RFID Tags proliferate, stirring privacy debate

From the Christian Science Monitor:

Soon, everything from children’s backpacks to the shoes you buy could be tracked by radio signal.

Nearly unknown a decade ago, a device the size of a pencil tip is beginning to infiltrate every corner and pocket of American life.

This recent technology – called RFID for “radio frequency identification” – is making everything from warehouse inventory to lost-luggage tracking to library checkouts easier, faster, and much more informed.

At the same time, the rush to harness the technology is raising a host of regulatory and other concerns, including the invasion of privacy, personal freedom, and civil rights. Those issues in turn are generating concern by lawmakers for how access to data collected by such methods should be limited and protected.

More here.

100 Years of Einstein

From The Economist:

Einst_la24In the span of 18 months, Isaac Newton invented calculus, constructed a theory of optics, explained how gravity works and discovered his laws of motion. As a result, 1665 and the early months of 1666 are termed his annus mirabilis. It was a sustained sprint of intellectual achievement that no one thought could ever be equalled. But in a span of a few years just before 1900, it all began to unravel. One phenomenon after another was discovered which could not be explained by the laws of classical physics. The theories of Newton, and of James Clerk Maxwell who followed him in the mid-19th century by crafting a more comprehensive account of electromagnetism, were in trouble.

Then, in 1905, a young patent clerk named Albert Einstein found the way forward. In five remarkable papers, he showed that atoms are real (it was still controversial at the time), presented his special theory of relativity, and put quantum theory on its feet. It was a different achievement from Newton’s year, but Einstein’s annus mirabilis was no less remarkable. He did not, like Newton, have to invent entirely new forms of mathematics. However, he had to revise notions of space and time fundamentally. And unlike Newton, who did not publish his results for nearly 20 years, so obsessed was he with secrecy and working out the details, Einstein released his papers one after another, as a fusillade of ideas.

For Einstein, it was just a beginning—he would go on to create the general theory of relativity and to pioneer quantum mechanics. While Newton came up with one system for explaining the world, Einstein thus came up with two.

More here.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Did quake trim day length?

From Newsday [via Preposterous Universe]:

Major earthquakes can change the rate of Earth’s rotation, scientists said yesterday, but it’s not yet clear if the 9.0 quake actually did so – and, if so, by how much.

If the rotation rate was changed, it was by less than three microseconds, said gravity expert Richard Gross of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. A microsecond is one millionth of a second.

“We won’t know for weeks,” said geophysicist Thomas Herring of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The most accurate measurements will take about three weeks to get all of the data processed. So it’s a guess, as of now.”

More here.

Sri Lankan brewery ditches beer for water

From CNN:

Lion_brewery_billboardA Sri Lankan brewery has given up making beer and switched to bottled water to do its part to help survivors of the Indian Ocean tsunami, the relief group Oxfam International said on Thursday.

The Lion Brewery plant in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, has so far produced 120,000 bottles of water for shipment to the affected areas, with Oxfam’s help.

“With so much loss of life, how could you not help?” brewery manager Nausha Raheem said.

“Once we got over the initial shock and realized the gravity of the situation, we decided to do what we could to help. It has been a bit of a logistical effort and has involved all of our staff, but it is desperately needed,” she said, according to Oxfam

The switch-over took place on Monday, the day after the Tsunami smashed into the Sri Lankan coastline, killing more than 27,000 people, according to the latest figures.

I took the picture of the Lion Brewery billboard in Galle in November.

The Tsunami, theodicies and science

Yesterday, I wrote that trying to understand the mechanics of the disaster is a solace of sorts.  Of course, I said it without reflecting on the fact that I’m a convinced atheist and see no value in trying to integrate these things into some eschatology or divine telos.  I guess a more common phenomenon is a jump back into a theodicy; even without being prompted by an occassionally assertive rationlist, like myself, believers confront the “why would an all benevolent, omniscient, omnipotent being . . .” line of questions. 

Martin Kettle raised the issue a few days ago in The Guardian

“From at least the time of Aristotle, intelligent people have struggled to make some sense of earthquakes. Earthquakes do not merely kill and destroy. They challenge human beings to explain the world order in which such apparently indiscriminate acts can occur. Europe in the 18th century had the intellectual curiosity and independence to ask and answer such questions. But can we say the same of 21st-century Europe? Or are we too cowed now to even ask if the God can exist that can do such things?”

(Norman Geras had this post on making meaning in the face of a tragedy shortly afterwards.)

Now there are responses to Martin Kettle’s column, including one from Richard Dawkins who suggests that only science, and not religion, can offer answers. 

“Not only does science know why the tsunami happened, it can give precious hours of warning. If a small fraction of the tax breaks handed out to churches, mosques and synagogues had been diverted into an early warning system, tens of thousands of people, now dead, would have been moved to safety.

Let’s get up off our knees, stop cringing before bogeymen and virtual fathers, face reality, and help science to do something constructive about human suffering.”

It’s a sentiment I share, but then I was struck by the reasons Norman Geras offers for his discomfort with Dawkins’ response.

“In an intellectual discussion about the grounds for belief in God, one may legitimately argue, with all the force one can muster, that there are no compelling grounds. On the other hand – and to put this point with particular sharpness by use of an extreme example – I wouldn’t think it morally admirable to give out aggressive statements against religious belief at the funeral of someone from a devout family; or to advise a grief-stricken person against appealing to (their) God for solace.

Now, to be fair about this, in the letter in question Richard Dawkins may be seen merely as contributing to a reasoned discussion about religious faith in the national press. My own discomfort with the form of his concluding sentiments, however, is that the immediate context of that discussion is the vast tragedy that has just unfolded along the coasts of South-East Asia. It’s hard to abstract what he says from the immediacy of that, from the scenes of loss and grief and suffering that are being relayed to us hourly. Against this background ‘getting up off our knees’ and ‘not cringing before bogeymen and virtual fathers’ have, to me, a rather brutal ring, insensitive to the complexities and vulnerabilities (final item) of the human condition.”

Thinking more about it, Dawkins’ letter seems to me to be far less clincal than Geras’ read of it suggests.  I hear in Dawkins’ letter, especially its beginning, not only a “reasoned discussion about faith” but also some anger and frustration at what he perceives to be the (malevolent) role of religion in the wake of these things.  The point can be debated, but I think that frustration and anger at being told that it’s God’s will in response to sin or that it’s a Job-like test of faith is also a very human reaction, born of the immediacy of the loss.

The Beauty Academy of Kabul

I didn’t have a chance to see Liz Mermin’s documentary The Beauty Academy of Kabul at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, but by all accounts it was characteristically insightful and beautiful.  (Liz’s previous documentary On Sacred Ground, about abortion providers, is amazing, and I recommend it to all.)    The Beauty Academy of Kabul is about American beauticians who go to set up beauty schools in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taleban.  Here’s a BBC Four interview with Liz about the film.

“BBC Four: Was it the fact that it was New Yorkers going over to Kabul that attracted you, or the beauty school project itself?
L[iz] M[ermin]: I read a story about the project in the New York Times. The reason it jumped out at me was that at that point, 2002, the news was all so dire from that part of the world. This was such a bizarre human interest story and it seemed like such naive idealism. The idea of a group of well-intentioned Americans popping into Kabul and teaching woman about hair styles seemed irresistible. But when I started talking to them I saw the other side of it, the business development angle, and it seemed like less of a joke.”

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Case of the Lawyer With a Sherlock Holmes Bent

Marc Weingarten in the New York Times Book Review:

Holmes184 Leslie S. Klinger is not one of those Sherlock Holmes obsessives who feel compelled to actually live as if they were distant relatives of the fictional detective. He doesn’t greet visitors wearing a deerstalker hat and an Inverness cape, and his cheerful contemporary home in Malibu, Calif., is a far cry from the Victorian lodging house at 221B Baker Street where Holmes and his trusty sidekick, Dr. John Watson, lived in London.

But as Holmes himself could attest, first impressions can be deceiving. Step into Mr. Klinger’s home office and you will find the evidence of his abiding passion: Thousands of books about one of the world’s most famous crime busters. This is the raw material for Mr. Klinger’s project “The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes,” a two-volume, 10-pound collection of all 56 Holmes short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, complete with Mr. Klinger’s exhaustive footnotes. The collection, published last month by W. W. Norton is being hailed as the definitive exegesis of Holmes and his times.

More here.

Science comes to Carnaval

How much can science and popular culture intertwine?  A lot, apparently, at least if some of the floats in this recent Carnaval, the sensual, samba-ridden, sexually ambiguous Brazillian festival before Lent, are an indication.

Carneval_1 “[I]n 2003, a talented young carnavalesco (the designer of a carnaval parade; yes that’s a profession in Brazil) named Paulo Barros proposed to one of the less affluent samba schools, the Unidos da Tijuca, a science theme for the February 22, 2004 parade. No one had gone down this road before—typical Carnaval themes are Amazonia, African or Portuguese heritage, sex, the sea, television stars et cetera. Unidos da Tijuca agreed to the plan, and began preparing for ‘The Dream of Creation and the Creation of the Dream: Art and Science in the Age of the Impossible.’

Paulo Barros then approached the science-outreach group, called Casa da Ciência, at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). The enthusiastic Casa da Ciência crowd loved the idea, and worked with the samba school for a year to get ready. The results showed, from the words of the theme samba to the costumes.

. . .

The vast majority of Brazilian scientists, even some who usually left town during Carnaval, were supportive of this incredible opportunity for science to interact with popular culture. The United States equivalent might be a science-themed halftime show at the Super Bowl.”

More on the wave

Wave_5I guess that it’s simply natural to try to understand the mechanics of the disaster even as we wait to hear about family and loved ones that haven’t been accounted for. What this simulation from the Tsunami Inundation Mapping Efforts project of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration shows can only be described as mind boggling.  (Click on the simulation tab.)

The quake may have also affected the Earth’s rotation.

“According to Richard Gross of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, it’s possible that the Earth’s rotation did indeed speed up slightly as a large chunk of the crust fell toward the planet’s core, just as a spinning figure skater speeds up when she pulls in her arms.

‘I used a model of the elastic properties of the Earth along with the seismically determined source properties of the earthquake to compute the change in the distribution of the Earth’s mass caused by the earthquake, and hence its effect on the Earth’s rotation, including the change in the length of the day and in the Earth’s wobble,’ Gross told Explainer in an e-mail. ‘This calculation predicts that the earthquake should have shortened the length of the day by about 2.7 microseconds, and caused the Earth to wobble by about another 1 inch.’

Stuart Sipkin, a research geophysicist who has been studying the quake at the USGS’s National Earthquake Information Center, doesn’t dispute the calculation but urges caution until the model’s projection can be confirmed with observed data. Unfortunately, that’s not possible; according to Gross, current length-of-day measurement techniques are accurate to only 20 microseconds.”

In an Age of Strife, What Would Buddha Do?

William Grimes reviews An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World by Pankaj Mishra, in the New York Times:

Pankaj The Indian novelist and journalist Pankaj Mishra had two ideas when he came up with the subtitle “The Buddha in the World.” Always, in his rambling meditations on the history and meaning of Buddhism, he struggles to place the Buddha in historical context. He evokes the physical settings, socioeconomic changes and political tensions of Northern India six centuries before Jesus, the world in which Siddhartha Gautama first spread his radical message.

At the same time, his own spiritual quest pulls the story into the present, as he sorts out his conflicted feelings about Buddhism and its relevance to the world of terrorist bombings, multinational corporations and seething third-world discontent.

Mr. Mishra, the author of a highly praised novel, “The Romantics,” has written an odd, uneasy book.

More here.


From A Talk With Karl Sigmund at Edge.org:

Sigmund200a These ideas fed into our work on indirect reciprocity, a concept that was first introduced by Robert Trivers in a famous paper in the 1970s. I recall that he mentioned this idea obliquely when he wrote about something he called “general altruism”. Here you give something back not to the person to whom you owe something, but to somebody else in society. He pointed out that this also works with regard to cooperation at a high level. Trivers didn’t go into details, because at the time it was not really at the center of his thinking. He was mostly interested in animal behavior, and so far indirect reciprocity has not been proven to exist in animal behavior. It might exist in some cases, but ethologists are still debating the pros and cons.

In human societies, however, indirect reciprocity has a very striking effect. There is a famous anecdote about the American baseball player Yogi Berra, who said something to the effect of, “I make a point of going to other people’s funerals because otherwise they won’t come to mine.” This is not as nonsensical as it seems. If a colleague of the university, for instance, goes faithfully to every faculty member’s funeral, then the faculty will turn out strongly at his. Others reciprocate. It works. We think instinctively in terms of direct reciprocation — when I do something for you, you do something for me — but the same principle can apply in situations of indirect reciprocity. I do something for you and somebody else helps me in return.

More here.

More on Behzti: Talks with Sikhs backfired on theatre

Today from The Guardian (see my earlier posts here and here):

The violent protests that led to the closure of the controversial play Behzti were the result of a failed attempt to work with Sikh community leaders, a leading actor in the play has said.

Yasmin Wilde, who played Min, the victim in a rape scene which sparked particular criticism, said the play had been closed despite the mixed feelings of the cast after police advised that the violence was likely to escalate.

She said the long consultation between the Birmingham Rep, where the play was performed, and Sikh community representatives in the run-up to the production had caused problems.

More here.

a country’s legal history greatly affects its economy

Nicholas Thompson in Legal Affairs (via Arts and Letters Daily):

MALAYSIA AND INDONESIA COULDN’T BE CALLED TWINS, but they might be called siblings. The adjacent Southeast Asian nations possess similar natural resources and their citizens speak similar languages and follow similar strains of Islam. But Malaysia’s economy is prospering while Indonesia’s is floundering. Malaysia’s stock market is far more vibrant than its neighbor’s, and its average resident is three times richer.

Economists might explain these divergent paths by pointing to the countries’ different responses to the Asian financial crisis of the mid-1990s. Sociologists might find a cultural explanation in the close-knit community of Chinese immigrants who are the most powerful force in Malaysia’s business community. Historians might point out that Malaysia’s struggle for independence was much less bloody than Indonesia’s.

Another explanation lies in the countries’ legal systems, however. Malaysia was a British colony and its legal system is based on the common law: the set of rules, norms, and procedures that has guided the legal system of England and the British Empire for about nine centuries. Indonesia was a Dutch colony and its legal system derives from French civil law, a set of statutes and principles written under Napoleon in the early 19th century and imposed upon the lands he conquered, including the Netherlands.

According to research published by a group of scholars beginning in 1998, countries that come from a French civil law tradition struggle to create effective financial markets, while countries with a British common law tradition succeed far more frequently.

More here.

Author Arthur C. Clarke loses Lanka school

The author of 2001: A Space Odyssey is Sri Lanka’s most famous guest-resident:

ClarkeBritish-born science fiction author Arthur C Clarke who has made Sri Lanka his adopted home lost his diving school with the deadly tsunami eerily echoing a plotline from his first book on the island…

“Curiously enough, in my first book on Sri Lanka, I had written about another tidal wave reaching the Galle harbour,” he said.

“That happened in August 1883, following the eruption of Krakatoa in roughly the same part of the Indian Ocean.”

He was referring to the submarine earthquake in the Indian Ocean off Indonesia that triggered the tsunami which devastated coastlines of seven Asian nations, with Sri Lanka one of the hardest hit.

More here, and also see this.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

A Duccio for New York

Jed Perl in The New Republic:

Duccio There is a heart-stopping intimacy about Duccio’s Madonna and Child, a new acquisition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The little panel, less than a foot high, dates from around 1300, when a few Italian artists were beginning to take an interest in the visual possibilities of raw, unfettered emotion–emotion that was not ritualized or abstracted. Duccio gives the interactions of a mother and a child a pungency and a delicacy that’s startlingly–disarmingly–familiar.

More here.

Scientists: Quake shifts islands

From CNN:

The massive earthquake that devastated parts of Asia permanently moved the tectonic plates beneath the Indian Ocean as much as 98 feet (30 meters), slightly shifting islands near Sumatra an unknown distance, U.S. scientists said on Tuesday.

A tsunami spawned by the 9.0-magnitude quake off the northern tip of Sumatra killed an estimated 60,000 on Sunday in Indonesia, Thailand, India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and East Africa.

More here. It is recommended that one donate cash rather than supplies:

• American Red Cross

Contributions should be sent to International Response Fund, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, D.C. 20013. For more information about donating, call 800-435-7669.

For information about friends or relatives who may have been affected, call 866-438-4636.

Author Susan Sontag dies at 71

I spent an evening in Susan Sontag’s apartment once. She wasn’t there; I was visiting a friend who was housesitting for her. As might be expected, the apartment was filled, wall-to-wall, with books. I looked through a few, and noticed that she had the interesting habit of cutting out reviews of a book from several sources, then folding and placing them in the book itself before shelving it. I tried to emulate her habit, with very little success. She was inimitable in many ways.

From CNN:

Susan_sontag Susan Sontag, the author, activist and self-defined “zealot of seriousness” whose voracious mind and provocative prose made her a leading intellectual of the past half century, died Tuesday. She was 71.

Sontag died Tuesday morning, officials at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center said. She had been treated for breast cancer in the 1970s.

Sontag called herself a “besotted aesthete,” an “obsessed moralist” and a “zealot of seriousness.”

She wrote a best-selling historical novel, “The Volcano Lover,” and in 2000 won the National Book Award for the historical novel “In America.” But her greatest literary impact was as an essayist.

The 1964 piece “Notes on Camp,” which established her as a major new writer, popularized the “so bad it’s good” attitude toward popular culture, applicable to everything from “Swan Lake” to feather boas. In “Against Interpretation,” this most analytical of writers worried that critical analysis interfered with art’s “incantatory, magical” power.

More here, and “Notes on Camp” can be read here.

Tony Judt on European Anti-semitism

From The Nation:

Last February Rockwell Schnabel (the US ambassador to the European Union) spoke of anti-Semitism in Europe “getting to a point where it is as bad as it was in the 30s.” In May 2002 George Will wrote in the Washington Post that anti-Semitism among Europeans “has become the second–and final?–phase of the struggle for a ‘final solution to the Jewish Question.'” These are not isolated, hysterical instances: Among American elites as well as in the population at large, it is widely assumed that Europe, having learned nothing from its past, is once again awash in the old anti-Semitism.

The American view clearly reflects an exaggerated anxiety. The problem of anti-Semitism in Europe today is real, but it needs to be kept in proportion…

But whereas most Europeans believe that the problem originates in the Middle East and must therefore be addressed there, the ADL and many American commentators conclude rather that there is no longer any difference between being “against” Israel and “against” Jews: i.e., that in Europe anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism have become synonymous. But that is palpably false.

Full article here.