Archive for November 6th, 2007

Irrational Americans and non-Americans

November 6, 2007

Environmental economics reports on some shocking news:

Interestingly, irrational Americans are willing to pay more for free stuff than irrational non-Americans:

Among U.S. residents, about 40 percent who downloaded the album paid to do so. Their average payment was $8.05, the firm said.

Some 36 percent of the fans outside the U.S. who downloaded the album opted to pay; on average, those fans paid $4.64, according to the study.

Is that conclusion correct? It seems to assume that the cost of music CDs are the same all over the world. However, if there be inherent differences in what an American and, say, an Indian pay for the same CD, then the averages should be corrected for those differences too, isn’t it?

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Nobel prize in Chemistry and Medicine, 2007

November 6, 2007

R Ramachandran, in the latest issue of Frontline, profiles Gerhard Ertl, the winner of this year’s Chemistry Nobel and puts his work in perspective:

Surface chemistry, as the term implies, is essentially chemistry in two dimensions. Unlike the chemical reactions in bulk, with substances in test tubes, beakers and glass jars that one normally associates a chemistry laboratory with, surface chemistry has to do with the chemical processes that occur in the few atomic layers that constitute the interface between two phases, such as solid-liquid, solid-gas, solid-vacuum and liquid-gas interfaces. And two dimensions are better suited to probing reactions in greater detail at the atomic level than those in three-dimensional solutions because they are confined to the surface, but it is neither straightforward nor cheap to study how atoms and molecules react on solid surfaces. It involves painstaking and high-precision work, with advanced equipment such as high-vacuum systems, electron microscopes and spectroscopes, and clean rooms. And Ertl put these to innovative use in the past three decades and more. His work has chiefly been concerned with gas-solid interfaces. As Mark Peplow, the editor of Chemistry World, said, “he gave us the tools to understand why [oxygen] atoms do not bounce off [iron surfaces] but rather stick to them and turn into iron oxide”.

The science of surface chemistry has important industrial applications, such as in the manufacture of artificial fertilizers, and the science is also key to understanding such diverse phenomena as the rusting of iron; the working of catalytic converters, which make automobile exhaust less polluting; the functioning of fuel cells; and the depletion of atmospheric ozone, which is owing to reactions on the surface of minute ice crystals in clouds.

In another piece in the same issue, he also profiles the winners of the Medicine prize:

Almost every aspect of mammalian physiology can now be studied by gene targeting. In particular, Capecchi’s later work has revealed the roles of genes involved in mammalian organ development, in the body plan’s blueprint, as it were. His work has also been concerned with causes of several birth-defects and malformations. Likewise, Evans has developed mouse models for the inherited disease cystic fibrosis and used them to study disease mechanisms and gene therapy. Smithies, too, has developed mouse models, for thalassaemia, hypertension and atherosclerosis.

Have fun!

Reviewing Khalil Gibran (the Gibranian way?)

November 6, 2007

Alan Jacobs reviews the recently published Collected works of Kahlil Khalil Gibran:

Expansive and yet vacuous is the prose of Kahlil Gibran,
And weary grows the mind doomed to read it.
The hours of my penance lengthen,
The penance established for me by the editor of this magazine,
And those hours may be numbered as the sands of the desert.
And for each of them Kahlil Gibran has prepared
Another ornamental phrase,
Another faux-Biblical cadence,
Another affirmation proverbial in its intent
But alas! lacking the moral substance,
The peasant shrewdness, of the true proverb.

O Book, O Collected Works of Kahlil Gibran,
Published by Everyman’s Library on a dark day,
I lift you from the Earth to which I recently flung you
When my wrath grew too mighty for me,
I lift you from the Earth,
Noticing once more your annoying heft,
And thanking God—though such thanks are sinful—
That Kahlil Gibran died in New York in 1931
At the age of forty-eight,
So that he could write no more words,
So that this Book would not be yet larger than it is.

There is more where it came from; go, take a look (via A&L Daily).

Conversing with the apes

November 6, 2007

In a very readable piece in eSkeptic, Clive Wynne writes about experiments in teaching apes to speak, how they all have failed, and how language is still uniquely human, since it is the intention that makes the language not stringing words together. There are some nice stories along the way, like this one about Nim Chimpsky:

The most significant of Washoe’s imitators was probably a chimpanzee cheekily named Nim Chimpsky by Herbert Terrace of Columbia University. The joke was that linguist Noam Chomsky was the most vocal defender of Descartes’ belief that language was uniquely human. Terrace held a quite different view. He told an interviewer in early 1975, “I’m not the only one trying to teach a chimp a sign language. There are others … but I hope to be the one who is going to do it right.” He would, “nail to the wall proof that a subhuman primate can acquire a syntactical competence that at least overlaps with that of man …the age-old distinctions concerning man’s uniqueness would no longer hold.”

Take a look!

(Link via  A&L Daily)

How many basic tastes are there?

November 6, 2007

In some of the Indian traditions, the number of tastes are said to be six: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, spicy and astringent. In this must-read piece at NPR,  Robert Krulwich, writes about the number of tastes in the western tradition (four), the discovery of receptor cells in the tongue for these tastes, and the recent addition to the basic tastes (umami); the piece itself is an introduction to Jonah Lehrer’s Proust was a Neuroscientist and is followed by a short excerpt from the book. Take a look!

A couple of book reviews

November 6, 2007

A Scott who fell in love with Tamils

Anand Kumar Raju reviews a biography of Caldwell:

Above all his great contributions to the Tamil language like A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South Indian Family of Languages (1856) remain a monumental testimony to a Scot who fell in love with Tamil and Tamilians. Kumaradoss’s book is a touching but unsentimental tribute to a man whose life is a model for modern social workers everywhere.

An outstanding Carnatic classic

Sulochana Pattabhi Raman recommends the four volume Tana Varna Tarangini of B M Sundaram:

This monumental work cannot be measured by mere words: it is an outstanding classic in both qualitative and quantitative terms. His searing passion for the art, unlimited hours of hard work, concentration, and commitment have all enabled the compiler to reach Golan Heights of achievement.

Take a look!