November 24, 2007


Out on vacation. Rukawat ke liye khed hai. Sorry for the interruption. Be back soon.

"One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things." –- Henry Miller

November 23, 2007

The anticipation and the recollection

Having read an interesting interview with the Spanish author, Javier Marias (see my post here), I picked up two books by him - The Man of Feeling and a collection of short pieces (not stories, many read like short vignettes) titled When I Was Mortal.

I'll definitely be blogging more about both books soon as I find Marias's writing very delectable.. even if some of the short stories read so far were not sumptuous in their whole, the parts thereof were like ...well.. 'tasty morsels' that I quite enjoyed.

For starters, here is an excerpt from the epilogue to The Man of Feeling, in which the author gives some background about the book.

The Man of Feeling is a love story in which love is neither seen nor experienced, but announced and remembered. Can such a thing happen? Can something as urgent and unpostponable as love, which requires both presence and immediate consummation or consumption, be announced when it does not yet exist or truly remembered if it no longer exists? Or does the announcement itself and mere memory - now and still respectively - form part of that love? I don't know, but I do believe that love is based in large measure on its anticipation and its recollection. It is the feeling that requires the largest dose of imagination, not only when one senses its presence, when one sees it coming, and not only when the person who has experienced and lost love feels a need to explain it to him or herself, but also while that love is evolving and is in full flow. Let us say it is a feeling which always demands an element of fiction beyond that afforded by reality. In other words, love always has an imaginary side to it, however tangiable or real we believe it to be at any given moment. It is always about to be fulfilled, it is the realm of what might be. Or, rather, of what might have been.

By the way, you can read the NYT Review of the book here; another review here, and lastly a review from the 'bookslut' here.

Other books by Javier Marias on my to-read list: A Heart So White, All Souls, and Dark Back of Time. Also, his non-fictional Written Lives is supposed to be an interesting look at the lives of some of the greatest authors we know.

A lunatic's job

Writing is a lunatic's job. This according to Warren Ellis, who in an interview some years back when asked why he writes replied:

Why does anyone write? I want to talk about what I see. I'm compelled to. I understand that all writing, really, is about where the writer is today and what they're seeing in front of them, and I'm compelled to bring my perception to the table. It's a lunatic's job, basically. If I wasn't doing this I'd be walking the streets with a placard on a stick and wetting myself in public. The only real difference between me and the signboard guy in San Francisco who rants about the Clintons betraying 16 galaxies and a zegnalogical rocket society is that I get paid for my perception of the world. And I own better suits.

And later in the interview this gem:
How would you describe the relationship between utopia and dystopia in your work?

I think -- I hope -- that both concepts are dismissed as adolescent thinking. There are moments of pure, heart stopping beauty in the most tragic and broken environments. And the loveliest community on earth will not be able to eliminate the dog turd. I have attempted to reflect this in TRANSMET: the understanding that the world can be neither perfect nor doomed. But that it can be better. And the people who get to decide if it's going to be better or not are the people who show up and raise their voices.

And how true is this. Aren't we lucky to be living at this time....the internet - what a wonderful tool! The wise man that said "Knowledge is power" didn't have the internet in mind as a empowering tool but that is what it is.

In what ways has technology affected the way you create or your sense of direction and themes as an artist?

The internet changed everything for me. All the things I wanted to know about but couldn't obtain through traditional media or communications are right there. I would have killed for this when I was 19 with no money and dying to fill my brain with new things from all over the planet. With this electric window, I can literally see across the world.

and a nugget of wisdom to end the interview:

What do you think we need to learn in order to survive this world we have created?

There is such a thing as truth. Non-relative, unassailable, valuable truth. Do not let people relativise the concept of truth into vapour.
Note: The link to the interview is from a post Amit Varma put up in response to a link to an article by Ellis that I had emailed him about. (As the philosphers say: it all comes back full circle. ;))

I should add: I have not read enough Ellis to appreciate his acerbic wit and futuristic examination of the present state of society. Amit did introduce me to his work though his (Ellis's) famed comic book series, Transmetropolitan .. but I have not read it or any of Ellis's other work.

Notable books of 2007

Amit Varma posted a link to the 100 notable books of 2007 and wondered how many his blog readers had read.

Answer: None.

But I am a big McEwan fan. So, On Chesil Beach is on my to-read list. I have not read any Murakami yet (other than his short stories collection - After the quake)...but probably should read one of his earlier books rather than the one from this year - After Dark. Which do you recommend be my first Murakami book? Have heard a lot about Wind-up Bird Chronicle but maybe its not the best first Murakami novel to read? (Update: Just remembered - I had read
Sputnik Sweetheart last year.)

Also I like Phillip Roth but just recently read The Counterlife. So, don't think I'm reading Exit Ghost any time soon. Probably should/will read his other recent book The Plot against America, where he talks about where a Nazi-mindset Charles Lindbergh comes to power etc., some day!

Also should read The reluctant fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, a "chilling novel narrated by a Pakistani who tells his life story to an unnamed American after the attacks of 9/11."

Am also a fan of Alice Munro and so her book of short stories, The view from Castle Rock may be worth a read. There are many other good books in there, including collections of poems by Robert Haas and Derek Walcott.

And this is all just in the fiction section. The non-fiction section is full of many books that seem worthy of investing ones time into.

So many great books to read, just one lifetime.

A dream of time and eternity

Cannot remember where I saw this yesterday evening while surfing but its a great excerpt.
Was it a dream? Was it the dream of a somnambulist, a dream within a dream, and hence more real than a real dream, since it cannot be measured against waking, since it cannot be measured by consciousness, because it is a dream from which one awakens into another dream? Or was it a god-like dream, a dream of time and eternity? A dream without illusions and doubts, a dream with its own languages and senses, a dream of both soul and body, a dream of consciousness and corporality both, a dream with clear-cut boundaries, with its own language and sound, a dream that is palpable, that can be explored with taste, smell, and hearing, a dream stronger than waking, a dream such as only the dead perhaps can dream, a dream that cannot be denied by a blade nicking the chin, for blood flows at once, and everything one does is but a proof of reality and waking; the skin bleeds in the dream as does the heart, the body rejoices in the dream as does the soul, there are no miracles in the dream other than life; the only way out of the dream is to awaken into death. Encyclopedia of the Dead

November 22, 2007

A cry for help!

Just saw a Boing-Boing post that is a follow-up to a NYT story last month about the rape epidemic in the Congo.
Jeffrey Gettleman, the East Africa bureau chief of the Times wrote of a world populated by perpetrators gone mad: "According to victims, one of the newest groups to emerge is called the Rastas, a mysterious gang of dreadlocked fugitives who live deep in the forest, wear shiny tracksuits and Los Angeles Lakers jerseys and are notorious for burning babies, kidnapping women and literally chopping up anybody who gets in their way." An accompanying slideshow and video brought the faces of their victims to life. At the center of the story was the Panzi Hospital of Bukavu, a not-for-profit hospital that treats many of the rape epidemic's victims, women who spend their days in bed "lying on their backs, staring at the ceiling, with colostomy bags hanging next to them because of all the internal damage.
Information on how to make financial donations and provide other forms of support to the Panzi hospital are detailed in a post by Susannah Breslin.

The week that was

Just catching up with Harper's Weekly Review... (Its a great weekly wrap-up, written often with a subtle sarcastic subscribe to the weekly updates if you like)...and here are a few interesting snippets from last week.

In a week when oil prices flirt with 100$/barrel and causes all kinds of agonizing....

At the third OPEC summit in 47 years, held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said that the price of crude oil could reach $200 a barrel. “The basis of all aggression,” said Chavez, “is oil.” During a private meeting that was accidentally televised, the oil minister of Venezuela suggested to the oil minister of Iran that OPEC stop using the crippled dollar for pricing; the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia countered that public discussion of the weak dollar would cause U.S. currency to lose value. “Kill the cable!” shouted a security guard as he ran into the meeting room, “Kill the cable!”1 2

An economist with financial services firm
UBS AG put the odds of a U.S. recession at 45 percent.3

I think he means mangrove...not mango :)

Cyclone Sidr killed 3,000 Bangladeshis even though the cyclone's fury was dampened by mango forests near the coast,6

haha...the Chinese trying hard in their own inimitable way to win back the confidence of the world ;)

Pork provider Pengcheng held a public pig-carcass-shaving to demonstrate that its meat would be sanitary and safe to eat at next year's Olympic Games; rival meat purveyors Qianxihe Group were raising special organic-fed Olympic pigs that are treated with traditional herbal medicines and given two hours of exercise each day.2

I had heard San Fransisco Bay oil spill was pretty bad...had not heard of this other one!

Ships carrying at least 2,000 tons of oil and 6,000 tons of sulfur sank in a storm in the straits between the Black Sea and the Azov Sea, killing at least three sailors and 30,000 birds.7

Had read about the poor Polish immigrant who died after being tasered in Vancouver airport recently and then the 20 year old Baltimore kid who died after being tasered last weekend...but had not read about this guy! In this one case, i say...GOOD RIDDANCE to bad rubbish!!

Former minister Amon Paul Carlock, also known as Klutzo the Clown, who was arrested after photos of naked Filipino orphans were found on his laptop, died in a Springfield, Illinois, prison after he was Tasered by a corrections officer.1 2

November 21, 2007

So this, in the end, is what love is

This has to be the touching human story of the year!
Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s husband of 55 years, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, was in a romantic relationship with another woman; O'Connor reportedly was happy to visit the new couple as they sat on a porch swing holding hands. “A broken heart looks different in somebody old,” explained a brain imaging research scientist.”
Like psychologist Mary Pipher writes in a related article:
“Young love is about wanting to be happy. Old love is about wanting someone else to be happy.”

November 18, 2007

Product placement in novels

Nothing is sacrosanct any more! Product placement in movies and sitcoms is one thing but actually writing novels tailored around products is quite something else. Considering it is a famous author like Fay Weldon that had done this, I am surprised I had not heard about this before!

Have product placement deals ever found their way into novels?
In 2001, literary types were shocked to discover that author Fay Weldon’s latest novel, The Bulgari Connection, had more than just a titular connection to the jewelry manufacturer. Bulgari had, in fact, paid Weldon to write it. That explains the dozens of sensual descriptions of their products found within (“it was a sleek modern piece … the mount following the irregular contours of the thin worn bronze”), but not why a respectable, Booker prize-nominated writer would accept such a payoff. In her defense, a defiant Weldon said, “I don’t care. They never give me the Booker prize anyway!” Having earned so much critical condemnation, she’s unlikely to get one now.

November 16, 2007

For a good poet's made, as well as born.

Ben Jonson writing about his 'mentor' Shakespeare in the poem, TO THE MEMORY OF MY BELOVED MASTER WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, AND WHAT HE HATH LEFT US.
Nature herself was proud of his designs,
And joyed to wear the dressing of his lines !
Which were so richly spun, and woven so fit,
As, since, she will vouchsafe no other wit.


For though the poet's matter nature be,
His art doth give the fashion : and, that he
Who casts to write a living line, must sweat,
(Such as thine are) and strike the second heat
Upon the Muses' anvil ; turn the same,
And himself with it, that he thinks to frame ;
Or for the laurel he may gain a scorn ;
For a good poet's made, as well as born.
They don't write eulogies this great any more! Read it in its entirety here.

I found it while reading Freeman Dyson's essay, This Side Idolatry, which is about his own mentor, the very unique and fascinating Richard Feynman. The essay was originally written as a foreword to the book, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman and is also included in The Scientist as Rebel.

November 15, 2007

The New Turks

Driven by a surging stock market (benchmark index up 53% in the past year) and a strong rupee (12% appreciation in the past year), this years list of India's top 40 richest are all billionares. This according to ‘Forbes’ magazine, which assesses Reliance's Mukesh Ambani’s net worth to have soared to $49 billion, ahead of his brother Anil Ambani’s $45 billion. ArcelorMittal chief executive Lakshmi Mittal retains his spot (for now) as the richest Indian with estimated assets of $51 billion. The reports says that "the four wealthiest Indians have more money ($180 billion) than the 40 richest Chinese. Had these four been worth as much in March, when Forbes published their annual list of the world's billionaires, they all would have ranked among the world's 10 richest--three would have been new to the top 10; Mittal was already ranked fifth."

An unfamiliar name (to me) making the top 10: Pune's Tulsi Tanti:

India's wind man runs Suzlon Energy, world's most valuable wind power company, which he founded with 3 brothers in 1995. In March won hotly contested race to acquire German rival REpower!

Hooohaaaa...for renewable energy! :) And three cheers also for Pune's serum & vaccine-man, Cyrus Poonawallah, who clocks in at #22. ...what a great story!

Another clear indication is that real estate is king in India - at least in the metropolises, which reflect such a small portion of India but where most of the money and power is concentrated - is that 2 other names in the top 10, which I was also not familiar with before today, are real-estate related billionares - Kushal Pal Singh at #4 (world's richest real estate developer!) and Ramesh Chandra at #8! Also, two builder most of us who are from Mumbai have heard about - Hiranandani and Raheja - have made the top 40 list!

Outsourcing is still a huge business for many Indian companies and Wipro's Aziz Premji is there at #5 but Infosys's Narayana Murthy is down at #37 - almost risking being relegated out of the top-40 -- not that he would care for this sort of inane lists.

Related reports from couple weeks back:

When Asia's Millionaires Splurge, They Go Big

According to a survey issued this week by Merrill Lynch and consultancy Capgemini, when they spend on luxury items, the wealthy in the Asia-Pacific region are the most likely to splurge on big-ticket things such as vintage yachts, private airplanes, high-end automobiles and sports teams.

Ranks of Asia's Millionaires Grow

Robust economic growth helped 200,000 people join the ranks of the Asia-Pacific's millionaires last year, with Singapore's rich club growing at the fastest rate

The newest billionaires: China's economy churns out dozens

Even as China's trade surplus jumped to a new all-time monthly high in October...# of billionaires in China leap-frogs. A year ago, there were 15 billionaires in China. Now, there are more than 100. The United States has more billionaires than any other country: 415 by Forbes's last count. Unlike America's rich, China's are hardly famous, even in China. Gates, Buffett and Brin are known around the world. But Yang, Guo and Zhang?


Not too many people in the Western world knew about the aforementioned Russian scientist Varnadsky until recently but I am ashamed to say I had not really known much about Humboldt till I briefly read up about him just now. Being a student of science for many years now, I understand the realms of physics and chemistry to some extent and have from time to time read* about the lives and achievements of famous scientists who contributed to these fields over the years but somehow my exposure has been limited in the fields of geography, biology, ecology, and their intersection - fields to which Humboldt and Varnadsky contributed greatly. (A few different books about Darwin - this on in particular - as well as Darwin's own writings and his autobiography, wait patiently on my to-read list!) Humboldt is known today as the founder of modern geography but as wikipedia enlightens, he was more than that...
Alexander von Humboldt or Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander Freiherr von Humboldt (1769-1859) was a Prussian naturalist and explorer.... His quantitative work on botanical geography was foundational to the field of biogeography. He was one of the first to propose that the lands bordering the Atlantic were once joined (South America and Africa in particular). Late in life, in his five-volume work Kosmos, he attempted to unify the various branches involved in knowledge of the world.
BBC's In our Time had a special show dedicated to him.
Darwin described him as 'the greatest scientific traveller who ever lived'. Goethe declared that one learned more from an hour in his company than eight days of studying books and even Napoleon was reputed to be envious of his celebrity. We're talking about the Prussian scientist and explorer Alexander Von Humboldt. If you haven't heard of him you're not alone and yet, at the time of his death in 1859, the year Darwin published On the Origin of Species, Humboldt was probably the most famous scientist in Europe. Add to this shipwrecks, homosexuality and Spanish American revolutionary politics and you have the ingredients for one of the more extraordinary lives lived in Europe (and elsewhere) in the 18th and 19th centuries.

* I should say...I have read and own a copy of Primo Levi's book, Periodic Table, recently awarded the title of best science book ever written!


Technology Review's Young Innovators Under 35 for 2007 awards have been announced.

2007 Innovator of the Year: David Berry (Renewable petroleum from microbes)
2007 Humanitarian of the Year: Tapan Parikh (Univ. of Washington - Simple, powerful mobile tools for developing economies)

More about microbial petroleum later after I research the topic a little bit later today.

(grr...Facebook is everywhere. Mark Zuckerberg makes it to the list!)

Here is the complete list.
J. Christopher Anderson
Creating tumor-killing bacteria
Erik Bakkers
Combining semiconductors
David Berry
Renewable petroleum from microbes
Sanjit Biswas
Cheap, easy Internet access
Josh Bongard
Adaptive robots
Garrett Camp
Discovering more of the Web
Mung Chiang
Optimizing networks
Adam Cohen
Making molecules motionless
Javier García-Martínez
New zeolites for cracking petroleum
Ali Khademhosseini
Living Legos
Tadayoshi Kohno
Securing systems cryptographically
Tariq Krim
Building a personal, dynamic Web page

Ivan Krstic´
Making antivirus software obsolete
Jeff LaPorte
Internet-based calling from mobile phones
Ju Li
Modeling designer materials
Karen Liu
Bringing body language to computer-animated characters
Christopher Loose
Beating up bacteria
Anna Lysyanskaya
Securing online privacy
Tapan Parikh
Simple, powerful mobile tools for developing economies
Babak Parviz
Self-assembling micromachines
Kristala Jones Prather
Reverse-engineering biology
Partha Ranganathan
Power-aware computing systems

Neil Renninger
Hacking microbes for energy
Kevin Rose
Online social bookmarking
Marc Sciamanna
Controlling chaos in telecom lasers
Rachel Segalman
Cheap electricity from heat
Shetal Shah
Cushioning preemies
Abraham Stroock
Microfluidic biomaterials
Desney Tan
Teaching computers to read minds
Doris Tsao
Shedding light on how our brains recognize faces
Luis von Ahn
Using “captchas” to digitize books
Xudong Wang
Powering the nanoworld
Lili Yang
Engineering immunity
Mehmet Yanik
Stopping light on microchips
Mark Zuckerberg
Circle of friends

Very humbling to see what these people under 35 have achieved.

“Just as energy is the basis of life itself, and ideas the source of innovation, so is innovation the vital spark of all human change, improvement and progress” - Ted Levitt

And then there are those involved in such "interesting" research as extracting vanilla from cow dung* or exploring whether rats "sometimes cannot tell the difference between a person speaking Japanese backwards and a person speaking Dutch backwards" (emphasis mine.)

See the list below. All worthy winners of the Ignobel. :)

(* It seems Toscanini's Ice Cream, one of the finest ice cream shops in Cambridge, MA, created a new ice cream flavor in honor of Mayu Yamamoto, and introduced it at the Ig Nobel ceremony. The flavor is called "Yum-a-Moto Vanilla Twist.")

The 2007 Ig Nobel Prize Winners

  • MEDICINE: Brian Witcombe of Gloucester, UK, and Dan Meyer of Antioch, Tennessee, USA, for their penetrating medical report "Sword Swallowing and Its Side Effects."
  • PHYSICS: L. Mahadevan of Harvard University, USA, and Enrique Cerda Villablanca of Universidad de Santiago de Chile, for studying how sheets become wrinkled.
  • BIOLOGY: Prof. Dr. Johanna E.M.H. van Bronswijk of Eindhoven University of Technology, The Netherlands, for doing a census of all the mites, insects, spiders, pseudoscorpions, crustaceans, bacteria, algae, ferns and fungi with whom we share our beds each night.
  • CHEMISTRY: Mayu Yamamoto of the International Medical Center of Japan, for developing a way to extract vanillin -- vanilla fragrance and flavoring -- from cow dung.
  • LINGUISTICS: Juan Manuel Toro, Josep B. Trobalon and Núria Sebastián-Gallés, of Universitat de Barcelona, for showing that rats sometimes cannot tell the difference between a person speaking Japanese backwards and a person speaking Dutch backwards.
  • LITERATURE: Glenda Browne of Blaxland, Blue Mountains, Australia, for her study of the word "the" -- and of the many ways it causes problems for anyone who tries to put things into alphabetical order.
  • PEACE: The Air Force Wright Laboratory, Dayton, Ohio, USA, for instigating research & development on a chemical weapon -- the so-called "gay bomb" -- that will make enemy soldiers become sexually irresistible to each other.
  • NUTRITION: Brian Wansink of Cornell University, for exploring the seemingly boundless appetites of human beings, by feeding them with a self-refilling, bottomless bowl of soup
  • ECONOMICS: Kuo Cheng Hsieh, of Taichung, Taiwan, for patenting a device, in the year 2001, that catches bank robbers by dropping a net over them.
  • AVIATION: Patricia V. Agostino, Santiago A. Plano and Diego A. Golombek of Universidad Nacional de Quilmes, Argentina, for their discovery that Viagra aids jetlag recovery in hamsters.

“Innovation is not the product of logical thought, although the result is tied to logical structure.” - Albert Einstein

November 14, 2007

How does it feel to die?

How it feels to die
What does it feel like to drown? If you're decapitated, how long do you remain conscious? New Scientist has a feature on how it feels to die from a variety of causes. Read the article for details.

Reminds me of a book of short essays/stories (, stories is perhaps the right word) that I had picked up earlier this year. The book,
Severance by the very creative author, Robert Olen Butler, comprises of sixty-two entries...
...each in the voice of a beheaded historical, mythical, animal or modern figure, make up the collection. Each is exactly 240 words, Butler's estimate of the number of words that could be spoken by a decapitated head before oxygen runs out. theory has it that consciousness lasts for one and a half minutes after decapitation, and people can utter 160 words per minute when agitated. Butler did the math, so each spurt-of-consciousness story is 240 words long. And he did the research, unearthing 62 individuals who lost their heads in executions, at the hands of murderers (most often husbands), and in accidents (Jayne Mansfield).
I had found this book very vague, disconnected, and boring to read (not to forget morbid at times) and though very creative, read perhaps half the entries before returning it to the library.

And going past this the morbid topic of death, here is a scientific studies that tell us how to live..
Animal enrichment research may be telling us something important not about the positive effects of stimulation, but about reversing the negative effects of deprivation. For people whose work is unstimulating, having mentally challenging hobbies, like learning a new language or playing bridge, can help maintain cognitive performance. But the belief that any single brain exercise program late in life can act as a quick fix for general mental function is almost entirely faith-based.

One form of training, however, has been shown to maintain and improve brain health — physical exercise. In humans, exercise improves what scientists call “executive function,” the set of abilities that allows you to select behavior that’s appropriate to the situation, inhibit inappropriate behavior and focus on the job at hand in spite of distractions. Executive function includes basic functions like processing speed, response speed and working memory, the type used to remember a house number while walking from the car to a party.

Executive function starts to decline when people reach their 70s. But elderly people who have been athletic all their lives have much better executive function than sedentary people of the same age. This relationship might occur because people who are healthier tend to be more active, but that’s not the whole story. When inactive people get more exercise, even starting in their 70s, their executive function improves, as shown in a recent meta-analysis of 18 studies. One effective training program involves just 30 to 60 minutes of fast walking several times a week.

Biosfera and Noosphere

In my previous post, I mentioned the three stages of cosmic evolution. The Russian scientist, Vladimir Vernadsky, along with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and other neo-Darwinists, developed an entire philosophy for cosmic evolution along..

...nine levels of complexity, which can be grouped into three stages: the lithosphere (levels 1 to 5, the "dead" matter, organised by elementary physical laws), the biosphere (levels 6 to 8, the "living" matter, organised by genetic codes and reflexes), and the noosphere (level 9, the "thinking" matter, organised by the software of the human brain). The notion of Noosphere refers to the process of reorganising humans and humanity from a chaotic, conflicting level into a harmonic, constructive and creative cooperation. It includes all the developing knowledge and social structures for the realisation of this aim. (- via the Noosphere Website)

Vernadsky is generally agreed upon as the first to popularize* the term 'biosphere' ("biosphera") through "a scientific understanding of the 'Biosphere' - the thin strata where life exists on the Earth and the "'Noosphere' - the realm of the activity of human thought."

In his work, Vernadsky argued that even as humanity establishes itself as a geological force in terms of its impact on the ecology of earth, the "strength of human reason" would prevail and that scientific thought would overcome the negative results of technogenesis and would secure "the rational transformation (and not annihilation) of the natural components of the biosphere." [1]

Almost 75 years ago, "reflecting on his world, he (Vernadsky) made a startling observation: through technology and sheer numbers, he wrote, people were becoming a geological force, shaping the planet's future just as rivers and earthquakes had shaped its past. Eventually, wrote the scientist, Vladimir I. Vernadsky, global society, guided by science, would soften the human environmental impact, and earth would become a ''noosphere,'' a planet of the mind, ''life's domain ruled by reason.'' - via Managing Planet Earth, NY Times.

Lets hope he was right!

(* Wikipedia enlightens: "He is most noted for his 1926 book The Biosphere (review) in which he inadvertently worked to popularized Eduard Suess’ 1885 term biosphere, by hypothesizing that life is the geological force that shapes the earth.")

Related: Read this excerpt from an essay by VI Vernadsky on the Bisphere and the Noosphere, translated by his son for the American Scientist in January 1945. Also, 5 essays from Russian scientists about Vernadsky and his profound impact on a large number of fields he studied and philosophized about.

The preface to the essays at the link points out an interesting tidbit that brings this full circle back to Freeman Dyson and his discourses about the atom bomb.

His research broadened our knowledge about the biosphere. It was Vernadsky who predicted its inevitable transformation into the noösphere under the influence of scientific development and collective human activities. His ideas about evolution have lost none of their practical value to this very day. As a result, he is even closer to us than to his contemporaries who failed to appreciate the significance of his biospheric concept and many other ideas. His analysis of atomic power prospects bears out his phenomenal far-sightedness. The phenomenon of radioactivity was discovered at the turn of the century. Ten years later, in December 1910, Vernadsky made a report at the General Assembly of the Russian Academy of Sciences, in which he predicted that in a short while man would learn to control the disintegration rate which would give him an unprecedented source of power. Few people agreed with him then. He returned to the subject in 1922 and asked if mankind was ready for the inevitable and early advent of atomic energy and whether it will use this energy for its own good or for self-destruction.

Related book to read: The Earth's Biosphere: Evolution, Dynamics, and Change by Vaclav Smil, which coincidentally is reviewed by Freeman Dyson for the New York Review and is also included (Chapter 5) inf the previously discussed book, The Scientist as Rebel .) Also, recommended is Dyson's collected series of the Gifford Lectures, titled "In Praise of Diversity", given at Aberdeen, Scotland in November 1985 and published later as a book - Infinite in All Directions. In the book he focuses on the diversity of the natural world and the diversity of human reactions.

Kind related: Nature of Global Consciousness: this "Noosphere project" at Princeton aims to "examine subtle correlations that reflect the presence and activity of consciousness in the world."

November 13, 2007

The ethical scientist

In reading The Scientist as Rebel (the previously discussed collection of essays by Freeman Dyson), I come upon these sentences in the second chapter - "Can Science be ethical?" - that should give everyone some pause for thought.

The ways in which science may work for good or evil in human society are many and various. As a general rule, to which there are many exceptions, science works for evil when its effect is to provide toys for the rich, and works for good when its effect is to provide necessities for the poor. Cheapness is an essential virtue. .... "Toys for the rich" means not only toys in the literal sense but technological conveniences that are available to a minority of people and make it harder for those excluded to take part in the economic and cultural life of the community. "necessities for the poor" include not only food and shelter but adequate public health services, adequate public transportation, and access to decent education and jobs.

He then goes on to explain why he thinks scientists have lost their way in working towards this goal during the latter part of the twentieth century, aided by the twin issues of pure sciences concentrating on "highly esoteric fields remote from contact with everyday problems" and market-driven applied science concentrating on "products that can be profitably sold", which by its very nature gravitates towards the rich that can buy these "toys."

It is true that the internet has leveled the playing field to a great extent globally but within each society, human kind runs the risk of leaving behind a large segment of the population in the wake of the "new ages flooding over human society like tsunamis;" -- the Information age (already arrived and here to stay), the Biotechnology age (due to arrive in full force early this century, driven by DNA sequencing and genetic engineering) and the Neurotechnology age (likely to arrive later this century, driven by neural sensors and exposing the inner workings of human emotion and personality to manipulation.

As Dyson writes:

The poorer half of humanity needs cheap housing, cheap healthcare, and cheap education, accessible to everybody, with high quality and high aesthetic standards. The fundamental problem for human society in the next century is the mismatch between the three new waves of technology and the three basic needs of poor people. The gap between technology and needs is wide and growing wider. If technology continues along its present course, ignoring the needs of the poor and showering benefits upon the rich, the poor will sooner or rather rebel against the tyranny of technology and turn to irrational and violent remedies. In the future, as in the past, the revolt of the poor is likely to impoverish rich and poor together.

and later..

If we can agree with Thomas Jefferson that these truths are self-evident, that all men created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then it should be self-evident that the abandonment of millions of people in modern societies to unemployment and destitution is a worse defilement of the earth than nuclear power stations.

Surely controversial and a surprisingly pessimistic view from a scientist in looking at the effects of science on human kind at large.... but then, like he explains elsewhere: he is from the "generation that grew up in the shadow of World War I: my generation took such a tragic view of life. We started out with this deep conviction that life was tragic and that one better make the best of it. One didn't expect anything to come out right. If you start out with a tragic view of life, then anything since is just a bonus." Not to forget that he lived through the post-WW II period where the dangers of a nuclear war ending all of human existence on earth as we know it being a palpable reality.

In my mind, science has the power to decimate, plunder, and pillage but at the same time has the power to make revolutionary positive changes. How we use this knowledge should be no reflection of science or even scientists...for the world is not populated by and run by scientists alone. Each of us has an obligation to future generations (though unfortunately many of us do not recognize it.)

On the question of whether scientists should not seek knowledge they know can be used in a harmful way.... I'll revert to Dyson again, who argues in the context of genetically "improved" human beings: "The technology of improvement may be hindered or delayed by regulation, but it cannot be permanently suppressed." Also, once you take the argument of self-policing areas of research just a few steps further, one realizes that it is a slippery slope one treads on - for who is to predict with absolute certainty what is harmful. In a day of spin and partisan politicizing of every aspect of science, who is to decide what are the areas that scientists should or should not be working on? Like Dyson posits, a sense of ethics has to guide human kind as it 'progresses' through these scientific advances but in reality it is a difficult tightrope to balance and it seems foolhardy to trust the future in the hands of 'ethical' choices to be made by a fuzzy group of people. And although there seems to be little hope sometimes that better sense will prevail, giving up on the discussion only makes 'defeat' that much more inevitable.

P.S. I found the three ages he describes to be very similar to the three stages of cosmic evolution put forth by VI Vernadsky. More about him elsewhere.

P.P.S. Recommended for further reading are two other books by Freeman Dyson, (which I have not read.)

- Disturbing the Universe - Supposed to be more autobiographical than any of his other books.

- The Sun, The Genome, and The Internet
.. in which Dyson argues that new technologies can have as much of an effect on the social and political realms as new ideologies do. In particular, he cites three burgeoning technologies--solar energy, genetic engineering, and the Internet--for their potential to affect a more equitable worldwide distribution of wealth and power in the coming century.

November 12, 2007

The Scientist as Poet

The famous physicist (and arguably the most famous one to not win the Nobel prize,) Freeman Dyson, who I had the pleasure of seeing while in graduate school, has a new book titled 'The Scientist as Rebel', which I started reading recently. The book is a collection of various essays, most from The New York Review, which he has written over the last 3-4 decades.

The book had my attention right from chapter 1, which begins:

There is no such thing as a unique scientific vision, any more than there is a unique poetic vision. Science is a mosaic of partial and conflicting visions. ........ Poetry and science are gifts given to all of humanity.

and on page 2..

Science is an alliance of free spirits in all cultures rebelling against the local tyranny that each culture imposes on its children. Insofar as I am a scientist, my vision of the universe is not reductionist or anti-reductionist. I have no use for Westernisms of any kind. I feel myself a traveler on the "Immense Journey" of the paleontologist Loren Eiseley, a journey that is far longer than the history of nations and philosophies, longer even than the history of our species.

.... over periods of 10,000 years the distinctions between Western and Eastern and African cultures lose all meaning. Over a time span of 10,000 years we are all Africans. And over a time span of 300 million years we are all amphibians, waddling uncertainly out of dried-up ponds onto the alien and hostile land. .... In the long view, not only European civilization but the human species itself is transitory.

and later on p 13:

The progress of science requires the growth of understanding in both directions, downward from the whole to the parts and upward from the parts to the whole. A reductionist philosophy, arbitrarily proclaiming that the growth of understanding must go only in one direction, makes no scientific sense. Indeed, dogmatic philosophical beliefs of any kind have no place in science. Science in its everyday practice is much closer to art than to philosophy.

And when he writes:

For many scientists ... the chief reward for being a scientist is not the power and the money but the chance of catching a glimpse of the transcendent beauty of nature. could so easily substitute poets for scientists and the sentence would make perfect sense to most. Little wonder then that he writes later: "Science is an art form and not a philosophical method."

You can read the entire essay - The Scientist as Rebel - (Chapter 1 of the book) here and also, if interested, read many of his essays through New York Review of Books online.

Other interesting articles about Dyson:

On March 22, 2000 Freeman Dyson won the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion for 2000. You can read the text of Freeman Dyson's acceptance speech on May 16, in the Washington National Cathedral.

Heretical thoughts about science and society via

A-Bombs, Space Chickens and God - Conversation with Dyson (2000)

Dyson forecasts the future - (November 2006)

Taking notice

This Veteran's Day, an op-ed piece in the NYT remembers WW I veterans, including Frank Buckles: "Of the two million soldiers the United States sent to France in World War I, he is the only one left."

Like the author, Richard Rubin, the author of “Confederacy of Silence: A True Tale of the New Old South,” and currently at work on a book about America’s involvement in World War I, writes:

It’s hard for anyone, I imagine, to say for certain what it is that we will lose when Frank Buckles dies. It’s not that World War I will then become history; it’s been history for a long time now. But it will become a different kind of history, the kind we can’t quite touch anymore, the kind that will, from that point on, always be just beyond our grasp somehow. We can’t stop that from happening. But we should, at least, take notice of it.

Falling Man

Don DeLillo's new novel, Falling Man, seems like an interesting read based on this review from

A world on the edge
As he notes in Underworld, he is a "dietrologist." "It means the science of what is behind something. A suspicious event. The science of what is behind an event." Not plots, but what's behind them inform his writing.


Much of DeLillo's work is a meditation on the equalizing tendencies of technology and mass society, and how that flattening out of culture results from a single source, our collective fear of death. Fear of death is what drives American culture, creating a culture of distraction. Television, pill-popping, and consumption are among our collectively unconscious strategies for forgetting the omnipresence of death.
Sept. 11, at least for a time, rubbed our noses in the immediacy and irrationality of death. In examining its effects on a few of the survivors, DeLillo is seeking to restore our collective awareness of the fragility of life. He finds, of course, powerful opponents: Anna Nicole Smith's baby-daddy, Katie Couric's nightly ratings and Sanjaya's fate. Reading this absorbing work makes one wonder what the hell we're doing with our lives.
Also, another book review via
The Meaning of Life
Love, happiness and all that jazz: Terry Eagleton contends that finding meaning in life comes with being part of an ensemble

Stay open, forever, so open it hurts

If only every one understood this simple concept!

These two paragraphs are the last two in the aforementioned George Saunders' essay, The New Mecca.

It's a big world, and I really like it. In all things, we are the victims of the Misconception from Afar. There is the idea of a city, and the city itself, too great to be held in the mind. And it is in this gap between the conceptual and the real that aggression begins. No place works any differently than any other place, really, beyond mere details. The universal human laws -- need, love for the beloved, fear, hunger, periodic exaltation, the kindness that rises naturally in the absence of hunger/fear/pain -- are constant, predictable, reliable, universal, and are merely ornamented with the details of local culture. What a powerful thing to know: that one's own desires are mappable onto strangers, that what one finds in oneself will most certainly be found in the Other.

Just before I doze off, I counsel myself grandiosely: Fuck concepts. Don't be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen.

November 11, 2007

The New Mecca, by George Saunders

Just finished reading "The New Mecca," by George Saunders. It was first published in GQ magazine in November 2005 and is part of his recent book of essays, The Braindead Megaphone (review) and is also reproduced in The Best American Nonrequired Reading, which I have been reading on-and-off the last few weeks.

The "New Mecca" is Dubai. What a bizarre unreal place!* One should read the GQ essay in its entirety to get an idea!

Also, you can listen to the author read an excerpt here or here. Also, maybe this interview has some snippets as it says he talks about "Dubai, Nepal’s Buddha Boy and what he learned about travel from a mob of rock-hauling, 70-year-old women in Singapore.

Earlier this year I read his short novella, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, in which the author has a "Animal Farm"-ish satirical take on society these days, especially with respect to the role of media these days. Vacuous inane statements pass as news and then there is the blind regurgitation of the party-feed when it comes to politics... (more about the book and links to a few interviews with the author at my earlier post, if you are so inclined.)

Actually, in trying to find the link to the 'New Mecca' article, I also found a few other interviews with Saunders. If you really have time, do read. He is a very "insightful and slightly twisted author", who writes sarcastic and humorous but always creative essays about pop culture and its effects, usually negative, on society at large.

In my mind, Saunders is a modern day Vonnegut, which may mean nothing to you if you have not read Vonnegut, who I think was a genius. With Vonnegut’s passing, we sure do need a witty writer to take us through these times!

* From what I have heard Dubai is nothing but amazing -- and not only because of the almost ready but forever continuing to build building: the Burj, which is not only now the tallest building in the world but also the tallest free-standing structure, surpassing Toronto's CN Tower.
… but Dubai is a “heaven” built on the sweat and blood of slave labor. Looks like some of this labor, mostly from India, Bangladesh, Phillipines, and other Asian countries, have finally united and are revolting... and a strike now threatens the building boom in Dubai. Also, a year or so ago, Dubai's ruling family was sued for enslaving children as camel jockeys. A family representative argued that the suit was spurious, since Dubai has replaced child camel-jockeys didn't guess it...... robots!

Not one more refugee death, by Emmy Pérez

And just like that, my #NPM2018 celebrations end with  a poem  today by Emmy Pérez. Not one more refugee death by Emmy Pérez A r...