Friday Poem

Winter Dawn

The men and beasts of the zodiac
Have marched over us once more.
Green wine bottles and red lobster shells,
Both emptied, litter the table.
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot?” Each
Sits listening to his own thoughts,
And the sound of cars starting outside.
The birds in the eaves are restless,
Because of the noise and light. Soon now
In the winter dawn I will face
My fortieth year. Borne headlong
Towards the long shadows of sunset
By the headstrong, stubborn moments,
Life whirls past, like drunken wildfire.

by Tu Fu
translated by Kenneth Rexroth
A Book of Luminous Things
Harvest Books, 1996

Contra Dynomight On Sexy In-Laws

Scott Alexander in Astral Codex Ten:

From the Dynomight blog: You, Your Parents, And The Hotness Of Who You Marry.

They start with a traditional situation: some romance novel heroine wants to marry a tall, dark stranger. But her parents want her to marry a much older nobleman/doctor/engineer who can provide her with a stable income. Or the gender-flipped version: the young man courts a beautiful debutante, while his parents try to force him to marry the plain-faced daughter of their business partner.

Evolutionary psychology has pat explanations for both sides here. People want attractive partners because attraction correlates with health, fertility, and status (eg the debutante’s wide hips and large breasts mean she’ll be able to give birth and nurse effectively; the stranger’s height means he must be strong and healthy). But people also want wealthy partners from good families, because they’ll be able to give more resources to the children.

Dynomight’s question is: why do the suitors and the parents disagree here? Everyone involved (evolutionarily) wants the same thing: lots of healthy, successful descendants.

More here.

Physicists Pin Down How Quantum Uncertainty Sharpens Measurements

Ben Brubaker in Quanta:

Scientific progress has been inseparable from better measurements.

Before 1927, only human ingenuity seemed to limit how precisely we could measure things. Then Werner Heisenberg discovered that quantum mechanics imposes a fundamental limit on the precision of some simultaneous measurements. The better you pin down a particle’s position, for instance, the less certain you can possibly be about its momentum. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle put an end to the dream of a perfectly knowable world.

In the 1980s, physicists began to glimpse a silver lining around the cloud of quantum uncertainty. Quantum mechanics, they learned, can be harnessed to aid measurement rather than hinder it — the thesis of a growing discipline known as quantum metrology.

More here.

A quest for significance gone horribly wrong – how mass shooters pervert a universal desire to make a difference in the world

Arie Kruglanski in The Conversation:

The idea that committing atrocities and killing innocent victims reflects mental illness has been long discarded by terrorism researchers like me. The over 40,000 foreign fighters who joined the Islamic State organization to kill and die weren’t all mentally disturbed, nor were the mass shooters who in the first 19 weeks of 2022 managed to carry out nearly 200 attacks on U.S. soil.

There is a mental and psychological dimension to the problem, to be sure, but it is not illness or pathology. It is the universal human quest for significance and respect – the mother, I believe, of all social motives.

More here.

Research Reveals Surprising Conversations Between Our Brain Cells

Saugat Bolakhe in Discover Magazine:

After his grandfather suffered a spinal cord injury in a car accident, Chris Dulla wondered how his wounded brain cells would repair themselves. So when Dulla learned in medical school two decades ago that star-shaped brain cells called astrocytes support neurons and play a vital role in injury response and recovery, he felt the urge to dive deeper into the topic.

Dulla, who is currently an associate professor of neuroscience at Tufts University, has now discovered a fundamental characteristic of these cells that may transform our understanding of the brain. The recent research suggests that astrocytes don’t just serve as support structures as scientists previously thought. Instead, they are electrically active and in constant communication with neurons, as Dulla and colleagues reported in Nature Neuroscience study. This finding could lead to innovative treatments for conditions like schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.

More here.

Can’t Buy Me Luck

Lydia Denworth in Scientific American:

Can't Buy Me Luck: The Role of Serendipity in the Beatles' SuccessImagine there were no Beatles—or that there was no Beatlemania anyway and that the lads from Liverpool were just another band that never got a record deal or that split up before they hit it big. That is the premise Harvard University professor Cass R. Sunstein ponders in an entertaining and thought-provoking essay to be published in September in the first issue of the Journal of Beatles Studies. (A preliminary draft was posted online early this year.)

The fact that there could be an academic journal devoted just to John, Paul, George and Ringo is emblematic of how popular and influential the Beatles are. Many assume they were destined for greatness. “It was just a matter of time,” said John Lennon in a 1980 interview. But maybe not. Early on, record executives were unimpressed (“The boys won’t go,” they told manager Brian Epstein). And the group did almost split up. Its members were carried along their winding road by an unusually enthusiastic manager (Epstein), a risk-taking producer (George Martin), a big local fan base, and more. “They were, at the crucial time, better than excellent,” says Sunstein, who is a fan as well as a legal and policy scholar at Harvard Law School. Nevertheless, it is quite possible that “if seven or 17 things had gone differently, the Beatles wouldn’t have made it.”

More here.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

The cult of Winston Churchill

Priyamvada Gopal in Prospect:

On the back cover of Tariq Ali’s new book on Winston Churchill, a less flattering and so less familiar portrait of the wartime icon comes into view. Here, the man voted the Greatest Briton ever by over a million of his compatriots in 2002 fulminates against everything from women’s suffrage and liberal causes to “international Jews,” “uncivilised tribes” and “people with slit eyes and pigtails.” Ali also alludes to Churchill’s approval of the Conservative slogan “Keep England White”—at the same time MPs like Fenner Brockway were bringing the Race Discrimination Bill to parliament—and includes an extract from the cringeworthy praise he heaped on Mussolini in 1927. Such pronouncements will not be new to anyone familiar with the subject, but to invoke them in rarefied British company is usually to elicit the dismissive claim that they are not representative of Churchill or that they were simply “of their time.” “Nobody’s perfect” goes the more casual response, as if a view of the world in which Anglo-Saxons were “a higher grade race” entitled to rule the rest was simply a charming upper-class foible.

Nobody’s perfect, indeed, but not everyone had the power to make such a worldview consequential for the lives of millions of people across the globe, often lethally so. At the heart of Ali’s account is this historical reality, one that is evaded in Britain today in favour of a burnished and bullish mythology in which both Churchill and his beloved British Empire emerge with untarnished courage and virtue.

More here.

Oncology’s Darwinian Dilemma

Bobak Parang in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

“No cancer patient should die without trying immunotherapy” is a refrain in oncology clinics across the country right now. A treatment consisting of antibodies that awaken the immune system to attack cancer, immunotherapy carries far more promise than chemotherapy, and it has considerably fewer side effects. Since the FDA’s first approval a decade ago, it has revolutionized cancer care. Consider Stage IV non-small cell lung cancer. Twenty years ago, when the only option was chemotherapy, oncologists could tell their patient, with almost 100 percent certainty, that they would not be alive in two years. Today, miraculously, many patients with Stage IV lung cancer are alive five years after diagnosis — and some are even cured.

But the rub is that this immunotherapy revolution applies only to a narrow set of patients. Some benefit, but the majority do not. And patients who are cured constitute an even smaller minority. Why is this?

More here.

What is the point of crypto?

Emily Stewart in Vox:

In recent weeks, I spoke with nearly two dozen people in, adjacent to, and critical of the crypto space about what they envision to be the purpose of crypto. What emerged was a picture that was simultaneously murky and clarifying, in that there’s not one good answer. Some of what it does is promising; a lot of what it does — even boosters admit — is trash, and trash that’s costing some people a lot of money. This probably isn’t the death knell for crypto — it’s gone through plenty of boom and bust cycles in the past. It would be unwise to definitively say that crypto has no chance of being a game changer; it would also be disingenuous to claim it is now.

Crypto is a solution in search of a problem, or rather, problems. And at the moment, it’s hard not to wonder whether it is, instead, creating more problems than it’s worth.

More here.

Thursday Poem

The Long Road Home

—a poem for Muhammed Ali

I am Beginning to Comprehend
the mystery
of the gift of suffering.
It is true as some
have said
that it is a crucible
in which the gold of one’s spirit
is rendered
and shines.

you represent all of us
who stand the test of suffering
most often alone
because who can understand
who or what
has brought us to our feet?

Their knees worn out
ancestors stood us up
from the awkward position
they had to honor
on the floor beneath
the floor.

I have been weeping
all day
Thinking of this.
The cloud of witness
the endless teaching
the long road home.

by Alice Walker
from Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart
Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd., 2016

Belle and Sebastian Sing of Middle Age

Peter C. Baker at The New Yorker:

“Now we’re old with creaking bones,” Stuart Murdoch, the front man of the Scottish band Belle and Sebastian, sings on “Young and Stupid,” the jaunty opening track of its new album, “A Bit of Previous.” The lyric feels less like a resigned lament than a jubilant mission statement—a declaration that it’s possible for a band widely associated with youthful languor to successfully train its sensibilities on the indignities and forced epiphanies of middle age. The album is full of references to aging, parenting, and nostalgia for youth, but also to some new orientation to life, one that takes its finitude a touch more seriously. “This is my life,” Murdoch sings in the chorus of “Unnecessary Drama.” He sounds a little shocked. “This is my only life.”

Like many (maybe most) Belle and Sebastian fans, I fell in love with the band on the basis of the trio of albums—“Tigermilk,” “If You’re Feeling Sinister,” “The Boy with the Arab Strap”—that it released from 1996 to 1998.

more here.

Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi

Cynthia Zarin at The Paris Review:

For a number of weeks one spring, I spent every afternoon at the Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi. It was what we then thought was the tail end of a plague, and I had come to Italy to visit a friend who had lived for many years a few kilometers above Assisi, in an old schoolhouse. This turned out not to be the visit I had imagined, nor, I am sure, the one she had, and after a few weeks, I went to Rome. But before that, every afternoon, I drove down into town—I had rented a car—past the long flank of Monte Subasio, with its temperate oxen, parked on the escarpment before the gates because the switchback of tiny streets flummoxed me, and walked down to the basilica. Everything was off-kilter, as if a great wave had passed over us, and now, if we were lucky to be alive, we found ourselves stranded on the banks of our own lives or paddling furiously toward where we imagined the shore might be. I had been to the basilica and to Assisi many times over the years to visit my friend, and so I knew my way on the small strade that opened and closed into a series of piazze, as if the town had exhaled and then drawn breath again.

more here.

An optimist’s guide to the future: the economist who believes that human ingenuity will save the world

David Shariatmadari in The Guardian:

Why is the Anglo-Saxon world so individualistic, and why has China leaned towards collectivism? Was it Adam Smith, or the Bill of Rights; communism and Mao? According to at least one economist, there might be an altogether more surprising explanation: the difference between wheat and rice. You see, it’s fairly straightforward for a lone farmer to sow wheat in soil and live off the harvest. Rice is a different affair: it requires extensive irrigation, which means cooperation across parcels of land, even centralised planning. A place where wheat grows favours the entrepreneur; a place where rice grows favours the bureaucrat.

The influence of the “initial conditions” that shape societies’ development is what Oded Galor has been interested in for the past 40 years. He believes they reverberate across millennia and even seep into what we might think of as our personalities. Whether or not you have a “future-oriented mindset” – in other words, how much money you save and how likely you are to invest in your education – can, he argues, be partly traced to what kinds of crops grew well in your ancestral homelands. (Where high-yield species such as barley and rice thrive, it pays to sacrifice the immediate gains of hunting by giving over some of your territory to farming. This fosters a longer-term outlook.) Differences in gender equality around the world have their roots in whether land required a plough to cultivate – needing male strength, and relegating women to domestic tasks – or hoes and rakes, which could be used by both sexes.

More here.

Scientists develop ‘off the shelf’ engineered stem cells to treat aggressive brain cancer

From Phys.Org:

Glioblastomas (GBMs) are highly aggressive cancerous tumors of the brain and spinal cord. Brain cancers like GBM are challenging to treat because many cancer therapeutics cannot pass through the blood-brain barrier, and more than 90 percent of GBM tumors return after being surgically removed, despite surgery and subsequent chemo- and radiation therapy being the most successful way to treat the disease. In a new study led by investigators at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, scientists devised a novel therapeutic strategy for treating GBMs post-surgery by using stem cells taken from healthy donors engineered to attack GBM-specific tumor cells. This strategy demonstrated profound efficacy in preclinical models of GBM, with 100 percent of mice living over 90 days after treatment.

More here.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Is Moral Expertise Possible? —A Roundtable

Geoffrey Miller, Oliver Traldi, Spencer Case, and Bo Winegard in Quillette:

Is moral expertise possible? Well, we certainly act like it is in our everyday judgments of other people. We judge some people as lacking moral expertise, insofar as we don’t expect very good moral decision-making from them, we don’t seek out their advice on moral issues, and we don’t praise them as moral role models. Such people include young children, low-IQ adults, older adults with dementia, and criminal psychopaths.

We don’t hold our toddlers to the same moral standards as we hold our teenagers, and we don’t expect as much from our teens as we do from our work colleagues. Moral expertise develops gradually in humans, and parents take pride in any moral levelling-up that they see in their kids. In some people, moral expertise never fully develops.

More here.

Want to prevent pandemics? Stop spillovers

Neil M. Vora, Lee Hannah, Susan Lieberman, Mariana M. Vale, Raina K. Plowright, and Aaron S. Bernstein in Nature:

Spillover events, in which a pathogen that originates in animals jumps into people, have probably triggered every viral pandemic that’s occurred since the start of the twentieth century1. What’s more, an August 2021 analysis of disease outbreaks over the past four centuries indicates that the yearly probability of pandemics could increase several-fold in the coming decades, largely because of human-induced environmental changes2.

Fortunately, for around US$20 billion per year, the likelihood of spillover could be greatly reduced3. This is the amount needed to halve global deforestation in hotspots for emerging infectious diseases; drastically curtail and regulate trade in wildlife; and greatly improve the ability to detect and control infectious diseases in farmed animals.

More here.