Monday, 29th March, 2004

Odds on that God exists, says scientist

Monday March 8, 2004
The Guardian

A scientist has calculated that there is a 67% chance that God exists.

Dr Stephen Unwin has used a 200-year-old formula to calculate the probability of the existence of an omnipotent being. Bayes' Theory is usually used to work out the likelihood of events, such as nuclear power failure, by balancing the various factors that could affect a situation.

The Manchester University graduate, who now works as a risk assessor in Ohio, said the theory starts from the assumption that God has a 50/50 chance of existing, and then factors in the evidence both for and against the notion of a higher being.

Factors that were considered included recognition of goodness, which Dr Unwin said makes the existence of God more likely, countered by things like the existence of natural evil - including earthquakes and cancer.

The unusual workings - which even take into account the existence of miracles - are set out in his new book, which includes a spreadsheet of the data used so that anyone can make the calculation themselves should they doubt its validity. The book, The Probability of God: A simple calculation that proves the ultimate truth, will be published later this month.

Dr Unwin said he was interested in bridging the gap between science and religion. He argues that rather than being a theological issue, the question of God's existence is simply a matter of statistics.

"On arriving in America I was exposed to certain religious outlooks that were somewhat of an assault upon my sensibilities - outlooks in which religion actually competes with science as an explanation of the world," he said.

"While I could not be sure, having slept through most of the cathedral services I had attended during secondary school, this did not seem like the version of faith I had remembered. In many ways, this project was for me a journey home - a reconciliation of my faith and education."

Despite his findings, Dr Unwin maintains that he is personally around 95% certain that God exists.

However, Graham Sharp, media relations director at William Hill, said there were technical problems with giving odds on the existence of God. "The problem is how you confirm the existence of God. With the Loch Ness monster we require confirmation from the Natural History Museum to pay out, but who are we going to ask about God? The church would definitely confirm his existence."

Mr Sharp said William Hill does take bets on the second coming, which currently stand at 1,000/1. For this confirmation is needed from the Archbishop of Canterbury.

"We do take bets on the second coming, whether that confirms the existence of God is up to the theologians to argue, most people wouldn't believe that, though."

Odds on that God exists, says scientist
logged by alf at 16:36, Monday, 29th March, 2004

Friday, 26th March, 2004

Interview: Study on Singaporean Poet Viewpoints

1) Some poets feel that some poems are better stripped slowly on a page then be performed on the lips of the poet. A good poem will always reveal more with each read. With that in mind, what do you feel about performance poetry which is gaining prominence in Singapore?

I think performance poetry in English is a bit late catching on in Singapore . Let's not forget that traditional Asian art forms (eg the Malay Pantoun and Diki Barat, the Chinese Xian Shen and Chuan Lian) are in themselves often forms of performance poetry and verse. Poetry has its roots in theatre, drama and the oral tradition; its expression on the page is a relatively recent development. So in a sense, performance poetry is an attempt to go back to the populist roots of verse -- it kicked off in the US, where it's become quite clear that poetry has lost the mainstream appeal it once held to newer forms such as pop music. The best performance poetry derives its strength from the thoughtfulness and insight of good writing, with the immediacy and accessibility of music and the performing arts. If poetry performed well makes more Singaporeans sit up and take notice of good poetry, then it's for the good.

That said, I think that written poetry (or any sort of writing) has a certain persistent resonance that tends to get lost in performance. You can return to a good book or a good poem again and again -- pausing to think where you will, re- reading at will etc -- and profit from the experience, but it's hard to do that with performance. Performance is always going to be more fleeting, more constrained by time and space.

Another factor : the performing arts are dominant in Singapore, so it's hardly surprising that practitioners of a less widely popular genre would borrow some of the strategies of the performing arts in order to be heard.

2) What is your opinion of Poetry Slams which is catching on fast in Singapore? Do they sensationalize poetry too much or do they help Poetry catch on amongst the young?

We're talking about several generations now of people conditioned by pop music, MTV and mass entertainment. We're conditioned to respond to flashy images, snappy soundbites and rapid movement. To an extend, the Poetry Slam is a means of reaching out to this generation; a compromise, if you will, that can get people started and excited again about language. That's a good thing.

I do feel however that there is a tendency to sensationalise; to dumb down here. There is no need of course to do that -- I've seen some excellent Slams overseas that combine great writing with raw entertainment value. But it's easier to get away with it in a Slam than say in writing, so people do. Very often the whole exercise descends into a sort of peacock parade, a karaoke contest -- there's far more performance than poetry. Yes it promotes a kind of writing, but is it the sort that is worth thinking about more deeply? If Performance Poetry Slams were movies, I guess I'd like to see more arthouse hits than pop-corn Hollywood blockbusters.

3) "Singaporean Poets are disadvantaged by their uninspirational surroundings compared to their counterparts in other countries." Do you agree or disagree with this statement.

I completely disagree; good writers and artists never rely completely on their surroundings for "inspiration" , since their task is to interrogate their experience and environment more deeply. Singapore is a deeply fascinating, paradoxical, infuriating, painful city to live in and study closely; unique in some ways. Besides, Singaporeans travel enough to have a broader context with which to look back at our own city. If our writing seems uninspired, it is perhaps because we're not working hard enough to pry beneath the cliches; the obvious ways of looking at things; we lack cultural imagination for various reasons that have little to do with our surroundings.

4) There are a lot of young poets in Singapore who take on characters and write poems in the characters' voice. Why do you think that is happening in Singapore?

It's one way out of the dilemma raised in (3); I think it's an attempt by our writers to break out of their perceived moulds and modes of thinking; to think out of the box and thereby gain fresh insights. It could also be the seeping influence of theatre and the performing arts -- dramatic monologues lend themselves to performance, after all. I don't think it's going to be a dominant trend although it might become a visible one due to its presence in performance.

5) The Japanese have their haiku, the English have their sonnets and the Koreans have their Sijos. Do you think that Singapore poets can come with a style of poetry or have they already come up with a style of poetry that they can call their own?

All of the forms you mention evolved from other traditions; the haiku distilled from Chinese poetic traditions, the sonnet from its Italian origin etc. Our region is rich with cultures that have their own verse traditions -- the Malay pantoun for example is one that has most famously been exported to the west. Perhaps we ought to look closer to home and dig deeper for alternative forms of expression to experiment with. But I think it's not productive to be too anxious about having our own style of poetry anytime soon. If we are sensitive to our environment and our cultural traditions and true to what we have to say about ourselves, it will evolve with time. Forms and styles evolve to fill cultural and social needs after all.

6) There are not many avenues for Singaporeans who write creatively, with Quarterly Literary Review Singapore (QLRS) arguably providing the one of the few stages for writers. What more do you think needs to be done?

Well there's also The Poetry Billboard and the 2nd Rule, and many online blogs. The internet is an excellent platform for emerging work, and becoming increasingly respected as a valuable outlet for new writing. Journals like QLRS and so on were all started online by writers and editors who felt keenly the need for a channel -- so why not start one if you feel there aren't enough avenues?

Another important avenue for new work -- magazines and journals. Indeed, these are the established first point of publication for most emerging writers (and even established ones) overseas. We don't have that many of our own, but there are plenty of reputable international journals that take work from any source -- and they reach a global audience. So why not give them a try and see how we measure up to world-class standards? Plenty of Singaporeans have succeeded -- and without having to compromise their unique flavour of writing either.

7) Poets generally say they write to feel empowered or to expel pent-up emotions. What compels you to write poetry? What is your inspiration? Could you tell us of one moving experience which you encountered and after which you feel compelled to write, if any?

I am a bit wary of poets who write to expel pent-up emotions; as if poetry is a form of toilet activity! Wordsworth famously said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings...recollected in tranquility. For me the latter is important. Yes, we are often moved to write by strong feelings, but it's our control and filtering and dissection of these feelings that makes poetry. For me, one is first moved to question, then to know, then to understand: and then to pattern that understanding in the form of a poem. A poem for me can also be an instrument of understanding; a sort of thinking aloud. As it is, a poem prompted by an experience never appears directly after the event. Instead, something inconsequential -- the speed of a leaf falling on water, the shape of a woman's ankle in shadow, the sound of children calling for their mother in a supermarket -- will spark off a whole chain of thoughts related to an earlier emotive event: a death, a love affair, forgiveness.

8) How do you feel about the level of freedom of written speech in Singapore?

I've not had a problem with it; the things I want to write about I've been able to write about in the way I want and need to without hinderance. I think writers also experience far less pressure in that direction than say the performing arts. The primary form of censorship if you will is financial -- far far more books get blocked from readership and publication by lack of funds and lack of sales than due to censorship. Which is why I feel strongly that the infrastructure and market to support writing needs to be built quite urgently. Almost anything the market supports will be allowed in due course anyway.

9) How do you think Poetry has evolved from Past till Present and do you have any insights about the future of Poetry?

This is way too big a question for this interview, but I'd say that the boundaries between genres (poetry, fiction, prose etc), which is a relatively recent development in history, are once again blurring, which is all for the better. Good writing and fine thoughts in any form deserve appreciation and attention; why bother exactly whether it's a sonnet, or an essay or a short story? Writers will continue to experiment with different forms and different traditions, or even invent their own, in order to say what they have to say. The primary value of poetry in the present day is its ability to tolerate, absorb, even embrace, just about any form of written communication -- far more than can fiction or prose, with its relatively rigid structures of paragraphing, grammar etc. So poetry can play a lot more with the cutting edge of language -- or with its oldest traditions -- whichever one chooses.

10) What do you think about the level of recognition accorded to Poets in Singapore?

Fame and recognition is overrated. I'd rather ask what is the level of attention given to good writing and local writing and literature in our schools in which case I'd definitely say not enough is being done. All other territories and cultures whether in the developed or developing world alike - - pay far more attention to their own authors than we do. We seem to deliberately avoid looking at ourselves or from taking such soul-searching seriously why? What purpose does it serve to shy away from mirrors?

Interview: Study on Singaporean Poet Viewpoints
logged by alf at 08:56, Friday, 26th March, 2004

Thursday, 25th March, 2004

Life on Mars - but 'we sent it'

There is life on Mars, a researcher has announced at a conference - unfortunately it is just spaceship-borne contamination.

"I believe there is life on Mars, and it's unequivocally there, because we sent it," Andrew Schuerger of the University of Florida told the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, Texas, recently. He has been granted funding from NASA's planetary protection office to help develop better sterilisation techniques for future missions.

Schuerger says that of all the space probes sent to Mars, only the two Viking craft in 1976 were adequately heat sterilised. The procedures used for all missions since then, including NASA's twin rovers and Europe's Beagle 2, would have left some microbes aboard.

After testing whether terrestrial organisms can survive simulated Martian conditions and the procedures used to sterilise spacecraft, he reckons there is a good chance some made it to Mars and might still be living there.

Shrinking drops

If a spacecraft's surface is made of a material that repels water, any water on the surface collects into droplets that shrink as they dry, concentrating the microbes and helping them survive.

Most Earth bugs that hitch-hiked to Mars would probably perish quickly, but it is not a certainty.

Images and chemical evidence from the current orbiter and rover missions suggest that briny, acidic water may have existed for a long time in Martian soil. Some kinds of acid brine could be liquid even under today's frigid conditions, so Earth organisms might just find their way to a moist environment where they could grow.

"They are probably not going to survive in 200 kelvin conditions and in sulphuric acid," says Jeff Kargel of the US Geological Survey, who believes that ponds and marshes of acidic brines are possible or even likely on Mars today.

But, he adds, "Maybe they could. And maybe we've just done a really terrible thing."

David L Chandler
New Scientist 25 March 2004

Life on Mars - but 'we sent it'
logged by alf at 23:43, Thursday, 25th March, 2004

Monday, 1st March, 2004

Art, but not as we know it

Why would you give a cactus human hair? Or grow wings for pigs? And as for redesigning the butterfly... Artists are appropriating biotechnology for their own ends. New Scientisttracked down three of them working in this wild new place: Laura Cinti, Oron Catts and Marta de Menezes

Laura Cinti

Laura Cinti's transgenic cactus has been shown at the University of Hertford, UK, and Fresh Art 2002 in London. She is researching interactive art at Goldsmith's College London, and her next art project - c-lab - in collaboration with Howard Boland will begin online. She grew up in South Africa and lives in London.

Why a cactus with human hair?

Cactuses are not known for their beauty, and they are seen as fleshy, meaty and monolithic. I'm interested in the anti-sexuality that these phallic stems with extruding spines signify. Hair is a sign of reproduction, a sign of our bodies changing, becoming or being sexual. So the cactus with hair becomes a sexual symbol. I think this perversion resonates with the cultural climate surrounding genetic engineering: transgenics is seen as anti-sexual, asexual, because it directly interferes with the natural reproductive process. The Cactus Project brings that perversion into focus and reverses it. The cactus with its hairs coming out is showing all the desires, all the signs of sexuality. It doesn't want to be trapped. It wants to be released. The desire is to enter the world as a species from a mythical landscape. I'm interested in this desire, this wanting to come out.

What did you do to the cactus?

It is a transgenic artwork involving the fusion of human genetic material into the cactus genome. The result is a cactus that expresses human hair.

What has been the public reaction?

Bald men are particularly interested in the work. There has been lots of negative reaction. Someone described the cactus as an organic dodo. Someone else found it humorous. People confront me with, "What do you think you're doing, playing God?" One scientist screamed at me that my work showed an extremely negative view of biotechnology. I wanted people to be involved in the whole project so I showed the cactus, the lab reports, emails about the work. Lots of people have tried to buy them - but they're not for sale.

What has it been like working with scientists?

The response from biotechnologists in the US was phenomenal; from those in the UK it was largely negative. They said that genetics should be used only to serve an ever-growing population. I ended up working with biotechnologists in the UK, but there are problems for an artist. I am disadvantaged by my lack of technical understanding. I have no ownership over the technical processes and my contract means I cannot name the lab, and that I have to be supervised when I want access to the cactus in the lab. I had a lot of debate with them.

There were originally eight cactuses. How many are alive?

Two. They've been imploding, shrivelling.

What's your ambition with this project?

I'd like to set one of my cactuses free.

Do you plan to do more work with bioengineered life forms?

Transgenesis has become an important part of our existence. Transgenic crops are part of our landscapes, transgenic animals populate farms. It was imperative for me to work in the medium of genetics. All of a sudden myths, reality and borderlines were here. I'm working with a collaborator, Howard Boland. We are planning a transplantation project, which includes planting a transgenic in the wild, not as a political work, but to highlight issues and processes by being subtle and violent.

What was going though your mind while you were making this piece.

My ideas evolved as the project evolved. At the beginning it was fascination. I was constantly documenting the work. I became very close to the cactuses. My work is about research and exploration.

Is beauty part of your artistic aim?

You can see it in some of my work. The cactus itself is soft and succulent.

Oron Catts

Pig Wings is part of Tissue Culture and Art, set up by Finnish-born artist Oron Catts and UK-born artist Ionat Zurr. TCA works out of SymbioticA lab at the University of Western Australia. Its latest project is growing victimless leather

Why pig wings?

We took the statement "pigs could fly", which was typical of the kind of unrealistic biotech type stuff being said, and decided to literally grow pigs' wings both as a critique and to explore the patent absurdity of it. It represents our response as artists to the near future which contains semi-living entities - objects that are partly alive and partly constructed. They raise huge ethical and epistemological questions which people haven't begun to think about.

How did you grow the wings?

We harvested pig bone marrow stem cells left over from scientific experiments. Then we either grew them into two-dimensional layers for around four months and then wrapped them around biopolymer constructs, or we grew them in tissue flasks and created cell suspensions that were seeded onto constructs in a microgravity bioreactor, which allowed them to grow in three dimensions. Once we had the semi-living tissue wings we took them and fixed them with formalin, then dried them and coated them with gold to preserve them.

Don't you kill them when you dry them?

That is one of the many ambiguities of the whole project. We are showing both "live" and "dead" pig wings in galleries. We allow the audience to take part in our "feeding ritual" by cleaning out the old nutrients and adding new ones to the bioreactor. We also involve people in a "killing ritual" where we let them take the pig wings out. These are both extreme acts of violence and of care.

It sounds as if you had to learn a lot of practical biotechnology.

We did. While I was at Harvard I was lucky enough to work with Joseph Vacanti, one of the pioneers in tissue engineering. We also worked on new techniques with the artist in residence at MIT, Adam Zaretsky. These involve using vibrations from music as a method for dynamic seeding.

You played music to the pig cells to make them grow?

Oh yes! Before Napster collapsed we downloaded lots of pig songs - from Looney Tunes to heavy metal - and played them to the cells while they were seeding in the bioreactor. We did seem to get better distribution of the cells when we played the music.

What do the scientists - and your audiences - make of all this?

Many of them are very interested. We don't work like many artists, who tend to commission scientists as if they are artisans. We work with them as equals. Other scientists don't like what we're doing at all, they are insulted by it, they don't think it is reverential enough, too tongue-in-cheek. As for the lay public, they often feel challenged by the discrepancy between our cultural view of what life is, and by what we can now do with bioengineering. This is at the core of the revulsion and fear they feel.

Why are your pig wings these particular colours and shape?

Historically and culturally, the kind of wing represented a creature as either angelic, like the bird wings used for angels, or evil, like the vampire's bat wing. But there is a third option which is mostly culture-free: the pterosaurs. We created all three shapes and added the cultural colours that go with them: so blue for angelic, red for evil and green for the dinosaurs.

Marta de Menezes

Marta de Menezes has spent the past few years in research labs "proving that labs can be art studios". Portuguese-born, she is artist-in-residence at Imperial College London

Could you describe what you've done here?

I became incredibly excited at the idea that I could create an art-piece in a butterfly. It would have the characteristics of a painting, but also something more important because the butterfly was already a life form itself. My butterflies have wing patterns never before seen in nature. I created them by interfering with their normal developmental mechanisms with a very thin needle while the butterfly was still in the cocoon. You can do this to a high degree of accuracy.

What gave you the idea?

I read an article in Nature about the technique, in which the scientists said they could predict the outcome of the manipulation. The crucial part was knowing I could control the outcome because then I knew I could design something. It's like learning a technique in painting: you need to master the technique to get what you want out of the painting.

Why did you alter only one wing?

Butterfly wings in nature are symmetrical. By changing one wing I would be changing the butterfly into something that was definitely not natural. That was the game: was it natural or not natural? Everything in the butterfly is natural because I didn't add anything: I just changed the pattern. But that is not natural. It makes you wonder exactly what "natural" is.

Are your butterflies beautiful?

They were already beautiful. I wasn't interested in making them more beautiful. Art is not really about that today. It's about questioning, and what you can do with what you've got.

Did people like your work?

People were very shocked at first. They didn't think it a good idea. But a lot depends on how you present work and how people perceive it. The first time I showed only photographs. People didn't understand that the butterflies were alive. The reaction was a lot more friendly when I exhibited them for real in a greenhouse.

What's next?

Next year I plan to make the stripes of zebrafish vertical instead of horizontal so that they look more like zebras. I'd do this through selection and breeding, so the changes would be inherited.

Is that art?

Yes, I'm not trying to answer anything or find out why or how it is happening. I'm just trying to get the visual result. My aims are different from those of a scientist. That's what makes my work art.

Art, but not as we know it
logged by alf at 23:02, Monday, 1st March, 2004

New competition also brings new customers


ST FEB 27, 2004

HOW concerned should advanced countries be about the outsourcing of manufacturing to China or software development to India? Fear of jobs lost to low-wage countries strikes a populist chord, but misses a vital point: The prosperity of developed countries depends primarily on entrepreneurship.

After all, no economy can raise living standards forever through innovations that make production of existing goods more efficient. In the short run, increased efficiency reduces the cost of good or services, so people consume more of them. But eventually, consumers refuse to buy more even if prices continue to fall. After that, further efficiencies require shedding workers.

Creating and satisfying new consumer desires keeps the system going by absorbing the labour and purchasing power released by the increasingly efficient satisfaction of old ones. At the other end of this process, producers who satisfy old desires continue to economise, because they compete for employees and consumers with producers who satisfy new desires.

Similarly, outsourcing to low-wage countries improves living standards only if the human capital released can be used to make new goods and services. Otherwise, outsourcing merely reduces demand for domestic labour, just like other efficiency gains.

For many advanced countries, expansion of markets for new goods and services facilitates - and has been facilitated by - imports from low-wage countries. More than half of all manufactured goods consumed in the United States are made abroad, particularly low technology, labour-intensive products. Virtually all toys and shoes sold in the US are made in East Asia. China alone accounts for 86 per cent of the US bicycle market.

Resources released by these imports fostered the growth of industries that satisfy new needs. Cheap Asian televisions gave Western households the wherewithal to purchase PCs powered by Intel microprocessors and Microsoft software, which are designed by engineering graduates who would otherwise have worked for TV manufacturers.

To be sure, the integration of nearly a billion Chinese and Indian workers into global labour markets will hurt some workers and communities in developed countries. But as long as these economies churn out new desires, outsourcing represents an opportunity for prosperity on both sides.

The problem, of course, is that producers of new goods and services do not create jobs at exactly the same rate as efficiency gains or imports reduce the demand for labour. Following the Internet boom of the late 1990s, job creation slowed, while efficiency improvements continued to reduce the labour required by the 'old' goods and services.

Nor does the usual argument for free trade apply. Low-cost call centres in India or Chinese bicycles do not reflect any 'natural' comparative advantage. Rather, costs are low because for almost two centuries colonial powers and then domestic governments hobbled markets and restricted international trade, leaving a legacy of wages so low they offset weaker productivity.

Moreover, exports to low-wage countries cannot compensate for job losses. A Chinese worker cannot buy the same goods and services as one in the European Union, and workers in low-wage countries spend only a small portion of their incomes on EU products. As incomes in China grow, imports from other low or middle-income countries rise faster than imports from high-wage countries. China's trade surplus with the US exceeds US$100 billion (S$170 billion), but it runs a deficit with India.

Uncertainty about jobs breeds anxiety, and anxiety stokes protectionist sentiments. However, apart from a few industries, such as toys and bicycles, far fewer jobs are lost to imports than to efficiency improvements.

MANUFACTURING employment in the US fell last year to its lowest level since 1964, but thanks to a tripling in output per worker, total manufacturing output was roughly three times larger. Pressure to reduce costs in the recent downturn may have accelerated the movement of jobs to low-wage locations, but this accounts for only 15 to 35 per cent of the decline in employment since the downturn began.

Economist Joseph Schumpeter attributed the boom-and-bust cycles of the 19th century to periodic bursts of 'creative destruction' followed by lulls in innovative activity. More effective use of counter-cyclical policies may have subsequently smoothed out the economic cycle, but this cannot explain why productivity and incomes also grew more rapidly than in the 19th century.

Standard supply-side arguments fare no better. After all, tax rates were higher in the 20th century and regulation more extensive.

A critical factor is large scale, non-destructive creation. Inventions from 1850 to 1900 may well overshadow those of the entire 20th century, but they were the result of a few inventors who satisfied a wealthy clientele. In the 20th century, many entrepreneurs, large companies, financiers and inventors developed products and services for the masses.

Moreover, their innovations created and satisfied many new consumer desires. Aircraft, for instance, didn't reduce demand for automobiles: People fly when they wouldn't otherwise have driven. These new mass markets sustained a steady increase in average incomes and total employment.

The long-term prosperity of developed economies depends on their capacity to create and satisfy new consumer desires. Provided this capacity remains in good repair, job 'losses' - through improvements in the efficiency of domestic production or through outsourcing to low-wage countries - will enhance standards of living. However, if this capacity is impaired, neither the low road of protection nor the high road of free trade can do much good.

The writer is professor of business at Columbia University and the author of The Origin And Evolution Of New Businesses. Copyright: Project Syndicate

New competition also brings new customers
logged by alf at 14:33, Monday, 1st March, 2004