Thursday, 30th October, 2003

WIRED 11.11: VIEW - Cosmic Reality Check

Since the days of Galileo's telescope, new and better scientific instruments have steadily transformed our conception of the universe. Now we've got the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe. This superb gizmo, launched in June 2001, is floating 1 million miles from Earth in the second Lagrange Point, measuring the density of the universe with unheard-of digital accuracy and sending data back to mission control.

Already, the probe's findings have provided a few salient new notions about the nature of cosmic reality. For starters, the universe is 13.7 billion years old. Unlike previous figures, this is not a rough estimate; the margin of error is about 1 percent. In addition, the universe is flat. Forget all that mind-boggling space-time-is-curved stuff. Euclid was right all along. And the space-time pancake will expand infinitely. There's no such thing as an end to this particular universe.

Now here's the really wacky part: Everything we're made of or can measure - from atoms to energy - is only 4 percent of the whole shebang. The rest is dark matter (about 23 percent) and, best of all, dark energy (73 percent).

Although it has been overlooked amid the recent military ruckus, the Wilkinson probe has given the 21st century a brand-new cosmology. Such intellectual upgrades nearly always begin by debunking humans in some obscure but potent way. The Copernican revolution revealed that Earth was not the center of the cosmos. Newtonian physics proved that the planets move according to lifeless clockwork rules instead of majestic divine will. Einsteinian relativity showed us that the cosmos lacks absolute values; it all depends on how things are measured, by whom, and under what circumstances.

The new cosmology is very much of that order. Everything we can see or touch, everything material and physical, is mere fat in the cosmic milk. Everything we thought was important is a tiny fraction of what's really going on.

It gets worse. Dark matter, the 23 percent formerly thought to be burnt-out stars and lonely little planetoids, probably has nothing to do with normal, so-called baryonic matter. It might be axions and neutralinos, leftover twiddly bits predicted by string theory. Or it might be what physicists call weakly interactive massive particles, or WIMPs, which form a kind of cosmic smog that builds up in the wake of nuclear interactions. We'll never be able to touch this stuff. We can't build things with it, sell it, or put logos on it. It's not our kind of stuff - unless planet Earth should happen to wander through a thick wad of it. A dense cloud of WIMPs would likely cause the center of the planet to boil. And forget about shielding yourself from a dark matter mishap with mere baryonic matter like, say, lead. The physics don't work that way.

But even incineration by WIMPs doesn't compare with the fantastic thought that three-quarters of everything is dark energy. This mysterious stuff pushes the universe apart. It forces the cosmos to expand. This is not the steady state model of Einstein's heyday, when the universe was static and conservative. It's not even the jazzy big bang model, where everything blew up way back in the beginning. We denizens of the 21st century live in a steady bang. The bang never went away - in fact, our natural habitat is bang. Three-quarters of the universe is dedicated to pushing itself open. It's a gigantic heaving that has worked from the first primal instants and always will. It's the very nature of space to expand.

Human societies are always reshaped by their concepts of the basic nature of the universe. Copernicus damaged the infallibility of the church; Newton laid the foundation for the Enlightenment; Einstein spurred moral relativism. What will we make of our new knowledge? Are there political implications to the idea that most of the universe is untouchable, endlessly expanding, scarcely knowable? Will we finally get over our obsession with static utopias, sudden armageddons, limits, and closure? Is there philosophical comfort to be found in a silent, never-ending steady bang?

There's one more thing to consider: What will it take to get our atom-smashing mitts on some dark energy? This stuff is the fountainhead of the universe. It makes Iraqi oil look like a dust mote. The 21st century offers us a new quest. Dark energy is irresistible.

Bruce Sterling.

WIRED 11.11: VIEW - Cosmic Reality Check
logged by alf at 23:13, Thursday, 30th October, 2003

Tuesday, 21st October, 2003

NYT: Listening to Mahathir

New York Times, October 21, 2003


The Europeans killed 6 million Jews out of 12 million. But today the Jews rule this world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them." So said Mahathir Mohamad, the prime minister of Malaysia, at an Islamic summit meeting last week. The White House promptly denounced his "hate-filled remarks."

Indeed, those remarks were inexcusable. But they were also calculated — for Mr. Mahathir is a cagey politician, who is neither ignorant nor foolish. And to understand why he made those remarks is to realize how badly things are going for U.S. foreign policy.

The fact is that Mr. Mahathir, though guilty of serious abuses of power, is in many ways about as forward-looking a Muslim leader as we're likely to find. And Malaysia is the kind of success story we wish we saw more of: an impressive record of economic growth, rising education levels and general modernization in a nation with a Muslim majority.

It's worth reading the rest of last week's speech, beyond the offensive 28 words. Most of it is criticism directed at other Muslims, clerics in particular. Mr. Mahathir castigates "interpreters of Islam who taught that acquisition of knowledge by Muslims meant only the study of Islamic theology." Thanks to these interpreters, "the study of science, medicine, etc. was discouraged. Intellectually the Muslims began to regress." A lot of the speech sounds as if it had been written by Bernard Lewis, author of "What Went Wrong," the best-selling book about the Islamic decline.

So what's with the anti-Semitism? Almost surely it's part of Mr. Mahathir's domestic balancing act, something I learned about the last time he talked like this, during the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98.

At that time, rather than accept the austerity programs recommended by the U.S. government and the I.M.F., he loudly blamed machinations by Western speculators, and imposed temporary controls on the outflow of capital — a step denounced by all but a handful of Western economists. As it turned out, his economic strategy was right: Malaysia suffered a shallower slump and achieved a quicker recovery than its neighbors.

What became clear watching Mr. Mahathir back then was that his strident rhetoric was actually part of a delicate balancing act aimed at domestic politics. Malaysia has a Muslim, ethnically Malay, majority, but its business drive comes mainly from an ethnic Chinese minority. To keep the economy growing, Mr. Mahathir must allow the Chinese minority to prosper, but to ward off ethnic tensions he must throw favors, real and rhetorical, to the Malays.

Part of that balancing act involves reserving good jobs for Malay workers and giving special business opportunities to Malay entrepreneurs. One reason Mr. Mahathir was so adamantly against I.M.F. austerity plans was that he feared that they would disrupt the carefully managed cronyism that holds his system together. When times are tough, Mr. Mahathir also throws the Muslim majority rhetorical red meat.

And that's what he was doing last week. Not long ago Washington was talking about Malaysia as an important partner in the war on terror. Now Mr. Mahathir thinks that to cover his domestic flank, he must insert hateful words into a speech mainly about Muslim reform. That tells you, more accurately than any poll, just how strong the rising tide of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism among Muslims in Southeast Asia has become. Thanks to its war in Iraq and its unconditional support for Ariel Sharon, Washington has squandered post-9/11 sympathy and brought relations with the Muslim world to a new low.

And bear in mind that Mr. Mahathir's remarks were written before the world learned about the views of Lt. Gen. William "My God Is Bigger Than Yours" Boykin. By making it clear that he sees nothing wrong with giving an important post in the war on terror to someone who believes, and says openly, that Allah is a false idol — General Boykin denies that's what he meant, but his denial was implausible even by current standards — Donald Rumsfeld has gone a long way toward confirming the Muslim world's worst fears.

Somewhere in Pakistan Osama bin Laden must be enjoying this. The war on terror didn't have to be perceived as a war on Islam, but we seem to be doing our best to make it look that way.

NYT: Listening to Mahathir
logged by alf at 16:06, Tuesday, 21st October, 2003

Thursday, 16th October, 2003

Singapore Singing a New Tune

Story location:,1284,60754,00.html

02:00 AM Oct. 15, 2003 PT

SINGAPORE -- Think Singapore and what probably pops to mind is a rigidly controlled, over-sanitized, hyper-efficient -- and dull -- technopolis. Time for an update. These days, Singapore is an artistic and creative hub, especially when it comes to the digital arts.

Why the sudden change? Because the government said so, that's why.

The famously far-sighted technocrats who rule the city-state have several reasons for the makeover.

One is simply that Singapore has become an advanced economy looking for a fresh growth area. Then there's the more compelling reason: Multinational corporations are moving their business and regional headquarters to booming Shanghai and other parts of China. Singapore, in other words, needs a new bag.

"Considering that Singapore is a very wired society, the idea of focusing on digital media and technology is apt," says Elaine Ng, deputy director of "arts capability development" at the government's National Arts Council.

This month, the city-state hosts several digital arts events. Interrupt, at the Singapore Art Museum, showcases an installation connected by live webcam to Valencia, Spain. The visitor stands on a platform that, with the use of air pumps, moves depending on what his counterpart in Spain does.

Meanwhile, the National University of Singapore just played host to the International Computer Music Conference.

The most notable event, a month-long festival called The Year of Living Digitally, features the exhibit Wirecrossing, which uses digital video cameras to record 24 continuous hours in the heart of the city.

Organizers call it the "longest feature film ever made," though whether it can be called a feature film is up for debate: Other than being filmed in sequence, the 24 one-hour segments are unrelated. The results, posted online, are mixed.

"A lot of effort here has been put into collecting content, but there are still important questions about how best to deliver it," says Lee Weng Choy, a Singapore art critic and artistic co-director of The Substation Arts Center. He says each segment should be broken down into smaller chapters for easier navigation and reference.

That would help. Wirecrossing has gems worth watching, but good luck finding them.

One oddly touching segment (11 p.m.) documents a philosophical taxi driver who serenades passengers using karaoke equipment he keeps on board -- a third of the way through he sings "Achy Breaky Heart." Another segment (5 a.m.) views an open market through the compound vision of a fly, or something close to it.

It's weird, and that's good. Singapore needs weird.

"The artists didn't want to bow down to structure," says Christine Molloy, a director of the film. "This was a chance to do what they wanted."

The spirit of loosening up is unmistakable in Singapore -- even bar-top dancing is OK now. (What next, repeal gum control?) A film called 15, shown at the Venice International Film Festival, documents the aimless, sometimes violent lives of disaffected teens in Singapore -- and will actually be shown in Singapore soon, with only five minutes removed by the censors.

But old habits die hard. Ben Slater, festival director with theater company spell7, which curated and produced the event, notes that the funding application forms "said something to the effect that you promise not to do anything to destabilize the government. It was vague enough for them to pick you up on different aspects."

But Slater doesn't deny the success of the government's efforts to foster creativity and the arts. He just wishes they'd better appreciate quirky individuality. Some government funding agencies turn down projects, he says, for being "too Singaporean" and "not universal enough" -- they won't sell abroad, the reasoning goes.

Dawn Teo, director of Objectifs, a photography and filmmaking center, believes the government simply needs to be more open-minded. "Their heart is in the right place, but they need to fund more independent artists."

With this in mind, The Year of Living Digitally will showcase the works of digital animator and filmmaker Tim Hope -- of the mesmerizing Coldplay videos "Trouble" and "Don't Panic" -- partly to drive home a point.

Says Slater: "He's a great example of someone who's doing his own thing, yet succeeding commercially and artistically -- which is what the Singapore government wants, but what it's not going to get if it funds only things that it sees as potentially profitable and universally appealing."

Other works in the festival include two nights of electronic music from such cutting-edge international artists as Miroque, Hecker, SND and Farmers Manual, who will perform at the tech-savvy nightclub Zouk.

Later in the month, a live performance called Skinworks will try to reflect -- in a theater setting -- the experience of being in a chat room. The actors, standing amid the audience, will shift their identities as they perform.

A bit similar, then, to what Singapore is attempting.

By Steve Mollman

Singapore Singing a New Tune
logged by alf at 17:32, Thursday, 16th October, 2003

Magic number revealed for flying and swimming

18:00 15 October 03 news

A single magic number describes the locomotion of flying and swimming animals, from moths to dolphins. The finding could shed light on the flying skills of extinct animals and help defence researchers design tiny military spy drones that can fly around enemy-occupied buildings.

A simple number called the Strouhal number describes locomotion produced by the flapping of wings. It equals the frequency of flapping multiplied by its amplitude, divided by forward speed. Theory suggests that in most cases peak efficiency is reached when this number lies between 0.2 and 0.4.

Scientists already knew that fish to swish their tails in the most efficient way, cruising the oceans with a Strouhal number in the peak range (New Scientist print edition, 4 March 2000).

But Graham Taylor, Robert Nudds and Adrian Thomas of Oxford University, UK, wondered whether flying animals would also have the same narrow range. To find out, they rounded up data on wing movements and speed for 42 species of bats, insects and birds. It turned out that the Strouhal number for almost all these animals once again fell in the 0.2 to 0.4 range.

"Nature clearly has a rule that if you want to cruise efficiently, you need to operate at this Strouhal number," says Thomas. "It's astonishing that you get the same result for a moth and a whale - one's in air, the other's in water, and there's such a colossal difference in size."

The rule is so general that it should allow biologists to estimate the cruising speeds of extinct animals simply from their anatomy. It may even apply to alien species. "If there are swimming or flying organisms on other planets, then we predict that it should apply to them too," the scientists say.

The result might also help defence researchers design insect-sized drones that beat their wings efficiently. Currently the US army uses bird-sized flapping machines to fly cameras into buildings for surveillance. But they would like to have much smaller robotic spies that people would mistake for insects and ignore.

The Oxford team can point them in the right direction. Their work shows that for efficient flight, a robotic spy with a 15-centimetre wingspan and a 10-centimetre wing amplitude should flap its wings 30 times a second.

One possible hurdle to making such small machines fly is stability in the air. So the US Air Force has funded Thomas's team to film hoverflies and find out their secret of staying upright.

Journal reference: Nature (vol 425, p 708)

Hazel Muir

Magic number revealed for flying and swimming
logged by alf at 09:02, Thursday, 16th October, 2003