Three Arguments for the Consciousness of Cephalopods

340x_oct1Annalee Newitz in io9:

They may be tasty when you fry them up, but evidence is mounting that cephalopods like octopuses and squid possess consciousness. Over at the Cephalove blog, neuroscience student Mike Lisieski explains why.

The problem with measuring something like “consciousness” is that there is no agreed-upon definition. However, scientists can use a few basic tools to determine whether animals think in ways that humans would recognize as similar to themselves. You can measure (to a certain degree) whether a creature has self-awareness, independent problem-solving abilities, and exhibits brain activities that resemble “thinking” in the human brain.

In his essay, Lisieski walks us through three of these tests, and explains how cephalopods score.

Learning and object-recognition

First, do cephalopods exhibit self-awareness, which is to say are they aware of their environment and can they learn from it? Very few tests have been designed to suss this question out – partly because it's difficult to find a good cephalopod equivalent to the tests we do on rats, where the rodents learn to do tasks for a food reward. However, there were tests done on cephalopods in the 1970s where, as Lisieski puts it:

It was eventually concluded that octopuses (that is, individuals of the species O. vulgaris, the common octopus) don't use a set of simple rules to categorize objects. Rather, Mather argues, they “[evaluate] a figure on several dimensions and [generate] a simple concept, where [a] concept is an abstract or general idea inferred or derived from specific instances.” Other evidence for the ability of cephalopods to exhibit learning like that taken to indicate cognitive ability (and thus the potential for consciousness) in vertebrate species comes from more complex learning tasks. The spatial learning abilities of cephalopods have been studied and it has been found, in general, that they might be capable of spatial learning to rival that of commonly used vertebrate laboratory species (such as rodents).

When Value Judgments Masquerade as Science

Uwe.190.1Uwe Reinhardt in Economix:

The economist’s concept of efficiency, as I’ve discussed previously, is quite distinct from the meaning associated with it among non-economists.

Most people think of the term in the context of production of goods and services: more efficient means more valuable output is wrung from a given bundle of real resources (which is good) or that fewer real resources are burned up to produce a given output (which is also good).

In economics, efficiency is also used to evaluate alternative distributions of an available set of goods and services among members of society. In this context, I distinguished in last week’s post between changes in public policies (reallocations of economic welfare) that make some people feel better off and none feel worse off and those that make some people feel better off but others feel worse off.

The first type of policy can unambiguously be said to enhance social welfare. But no such claim can be made for the second, which nonetheless is typical of virtually all major public policies.

To illustrate this point with a concrete example, consider whether economists should ever become advocates for a revaluation of China’s currency, the renminbi — or, alternatively, for imposing higher tariffs on Chinese imports.

Such a policy would tend to improve the lot of shareholders and employees of manufacturers competing with Chinese imports. Yet it would make American consumers of Chinese goods worse off. If the renminbi were significantly and artificially undervalued against the United States dollar, relative to a free-market exchange rate without government intervention, that would be tantamount to China running a giant, perennial sale on Chinese goods sold to the United States. If you’re an American consumer, what’s not to like about that? So why are so many economists advocating an end to this sale? Do they have a professional license, as social scientists, to become such advocates?

Taking Aim at Pre-Leukemia Disorders

I proudly present this news about my sister (and fellow 3QD editor), from the website of New York Presbitarian Hospital:

ScreenHunter_02 Aug. 31 20.20 NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center has established a new center devoted to research and treatment of pre-leukemia blood disorders. Known as the Myelodysplastic Syndromes Center, it is one of the largest programs of its kind in the nation.

Myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) are disorders interfering with blood production in the bone marrow. Approximately one-third of patients with MDS progress to acute myelogenous leukemia — a cancer characterized by the rapid growth of abnormal white blood cells that accumulate in the bone marrow and interfere with the production of normal blood cells.

The new MDS Center is led by Dr. Azra Raza, who is also professor of medicine at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. A world authority on MDS, Dr. Raza has been advancing new treatments for myeloid disorders since the 1980s. Her research into the biology of MDS led to the approval of new treatments, notably lenalidomide.

Dr. Raza continues to pursue research on a number of fronts. The Center is testing the effects of novel drugs and is now developing treatments for early-stage MDS.

More here.

U.S. wins by helping Pakistan stabilize

Sharjeel Kashmir at CNN:

ScreenHunter_01 Aug. 31 19.53 It was Pakistan's birthday on August 14, and no one celebrated.

The monsoon floods that engulfed most of the country and affected 20 million people have added yet another burden of misery onto the shoulders of the average Pakistani. More than 4 million people are homeless. Livestock, crops and livelihoods were destroyed.

How far this once-proud nation has fallen.

In Urdu, Pakistan means the “land of the pure.” It reflects the noble intentions of its creators to build a nation that enshrined the best of Islamic principles. Unfortunately, that nobility has given way to chaos because of bad luck, incompetent political leaders, corruption and religious extremism.

Pakistan may be a world away from the United States, but instability feeds the extremism that fuels terrorism, so we ignore this crisis at our peril. To find the path forward, we must look back to the past.

More here.

Steven Gubser on String Theory

31JDWDEQK9L._SL160_ Over at Five Books:

The first book you’ve chosen is Superstring Theory, Vols 1 and 2. This is pretty technical, isn’t it?

As a practitioner of the subject I am drawn to the serious accounts. The two volumes by Green, Schwarz and Witten are a wonderful early account of the subject. It was a subject that first fluoresced in the mid-80s. The notion of string theory was already present, even in the late 1960s, but only in 1984, with the work of Green and Schwarz, did people realise string theory could really be consistent with quantum mechanics, as well as including gravity, and could provide theories that looked very much like the standard model of particles. So there was this tremendous light-bulb moment, where everybody said, ‘Oh my God! This could work.’ And that book, Superstring Theory, captures that era in a very substantive way – as well as being a fairly readable account. In terms of readability, I would say even non-physicists could get something out of the first chapter, and then later chapters, they’re more for practitioners.

Yes, my nephew, who did a masters degree in physics, didn’t recommend it as one to dive into. He said in a semester-long undergraduate course they only got halfway through the first volume…

Yes, there’s a lot there. What’s amazing is that all this came together in such a hurry – a lot of the material in that book is the result of two-and-a half years’ activity. There was an incredible upwelling of creativity in that era and these two books are the record of it.

It isn’t out of date just because it dates a while back now? It must be a quickly evolving field.

It’s true. John Schwarz once remarked to me that the things he most regrets having left out of that pair of books were the developments that happened shortly after they published it. But that indicated that it was indeed part of a quickly evolving field, and captured what was going on in a really compelling way. It really hastened the development of the field for a while. There must be parallels in other fields, where you have some solid contribution that really pushes the field forward in a remarkable way…

You told me you put your books in order, does this mean this is your favourite?

Yes. There is something unusual and special about Green, Schwarz, Witten. It was a book very much of the moment, and yet a classic – the words instant classic spring to mind. If we compare it, for example, to Polchinski’s book, another great account – in fact the one that I have used myself the most…

The Secret History of Psychedelic Psychiatry

270px-SantanaAbraxasMo over at Neurophilosophy:

ON August 15th, 1951, an outbreak of hallucinations, panic attacks and psychotic episodes swept through the town of Saint-Pont-Esprit in southern France, hospitalizing dozens of its inhabitants and leaving five people dead. Doctors concluded that the incident occurred because bread in one of the town's bakeries had been contaminated with ergot, a toxic fungus that grows on rye. But according to investigative journalist Hank Albarelli, the CIA had actually dosed the bread with d-lysergic acid diethylamide-25 (LSD), an extremely potent hallucinogenic drug derived from ergot, as part of a mind control research project.

Although we may never learn the truth behind the events at Saint-Pont-Esprit, it is now well known that the United States Army experimented with LSD on willing and unwilling military personnel and civilians. Less well known is the work of a group of psychiatrists working in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, who pioneered the use of LSD as a treatment for alcoholism, and claimed that it produced unprecedented rates of recovery. Their findings were soon brushed under the carpet, however, and research into the potential therapeutic effects of psychedelics was abruptly halted in the late 1960s, leaving a promising avenue of research unexplored for some 40 years.

The secret history of psychedelic psychiatry began in the early 1950s, about 10 years after Albert Hofmann discovered the hallucinogenic properties of LSD, and lasted until 1970. It was uncovered by medical historian Erika Dyck, who examined the archives from Canadian mental health researchers and conducted interviews with some of the psychiatrists, patients and nurses involved in the early LSD trials. Dyck's work shows early LSD experimentation in a new light, as a fruitful branch of mainstream psychiatric research: it redefined alcoholism as a disease that could be cured and played a role in the psychopharmacological revolution which radically transformed psychiatry. But, despite some encouraging results, it was cut short prematurely.

White Fright: Glenn Beck’s Large, Vague, Moist, and Undirected Rally—the Waterworld of White Self-Pity

100830_FW_beckTN Hitchens in Slate on Glenn Beck's rally in DC, in Slate:

In a rather curious and confused way, some white people are starting almost to think like a minority, even like a persecuted one. What does it take to believe that Christianity is an endangered religion in America or that the name of Jesus is insufficiently spoken or appreciated? Who wakes up believing that there is no appreciation for our veterans and our armed forces and that without a noisy speech from Sarah Palin, their sacrifice would be scorned? It's not unfair to say that such grievances are purely and simply imaginary, which in turn leads one to ask what the real ones can be. The clue, surely, is furnished by the remainder of the speeches, which deny racial feeling so monotonously and vehemently as to draw attention.

Concerns of this kind are not confined to the Tea Party belt. Late professors Arthur Schlesinger and Samuel Huntington both published books expressing misgivings about, respectively, multiculturalism and rapid demographic change. But these were phrased so carefully as almost to avoid starting the argument they flirted with. More recently, almost every European country has seen the emergence of populist parties that call upon nativism and give vent to the idea that the majority population now feels itself unwelcome in its own country. The ugliness of Islamic fundamentalism in particular has given energy and direction to such movements. It will be astonishing if the United States is not faced, in the very near future, with a similar phenomenon. Quite a lot will depend on what kind of politicians emerge to put themselves at the head of it. Saturday's rally was quite largely confined to expressions of pathos and insecurity, voiced in a sickly and pious tone. The emotions that underlay it, however, may not be uttered that way indefinitely.

First Ant Genomes Promise Insight into Epigenetics and Longevity

From Scientific American:

First-ant-genomes-epigenetics_1 Some ants live longer than others—way longer. And the mapping of the first full genome sequences of ants helps to reveal how two ants from the same colony, and with much the same genetic material, can have such different life histories. The work may also provide insights into longevity in another social species with which ants share about one third of their genes: humans.

Researchers sequenced the genomes of two ant species: Jerdon's jumping ant (Harpegnathos saltator) and the Florida carpenter ant (Camponotus floridanus), which have quite different levels of social—and hence, biological—mobility. Carpenter ants live in large colonies that revolve around a queen that lays all of the fertilized eggs. Once the queen dies, the colony perishes as well. Jerdon's jumping ants, on the other hand, have smaller colonies in which worker ants can replace the queen after she dies. These so-called gamergate queens change physically and behaviorally as they take on the queen's duties. All of these ant castes seem to start with the same basic genetic blueprint, yet end up looking—and behaving—very differently. Scientists point to epigenetics, the change in gene expression (rather than direct alterations in the DNA code), as a likely explanation.

More here.

Think the Answer’s Clear? Look Again

From The New York Times:

Doc Win an Academy Award and you’re likely to live longer than had you been a runner-up. Interview for medical school on a rainy day, and your chances of being selected could fall. Such are some of the surprising findings of Dr. Donald A. Redelmeier, a physician-researcher and perhaps the leading debunker of preconceived notions in the medical world. In his 20 years as a researcher, first at Stanford University, now at the University of Toronto, Dr. Redelmeier, 50, has applied scientific rigor to topics that in lesser hands might have been dismissed as quirky and iconoclastic. In doing so, his work has shattered myths and revealed some deep truths about the predictors of longevity, the organization of health care and the workings of the medical mind. “He’ll go totally against intuition, and come up with a beautiful finding,” said Eldar Shafir, a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University who has worked with Dr. Redelmeier on research into medical decision-making.

Dr. Redelmeier was the first to study cellphones and automobile crashes. A paper he published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1997 concluded that talking on a cellphone while driving was as dangerous as driving while intoxicated. His collaborator, Robert Tibshirani, a statistician at Stanford University, said the paper “is likely to dwarf all of my other work in statistics, in terms of its direct impact on public health.” As an internist who works at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, Canada’s largest trauma center, Dr. Redelmeier sees a large number of patients in the aftermath of crashes. As a result, one of his abiding professional preoccupations is with vehicle crashes. He found that about 25 more people die in crashes on presidential Election Days in the United States than the norm, which he attributes to increased traffic, rushed drivers and unfamiliar routes. He also discovered a 41 percent relative increase in fatalities on Super Bowl Sunday, which he attributed to a combination of fatigue, distraction and alcohol. After publication of the findings on the Super Bowl, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration embarked on a campaign with the slogan “Fans don’t let fans drink and drive.” In preparation for a recent interview in his modest office in the sprawling hospital complex, Dr. Redelmeier had written on an index card some of his homespun philosophies.

“Life is a marathon, not a sprint,” he read, adding, “A great deal of mischief occurs when people are in a rush.”

More here.

hitch on stieg


I suppose it’s justifiable to describe “best-selling” in quasi-tsunami terms because when it happens it’s partly a wall and partly a tide: first you see a towering, glistening rampart of books in Costco and the nation’s airports and then you are hit by a series of succeeding waves that deposit individual copies in the hands of people sitting right next to you. I was slightly wondering what might come crashing in after Hurricane Khaled. I didn’t guess that the next great inundation would originate not in the exotic kite-running spaces at the roof of the world but from an epicenter made almost banal for us by Volvo, Absolut, Saab, and ikea. Yet it is from this society, of reassuring brand names and womb-to-tomb national health care, that Stieg Larsson conjured a detective double act so incongruous that it makes Holmes and Watson seem like siblings. I say “conjured” because Mr. Larsson also drew upon the bloody, haunted old Sweden of trolls and elves and ogres, and I put it in the past tense because, just as the first book in his “Millennium” trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was about to make his fortune, he very suddenly became a dead person. In the Larsson universe the nasty trolls and hulking ogres are bent Swedish capitalists, cold-faced Baltic sex traffickers, blue-eyed Viking Aryan Nazis, and other Nordic riffraff who might have had their reasons to whack him. But if he now dwells in that Valhalla of the hack writer who posthumously beat all the odds, it’s surely because of his elf. Picture a feral waif. All right, picture a four-foot-eleven-inch “doll” with Asperger’s syndrome and generous breast implants. This is not Pippi Longstocking (to whom a few gestures are made in the narrative). This is Miss Goth, intermittently disguised as la gamine.

more from Hitch at Vanity Fair here.

it’s hard to kill the king


They dug up the body of Nicolae Ceausescu. Or did they? The Romanian dictator and his wife Elena were executed on Christmas, 1989. But there are those who still won’t believe it. So last month, Romania dug up the body in Ceausescu’s grave to perform DNA tests on it, and to pronounce Nicolae Ceausescu dead, once and for all. In “The Great Christmas Killing,” Hungarian author Peter Nadas wrote about the Ceausescus’ execution as he saw it on television, 10 years after the fact. He describes in stark detail the scenes before the killing and after, from the hasty trial to the hurried postmortem examination. “The captors of the dreaded Ceausescu couple…forced them into a space between the wall and the two steel-legged tables. Either it was cold in the room, or the uniformed members of the summary tribunal did not permit the tyrant and his wife to take off their coats.” He writes of the moment when the hands of the Ceausescus are tied behind their backs with clothesline as they protest, indignant, and the terror of the attending physician whose entire body shakes as he is called on to show the camera, the world, that Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu are gone.

more from Stefany Anne Golberg at The Smart Set here.



PAROIKIA, Greece — Like the throbbing of the cicadas in the cypress trees, an electric pulse of anxiety is scoring this otherwise unremarkable summer on the tourist island haven of Paros. Greek visitors sip their frothy iced coffees; foreign tourists play racquetball at the water’s edge; and the small merchants whose exertions fuel Greece’s middling economy serve ouzo on the rocks with their customary theatrics. Summer here is sacrosanct, a time when Greeks exercise their inalienable right to lazy lunches of tomato salad and deep-fried smelt. For a month or two, most people decamp to an island or their ancestral village, escaping the enervating responsibilities of everyday life — a ritual enjoyed by everyone from janitors and factory workers to ship owners and government ministers. The nation simply shuts down in July and August. This year, however, the sense of an impending economic disaster has injected a sour note: You can hear it in the once-crowded cafes, in the warnings about strikes that might disrupt travel, and in the foreboding with which restaurant owners bid farewell to longtime summer patrons by saying, “If we’re here next here!” rather than the traditional kali antamosi, “until we meet again.”

more from Thanassis Cambanis at The Boston Globe here.

Of Ants and Men (part 2)

A Paris Review-style interview with E.O. Wilson

(read Part I here)

A score of books. Two Pulitzers. Papers that defined entire fields. So why did biologist Edward O. Wilson bother writing a novel? Because people need stories, he says. Wilson hopes his fictional debut from earlier this year, Anthill—about a young man from the South, militant ants, and the coupled fate of humans and nature—will help spark a conservation revolution.

Heroes-wilson Wilson met me at his Harvard office—a three-roomed cavern at the university’s natural history museum. “Harvard treats emeritus professors very well,” he observed. He showed me part of the world’s largest collection of ant papers, and a copy of his portrait for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. He wore a blue/black checked shirt and slouched when he sat. His sentences were criss-crossed with asides and qualifications, and he squeezed in a few startlingly good impressions. Throughout our talk he sipped iced tea—or as Wilson, a native Alabaman, might say, sweet tea. When he spilled some on the table, he swept it onto the floor with his hand. “The difference between a book review and an interview,” he mused right before we started, “is like the difference between a handshake and a shot in the back.”

SK: In the book, was the “Anthill Chronicles” section the easiest one for you to write? [It describes a war between ant colonies from the p.o.v. of the ants.]

EW: Actually it was. I had just finished with Bert Hölldobler the book The Superorganism. And earlier I’d done many, many—well over 300 scientific papers—on ants. And with Bert Hölldobler, the two of us are about to bring out another book called The Leaf-Cutters, on these ultimate superorganisms. And now they’re one of the best-known group of species in the world in biology because they’ve become a model group to work on, at all levels, from genetics up.

Of course, that was all in my head, so I just rolled it out. And it’s authentic: how they talk to each other, what responses they have, what their cycles are, their constant wars with each other. They’re the most war-like of all creatures we know. Even more than people.

Read more »

Positive Failure – a review of “The Power” by Rhonda Byrne

Review of Rhonda Byrne, The Power (London: Simon & Schuster, 2010) ISBN: 978-085-720-1706.

1. The Law of Attraction

Rhonda Byrne, author of 2006 best-seller The Secret, has released its sequel. Entitled The Power, it claims further depth into the insights gleaned from The Secret. As she humbly states: ‘You don’t need to have read The Secret for The Power to change your life, because everything you need to know is contained in The Power.’

According to Byrne and her publishers, Byrne’s oeuvre (The Secret movie, released prior to the book; and various cards, sayings and other fashionable accessories) focuses on readers’ abilities to get what they ‘deserve’, using what is known as ‘the law of attraction’. According to The Secret’s synopsis by her publishers: ‘fragments of The Secret have been found in oral traditions, religions, literature and philosophies throughout the centuries … By unifying leading-edge scientific thought with ancient wisdom and spirituality, this riveting, practical knowledge will lead readers to a greater understanding of how they can be masters of their own lives.’ We become ‘masters’ of our lives by invoking the ‘law of attraction’.

To understand the law of attraction would require either a casual or a long glance at the current trend in the self-help industry. This is the factory-produced, standardised answers to questions of human betterment, which elicits a solipsistic attitude as the touchstone for all problems in the world; a tethered link between religious guilt and nihilistic dismissal, self-help gurus claim to walk this fine line over the precipice of our banal existence.

This is how they do it. The three rules of the Law of Attraction – let us capitalise the letters now – according to Byrne are the following: Ask. Believe. Receive. As Byrne says, in The Secret, it means that: ‘like attracts like. What that means in simple terms for your life is: what you give out, you receive back. Whatever you give out in life is what you receive back in life. Whatever you give, by the law of attraction, is exactly what you attract back to yourself.’ If you want good things to happen, be a good person, think positive thoughts. By doing so, you can have many things granted: if one wants a parking-space, simply ask the universe to provide it for you; if you want that career, simply ask for it, believe in it and you will receive it. By this logic, Byrne then went on to state one of the worst sentences any literate, twenty-first century individual can make. She says, in The Secret: ‘The only reason any person does not have enough money is because they are blocking money from coming to them with their thoughts.’

Read more »


What Visions Burn Turpentine

Ezra Johnson. Still from What Visions Burn. 2006.

“Ezra Johnson’s What Visions Burn relays the story of an art heist and its aftermath, in which Johnson intertwines content with style for a unique take on the robber-film genre. He paints and repaints his canvases to create each frame of his films, providing a rich visual texture and continuity. He uses the medium of painting to make a film about stolen paintings, and interjects newspaper headlines—made from newsprint collages—into the action…” From SITE Santa Fe Biennial 2010 website.

More here, here and here.

Religion Should Not Get A Pass

In my last essay “A Rational Approach to Irrationality,” I argued that not all forms of religious criticism are equally effective. Judging from the comments and blog articles posted in response, I seem to have hit a nerve. The respected evolutionary biologist and blogger Jerry Coyne took me to task in his article, “Should religion get a pass?” because he interpreted my position as going soft on religion.

In all fairness to Coyne, I wasn’t clear as to where I stood on the issue of criticism of religion. So let me set the record straight here: my answer to Coyne’s question, “Should religion get a pass?”, is an emphatic no.

I suggested that attacks on religion may not be the most effective approach to protecting secular education. And I argued that verbal abuse may do more harm than good. That I oppose all criticism of religion is an easy, but incorrect, inference. I think critical discourse is a vitally important part of a healthy society; religion merits no exemption.

I’m not surprised that my article precipitated such a passionate response from atheists, since to many it seemed to support the widespread public attitude that religion is sacred territory, and criticism of any kind is akin to a personal attack.

Which raises the question, why is it that the general public seems to think that religion should get a pass, that any kind of criticism of religious beliefs is offensive? Maybe it's because religious people feel that their beliefs are as much a part of who they are as their race or their eye color; something they were born with and can’t change. This feeling probably isn't too far off- to some extent, religious faith is not a choice. Children are born into the religious world of their parents and after years of indoctrination, religious beliefs are not easily changed or abandoned.

The importance of early childhood education is recognized by both sides of the religious debate. This is evident in the Jesuit motto “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man”. The secular movement should adopt a similar motto.

The systematic indoctrination of children is unethical and must be stopped. Strictly speaking, religious freedom is a state protected right. But I think we can agree that freedom to choose a religion can be restricted in a more practical sense. For students at a religious school, the choice is free in a legal sense. It’s not a free choice in any practical sense, since all but one of the options have been obscured. If you are only exposed to one option, you don’t have a choice.

Criticism of religion is respectful of people’s freedom to choose. Presenting facts and arguments that people can use to draw their own conclusions doesn’t in any way restrict their freedom to do so. It informs the decision. It’s a good thing.

I think Richard Dawkins sets a great example. He doesn’t stoop to personal attacks. He isn’t gratuitously offensive in speech or in writing. His recent documentary “Faith School Menace?” draws attention to the rise of faith schools in the UK. It raises important questions, like what’s best for children and what rights should children have in determining their beliefs. I suggest we follow his lead, in both the way we treat people and what we focus on.

Jerry Coyne also sets a great example. In a review of Coyne’s book, Why Evolution is True, Publisher’s Weekly said this: “Additionally, although fully respectful of those who promote intelligent design and creationism, he uses the data at his disposal to demolish any thought that creationism is supported by the evidence while also explaining why those ideas fall outside the bounds of science.

Generally speaking, I think we should pay greater attention to strategy and tactics. More specifically, I think secular education should be our top priority. To this end, non-threatening persuasion tactics may be especially useful. It will be a long battle and we should identify of our most effective weapons.

Coyne closed his response to my essay with this statement: “In the end, the arguments to go easy on religion all boil down to this claim: it’s the most common form of superstition. It’s useless to attack it because it’s ubiquitous and entrenched, and we’ll only alienate people if we try. But I need hardly point out one lesson of history: the ubiquity of bad beliefs does not make them immune to change.” I agree wholeheartedly, and real change may begin when we are able to grant every child their right to an education free from religious indoctrination.

…and points inbetween

Brooklynmap2 Meditations on Maps

by David Schneider

I'm hunting for an apartment in Brooklyn. It's 2010. I only halfknow the borough; it's hipster havens and borderlands, vacant lots and lofts, new towers and old clapboard – a shredded psychogeography re-folding itself every second, like hyperactive origami.

I take CraigsList to the GoogleMap, stroll a StreetView to the Subway, and race a grey L to a green 6 or brown Jay-Z. Time the walk. Time the trains. Recalc the time –– rush hour, late night –– recalc revised (the new service cuts) –– rush shower, late tight –– and is there a supermarket? A laundromat? Rats, mice, bedbugs, pricepoint? What if the…what if the…what if the roof –– the electric –– the piano up the stairs?

Down to Brooklyn and up the stairs. Down the stairs, out of Brooklyn, sit. Scribble out. Redraw. There's got to be a better way.


The roadmap for Middle-East peace lies crumpled on the floor, an accordion with a compound fracture. Can't anyone fold this damn thing? It's an origami in the shape of a dove. Special Envoy George Mitchell is a courier, shuttling messages back and forth down the 20-mile road from Jerusalem to Ramallah and back again. The origami master is named Möbius of Zeno.


I want to install a CraigsList app on my iPhone so I can get the jump on new Brooklyn apartment listings while mobile. I download the iOS4 app but I don't have iOS4 yet so I've got to download that. But first I need iTunes 9.2 to get iOS4. The download for iOS4 says, “It'll take an hour. Don't interrupt.” My ISP enjoys interrupting me. The pulsing blue bar ticks down to 11 minutes and stops. I have to start from the beginning. The process ends up taking a day and a half. The CraigsList app doesn't work anyway. I rename my iPhone “Zeno.”


I'm rewriting my résumé for the 12th time in six months. As I click homeward to collect the mail, three Yahoos are gibbering through the window, regarding me with expert eyes. One suggests, “Don't use deadening phrases and jargon! Make your résumé unique!” A second admonishes, “Make sure you use common keywords, or the computers will sift you out.” The third waggles its finger, “Here are ten things that will make sure your résumé is never even looked at.” If I had a job I'd hire a résumé writer, I think; I procrastinate the twelfth redraw of selfmap by scanning the opportunities at Catch-22 Incorporated. I think of Dante, in the middle road of life, in that dark wood.

Read more »

Do you know the Muffin Man?

Muffin Sit back and let me tell you a story: a large professional services firm, let’s call them Firm A, once went up for a large job at the Client. Firm A, which had good reason to think a lot of itself, had excellent qualifications for the work and gave, what they didn’t doubt was a winning pitch. Then, they sat back, waiting for the call that would certainly anoint them as the winning bid.

A week later they got the call; the other firm, their bitter, but undoubtedly lesser, rival Firm B had won the bid. Confusion reigned at Firm A. How could this have happened? What did they do wrong? They called the Client and did a postmortem. The Client told them that they had done nothing wrong, their pitch was as compelling and as convincing as they thought it had been. So what happened? To the amazement and bewilderment of Firm A they were told, “You were great, and we have no doubt that you would have done a fantastic job, but they brought muffins.”

Muffins! What did the Client mean, “They brought muffins”? It turned out that the Client had very recently moved offices. They hadn’t unpacked all their boxes yet and people’s desks were still in state of disarray. Firm B had realized that this meant that people probably couldn’t find their coffee mugs, or even the coffee machine and, on the day of their pitch, had brought coffee and muffins for everyone in the office. They had thought about what it must be liked to be the employees of the Client, had put themselves in their shoes and had performed a relatively cheap and minor act that had proved to the Client that Firm B had the emotional intelligence necessary to really understand what the Client needed. The Client had decided that there was little enough between the pitches of Firm A and B that, all other things being equal, they were giving the bid to the company that had the institutional empathy to feel the Client’s pain.

Read more »

Monday Poem

Build no Mosque Near Zero

—zero's too near the hole in our hearts: the naught
we know at night when the bogey-man bites, the zip
we feel when we love hate, the nada of exclusion
which seeths in the interstices between faith and fear,
the cipher that numbers the digits displayed in a holy fist,
the nadir of our understanding, the O in no,
the void which deepens our capacity to destroy,
the nil of unknowing, the aught of unloving,
the nullification of our presumptions of God's
will in the midnight of His contradictions;

—no mosque must be built near the silence
of the negative space in which god speaks
his or her or its apparently futile
promise of peace and good will
among men

—no mosque and no church

by Jim Culleny

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird — and at Obama

by Evert Cilliers (aka Adam Ash) and Wallace Stevens


In 1917, Wallace Stevens, to my mind the best American poet of the 20th century (sorry, Sylvia Plath fans), published one of his most famous poems, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” What with Barack Obama being our first black President, and also a leader who elicits a variety of responses, from the sensible to the absurd, I thought it might be interesting to look at Obama through the lens of this poem.

(Note: this piece is shorter than my usual 8,000-word epic rants. Last month I wrote a 17,000-word saga, mixing stories about my strange family with social commentary and snippets of the history of South Africa, where I grew up. I didn't get the usual fifty plus readers comments, but the ones I got were so enthusiastic and heartfelt that I am honor-bound to repeat this personal anecdote/social commentary form again. I thank all those 3QDers who read the whole damn thing and expressed their thanks. You make me love what I do, and make me love 3QD for letting me do what I do. BTW, if you're brave enough to climb this Mt. Everest, google “The World Cup, my White Afrikaner Skin, my Fascist Parents, Mandela, Obama and Forgiveness.” And now on with a mercifully shorter piece.)


Among twenty snowy mountains,

The only moving thing

Was the eye of the blackbird.

The problem with Obama is the problem with democracy, as famously described by Churchill in a Commons speech in 1947, after the British voters repaid him for saving civilization by throwing him and his party out in 1945: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Obama is the worst form of president, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. Today there are a few pols that are mildly interesting — Nancy Pelosi, Ron Paul, Anthony Wiener, Paul Ryan, Bernie Sanders, Howard Dean, Jeb Bush, Barney Frank, James Webb, Newt Gingrich, Alan Grayson — but none to match Barack Obama. Among the snowy mountains of Washington, his is the only eye worth catching. He can still summon the mojo to enchant a crowd (to see him in top form, google “realclearpolitics Obama: Republicans want to bamboozle you”).

However — and this is what makes Obama really interesting — he appears to have lost his progressive base somewhere between Air Force One and the White House urinal. Obama may be the smartest guy in any room, but when it comes to keeping his loyal base loyal, he has moved into full possession of an ear of tin, a tongue of lead, and a brain of plank.


I was of three minds,

Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds.

Looking at candidate Obama in 2008, three mindsets pertain:

(a) Obama was the hope of the universe, the dawn of a new day, a progressive nation changer of unfathomable potential, an avatar of Dr King, Gandhi, Mandela and FDR.

(b) Obama was a socialist demon Nazi Hitler Lenin Antichrist Arab Muslim, the real-world manifestation of super-conservative America's worst hates and fears.

(c) Obama was a blank slate on whom we could all write ourselves; he was whatever you wanted him to be, a projection of your innermost desires, the change that was us that we were waiting for.

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