Archive for April, 2007

LitBlog bashing: Michael Dirda edition

April 30, 2007

Here is Daniel Green on the latest literary figure to attack lit blogs, Michael Dirda:

I have to say that the fury Dirda expresses in these comments takes me somewhat aback. I was under the impression that Dignified Critics such as himself mostly ignored litbogs, or at least that they didn’t think real “book people” paid them much mind. I guess I was wrong. I guess literary weblogs have arrived, after all. Dirda’s own “overblown ranting” only confirms it.

Oh, and the bit about how newspaper book review sections are the “forum where new titles are taken seriously as works of art.” What a kidder.

Take a look!

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Golden guide to hallucinogenic plants

April 30, 2007

Hallucinogenic plants have been used by humans for ages; here is Wiki on one such Indian use in Vedic times, for example:

Soma (Sanskrit: सोमः), or Haoma (Avestan), from Proto-Indo-Iranian *sauma-, was a ritual drink of importance among the early Indo-Iranians, and the later Vedic and greater Persian cultures. It is frequently mentioned in the Rigveda, which contains many hymns praising its energizing or intoxicating qualities. In the Avesta, Haoma has an entire Yasht dedicated to it.

It is described as prepared by pressing juice from the stalks of a certain mountain plant, which has been variously hypothesized to be a psychedelic mushroom, cannabis, peganum harmala, or ephedra. In both Vedic and Zoroastrian tradition, the drink is identified with the plant, and also personified as a divinity, the three forming a religious or mythological unity.

Via B-squared, I now understand that the Golden Guide to Hallucinogenic Plants is available online. And, in case you are curious, the Golden Guide thinks that Soma is Amanita Muscaria–the mushroom, which, I first saw in Bavarian alps:

Recent studies suggest that this mushroom was the mysterious God- narcotic soma of ancient India. Thousands of years ago, Aryan conquerors, who swept across India, worshiped some, drinking it in religious ceremonies. Many hymns in the Indian Rig-Veda are devoted to soma and describe the plant and its effects.

PS:- By the way, if you followed the link above, and wondered about the mention of urine drinking in Rg Veda, this page gives some more information on the issue.

How to be a good surgeon–advice from 1400s

April 30, 2007

Craig Hildreth at The cheerful oncologist quotes Leonard of Bertapalia, a 15th century Italian surgeon’s eight rules: use your eyes, observe a skilled surgeon, command the most gentle touch, make sure that the instruments are sharp and not rusty, be courageous yet timid in cutting near nerves and know enough anatomy, be kind to poor, never refuse anything brought as fee, and never argue about the fees with the sick. After quoting Leonard, he gives his own version too. Take a look!

Physics intuition as the intellectual equivalent of muscle mass

April 30, 2007

Why do I have more intuition for nanoscale and quantum systems than classical central force problems? Because I hardly ever work on the latter. Physical intuition is the intellectual equivalent of muscle mass in some specific group. If I don’t exercise the Poisson bracket/Runge-Lenz vector part of my physics brain, it atrophies.

That is Doug Natelson at nanoscale views; reminded me of those words of wisdom by Avvai–வைத்ததொரு கல்வி மனப்பழக்கம்–education is but the practice of the mind.

Booker of Science Writing

April 29, 2007

Neurophilosophy informs us of the announcement of the shortlisted books for the Royal Society science book prize (which, apparently is considered the equivalent of Booker for Science writing).

Noted in the Hindu sunday magazine

April 29, 2007
  • History buff S Muthaiah writes about his trip to some libraries and institutions in south India; at least for the rare and wonderful photo of Nehru that accompanies the article, you should take a look at it.
  • Samanth Subramanian interviews Atul Gawande, who has some interesting things to say about Indian surgeons, their practice, the Indian medical system and the challenges it faces:

    The absolutely fascinating thing about my travels in India is, first, how incredibly talented the surgeons are.I tell the story of how a surgeon in my father’s village operates on everything from the brain to the prostate. When he asked me what my preferred approach was to remove bladder stones, I could only say: “To call a urologist.”

    The striking thing is that life expectancy in India has increased from 40 to 65 years in one generation. So diarrhoeal and respiratory illnesses are no longer a problem; instead cardiac problems and cancer are killing people. How India will cope with that on $20 a person a year is the driving dilemma.

    I saw that physicians felt duty-bound to not abandon their patients, but I also saw where the simplest things could be utter failures. It’s that mix of talent and systemic failure that drives a lot of Indian patients to feel at their wit’s end.

    Samanth also has a small write-up on Gawande’s latest book Better.

Have fun!

Some math quotes

April 29, 2007
  • Cardinal  numbers are the nouns of mathematics (1, 2, 3, …), while ordinal numbers are the adjectives (1st, 2nd, 3rd,…).
  • …Many years later the great number theorist Andre Weil would say: “God exists since mathematics is consistent, and the Devil exists since we cannot prove it.

These two quotes are from David Leavitt’s The man who knew too much: Alan Turing and the invention of the computer. The book is written in a breezy style and is a nice read, so far.

Note: The second quote is from Simon Singh’s  Fermat’s enigma, as quoted by Leavitt.

What is economics?

April 29, 2007

There are several answers available within the discipline itself, and economists tend to go back and forth between them as the circumstances demand. Often, they like to think of themselves as the hardheaded realists of the social sciences. On this view, social life is about rational agents selfishly and unremittingly pursuing their goals under conditions of scarcity. Thus, economics is about building rigorous models that capture these facts of life. The contrast is with woolly headed humanists and bleeding-heart sociologists, who allegedly prefer altruism over self-interest, and social norms or culture to individual rationality. At other times, though, economists play the role of hand-wringing nationalists. In this interpretation, individuals frequently fall short of the rational ideal. They follow some rule of thumb rather than work out the probabilities when they make decisions. They fail to take advantage of others when the opportunity arises, even when there is no cost to themselves. They tip at restaurants they will never visit again. Thus, economics is prescriptive rather than descriptive. It tells us how we ought to act or would act if only we were clever enough to think straight. And at yet other times, economists claim an instrumentalist middle-way.  They freely acknowledge that their models make unrealistic assumptions–what science worth its salt does not?–but argue that as long as people in the aggregate act as if they were  rational utility maximizers, then economics is the bast game in town. For its advocates, this is an ideal position, a way to have your theoretical cake and eat it. Critics charge this makes it impossible to reject the null hypothesis in research: If people do not seem to be acting in a rationally self-interested way, you are not obviously looking hard enough.

From this review of Freakonomics by Kieran Healy (pdf): via Orgtheory.

Madurai

April 28, 2007

I had a notion of Madurai via the writings of two of my favourite writers — A K Ramanujan and Raja Rao. And, when I visited Madurai, the city did not disappoint me–it probably is the only city which lived upto the expectations I had in my mind. During every one of my five or six trips to the city, I never missed the breakfast in the New College hostel and a visit to the Meenakshi temple. Now, Uma brings to our attention this excerpt from last week’s Hindu of sketches of the city from 1950s and the accompanying article. Not-to-be missed piece.

Science and self-criticism

April 28, 2007

Jonah Lehrer at the Frontal Cortex muses about science, scientists, science blogging and self-criticism:

Sciencebloggers spend a lot of time fretting about the anti-science views of creationists, alternative medicine peddlers, astrologists and other charlatans. But why isn’t there more informed criticism of science in the public sphere, like this Gopnik article? I’m talking about scientists taking the time to criticize each other in the language of laymen.

Scientists like to have their fights in the passive tense of scientific journals, the anger hidden beneath the acronyms. But wouldn’t it be great (or at least entertaining) if more of the great scientific disputes of our time were hashed out in full view of the public?

Take a look!