Clash of the Titans

The big story leading into the Olympics is the battle between the Australian swimming god Ian ‘Thorpedo’ Thorpe and the young but highly-rated American Michael Phelps, whose goal as detailed in this profile is to equal Mark Spitz’s take of seven gold medals in 1972. Thorpe is the most famous and adored athlete in Australia, where swimming is widely popular. Famously outspoken, he backed off a bit from his claim that Phelps’ ambition was impossible in the first interviews from Athens today. Incidentally, Ryan McGinley, a downtown New York photographer best known for transposing the Nan Goldin aesthetic to the Vice magazine generation, shot the U.S. swim team for the Times magazine. They are beautiful photographs; the best things I’ve seen by McGinley.

A Collegelands Catechism

I was first taken by Paul Muldoon when I came upon Madoc in college. Not too long ago, the Newshour did an interview with Muldoon after he’d won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. In it there was a brief clip of a multimedia ‘reading’ of Muldoon’s “A Collegelands Catechism”. I looked for it only to find that you had to be a Princeton student to download it . . . but no longer. Enjoy, seriously, look at this virtual “perfomance”..

Is a New Aesthetic Being Born? Fredric Jameson on William Gibson

Fredric Jameson’s piece on William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition in the New Left Review has much to recommend it, though not necessarily its prose. It’s still worth a read.

“[C]yberpunk constitutes a kind of laboratory experiment in which the geographic-cultural light spectrum and bandwidths of the new system are registered. Indeed, an inspection of this literature already provides a first crude inventory of the new world system: the immense role—and manifest in [William] Gibson’s evocations, all the way down to Pattern Recognition itself—of Japan as the monitory semiotic combination of First-World science-and-technology with a properly Third-World population explosion. Russia now also looms large, but above all in the form of its various Mafias (from all the former Republics), which remind us of the anarchy and violent crime, as well as of the conspiratorial networks and jobless futures, that lurk just beneath the surface of capitalism. . . Europe’s image ambiguity—a kind of elegant museum or tourist playground which is also an evolutionary and economic dead end—is instructive . . . But it is by way of its style that we can best measure the new literature on some kind of time-continuum; and here we may finally return to the distinctiveness of Pattern Recognition, where this style has reached a kind of classical perfection.”

Fredric Jameson’s Reflections on William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition: a contemporary dialectic of style, as the Verne of cyberspace turns to the branded present and its nauseas

Monday, August 9, 2004

Tony Blair, Creationist?

Recently, the evolution/creationism debate has taken a turn. Proponents of intelligent design have launched the best offensive (at least on the political and public relations front, if not necessarily in the scientific arena) seen to date. Periodic debates have become almost daily ones. Nancy Pearcey, one proponent of intelligent design at the Center for Science and Culture, which despite its name, aims to “challeng[e] various aspects of neo-Darwinian theory”, has concisely phrased the hopes of the ID project.

“By uncovering evidence that natural phenomena are best accounted for by Intelligence, Mind, and Purpose, the theory of Intelligent Design reconnects religion to the realm of public knowledge. . . Only when we are willing to restore Christianity to the status of genuine knowledge will we be able to effectively engage the ‘cognitive war’ that is at the root of today’s culture war.”

(See the discussion on The Panda’s Thumb, a virtual pub of the University of Ediacara, where patrons gather to discuss evolutionary theory and critique the claims of the antievolution movement.)

We at 3QD first noticed the turn in the debate a few years ago on the pages of the Boston Review, where H. Allen Orr first reviewed Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, and shortly there afterwards, William Dembski’s, No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence. (See the exchanges that followed here, here, and here.)

Taking an intermittent look at the debate is often startling. Richard Dawkins (alongside Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries) has recently accused Tony Blair (Labour PM Tony Blair) of effectively supporting the teaching of intelligent design.

Of interest to some on these issues may also be Dawkins comments here and here on science’s and religion’s roles in both explanation and ethics.

“ARISTOTLE ” (The Knowledge Web)

“With the knowledge web, humanity’s accumulated store of information will become more accessible, more manageable, and more useful. Anyone who wants to learn will be able to find the best and the most meaningful explanations of what they want to know. Anyone with something to teach will have a way to reach those who what to learn. Teachers will move beyond their present role as dispensers of information and become guides, mentors, facilitators, and authors. The knowledge web will make us all smarter. The knowledge web is an idea whose time has come.” Article here at by Danny Hillis (of Thinking Machine Corporation–massively parallel computing–fame). Also, responses by Douglas Rushkoff, Marc D. Hauser, Stewart Brand, Jim O’Donnell, Jaron Lanier, Bruce Sterling, Roger Schank, George Dyson, Howard Gardner, Seymour Papert, Freeman Dyson, Esther Dyson, Kai Krause, and Pamela McCorduck.

Celluloid Skyline: An exploration of two cities, both called “New York”

This is a gorgeous site. “Based on the award-winning book by the architect James Sanders, the Celluloid Skyline website is a multimedia exploration of cities, film, and architecture. It is based on the premise that the mythic city of “movie New York,” which has entertained and excited audiences around the world for generations, is also something more: an extraordinary urban resource, with profound lessons about the design and use of cities.” Thanks to Marko Ahtisaari for pointing it out.

A funny thing happened on the way to disbelief

“Time magazine spurred public debate 40 years ago with a startling question on its cover: ‘Is God Dead?’ Some estimate that half the world’s population was then nominally atheist. And many in the West were predicting that scientific progress would eliminate religious belief altogether by the next century. The tide has dramatically turned, however, and Alistar McGrath – a theologian at Oxford University who was once in that camp – charts the shift in currents of thought in The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World.” More here from the Christian Science Monitor.

And if we have to die/Does it really matter?*

“Why are so many national anthems so bad? Why is it that the music only rarely reflects the culture of the country? How much better it would be if there was a salsa number for Cuba, a tango for Argentina, a Verdi aria for Italy, a Bob Marley song for Jamaica and a James Brown funk tune for America… even the recent anthems of the post-colonial nations are mostly pompous dirges. Ironically, a 19th-century European flavour was seen as having the correct seriousness for a new country.” Full story here in The Telegraph.

* Lines from the National Anthem of the Republic of Congo.

Million Dollar Questions

In 2000, the Clay Mathematics Institute offered a prize of $1,000,000 for each of seven unsolved problems in math. Among these are the P vs. NP problem, the Poincare Conjecture, Yang-Mills Theory, and the Riemann Hypothesis.

Now, in a strange twist (pointed out to me by J.M. Tyree), a reputable mathematician named Louis de Branges, who has previously proved the Bieberbach conjecture, claims to have proved the Riemann Hypothesis, and has posted his proof on the web. But no mathematician will look at the proof to check if it is correct because, de Branges claims, they don’t like him. Here’s the odd story from the London Review of Books.

Sunday, August 8, 2004

Hitchens Alert (yellow)

I just finished watching Texas: America Supersized on TV, which, “is a one-hour documentary written and narrated by the British-born journalist Christopher Hitchens that asks: ‘With a Texan in the White House, are Texan values taking over America?’ Hitchens is always a surprising figure, contrarian and insanely prolific, a left-wing hawk with a wide-ranging mind the size of, well, Texas. He’s also a dapper chap who appears to enjoy the limelight as he drives around the state, buying elephant-leather cowboy boots or riding in a border patrol vessel along the Mexican border, his lank locks flowing behind him in the wind.”

Yes, its true. Hitch’s vanity is on full display here: there are shots of him as the Marlboro Man cowboy, as a Miami Vice detective speeding along the Rio Grande in a border patrol motorboat, as a serious intellectual peering through reading glasses at Larry McMurtry’s collection of books, as a party-boy in a bar. It’s as if he’s modelling various outfits for us. Reminded me of Martin Amis and his teeth.

The show itself keeps posing profound sounding questions like the one in the quote above, and then never answers or even seriously addresses them. In short, it’s terrible and boring, but if you want to see it, it’s on again tomorrow night at midnight on TRIO. Here’s the review at Slate that the quote above is taken from.

Disaster in Darfur

“Darfur is a 150,000-square-mile expanse of desert and savannah, with five or six million inhabitants, spreading out from the fertile slopes of Jebel Marra, the mountainous zone in Sudan’s far west. Remote from the country’s political heartland on the Nile, it is linked to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, by seven hundred miles of dirt road and a single-track railway. Over the last sixteen months a disaster has been unfolding in Darfur, one that is agonizingly familiar to observers of Sudan during the past two decades.” Rest of John Ryle’s essay here in the NY Review of Books.

What Olympic Ideal?

“Everything about the ancient Olympics was darker, rougher, more brutal than its modern counterpart — no matter how much more competitive the modern Games have become since their inception, in 1896, as a tribute to the spirit of gentlemanly amateurism. Ancient Games had their origins as somber celebrations of death.” Daniel Mendelsohn writes here in the NY Times Magazine.

And here Bernard Knox reviews The Ancient Olympics by Nigel Spivey, and Ancient Greek Athletics by Stephen G. Miller, in the NY Times Book Review.

Richard Francis rightly panned

“This book is a testimonial to the fact that sociobiology continues to go against the grain of many behavioral scientists, long after the ideological debates of the previous century have subsided, and at a time when a more measured approach to the contribution of this strain of biological and social theory is plainly available.” Herbert Gintis reviews Why Men Won’t Ask for Directions: The Seductions of Sociobiology by Richard C. Francis here.

India bans religious riot movie

“Award-winning documentary Final Solution, which looks at religious rioting between Hindus and Muslims, has been banned in India. The film follows 2002 clashes in the western state of Gujarat, which left more than 1,000 people dead. A censor board said the documentary was ‘highly provocative and may trigger off unrest and communal violence’. The movie was honoured at the Berlin Film Festival. Director Rakesh Sharma plans to challenge the ruling in court.” From the BBC.

Saturday, August 7, 2004

What Dreams Are Made Of

“In the middle of the night, we are all Fellini—the creator of a parade of fleeting images intended for an audience of one. At times, it’s an action flick, with a chase scene that seems endless … until it dissolves and we’re falling, falling, falling into … is it a field of flowers? And who is the gardener waving at us over there? Could it be our old high-school English teacher? No, it’s Jon Stewart. He wants us to sit on the couch right next to him. Are those TV cameras? And what happened to our clothes? In the morning, when the alarm rudely arouses us, we might remember none of this—or maybe only a fraction, perhaps the feeling of lying naked in a bed of daisies or an inexplicable urge to watch The Daily Show.” Article here from Newsweek.

Popperian Falsification Key to Chess Success

“For all you budding Kasparovs out there, a team of cognitive scientists has worked out how to think like a chess grand master. As those attending this week’s Cognitive Science Society meeting in Chicago, Illinois, were told, the secret is to try to knock down your pet theory rather than finding ways to support it – exactly as scientists are supposed to do.” Short article here in Nature.

Original 1963 paper by Sir Karl Popper on “Science as Falsification” is here.

Deception Detection

“Although people have been communicating with one another for tens of thousands of years, more than 3 decades of psychological research have found that most individuals are abysmally poor lie detectors. In the only worldwide study of its kind, scientists asked more than 2,000 people from nearly 60 countries, ‘How can you tell when people are lying?’ From Botswana to Belgium, the number-one answer was the same: Liars avert their gaze… And yet gaze aversion, like other commonly held stereotypes about liars, isn’t correlated with lying at all, studies have shown. Liars don’t shift around or touch their noses or clear their throats any more than truth tellers do.” Article here from Science News Online.

The Outlaw Sea

William Langewische, who wrote a wonderfully fact-filled and gripping account of the cleanup at Ground Zero as a three-part series in the Atlantic Monthly (later expanded and published as a book), has now written a book on the modern perils of plying the oceans.

“Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean—roll!” wrote Byron in a comradely salute to the last great romantic wilderness on the planet. “…Man marks the earth with ruin—his control/ Stops with the shore….” In 1818, he could hardly have foreseen that it would not be very long before man would mark the ocean, too, with ruin, poisoning whole seas with his industrial effluent, or fishing them out with vast synthetic nets deployed by immensely powerful hydraulic winches. Yet the sea is still wild: as global warming takes hold, shipwrecking storms are beginning to blow more fiercely, and with greater frequency, than they did in Byron’s time, and the reach of the law of the land over the anarchy of the sea is, if anything, even more tenuous now than it was then. Mankind has always had much to fear from the ungovernable sea, and never more so than in this period of international terrorism, when who knows what abominations may soon arrive on our shores from the lawless terrain of the world’s oceans.

Jonathan Raban reviews The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime by William Langewiesche, here in the NY Review of Books.