who Irked the Hindu Puritans

Edward Rothstein in the New York Times:

Doniger Hindutva, a form of Hindu orthodoxy, was enshrined during the Bharatiya Janata Party’s reign (from 1998 until this May). But even with that party’s fall from power, violence from Hindu groups has grown along with violence from radical Muslims. Scholarship about Hinduism has also come under scrutiny. Books that explore lurid or embarrassing details about deities or saints have been banned. One Western scholar’s Indian researcher was smeared with tar, and the institute in Pune where the scholar had done his research was destroyed. Ms. Doniger said one of her American pupils who was studying Christianity in India had her work disrupted and was being relentlessly followed.

In an interview Ms. Doniger explained that this kind of fundamentalism was not new to Hinduism: the strain has run through the religion for centuries, but now it has a political cast.

More here.

Ernst Mayr, 1904-2005

Michael Hopkin in Nature:

1mayrThe evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr died on 3 February at the age of 100, after a short illness. A hugely prolific writer and researcher, he was instrumental in developing modern ideas in evolutionary theory.

As an ornithologist, Mayr classified many birds, most notably risking the hostile terrain of New Guinea to catalogue the region’s birds of paradise. But he will arguably be best remembered for formulating the concept of species that students still use today.

It was Mayr who defined a species as a group of individuals that are capable of breeding with one another, but not with others outside the group. This led to the idea that new species can arise when an existing species becomes separated into two populations that gradually become too distinct to interbreed; it was an answer to a biological conundrum that had eluded Charles Darwin.

More here. And there is an obituary in the New York Times here.