Sunday, December 31, 2006

Analogies We Wish We'd Thought Of

Okay, so we all know, I think, that carbon emissions are killing ocean life incredibly rapidly, right? Policymakers, however, are still thinking in terms of "stabilizing" our emissions, rather than drastically reducing emissions, which appears to be the only choice if we hope to reverse global warming, or at least not worsen it.

Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at Stanford recently described going to Washington "to brief some members of Congress. 'I was asked, "What is the appropriate stabilization target for atmospheric CO2?"' he recalled. 'And I said, "Well, I think it's inappropriate to think in terms of stabilization targets. I think we should think in terms of emissions targets." And they said, "O.K., what's the appropriate emissions target?" And I said, "Zero."'

"'If you're talking about mugging little old ladies, you don't say, "What's our target for the rate of mugging little old ladies?" You say, "Mugging little old ladies is bad, and we're going to try to eliminate it." You recognize you might not be a hundred per cent successful, but your goal is to eliminate the mugging of little old ladies. And I think we need to eventually come around to looking at carbon-dioxide emissions the same way.'"

--"The Darkening Sea," by Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, 11/20/2006.

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Bring in the Clownz

Ian Frazier, in an article chronicling the fall of Baghdad -- then a center of great learning and culture -- to the Mongols in 1258, sums up the caliph of Baghdad this way:

Mustasim, the caliph, was not of a character equal to such large problems. He is described as a weak, vacillating layabout who liked to drink sherbet and keep company with musicians and clowns.
--from "Invaders," by Ian Frazier, The New Yorker, April 25, 2005, p. 52.

First, I love the idea that the civilization of high Islam, in its decadent flower, was distinguished not by astronomy and algebra, but by clowns. Second, it seems to me that Mustasim had the right idea, generally, though perhaps he shouldn't have gotten his strategic advice from liberal arts majors.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

But Probably on the Money

In Elizabeth Kolbert's devastating three-part series on global warming, called "The Climate of Man," and published in 2005 in three successive issues of The New Yorker (which used to do a lot of serializing, by the way, and now almost never does), she quotes David Rind, from the Goddard Institute for Space Studies:

"We may say that we're more technologically able than earlier societies. But one thing about climate change is it's potentially geopolitically destabilizing. And we're not only more technologically able; we're more technologically able destructively as well. I think it's impossible to predict what will happen. I guess -- though I won't be around to see it -- I wouldn't be shocked to find out that by 2100 most things were destroyed." He paused. "That's sort of an extreme view."

--"The Climate of Man," The New Yorker, May 2, 2005, p. 71.

I highly recommend the series. It's no longer available online, though a few other shorter pieces by her on this topic are available at New Yorker dot com. She came out with a book this year, titled Field Notes from a Catastrophe. A Scientific American review of her book, posted on Amazon, says this of it:
The details are terrifying, and Kolbert's point of view is very clear, but there is no rhetoric of rant here. She is most directly editorial in the last sentence of the book, and by that point, she has built the case... For a friend of mine, Kolbert's New Yorker series was an awakening--the first time, she said, she really understood what was happening and why we must act.
Hear, hear.

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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Say Cheese

Chances are, you've seen the amazing black-and-white photos of SebastiĆ£o Salgado. He had stunning photos in The Atlantic about three years ago, of shipbreaking in India, and he is arguably the most famous photographer in the world. A recent profile of him in The New Yorker illuminated his working method, and the depth of his concentration. I was particularly struck by this passage:

His intensity, when working, could inspire a kind of shame in one's own lack of stamina, and in one's willingness to read and gossip rather than at all times commune with the scenery. It was like visiting an art gallery with someone able to study a single portrait for a full afternoon. In contrast to Salgado, the rest of us took photographs that seemed to be a kind of defense against the unease that can creep into our response to the sublime -- a shield against the guilt attached to not knowing how to fix one's gaze on something spectacular that one will never see again.
--"A Cold Light," by Ian Parker, The New Yorker, April 18, 2005, p. 157.

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Who's Got Your Number?

More from Richard Preston's fascinating 1992 piece on pi:

Pi is a transcendental number. A transcendental number is a number that exists but can't be expressed in any finite series of either arithmetical or algebraic operations ... Pi is a transcendental number because it transcends the power of algebra to display it in its totality ... [Pi] can't be written on a piece of paper, not even on a piece of paper as a big as the universe. In a manner of speaking, pi is indescribable and can't be found.
Preston goes on:
In 1873, Georg Cantor, a Russian-born mathematician who was one of the towering intellectual figures of the nineteenth century, proved that the set of transcendental numbers is infinitely more extensive than the set of algebraic numbers. That is, finite algebra can't find or describe most numbers. To put it another way, most numbers are infinitely long and non-repeating in any rational form of representation. In this respect, most numbers are like pi.

Cantor's proof was a disturbing piece of news, for at that time very few transcendental numbers were actually known ... [His] proof of the existence of uncountable multitudes of transcendental numbers resembled a proof that the world is packed with microscopic angels -- a proof, however, that does not tell us what the angels look like or where they can be found; it merely proves that they exist in uncountable multitudes ...

Cantor's proof disturbed some mathematicians because, in the first place, it suggested that they had not yet discovered most numbers, which were transcendentals, and in the second place that they lacked any tools or methods that would determine whether a given number was transcendental or not.
Wish I'd made more use of transcendental numbers when I was struggling with algebra in junior high school. After all, my math teachers sure felt my answers were irrational ...

--"The Mountains of Pi," by Richard Preston, The New Yorker, March 2, 1992, pp. 39 & 60.

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Ars Longa, but Pi is Even Longa

If you were to assign letters of the alphabet to combinations of digits, and were to do this for all human alphabets, syllabaries, and ideograms, then you could fit any written character in any language to a combination of digits in pi. According to this system, pi could be turned into literature. Then, if you look far enough into pi, you would probably find the expression "See the U.S.A. in a Chevrolet!" a billion times in a row. Elsewhere, you would find Christ's Sermon on the Mount in His native Aramaic tongue, and you would find versions of the Sermon on the Mount that are pure blasphemy. Also, you would find a dictionary of Yanomamo curses. A guide to the pawnshops of Lubbock. The book about the sea which James Joyce supposedly declared he would write after Finnegan's Wake. The collected transcripts of The Tonight Show rendered into Etruscan. Knowledge of all Existing Things by Ahmes the Egyptian scribe. Each occurrence of an apparently ordered string in pi, such as the words "Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate/That Time will come and take my love away," is followed by unimaginable deserts of babble. No book and none but the shortest poems will ever be seen in pi, since it is infinitesimally unlikely that even as brief a text as an English sonnet will appear in the first [10 to the 77th power] digits of pi, which is the longest piece of pi that can be calculated in this universe.

--"The Mountains of Pi," by Richard Preston, The New Yorker, March 2, 1992, p. 63.

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Everybody Gets a Slice of the Pi

Physicists have noted the ubiquity of pi in nature. Pi is obvious in the disks of the moon and the sun. The double helix of DNA revolves around pi. Pi hides in the rainbow, and sits in the pupil of the eye, and when a raindrop falls into water pi emerges in the spreading rings. Pi can be found in waves and ripples and spectra of all kinds, and therefore pi occurs in colors and music. Pi has lately turned up in superstrings, the hypothetical loops of energy vibrating inside subatomic particles. Pi occurs naturally in tables of death, in what is known as a Gaussian distribution of deaths in a population: that is, when a person dies, the event "feels" the Ludolphian number [i.e., pi].
--"The Mountains of Pi," by Richard Preston, The New Yorker, March 2, 1992, p. 40.

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Monday, December 18, 2006

Putting the "Extra" in "Extraordinary"

One of the best Christmas presents I ever received was given to me last year by my wonderful wife: The New Yorker magazine on DVD, every issue ever printed ... except that it's always about a year behind. I love the magazine but don't subscribe because I know I can't keep up with it, which is silly because it's fairly easy to keep up with 50 issues a year compared to catching up on 80 years of back issues.

Anyhow, this explains why I'm only just now reading a 2005 article by Richard Preston called Capturing the Unicorn. The thing is an unintentional catalog of the extraordinary. First, there's "The Hunt of the Unicorn," the seven tapestries "woven from threads of dyed wool and silk, some of them gilded or wrapped in silver, around 1500" and owned since 1937 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They are "the most beautiful tapestries in existence," are "among the great works of art of any kind," and "their monetary value today is incalculable." They were moved in 1998 from the Cloisters to the Met itself to be cleaned and repaired. (I'm thinking art heist movie -- are you?)

Second, the linen backings, which had deteriorated, had to be removed, performed by a team at the Met "using tweezers and mangifying lenses." And just so you know, these tapestries aren't small: they're 12 feet tall, and some are 14 feet wide. Did I mention there were seven of them? Preston estimates it probably took about seven years to make them. Imagine trying to take off the backings without harming them. (Would you be nervous? Naah, I didn't think so.)

Third, the Met's chief photographer has a goal of making a "high-resolution digital image of every work of art in the Met's collections. The job will take at least twenty-five years ..." Nothing like having a goal. Anyway, her team had to photograph the tapestries in sections. It took two weeks and the images filled over 200 CDs. The plan was to stitch the images together in Photoshop.

Fourth, when it turned out the images couldn't be stitched together, two mathematicians, Gregory and David Chudnovsky, came to the rescue. The pair are brothers and "insist they are functionally one mathematician who happens to occupy two human bodies." Preston refers to the two as "the Chudnovsky Mathematician." They took the CDs from the Met (yes, there was a predictably hilarious incident where one of them accidentally left a whole bag of the CDs at the grocery store) and fed the data into their home-built supercomputer ... but couldn't stitch the images together at first. Why? Because a tapestry is not a 2-D object, but a 3-D one. The warp of it changed shape over tme, responding to changes in humidity and heat. Hour by hour, as the photographers worked, it expanded and contracted, its edges shifting slightly, and "the gold- and silver-wrapped threads changed shape at different speeds and in different ways from the wool and silk threads." On top of this, the photographers had placed a sheet of paper underneath the sections they photographed, and as they moved it, they stretched the tapestry slightly, making it ripple. All of which added up to a heckuva math problem.

Solve it the Chudnovsky Mathematician did. Now the Mathematician is working on a supercomputer for the US government that "will contain two million processors and fourteen thousand hard drives. It will use two and a half million watts of electricity -- enough to power a few thousand homes. Two thousand gallons of water per minute will flow through [its] core ... to keep it cool. If the pumps fail, it will melt down in less than ten seconds."

Sorta puts our own puny ambitions into scale, don't it?

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

Did the Plague Create Real Estate Agents?

Joan Acocella, reviewing a book about the Black Death in the March 21, 2005 issue of The New Yorker, gives these sobering statistics:

In four years [circa 1350], the plague had killed at least a third of the population of Europe: twenty-five million people ... Measured against Europe's population today, the Black Death took the equivalent of almost two billion lives.
Untreated by appropriate antibiotics, which were not introduced until the nineteen-forties, bubonic plague kills three out of five of its victims within two weeks. If the disease goes straight to the lungs -- a variation known as pneumonic plague -- the course is shorter and nastier.
Imagine the resulting labor shortage if one-third of the world's people were to suddenly die. And consider its impact on property law. The cascade of litigation that resulted from the Black Death resulted in the basic legal framework we accept today. Norman Cantor, author of In the Wake of the Plague and quoted in Acocella's review, writes:
A barrister of 1350 deep frozen and thawed out today ... would need only a six-month refresher course at a first-rate American law school to practice property or real estate law.
Sounds like a great movie. The country bumpkin from Geneva with his outlandish dress and an outlook one could only call positively medieval gets into Yale Law School and then graduates in six months (think The Paper Chase on adrenaline), going on to get the girl and hang out his shingle, not necessarily in that order.

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Friday, December 15, 2006

Voltaire Rocks La Maison

I don't think much about Voltaire usually. After an unhappy encounter with Candide in a high school French class for which I was inadequately prepared, I've been content to consign him to the same category one consigns any other elder: well-meaning, no doubt, and perhaps brilliant in his own outdated way, but not relevant. Voltaire, of course, wouldn't have seen himself this way, judging by a book review by Adam Gopnik in the March 7th, 2006 issue of The New Yorker. To explain why Voltaire would have begun his campaigns for human rights at all, Gopnik writes of him that, "there is the kind of egotism so vast and so pleased with itself that it includes other people as an extension of itself. Voltaire felt so much for other people because he felt so much for himself; everything happened to him because he was the only reasonable subject of everything that happened. By inflating his ego to immense proportions, he made it a shelter for the helpless."

And Gopnik makes a convincing case that Voltaire was indeed important, not just because he was one of the first campaigners for human rights, but because he refused to countenance religious violence, and with it, he also refused faith itself.

If you've read Candide, you know that Voltaire pokes merciless fun at Leibniz' idea that "the world is optimally designed," and that suffering is part of "some universal balance." Gopnik writes, "Voltaire's target throughout Candide is not optimism in the sense of fatuous cheerfulness but optimism in the sense of optimal thinking: the kind of bland reassurance that explains pain with reference to a larger plan or history." Generally speaking, Gopnik asserts that we no longer believe that natural disasters are part of a benevolent universe, as people did in Voltaire's time. (As an aside, I think Gopnik is wrong in this: after Hurricane Katrina, I was startled to hear more than one educated colleague refer to it in a way that made it clear they thought of Katrina as divine retribution for the sins of New Orleans. I wondered what would happen if they'd said that to anyone in Mississippi whose homes and livelihoods were also destroyed.)

"But almost all of us still do believe, stubbornly, in some kind of optimal thinking. We believe, vaguely or explicitly, that liberal democracy, with all its faults, is the best of all possible political systems, that globalization, with all its injustices, is the best of all possible futures, and even that the American way is the best of all possible ways ... We are all optimalists of this kind, perhaps reinforced by the doctrines of evolutionary psychology ... or by faith in an inevitable evolving 'future of freedom.' Attacks on these beliefs -- September 11th was the most acute -- shake us up the way eighteenth-century people were shaken by the Lisbon earthquake. The realization that all may not be tending toward the best, that religious fanaticism and tribal intolerance could prevail over liberal meiliorism, is the earthquake of our time.

"Voltaire's radicalism, then and now, lies not in his refutation of optimism but in his refusal of belief. Candide is not really, or entirely, a satire on optimism. It is an attack on organized religion."
I think Gopnik is correct that most Americans share a vague, benign belief that everything is getting better in small ways, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that it isn't - famine persists, genocide proliferates, we are doing rapid damage to the environment, and the poor in this country are getting poorer. And many people believe that "things happen for a reason," and will say so regularly. Or they'll say that "God doesn't send you anything you can't handle." To both of which I say, Horse-hockey! Yes, I know that it can feel that the course of one's life seems, in retrospect, to make more sense than it did at the time one was living it; and yes, human beings are capable of great endurance and change to meet enormous personal, physical, and psychological challenges. But try telling someone who survived the Rwandan genocide that "things happen for a reason." Try telling that to the next homeless people you meet and see if they agree. Or consider telling someone who was brutally raped and maimed as a child that "God doesn't send you anything you can't handle." Assuming there is a God, it's clear He's got no qualms about sending people trouble they can't handle. People break all the time.

I have no quarrel with spirituality or people of faith. But lately it's become clear to me that this meliorist view is based on very sloppy thinking. The flip side of what we usually mean when we say that "things happen for a reason" is this: if you're suffering, you better suck it up because it's what's on the menu. Maybe it is, and maybe it isn't: if you're suffering at the hands of other people or if your suffering is due to our collective short-sightedness and stupidity, then the platitudes don't cut it. No one should have to suffer, or suffer evil, and be told to simmer down because the Big Guy Upstairs has got it all under control.

But to get back to Voltaire, is it possible that his denial of faith brought the horrors of the Nazi death camps and the like upon us? No, says Gopnik:
"Of course, in the light of later horrors, the horror that Voltaire wanted to crush doesn't seem a horror at all ... His enemies were local lynch mobs, not centralized terror. A Nazi or Soviet regime would have crushed him, horribly, and everyone else with him. The argument has even been made that Voltaire's rejection of moral order and God helped lead to the later horrors. But unless one believes, against all the evidence, that faith in God keeps one from cruelty, this is a bum rap. There are absolutist and totalitarian elements in the Enlightenment, of the kind that Burke and Berlin alike opposed: the desire to rip up the calendar of the past and start over implies murdering whoever isn't with the program. This wasn't Voltaire's spirit by a mile."
And finally:

"It is still bracing, at a time when the extreme deference we pay to faith has made any attack on religious beliefs unacceptable, to hear Voltaire on Jesuits and Muslims alike -- to hear him howl with indignation at the madness and malignance of religion -- and to be reminded that that free-thinking, which inspired Twain and Mencken, has almost vanished from our world."

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Literary (Un)Scene

Literary innovation isn't dead yet -- because it's undead, I guess. In the September issue of LOCUS, I was fascinated to read about author Laurell K. Hamilton, whose new book, Danse Macabre, is an instant hardcover bestseller. Seems she's got 6 million copies of her work in print (with no help from an Espresso Book Machine) because she helped create a new subgenre: paranormal romance. Evidently, "almost 20% of romance novels sold in 2005 had some paranormal content." Who'da thunk?

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Monday, December 04, 2006

Things No Author Wants to Hear

In a blurb in the September 2006 LOCUS, I found a blurb describing the ongoing merger of the British bookselling chains Waterstone's & Ottaker's. Apparently, about 30% of Ottaker's stock has to be "sold, pulped, or returned during the process of converting the stores." Here's the revealingly descriptive language Waterstone's PR flak used:

"[A]bout 30% of the stock needs improving; it can be broken down as roughly 5% that is dead and of no use to anyone, 10-15% that is dead range but is still saleable and the balance as excess copy depth."

My heart goes out to those authors whose work is "dead and of no use to anyone," but I'm also curious about how something can be "dead range" but "still saleable." Many of my favorite authors would probably be described as the reverse: unsaleable, but not dead range.

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