Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Colony collapse disorder

According to an article in the NYT science section, honeybee colonies in the US and elsewhere are collapsing, with one-quarter of the colonies in the States already lost. There are various suspects --- fungi and chemicals and so on --- some of them currently helping the police with their enquiries (as it were), but no-one has been charged as yet.

How is it that I am only just hearing about this? This is pretty serious stuff.

Monday, 23 April 2007

Teach your children well

From a meditation in the NYT on giving advice to children & teens, written from a working mother's perspective:
When we talk to our children about sex, about alcohol and drugs, or about the dangers of the Internet, we give them limitations and warnings. But when it comes to the subject of work, we tell them that they can be whatever they aspire to be; that they should aim high, work hard and dream big.

What we rarely do is tell them how hard some days are. Or that along the road, they might have to compromise, or detour, or backtrack. To warn them would be to discourage them. Or so our thinking goes. ...

Age shall not weary them

Jack Nicholson is seventy. It seems as though there must have been a mistake somewhere.

The film section of the Guardian (the source of the Nicholson retrospective linked above) also has an interview with Natalie Portman, who is about to turn 26: an equally odd thought, although the occasion is of course less of a big deal. The article is much concerned with age issues, which is a little predictable, but it does manage a sensible and measured discussion of her parts in Léon and Beautiful Girls, which is no mean feat.

I am over NP. Like a certain other promising actress who gave a few stellar performances as a teen, there is simply no way to see what the fuss is about, on the basis of the last five or six years. Mercifully, Jack hasn't shown interest in either of them, so far as I know.

For the sheer pleasure of the quote: Elvis Mitchell in the NYT, discussing the film Blade II:
And the vampires are still the kind of chic Versace-ridden Eurotrash you see dwelling in the most perilous areas of nightclubs; they're the type usually inhabiting the V.I.P. sections, secreted behind the velvet ropes with Jack Nicholson.

Sunday, 22 April 2007

The Condition of France

On the occasion of the French presidential election (or at least, its first round) I've been reading an excellent article by Alain Supiot, from the University of Nantes, in an LRB from the middle of last year. Despite its title, it's really about Europe, and the West generally, and our current predicament.

I'm afraid you need a subscription to read the full article: the website only shows the first paragraph. So consider this an ad. I will allow myself this brief quote, about the decay of western institutions, especially political ones:
Put less colourfully, de-institutionalisation produces idiocy, in the original sense of the word --- confinement within the self, loss of contact with the real world and an inability to subscribe to a shared meaning ... This phenomenon is made worse by the endogamy of the ruling class, since a single `noblesse d'état' monopolises the exercise of political, economic and media power.

This situation is not peculiar to France, but rather forms part of a fundamental tendency to see the law as merely a neutral instrument, a product that everyone ought to be able to use in the service of their individual interests...

Thursday, 19 April 2007

One reason I love the LRB

There is an excellent article on the science of global warming (on the excuse of speaking to books on the subject) in the publicly-available section of the London Review of Books: look for Warmer, Warmer on the RHS. With a little more effort, one can also navigate to a public article on The Political Economy of Carbon Trading from the subsequent edition. As a scientist, I have less of a feel for this second subject, but the article does seem eminently sensible.

I present these as Exhibits A and B for the case that one can write an accessible article on a technical subject, and still write for grown-ups. The LRB includes this sort of piece from time to time, usually to a very high standard. Medical/epidemiological articles tend to be written by tame experts (and the articles are superb), but those on general scientific subjects seem to be written by informed layfolk (scientifically speaking) who go off and swot. Maybe the Two Cultures are finally drawing together again.

The few times I've dipped into The Economist, I've also found the science and technology section to be of an excellent standard --- to my pleasant surprise --- and less uncritical than some of the science press. So let's give credit where credit is due.

P.S. If you plan to read the new Ian McEwan novel On Chesil Beach, best not to first read Colm Tóibín's review (also on the LRB website). Word to the wise.


Miranda Devine's ability to spoil an argument never ceases to amaze me.

In an op-ed article in today's SMH she mounts a critique of "try before you buy" cohabitation, hanging it on the Windsor-Middleton breakup the way one hangs a coat on a peg. One first has to wade through a page of tut-tutting at British snobbery: all very entertaining, but surely it's absurd if egalitarian sentiment becomes an excuse for feeling superior to the upper class?

She eventually makes a good point, if scarcely a new one: cohabitation, considered from the outside, seems scarcely in women's interest and "gives all the advantages to men". Very well, but what follows from this?

According to Ms Devine, it follows that If Middleton had really wanted to marry William she never should have set up house with him. Smart girls don't give away marital perks free. Really? Smart girls? Marital perks?

A critique of an institution is, by itself, no guide to individual behaviour. Ms Middleton is no more able to single-handedly change her social environment than any of us, but must act in the place and time she is given.

The naff reference to "smart girls" casts this as a matter of calculation, so let's be calculating. KM may have been trying out some merchandise of her own. Fancy being married to the heir to the throne, ladies? Not sure? Then perhaps you might want to try the role on for size, without making an irreversible commitment. It might be a way of finding out if you really do want to marry the guy, with all that implies. And at the risk of an obvious statement, KM may have been unenthusiastic about living through her twenties in celibacy. Is there anyone who doesn't feel some sympathy on that score? Anyone?

So perhaps the "New Rules" rhetoric is just a wrapper, and MD's real goal is a moral one, seeking to tie sex and commitment closer together. As a Christian, of course I sympathise. But one needs a fairly broad vision of the problem for this to make sense. If one is merely acting in a market, and the market is unchanged, then principles slow you down. There is such a thing as lonely virtue.

The problem is that many people don't feel ready to marry in their twenties, or would not feel supported in such a choice. This is almost certainly a criticism of our society; it may well (say it in a small voice!) be a criticism of ourselves. One is still left with the question of what to do. Marriage (and cohabitation for that matter) is a social phenomenon and I would have thought it an excellent start to broaden the frame of reference. Perhaps we can act differently as families, or groups of friends, or subcultures, or workplaces (!), and provide a milieu where an older-fashioned choice makes sense.

But to jump straight to how-the-individual-should-act is to claim that it is never prudent, or wise, or good, or even the lesser of two evils, to compromise with a flawed institution. This is ethical nonsense, and that makes it bad advice.

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

A moment's silence

I used to work for Virginia Tech, so sadly in the news today because of the killings on its campus. Enough is going to be said about these things, and I don't wish to add to it, except to pause for a moment out of respect to those who lost their lives.

May God have mercy on us all.

A reluctant blog

I never was an early adopter. After 13 years or more on the web, I still write my HTML by hand, and until this moment I haven't had a blog --- until six months ago, I had never even posted to one. In the nineties I was the web responsible for my university department, and since then I've written up popular lectures and film reviews for my home page; and the web is something I use extensively for work. But something in me has resisted its more popular forms.

Maybe it's particle-physicist snobbery: we invented the thing, and now it's completely out of our hands, and often contrary to our values. Or maybe it's that, being an opinionated person, I've been afraid of ending up as one more ranting guy at a keyboard. But in any case, I started posting to some friends' blogs a while back, and the sky did not fall in. So it seems like it's time to give this a try for myself.

As for the title, taking things seriously is what physicists do, and taking things seriously is something I've been doing, to the occasional dismay of my friends, all my life. I hope it doesn't exclude having a sense of humour, but that's for others to judge.