Thursday, July 08, 2010

more than meets the eye

The Scientist | When Antonie van Leeuwenhoek looked down at a prokaryote through his simple microscope made of a single mounted lens back in the 1660s, he discovered the first organelle. Captivated by the fluttering “legs” that would later be called the cell’s eyelashes, or cilia in Latin, he might have wondered about the origin of their movement.

Researchers had known that properly moving cilia were not only important to protozoans swimming in their dish, but also for the proper function of the ciliated cells that comprised organs: from the trachea to the lining of the brain and the female reproductive tract, and there was more to come.1 We soon realized that the flashier variety of cilia—the kind that moved—was only a small part of the story. Cilia with no ability to move studded cells of sensory organs like the eye or the insect ear. When I returned from Copenhagen, researchers began to point out that many ordinary tissue cells also bore non-moving single cilia.

Only recently did we discover that those cilia were actually crucial as signaling appendices, acting as cells’ antennae. They have since opened up many more questions regarding the evolution and function of this intriguing organelle.

As the first organelle ever observed by scientists, it’s interesting to reflect on how the cilium became a necessary component of most cells in the body. Many people now conclude that the complexity of the nucleated cell arose by a series of invasive/symbiotic events. The major organelles—mitochondria, chloroplast, perhaps even the nucleus itself—are the results of such invasions or engulfments within a basic bacterial cytoplasm. My colleagues and I have proposed that the sensory 9+0 cilium could have originated in this way, when a large enveloped RNA-containing virus whose core was the primitive centriole failed to exocytose completely after the invasion of the cytoplasm, leaving a bud. When the protein transport mechanism permitted the bud to grow and to accumulate specific membrane proteins, the sensory cilium was born. Later, motility and an efficient coupling between sensory information and motile response evolved.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

do parasites rule the world?

Discover | On a clear summer day on the California coast, the carpinteriasalt marsh vibrates with life. Along the banks of the 120-acre preserve, 80 miles northwest of Los Angeles, thousands of horn snails, their conical shells looking like miniature party hats, graze the algae. Arrow gobies slip through the water, while killifish dart around, every now and then turning to expose the brilliant glint of their bellies. Fiddler crabs slowly crawl out of fist-size holes and salute the new day with their giant claws, while their bigger cousins—lined-shore crabs— crack open snails as if they were walnuts. Meanwhile, a carnival of birds— Caspian terns, willet, plover, yellowleg sandpipers, curlews, and dowitchers— feast on littleneck clams and other prey burrowed in the marsh bottom.

Standing on a promontory, Kevin Lafferty, a marine biologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, watches the teeming scene and sees another, more compelling drama. For him, the real drama of the marsh lies beneath the surface in the life of its invisible inhabitants: the parasites. A curlew grabs a clam from its hole. "Just got infected," Lafferty says. He looks at the bank of snails. "More than 40 percent of these snails are infected," he pronounces. "They're really just parasites in disguise." He points to the snowy constellation of bird droppings along the bank. "There are boxcars of parasite biomass here; those are just packages of fluke eggs."

Every living thing has at least one parasite that lives inside or on it, and many, including humans, have far more. Leopard frogs may harbor a dozen species of parasites, including nematodes in their ears, filarial worms in their veins, and flukes in their kidneys, bladders, and intestines. One species of Mexican parrot carries 30 different species of mites on its feathers alone. Often the parasites themselves have parasites, and some of those parasites have parasites of their own. Scientists have no idea of the exact number of species of parasites, but they do know one fact: Parasites make up the majority of species on Earth. Parasites can take the form of animals, including insects, flatworms, and crustaceans, as well as protozoa, fungi, plants, and viruses and bacteria. By one estimate, parasites may outnumber free-living species four to one. Indeed, the study of life is, for the most part, parasitology.

Most of the past century's research on parasites has gone into trying to fight the ones that cause devastating illness in humans, such as malaria, AIDS, and tuberculosis. But otherwise, parasites have largely been neglected. Scientists have treated them with indifference, even contempt, viewing them as essentially hitchhikers on life's road. But recent research reveals that parasites are remarkably sophisticated and tenacious and may be as important to ecosystems as the predators at the top of the food chain. Some castrate their hosts and take over their minds. Others completely shut down the immune systems of their hosts. Some scientists now think parasites have been a dominant force, perhaps the dominant force, in the evolution of life.

the brain's dark energy

SciAm | Brain regions active when our minds wander may hold a key to understanding neurological disorders and even consciousness itself.

Imagine you are almost dozing in a lounge chair outside, with a magazine on your lap. Suddenly, a fly lands on your arm. You grab the magazine and swat at the insect. What was going on in your brain after the fly landed? And what was going on just before? Many neuroscientists have long assumed that much of the neural activity inside your head when at rest matches your subdued, somnolent mood. In this view, the activity in the resting brain represents nothing more than random noise, akin to the snowy pattern on the television screen when a station is not broadcasting. Then, when the fly alights on your forearm, the brain focuses on the conscious task of squashing the bug. But recent analysis produced by neuroimaging technologies has revealed something quite remarkable: a great deal of meaningful activity is occurring in the brain when a person is sitting back and doing nothing at all.

It turns out that when your mind is at rest—when you are daydreaming quietly in a chair, say, asleep in a bed or anesthetized for surgery—dispersed brain areas are chattering away to one another. And the energy consumed by this ever active messaging, known as the brain’s default mode, is about 20 times that used by the brain when it responds consciously to a pesky fly or another outside stimulus. Indeed, most things we do consciously, be it sitting down to eat dinner or making a speech, mark a departure from the baseline activity of the brain default mode.

Key to an understanding of the brain's default mode has been the discovery of a heretofore unrecognized brain system that has been dubbed the brain's default mode network(DMN). The exact role of the DMN in organizing neural activity is still under study, but it may orchestrate the way the brain organizes memories and various systems that need preparation for future events: the brain's motor system has to be revved and ready when you feel the tickle of a fly on your arm. The DMN may play a critial role in synchronizing all parts of the brain so that, like racers in a track competition, they are all in the proper "set" mode when the starting gun goes off. If the DMN does prepare the brain for conscious activity, investigations of its behavior may provide clues to the nature of conscious experience. Neuroscientists have reason to suspect, moreover, tat disruptions to the DMN may underlie simple mental errors as well as a range of complex brain disorders, from Alzheimer's disease to depression.

The ups and downs of the DMN may provide insight into some of the brain's deepest mysteries. It has already furnished scientists with fascinating insigts into the nature of attention, a fundamental component of conscious activity. In 2008 a multinatinal team of researchers reported that by watching the DMN, they could tell up to 30 seconds before a subject in a scanner was about to commit an error in a computer test. A mistake would occer if, at that time, the default network took over and activity in areas involved with focused concentration abated.

And in years to come, the brain's dark evergy may provide clues to the nature of consciousness. As most neuroscientists acknowledge, our conscious interactions with the world are just a small part of the brain's activity. What does on below the level of awareness - the brain's dark every, for one - is critical in providing the context for what we experience in the small window of conscious awareness. Fist tap Arnach.

one reason you humans are "special"

SciAm | Now back to masturbation fantasies and cognition—and this is where it gets really interesting. Baker and Bellis’s theory may be peculiarly true for human beings, because from all appearances, under natural conditions, we are the only primate species that seems to have taken these seminal shedding benefits into its own lascivious hands. Unfortunately, there have been a paltry handful of studies tracking the masturbatory behaviors of nonhuman primates. Although some relevant data is probably buried in some mountain of field notes, I didn’t come across any targeted studies on the subject in wild chimpanzees , and even the prolific Jane Goodall doesn’t seem to have ever gone there. But nevertheless by all available accounts, and by contrast with human beings, masturbation to completion is an exceedingly rare phenomenon in other species with capable hands very much like our own. As anybody who has ever been to the zoo knows, there's no question that other primates play with their genitalia; the point is that these diddling episodes so seldom lead to an intentional orgasm.

So why don’t monkeys and apes masturbate even nearly as much as humans? It’s a rarity even among low status male nonhuman primates that frustratingly lack sexual access to females–in fact, the few observed incidents seem to be with dominant males. And why haven’t more researchers noticed such an obvious difference with potentially enormous significance for understanding the evolution of human sexuality? After all, it’s been nearly 60 years since Alfred Kinsey first reported that 92 percent of Americans were involved in masturbation leading to orgasm.

The answer for this cross-species difference, I’m convinced, lies in our uniquely evolved mental representational abilities—we alone have the power to conjure up at will erotic, orgasm-inducing scenes in our theater-like heads … internal, salacious fantasies completely disconnected from our immediate external realities. One early sex researcher, Wilhelm Stekel, described masturbation fantasies as a kind of trance or altered state of consciousness, “a sort of intoxication or ecstasy, during which the current moment disappears and the forbidden fantasy alone reigns supreme.”

toxoplasmosis and psychology

The Economist | IF AN alien bug invaded the brains of half the population, hijacked their neurochemistry, altered the way they acted and drove some of them crazy, then you might expect a few excitable headlines to appear in the press. Yet something disturbingly like this may actually be happening without the world noticing.

Toxoplasma gondii is not an alien; it is a relative of that down-to-earth pathogen Plasmodium, the beast that causes malaria. It is common: in some parts of the world as much as 60% of the population is infected with it. And it can harm fetuses and people with AIDS, because in each case their immune systems cannot cope with it. For other people, though, the symptoms are usually no worse than a mild dose of flu. Not much for them to worry about, then. Except that there is a growing body of evidence that some of those people have their behaviour permanently changed.

One reason to suspect this is that a country’s level of Toxoplasma infection seems to be related to the level of neuroticism displayed by its population. Another is that those infected seem to have poor reaction times and are more likely to be involved in road accidents. A third is that they have short attention spans and little interest in seeking out novelty. A fourth, possibly the most worrying, is that those who suffer from schizophrenia are more likely than those who do not to have been exposed to Toxoplasma.

Nor is any of this truly surprising. For, besides humans, Toxoplasma has two normal hosts: rodents and cats. And what it does to rodents is very odd indeed.

parasitic prevalence and IQ?

RoyalSociety | Here, we offer a new hypothesis—the parasite-stress hypothesis—to explain the worldwide distribution of intelligence. The brain is the most complex and costly organ in the human body. In human newborns, the brain demands 87 per cent of the body's metabolic budget, 44 per cent at age five, 34 per cent at age ten, and 23 per cent and 27 per cent for adult males and females, respectively (Holliday 1986). Presumably, if an individual cannot meet these energetic demands while the brain is growing and developing, the brain's growth and developmental stability will suffer. Lynn (1990, 1993) has argued that nutrition is vital to high degrees of mental development. Lynn (1990) suggested that nutrition may account for the Flynn effect (large increases in IQ over short periods of time as nations develop; Flynn 1987), and later (Lynn 1993) reviewed evidence showing that undernourished children have smaller heads, smaller brains and lower psychometric intelligence than sufficiently nourished children.

Parasitic infection affects the body, and hence the brain, energetically in four ways. (i) Some parasitic organisms feed on the host's tissues: the loss must be replaced at energetic cost to the host. Such organisms notably include flukes and many kinds of bacteria. (ii) Some parasites inhabit the intestinal tract or cause diarrhoea, limiting the host's intake of otherwise available nutrients. These notably include tapeworms, bacteria, giardia and amoebae. (iii) Viruses use the host's cellular machinery and macromolecules to reproduce themselves, at the energetic expense of the host. (iv) The host must activate its immune system to fight off the infection, at energetic expense. Of these, diarrhoeal diseases may impose the most serious cost on their hosts' energy budget. First, diarrhoeal diseases are the most common category of disease on every continent, and are one of the two top killers of children under five, accounting for 16 to 17 per cent of all of these deaths worldwide (WHO 2004a). Second, diarrhoea can prevent the body from accessing any nutrients at all. If exposed to diarrhoeal diseases during their first five years, individuals may experience lifelong detrimental effects to their brain development, and thus intelligence. Parasites may negatively affect cognitive function in other ways, such as by infecting the brain directly, but we focus only on energetic costs.

The worldwide distribution of parasites is well known. Disease-causing organisms of humans are more prevalent in equatorial regions of the world and become less prevalent as latitude increases. Ecological factors contributing to this distribution include mean annual temperature, monthly temperature range and precipitation (e.g. Guernier et al. 2004). Similar trends of parasite distribution have been shown in other host species (e.g. Møller 1998).

Many studies have shown a negative relationship between intestinal helminth infection and cognitive ability (reviewed in Watkins & Pollitt 1997; see also Dickson et al. 2000). Although several hypotheses have been proposed to explain this phenomenon, none have considered intestinal worms in the larger context of all parasitic infection, nor have they considered fully the energetic cost of infection and its consequences on the brain. Other studies have shown relationships between helminth infection and economic and educational factors that are related to intelligence. For example, Bleakley (2007) studied the effects of eradication of hookworm in the southern US during the early twentieth century, and found that areas where hookworm infections had been greatly reduced had higher average incomes after treatment than areas that had not received treatment. Jardin-Botelho et al. (2008) found that Brazilian children infected with hookworm performed more poorly on cognitive tests than uninfected children, and that children infected with more than one type of intestinal helminth performed more poorly than children infected with only one.

Thus, from the parasite-stress hypothesis, we predict that average national intelligence will correlate significantly and negatively with rates of infectious disease, and that infectious disease will remain an important predictor of average national intelligence when other variables are controlled for. It is the purpose of this study to introduce this hypothesis to describe the worldwide variation in intelligence, and to provide some supportive evidence using correlations and linear modelling techniques.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

num8er my5teries

Guardian | Eager to find new ways to involve his readers in the mysteries of numbers, mathematician Marcus du Sautoy looked to new technology. A revolution is coming, he argues, and the whole idea of what a book can do is about to change.

Consider two books: Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Not the printed books, the apps – software for mobiles and the iPad. The Wolf Hall app is a thing of beauty. It contains the text, of course, but readers can also move slickly between the text, family trees of the Tudors and the Yorkists, extra articles by Mantel and a fascinating video discussion between the novelist and historian David Starkey. All of which gives a deeper and richer understanding of the novel's historical context and its characters.

But this is nothing compared to Alice for the iPad. You can throw tarts at the Queen of Hearts, help the Caterpillar smoke his hookah pipe, make Alice grow as big as a house and then shrink again. You can watch as "the Mad Hatter gets even madder", and throw pepper at the Duchess. Over the 52 pages of the app there are 20 animated scenes. Each illustration has been taken from the original book and has been made gravity-aware, responding to a shake, tilt or the touch of a finger. The story is never the same twice, because users are Alice's guide through Wonderland. The Caterpillar will smoke his hookah in a new way when you tilt your iPad, or you can throw more pepper the second time around.

It would have been quite simple to convert the printed files of Carroll's book and drop it straight on to the iBookstore, but what Atomic Antelope (atomicantelope.com) has done, through painstaking artistry, is to capture, for adults and children alike, the fantastical nature of the story. This is about recreating what a book is and can be. With the advent of new technology – devices such as the iPhone or iPad, the Sony Reader or the Kindle – authors and publishers are being offered a huge challenge: to reconceive their content to provide a visual and interactive experience that the printed book cannot provide. Art books with huge numbers of accessible images; architecture books with 3D plans of buildings; travel books with videos and interactive maps; children's books with games and characters who introduce themselves; and so on and on. The potential is vast. This is not a case of simply trying to cram written content on to an e-reader; this is about taking that content and completely reinventing it.

Currently readers are being offered little more than the novelty of a book on an electronic device, but the thrill of turning the page by clicking a button quickly pales. Many of the current projects are just tarted-up books for electronic media, but if it doesn't move the experience on to a new level, to enhance the material, what's the point? What authors and publishers need to do is to go back to the drawing board and, at the moment ideas are conceived, work out how – if at all – to make use of these new toys.

bookRings

organelle | The illustration at the top of the page represents a recombinant “ring of ‘books’”. It’s purpose is to at once suggest a ‘specific and valuable ring’ and also to illustrate the concept of scalarly recombinant ‘bookRings’— as a learningToy. To create and play with this toy we will imaginally credential the following assertions:

Language, and minds, have sources.
These sources are not yet clear.
Languages emerge from interscalar psybiocognitive connectivity. (not from humans or ‘knowledge’)

Our human experiential sentience is deeply linkted to ‘lingual’ systems and figures.
The sources of language and sentience are linked.
The stories of these linkages are far more interesting than we suppose.

Flatness is a cognitive problem created by mechanization.

Understandings of Emergence and Scalarity remedy flatness problems.

Chiastic relationships established via triangulations provide a positive toySystem for exploring these domains.

When we read books, we imply they are important. If any book can be important, we could decide that some books are essentially and functionally far more important than others — in a given set of active domains.

But by what means would we decide this?
A Toy:

(there is an ancient accessToy which all living creatures share. It is engineered to solve this riddle, faster, each time it's accessed by any being whatsoever. The toy is not hidden, but it is cognitive in nature. Language, and logics, can interfere with it dramatically)

You're spontaneously transported to 'the library of worlds'. This library contains every moment of every cognitive being's experience since the universe began (and unto it's end) encoded in tiny books; each one fits in your human palm.

As you arrive, you notice a note in your hand:

Greetings EarthHuman,

You are in the library of worlds. It is one square mile in surface area, and is octagonal in shape. You are in the center of the library.

Your world is dying. You've got 144 minutes of oxygen, thus, you are dying as well.

Within the time allotted to you, you must locate one of three books.

Book 1 will return you to your dying world.
Book II will return you with the knowledge to save it, but you will perish from having known it.
Book III Will rescue you and your world, leaving all parties unharmed.

Whichever book you open first, will accomplish that mission. You may open as many as you desire in the process of seeking. You need only open the book and glance at its pages once to resolve the dilemma.

There are more books here than you have cells in your entire lineage. To succeed, you will need to allow yourself to touch your sources. Any other strategy will result in your expiration, and that of your planet. The chances of you accidentally stumbling on even one of the books, without a real connection strategy aren't worth considering.

There are 288 shelves arranged in a starPattern around your current location. Speak the linkName of any book into the central station and that book will be delivered into your hand.

You are then given the internal understanding of the basics of access and standards of organization of the library. Somehow, this is ‘communicated into you’ instantly.

On the floor, at your feet, is a stopwatch. Twelve minutes have elapsed since your arrival.

If you can't locate the essential and ‘alingual’ migration skill in yourSelf, which book will most rapidly and efficiently lead you to the skill you seek?

Why?

Tick. Tock.
We could probably agree that, given a game of survival and elaboration, arriving in any library at all might imply that there is a single key book which is perhaps more important than any other possible book, to become cognitively intimate with. And strangely, there are 'more than one' such book(s)', in any library — part of this is a result of the essential generality of the universe and its paradigms of organizational symmetry.

Books, are, it turns out, scalar accretions more than they are linear recordings. This secret has for far too long been hidden. Experiencing it as a reader grants some extremely uncommon cognitive experiences, abilities, and emergent skills. That is the goal of this toy.

I believe that probably for as long as we have had written language there has been something that is in essence a ‘book of how to talk’ to the beings who live in the transports, which are within you, as you are within them.

This is the finest possible goal of knowing — to return us to active relation with its sources, and to authorize us to again experience the innocence, wonder, and miraculous nature of our birthright and their power to insure liberty, unity, mutual uplift, and rescue.

bones and feathers and wishful thinking...?

Guardian | In this published version of the Terry lectures, delivered at Yale University last year, the novelist Marilynne Robinson argues that positivism, the belief that science is the only reliable means to truth, has adopted a "systematically reductionist" view of human nature. Since Huxley, for example, Darwinians have found altruism problematic, as evolution would necessarily select against benevolence to another at cost to oneself. Altruism can only occur because of the "selfishness" of a gene. Thus for EO Wilson, a "soft-core altruist" expects reciprocation from either society or family; his byzantine calculations are characterised by "lying, pretence and deceit, including self-deceit, because the actor is more convincing who believes that his performance is real". Every apparently compassionate action is, therefore, simply a matter of quid pro quo.

In the same way, because it transfers useful information to somebody else and requires an expenditure of time and energy, language seems essentially altruistic. But, says the evolutionary biologist Geoffrey Miller, "evolution cannot favour altruistic information-sharing", so the complexities of language probably evolved simply for verbal courtship, "providing a sexual payoff for eloquent speaking by the male and female".

"Oh, to have been a fly on the wall!" Robinson comments wryly, when our "proto-verbal ancestors found mates through eloquent proto-speech". In the same way, art may appear to be "an exploration of experience, of the possibilities of communication, and of the extraordinary collaboration of eye and hand," but according to some neo-Darwinians, it too is simply a means of attracting sexual partners. "Leonardo and Rembrandt may have thought they were competent inquirers in their own right, but we moderns know better."

This disdainful "hermeneutics of condescension" cannot function outside of a narrow definition of relative data. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the positivist critique of religion. Daniel Dennett, for example, defines religion as "social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought". He deliberately avoids the contemplative side of faith explored by William James, as if, Robinson says, "religion were only what could be observed using the methods of anthropology or of sociology, without reference to the deeply pensive solitudes that bring individuals into congregations". Bypassing Donne, Bach, the Sufi poets and Socrates, Dennett, Dawkins and others are free to reduce the multifarious religious experience of humanity "to a matter of bones and feathers and wishful thinking, a matter of rituals and social bonding and false etiologies and the fear of death".

Robinson takes the science-versus-religion debate a stage further. More significant than this jejune attack on faith, she argues, is the disturbing fact that "the mind, as felt experience, has been excluded from important fields of modern thought" and as a result "our conception of humanity has shrunk". Robinson's argument is prophetic, profound, eloquent, succinct, powerful and timely. It is not an easy read, but one of her objectives is to help readers appreciate the complexity of these issues. To adopt such a "closed ontology", she insists, is to ignore "the beauty and the strangeness" of the individual mind as it exists in time. Subjectivity "is the ancient haunt of piety and reverence and long, long thoughts. And the literatures that would dispel such things refuse to acknowledge subjectivity, perhaps because inability has evolved into principle and method."

silly robot....,

Fist tap Big Don.

Monday, July 05, 2010

discover it then try and blow it up



NPR | Discover It, Then Blow It Up
The plan was to send rockets hundreds of miles up, higher than the Earth's atmosphere, and then detonate nuclear weapons to see: a) If a bomb's radiation would make it harder to see what was up there (like incoming Russian missiles!); b) If an explosion would do any damage to objects nearby; c) If the Van Allen belts would move a blast down the bands to an earthly target (Moscow! for example); and — most peculiar — d) if a man-made explosion might "alter" the natural shape of the belts.

The scientific basis for these proposals is not clear. Fleming is trying to figure out if Van Allen had any theoretical reason to suppose the military could use the Van Allen belts to attack a hostile nation. He supposes that at the height of the Cold War, the most pressing argument for a military experiment was, "if we don’t do it, the Russians will." And, indeed, the Russians did test atomic bombs and hydrogen bombs in space.

In any case, says the science history professor, "this is the first occasion I've ever discovered where someone discovered something and immediately decided to blow it up."

Code Name: Starfish Prime
The Americans launched their first atomic nuclear tests above the Earth's atmosphere in 1958. Atom bombs had little effect on the magnetosphere, but the hydrogen bomb of July 9, 1962, did. Code-named "Starfish Prime" by the military, it literally created an artificial extension of the Van Allen belts that could be seen across the Pacific Ocean, from Hawaii to New Zealand.

In Honolulu, the explosions were front page news. "N-Blast Tonight May Be Dazzling: Good View Likely," said the Honolulu Advertiser. Hotels held what they called "Rainbow Bomb Parties" on rooftops and verandas. When the bomb burst, people told of blackouts and strange electrical malfunctions, like garage doors opening and closing on their own. But the big show was in the sky.

how goldman sachs gambled on starvation

Independent | By now, you probably think your opinion of Goldman Sachs and its swarm of Wall Street allies has rock-bottomed at raw loathing. You're wrong. There's more. It turns out that the most destructive of all their recent acts has barely been discussed at all. Here's the rest. This is the story of how some of the richest people in the world – Goldman, Deutsche Bank, the traders at Merrill Lynch, and more – have caused the starvation of some of the poorest people in the world.

It starts with an apparent mystery. At the end of 2006, food prices across the world started to rise, suddenly and stratospherically. Within a year, the price of wheat had shot up by 80 per cent, maize by 90 per cent, rice by 320 per cent. In a global jolt of hunger, 200 million people – mostly children – couldn't afford to get food any more, and sank into malnutrition or starvation. There were riots in more than 30 countries, and at least one government was violently overthrown. Then, in spring 2008, prices just as mysteriously fell back to their previous level. Jean Ziegler, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, calls it "a silent mass murder", entirely due to "man-made actions."

Earlier this year I was in Ethiopia, one of the worst-hit countries, and people there remember the food crisis as if they had been struck by a tsunami. "My children stopped growing," a woman my age called Abiba Getaneh, told me. "I felt like battery acid had been poured into my stomach as I starved. I took my two daughters out of school and got into debt. If it had gone on much longer, I think my baby would have died."

Most of the explanations we were given at the time have turned out to be false. It didn't happen because supply fell: the International Grain Council says global production of wheat actually increased during that period, for example. It isn't because demand grew either: as Professor Jayati Ghosh of the Centre for Economic Studies in New Delhi has shown, demand actually fell by 3 per cent. Other factors – like the rise of biofuels, and the spike in the oil price – made a contribution, but they aren't enough on their own to explain such a violent shift.

To understand the biggest cause, you have to plough through some concepts that will make your head ache – but not half as much as they made the poor world's stomachs ache.

For over a century, farmers in wealthy countries have been able to engage in a process where they protect themselves against risk. Farmer Giles can agree in January to sell his crop to a trader in August at a fixed price. If he has a great summer, he'll lose some cash, but if there's a lousy summer or the global price collapses, he'll do well from the deal. When this process was tightly regulated and only companies with a direct interest in the field could get involved, it worked.

Then, through the 1990s, Goldman Sachs and others lobbied hard and the regulations were abolished. Suddenly, these contracts were turned into "derivatives" that could be bought and sold among traders who had nothing to do with agriculture. A market in "food speculation" was born.

So Farmer Giles still agrees to sell his crop in advance to a trader for £10,000. But now, that contract can be sold on to speculators, who treat the contract itself as an object of potential wealth. Goldman Sachs can buy it and sell it on for £20,000 to Deutsche Bank, who sell it on for £30,000 to Merrill Lynch – and on and on until it seems to bear almost no relationship to Farmer Giles's crop at all.

If this seems mystifying, it is. John Lanchester, in his superb guide to the world of finance, Whoops! Why Everybody Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, explains: "Finance, like other forms of human behaviour, underwent a change in the 20th century, a shift equivalent to the emergence of modernism in the arts – a break with common sense, a turn towards self-referentiality and abstraction and notions that couldn't be explained in workaday English." Poetry found its break with realism when T S Eliot wrote "The Wasteland". Finance found its Wasteland moment in the 1970s, when it began to be dominated by complex financial instruments that even the people selling them didn't fully understand.

So what has this got to do with the bread on Abiba's plate? Until deregulation, the price for food was set by the forces of supply and demand for food itself. (This was already deeply imperfect: it left a billion people hungry.) But after deregulation, it was no longer just a market in food. It became, at the same time, a market in food contracts based on theoretical future crops – and the speculators drove the price through the roof.

Here's how it happened. In 2006, financial speculators like Goldmans pulled out of the collapsing US real estate market. They reckoned food prices would stay steady or rise while the rest of the economy tanked, so they switched their funds there. Suddenly, the world's frightened investors stampeded on to this ground.

So while the supply and demand of food stayed pretty much the same, the supply and demand for derivatives based on food massively rose – which meant the all-rolled-into-one price shot up, and the starvation began. The bubble only burst in March 2008 when the situation got so bad in the US that the speculators had to slash their spending to cover their losses back home.

When I asked Merrill Lynch's spokesman to comment on the charge of causing mass hunger, he said: "Huh. I didn't know about that." He later emailed to say: "I am going to decline comment." Deutsche Bank also refused to comment. Goldman Sachs were more detailed, saying they sold their index in early 2007 and pointing out that "serious analyses ... have concluded index funds did not cause a bubble in commodity futures prices", offering as evidence a statement by the OECD.

How do we know this is wrong? As Professor Ghosh points out, some vital crops are not traded on the futures markets, including millet, cassava, and potatoes. Their price rose a little during this period – but only a fraction as much as the ones affected by speculation. Her research shows that speculation was "the main cause" of the rise.

So it has come to this. The world's wealthiest speculators set up a casino where the chips were the stomachs of hundreds of millions of innocent people. They gambled on increasing starvation, and won. Their Wasteland moment created a real wasteland. What does it say about our political and economic system that we can so casually inflict so much pain?

Sunday, July 04, 2010

children's quality of life declining

CNN | About 21 percent of children in the United States will be living below the poverty line in 2010, the highest rate in 20 years, according to a new analysis of children's well-being released Tuesday.

The study, funded by the private philanthropy Foundation for Child Development, found that families' economic well-being has plummeted to near 1975 levels, said Kenneth Land, project coordinator and professor of sociology and demography at Duke University.

"Virtually all of that progress is wiped out through job losses, through declines in real income, and other aspects of family economic well-being," Land said.

The Child and Youth Well-Being Index Project at Duke University bases its predictions on 28 indicators of well-being that encompass economic well-being, safe and risky behavior, social relationships, emotional and spiritual well-being, community engagement, educational attainment and health. Researchers predict that although the index is at a low for the decade this year, it will start edging up.

"There are lots of kids out there whose quality of life has already and will decline as a result of the impact of this recession," Land said.

About 15.6 million children are estimated to be living in poverty this year, but study authors say this number will start going down.

This year, as many as 500,000 children may be homeless in the United States, according to the report.

Children living in families in which neither parent has secure employment will rise to about 20 million this year, up 4 percent from 2006.

Also, many children live in households where all members do not have access to enough safe and nutritious foods. From 2007 to 2010, an additional 750,000 children are estimated to live in food-insecure households, the report said.

There is also potential for an uptick in obesity as families with tight budgets move toward lower quality food because of the recession, Land said. Healthy foods tend to be expensive, while processed and fast foods are cheaper and more readily available to some families.

Community engagement will go down as school districts reduce the employment of teachers and cut back programs. The amount of time spent in school may even go down; in 2009, Hawaii became the first state to move to four-day school weeks to save money in the recession.

One piece of good news is that health insurance coverage for children will not significantly fall, the report said, thanks to publicly financed health care programs. About 90 percent of children will be in families with some form of health insurance, the report said.

43% have less than $10K for retirement...,

CNN Money | The percentage of American workers with virtually no retirement savings grew for the third straight year, according to a survey released Tuesday.

The percentage of workers who said they have less than $10,000 in savings grew to 43% in 2010, from 39% in 2009, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute's annual Retirement Confidence Survey. That excludes the value of primary homes and defined-benefit pension plans.

Workers who said they had less than $1,000 jumped to 27%, from 20% in 2009.

Confidence in ability to save enough for a comfortable retirement hovered at 16% of respondents, the second lowest point in the 20-year history of the survey.
A drop in the bucket

"Americans' attitudes toward retirement have clearly tracked the economy the last couple of years, and that seems to be the case in 2010," said Jack VanDerhei, EBRI's research director and co-author of the survey, in a statement.

The percentage of workers who said they have saved for retirement fell to 69%, from 75% in 2009.

While VanDerhei attributed the decline in current savings rates to job losses, mortgage problems and the suspension of corporate 401(k) matches in 2009, he said the economy isn't entirely to blame.

"In previous years, there were a whole lot of people who had nothing to begin with," said VanDerhei.

The gap between what Americans have saved and what they'd need for retirement is forcing workers to prolong their working years.

myths of austerity

NYTimes | When I was young and naïve, I believed that important people took positions based on careful consideration of the options. Now I know better. Much of what Serious People believe rests on prejudices, not analysis. And these prejudices are subject to fads and fashions.

Which brings me to the subject of today’s column. For the last few months, I and others have watched, with amazement and horror, the emergence of a consensus in policy circles in favor of immediate fiscal austerity. That is, somehow it has become conventional wisdom that now is the time to slash spending, despite the fact that the world’s major economies remain deeply depressed.

This conventional wisdom isn’t based on either evidence or careful analysis. Instead, it rests on what we might charitably call sheer speculation, and less charitably call figments of the policy elite’s imagination — specifically, on belief in what I’ve come to think of as the invisible bond vigilante and the confidence fairy.

Bond vigilantes are investors who pull the plug on governments they perceive as unable or unwilling to pay their debts. Now there’s no question that countries can suffer crises of confidence (see Greece, debt of). But what the advocates of austerity claim is that (a) the bond vigilantes are about to attack America, and (b) spending anything more on stimulus will set them off.

What reason do we have to believe that any of this is true? Yes, America has long-run budget problems, but what we do on stimulus over the next couple of years has almost no bearing on our ability to deal with these long-run problems. As Douglas Elmendorf, the director of the Congressional Budget Office, recently put it, “There is no intrinsic contradiction between providing additional fiscal stimulus today, while the unemployment rate is high and many factories and offices are underused, and imposing fiscal restraint several years from now, when output and employment will probably be close to their potential.”

Nonetheless, every few months we’re told that the bond vigilantes have arrived, and we must impose austerity now now now to appease them. Three months ago, a slight uptick in long-term interest rates was greeted with near hysteria: “Debt Fears Send Rates Up,” was the headline at The Wall Street Journal, although there was no actual evidence of such fears, and Alan Greenspan pronounced the rise a “canary in the mine.”

Since then, long-term rates have plunged again. Far from fleeing U.S. government debt, investors evidently see it as their safest bet in a stumbling economy. Yet the advocates of austerity still assure us that bond vigilantes will attack any day now if we don’t slash spending immediately.

But don’t worry: spending cuts may hurt, but the confidence fairy will take away the pain. “The idea that austerity measures could trigger stagnation is incorrect,” declared Jean-Claude Trichet, the president of the European Central Bank, in a recent interview. Why? Because “confidence-inspiring policies will foster and not hamper economic recovery.”

What’s the evidence for the belief that fiscal contraction is actually expansionary, because it improves confidence? (By the way, this is precisely the doctrine expounded by Herbert Hoover in 1932.)

Saturday, July 03, 2010

platonic pythagoreanism - quick introduction

JayKennedy | In a paper in the journal Apeiron and the draft of the related book currently being circulated (see below), I argued there were musical structures embedded in Plato's dialogues. Correspondence with an expert in ancient Greek music has now clarified the nature of these structures. The paper argued that Plato divided each dialogue into twelve parts, each of which corresponded to a musical note in a twelve-note scale. This scale was, I claimed, similar (1) to the equally-divided scales of a school of Greek theorists called the Harmonists and also (2) to the scales produced with a monochord, an instrument important in the later Pythagorean tradition. I have now been convinced that the scale embedded in the dialogues is not like the Harmonists' scale, but would in fact appear naturally with a monochord (whether theoretically or practically with an actual instrument). This moves the debate ahead, and strongly reinforces the main claim of the Apeiron paper that the symbolic structures in the dialogues are evidence of Plato's Pythagoreanism.

Plato was the most important philosopher and scientist of the Greek Englightenment, playing a key role in the birth of Western culture. As Whitehead said, 'All of Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato.' Some thirty or so of his books survive from the fourth-century before Christ, but they are mysterious and even today are studied by thousands of scholars around the world. In particular, his books -- though brilliant, seductive, and inexhaustively rich -- often end frustratingly without definite conclusions. Some have thought he was a destructive sceptic who, like his teacher Socrates, claimed to know only that he knew nothing, and that Plato therefore had no positive philosophy. Others have painstakingly tried to piece together the pieces of his philosophy from the hints in his writings.

In antiquity, many of Plato's followers said, in various ways, that Plato wrote symbolically or allegorically, and that his true philosophy would be found in the layers of meaning underneath the surface stories he tells. In ancient religions, sects, guilds, and fraternities, it was normal to 'reserve' knowledge to initiates and Plato, they contended, had used symbols to hide his philosophy within his writings.

The view that Plato's writings contained symbols was a mainstream and sometimes dominant view for more than a thousand years: from about the time of Christ until the Renaissance. Beginning in the 1700's, theologians in Germany who emphasised rigourous and literal methods of interpretation fiercely opposed this view. They argued that there was no consistent system of symbolism in Plato's writings, and that claiming such was a sign of credulity and mystery-mongering. The ancient defenders of the symbolic approach to Plato were dubbed 'neo-Platonists' in an effort to segregate them from Plato and Platonism. The view that Plato's writings were not symbolic became the standard view among modern scholars and has remained so ever since.

I was teaching a course for philosophers on Plato's most famous book, the Republic, and another course on the history of mathematics for mathematicians, which dealt with Pythagorean mathematics and music. This was a combustible mixture. A series of insights led to the surprising conclusion that the Republic did use symbols, but that recognising and unravelling these symbols required knowledge of Pythagorean music theory.

I am a philosopher who specialises in an area called the History and Philosophy of Science. This field was transformed a generation or so ago when it was widely recognised that the study of primitive pseudo-sciences was necessary to understand the birth of our modern sciences. To understand chemistry, it was necessary to study alchemy; to understand astronomy, it was necessary to study astrology. Unusually among Plato scholars, I was therefore familiar with the numerology and music theory which was at the heart of early Pythagoreanism. This interdisciplinary preparation enabled me to see and decipher Plato's musical symbolism.

These claims will need to be thoroughly debated and verified by other scholars (see below), but they promise to revolutionise the history of the birth of Western thought. We now better understand the literary strategies of Plato's writings. All thirty books contain unexcavated layers of meanings. These not only explain the structure of Plato's narrative but contain new doctrine and his positive philosophy. Moreover, since the symbolic structures are organised musically and mathematically, they transform our view of Plato's science. For the first time we see Plato doing elaborate calculations. We can show that he was at the forefront of the advanced mathematics of his day, as some of his followers said. We learn more about the Pythagoreans, who are sometimes credited with pushing Western culture toward mathematics and science. The often puzzling history of philosophy after Plato, and especially the repeated claims that he was a Pythagorean, now make sense.

platonic pythagoreanism - intro for scholars

JayKennedy | Western culture is sometimes said to rest on the twin pillars of Socrates and Jesus, two poor men who wrote nothing. Plato's teacher Socrates launched philosophical and scientific research in Athens, but we know of him primarily through Plato's writings. The philosophy and science of Socrates and Plato combined with the religions of the East in the Roman period to create central strands of what became modern European culture. Now our understanding of the birth of that culture will need to be reworked. Plato is sometimes thought of as a cold fish who banished poets and pushed the West toward logic, mathematics, and science. Now we know he was a hidden romantic. The philosophy contained beneath his stories mixes science and mysticism, mathematics and God. By understanding our roots better, we understand ourselves better.

The two most surprising ideas in Plato's hidden philosophy may be explained simply. First, the musical and mathematical structures he hid in his writings show that he was committed to the radical idea that the universe is controlled not by the gods on Olympus but by mathematical and scientific law. Today we take it for granted that the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics, but it was a dangerous and heretical idea when it struggled for acceptance in the Scientific Revolution of the 1600s. Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake and Galileo was condemned and imprisoned. After Socrates was executed for sowing doubts about Greek religion, Plato had every reason to hide his commitment to a scientific view of the cosmos. But we now know that Plato anticipated the key idea of the Scientific Revolution by some 2000 years.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, Plato's positive philosophy shows us how to combine science and religion. Today we hear much of the culture wars between believers and atheists, between those who insist our world is imbued with meaning and value and those who argue for materialism and evolution. For Plato, music was mathematical and mathematics was musical. In particular, we hear musical notes harmonising with each other when their pitches form simple ratios. For him, the perception of this beauty in music was at once the perception of a beauty inherent in mathematics. Thus mathematics and the laws governing our universe were imbued with beauty and value: they were divine. Modern scientists don't ask where their fundamental laws come from; for Plato, the beauty and order inherent in mathematical law meant its source was divine (a Pythagorean version of modern deism). Plato may light a middle way through today's culture wars.

The Central Claim. The Apeiron article and the sample chapters below concentrate on showing that Plato used a consistent scheme of symbols to embed a musical structure in each genuine dialogue.

In short, each dialogue was divided into twelve parts. At each twelfth, i.e., at 1/12, 2/12, etc., Plato inserted passages to mark the notes of a musical scale. This regular structure resembles a known Greek scale. According to Greek musical theory, some notes in such a scale are harmonious (if they form a small whole number ratio with the twelfth note) and the others are dissonant or neutral. Plato's symbolic passages are correlated with the relative values of the musical notes. At more harmonious notes, Plato has passages about virtue, the forms, beauty, etc.; at the more dissonant notes, there are passages about vice, negation, shame, etc. This correlation is one kind of strong evidence that the structure is a musical scale.

This musical structure can be studied rigorously because it is so regular. Subsequent work will show that other symbols are used to embed Pythagorean doctrines in the surface narratives. It is surprising that Plato could deploy an elaborate symbolic scheme without disturbing the surface narratives of the dialogues, but in this respect he does not differ from other allegorical writers like Dante or Spenser.

Friday, July 02, 2010

2050 - will the 2nd coming save us?

STLToday | A young woman of our acquaintance recently ran out of cigarettes. It was suggested that if she must smoke, she could walk a couple of blocks to the nearest gas station and buy a pack.

“No!” she said in horror. “It’s a BP.”

Rather than contribute some infinitesimal part of the price of a pack of cigarettes to the company that franchises a gas station within walking distance, she drove a few extra blocks to a convenience store.

That’ll teach BP to mess up the Gulf of Mexico.

We admire her idealism, but not her knowledge of international oil market or her willingness to burn more gasoline and emit more hydrocarbons into the atmosphere in the service of a destructive habit.

If we’re reading a recent spate of polls correctly, many Americans are just like her: Full of idealism and noble beliefs as long as they don’t conflict with convenience and comfort.

A New York Times/CBS News poll released last week reported that 9 in 10 Americans think U.S. energy policy needs either to be rebuilt entirely or to undergo fundamental changes. The same 9 in 10 are at least somewhat concerned that the country depends too much on foreign oil.

But only 45 percent said they’d go along with an increased tax on gasoline to support the development of alternative sources of power. Fifty-one percent said nothing doing.

Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center and Smithsonian magazine released a poll that asked Americans what they thought life in the year 2050 would look like. Nearly three-quarters of the respondents said they thought it was likely that “most of our energy will come from sources other than coal, oil and gas.”

Back at the New York Times/CBS Poll, 59 percent of Americans said it was at least “somewhat likely” that sometime in the next 25 years, the United States would develop an alternative to oil as a major energy source. Americans are counting on science to bail them out.

But some scientists are warning not to count on it. Green energy, it seems, is not remotely “scalable” to the world’s energy demands. As the consumers of 25 percent of the world’s energy, this will be a problem for the 5 percent of the world’s people who live in the United States.

Life 40 years hence may be far less comfortable and convenient than it has been for the past 40 years. If the world is, in fact, on the downward slope of peak oil, and burning fossil fuels is causing the climate to warm to problematic levels and scientists don’t bail us out, then what?

We’re left to hope that the very scientists on whom we’re counting for cheap energy are wrong about global warming. The Pew/Smithsonian survey found that two-thirds of those surveyed think the world will get warmer by 2050; 30 percent said this definitely or probably wouldn’t occur.

Another Pew survey done last October showed that 36 percent of Americans don’t believe, in the face of overwhelming scientific consensus to the contrary, that there is solid evidence that human activity contributes to global warming.

This is slightly fewer than the 41 percent of those in the latest Pew survey who said they believe that Jesus Christ definitely would, or probably would, return to earth by 2050. Global warming and energy are the least of their worries.

huge tent city takes root

StarAdvertiser | Pastor Joe Hunkin picked his way around rusted car axles, propane tanks and two-by-fours studded with bent nails to find a homeless encampment where people have been cooking and sleeping directly behind Waipahu High School, in an area that received unwanted national attention this month.

Hunkin walked past a pit bull puppy and peered over a makeshift shelter of tents and tarp hidden by koa haole and elephant grass, then pointed toward the high school's athletic complex barely a football field away.

"The school is right over there," Hunkin said last week. "This isn't right."

The strip of land is bounded by Waipahu High School on one side and the calming waters of Pearl Harbor's Middle Loch on the other, where the Navy's mothball fleet sits idle. It's the most visible portion of an enormous homeless encampment that stretches five miles over approximately 50 acres of city, Navy and state land that serpentines around Waipio Point Access Road, the Ted Makalena Golf Course and the city's Waipio Soccer Complex and back down to Pearl City in the opposite direction, said Beth Chapman, who uncharacteristically lost a suspect in the swampy brush last year after five straight days of searching the area with her husband, Duane "Dog" Chapman, and their bounty hunting family.

In an episode of "Dog The Bounty Hunter" that aired on the A&E network two weeks ago, the Chapmans mounted mo-peds and switched their SUVs into four-wheel drive to navigate the area, where they discovered about 60 different encampments, Beth Chapman said last week in a telephone interview from Canada, where "Dog" was on a publicity tour.

The Chapmans have waded into homeless encampments plenty of times before in the islands—but nothing like the area around the golf course and soccer complex where Beth got two flat tires and Duane's daughter, "Baby Lyssa," had to rock her SUV back and forth to escape a muddy patch.

"That's real jungle land back there," Beth Chapman said. "The foliage was 10, 12 feet high with paths that lead everywhere into moats with people walking around with machetes. If you're the criminal element, those are the best places to hide in. They've got that whole place mapped out. They know every nook and cranny and they know how to escape quick."

Doran J. Porter, executive director of the Affordable Housing and Homeless Alliance, believes more and more homeless encampments like the one behind Waipahu High School are springing up on Oahu as Honolulu police and city officials continue to push Oahu's homeless off of beaches and out of city parks.

"I don't know why it would surprise anyone that they've found these places," Porter said. "You get kicked out of one place, you have to find somewhere else to survive the night. ... And now their desperation is starting to show."

russian mathematician rejects $1 million prize

WaPo | Who would turn down a $1 million prize for solving a math problem?

Perhaps the smartest man in the world.

Three months ago, a famously impoverished Russian mathematician named Grigori Perelman was awarded the prestigious $1 million Clay Mathematics Institute Millennium Prize for his groundbreaking work -- having solved a problem of three-dimensional geometry that had resisted scores of brilliant mathematicians since 1904.

Thursday, the institute announced that Perelman, known equally for his brilliance and his eccentricities, formally and finally turned down the award and the money. He didn't deserve it, he told a Russian news service, because he was following a mathematical path set by another.

The president of the Clay Institute, James Carlson, said that Perelman was a mathematician of "extraordinary power and creativity" and that it was he alone who solved the intractable Poincaré's conjecture. "All mathematicians follow the work of others, but only a handful make breakthroughs of this magnitude," Carlson said.

Still, while he had been hopeful that Perelman would take the prize, he was hardly surprised that he did not. Perelman had already turned down several of the world's top awards in mathematics. And when he solved the Poincaré conjecture, he ignored the peer-review process and simply posted his three-part solution online. That was in 2003.

It took other mathematicians two years to determine that he had indeed solved the problem.

"The community knew about Perelman, and that's why they took him seriously," Carlson said. "But what he did is definitely not the way things are normally done."

Immediately after his postings, Perelman was invited to lecture at several top American universities, and did so with aplomb. Speaking in fluent English, he wowed his math colleagues and, after returning to Russia, continued to communicate via e-mail with some about his work. Within several years, however, he stopped responding and left the math world, Carlson said.

picture of dorian gray....,

the iranian threat

zspace | what exactly is the Iranian threat? An authoritative answer is provided in the April 2010 study of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, Military Balance 2010. The brutal clerical regime is doubtless a threat to its own people, though it does not rank particularly high in that respect in comparison to US allies in the region. But that is not what concerns the Institute. Rather, it is concerned with the threat Iran poses to the region and the world.

The study makes it clear that the Iranian threat is not military. Iran’s military spending is “relatively low compared to the rest of the region,” and less than 2% that of the US. Iranian military doctrine is strictly “defensive,… designed to slow an invasion and force a diplomatic solution to hostilities.” Iran has only “a limited capability to project force beyond its borders.” With regard to the nuclear option, “Iran’s nuclear program and its willingness to keep open the possibility of developing nuclear weapons is a central part of its deterrent strategy.”

Though the Iranian threat is not military, that does not mean that it might be tolerable to Washington. Iranian deterrent capacity is an illegitimate exercise of sovereignty that interferes with US global designs. Specifically, it threatens US control of Middle East energy resources, a high priority of planners since World War II, which yields “substantial control of the world,” one influential figure advised (A. A. Berle).

But Iran’s threat goes beyond deterrence. It is also seeking to expand its influence. As the Institute study formulates the threat, Iran is “destabilizing” the region. US invasion and military occupation of Iran’s neighbors is “stabilization.” Iran’s efforts to extend its influence in neighboring countries is “destabilization,” hence plainly illegitimate. It should be noted that such revealing usage is routine. Thus the prominent foreign policy analyst James Chace, former editor the main establishment journal Foreign Affairs, was properly using the term “stability” in its technical sense when he explained that in order to achieve “stability” in Chile it was necessary to “destabilize” the country (by overthrowing the elected Allende government and installing the Pinochet dictatorship).

Beyond these crimes, Iran is also supporting terrorism, the study continues: by backing Hezbollah and Hamas, the major political forces in Lebanon and in Palestine – if elections matter. The Hezbollah-based coalition handily won the popular vote in Lebanon’s latest (2009) election. Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian election, compelling the US and Israel to institute the harsh and brutal siege of Gaza to punish the miscreants for voting the wrong way in a free election. These have been the only relatively free elections in the Arab world. It is normal for elite opinion to fear the threat of democracy and to act to deter it, but this is a rather striking case, particularly alongside of strong US support for the regional dictatorships, particularly striking with Obama’s strong praise for the brutal Egyptian dictator Mubarak on the way to his famous address to the Muslim world in Cairo.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

plato's stave

Guardian | It may sound like the plot of a Dan Brown novel, but an academic at the University of Manchester claims to have cracked a mathematical and musical code in the works of Plato.

Jay Kennedy, a historian and philosopher of science, described his findings as "like opening a tomb and discovering new works by Plato."

Plato is revealed to be a Pythagorean who understood the basic structure of the universe to be mathematical, anticipating the scientific revolution of Galileo and Newton by 2,000 years.

Kennedy's breakthrough, published in the journal Apeiron this week, is based on stichometry: the measure of ancient texts by standard line lengths. Kennedy used a computer to restore the most accurate contemporary versions of Plato's manuscripts to their original form, which would consist of lines of 35 characters, with no spaces or punctuation. What he found was that within a margin of error of just one or two percent, many of Plato's dialogues had line lengths based on round multiples of twelve hundred.

The Apology has 1,200 lines; the Protagoras, Cratylus, Philebus and Symposium each have 2,400 lines; the Gorgias 3,600; the Republic 12,200; and the Laws 14,400.

Kennedy argues that this is no accident. "We know that scribes were paid by the number of lines, library catalogues had the total number of lines, so everyone was counting lines," he said. He believes that Plato was organising his texts according to a 12-note musical scale, attributed to Pythagoras, which he certainly knew about.

"My claim," says Kennedy, "is that Plato used that technology of line counting to keep track of where he was in his text and to embed symbolic passages at regular intervals." Knowing how he did so "unlocks the gate to the labyrinth of symbolic messages in Plato".

Believing that this pattern corresponds to the 12-note musical scale widely used by Pythagoreans, Kennedy divided the texts into equal 12ths and found that "significant concepts and narrative turns" within the dialogues are generally located at their junctures. Positive concepts are lodged at the harmonious third, fourth, sixth, eight and ninth "notes", which were considered to be most harmonious with the 12th; while negative concepts are found at the more dissonant fifth, seventh, 10th and 11th.

Kennedy has also found that the enigmatic "divided line" simile in the Republic, in which Plato describes a line divided by an unstated ratio, falls 61.7% of the way through the dialogue. It has been thought that the line refers to the golden mean, which expressed as a percentage is 61.8%.

Copies of the paper have been circulating among senior scholars, who believe Kennedy's argument should be taken seriously.

Professor Andrew Barker, a leading authority on ancient Greek music, said that "the results he's come up with look too neat to be accidental" and that if scholars confirm them, "he will have shown something quite startling about Plato's methods of composition".

earlier start to multicellular life

The Scientist | Newly uncovered fossils hint that multicellular life may have evolved more than 2 billion years ago -- some 200 million years earlier than previously expected, according to a study published this week in Nature.

The fossils are "not really [what] you expect to find in the rock record 2 billion years before present," said paleontologist Philip Donoghue of the University of Bristol, who was not involved in the research. "These fossils are centimeters in size" and "relatively thick" -- too large to be just a single cell, he said.

The once-biological shapes carved out of black shale formations in Africa outdate the next oldest example of what may have been multicellular life by about 200 million years. Unfortunately, "there's nothing preserved inside," said Donoghue, who wrote an accompanying perspective. "You can't demonstrate [for sure] that it was multicellular [because] you can't see component cells."

Sedimentologist Abderrazak El Albani of the University of Poitiers in France and his colleagues discovered the amorphous fossils in the black shale formations of the Francevillian Basin in Gabon, Africa. The team found more than 250 specimens at the site, all dating to approximately 2.1 billion years ago, and ranging up to 12 centimeters in length. Chemical analyses confirmed the biological origin of the fossils, which are now composed of the iron-sulfide mineral pyrite that replaced the organic tissue as the organism decomposed. And their large and complex structures, as revealed through X-ray microtomography, are indicative of cell-to-cell signaling and coordinated growth between cells, El Albani said.

Specifically, the fossils display scalloped edges with radiating slits, and many have a central structure, not unlike the overall structure of a jellyfish medusa. "This organism, in my opinion, was something very light, very gentle, very soft," El Albani speculated. Given the ubiquity of the radial structures among the highly diverse specimens, "I am sure that this radial fabric has some functionality for these specimens," he said, possibly for movement or fixation to the sediment, but "we have a lot of work [to do]" to determine what that function truly was. Still, the complexity and organization of their structure "shows clearly that [these organisms were] multicellular," he insisted.

But to call these fossils multicellular, it's important to first define multicellularity, Donoghue told The Scientist. "There are a great number of definitions, some of which are very restrictive and others which are all encompassing." Part of the difficulty in defining the term, he added, is that "much of the molecular machinery that is necessary for cell-to-cell communication is" found even in more primitive organisms, such as bacterial colonies.

Interestingly, these fossils appear just a couple million years after the Great Oxidation Event, when oxygen became more widely available in the atmosphere and in the shallow oceans. This may have facilitated the evolution of a thicker organism, where "it becomes more difficult for the cells in the middle to obtain that oxygen if it's only at trace levels in the atmosphere," Donoghue said.

ancient stupid....,

BBCNews | Several prehistoric creatures developed elaborate body traits in order to attract members of the opposite sex, according to new research.

The purpose of the exaggerated crests and sails found in many fossil animals has long been controversial.

Some scientists said sails helped to regulate body temperature and that head crests helped flying reptiles steer during flight.

Now a study say these traits became so big because of sexual competition.

The findings, by an international team of researchers, is published in the journal American Naturalist.

One of the prehistoric animals looked at by the researchers were pterosaurs - flying reptiles which became extinct at the time of the dinosaurs.

The study suggests the relative size of the head crest compared to the body of the pterosaur was too large for it to have been dedicated to controlling the animal's body temperature or its flight.

They also looked at mammal-like creatures called Eupelycosaurs, which lived before the time of the dinosaurs.

This group, which included the animals Dimetrodon and Edaphosaurus, carried large elaborate "sails" along their backs.

By using known relationships between body size and metabolic activity - the process behind heat generation - in living organisms, the scientists concluded that the features were "too exaggerated" to have played a role in the control of body temperature.

Co-author Dr Stuart Humphries, from the University of Hull said: "One of the few things that haven't changed over the last 300 million years are the laws of physics.

"So it has been good to use those laws to understand what might really be driving the evolution of these big crests and sails."
Dimetrodon (SPL) Dimetrodon's elaborate sail was designed to attract mates, says the team

His colleague, Dr Joseph Tompkins, from the University of Western Australia, commented: "The sails of the Eupelycosaurs are among the earliest known examples of exaggerated secondary sexual traits in the history of vertebrate evolution.

"Indeed, the sail of Dimetrodon is one of the largest secondary sexual traits of any animal."