“Christian flag” case reaches Supreme Court: Is the Nazi flag next?

Kathryn Joyce in Salon:

In the late 19th century, a Sunday school leader in New York, Charles C. Overton, called for the creation of a Christian flag: a white banner with a blue field and red cross. The colors were meant to symbolize, respectively, purity, loyalty and the blood of Christ, but they also clearly mirrored those of the American flag. And when a pledge was later developed to accompany Overton’s flag, it similarly entangled Christianity with patriotism, offering a Christianized version of the Pledge of Allegiance. For decades, the flag has been a fixture in conservative churches and religious schools, but many Americans saw it for the first time on Jan. 6 of last year, when rioters paraded it onto the floor of the House of Representatives.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case about that flag, Shurtleff v. Boston. The case turns on complicated constitutional questions about the interplay of the First Amendment’s clauses concerning free speech and the government establishment of religion, but it also speaks to the growing prominence of Christian nationalism — with its highly dubious claim that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation, and that Christians should therefore enjoy a privileged place within it — and its demands for public accommodation. It could also, at least hypothetically, open the door for neo-Nazis and white supremacists to fly the Nazi flag, the Confederate flag or the flag of Kekistan, the imaginary right-wing nation ruled by Pepe the Frog (as seen last January at the U.S. Capitol), on public property.

More here.

Epstein-Barr Virus Found to Trigger Multiple Sclerosis

Lydia Denworth in Scientific American:

A connection between the human herpesvirus Epstein-Barr and multiple sclerosis (MS) has long been suspected but has been difficult to prove. Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is the primary cause of mononucleosis and is so common that 95 percent of adults carry it. Unlike Epstein-Barr, MS, a devastating demyelinating disease of the central nervous system, is relatively rare. It affects 2.8 million people worldwide. But people who contract infectious mononucleosis are at slightly increased risk of developing MS. In the disease, inflammation damages the myelin sheath that insulates nerve cells, ultimately disrupting signals to and from the brain and causing a variety of symptoms, from numbness and pain to paralysis.

To prove that infection with Epstein-Barr causes MS, however, a research study would have to show that people would not develop the disease if they were not first infected with the virus. A randomized trial to test such a hypothesis by purposely infecting thousands of people would of course be unethical.

Instead researchers at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School turned to what they call “an experiment of nature.” They used two decades of blood samples from more than 10 million young adults on active duty in the U.S. military (the samples were taken for routine HIV testing). About 5 percent of those individuals (several hundred thousand people) were negative for Epstein-Barr when they started military service, and 955 eventually developed MS.

More here.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Ghost Photography

Justin E. H. Smith in his Substack newsletter, Hinternet:

Nobody wants to hear anyone else’s dreams, and nobody wants to see anyone else’s photo albums. A rare few good souls might express interest at first, but will almost certainly find their attention flagging long before the sharer is finished.

As to dreams, the claim can be measured each time a person takes to social media to divulge the surreal sequence from which they’ve just awoken. I’ve been keeping track, and have observed that consistently and without exception they get fewer likes for their dreams than when telling stories from their waking life, or telling jokes, or lies. You can see, in that mysterious way social media telegraphically transmits distant affects, that the dream-sharers regret their decision, resolve never to do it again, only to find, the next time they wake up from naked bumper-cars with their camp counselors from childhood, that they just can’t help themselves, and the cycle of oversharing and regret begins again.

As to family photos, let us be honest: they all look the same.

More here.

Tomas Pueyo says the pandemic is coming to an end

Tomas Pueyo in his Substack newsletter, Uncharted Territories:

After the Omicron wave, we’ll be in a world where most people will have some sort of immunity, either through natural infections, vaccines, or both. We now know how to get vaccines fast (we should approve them faster for new variants), and we have treatments too. The value of time for learning has dropped: we know most of what we need to know about it. So the benefits of social measures to stop COVID are much lower.

Meanwhile, the costs of stopping COVID are much higher, because Omicron escapes immunity and is extremely transmissible. It’s much, much harder to stop a COVID wave now than it was two years ago. Look at how China is desperately trying to stop the virus but can’t without drastic lockdowns.

Lower benefits, higher costs: the ROI (return on investment) of tackling COVID with social measures has reversed. And from now on, it’s not going to get any better.

More here.

How “woke” became a four-letter word

Sarah Ogilvie in Prospect:

“Man, you see how woke I was? I called you out!” Barack Obama spoke out against “wokeism” in October 2019.

We can pinpoint the moment the meaning of woke changed: July 2020. Phrases such as “stay woke,” “be woke,” “woke people,” “woke culture,” “woke af (as fuck)” (as in “the best thing about having a lesbian grandma is that she is woke af”) were now replaced by the markedly negative “woke agenda,” “woke mob,” “woke ideology,” “woke brigade,” “woke police.” New negative derivatives such as wokenesswokeismwokester and wokery began to circulate. As the meaning of woke changed, the word became far more heavily used. From January 2020 to January 2021, it became four times more popular on the internet and in newspapers.

So who exactly took control of woke in July 2020, and how did they turn it into a four-letter word? Digging into big data tells us.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

Atlantic City, June 23, 1957 (AP) — President Eisenhower’s pastor said tonight that Americans are living in a period of “unprecedented religious activity” caused partially by paid vacations, the eight-hour day, and modern conveniences.

“These fruits of material progress,” said the Reverend … of the National Presbyterian Church, Washington, “have provided the leisure, the energy, and the means for a level of human and spiritual values never before reached.”

… Sees boom in religion to.


Here at the Vespasian-Carlton, it’s just one
religious activity after another; the sky
is constantly being crossed by cruciform
airplanes, in which nobody disbelieves
for a second, and the tide, the tide
of spiritual progress and prosperity
miraculously keeps rising to a level
never before obtained. The churches are full,
the beaches are full, God’s great ocean is full
of paid vacationers praying an eight-hour day
to the human and spiritual values, the fruits,
the leisure, the energy, and the means, Lord,
the means for the level, the unprecedented level,
and the modern conveniences, which also are full.
Never before, O Lord, have the prayers and praises
from belfry, from phonebooth, from ballpark and barbecue
and sacrifices, so endlessly ascended.

It was not thus when Job in Palestine
sat in the dust and cried, cried bitterly;
when Damien kissed the lepers on their wounds
it was not thus; it was not thus
when Francis worked a fourteen-hour day
strictly for the birds; when Dante took
a week’s vacation without pay when it rained
part of the time, O Lord, it was not thus.

But now the gears mesh and the tires burn
and the ice chatters in the shaker and the priest
in the pulpit, and Thy Name, O Lord,
is kept before the public, while the fruits
ripen and religion booms and the level rises
and every modern convenience runneth over,
that it may never be with us as it hath been
with Athens and Karnak and Nagasaki,
nor Thy sun for one instant refrain from shining
on the rainbow Buick by the breezeway
or the Chris Craft with the uplift life raft;
that we may continue to be the just folk we are,
plain people with ordinary superliners, people of the stop’n’shop
‘n’ pray as you go, of hotel, motel, boatel,
the humble pilgrims of no deposit no return
and please adjust thy clothing, who will give to Thee,
if Thee will keep us going, our annual
Miss Universe, for Thy Name’s Sake, Amen.

by Howard Nemerov
The American Experience: Poetry
Macmillen Company, 1968

The Black Arts Movement

Elias Rodriques at The Nation:

In the 1960s, the Free Southern Theater, an organization founded by a group of activists with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), traveled to a church in a predominantly Black, rural corner of Mississippi. There they staged Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, an absurdist drama about characters conversing as they wait for someone who never arrives. The play may have seemed like a strange choice—who would imagine that Beckett might connect with rural Black Americans in the throes of the civil rights movement?—but it found at least one admirer in civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer. “I guess we know something about waiting, don’t we?” Hamer said from the audience.

more here.

Rhetoric and Rhyme: On Rap

Daniel Levin Becker at The Paris Review:

With apologies to Tolstoy, all perfect rhymes are alike, each imperfect rhyme imperfect in its own way. Perfect rhyme tells us about a relationship between words that never changes; that scoring with boring is a rhyme you can find in a dictionary is useful but also, not to put too fine a point on it, boring. But rhyming family with body—that’s interesting. How does she do it? Why does she do it? Imperfect rhyme—slant rhyme, off-rhyme, near-rhyme, half-rhyme, lazy rhyme, deferred rhyme, overzealous compound rhyme, corrugated rhyme, what have you—illuminates something about the person creating it, about their ear and their mind and what they’re willing to bend for the sake of sound. It tells us what they believe they can get away with through sheer force of will, like how Fabolous rhymes Beamer Benz or Bentley with team be spending centuries and penis evidently just because he knows he can.

more here.

How one American Jew learned to see Israel in new light

Erika Page in The Christian Science Monitor:

Israel is often seen as a place of intractable divisions. But author Ethan Michaeli, the son of Israelis who moved to the United States, grew weary of hearing the same old narratives. So he set out on a journey to paint a more nuanced portrait. In “Twelve Tribes: Promise and Peril in the New Israel,” he brings readers along for the ride, introducing them to the complexities – and humanity – of life in modern Israel. A deeper understanding won’t fix everything, he says, but it may help uplift the debate. He spoke recently with the Monitor.

Why did you decide to write this book?

Whenever I see conversation among Americans about Israel, there’s no lack of care, there’s no lack of concern, there’s no lack of interest. But there’s a lack of currency. People are often arguing about things that in Israel are either not problems anymore or are problems that have multiplied twentyfold. So I thought that Israel is a very dynamic, very rapidly changing society, and a grassroots portrait of the country was necessary to really inform the conversation about it.

More here.

As liquid biopsy technology improves, cancer research stands to benefit

From Nature:

“We’ve known for many years that there is tumour-related material in the blood stream,” says Minetta C. Liu. “We just didn’t have the technologies to detect it with enough sensitivity for it to be meaningful.”

Liu, a medical oncologist and cancer investigator at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, is one of a growing number of researchers advancing liquid biopsies as tools to understand cancer biology. The analyses of biomarkers in body fluids offers a minimally invasive and easily repeatable way to detect cancer-associated changes in the genome, epigenome, transcriptome and proteome. The wealth of information that can be obtained from material in blood and urine is opening new avenues for both research and disease monitoring.

In recent years, investigators have greatly improved the detection of many cancer biomarkers in liquid biopsies. Tests based on these biomarkers could, one day, do more than simply identify the presence of a tumour. They could help identify its location, stage, progression, and response to therapies, representing a paradigm shift in cancer diagnosis and management.

In research, the saying goes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Where are those working on liquid biopsies placing their focus?

More here.

Monday, January 17, 2022

You Don’t Think in Any Language

by David J. Lobina

(This is Part 2 of a brand new series of post, this time about the relationship between language and thought; Part 1 is here)

A provocative title, perhaps, and perhaps also counterintuitive. One thinks in the language one speaks, everybody knows that. Why would anyone ask bilingual speakers which language they think in (or dream in) otherwise?

I suspect that what people usually have in mind when they ask such questions is related to the phenomenon of inner speech, the experience of internally speaking to ourselves, which may well be ubiquitous in adults (but probably not in children), though not entirely universal. I certainly think that inner speech plays a role in thinking, but not as central a role as most people seem to think (I will come back to this on a later post, probably in Part 4 of this series, where I will also discuss how writers of fiction use the narrative technique of “interior monologue” to outline some of the mental processes of a given character (thinking, feeling, etc.) – but mostly to argue that authors generally go about it the wrong way!).

The point I want to make in this post is that no-one thinks in any natural language; not in English, or Italian, or whatever, but in a language of thought, an abstract, unconscious and moreover inaccessible, conceptual representational system of the mind. Or at least I intend to provide some of the evidence, anecdotal and otherwise, that suggests that this is indeed the state of affairs. Read more »

Some Reflections on Phenology, Species Relationships, and Ecology

by Hari Balasubramanian

The slim, green book Natural History of Western Massachusetts is one of my favorites. Compressed into its hundred odd pages are articles and visuals that describe the essential natural features of the Amherst region, where I’ve lived since 2008. I turn to it every time something outdoors piques my interest — a new tree, bird or mammal, a geological feature.

One section that I particularly enjoy is the ‘Nature Calendar’ at the end. The calendar gives predictions on what to expect in each phase of a month; there’s approximately one prediction for every 3-day period. In early November, for example, it says “dandelions may still be blooming in protected areas”, and indeed some wildflowers do retain their bright colors despite freezing fall temperatures. It also says for the same month that “flocks of cedar-waxwings may be migrating through the region”. This was such a specific claim, but it is accurate: I was startled to see a flock of nearly a hundred waxwings swirling around bare trees on a rocky mountaintop this November.

The scientific analysis of such seasonal patterns is called phenology. Wikipedia defines it as “the study of periodic events in biological life cycles and how these are influenced by seasonal and interannual variations, as well as habitat factors (such as elevation)”. It’s a clunky, textbook kind of definition but the gist is clear enough. I find myself drawn to phenology for many reasons. Read more »

Monday Poem


—for Danny, 1949-1976

When you caught that bird in flight,
that was a wild moment, the reflex of it,
as if you’d had the mind and eyes of a hawk,
as if in your world, mysterious to us all,
mother father sisters brothers—
as if in that world you flew above
less bewildered than we,
island brother,
eagle-eyed and quick,
whose aerie was ringed
by an invisible moat

At that time there was not even a name
for your bright, distant, blinking galaxy
so they dredged up whatever seemed useful
from their spent nomenclature:
retarded, they said,
as if a boy who could snatch a bird in flight
had a slow mind.
they should have more accurately called you
distant, as if a galaxy 10 billion light years away,
as far from us as our understanding
of what made you tick

So my mind was no help in knowing you.
Conveniently hobbled I excused myself
from the work of understanding.
Now I see you were in no way slow but
full of crushing frustration, confined by your moat
at the center of your island inarticulate
to the point of slamming your head with a palm
to jar loose what you could not say,
not tongue-tied but mind-tied,
kept by genetic leash from joining
our world of connection, striving to snap it
so that you might join in our jokes
……………………… ……join in our sadness
or have us join with you in yours

And all the while I circled your moat
in relative freedom. I gazed across seeing you
self-contained to the point of desperation
jangling mom’s ring of measuring spoons
next to your ear, gone in the small joy
of hearing the peal of their teaspoon bells
……….. dropping them
………… at the quick flicker of wings
……..….to catch your bird

Jim Culleny

Seamless Time

by Mary Hrovat

Everything in the universe that’s visible from your location on Earth passes by overhead every day. We’re usually able see only the stars, galaxies, planets, and so on that are in the sky when the sun is not; we become aware of them when the sun sets and Earth’s shadow rises from the eastern horizon. But all of them are there at some point in the day. We picnic beneath the winter constellation Orion in summer and walk beneath the Summer Triangle on the short days of winter. The moon also crosses the sky every day, sometimes in the daytime, and sometimes too close to the sun to be seen.

Because we associate particular constellations with each season, and because the position of the sun on the sky indicates the time of year, in a sense all of time is up there in the sky too.

The past is always arriving at Earth’s surface. All the visible light and other electromagnetic radiation reaching Earth comes from the past. The light from the sun and other bodies in the solar system is minutes to hours old. The light from the stars is ancient; some of it is older than Earth and the sun.

The oldest light you can see without using binoculars or a telescope may be that from the Andromeda Galaxy, which arrives from approximately 2.5 million years ago. Sensitive instruments can detect light much older than that, from more distant galaxies. The echo of the Big Bang, the cosmic background radiation, is the oldest light to reach Earth. You could say that some of the electromagnetic radiation reaching Earth is as old as time itself. Read more »

I Hope This Helps

by Deanna Kreisel (Doctor Waffle Blog)

I had my first panic attack at age sixteen, which was (deargod) over 35 years ago. It happened during school, much to my teenage mortification. Some friends and I were hanging out in our high school newspaper office during a free period, sprawled on one of the crapped-out couches under the blinking fluorescent lights, just shooting the shit. All of a sudden, a wave of horror swept over me—no, that’s not the right word. It was a feeling of fear mixed with a kind of existential dread, washing over me in waves, and then my heart was pounding, the walls were closing in, and I was gripped with an intense feeling of unreality. (This is something that people with panic disorder don’t often explain—or maybe it’s different for everyone. But for me the worst part of a panic attack is the feeling that the world is unreal, that you’re trapped in some kind of cruel simulacrum and everything around you is fake. You yourself are fake.[i]) Apparently I was also gasping and sobbing, and saying over and over again “I want to go home. I want to go home.”

The next thing I remember clearly was my father carrying me out of the room in his arms. This part seems so incredible to me—How did he get there? Who called him? How long did it take? Why did he leave work in the middle of the day?—that I sometimes wonder if I’ve misremembered it or mixed it up with another memory. But I have corroborated this detail with semi-reliable sources, so I’m going to leave it here for the sake of my narrative. (I would do a lot for narrative.) The truly odd part is that once we got home, I didn’t stop saying “I want to go home” over and over again, even though my dad kept reassuring me that I was indeed home now. Clearly he was not on board with The Narrative, or he would have recognized a Metaphor when he saw one. Read more »

Life in the garden of forking paths

by Charlie Huenemann

We primates of the homo sapiens variety are very clever when it comes to making maps and plotting courses over dodgy terrain, so it comes as no surprise that we are prone to think of possible actions over time as akin to different paths across a landscape. A choice that comes to me in time can be seen easily as the choice between one path or another, even when geography really has nothing to do with it. My decision to emit one string of words rather than another, or to slip into one attitude or another, or to roll my eyes or stare stolidly ahead, can all be described as taking the path on the right instead the path on the left. And because we primates of the homo sapiens variety are notably bad at forecasting the consequences of our decisions, the decision to choose one path and lose access to the other, forever, can be momentous and frightening. It’s often better to stay in bed.

Indeed, because every decision cuts the future in half, the space of possibilities is carved rapidly into strange and unexpected shapes, causing us to gaze at one another imploringly and ask, “How ever did such a state of things come to pass?” And the answer, you see, is that we and our compatriots made one decision, and then another, and then another, and before long we found ourselves in this fresh hot mess. And we truly need not ascribe “evil” intentions to anyone in the decision chain, as much as we would like to, since our own futuromyopia supplies all the explanation that is needed. We stumble along in the forever blurry present, bitching as we go, like an ill-tempered Mr. Magoo. Read more »