What a Texas town can teach us about health care

Atul Gawande in The New Yorker:

ScreenHunter_03 May. 31 23.10 It is spring in McAllen, Texas. The morning sun is warm. The streets are lined with palm trees and pickup trucks. McAllen is in Hidalgo County, which has the lowest household income in the country, but it’s a border town, and a thriving foreign-trade zone has kept the unemployment rate below ten per cent. McAllen calls itself the Square Dance Capital of the World. “Lonesome Dove” was set around here.

McAllen has another distinction, too: it is one of the most expensive health-care markets in the country. Only Miami—which has much higher labor and living costs—spends more per person on health care. In 2006, Medicare spent fifteen thousand dollars per enrollee here, almost twice the national average. The income per capita is twelve thousand dollars. In other words, Medicare spends three thousand dollars more per person here than the average person earns.

The explosive trend in American medical costs seems to have occurred here in an especially intense form. Our country’s health care is by far the most expensive in the world. In Washington, the aim of health-care reform is not just to extend medical coverage to everybody but also to bring costs under control. Spending on doctors, hospitals, drugs, and the like now consumes more than one of every six dollars we earn.

More here.

The Fruit Hunters

From The Telegraph:

Fruitstory1_1408976f Coy friends are serving me fruit at their peril since I read Adam Leith Gollner’s passion-packed book on the subject. Presented with a dish of sliced lemons at a pancake party recently, I caused several female guests to cross their legs by explaining that Casanova used these same fruits (halved and squeezed) as contraceptive diaphragms, believing that the acidic pulp acted as a spermicide. And the other day a waiter almost dropped my sister’s creme brûlée when he heard me tell her that the conquistadors named the vanilla bean after the Latin word for vagina.

Today there are an estimated 240,000 to 500,000 fruit-bearing plant species with perhaps 70,000 to 80,000 of these being edible. But most of our food comes from only 20 crops. Puréeing together the science, history, art and politics of fruit, Gollner tells the tale of how humans took small and often relatively bitter morsels from the wild and cultivated increasingly large and succulent varieties. Then of how big agriculture and global markets required farmers to engineer fruits that could be picked before they were ripe, transported thousands of miles to stack uniformly and durably on supermarket shelves in all seasons, resulting in “Stepford Fruits: gorgeous replicants that look perfect, feel like silicon implants and taste like tennis balls, mothballs or mealy, juiceless cotton wads”.

More here.

saddam’s palaces


Photographer Richard Mosse first appeared on BLDGBLOG last year with his unforgettable visual tour through the air disaster simulations of the international transportation industry. He and I have since kept in touch —so, when Mosse returned from a trip to Iraq this spring, he emailed again with an unexpectedly intense, and hugely impressive, new body of work. These extraordinary images—published here for the first time—show the imperial palaces of Saddam Hussein converted into temporary housing for the U.S military. Vast, self-indulgent halls of columned marble and extravagant chandeliers, surrounded by pools, walls, moats, and, beyond that, empty desert, suddenly look more like college dormitories. Weight sets, flags, partition walls, sofas, basketball hoops, and even posters of bikini’d women have been imported to fill Saddam’s spatial residuum. The effect is oddly decorative, as if someone has simply moved in for a long weekend, unpacking an assortment of mundane possessions.

more from BLDGBLOG here (h/t Alan Koenig).

become better through video games


VIDEO games get a bad press. Many are unquestionably violent and, as has been the way with new media from novels to comic books to television, they have been accused of corrupting the moral fabric of youth. Nor are such accusations without merit. There is a body of research suggesting that violent games can lead to aggressive thoughts, if not to violence itself. But not all games are shoot-’em-ups, and what is less examined is whether those that reward more constructive behaviour also have lingering impacts. That, however, is starting to change. Two studies showing that video games have a bright side as well as a dark one have been carried out recently. One, to be published in June by the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, was conducted by Douglas Gentile, of Iowa State University’s media research laboratory. He and his colleagues tested the effects of playing so-called “pro-social” games on children and young adults in three countries.

more from The Economist here.

Sunday Poem

Tony Hoagland

Peter says if you’re going to talk about suffering
you have to mention pleasure too.

Like the way, on the day of the parade, on Forbes Avenue,
one hundred parking tickets flutter
under the windshield wipers of one hundred parked cars.

The accordion band will be along soon,
and the famous Flying Pittsburgettes,
and it’s summer and the sun is shining on the inevitable flags—

Something weird to admire this week on TV:
the handsome face of the white supremacist on trial.
How he looks right back at the lawyers, day after day
—never objecting, never making an apology.

I look at his calm, untroubled face
and think, That motherfucker is going to die white and right,

disappointing everyone like me
who thinks that punishment should be a kind of education.

My attitude is like what God says in the Bible:
Love your brother, or be destroyed.

Then Moses or somebody says back to God,
If I love you,

will you destroy my enemies?
and God says—this is in translation—, No Problemo.

Here, everyone is talking about the price of freedom,
and about how we as a people are united in our down payment.
about how we will fight to the very bottom of our bank account.

And the sky is so blue it looks like it may last forever
and the skinny tuba player goes oompahpah

and everybody cheers.

In the big store window of the travel agency downtown,
a ten-foot sign says, WE WILL NEVER FORGET.

The letters have been cut with scissors out of blue construction paper
and pasted carefully to the sign by someone’s hand.

What I want to know is, who will issue the ticket
for improper use of the collective pronoun?

What I want to know is, who will find and punish the maker
of these impossible promises?

from What Narcissism Means to Me; Greywolf Press, 2003

On a knife edge

From The Guardian:

Gardner Last chances in the Middle East have been two a dirham since the 1950s. Each year the enmities are more profound, the despots more bloodthirsty and clownish, the violence more extreme, and the conditions of ordinary existence more ghastly. Yet in this fine short book, David Gardner makes the case that the clock really is running down. It is a fiery essay, but accurate and sincere. According to Gardner, a fifth of the world's population is falling into a despair of which the atrocities of Bin Laden and Zarqawi are mere symptoms. The fault lies with the failures of governments in the Middle East, the corpulent kings and republican thugs, corrupt generals and sinister internal security, and the bloody-minded Israelis. Yet the west, most notably the US and the UK, in their unprincipled support for autocracy and readiness to indulge or encourage corruption, have brought extremism and violence to their own frontiers and within them. “Unless,” Gardner writes, “the Arab countries and the broader Middle East can find a way out of this pit of autocracy, their people will be condemned to bleak lives of despair, humiliation and rage for a generation, adding fuel to a roaring fire in what is already the most combustible region in the world.

“It will be primarily up to the citizens of these countries to claw their way out of that pit. But the least they can expect from the west is not to keep stamping on their fingers.” Or, in a region where there are wars to suit every taste and purse, to start its own for no very good reason in Iraq. It is not that the Muslim peoples of the Middle East reject western values of democracy, liberty and fairness. They think, like Gandhi, that they would be a good idea.

More here.

Pakistan on the Brink

Ahmed Rashid in the New York Review of Books:

OPERVEZ_P5 To get to President Asif Ali Zardari's presidential palace in the heart of Islamabad for dinner is like running an obstacle course. Pakistan's once sleepy capital, full of restaurant-going bureaucrats and diplomats, is now littered with concrete barriers, blast walls, checkpoints, armed police, and soldiers; as a result of recent suicide bombings the city now resembles Baghdad or Kabul. At the first checkpoint, two miles from the palace, they have my name and my car's license number. There are seven more checkpoints to negotiate along the way.

Apart from traveling to the airport by helicopter to take trips abroad, the President stays inside the palace; he fears threats to his life by the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda, who in December 2007 killed his wife, the charismatic Benazir Bhutto, then perhaps the country's only genuine national leader. Zardari's isolation has only added to his growing unpopularity, his indecisiveness, and the public feeling that he is out of touch. Even as most Pakistanis have concluded that the Taliban now pose the greatest threat to the Pakistani state since its creation, the president, the prime minister, and the army chief have, until recently, been in a state of denial of reality.

More here.

Einstein’s Telescope

Jeff Foust in The Space Review:

1367a Last week came word of something of a setback in the quest for understanding the nature of dark matter, the mysterious substance that is far more abundant in the universe than the ordinary matter that makes up stars, planets, and people. An instrument on NASA’s Fermi spacecraft failed to detect a surge of electrons and positrons at high energies that was seen last year by a balloon-borne instrument. That peak had been thought to be the signature of the annihilation of weakly interacting massive particles (better known by their acronym, which is, yes, WIMP), a theoretical particle posited by some astrophysicists as the composition of dark matter. But with Fermi providing more and better data than the earlier experiment, that discovery may have been only a false alarm.

If things like WIMPs and dark matter (or its even more mysterious acquaintance, dark energy) leave your scratching your head, a good place to turn is Evalyn Gates’ new book, Einstein’s Telescope. Gates, the assistant director of the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at the University of Chicago, provides an overview of what we know—and what we don’t—about dark energy, dark matter, and related mysteries of the universe that’s accessible to those who can’t tell the difference between a WIMP and a MACHO—in the astronomical sense, at least.

More here.

The Rolling Stone 2009 Hot List

From Rolling Stone:

28376319-28376326-slarge There was some concern about compiling our latest Rolling Stone Hot List during an ice-cold era. But it seems that in these uncertain, gray days, we need what our Managing Editor Will Dana called “the sparkly and the sexy, the perfectly shaped diversions America leads the world in creating.”

As he notes, we haven't yet felt the cultural tectonic shift that one might expect from our current financial meltdown. Dark times inspire great art, and Will notes that the economic crunch of the '70s gave rise to punk, hip-hop and “downtown” culture. “So far, all we've gotten from this downturn is Twitter,” he writes in our Hot Issue. If cultural revolution has yet to arrive, hotness, it seems, still abounds, giving us the artists, movements and must-be places that comprise our 2009 Hot List.

Since we launched the Hot List in 1986, we've had our share of hits and misses (check our cover gallery to revisit all out past Hot Issues, from Angelina to Giselle to Britney). In 1988, we profiled “Hot Character Actor” Kevin Spacey, and we're particularly proud that in 1990, we introduced readers to a 23-year-old screenwriter named Jeffrey Abrams (you might know him now as Lost and Star Trek visionary J.J. Abrams). Of course, we've also missed the mark — in 1990, we thought Renny Harlin's hot streak would last, and the same issue that featured Abrams also declared Tevin Campbell “Hot Prodigy.”

More here.

3 Quarks Daily Announces Four Annual Blog Prizes: The Quarks!

June 21, 2009, NOTE: The winners have been announced. See here.

June 11, 2009, NOTE: See list of seven finalists by clicking here.

Dear Readers (and Writers!),

S. Abbas Raza I have some exciting news to give you: in the interest of encouraging and rewarding good writing in the blogosphere, we have decided to start awarding four prizes every year in the respective areas of Science, Arts & Literature, Politics, and Philosophy for the best blog post in those fields. Here's how it's going to work:

Starting next month, the prizes will be awarded every year on the two solstices and the two equinoxes. So, we will announce the winner of the science prize on June 21, the arts and literature prize on September 22, the politics prize on December 21, and the philosophy prize on March 20, 2010.

About a month before the prize is to be announced we will solicit nominations of blog entries from our readers. The nominating period will last approximately one to two weeks. At the end of this time, we will open up the process to voting by our readers. After this period, we will take the top twenty voted-for nominees, and the four main daily editors of 3 Quarks Daily (Abbas Raza, Robin Varghese, Morgan Meis, and Azra Raza) will select six finalists from these, plus they may also add a wildcard entry of their choosing. And finally, a well-known intellectual from the field will pick the winner, runner up, and third place finisher from these, and will write some short comments on the winning entries.

Just for fun, the first place award will be called the “Top Quark,” and will include a cash prize of one thousand dollars; the second place prize, the “Strange Quark,” will include a cash prize of three hundred dollars; and the third place winner will get the honor of winning the “Charm Quark,” along with two hundred dollars.

(Welcome to those coming here for the first time. Learn more about who we are and what we do here, and do check out the full site here. Bookmark us and come back regularly, or sign up for the RSS feed.)


The 3QD Prize in Science, 2009, Judged by Steven Pinker

Pinker As I said, the winners of this prize will be announced on June 21, 2009, so we don't have as much time as we'd like for the nominating and voting processes. Here's the somewhat tight schedule:


  • The nominating process is hereby declared open. Please nominate your favorite blog entry in the field of the natural and social sciences by placing the URL for the blogpost (the permalink) in the comments section of this post. You may also add a brief comment describing the entry and saying why you think it should win.
  • Entries must be in English.
  • The editors of 3QD reserve the right to reject entries that we feel are not appropriate.
  • The blog entry may not be more than a year old from today. In other words, it must have been written after May 24, 2008.
  • You may also nominate your own entry from your own or a group blog.
  • Guest columnists at 3 Quarks Daily are also eligible to be nominated, and may also nominate themselves if they wish.
  • You may also comment here on our prizes themselves, and this post, of course!

June 1, 2009

  • The nominating process will end at midnight (NYC time) of this date, so this time around there is only a week to submit nominations.
  • At some point on this day, the public voting will be opened.

June 8, 2009

  • Public voting ends at midnight (NYC time).

June 21, 2009

  • The winners are announced.

This year, the winners of the 3QD Prize in Science will be selected from the six finalists by Steven Pinker, who will also provide some comments about each of the three winning entries. We are honored to have him as our final judge, and would like to thank him warmly for his service.

One Final and Important Request

If you have a blog or website, please help us spread the word about our prizes by linking to this post. Otherwise, just email your friends and tell them about it! I really look forward to reading some very good material, and think this should be a lot of fun for all of us.

Best of luck and thanks for your attention!



Brain Cells for Socializing

Ingfei Chen in Smithsonian Magazine:

ScreenHunter_01 May. 31 11.17 There was little chance of missing the elephant in the room. About a dozen years after Simba died at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, a half-inch slab of her yellowish, wrinkled, basketball-size brain was laid out before John Allman, a neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

Preserved in formaldehyde, it looked like half a pancake, frozen solid on a misting bed of dry ice. Allman carefully sliced it using the laboratory equivalent of a deli meat cutter. Taking well over an hour, he carved off 136 paper-thin sections.

Allman was searching for a peculiar kind of brain cell that he suspects is a key to how the African elephant—like a human being—manages to stay attuned to the ever-shifting nuances of social interplay. These spindle-shaped brain cells, called von Economo neurons—named for the man who first described them—are found only in human beings, great apes and a handful of other notably gregarious creatures. Allman, 66, compares the brains of people and other animals to gain insight into the evolution of human behavior.

More here.

The Pathologies of Israel’s Guilty Conscience

Tony Karon in Rootless Cosmopolitan:

Refugee3 Negating the truth about the Nakbah — the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian Arabs from what became Israel in 1948 — has been a staple of Jewish-nationalist propaganda as long as I can remember: As a youngster in Habonim, I was told bubbemeis tales about foolish Arabs marching off into the wilderness like zombies after being hypnotized by radio broadcasts urging them to leave; a “miracle” on a par with the parting of the Red Sea that ostensibly gave the Zionist movement the “land without a people” about which it had fantasized. It should have been painfully obvious that this was a preposterous self-serving myth (which even then didn’t account for the fact that the ethnic cleansing was sealed by Israel in one of its founding laws that denied the right of any Arab absent from their property on the day of Israel’s creation to return to that property). But to suggest anything less than a miraculous conception and bloodless birth for the state of Israel was to deny its “legitimacy”, we were told. As international pressure grows for an historic reckoning between Israelis and Palestinians, the frenzy of denial and negation has intensified. Suddenly, Netanyahu is demanding that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state”, even though to do so requires that Palestinian refugees simply sign away their birthright, erase their history and identity. Even more bizarre, perhaps, is the effort by members of Israel’s parliament to outlaw commemoration of the Nakba.

More here. [Thanks to Usha Alexander.]

Love’s labors and costs

From Seed:

Spent_PICK Why do some people pay a 100,000 percent premium for a Rolex when a Timex is such a sleek and efficient timepiece? Why do others kill themselves at work just so they can get there in a Lexus? Why do we pay 1,000 times more for designer bottles of water when the stuff that gushes from our taps is safer (because it’s more regulated), often tastier, and better for the planet? And how do we convince ourselves that more stuff equals more happiness, when all the research shows that it doesn’t? In Spent, University of New Mexico evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller contends that marketing—the jet fuel of unrestrained consumerism—“is the most dominant force in human culture,” and thus the most powerful shaper of life on Earth. Using vivid, evocative language, Miller suggests that consumerism is the sea of modern life and we are the plankton—helplessly tumbled and swirled by forces we can feel but not understand. Miller aims to penetrate to the evolutionary wellsprings of consumerist mania, and to show how it is possible to live lives that are more sustainable, more sane, and more satisfying.

Spent is about “display” consumerism. It leaves aside strictly utilitarian purchases like baloney or tampons. Understanding display consumerism, according to Miller, requires adding one part Thorstein Veblen to one part Darwin. From Veblen’s classic Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Miller appropriates the concept of “conspicuous consumption,” whereby people live and spend wastefully just to flaunt the fact that they can. From Darwin, Miller appropriates sexual selection theory—“costly signaling theory” in modern parlance—whereby animals compete by sending signals of their underlying genetic quality. As with the gaudy displays of peacocks, purchasing decisions frequently represent attempts to advertise “fundamental biological virtues” like “bodily traits of health, fitness, fertility, youth, and attractiveness, and mental traits of intelligence and personality.” Why spend $160,000 on a prestigious university degree? To make a “narcissistic self-display” of one’s intelligence and diligence. Why stuff yourself into a push-up bra and smear pigment across your lips and cheekbones? To try to enhance—or fake—your fertility signals.

More here.

The Forest Dumbledore

From The New York Times:

Butterfly It may not be every urbanite’s idea of a dream date, but mine, after reading “Summer World,” is to spend a summer day with a 69-year-old insect physiologist and all the tools of his trade. My ideal man lives in Maine and Vermont, where he’s surrounded, at various times, by screen-cloth aviaries and screen cages; insect nets; electronic thermometers; tape measures; binoculars; barrels of frog eggs; scraps of wasp-nest paper; plant sprigs and mosses being subjected to various light, temperature and moisture treatments; ant nests he’s experimentally relocated; moths tethered to shrubs; and the skins of small rodents dotted with botfly maggots. Our date would start before dawn and would include, but not be limited to, climbing into treetops, slogging through wetlands and sitting quietly for hours with pencil and notebook, the better to observe and record.

More here.

inside bacon


Although Bacon had told Sonia Orwell in 1954, “I want to paint, not hunt for newspaper cuttings,” he never stopped searching for images capable of igniting his fundamental urge to make marks on canvas. Harrison and his coauthor, Rebecca Daniels, have ensured that everything reproduced in the pages of Incunabula has been identified, traced back to its source, and, so far as possible, accurately dated. Just how diverse the material is can be appreciated from the moment we start exploring the illustrations. The first section, “Art—Photography,” focuses on Bacon’s abiding obsession with the human body. It commences with an Eadweard Muybridge photograph of a man shadowboxing. Like the Futurists before him, Bacon was enthralled by Muybridge’s pioneering camera studies of successive stages in a figure’s dynamic motion through space. But he took an equal amount of delight in slicing them up, folding them back on one another, and creating a jagged, fragmented composite that forces us to look at the photographs from a dizzying array of angles. The result looks more like a Bacon than a Muybridge. The section’s second illustration shows how seriously Bacon regarded this process of fragmentation. Surprisingly, the Muybridge photographs concentrate this time on a female body—a subject Bacon tackled only on rare occasions. Yet our attention is caught more by the gray-brown support on which Bacon mounted these cutout images: He allowed it to invade the photographs, partially obliterating them and, at the same time, revealing a glimpse of another cutting hidden beneath, a textual extract from a 1936 edition of the American nudist magazine Sunshine and Health.

more from Richard Cork at bookforum here.

grumpy bird

Don't you just hate people who wake up cheerful? Give me a Grumpy Birdanytime:

When Bird woke up, he was grumpy.

He was too grumpy to play.

In fact, he was too grumpy to fly.

“Looks like I'm walking today,” said Bird.

“Grumpy Bird” (Scholastic: $12.99, ages 3-6) is the creation of Jeremy Tankard, for my money the most thrilling picture-book artist to arrive on the children's book scene in recent years. The author and illustrator — “authorstrator,” one young fan called him — can make people of all ages laugh out loud.

His first book, “Grumpy Bird” (2007) introduced Bird, whose one-eyed squint at the irritating morning world made him an instant hero to anyone with a cranky toddler or a morning coffee jones. In the just-published sequel, “Boo Hoo Bird” (Scholastic: $14.99, ages 3-6), Bird gets a bonk on the head and develops the situation into the proportions of opera while taking all the consoling he can get. In between these two books, there was last year's “Me Hungry” (Candlewick: $15.99, ages 3-6), about a caveboy's epic, life-changing search for a bite to eat.

more from Sonja Bolle at the LA Times here.

an architecture of the sky


Ever since its appearance on the Parisian skyline in 1889, the Eiffel Tower has drawn criticism and praise aplenty. Among its earliest detractors, Guy de Maupassant saw the tower as an affront to his nation’s proud cultural heritage and dined regularly in its restaurant because that was the one spot in Paris from which he didn’t have to look upon “this giant and disgraceful skeleton.” (Other­wise, he complained, “you see it from everywhere . . . an unavoidable and horrid nightmare.”) Maupassant’s contemporary Paul Gauguin stood at the opposite end of the spectrum, hailing the tower as a “triumph of iron” and an exciting new art form. But across the board, as Roland Barthes has noted, the Eiffel Tower “attracts meaning, the way a lightning rod attracts thunderbolts.” Indeed, to offer an opinion of this monument is to comment, wittingly or otherwise, on the past, present and future of French civilization. In “Eiffel’s Tower: And the World’s Fair Where Buffalo Bill Beguiled Paris, the Artists Quarreled, and Thomas Edison Became a Count,” Jill Jonnes examines — with splendid attention to detail, if not always with writerly finesse — the importance the tower assumed in its own historical moment. Built by the engineer Gustave Eiffel as the centerpiece of the 1889 Exposition Universelle, the vaulting iron structure was intended, Jonnes writes, as “a potent symbol of French modern industrial might, a towering edifice that would exalt science and technology, assert France’s superiority over its rivals (especially America) and entice millions to visit Paris.” These were pressing goals, for by 1889, the French government had — after a century of pendulum swings between the forces of revolution and reaction — reinvented itself yet again, as the Third Republic.

more from Caroline Weber at the NYT here.

3 Quarks Daily 2009 Science Prize: Vote Here

ScreenHunter_12 May. 30 15.04 Dear Reader,

Thanks very much for participating in our contest. For details of the prize you can look at the announcement here, and to read the nominated posts you can go here for a complete list with links.

If you are new to 3 Quarks Daily, we welcome you and invite you to look around the site after you vote. Learn more about who we are and what we do here, and do check out the full site here. Bookmark us and come back regularly, or sign up for the RSS feed. If you have a blog or website, and like what you see here, we would very much appreciate being added to your blogroll. Please don’t forget!

Results of the voting round (the top twenty most voted for posts) will be posted on the main page on June 8, 2009. Winners of the contest, as decided by Steven Pinker, will be announced on June 21, 2009.

Now go ahead and submit your vote below!



P.S. If you notice any problems, such as a nominee is missing from the list below, please leave a comment on this page. Thanks.

BEWARE: We have various independent ways of keeping track of attempts at voting multiple times, which I am deliberately not revealing publicly. Any attempts at fraud will be thoroughly investigated, and anyone caught trying to vote multiple times will be instantly disqualified. I don’t think I really need to say this, but there are always a couple of bad eggs who will try!

Wimps have rapid reaction times

ScreenHunter_11 May. 30 14.49Holly Hight in Cosmos Magazine:

Unfit or weak people react sooner to sounds of approaching danger than strong, healthy people – which may be an evolutionary adaptation to allow them a larger margin of safety, says a new study.

Test subjects listened to a sophisticated sound system that mimicked an approaching object, explained John Neuhoff, an evolutionary psychologist at the College of Wooster in Ohio, U.S., and co-leader of the study.

The 'virtual object' sounded like a motorcycle passing on a highway, approaching the subject at 15 m/s and then whizzing past them. The subjects were asked to hit a key when they thought the sound was right in front of them.

Fitness was measured by two variables: heart rate after a bout of moderate cardiovascular exercise and muscular power, measured by the strength of their hand grips.

More here.