The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind

Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post:

Screenhunter_13_aug_23_2247Eighty years ago this week, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts executed two first-generation immigrants from Italy, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, for crimes they almost certainly did not commit. Before and after the executions, passions aroused by the case, in the United States and around the world, were incredibly intense. In part, this was because the case had strong political overtones at a time when much of the country was swept up in the Red Scare. In part, it was because, as the noted newspaper columnist Walter Lippmann wrote, “No man . . . should be put to death where so much doubt exists.” And, in part, it was because Sacco and Vanzetti were appealing men, whatever one may have thought of their politics. In an interview with the New York World three months before his execution, Vanzetti was quoted as saying, in halting but powerful English:

“If it had not been for these thing, I might have live out my life, talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have die, unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life can we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man’s understanding of man as we now do by dying. Our words, our lives, our pains — nothing! The taking of our lives — lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish peddler — all! That last moment belongs to us — that agony is our triumph!”

More here.

My Mega Millions

Larry Doyle in The New Yorker:

Winner_vazquezWhat am I going to do with my Mega Millions? Good question. Here’s a hundred dollars.

The truth is, I haven’t really thought about it. I mean, I suppose I’ll have to hire a lawyer to start preëmptively suing people who claim that I owe them money or fathered them or blinded them in a bar fight. And I’ll need bodyguards with double-0 clearance, for insurance purposes. And another lawyer to sue the first lawyer. But, beyond that, my life is going to stay pretty much the way it is, only with the Mega Millions.

Cheryl has been a good wife, financially supporting me all these years while I pursued my dream of winning the Mega Millions, and I’d like to keep her. She’s not really a Mega Millionaire’s wife, though, as she would be the first to admit. However, in light of all her years of loyal service, I’m going to give her first crack at the position.

Out of my own pocket, I’m advancing Cheryl up to three hundred thousand dollars for a series of upgrades. She has all sorts of complaints about her face that, frankly, I don’t see, but, fine, we’ll fix all that stuff. We’ll also be installing state-of-the-art breasts, right above the original ones, which we’ll keep around for old times’ sake to remind us where we came from. To go with her new Mega Millions looks, Cheryl will be getting extensive training in trophy-wiving from Melania Trump, on loan from my new friend Don, at a special discounted rate.

I do hope it all works out, because Cheryl was with me back when it all started. All those scratch-offs. All that black stuff all over the bed. She’s probably wishing that she hadn’t bitched so much about it now.

More here.

A Very, Very Small Opportunity

David Rejeski in Orion Magazine:

By 2014, nanotechnology is expected to account for over $1.4 trillion of global economic production. Like most technological revolutions, this one will have some downsides. Animal studies have shown that nanoparticles can enter the bloodstream, cross the blood-brain barrier, and damage tissue and DNA—reasons for concern, and for more research.

Given the size of the global investment, possible risks, and what’s at stake for our lives, our economy, and the environment, you might ask: “Shouldn’t we be having a conversation about this technology?” Yet recent surveys have shown that 70 to 80 percent of Americans have heard “nothing” or “very little” about nanotech, despite its potentially transformative effects on medicine, agriculture, computation, defense, and energy production.

This is nothing new. When was the last time the government asked you how to spend your taxes on science? That didn’t happen with nuclear power, genetics, or agricultural biotechnology. For people who lived through the biotech revolution, nanotech is a flashback: the collision of rapidly advancing technology with lagging public understanding, which could scuttle billions of dollars in public and private sector investment in nanotech and jeopardize some real breakthroughs, like better treatments for cancer and far cheaper solar energy.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In nanotechnology we find an unprecedented opportunity to do things differently, to develop a social contract between the public and the scientific community that is built on openness and trust.

More here.

Extremophile Journalism

Chris Moony in Seed Magazine:

Screenhunter_12_aug_23_2104At the recent World Conference of Science Journalists in Melbourne, Australia, the final plenary session began with a demonstration I will not soon forget. The event, entitled, “Reporting Science in Emerging Economies,” opened with Christina Scott, a journalist from South Africa, at the podium. The lights went out; it was suddenly pitch black. Then Scott lit a lighter and held it aloft.

She asked the audience—containing many science journalists from the West—to imagine the difficulties faced by their peers in the developing world, who work in adverse conditions with frequent power outages, low literacy levels, a lack of government support, and worse. Subsequent panelists from Brazil, Zambia, Sri Lanka, India, and China then reminded me that reporters from developing nations have virtually everything stacked against them. And yet, in many cases they are succeeding. Scott later likened science journalists in the developing world to extremophile bacteria, evolved to thrive in harsh environments.

More here.

Globalization’s Mad Scientist: On Joseph Stiglitz

Mark Engler in Dissent:

StiglihzStiglitz has always been intellectually combative, but that he would become a political renegade was not clear early in his prodigious career. He trained at M.I.T. in the early sixties. By 1970, when he turned twenty-seven, he was a full professor at Yale. He made his mark with groundbreaking research on the economics of information. Subsequently moving between teaching jobs at outposts such as Stanford and Princeton, he was long considered a contender for a Nobel Prize in economics, which he would ultimately win in 2001. When Bill Clinton took office, Stiglitz joined the Council of Economic Advisors, serving as its chair from 1995 to 1997. He then moved into dealing with international policy at the Bank.

The strident criticisms of the IMF that Stiglitz began voicing during his time in office took many Beltway observers by surprise. In recent years there have been some tensions between the stern neoliberal taskmasters who staff the IMF and the somewhat softer, at times reform-minded economists at the World Bank. General agreement about policy prevails, however; differences are usually sorted out in private; and broadsides from high-ranking officials are unheard of.

In this context, some have tried to portray Stiglitz as a spy who defected across enemy lines, going public with his secrets in a tormented effort to end his complicity in an evil ideology.

More here.

Eating Made Simple

From Scientific American:

Food As a nutrition professor, I am constantly asked why nutrition advice seems to change so much and why experts so often disagree. Whose information, people ask, can we trust? I’m tempted to say, “Mine, of course,” but I understand the problem. Yes, nutrition advice seems endlessly mired in scientific argument, the self-interest of food companies and compromises by government regulators. Nevertheless, basic dietary principles are not in dispute: eat less; move more; eat fruits, vegetables and whole grains; and avoid too much junk food.

“Eat less” means consume fewer calories, which translates into eating smaller portions and steering clear of frequent between-meal snacks. “Move more” refers to the need to balance calorie intake with physical activity. Eating fruits, vegetables and whole grains provides nutrients unavailable from other foods. Avoiding junk food means to shun “foods of minimal nutritional value”—highly processed sweets and snacks laden with salt, sugars and artificial additives. Soft drinks are the prototypical junk food; they contain sweeteners but few or no nutrients.

More here.

How Chimps Avoid Temptation

From Science:

Chimp Most children practice this mental trick: When asked to wait patiently for a promised treat–say, an hour of television–they occupy themselves with a toy or a book. Researchers have now shown that chimpanzees engage in similar self-distraction, a finding that further blurs the cognitive and behavioral boundary between humans and other primates.

The discovery comes from a study conducted at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Psychologists Theodore Evans and Michael Beran put each of four chimps in front of a container connected to a candy dispenser. The chimps could reach over and pick up the container to eat the accumulated candies at any time, but doing so stopped the dispenser from delivering any more. That allowed the chimps to delay the reward as long as they wanted–so that they could get more of it.

More here.

Second Hand Art

Ruchira Paul in Accidental Blogger:


In my introductory virtual exhibition I posted some original compositions. This post contains paintings which are copies of other artists’ works.  As a student and amateur artist, I have made many copies over the years, true and inspired –  of real objects, human beings, photographs and other artists’ works as my model. The exercise is akin to penmanship – for practice and to improve drawing skills and techniques. Occasionally, a copy turns out to be so satisfactory, that happily it becomes a work of art worth preserving . I display them in my home for my own enjoyment and am doing so now on the blog, for yours. These pictures are a testimony to my skills as an illustrator, much like a billboard artist – not my artistic flair. I have spoken with those in the know about the wisdom of putting them out for public consumption.  They assure me that as long as I do not offer such art for sale or claim them as my own, I am not violating any ethical boundaries, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery .. etc.

More here.

Reagan Official warns America could become police state

From Don’t Fear the Truth:

In case you live under a rock (or you watch Fox News for your information) the Internets have been ABUZZ for months and months over the Executive orders that Bush has been creating that give him greater and greater controls over US citizens, and the country. For example, in the event of a catastrophe (which is defined loosely, this could be a hurricane like Katrina) Bush is given control of the entire country, congress, law enforcement, state governments, etc. Everything.

This video is a radio broadcast interview of Paul Craig Roberts, he was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration.

This is NOT some conspiracy theorist/some guy off the street. People laugh at the worries of some people that Bush is being given too much power, but this guy is saying the US is in danger of becoming a police state within one year.

Criticism of a Gender Theory, Scientist Under Siege

Benedict Carey in the New York Times:

Screenhunter_06_aug_22_1507Earlier this month, members of the International Academy of Sex Research, gathering for their annual meeting in Vancouver, informally discussed one of the most contentious and personal social science controversies in recent memory.

The central figure, J. Michael Bailey, a psychologist at Northwestern University, has promoted a theory that his critics think is inaccurate, insulting and potentially damaging to transgender women. In the past few years, several prominent academics who are transgender have made a series of accusations against the psychologist, including that he committed ethics violations. A transgender woman he wrote about has accused him of a sexual impropriety, and Dr. Bailey has become a reviled figure for some in the gay and transgender communities.

More here.

U.S. officials rethink hopes for Iraq democracy

Michael Ware and Thomas Evans at CNN:

Screenhunter_04_aug_22_1454Nightmarish political realities in Baghdad are prompting American officials to curb their vision for democracy in Iraq. Instead, the officials now say they are willing to settle for a government that functions and can bring security.

A workable democratic and sovereign government in Iraq was one of the Bush administration’s stated goals of the war.

But for the first time, exasperated front-line U.S. generals talk openly of non-democratic governmental alternatives, and while the two top U.S. officials in Iraq still talk about preserving the country’s nascent democratic institutions, they say their ambitions aren’t as “lofty” as they once had been.

“Democratic institutions are not necessarily the way ahead in the long-term future,” said Brig. Gen. John “Mick” Bednarek, part of Task Force Lightning in Diyala province, one of the war’s major battlegrounds.

More here.

PZ Myers Sued for Negative Book Review, Really

Lindsay Beyerstein reports:

Prominent skeptic and science blogger PZ Myers is in the middle of a legal battle because he had the temerity to pan some crank’s book (twice!).

The embittered author, Dr. Stuart Pivar, filed a lawsuit against Myers’ publisher in New York’s Southern District Court on August 16th.

Andrea Bottaro of Panda’s Thumb reports that Pivar is seeking $15 million in damages from Myers and his publisher Seed Media Company.

Pivar claims he was libeled why Myers described him as a “classic crackpot.” Here’s my favorite part of the complaint (pdf):

16. On July 12, 2007, Defendant Myers maliciously, and without cause, defamed Plaintiff by referring to him as “a classic crackpot.”

17. Upon information and belief, Defendant Myers’ references to Plaintiff as “a classic crackpot” were necessarily intended to disparage Plaintiff’s abilities as a scientific enquirer and were intended to hold Plaintiff up to ridicule and embarrassment in this specific area of Plaintiff’s professional endeavors.

Over at PZ Myers’ site, his statement.

The Road to Iraq: Unipolarity and Partisan Ideological Polarization

Via Henry Farrell over at Crooked Timber, a paper by some of my old teachers Jack Snyder, Robert Shapiro and Yaeli Bloch-Elkon on the Iraq war:

Why did America invade Iraq? The glib answer is “because it could.” In the unipolar moment, the immediate costs and risks of using military force against Saddam Hussein’s hollow, troublesome regime seemed low to U.S. leaders.

But this explanation begs the important questions. Disproportionate power allows greater freedom of action, but it is consistent with a broad spectrum of policies, ranging from messianic attempts to impose a new world order to smug insulation from the world’s quagmires. How this freedom is used depends on how threats and opportunities are interpreted through the prism of ideology and domestic politics. In this sense, unipolarity was a permissive cause of the Bush Administration’s preventive war doctrine and its application in Iraq. America’s unprecedented power combined with the motivation and opportunity presented by the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack to permit the President to reframe the assumptions behind American global strategy.

The free hand in strategy is an enduring feature of American foreign policy. Unipolarity simply gave it unprecedented latitude…

What changed in 2001 was not just the terrorist attack, but also the ideological and political environment that made the most of it. Three decades of increasing partisan ideological polarization on domestic issues culminated in the Bush Administration’s extending it into the realm of foreign policy. Even before September 11, the Bush Administration was well stocked with Republican hawks and neo-conservative ideologues who already had in their briefcases the blueprints to reframe American strategy. These ideological revolutionaries in foreign policy emerged as a result of the same underlying partisan incentives that had earlier polarized partisan stances on domestic policy. While the American public has remained centrist, less moderate activists in both parties have been able to exploit the primary system, money politics, and media message control to succeed by appealing mainly to their partisan bases.

A Dilettante’s Guide to Art

Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

Screenhunter_03_aug_22_1152The amazing thing about 1001 Paintings is thus the breeziness of it all. It is a dilettante’s book. Its intended reader is surely someone like the woman pictured on the cover, standing with her back to us, wearing a tasteful black dress and expensive, though not gaudy, earrings. She went to Brown, I think, where she studied English literature and wrote a thesis on Wordsworth. She still loves reading Keats when she gets the chance but her career in financial services and her role as board member for several non-profits prevents her from dedicating as much time to art and literature as she would like.

Yet, mock her as we might, our woman in black from Brown is right, because the dilettantes are always right, because paintings are for looking at, and because every claim about what painting “should be” gets shriveled and old and academic even before the canvas does. The dilettante doesn’t care much about what painting “should be,” only about what it is and has been. And the thing that keeps this standpoint from being utterly trivial is the hint of melancholy in it. The dilettante is interested in all things equally because in the long eye of time all things are equally transient. Looking can become delightful again from that perspective, but it is tinged with the mark of death. The dilettante acknowledges this mark, and then goes about the business of living.

Thus the title, 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die. Acknowledge death, move on. The answer that the book thus gives to the question “What is Painting?” is simple and clear. The answer is “Who cares?” More pertinent to this book is the question “What’s the next painting I should see?” I want to stress again that this is a remarkable question and, I think, an inherently good one. It is a question that completely ignores the “What Is?” style of inquiry and gets right to the looking. And that is a bold and liberating thing to do.

More here.

Why girls ‘really do prefer pink’

From BBC News:

Pink A University of Newcastle study found that women naturally opted for redder shades when given a choice. Writing in the journal Current Biology, experts say it may have helped women gather ripe fruit, or pick healthy mates. Most earlier studies into colour suggest a universal liking for blue, regardless of sex. This is one of the few studies that have tried to spot differences between the likes of males and females. The Newcastle team, led by Dr Anya Hurlbert, tested more than 200 men and women in their 20s, asking them to choose between colours on the computer screen. Women were far more likely to choose blue shades with more red mixed in, and more likely to reject more green and yellow hues.

One of the problems facing the researchers was to work out if this reaction is the product of years of British “blue for a boy, pink for a girl” culture. To do this, the group tested were a mixture of white British and Chinese volunteers. While the Chinese volunteers, male and female, also tended to favour red shades, not surprisingly since red is a “lucky” colour in China, the difference between men and women persisted. According to the researchers, this strengthened the idea that the preferences might be based in biology, rather than culture.

More here.

Coffee’s Bitter Mystery

From Science:

Coffee People who start their mornings by pouring cream and sugar into a steaming mug of coffee are usually trying to mask the beverage’s bitterness. But the reason coffee makes us pucker has eluded scientists for decades. Now, researchers have narrowed the search by identifying two chemical compounds responsible for bitter taste in coffees ranging from mild breakfast blends to intense espressos. According to work presented here at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society, it turns out that the roasting process–not the raw beans–produces these compounds, a finding that could open the door to improved methods for processing coffee beans.

A cup of coffee is a complex brew of more than 30 chemical compounds that contribute to its taste, aroma, and acidity. Since the 1930s, scientists have separated and identified numerous chemicals responsible for many of the sensory components of a cup of joe, but few have investigated those that produce bitterness.

More here.

Sean Carroll on Dark Matter and Dark Energy at Yearly Kos

The always brilliant Sean Carroll in Cosmic Variance:

Thanks to some heroic efforts on the part of folks who would just as soon lurk behind the scenes, we now have video captured from the C-SPAN broadcast of our science panel at YearlyKos. Here is my talk, conveniently divided into two pieces to appease the YouTube gods. They are a little fuzzy, but you get the idea. I used the mysterious beauty of dark matter and dark energy as an excuse to make some didactic points about science and rationality and politics. (If I weren’t an atheist, I would have made a good preacher.) You can also find videos of Chris’s talk and Ed’s talk at their respective sites; Tara, who felt sorry for me for being given the impossible task of making the universe sound interesting, has the Q&A up as well.

Part 1:

Part 2:

More here.

God’s Still Dead

Christopher Hitchens in Slate:

Screenhunter_02_aug_21_2003Those of us in the fast-growing atheist community who have long suspected that there is a change in the zeitgeist concerning “faith” can take some encouragement from the decision of the New York Times Magazine to feature professor Mark Lilla on the cover of the Aug. 19 edition. But we also, on reading the extremely lucid extract from his new book, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West, are expected to take some harsh punishment. Briefly stated, the Lilla thesis is as follows:

  • The notion of a “separation” of church and state comes from a unique historical contingency of desperate and destructive warfare between discrepant Christian sects, which led Thomas Hobbes to propose a historical compromise in the pages of his 17th-century masterpiece, Leviathan. There is no general reason why Hobbes’ proposal will work at all times or in all places.
  • Human beings are pattern-seeking animals who will prefer even a bad theory or a conspiracy theory to no theory at all, and they are thus (in an excellent term derived by Lilla from Jean-Jacques Rousseau) by nature “theotropic,” or inclined toward religion.
  • That instinct being stronger than any discrete historical moment, it is idle to imagine that mere scientific or material progress will abolish the worshipping impulse.
  • Liberalism is especially implicated in this problem, because the desire for a better world very often takes a religious form, and thus it is wishful to identify “belief” with the old forces of reaction, because it will also underpin utopian or messianic or other social-engineering fantasies.

Taken separately, all these points are valid in and of themselves. Examined more closely, they do not cohere as well as all that.

More here.