Portable nuclear power

Following on Morgan’s post, from NewScientist.com:

“A nuclear reactor that can meet the energy needs of developing countries without the risk that they will use the by-products to make weapons is being developed by the US Department of Energy.

The aim is to create a sealed reactor that can be delivered to a site, left to generate power for up to 30 years, and retrieved when its fuel is spent. The developers claim that no one would be able to remove the fissile material from the reactor because its core would be inside a tamper-proof cask protected by a thicket of alarms.”

A thicket of alarms, eh?

Sunday, September 5, 2004

France’s tumble

Perry Anderson bemoans, er, looks at France’s decline.

“The current scene is as good a place to start as any, since it offers a pregnant example of the illusions of familiarity. Newspapers, journals and bookshops brim with debate over French decline. Gradually trickling to the surface in the past few years, le déclinisme burst into full flow with the publication last winter of La France qui tombe, a spirited denunciation of national default – ‘the sinister continuity between the 14 years of François Mitterrand and the 12 of Jacques Chirac, united by their talent for winning elections and ruining France’ – by Nicolas Baverez, an economist and historian of the centre-right. Rebuttals, vindications, rejoinders, alternatives have proliferated. Baverez looks at first glance like a French version of a Thatcherite, a neo-liberal of more or less strict persuasion, and the whole controversy like a rerun of the long-standing debates on decline in this country. But the appearances are deceptive. The problem is not the same.” (read on)

Reports from the APSA panel on the political power of blogs

This year’s American Political Science Association conference had a panel on “The Power and Politics of Blogs”, featuring Daniel Drezner from the University of Chicago and danieldrezner.com, Henry Farrell from George Washington University and Crooked Timber, Mark A.R. Kleiman from UCLA, Andrew Sullivan, Antoinette Pole from CUNY, who (with Laura McKenna) writes the blog 11d, and Ana Marie Cox, aka wonkette and formerly of Suck.com, and Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago and author of Republic.com.

Farrell presented a paper that he and Drezner co-authored. Its basic claims:

“(1) Blogging is politically important in large part because it affects mainstream media, and helps set the terms of political debate (in political science jargon, it creates ‘focal points’ and ‘frames’). Note that we don’t provide an exhaustive account of blogs and politics – some aspects of blogging (fundraising for parties, effects on political values in the general public), we don’t have more than anecdotal data on. There’s plenty of room for other people to do interesting research on all of this.

(2) Incoming links in the political blogosphere are systematically skewed, but not according to a “power law” distribution, as Clay Shirky and others have argued of the blogosphere as a whole. Instead, they follow a lognormal distribution.1 We reckon that the most likely explanation for this is that offered by Pennock et al. – they argue that not only do the ‘rich get richer’ (i.e. sites that already have a lot of links tend to get more), but that link-poor sites stand a chance of becoming rich too. Late entrants into the political blogosphere can do well as long as they’re interesting and attract some attention – bad timing isn’t destiny.

(3) Because of the systematic skewedness of the political blogosphere, a few “focal point” sites can provide a rough index of what is going on in the blogosphere – interesting points of view on other sites will often percolate up to them as smaller blogs try to get big blogs to link to them, by informing them of interesting stories. Thus, we may expect that journalists and other media types who read blogs will tend to all gravitate towards a few ‘big name’ bloggers as their way of keeping up with what is going on in the blogosphere as a whole.”

Reports from the panel suggest that it was a lot of fun. Apparently, witty wonkette stole the show by bashing the tendency of blogs to overblow their own importance. (Andrew Sullivan, perhaps the blogosphere’s equivalent of those guys (Galssman and Hassert) who wrote Dow 36,000 in the late 1990s, didn’t show up.)

Sunstein is well-known for being skeptical about the web’s promise. Republic.com in brief:

“See only what you want to see, hear only what you want to hear, read only what you want to read. In cyberspace, we already have the ability to filter out everything but what we wish to see, hear, and read. Tomorrow, our power to filter promises to increase exponentially. With the advent of the Daily Me, you see only the sports highlights that concern your teams, read about only the issues that interest you, encounter in the op-ed pages only the opinions with which you agree. In all of the applause for this remarkable ascendance of personalized information, Cass Sunstein asks the questions, Is it good for democracy? Is it healthy for the republic? What does this mean for freedom of speech?”

Is that the future of the a world remade by the web? (Too bad there’s not as of yet a comparison of fMRI images of those who will read newspapers, blogs, etc., of those that disagree with them with the images of those who do not, just so we can continue with neuropolitics.)

I’ve been interested in mapping the traffic on the blogosphere to see whether links and movements are between like minded blogs (for the former) and blog readers (for the latter). Can we just reinforce what we believe by reading only those blogs and web press that agree with us, up to the point where our beliefs cascade away from any doubts and are reinforced? Long ago, Jack Snyder and Karen Ballentine argued that pathological politics (in their paper, an aggressive nationalism) was enabled by a segmented media market and poor or absent norms in the press.

Historically and today, from the French Revolution to Rwanda, sudden liberalizations of press freedom have been associated with bloody outbursts of popular nationalism. The most dangerous situation is precisely when the government’s press monopoly begins to break down.(4) During incipient democratization, when civil society is burgeoning but democratic institutions are not fully entrenched, the state and other elites are forced to engage in public debate in order to compete for mass allies in the struggle for power.(5) Under those circumstances, governments and their opponents often have the motive and the opportunity to play the nationalist card.

When this occurs, unconditional freedom of speech is a dubious remedy. Just as economic competition produces socially beneficial results only in a well-institutionalized marketplace, where monopolies and false advertising are counteracted, so too increased debate in the political marketplace leads to better outcomes only when there are mechanisms to correct market imperfections.(6) Many newly democratizing states lack institutions to break up governmental and non-governmental information monopolies, to professionalize journalism, and to create common public forums where diverse ideas engage each other under conditions in which erroneous arguments will be challenged. In the absence of these institutions, an increase in the freedom of speech can create an opening for nationalist mythmakers to hijack public discourse.

Jack Snyder and Karen Ballentine, “Nationalism and the Marketplace of Ideas,” International Security, Vol. 21, no. 2 Fall 1996

Unlikely in the US is my guess, though I do have some pro-Hindutva family members who seem to read only the muck of the Hindu right to reinforce their views.

But read the accounts of the meeting here, here, here (scroll down to September 3rd, 2004), and here.

Assaults on Free Expression and Inquiry

Via Easily Distracted, Ngugi wa’ Thiongo, the author of novels such as The River Between and Petals of Blood, was assaulted upon his return to Kenya from a tour. His wife NjeEri was raped. Ngugi has been an outspoken critic of the Kenyan government and a dissident.

“Violence is one theme of his books, which explore Kenyan society from colonialism to independence and the corruption and disappointment that followed.”

Ngugi had been in exile for 20 years after having been imprisoned for a year. The assault may have been an act of politics intended to intimidate and humiliate a dissident, instead of a random act of violence. The African Literature Association has issued this condemnation, which clearly sees the act, among other things, as an assault on free expression.

“The African Literature Association therefore strongly condemns these acts of violence on Ngugi and Njeeri. It is a travesty of all the fundamentals of human rights, including freedom of expression, to be subjected to these violent acts upon returning home after twenty-two years of promoting Kenya internationally.”

One Kenyan commentator has linked this to a wider attitude of corruption and social decay.

“The fact that it happened is not so much an indicator of how crime-ridden Nairobi is, but how much the political problems and economic deprivations of the past two decades have destroyed social order. In other words, blame politics. . .

[I]t’s very frustrating doing research in the vast library at Makerere University in Kampala. The few good books that haven’t been stolen have many of the pages ripped out. The story is much the same in the Dar es Salaam and Nairobi university libraries, I am told. It is in places like the libraries, not so much on the streets, that you get to best measure how much damage has been done to our psyches by the difficulties that have battered our societies in recent years.

Societies where someone like Ngugi is attacked in the way that he and Njeeri were, begin to rot by tearing a page out of his book in the library – or not reading him altogether.”

The destruction of knowledge and the hostility to open expression and inquiry is not peculiar to Kenya, to places where authoritarian kleptocracy is the order of the day, or even new. In one sense, the Lysenko affair may be a sad paradigm of one common type of relations between modern politics and scholarly knowledge. In India, this politics is not born of an authoritarian clique but of a large populist and fascistic movement in a democratic society.

Martha Nussbaum offers this example in her recent Boston Review article on the mutilation of Muslim women in Gujarat.

“[T]he historian James Laine of Macalester College impugned the purity of a prominent woman of the past by mentioning in his biography of the 17th-century Hindu emperor Shivaji that, because Shivaji’s father traveled for most of his life, there were jokes that the son was the product of an adulterous liaison of his mother’s. Laine did not even credit the allegation; he merely reported it. Nonetheless, the mere mention of a slur against the reputation of Shivaji’s mother brought an attack on Laine’s Indian collaborator, who was physically assaulted and his face painted black. Part of the institute in Pune where Laine did his research was burned; the book was banned by the state government; and its Indian edition was promptly withdrawn by a timorous Oxford University Press. Laine has been charged with a crime against public order, and Prime Minister Vajpayee himself (now ex–prime minister), on campaign in Maharashtra, has suggested that Interpol ought to go to the United States to arrest Laine. “

The attack destroyed 30,000 ancient manuscripts including a clay tablet dating to 600 B.C. The Indian government’s response has not been heartwarming.

‘The Congress-led Democratic Front (DF) is seeking expert legal opinion on whether action can be initiated against American author James Laine for his ‘negative portrayal’ of Chhatrapati Shivaji in his book A Hindu King in Islamic India.’

Butterflies and Wheels offers many links and insights into the general assault on scholarship and science underway in India.

Friday, September 3, 2004

Why rejection physically hurts?

On the theme of neuro-social-science: I regularly go off these days about how we are on the cusp of a revolution in the social sciences. In my more hyperbolic moments, I go on to insist that this revolution will be similar to the one staged by Newton in physics. The social “sciences” will become more scientific as new technologies such as brain imaging lead to better understandings of intentional behavior. (I myself don’t think that results ushered in by these changes will be necessarily all good for politics.) Below, I mentioned one study that had gone a long way to explain why punishers are willing to punish. Here’s another which offers evidence of the neurophysiological mechanism that makes social exclusion very effective.

A neuroimaging study examined the neural correlates of social exclusion and tested the hypothesis that the brain bases of social pain are similar to those of physical pain. Participants were scanned while playing a virtual balltossing game in which they were ultimately excluded. Paralleling results from physical pain studies, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) was more active during exclusion than during inclusion and correlated positively with self-reported distress. Right ventral prefrontal cortex (RVPFC) was active during exclusion and correlated negatively with self-reported distress. ACC changes mediated the RVPFC-distress correlation, suggesting that RVPFC regulates the distress of social exclusion by disrupting ACC activity.

Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). “Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion.” Science, 302, 290-292

You paid for it…you eat it.

Now that the Republican National Convention has ended, here are some statistics: there are 520,000 Republicans in New York City (and 2,700,000 Democrats), meaning they roughly one in fourteen of us. Their convention has been estimated by the city comptroller to have cost the city’s economy about 309 million dollars, of which 281 million is economic losses caused by the closure of businesses and residents’ flight from the city. The remaining amount was government spending for convention security, which cost a total of 78 million, of which 50 million was federal monies. New Yorkers, with the highest tax burden in the nation, paid 28 million dollars of their tax money in order to secure members of a political party with a tiny local following by pre-emptively incarcerating… ourselves.

Thursday, September 2, 2004

Screen Mujahideen, 20 years later

Culture draws inpiration from so many places. In 1984, a landmark American movie was released, a big-budget epic about a tribe of desert warriors rising to defeat an imperial power which is characterized as both hubristic and sexually depraved, and whose economy depends on a natural resource found in their desert. This small band of committed fighters defeats the decadent empire without armies or military power, by following the directives of their charismatic leader, a young prophet whose mother and sister dress in black robes that cover all but their faces. The young man teaches his followers techniques for making explosives that they use to “smash our enemies’ bones, and rip out their organs.” He speaks primarily a prophetic, allegorical language: “We will kill and kill again”; “A storm is coming; our storm.” Do you remember this film? As should be obvious, it trades in and romanticizes elements of Islamic resistance movements, particularly in Afghanistan, by reading their struggles as akin to those of American revolutionaries, in both cases the enemy a greedy colonial power. Yet such a production would be profoundly impossible to mount today, since no one would accept the possibility of an epic simile likening ‘them’ to ‘us.’ How populist sympathies shift in twenty years, at each moment representing momentary affiliations as both the certainty of tradition and the ahistorical truth.

Fay Jones, 83, Architect Influenced by Wright, Dies

Jones2184“Mr. Jones, who was one of Wright’s best-known pupils, created the Ozark style of architecture, a term he considered misleading because his work extends from coast to coast and can be seen in cypress swamps, cotton fields and crowded urban lots as well as on the hills of his native Arkansas… In 2000 Mr. Jones’s Thorncrown Chapel in the Arkansas Ozarks was voted the fourth-best building of the 20th century by the American Institute of Architects after Wright’s Fallingwater and the Chrysler and Seagram buildings in Manhattan.”

Obituary here from the New York Times. And to look at Thorncrown Chapel (pictured at left) in more detail, go here. (Thanks to Shabbir Kazmi for bringing this to my attention.)

Dept. of Impersonation

“Every election year, Jim Morris hits the trail as a Presidential hopeful—or two, or three. Morris, a rangy forty-seven-year-old from Massachusetts, is arguably the country’s leading political impressionist. He came to notice during the 1980 campaign, with his twinkly-eyed Ronald Reagan, and later provided the voices of all the political characters on the ‘Saturday Night Live’ cartoon ‘The X-Presidents.'”

Says Morris: “At the moment, I see John Kerry as two parts Herman Munster and one part Bill Walton—his build and facial structure and the cavities in his head, the nasal stuffiness. Then, there’s a bit of Hugh Grant in his smile; some Robert Stack raspiness in the voice; some Jim Nabors in the shoulders and face; some Bea Arthur in the face; and a hint of that Indian who cried from the highway about the litter. Oh, and a little bit of my dog, Tex.” More here in the New Yorker.

A Self Worth Having

“What I’m now thinking — though it certainly needs further work — is basically that the point of there being a phenomenally rich subjective present is that it provides a new domain for selfhood. Gottlob Frege, the great logician of the early 20th century, made the obvious but crucial observation that a first-person subject has to be the subject of something. In which case we can ask, what kind of something is up to doing the job? What kind of thing is of sufficient metaphysical weight to supply the experiential substrate of a self — or, at any rate, a self worth having? And the answer I’d now suggest is: nothing less than phenomenal experience — phenomenal experience with its intrinsic depth and richness, with its qualities of seeming to be more than any physical thing could be.”

So says Nicholas Humphrey, in this interview at Edge.

Nicholas Humphrey is a research psychologist whose interests are wide ranging: He studied mountain gorillas with Dian Fossey in Rwanda; was the first to demonstrate the existence of “blindsight” after brain damage in monkeys; and is the only scientist ever to edit the literary journal Granta. Thirty years ago he breathed life into the newly developing field of evolutionary psychology with his theory about “the social function of intellect.” His more recent ideas concern the nature of phenomenal consciousness.

Unlike Daniel C. Dennett, who sees the role of philosophers as disabusing people of their “primitive” ideas about the nature of consciousness, Humphrey believes that we should take these primitive intuitions at face value. If people say that the problem is what it “feels like” to be conscious, then the problem is indeed to explain “feeling.” Humphrey and Dennett are a pair of bookends. Humphrey has been described as a “romantic scientist”, who believes in the heuristic value of stories that go beyond the limits of established facts. But he would probably not agree that there is a hard and fast line between facts and stories. “I’m me,” he says. “I’m living an embodied existence, in the thick moment of the conscious present. I’m trying to work out why.”

DNA’s Junkyard Dog

“Mervyn Jacobson, executive chairman of the small Australian biotech firm Genetic Technologies Ltd. (GTG), failed to create much of a stir in biotech circles when his company secured patents for the 97 percent of our genome known as “junk DNA.” Recently, however, researchers have come to realize that the non-coded DNA that was long considered extraneous may represent the next generation of genetic research, and many will likely be hearing from Jacobson.

Jacobson’s Melbourne-based company, whose numerous patents cover the analysis and mapping of junk DNA in all genes and all species, may actually own the rights to unraveling the etiology of diseases such as HIV, Alzheimer’s, and several forms of cancer—at least until his patents begin running out, in 2010. If, as looks increasingly likely, more researchers focus on junk DNA, Jacobson—whose company secures the majority of its revenue from licensing fees—will be very busy doing what he’s become notorious for: sending polite letters to biotech companies around the world reminding them that they owe him a lot of money.”

Read more here at Seed Magazine.

Mysterious signals from 1000 light years away

“In February 2003, astronomers involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) pointed the massive radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, at around 200 sections of the sky.

The same telescope had previously detected unexplained radio signals at least twice from each of these regions, and the astronomers were trying to reconfirm the findings. The team has now finished analysing the data, and all the signals seem to have disappeared. Except one, which has got stronger.

This radio signal, now seen on three separate occasions, is an enigma. It could be generated by a previously unknown astronomical phenomenon. Or it could be something much more mundane, maybe an artefact of the telescope itself.

But it also happens to be the best candidate yet for a contact by intelligent aliens in the nearly six-year history of the SETI@home project, which uses programs running as screensavers on millions of personal computers worldwide to sift through signals picked up by the Arecibo telescope.”

This article was posted yesterday at New Scientist.

Wallerstein on what if the US is neither feared nor loved

In Chapter 17 of The Prince, Machiavelli writes:

“Returning to the question of being feared or loved, I come to the conclusion that, men loving according to their own will and fearing according to that of the prince, a wise prince should establish himself on that which is in his own control and not in that of others; he must endeavour only to avoid hatred, as is noted.”

This last part is generally omitted when people insist that it is better to be feared than to be loved. The danger for the United States is that they way it has fought the recent wars has excited hatred in much of the world, and hatred is a force that can be used to override fear.

Now Immanuel Wallerstein raises a related and more terrifying question for the United States.

“The CFR [Council on Foreign Relations] published a commentary on the poll by three of its Fellows – Lee Feinstein, James M. Lindsay, and Max Boot. Here is their analysis:

These disparities suggest something deeper than divisions over the Iraq war are at work. Bush supporters and Kerry supporters are taking sides in the longstanding debate over the relative importance of ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ power. Will the U.S. be safer and more prosperous if it is feared, or if it is loved? Are America’s military strength, and the willingness to use it, what count most, or is America’s reputation abroad equally important?

I believe that this commentary is correct, but it evades an important analytic question, which seems to have escaped the attention of the three CFR Fellows, and probably of the large bulk of the American population.

Suppose the United States is neither feared nor loved? Is this credible? And if so, what are the implications of such a view of the U.S. by people elsewhere for war and peace, geopolitical realignments, and the U.S. view of itself in the decades to come?” (My emphasis. Read on, here.)

Nussbaum on Principles for the International Structure

Martha Nussbaum, one of my favorite living political philosophers, has a new paper on what the capabilities approach on political justice implies on the international level.

“The capabilities approach is an outcome-oriented approach. It says that a world in which people have all the capabilities on the list is a minimally just and decent world. Domestically, it interprets the purpose of social cooperation as that of establishing principles and institutions that guarantee that all human beings have the capabilities on the list, or can effectively claim them if they do not. . . .In the international case, how should the approach precede? . . . We think about human dignity and what it requires. My approach suggests that we ought to do this in an Aristotelian/Marxian way, thinking about the prerequisites for living a life that is fully human rather than subhuman, a life worthy of the dignity of the human being. We include in this idea the idea of the human being as a being with, in Marx’s phrase, “rich human need,” which includes the need to live cooperatively with others. We insist that a fundamental part of the good of each and every human being will be to cooperate together for the fulfillment of human needs and the realization of fully human lives. We now argue that this fully human life requires many things from the world: adequate nutrition, education of the faculties, protection of bodily integrity, liberty for speech and religious self-expression – and so forth. If this is so, then we all have entitlements based on justice to a minimum of each of these central goods.”

Those interested in her paper, “Beyond the Social Contract: Capabilities and Global Justice,” can find it here.

The clash of scholarship and the war on terror–the case of Tariq Ramadan

The story of the Swiss Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan, who was to become Henry R. Luce professor of religion, conflict and peace building at Norte Dame before the Department of Homeland Security revoked his visa, has become a trope of the times. Some see in these events a story of how the new post-9/11 environment has been destroying an open society. Others see a sensible measure in circumstances of war. For an instance of the latter, see Daniel Pipes’ comments here. Scott Martens at Fistful of Euros has responses here and here. Ramadan himself has this to say in the op-ed pages of today’s New York Times.

Are we hardwired to enjoy punishing the ill-behaved?

Assuming rationality and egoism, it has always been difficult to explain why people punish violators of norms and agreements. Punishment has been considered a classic free rider problem. Everyone receives the benefits of punishing violators or defectors. Norms are maintained, and the example deters future malfeasance by others. But the cost is born entirely by the punisher, and these can be high. Those who carry out punishments effectively are engaging in an act of altruism. . . well, sort of. New research suggests that punishment may be its own reward.

“As the journal Science puts it, the study reveals what goes on in Dirty Harry’s head when ‘he succinctly informs a norm violator that he anticipates deriving satisfaction from inflicting altruistic punishment’. . .

The researchers determined that deciding to impose this penalty, an altruistic punishment, activated a brain region, the dorsal striatum, involved in experiencing enjoyment or satisfaction.” (Read on, here. And those with access to Science can read the full report of the study “Sweet Revenge?” in volume 305, pages 1246-1247)

Turning your videos and photos into cartoons

It was bound to happen at the mass market level and offer the promise of new kinds of yearbooks, wedding albums, and vacation photos. This article explains. (click the “click here” in the right box to see the process.)

“New animation software can turn digital videos into smoothly animated cartoons.

Computer scientist Michael Cohen, of Microsoft research in Redmond, Washington, honed the prototype on a video of his daughter, Lena. The software scans the film for prominent objects – such as Lena swinging on monkey bars – then turns that movement into a cartoon.”