Dealing with Uncertainty

Interesting article from Scientific American by Steven W. Popper, Robert J. Lempert and Steven C. Bankes:

The three of us–an economist, a physicist and a computer scientist all working in RAND’s Pardee Center–have been fundamentally rethinking the role of analysis. We have constructed rigorous, systematic methods for dealing with deep uncertainty. The basic idea is to liberate ourselves from the need for precise prediction by using the computer to help frame strategies that work well over a very wide range of plausible futures. Rather than seeking to eliminate uncertainty, we highlight it and then find ways to manage it. Already companies such as Volvo have used our techniques to plan corporate strategy.

More here.

Talk is cheap, and surprisingly effective

From The Economist:

When psychological and emotional disturbances can be traced to faulty brain chemistry and corrected with a pill, the idea that sitting and talking can treat a problem such as clinical depression might seem outdated.

Robert DeRubeis of the University of Pennsylvania and his colleagues beg to differ, however. They have conducted the largest clinical trial ever designed to compare talk therapy with chemical antidepressants. The result, just published in Archives of General Psychiatry, is that talking works as well as pills do. Indeed, it works better, if you take into account the lower relapse rate.

More here.

Billy Collins on e.e. cummings

From Slate:

In the long revolt against inherited forms that has by now become the narrative of 20th-century poetry in English, no poet was more flamboyant or more recognizable in his iconoclasm than Cummings. By erasing the sacred left margin, breaking down words into syllables and letters, employing eccentric punctuation, and indulging in all kinds of print-based shenanigans, Cummings brought into question some of our basic assumptions about poetry, grammar, sign, and language itself, and he also succeeded in giving many a typesetter a headache. Like Pound, who never wrote an obedient line, Cummings reveled in breaking the rules of grammar, punctuation, orthography, and lineation. Measured by sheer boldness of experiment, no American poet compares to him, for he slipped Houdini-like out of the locked box of the stanza, then leaped from the platform of the poetic line into an unheard-of way of writing poetry.

More here.

Surrender in the Battle of Poetry Web Sites

Edward Wyatt in the New York Times:

W. H. Auden may have lamented that “poetry makes nothing happen,” but that has not kept poets themselves – and their enthusiasts – from using the Internet to make trouble when they get riled up.

This week the poetry world is atwitter over the closing down of an Internet site that for the last year dedicated itself to exposing what it calls fraud among the small circle of poetry contests that frequently offer publishing contracts as prizes.

Alan Cordle, a research librarian who lives in Portland, Ore., has managed the Web site,, anonymously since its inception a little more a year ago.

More here.

A rivalry to end the world: Oppenheimer and Teller

Vivian Gornick reviews three recent biographies in The Boston Review:

Two men—both brilliant at science, both hungry to exert an influence on world affairs, both living in a time that allowed them to aggravate into existence the ability to destroy the planet, and both sufficiently neurotic that neither fulfilled his own promise as a scientist (though both betrayed friends and colleagues to hold the power they thought they had attained). Only Thomas Hardy could have done justice to the melodrama that grew out of the fateful connection between Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, and the American development of nuclear weapons.

More here.  And another review by Janet Maslin in the NY Times here.

Psychics Target Defenseless Goats for Homeland Security

Peter L’Official looks at Men Who Stare At Goats by John Ronson, in the Village Voice:

The titular livestock are the doomed subjects of a secret U.S. Army training program that, when successful, results in the bursting of a goat’s heart by mere thought suggestion. I kid you not. Ronson, “essentially a humorous journalist” in his own estimation, peeks into the mind of a military shaken to its core after Vietnam’s failure and desperate to welcome new-age methodologies for both battle and interrogation. Possessing sharp timing and a characteristically dry Brit wit, Ronson specializes in such offbeat topics; his previous Them: Adventures With Extremists wryly chronicled weeks spent with conspiracy theorists, Klan members, and Islamic terrorists.

Ronson’s humor rightly evaporates once he connects these flower-child-like forays into psych warfare with their bastardization at Abu Ghraib.

More here.

Killer tree-ants snare prey in gruesome traps

Shaoni Bhattacharya in New Scientist:

99997289f1Allomerus decemarticulatus is a tiny tree-dwelling ant which lives in the forests of the northern Amazon. Researchers examining the relationship between different ant species and their host plants noticed that this particular ant lived on only one plant – Hirtella physophora – and that they built galleries hanging under its stems.

Many ant species build these galleries as hideouts to act as sanctuaries between their nests and foraging areas. But the team, led by Jérôme Orivel at the University of Toulouse, France, spotted that A. decemarticulatus were using these galleries as traps for prey.

More here.

Pentaquark hunt draws a blank

Once again, Maggie McKee in New Scientist:

An oversized subatomic particle that has challenged models of quantum physics since its reported discovery in 2003 does not exist after all, a new study suggests. But in trying to track the particle down, scientists say they have stumbled on important new insights about the forces that bind the building blocks of matter.

The short-lived particle – called a pentaquark – was thought to consist of five subatomic particles called quarks. Quarks normally only associate in groups of two – producing short-lived mesons, or three – producing the protons and neutrons that make up the bulk of normal matter.

More here.

New twist in wrangle over changing physical constant

Maggie McKee in New Scientist:

A new study of distant galaxies is adding a fresh perspective to the debate over whether a fundamental physical constant has actually changed over time. The work suggests the number has not varied in the last 7 billion years, but more observations are still needed to settle the issue.

The controversy centres on the fine-structure constant, also called alpha, which governs how electrons and light interact. Alpha is an amalgam of other constants, including the speed of light. So any change in alpha implies a change in the speed of light – and indeed in the entire standard model of physics – with string theories touting extra spatial dimensions stepping in to fill the breach.

More here.

Oxyrhynchus Papyri Decoding Questioned…

A few days ago I posted something about a breakthrough in decoding the the Oxyrhynchus Papyri here. Now that story from The Independent is being questioned. Hannibal writes at Ars Technica:

When a fellow Ars staffer asked me on IRC a few days ago if I’d heard the big news about the recent startling discoveries coming out of Oxyrhynchus, my response was a dismissive “no,” with some comments to the effect that if there were any such big finds it would be really strange if I hadn’t heard about them, since I’m currently taking a papyrology seminar at University of Chicago with the head of the SBL papyrology group and we’re working on texts from Oxyrhynchus. Then he sent me a link to a sensational story in The Independent that’s making the rounds right now.

More here.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The human cost of smoking

Nigel Hawkes in The Times of London:

Smoke_1Being a smoker at the age of 30 cuts a man’s life expectancy by 5½ years, and a woman’s by more than 6½, according to life tables produced by the Institute of Actuaries. At any age up to 80, the chances of dying in the next year are virtually doubled by being a smoker, the tables indicate. A man aged 60 who is a smoker has a risk of dying in the next year of 106 in 10,000 (1.06 per cent), but if he is a non-smoker the risk is only 48 in 10,000.

More here.

Bellow Schemes

Philip Roth and Saul Bellow hangin’ out.

On a summer afternoon in 1998, while I was visiting Saul Bellow and his wife, Janis, in their rural Vermont home, I proposed to Saul that he and I do an extensive written interview about his life’s work. We had been talking for hours on the deck at the rear of the house, along with other friends who’d driven to Vermont to see the Bellows—the Romanian writer Norman Manea and his wife, Cella, who is an art restorer, and the writer and teacher Ross Miller. The four of us tried to get up to Vermont for three or four days every summer because Saul demonstrably enjoyed our visits, and we had a good time together staying at a nearby inn. The conversation was sharp and excited, lots of lucid talk directed mostly at Saul—whose curiosity was all-embracing and for whom listening was a serious matter—and much hilarity about the wonders of human mischief, particularly as we evoked them around the dinner table at the Bellows’ favorite local restaurant, where Saul would throw back his head and laugh like a man blissfully delighted with everything. The older Saul got—and in ’98 he was eighty-three and growing frail—the more our annual pilgrimage resembled an act of religious devotion.

The Bronx is Burning

‘Mahler recreates the city as it was in 1977, giving only what background information is necessary and sparing us an over-lengthy analysis of anything after that year’s World Series. This story happens, for the most part, over one hot summer, when New York was still dirty. (Really dirty, and in more than one sense of the word.) As in any summer there is baseball, and the racially-charged enmity between Yankees manager Billy Martin and Yankees superstar Reggie Jackson forms the core narrative of this book. Mahler builds a parallel narrative from the ’77 mayoral race, in which wonkish mayor Abe Beame went head to head with doublewide personality Bella Abzug and the then unknowns, fumbling idealist Mario Cuomo and successful pragmatist Ed Koch. Baseball and politics are usurped by two frightening interludes: the July blackout that led to devastating looting in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, and the Son of Sam serial killings, which put all disco-dancing brunettes on guard.’

From Anna Godbersen’s Esquire review of Ladies and Gentlemen: The Bronx is Burning by Jonathan Mahler.

Philanthropist of Science Seeks to Be Its Next Nobel

Dennis Overbye writes about Fred Kavli in the New York Times:

Kavli184The world found out what a sophisticated shopper Mr. Kavli was when scientists affiliated with his institutes won three of the eight Nobel Prizes given for science in 2004: Dr. David Gross, director of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara; Dr. Frank Wilczek of the new Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Dr. Richard Axel of the equally new Kavli Institute for Brain Science at Columbia.

Now Mr. Kavli is planning his own version of the Nobel Prizes.

More here.

Burning ears really mean your brain is busy


If your ears are burning it’s said someone is talking about you, but Australian scientists say its more likely you’re having a brainwave. Two researchers in Canberra have developed a high-tech hat that monitors brain activity via changes in ear temperature — offering a cheap way to assess risks for patients ahead of brain surgery.

050419_brainwaves_hmed_7a “If an area of the brain is more active it needs more blood, which flows up the carotid artery on either side of the neck,” said Nicolas Cherbuin, one of the psychology researchers involved in the project at the Australian National University.  “This blood is shared between the brain and the inner ear, so by measuring the ear temperature we can work out which side of the brain is more active,” Cherbuin said in a statement. The researchers said the hat could be used to cheaply monitor brain activity to gauge risks before a patient underwent surgery.

More here.

Some Extra Heft May Be Helpful, New Study Says

Gina Kolata in The New York Times:

People who are overweight but not obese have a lower risk of death than those of normal weight, federal researchers are reporting today. The researchers – statisticians and epidemiologists from the National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – also found that increased risk of death from obesity was seen for the most part in the extremely obese, a group constituting only 8 percent of Americans. And being very thin, even though the thinness was longstanding and unlikely to stem from disease, caused a slight increase in the risk of death, the researchers said.

“I love it,” said Dr. Steven Blair, president and chief executive of the Cooper Institute, a research and educational organization in Dallas that focuses on preventive medicine. “There are people who have made up their minds that obesity and overweight are the biggest public health problem that we have to face,” Dr. Blair said. “These numbers show that maybe it’s not that big.”

More here.

What turns people into suicide bombers?

Samir El-youssef in The Guardian:

Contrary to the views of those who see suicide missions as some sort of dark ritual, or those who dismiss them as irrationally criminal actions, the authors show us that they are often the result of cold calculations. For one thing, they are more effective than the non-suicidal forms of political violence which those same groups themselves have carried out. According to one contributor, Luca Ricolfi, writing on “Palestinians 1981-2003”, suicide attacks had “10 to 15 times the destructive power of ordinary terrorist attacks”. Yet they are not only meant to be instrumental actions, but symbolic too, and sometimes both at the same time. The Japanese army and the Tamil Tigers aimed at achieving military victory, while 9/11 could be seen as more symbolic than instrumental. As for Hamas and Islamic Jihad, they have had many different aims: fighting military occupation, showing an extreme level of commitment to their cause and destroying the peace process in order to regain their former place at the centre of Palestinian politics.

More here.