Fingering the Neural Perp in Parkinson’s

From Scientific American:

Brain Neuroscientists have long believed that the tremors, stiffness and sluggish gait characteristic of Parkinson’s disease resulted from the death of neurons in a section of the midbrain that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine, which helps to maintain proper motion control.

A new study in mice, however, suggests that the disorder may actually be caused not only by hobbled dopamine-producing cells but also by neurons in the locus coeruleus region of the brain stem that produce norepinephrine, a chemical related to dopamine and associated with everything from anxiety to attention to blood pressure regulation. The new finding could lead to new therapies for combating the debilitating condition.

More here.

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny

and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge…”

One day after I have celebrated the 60th anniversary of my own nation‘s birth and independence from colonial rule, I cannot refrain from quoting, once again, Nehru’s inimitably beautiful words spoken at India’s independence (a day after Pakistan’s in 1947, and therefore 60 years ago today), as a way of expressing congratulation to my sisters and brothers in that country ineluctably and inexorably forever twinned to my own:

Screenhunter_06_aug_15_0557Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity.

At the dawn of history India started on her unending quest, and trackless centuries are filled with her striving and the grandeur of her success and her failures. Through good and ill fortune alike she has never lost sight of that quest or forgotten the ideals which gave her strength. We end today a period of ill fortune and India discovers herself again. The achievement we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity, to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us. Are we brave enough and wise enough to grasp this opportunity and accept the challenge of the future?

Nehru’s speech continued here.

God is in the Metaphor

Salman Hameed in Science and Religion News:

Science sections of bookstores are lined up with books that have God somewhere in the title (The Language of God, The God Gene, God in the Machine, God’s Equation, etc). Its all about selling books and about getting attention in the media. Astronomers also have a special penchant for this. For example, we have fingers of god – an observational effect that makes clusters of galaxies appear elongated in our direction and to some it seems that cosmic fingers are pointing towards us. Screenhunter_05_aug_15_0433Some also described the variations in cosmic background radiation as the fingerprint of Creation. But here is an excellent article in defense of using such metaphors, and it focuses on the Higgs Boson – now also known as the God particle: What’s in a name? Parsing the ‘God Particle’ as the Ultimate Metaphor

In a stroke of either public relations genius or disaster, Leon M. Lederman, the former director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab, referred to the Higgs as “the God particle” in the book of the same name he published with the science writer Dick Teresi in 1993. To Dr. Lederman, it made metaphorical sense, he explained in the book, because the Higgs mechanism made it possible to simplify the universe, resolving many different seeming forces into one, like tearing down the Tower of Babel. Besides, his publisher complained, nobody had ever heard of the Higgs particle.

More here.  [Photo shows Lederman.]

Could we be living in a computer simulation?

John Tierney in the New York Times:

Screenhunter_04_aug_14_1414Until I talked to Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University, it never occurred to me that our universe might be somebody else’s hobby. I hadn’t imagined that the omniscient, omnipotent creator of the heavens and earth could be an advanced version of a guy who spends his weekends building model railroads or overseeing video-game worlds like the Sims.

But now it seems quite possible. In fact, if you accept a pretty reasonable assumption of Dr. Bostrom’s, it is almost a mathematical certainty that we are living in someone else’s computer simulation.

This simulation would be similar to the one in “The Matrix,” in which most humans don’t realize that their lives and their world are just illusions created in their brains while their bodies are suspended in vats of liquid. But in Dr. Bostrom’s notion of reality, you wouldn’t even have a body made of flesh. Your brain would exist only as a network of computer circuits.

You couldn’t, as in “The Matrix,” unplug your brain and escape from your vat to see the physical world. You couldn’t see through the illusion except by using the sort of logic employed by Dr. Bostrom, the director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford.

More here.  [Thanks to Asad Raza.]

The Secret to Being a Successful Pick-Up Artist, Target Women with Low Self-Esteem

(Headline meant sarcastically.) Melissa Lafsky over at the NYT Freakanomics blog:

Picking up women has been getting plenty of press these days, leading up to this week’s premiere of the VH1 reality show The Pick-Up Artist. The show follows eight “socially inept” men through an eight-week boot camp on seduction techniques, led by a self-proclaimed Lothario called “Mystery.” The headliner (whose real name is Erik Von Markovik) initially found fame after being profiled in Neil Strauss’s 2005 book The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists, and went on to co-write his own book, How to Get Beautiful Women Into Bed: The Mystery Method.

Under particular discussion is a pickup technique that Mystery advocates known as “negging” — a move that involves interjecting an insult during an initial conversation with a woman. The motivation behind the insult is, as Esquire’s A.J. Jacobs puts it, to “lower her self-esteem, thus making her more vulnerable to your advances.” While this tactic has provoked considerable ire, by all accounts from Strauss and his skirt-chasing Svengali, it seems to work.

Meanwhile, the psychologists Steve Stewart-Williams and William F. McKibbin have been researching the topic of men insulting women, publishing a study called “Why Do Men Insult Their Intimate Partners?” in the July Journal of Personality and Individual Differences.

An Account of the Cleaving of the Subcontinent 60 years ago

The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.

The next day he sailed for England, where he could quickly forget
The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.–W.H. Auden “Partition”

In the South Asian subcontinent, August 14th and 15th commemorate events that are joyous, traumatic and shameful all at once. With the displacement of millions and the deaths of hundreds of thousands accompanying independence (and the birth of Salim Sinai), the chaotic birth of the new states on the subcontinent, while not unique in kind, was unprecedented in scale. The very first foreseeable and immanent task of both new states was the protection of minorities, a task neither met with any competence. In the BBC, a report on the two men that cleaved and scarred the subcontinent:


But [Christopher] Beaumont [private secretary to Sir Cyril Radcliffe, chairman of the Indo-Pakistan Boundary Commission] – who later in life was a circuit judge in the UK – is most scathing about how partition affected the Punjab, which was split between India and Pakistan.

“The Punjab partition was a disaster,” he writes.

“Geography, canals, railways and roads all argued against dismemberment.

“The trouble was that Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs were an integrated population so that it was impossible to make a frontier without widespread dislocation.

“Thousands of people died or were uprooted from their homes in what was in effect a civil war.

“By the end of 1947 there were virtually no Hindus or Sikhs living in west Punjab – now part of Pakistan – and no Muslims in the Indian east.

“The British government and Mountbatten must bear a large part of the blame for this tragedy.”

The Biggest Thing in Physics

Gabrielle Walker in Discover:

Collider3_smNear the west end of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, buried under the river plain of the Rhône, workers are fitting together the final pieces of the machine that hopes to unlock one of the biggest mysteries of the universe. It has taken over 20 years, $8 billion, and the combined efforts of more than 60 countries to create this extraordinary particle smasher, the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, built and operated by CERN, the European physics consortium.

The “large” in Large Hadron Collider is something of an understatement. “Enormous” is closer: The collider’s underground tunnel carves a circle 17 miles in circumference, traversing the border between Switzerland and France. At four locations it passes through caverns crammed with detectors the size of buildings. In a deliberately constructed rivalry, two of these detectors—along with their armies of scientists, engineers, and technicians—will vie with each other to discover the obscure but wildly important particle known as the Higgs boson.

More here.

the great gombrowicz


Reading Witold Gombrowicz means confronting an artistic vision of extraordinary intensity, withering in its austerity, imperious in its dismissal of convention and cant, solicitous only of the truth, no matter how unpleasant or embarrassing.

Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act. Action will delineate and define you. You will find out from your actions. But you must act as an “I,” as an individual, because you can be certain only of your own needs, inclinations, passions, necessities. Only this kind of action is direct and is a genuine extricating of yourself from chaos, self-creation. As for the rest: isn’t it mere recitation, execution of a preordained plan, rubbish, kitsch?

Here in his Diary, Gombrowicz proves as demanding of himself as he is of the world he recreates in his novels, stories, and plays. A relentless opponent of hypocrisy, pretension, and the romantic attitude toward life, he castigated the dehumanization rampant in the world around him.

more from Context here.

Music: A Mathematical Offering

Peter Pesic in American Scientist:

Screenhunter_03_aug_14_1052“Music is a science,” wrote the great composer and theorist Jean-Philippe Rameau in 1722, “which should have definite rules; these rules should be drawn from an evident principle; and this principle cannot really be known to us without the aid of mathematics.” David J. Benson’s book Music: A Mathematical Offering gives the latest and fullest view of music in the light of mathematics. A professor of mathematics at the University of Aberdeen as well as a keen amateur singer, Benson has assembled a fascinating variety of topics that make his book a uniquely rich source, whether for classroom use, reference or self-study. He has constructed the different sections that flow from his general introduction to be independent, allowing readers to follow their own interests and predilections.

This book goes into mathematical details that many general accounts avoid, and here Benson deserves special praise for his skill and clarity. He does expect his readers to be familiar with standard college calculus, but he always presents his arguments with enough helpful explanation, good examples and exercises to put his audience at ease.

More here.

against august


August is the Mississippi of the calendar. It’s beastly hot and muggy. It has a dismal history. Nothing good ever happens in it. And the United States would be better off without it.

August is when the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when Anne Frank was arrested, when the first income tax was collected, when Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe died. Wings and Jefferson Airplane were formed in August. The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour debuted in August. (No August, no Sonny and Cher!)

August is the time when thugs and dictators think they can get away with it. World War I started in August 1914. The Nazis and Soviets signed their nonaggression pact in August 1939. Iraq invaded Kuwait Aug. 2, 1990. August is a popular month for coups and violent crime. Why August? Perhaps the villains assume we’ll be too distracted by vacations or humidity to notice.

more from Slate here.

60 years


In 1934, 13 years before the British withdrew from the subcontinent, a group of Indian writers met at a London hotel with a Chinese name. Among those attending the meeting at the Nanking hotel were people who wrote in Urdu, English, and Bengali, and together they drafted a manifesto for a future Indian literature, one that would locate writing at the heart of social change.

The Progressive Writers’ Association, the group formed at that meeting, could not have foreseen the extent of the social change that would face their members in the coming decades.
Some writers were forced to take on new nationalities as their homeland was violently divided. Ahmed Ali, author of the novel Twilight in Delhi, was coming back to India from China in 1947. He found himself unable to disembark at Delhi and had to fly on to Karachi and a new life as a Pakistani. Sahir Ludhianvi, a poet whose lyrics found a mass audience through Bombay films, made the journey in the opposite direction, moving from Pakistan to India in 1949. Almost all the writers of the PWA discovered that the post-colonial nations they had wrested from the empire were only nominally free, still divided by hierarchies of power and wealth.

more from The Guardian here.

Zen and the Art of Coping With Alzheimer’s

From The New York Times:

Snifsce_190 During the YouTube forum with the Democratic presidential candidates in July, the first question about health care came from two middle-age brothers in Iowa, who faced the camera with their elderly mother. Not everybody with Alzheimer’s disease has two loving sons to take care of them, they said, adding that a boom in dementia is expected in the next few decades. “What are you prepared to do to fight this disease now?” they asked.

The politicians mouthed generalities about health care, larded with poignant anecdotes. None of them answered the question about Alzheimer’s. Science hasn’t done much better. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s and no way to prevent it. Scientists haven’t even stopped arguing about whether the gunk that builds up in the Alzheimer’s brain is a cause or an effect of the disease. Alzheimer’s is roaring down — a train wreck to come — on societies all over the world. People in this country spend more than a $1 billion a year on prescription drugs marketed to treat it, but for most patients the pills have only marginal effects, if any, on symptoms and do nothing to stop the underlying disease process that eats away at the brain. Pressed for answers, most researchers say no breakthrough is around the corner, and it could easily be a decade or more before anything comes along that makes a real difference for patients.

More here.

Grab Bag: The Pacific Design Center—L.A. Revealed

I love the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles but, generally speaking, I think it’s pretty underappreciated. Sure, people know it. They recognize it, it’s generated it’s share  of buzz (let’s be honest, mostly not very positive). It has won the hearts of post-modernists and ironic architecture-appreciating hipsters during its various oscillations on the so-wacky-it’s-cool spectrum. But I think where it really earns the most points is in its sheer lack of apology or regret.

In April of 2006, initial renderings were released of Cesar Pelli’s third installment of the Pacific Design Center. The bright red building, which resembles a Star Wars ship going into hyperspace in freeze frame (or a 21st century Titanic ready to fight the icebergs back), will complete construction in 2009 and follows its equally brilliant predecessors with as much eyebrow-raising and eye-catching gusto, which is no small feat.

3qd_grabbag_pdc01The first iteration of the Pacific Design Center was completed in 1975. It was, and remains, enormous at 245 feet wide by 530 feet long with over 750,000 square feet over seven stories. There are bigger buildings out there, certainly, but few in Los Angeles and certainly fewer in West Hollywood. The building wears a skin of ultra-reflective royal blue glass—most of which lets little light into the interior—and its shape has been described as a blow-up of an architectural molding. Given its scale, shape, color, and context, the building elicited its share of derision from local citizens, critics, and vocal enthusiasts alike. Los Angeles Times critic John Pastier—a figure most notable for getting fired after a series of columns criticized development in which the paper had political and financial interest—equated the building with a whale, a nickname which it has since held.

While perhaps not the most graceful or popular building on the block, the design center held its ground and stayed with little apology. So little, in fact, that in 1988 a second building called “Center Green” opened. Though smaller, at 450,000 square feet, the new building was equally noteworthy for its bold and colorful design—this time a deep forest green and dotted with pixel-like square windows of transparent glass. Its general aesthetic was in keeping with the original but its form and structure indicated a significant evolution of Pelli’s own work and reflecting his departure from Gruen Associates, where he left in 1976 to form his eponymous firm. Center Green blends the corporate orthogonality and rigid geometries of his world financial center (completed 1988) with the vocabulary of the earlier building.

3qd_grabbag_pdc02Twenty-one years after the second the third should be completed. Given its site in L.A., one would imagine that this is the final leg of the trilogy. And like genre films, the Pacific Design Center has provided a fantastic allegory of architecture’s own development over the past three decades. By working in the same “style” of bright colors and loud geometric expressions (all three buildings don’t stray far from the exclamation point as their preferred punctuation) but with significant variation in design, Pelli has, with tremendous success, given us a history to experience physically and a narrative to hold on to.

And that’s no small feat in architecture, a profession plagued by apologies and regret. Rather than celebrating the brutalism of the 1960s or the corporatism of the 1970s and 80s, we are apologizing and trying to erase them. Boston’s City Hall, finished in 1968 by Kallmann, McKinnell and Knowles and one of my favorite buildings, is under threat because it doesn’t project the right image of what we want city hall to look like. We shouldn’t be allowed to revise history and ignore that there was a moment during which this is what our perception of city hall was.

The Pacific Design Center stayed against many odds, however. It was never hidden and never apologized for. It was instead expanded. Twice. It not only represents a moment in history—and its place in L.A.’s urban design history is important as it represented, against the wishes of Tom Bradley’s coalition for Downtown development, the continued economic success of the West side business district—but three distinct moments interwoven in a story that centers on one architect, and one vision spread over both his and his profession’s shifting ideologies.

Biofuels: All You Need to Know for a Bar Discussion

Over the last few years, there has been a tremendous increase in global interest in biofuels, a term that refers, broadly, to transportation fuels derived from biomass.  Bill Gates, Richard Branson, British Petroleum, General Motors, most giant food companies, and countless other people and institutions haves dabbled in these fuels lately.

There is an enormous amount of news reports, analysis, discussion and media attention given to biofuels.  One is first struck by the incredible variety of opinions expressed on the matter; from over the top excitement hailing biofuels as the answer to all of the world’s environmental, economic, social and political problems, to severe criticism that views biofuels as an ultimate evil that will have a profoundly negative impact on forestation, food supply, poor-country economics and just about everything else.

I have been researching this topic for a while, and will attempt to use this column to lay out the (very rough) outlines of the current state of thinking on biofuels—this is, more or less, the local-bar-discussion version of my knowledge of biofuels.  I will attempt to provide a short (vastly over-generalized) assessment of the scientific literature on the issue, highlight future possibilities, and discuss how government policy is probably playing a negative role in this process—at least in two specific cases.

The biggest question in biofuels circles for the last few years has been concerning whether they are efficient or not (meaning: do they reduce our use of fossil fuels or use up more energy in their production than they give out when they are burned) and about what their environmental impacts might be.  Dozens—if not hundreds—of studies have been done to assess these two questions and have arrived at conclusions so contradictory they may as well have been totally random guesses by children.  I will not list those studies and attempt to critique them all, but will outline what I view as the conclusions drawn from assessing the most widely accepted and scrutinized results, dividing them by the type of biofuel assessed:

Corn_trail_from_brCorn ethanol seems to be a bad unsustainable idea which is only alive thanks to very generous government subsidies in America, which are estimated to be around a mind-boggling $1/gallon, as well as import tariffs that prevent ethanol from other countries from competing with American ethanol.  Environmentally, corn ethanol doesn’t seem to offer many benefits, but producing, manufacturing and distributing it may be more harmful to the environment than just using regular oil. Note that these results will probably not change if the price of oil goes up: oil itself, and many other fossil fuels, are used extensively to produce corn ethanol and a rise in their price will also increase the cost of producing corn ethanol, raising its price as well.  The survival of this brand of ethanol is almost exclusively due to the power of the farming lobby, and other special interest groups in America who ensure all the generous subsidies, as well as the fact that Iowa, the country’s main producer of corn is the first US state to hold Presidential primaries, making politicians eager to please its corn farmers for votes.

Sugarcane ethanol, which is mainly produced in Brazil, does seem to be a good idea that everyone is happy to endorse: it is efficient and it reduces CO2 emissions.  However, most of the studies done on sugarcane are based on Brazilian production, and it is unlikely that conditions would be as favorable in other countries.  Secondly, most of the analysis of Brazilian sugarcane ignores fundamentally important issues: whether sugar cane replaces forests, indirectly replaces forests by displacing other crops which then displace forests, and whether its impact through land use change poses significant environmental damage. This will become a more important question with time as sugarcane production increases and encroaches on more and more land.

Cellulosic ethanol is to biofuels what Barack Obama is often portrayed as being to Democrats: the new shining hope that will fix everything and solve everyone’s problems.  Needless to say, there is cause for caution in both cases.  Cellulosic (often referred to as Second Generation) biofuels will mark a revolutionary way in producing biofuels, with whose technical details I will not bother for this piece. Everyone seems to agree it will be more efficient, cleaner, and able to produce much larger quantities of fuel; yet no one has perfected the industrial process that will be able to produce it en masse, and therefore, any estimates on its efficiency and environmental impact remain, until now, tenuous.  With enormous difficulties in measuring the environmental impacts of biofuels that have been produced for decades, it might be a tad over-optimistic to take at face value any estimates of the efficiency and impact of something that hasn’t been produced yet; similar, perhaps, to measuring the fuel-efficiency of the Flying Ferrari from your childhood dreams. I remain pretty skeptical about it until I see some more concrete evidence.

Crop056soybeanBiodiesel (usually produced from palm oil, soybean, jatropha or rapeseed) seems like a good idea initially, if one were to look at reduction in Carbon emissions and a basic energy balance. However, on closer inspection, one finds that it is usually a terrible environmental disaster in the making.  Nitrogen-based emissions, which also have a large impact on global warming, are produced at very high rates in biodiesel production. Further, in many locations where biodiesel is produced, it has caused massive deforestation, soil damage, environmental degradation, and species extinction. This remains the least researched of the biofuels, and new techniques and plant feedstocks are proposed every day, meaning that there might be possibilities for better applications of it.

It is important to note that these studies are inherently marred with enormous problems that might turn a skeptic away from even bothering with their results at all. Many of these studies have a bad methodology and employ some really egregious assumptions about certain parameters.  There is a long debate about what parameters are to be included, and how they are measured. Yet, even if one were to somehow overcome these methodological problems and find the “best” papers employing the most impeccable methodology, problems persist.  Even the “best” of these studies still employ a large number of assumptions and predictions of factors which are almost impossible to predict.  Everything from the future prices of oil, to the price of cattle feed to demand for oil and price of land is factored into these models, and extrapolated into the future with the swaggering certainty of the captain of the Titanic on the eve of its maiden voyage from Southampton.

Here, one could ask a very pertinent question: Why bother attempting to answer such difficult and laborious questions in universities and think-tanks and research centers?  The market system on its own can make decisions for us without someone anointing themselves as an all-knowing prescient central planner ready to predict for us everything from the price of oil to demand for cattle feed in 2030, a quest in which they will invariably fail.

Without subsidies, farmers will only produce what is economically efficient, and everyone will be better off, right? Not exactly.  The reason this wouldn’t really work in the case of biofuels (and in many cases related to environmental issues) is that the market can not (at least in its current state) factor in the all-important issues of environmental costs and benefits.  Biofuels would compete with oil purely on technical and economic grounds, and the issue of the environment will not factor in the market-decisions of rational actors in any way. This will ignore the environmental damage and produce an incentive to over-exploit fuels that would be harmful to the environment.

Here one would hope for public policy to attempt to make things better, or at least not make things worse.  A reasonable course of action would consider funding research into biofuels, since if some of their benefits do materialize, a good argument could be made that these benefits are public goods for which subsidy might be appropriate.  Another avenue would be to set the regulatory and economic framework for the fuel market to take into account the environmental benefits and damages accruing from biofuels to assure an incentive for producing the cleanest and most economic forms of fuel.

Unfortunately, public policy seems to be doing the exact opposite: aggravating all the bad aspects of biofuels production and providing incentives for everything but good energy and environmental policy.  There are two main policies that I refer to here, and they are common in America and Europe: the subsidizing of biofuel production and the issuing of mandates for a certain percentage of biofuels to be used in transportation fuels.

When production of biofuels is subsidized, governments are practically taking a product which the markets says is inefficient and forcing its production, without much knowledge of whether this increase does indeed have any benefits worth subsidizing, and without even a clear knowledge of whether this subsidy will lead to an incentive to innovate better biofuels, or to promote lethargy among producers whose incentive shifts to lobbying for more subsidies rather than innovation.

But perhaps what is more egregious than subsidies are the mandates forcing a certain level of biofuels to be blended in with regular fuel.  The most important of these regulations is the EU directive stipulating a 5.75% share of biofuels in transport fuels by 2010. What this effectively does is encourage the production of any type of biodiesel worldwide to meet the needs of the EU market, with total disregard to their environmental impact.  As European demand for biodiesel sky-rockets, the production of the dirtiest and most polluting biodiesel in the world is encouraged, along with all that that entails in deforestation, emissions, and environmental destruction.  This is most pronounced in Indonesia and Malaysia, where Orangutans are facing a real threat of extinction from encroaching palm oil farming for biodiesel.  The EU will be reducing CO2 emissions coming out of its own cars, but in exchange, probably increasing emissions in other places that supply the biofuels as well increasing deforestation and harming ecosystems.

The incentives from such policies are a textbook example of the law of unintended consequences, and of how government can so often make things worse when attempting to make them better.  The original goal of these policies, addressing global warming and environmental damage, has been replaced with the tool that was supposed to address them: biofuels.  These laws have converted the means into the ends, and while concentrating on producing legislation that convinces voters that the government is “doing something” about global warming, are instead possibly producing more global and far-reaching damage to the environment.

Far better for all involved (except the producers benefiting from subsidies) would be for governments to get out of subsidizing production and placing mandates, but instead make sure that the market for all fuels internalizes the costs of the environmental damage that they produce.  This would provide actors in the global fuel marketplace with the incentive to look for the fuels most efficient economically and environmentally, and allow the market and the collective wisdom of millions of decision makers to arrive at the best outcome.  The most obvious way of doing this would be to press ahead with plans for a global market for carbon emissions.

When that happens, maybe biofuels will really turn out to be the panacea that will save humanity, or maybe we will find out that they are a completely pointless, expensive and counter-productive invention and that we would all be better off utilizing other forms of energy.  It is impossible to be able to answer this question now, no matter how good the data and the methodology employed.  We are much better off remaining agnostic and skeptical; and working to ensure that a system exists that allows the market itself to answer this question clearly.

It is important to note, however, that a lot of the environmental damage that comes from biofuels’ (and all other fuels’) production is not restricted to carbon emissions, but also extends to issues of biodiversity, water pollution, habitat destruction, air pollution, and countless other issues, all of which would not be captured in a market for Carbon.  Addressing these issues is no mean feat, but would probably be best achieved through mechanisms that internalize the price of positive and negative externalities into production, allowing the market to decide on what is economically, socially and environmentally optimal.

War Time Slurs; Rambo 4

Two stupid wars and no new racial slurs; no caricature of our enemies to destroy reluctantly, decisively, with a passing smile of satisfaction; no black toothed turban wearing Shiite-Sunni-Kurdish amalgam, a bomb belt so naturally on his waist it looks fashionable, to scare our children with; no super bad leader for only the most perverted boy to play during backyard battle reenactments; no one for the cab driver of yore to curse. Another George Bush failure? Of course my imperialist Yankee satanist reader. By taking on terror! instead of a peoples, our strain of retarded president has robbed the English language of the easily siphoned and spread froth at the top of war time rhetoric that makes killing other humans easy to accept.

Seussjap1I have heard, never convincingly, “towel head”, “a-rab”, the significantly more insulting to our own intelligence “sand coon”. None fits as snuggly, gives that reassuring condom-just-on snap of our earlier enemies: the japs and krauts, charlie and the evil empire, the almost fifty years of reds, commies and the effeminate pinkos. In 2002, left uncomfortable by the wet kiss on the cheek of a plea to humanism we took on France, the easiest target of all. In New York, normally a tan-o-rama of liberal rays, I witnessed adults pouring French wine into a sewer grate across the street from the Guggenheim (fine looking stuff too, and my baster at my mother’s). Back then my job took me to the courts downtown and few clerks’ yellow walls did not have the New York Post cover with Osama bin Laden’s picture bracketed in old Western style font by “wanted dead or alive” the “alive” forever sharpied out.

Osama bin Laden, bearded, making pronouncements and mixtapes from caves, himself the entire cassette tape market, shuffled out of a comic book, the best bad guy since Hitler and, of course, we did not catch him and probably never will and he might be dead and lives on anyway like the lifelong scar from a drunken fight we should have won and do not want to talk about. Moktada al-Sadr is even more painless to make a caricature of. His teeth are very nasty. He is turbaned and has his own evil private army. Where bin Laden is musing and sedated, al-Sadr is angry and brutish. But, al-Sadr is a weight watchers slice in the shit pie eating contest for one we were dared into. We cannot point Sadrphpto him anymore than we can the ambulance chasers and salesmen types of the Iraqi government or the faceless heads of terrorist splinter groups.

Six years of fighting abstraction has also robbed us of the geography lesson war previously afforded, the latitudinal lines and cities with strange names that become part of our language. We have no new glorious history lesson in the making pulling at the rope through our national identity, coated in victories, taught with measured rightness.

We ignore the din increasing in size and volume: Muslims pointing to baroque Zionist conspiracies, Israelis certain of genetic Arab flaws, Russians kicking Uzbek produce vendors out of Moscow, the 700,000 Mugabe displaced out of Zimbabwe’s capitol to “drive out trash”, every new academic who really believes that the holocaust did not happen, the thousand other caricatures that make what almost all deplore bearable to societies, all united by one image of Americans as belligerent fools, destructively and begrudgingly on their way out.

Talking to people of different opinions is nice, but equally essential to a democracy is the right to stand across from people you disagree with and scream at them and call them names with few repercussions beyond a bruise to the ego from a well placed quip, and with the expectation that one’s earnest screaming, if loud and persuasive enough, can have an impact. Most Americans are privileged enough that the majority of their opinions are formed from hypothetical scenarios. (My opposition to the death penalty does not answer the question supporters of it often ask, “if someone killed your family, wouldn’t you want that person to be killed too?” because no one in my family, or most Americans families, has been murdered.) With all the post 9/11 flags and pro-USA graffiti on overpasses, I figured a couple of years of self-assured slurring was inevitable. Few protests have stopped the start of a war, but at least I could assume my place across from the kind of aggression I believe foolish to passionately bleed my heart out, to yell and try to swing the rightness in question of the war in my direction.

Warmongering months passed. I had less and less to say. The flag waving reached a stasis. A war that cannot be won or stopped, that is not engaging or inspiring, hatched, fledged and flown by crazy men, has robbed all sides of meaningful convictions (this essay too has a place in the heap of irrelevance). Walmart sized generalizations about Muslims only muddle and distract. Soldiers and soldiers’ families suffer. We stare at inkblots of our own silhouettes, saying, “I don’t know. A dinghy? You tell me.”

A side point, connected. Please watch the following trailer for the upcoming fourth installment of Rambo. A quick synopsis for those who cannot watch the clip follows.

John Rambo is living on his own in Bangkok (good place to typecast a 16-year-old boy, girl or ladyboy into the imagination), monk-like, salvaging PT boats and tanks to turn to scrap metal. A missionary group he escorts up river, which includes a hot blond, is heading into Burma to save the Karen people from genocide. The missionary group is captured by Burmese soldiers. Rambo goes in to save them and kills a whole lot, I mean seriously a whole lot, of Burmese because, as he puts it, “when your pushed, killing’s as easy as breathing.” For those who are unsure from the clip he does not punch that guy’s head off, he has a knife, but it looks like he punches the head off. Rambo and the blond are the only ones to make it out, end of story.

The movie, despite youtube member skinheadben’s assertion that, “this is what America needs . . . knife decapitating action [to] put a little steal in hippies spine,” begs the question valtheon asks, “what’s Rambo doing all the way over there? He should be in Iraq”. He adds, I am not sure what he means, “lol”. Aoenflux67, a prolific Amazon reviewer of ancient historical fantasy books, answers, “too politically incorrect for Hollywood wussies to consider Iraq now. Burma only scrapes in because no one cares about it.” Too true, Mr. or Ms. Flux67. Even Rambo, long disturbing PSA for war time PTSD, who went into Vietnam to save POWs and to Afghanistan to help the same men who became the Taliban, would not know who to fight, whose throat to rip with his hands, which men to turn to sauce from the close range of a 50-something caliber machine gun. Too bad, some could have used him.

(The movie, in a nod to the times we live in, does feature a mercenary who was a marine that completed three tours of Iraq. He is black and dies swiftly.)

Monday Musing: Tribute to Farrokh Bulsara

Screenhunter_28_jul_25_1824_2Farrokh Bulsara was born in 1946 in the British colony of Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania). His parents were Zoroastrians (Parsis) from India. As a boy he was sent back to India to attend boarding school in Bombay. He did very well in studies, was a competitive boxer, and also learned to play the piano–even participating in a 5-person band called The Hectics. He graduated from St. Mary’s High School, and then moved to England where he obtained a degree in Art and Graphic Design from Ealing Art College. In 1970 he joined a failing rock band in London named Smile when their lead singer quit, renaming the band in the process.

I first encountered his music when I happened to move from Pakistan to the United States in September of 1975 at age 11 for almost two years, and immediately upon my arrival was completely taken, as was all of America and much of the rest of the world at the time, by a song that Bulsara wrote and sang with his rock group. Interestingly, and though I did not know this until recently, among his important musical influences, Bulsara has cited the legendary Bollywood playback singer Lata Mangeshkar. My own infatuation with Bulsara and his music has well-outlasted his tragic death of AIDS in 1991 at the age of 45, and I remain, like many others, including, of course, Wayne and Garth, a lifelong devotee. You probably know Bulsara better as Freddie Mercury (recently voted, once again, the best rock singer of all time). The name he gave his band was Queen. And the 1975 song I mention above is, of course, “Bohemian Rhapsody” (recently voted again: best rock song of all time).

Okay, before anything else, just watch and listen to this:

While writing this short tribute I listened to many Queen songs turned up very loud on my quite powerful sound system (to the chagrin of my thin-walled upper-west-side-of-Manhattan neighbors), and as I was listening to this live version of “Under Pressure,” I found myself suddenly and shockingly but not completely unpleasantly reconnected with the remaining hormone-drenched vestiges of my teenage self, standing up (ridiculously alone!) in my living room to accompany Brian May with a spastic air guitar, then getting more and more emotional at the mostly-inscrutable-yet-movingly-poetic lyrics, until the unbearable and insane buildup when Freddie is singing “Insanity laughs, under pressure we’re breakin’…” and then by the time, a second later, when he sings “Can’t we give ourselves one more chance… Why can’t we give love that one more chance… Why can’t we give love… give love… give love… give love… give love… give love… give love… give love… give love,” I felt like I was in a trance. If you don’t believe me, try hooking up your computer to a decent sound system, and then just sit there and play the song!

By the way, during an early Queen concert Freddie’s mic stand broke in half and he continued carrying the broken half around. Later, this became a trademark style of his.

Among other things, Queen were a particularly well-educated rock band: all four members held college degrees, and as we reported here, Brian May recently turned in a Ph.D. dissertation at Imperial College in astrophysics. He defends it on August 23rd.

Freddie Mercury displayed an energy and dynamism and theatricality and showmanship in live performances which is truly awesome. Queen were the most important forerunner (and later practioners) of stadium rock, and Freddie Mercury actively engaged even large audiences and often made them participants in the music. The a capella playful vocal beginning of the video above reminds me of the immensely talented Pakistani vocalist and qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan who like our friend Freddie had immense vocal range and liked just playing around with his amazing voice–just because he could. Queen taylored some of their music for large stadiums, hence it is not surprising that some of their songs (“We Will Rock You,” “We Are the Champions”) have turned into worldwide sports anthems. This is from the Live Aid concert in 1985:

Freddie mercury and Montserrat Caballé live:

And, of course, Bohemian Rhapsody:

All my previous Monday Musings can be seen here.

Have a good week!

Some Problems with Patents

Via Organizations and Markets, Stephan Kinsella over at the Ludwig von Mises blog favorably surveys the case against intellectual property:

The most recent study I’m aware of is reported in my post Do Patents Discourage Innovation? Yeah. But So What.: Boston University Law School Professors (and economists) Michael Meurer and Jim Bessen conclude (as summarized by Patently-O):

“the pair has compiled a tremendous amount of economic data regarding patents and companies who patent. … Meurer & Bessen’s bottom line: On average, the patent system is bad for innovation. They agree innovator firms often profit from their own patents. However, the pair’s data shows that the innovator firms are also the ones most likely to be targeted by other patent holders. (litigation, licensing, etc.) In today’s system, they find, the disincentives created by other people’s patents outweighs the incentives to build your own portfolio. I.e., on average, the patent system discourages innovation.”

And here’s another recent study about how patents harm innovation: Patents Chilling Effect on Science, reporting that:

“The American Association for the Advancement of Science recently conducted a survey on the effect of patenting on the sciences. The results are frightening: 1/5th or more of all research projects in the United States are being chilled by patent holders. The sheer amount of research being canceled because of licensing issues is astounding, but at the same time many of these researchers hold their own patents and therefore contribute to the problem.”