Tuesday, August 26, 2014
Go here to browse through the 85 nominees for this year's science prize and vote. Voting ends on Monday, September 1, at 11:59 pm NYC time.
[New posts below.]
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
A genome is not a blueprint for building a human being, so is there any way to judge whether DNA is junk or not?
Itai Yanai and Martin Lercher in Aeon:
Humans are astounding creatures, our unique and highly complex traits encoded by our genome – a vast sequence of DNA ‘letters’ (called nucleotides) directing the building and maintenance of the body and brain. Yet science has served up the confounding paradox that the bulk of our genome appears to be dead wood, biologically inert junk.
Could all this mysterious ‘dark matter’ in our genome really be non-functional?
Our genome has more than 20,000 genes, relatively stable stretches of DNA transmitted largely unchanged between generations. These genes contain recipes for molecules, especially proteins, that are the main building blocks and molecular machines of our bodies. Yet DNA that codes for such known structures accounts for just over 3 per cent of our genome. What about the other 97 per cent? With the publication of the first draft of the human genome in 2001, that shadow world came into focus. It emerged that roughly half our DNA consisted of ‘repeats’, long stretches of letters sometimes found in millions of copies at seemingly random places throughout the genome. Were all these repeats just junk?
The Doctor -Exceprt from A Boxing Story
No more boxers for me.
Bar room brawlers,
that's another story.
They don't train
to destroy people.
No one pays to watch
a couple of drunks
Four and a half hours
inside this kid's head
and I'll fight anyone
who calls this sport.
You want to know
this kid's prize?
three subdural hematomas,
possible skull fracture,
total left hemiplegia.
Let me translate.
If he ever wakes up
half life in the cabbage patch,
maybe complete loss
of his whole left side,
years of therapy
so he can shuffle,
drool and gawk about.
No more boxers for me.
I'm a neurosurgeon
not a bloody botanist.
by Garry Hyland
from After Atlantis
Thistledown Press, 1991.
Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic:
On the one hand, it is completely unsurprising that Europe has become a swamp of anti-Jewish hostility. It is, after all, Europe. Anti-Jewish hostility has been its metier for centuries. (Yes, the locus of much anti-Jewish activity today is within Europe’s large Muslim-immigrant population; but the young men who threaten their Jewish neighbors draw on the language and traditions of European anti-Semitism as much as they do on Muslim modes of anti-Semitic thought.) On the other hand, the intensity, and velocity, of anti-Jewish invective—and actual anti-Jewish thuggery—has surprised even Eurocynics such as myself. “Jews to the gas,” a chant heard at rallies in Germany, still has the capacity to shock. So do images of besieged synagogues and looted stores. And testimony from harassed rabbis and frightened Jewish children.
But I find myself most bothered by what seems to have been, on the surface, a relatively minor incident. The episode took place last weekend at a Sainsbury’s supermarket in central London. Protesters assembled outside the store to call for a boycott of Israeli-made goods. Quickly, the manager ordered employees to empty the kosher food section. One account suggests that a staff member, when asked about the empty shelves, said “We support Free Gaza.” Other reports suggest that the manager believed that demonstrators might invade the store and trash it. (There is precedent to justify his worry.)
Daniel Cressey in Nature:
In many respects, the modern electronic cigarette is not so different from its leaf-and-paper predecessor. Take a drag from the mouthpiece and you get a genuine nicotine fix — albeit from a fluid wicked into the chamber of a battery-powered atomizer and vaporized by a heating element. Users exhale a half-convincing cloud of ‘smoke’, and many e-cigarettes even sport an LED at the tip that glows blue, green or classic red to better simulate the experience romanticized by countless writers and film-makers. The only things missing are the dozens of cancer-causing chemicals found in this digital wonder’s analogue forebears.
E-cigarettes — also known as personal vaporizers or electronic nicotine-delivery systems among other names — are perhaps the most disruptive devices that public-health researchers working on tobacco control have ever faced. To some, they promise to snuff out a behaviour responsible for around 100 million deaths in the twentieth century. Others fear that they could perpetuate the habit, and undo decades of work. Now, a group once united against a common enemy is divided. “These devices have really polarized the tobacco-control community,” says Michael Siegel, a physician and tobacco researcher at Boston University School of Public Health in Massachusetts. “You now have two completely opposite extremes with almost no common ground between them.” Evidence is in short supply on both sides. Even when studies do appear, they are often furiously debated. And it is not just researchers who are attempting to catch up with the products now pouring out of Chinese factories: conventional tobacco companies are pushing into the nascent industry, and regulators are scrambling to work out what to do.
Douglas Martin in the New York Times:
Her death was announced by the Iranian Republic News agency, the country’s official information service.
Ms. Behbahani wrote more than 600 poems, collected in 20 books, on subjects as diverse as earthquakes, revolution, war, poverty, prostitution, freedom of speech and her own plastic surgery. In poems and public speeches, she confronted Iran’s religious authorities, challenging them on practices like the stoning of women who commit adultery.
“She became the voice of the Iranian people,” Farzaneh Milani, a University of Virginia professor who translated many of her poems into English, said in an interview on Thursday. “She was the elegant voice of dissent, of conscience, of nonviolence, of refusal to be ideological.”
Paul Bloom in the Boston Review:
This reaction surprised me at first, but I’ve come to realize that taking a position against empathy is like announcing that you hate kittens—a statement so outlandish it can only be a joke. And so I’ve learned to clarify, to explain that I am not against morality, compassion, kindness, love, being a good neighbor, doing the right thing, and making the world a better place. My claim is actually the opposite: if you want to be good and do good, empathy is a poor guide.
The word “empathy” is used in many ways, but here I am adopting its most common meaning, which corresponds to what eighteenth-century philosophers such as Adam Smith called “sympathy.” It refers to the process of experiencing the world as others do, or at least as you think they do. To empathize with someone is to put yourself in her shoes, to feel her pain. Some researchers also use the term to encompass the more coldblooded process of assessing what other people are thinking, their motivations, their plans, what they believe. This is sometimes called “cognitive,” as opposed to “emotional,” empathy. I will follow this convention here, but we should keep in mind that the two are distinct—they emerge from different brain processes; you can have a lot of one and a little of the other—and that most of the discussion of the moral implications of empathy focuses on its emotional side.
Tuesday, August 26, 2014
Christian Parenti in Jacobin:
In the American political imagination, Jefferson is rural, idealistic, and democratic, while Hamilton is urban, pessimistic, and authoritarian. So, too, on the US left, where Jefferson gets the better billing. Michael Hardt recently edited a sheaf of Jefferson’s writings for the left publisher Verso.
Reading “Jefferson beyond Jefferson,” Hardt casts him as a theorist of “revolutionary transition.” We like Jefferson’s stirring words about “the tree of liberty” occasionally needing “the blood of patriots and tyrants,” and his worldview fits comfortably with a “small is beautiful” style localism. We recall Jefferson as a great democrat. When Tea Partiers echo his rhetoric, we dismiss it as a lamentable misunderstanding.
But in reality, Jefferson represented the most backward and fundamentally reactionary sector of the economy: large, patrimonial, slave-owning, agrarian elites who exported primary commodities and imported finished manufactured goods from Europe. He was a fabulously wealthy planter who lived in luxury paid for by slave labor. Worse yet, he raised slaves specifically for sale.
“I consider the labor of a breeding woman,” Jefferson wrote, “as no object, and that a child raised every 2 years is of more profit than the crop of the best laboring man.”
Even if it could somehow be dislodged from the institution of slavery, Jefferson’s vision of a weak government and an export-based agrarian economy would have been the path of political fragmentation and economic underdevelopment. His romantic notions were a veil behind which lay ossified privilege.
Hamilton was alone among the “founding fathers” in understanding that the world was witnessing two revolutions simultaneously. One was the political transformation, embodied in the rise of republican government. The other was the economic rise of modern capitalism, with its globalizing networks of production, trade, and finance. Hamilton grasped the epochal importance of applied science and machinery as forces of production.
D. Brian Burghart in Gawker:
Nowhere could I find out how many people died during interactions with police in the United States. Try as I might, I just couldn't wrap my head around that idea. How was it that, in the 21st century, this data wasn't being tracked, compiled, and made available to the public? How could journalists know if police were killing too many people in their town if they didn't have a way to compare to other cities? Hell, how could citizens or police? How could cops possibly know "best practices" for dealing with any fluid situation? They couldn't.
The bottom line was that I found the absence of such a library of police killings offensive. And so I decided to build it. I'm still building it. But I could use some help. You can find my growing database of deadly police violence here, at Fatal Encounters, and I invite you to go here,research one of the listed shootings, fill out the row, and change its background color. It'll take you about 25 minutes. There are thousands to choose from, and another 2,000 or so on my cloud drive that I haven't even added yet. After I fact-check and fill in the cracks, your contribution will be added to largest database about police violence in the country. Feel free to check out what has been collected about your locale's information here.
The biggest thing I've taken away from this project is something I'll never be able to prove, but I'm convinced to my core: The lack of such a database is intentional. No government—not the federal government, and not the thousands of municipalities that give their police forces license to use deadly force—wants you to know how many people it kills and why.
It's the only conclusion that can be drawn from the evidence.
Jacob Heilbrunn in The National Interest:
IN JOSEPH Roth’s novel Radetzky March, Count Chojnicki drives district captain Franz von Trotta and his son Carl Joseph, a lieutenant in the Austrian infantry, in a straw-yellow britska to his small hunting lodge in the Galician forest near the border with Ukraine. After pouring glasses of 180 proof, Chojnicki disconcerts his two guests by declaring that the Habsburg Empire is doomed:
With great effort Herr von Trotta asked another question: “I don’t understand! Why shouldn’t the monarchy still exist?” “Of course,”Chojnicki answered, “taken literally, it continues to exist. We still have an army”—the count motioned to the lieutenant—“and officials”—the count pointed to the district captain. “But it is disintegrating. . . . An aged one, whose number is up, endangered by each sniffle, hangs onto his throne simply by the miracle that he can still sit upon it. How much longer, how much longer! This era doesn’t want us any longer! This era wants to create nation-states! No one believes in God. The new religion is nationalism. . . . The monarchy, our monarchy, is based on piety: in the belief that God elected the Habsburgs. . . . Our Emperor is a secular brother of the Pope. . . . The Emperor of Austria-Hungary cannot be abandoned by God. But now God has abandoned him!”
Chojnicki’s lament reflects the profound sense of abandonment that assailed not only Roth, but also his compatriot Stefan Zweig. Both mourned the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy and the loss of the comforting stability it had represented, not least for Jews like themselves. Both became refugees, going into exile years before the Anschluss, or annexation, of Austria by Nazi Germany in March 1938—in a 1933 letter, Roth warned Zweig that it was all over once Hitler had been appointed chancellor by the senescent President Hindenburg. And both ended up destroying themselves—the alcoholic Roth, dependent on handouts from Zweig, perished of delirium tremens in a Paris hospital in 1939 at the age of forty-five; Zweig, together with his young second wife, Lotte, swallowed poison in a little bungalow in 1942 in Petropolis, a lovely mountain resort located near Rio de Janeiro. Unlike Roth, however, Zweig’s literary star dimmed after his death, even though he was one of the most popular authors in the world during the 1930s, an era when books, like the cinema, could command a mass audience.
Now, in his beguiling study The Impossible Exile, George Prochnik examines Zweig’s odyssey. Prochnik, who is the author of In Pursuit of Silence, sets Zweig in the context of literary and social Vienna. It’s very much a life and times rather than a discussion of the old boy’s oeuvre, which was rather vitriolically attacked as “just putrid” by Michael Hofmann in 2010 in the London Review of Books. That his works don’t measure up to Thomas Mann’s or Roth’s almost goes without saying.
But Zweig, a compulsive collector whose possessions included Goethe’s pen and Beethoven’s desk, makes for a fascinating subject (Wes Anderson’s charming new film The Grand Budapest Hotel was inspired by him). Prochnik mines both Zweig’s memoir The World of Yesterday as well as his letters to offer numerous insights. He suggests that Zweig, who was friends with everyone from Richard Strauss to Sigmund Freud, provides an acute lens through which to examine not only the cultural contradictions of the imperial city, but also the plight of the numerous cultural émigrés from Central Europe whom Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels ridiculed as “cadavers on leave.”
Jesse McCarthy in The Point:
In the summer of 1960, James Baldwin wrote an essay he styled “Fifth Avenue, Uptown: A Letter from Harlem.” Among the host of ills he observed in the neighborhood where he was born and raised, he gave a prominent place to the dynamics of racialized policing:
The only way to police a ghetto is to be oppressive … Rare, indeed, is the Harlem citizen, from the most circumspect church member to the most shiftless adolescent, who does not have a long tale to tell of police incompetence, injustice, or brutality. I myself have witnessed and endured it more than once.
Like so many of us watching events unfold on the live feed from Ferguson, Missouri, I thought about how depressingly familiar it all looked. How many times has this very script played out in our lives? What year wasn’t there a prominent slaying of a black citizen under dubious circumstances, followed by an outbreak of rioting? Here is Baldwin in 1960, describing the archetype in his characteristically lucid way, with empathy but also a stern moral clarity:
It is hard on the other hand to blame the policeman… he too, believes in good intentions and is astounded and offended when they are not taken for the deed… He moves through Harlem, therefore, like an occupying soldier in a bitterly hostile country; which is precisely what, and where, he is. … He can retreat from his unease in only one direction: into a callousness which very shortly becomes second nature. He becomes more callous, the population becomes more hostile, the situation grows more tense, and the police force is increased. One day, to everyone’s astonishment, someone drops a match in the powder keg and everything blows up. Before the dust has settled or the blood congealed, editorials, speeches and civil-rights commissions are loud in the land, demanding to know what happened. What happened is that Negroes want to be treated like men.
The vulnerability of racially marked bodies to power, particularly police power, and the lack of justice—the singular and persistent evidence of gross unfairness where race and the law intersect—reveals a bloody knot in the social fabric that is as vivid in Ferguson, Missouri today as it was in Baldwin’s Harlem half a century ago.
Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
Boats traversing the Panama Canal look strange and out of place, like mirages or optical illusions. That’s because the Canal — especially at places like the Culebra Cut — goes right through what would otherwise be continuous land. The Canal is, in essence, a trench. It was dug right across the width of Panama in order to connect two oceans: Pacific and Atlantic. Ships going through the Panama Canal, therefore, are strange-goers, undertaking a journey that would be fantastical but for feats of engineering that still boggle the mind.
268,000,000 cubic yards of earthy stuff was moved to create the Panama Canal. Something like 27,000 people died from accidents and disease during construction. (The French, who started the project, did not keep accurate death records). A three-mile-long peninsula jutting out into the Pacific Ocean was created with material dug from the Canal. There are 46 gates along the Panama Canal, each of them weighing between 354 and 662 tons. 101,000 cubic meters of water are needed to fill a Panama Canal lock chamber. An average of 52 million gallons of fresh water are used in each transit.
These are just some of the raw numbers that tell the tale of the Panama Canal. Building the Canal took about 35 years. The French began the project in 1881. But there were so many problems (human and mechanical) that the project was abandoned. In 1904, the Americans took over the task. The Panama Canal was officially opened on August 15, 1914. One hundred years ago.
Frances Wilson in The Telegraph:
Jacqueline Rose has been taking us into what Joseph Conrad called “the dark places of the earth” for the past 30 years. In The Haunting of Sylvia Plath she explored the pathology around the darkest woman of them all and in Women in Dark Times, a combination of psychoanalytic interpretation, political manifesto and personal reflection, Rose shines a light on those others who have taught her how “to think differently”: the revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg, murdered by government henchmen in 1919, the iconic Marilyn Monroe, possibly murdered in 1962, and the German-Jewish painter Charlotte Salomon, who died, five months pregnant, in Auschwitz. She also honours the tragic lives of Shafilea Ahmed, Heshu Yones and Fadime Sahindal, victims of so-called “honour” killings, and celebrates the work of the contemporary artists Esther Shalev-Gerz, Yael Bartana and Therese Oulton. An unpredictable group, you might think, but unpredictability is their point and the mark, Rose suggests, of their individual genius – as Eve Arnold said of photographing Monroe: “It was the unpredictable in herself that she used.” Nothing in these pages is predictable, least of all the journey we take. Rose, a professor of English at the University of London, begins in early 20th-century Germany, motors through Fifties Hollywood, crosses to Sweden, 2001, detours around the demonstrations in Tahrir Square in 2011 and 2013, pauses at Chester Crown Court in 2012 and terminates inside the London gallery where Oulton’s work – which “turns the world inside out” – is currently being displayed.
Rosa Luxemburg, the tiny Polish Jew who walked with a limp, is the glue that binds the book together: “I want to affect people like a clap of thunder,” she writes to her lover, “to inflame their minds not by speechifying but with the breadth of my vision, the strength of my conviction, and the power of my expression.” Luxemburg, says Rose, still has a lot to teach us, but for many readers the most compelling figure will be Marilyn Monroe. Why are women so drawn to her story? Rose does not argue that Monroe was a feminist, but that she had “something urgent to say to feminism today”. Written across her face and body were the desires of America; Monroe represented capitalism to itself. “I don’t look on myself as a commodity,” she said in her last interview, “but I’m sure a lot of people have.” Her beauty was the foil of her country’s moral decay, and she knew it.
Tara Parker-Pope in The New York Times:
Do you have a decisive marriage? New research shows that how thoughtfully couples make decisions can have a lasting effect on the quality of their romantic relationships. Couples who are decisive before marriage — intentionally defining their relationships, living together and planning a wedding — appear to have better marriages than couples who simply let inertia carry them through major transitions. “Making decisions and talking things through with partners is important,” said Galena K. Rhoades, a relationship researcher at the University of Denver and co-author of the report. “When you make an intentional decision, you are more likely to follow through on that.” While the finding may seem obvious, the reality is that many couples avoid real decision-making. Many couples living together, for instance, did not sit down and talk about cohabitation. Often one partner had begun spending more time at the other’s home, or a lease expired, forcing the couple to formalize a living arrangement. “Couples who slide through their relationship transitions have poorer marital quality than those who make intentional decisions about major milestones,” Dr. Rhoades and her colleagues wrote.
The research stems from a study that began with 1,294 young adults ages 18 to 34 recruited to the Relationship Development Study in 2007 and 2008. Over the next five years, 418 of the individuals in the study married, offering the researchers a glimpse into the lives and decision-making of couples before and after marriage. The researchers collected data on prior romantic experiences, whether the relationship started by “hooking up” in a casual relationship, whether the couple had a big or small wedding, and what the overall quality of the marriage was. Notably, they found that the decisions and experiences with others before marriage had a lasting effect on the relationship.
Burcu, Yonka and Defne
I walk down the Dordtselaan almost every day
to buy bread and cigarettes at Albert Heijn’s,
and malodorous French cheese, dark
Belgian beers and cold pork products.
Once, Burcu was the girl at the checkout,
before her Yonca, and Defne before her.
Each with shiny a name-tag on a lapel.
The only words I say are “Dank je wel”.
Today, Burcu saw my many packs of ham,
looked at me, stammered, was unsure, then
deciding finally that I must be Turkish,
“I’m sorry,” she said, “this is all pork.”
“I know, as we can’t buy it back home
I often yearn for it, that’s why” I said.
“Who is ‘we’?” I thought to myself
as I slowly made my way to the flat.
Would the thought have crossed her mind,
looking with tired eyes as I walked away:
“He’s not Dutch, I can tell, that’s easy.
But what is he? That’s a harder code to crack.”
by Roni Margulies
Monday, August 25, 2014
Browse the nominees in the list below and then go to the bottom of the post to vote.
Alphabetical list of nominated blog names followed by the blog post title:
(Please report any problems with links in the comments section below.)
For prize details, click here.
- 3 Quarks Daily: The Dictionary is not Literature
- Action Science Theater: How to fall and miss the ground
- Aeon: Cows Might Fly
- American Science: The Curious History of the Paleo-Diet, and its Relationship to Science & Modernity
- An Evolutionist's Perspective: The Woes of Capitalism: Kinship, Sociality and Economy
- Ars Technica: Could dark matter be hiding in plain sight in existing experiments?
- Babies Learning Language: Shifting our cultural understanding of replication
- BBC: The quest to save the Hollywood bison
- Beach Chair Scientist: Mother Nature vs. Santa Claus
- Brainwaves: Searching For The Elephant’s Genius Inside the Largest Brain on Land
- Charismatic Minifauna: Bats have sparkly poop
- Chemically Cultured: That love-hate supervisor relationship
- Cocktail Party Physics: Seen and Unseen: Could There Ever Be a “Cinema Without Cuts”?
- Comparatively Psyched: The Robin's Song
- Curious Meerkat: Eating Insects
- Eat Your Brains Out: Science and the Supernatural
- Ecology & Evolution: And to the victor the spoiled
- Ecology & Evolution: The Heat and Light of Science Communication
- Ecology & Evolution: The Science of Scientific Whaling
- Ecology & Evolution: What is(n’t) palaeontology like?
- Ecology & Evolution: What’s it like to study Zoology?
- Errant Science: Tradition, in Science
- Eruptions: So, You Think Yellowstone Is About to Erupt
- Genotopia: Hail Britannia! (Dorkins Reviews Wade)
- Genotopia: On city life, the history of science, and the genetics of race
- Grrlscientist: Influenza: How the Great War helped create the greatest pandemic ever known
- Hawkmoth: On Wildness
- Huffpost: A Few Short Rules on Being Creative
- Illumination: GMO Leukemia Outbreak in China
- Inkfish: Scientists Ask Why There Are So Many Freaking Huge Ants
- Leaving Plato's Cave: The Meta-lympics: a catalyst for scientific discovery
- Limulus: Living Fossils
- Napoli Unplugged: Procida: Picture Perfect
- Napoli Unplugged: Vesuvius at Night
- Nautilus: The Math Trick Behind MP3s, JPEGs, and Homer Simpson’s Face
- Neurobabble: Parasitic wasps vs. zombie cockroaches
- Neurobabble: Technology and the adolescent brain
- Neurobabble: What sign languages have taught us about our brains
- Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: When the going gets tough, mutualism gets going
- Pacific Standard: Your Genome Is a Post-Apocalyptic Wasteland
- Patrick F. Clarkin, PhD: Developmental Plasticity and the “Hard-Wired” Problem
- Pen Sapiens: Monkey See, Monkey Yawn
- Peter Pearsal: A Desert Orogeny
- Planetizen: The Wicked Problem of Urban Biodiversity, pt 1
- Psychology Today: Love, Love Medulla: The Neuroscience of Beatlemania
- Preposterous Universe: How Quantum Field Theory Becomes “Effective”
- Preposterous Universe: Why the Many-Worlds Formulation of Quantum Mechanics Is Probably Correct
- Prophage: Modest Data Reported From Oxford Nanopore's Exciting MinION Sequencing Platform
- Scicurious: Addiction showcases the brain's flexibility
- Science Explained: Knock, Knock Who’s there?
- Science Sushi: Did Allergies Evolve To Save Your Life?
- Science Sushi: Muscles Love Oxytocin: So-Called “Hug Hormone” Important In Muscle Regeneration
- Sexual Selection and Life History Evolution: Aesthetics, mathematics, physics and biology
- Skulls in the Stars: How *do* cats land on their feet when falling, anyway?
- Slate: Promiscuity Is Pragmatic
- Space: Hazard, Risk, and the Steelhead (Oso) Landslide in Washington
- Space: Real Atmospheric Science in Stargate: Atlantis
- Starts With A Bang: 22 Messages of Hope (and Science) for Creationists
- Starts With A Bang: How is the Universe bigger than its age?
- Stuff About Space: The Strangest Star: A Neutron Star Inside a Red Giant
- Synthetic Daisies: Playing the Long Game of Human Biological Variation
- Synthetic Daisies: The game of evolution
- The Bleeding Edge: Butterflies
- The Book of Science: Photosynthesis
- The Conversation: Despite metamorphosis, moths hold on to memories from their days as a caterpillar
- The Conversation: The ancient Greek riddle that helps us understand modern disease threats
- The Conversation: Why cold-blooded animals don’t need to wrap up to keep warm
- The Last Word On Nothing: What Luis Alvarez Did
- The Loom: The Wisdom of (Little) Crowds
- The Mermaid's Tale: Are bees intelligent?
- The Mermaid's Tale: The visible colors and the falseness of human races as natural categories
- The Mermaid's Tale: Whooza good gurrrrrl? Whoozmai bayyyy-bee boy?
- The Neurocritic: Existential Neuroscience: a field in search of meaning
- The Neurocritic: When Waking Up Becomes the Nightmare: Hypnopompic Hallucinatory Pain
- The New Yorker: The Power of the Hoodie-Wearing C.E.O.
- The Philosopher's Beard: Love's Labours Lost: How Robots Will Transform Human Intimacy
- The Trenches of Discovery: The human machine: obsolete components
- Things We Don't Know: Squid Lady Parts
- Too Long For Twitter: New neuroscience on why we dream
- Tree Town Chemistry: How One Scientist Broke in to Professional Craft Brewing
- Unthink: Five Things Scientists Know About Romance
- Weekend Adventure: The Wild Inside
- Wired: Have We Been Interpreting Quantum Mechanics Wrong This Whole Time?
- Wired: What is brain death?
- You've Got Some Science On You: Infection: It's all a matter of perspective
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by Gerald Dworkin
Many of the quotations that appear in my e-reader Philosophy: A Commonplace Book are one-liners:
There are many ways in which the thing I am trying in vain to say may be tried in vain to be said. —Beckett
Better latent than never. —Morgenbesser
Philosophy is to the real world as masturbation is to sex. —Marx
But often the difference between a one-liner and a many- is arbitrary. Wilde's "I do all the talking. It saves time and prevents arguments" could have a semi-colon instead of a period and be a one-liner. Thus Shaw: One sees things as they are and asks why; another dreams things that never were, and asks why not. Or, as Nabokov put it: The difference between a therapist and the rapist is a matter of distance.
1) a pithy observation
2) a terse saying
3) a short phrase
4) a brief statement
5) a concise statement
6) a laconic expression
It was Nietzsche's aim to "to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a book—what everyone else does not say in a book." But he was also brilliant at much shorter length. "All truth is simple…is that not doubly a lie?"
Obviously this pithetic character is at best a necessary condition but not sufficient. "Today is Monday" is pithy enough but lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. Again, definitions try to supply the missing ingredient in different ways-- "embodying a general truth", "makes a statement of wisdom" , "astute observation". The first of these seems, to us now, too weak. "Objects fall when unsupported" is both pithy and a general truth. But Bacon titled one of his books on the nature of science Aphorisms Concerning the Interpretation of Nature.
For what it is worth, the word derives from aphorismos (greek) meaning definition. And indeed historically many aphorisms took the form of definitions. Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary being a prime example. ACADEMY. Originally a grove in which philosophers sought a meaning in nature; now a school in which naturals seek a meaning in philosophy. PHILOSOPHY. A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.
All of this is by way of introducing the reader to a particularly clever and astute practitioner of that current system of aphoristic communication knows as the TWEET. Now those inclined to resist all things contemporary may object that any message that may be as large as 140 characters cannot be an aphorism. (Joke interruption: I was asked the other day to supply a password with at least eight characters. I decided upon Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.) And those truly hostile may note that the definition of Tweet given first in all dictionaries is "A weak chirping sound, as of a young or small bird." But the tweets I am bringing to your attention are both short and clever.
by Tasneem Zehra Husain
I'm a total pushover when it comes to stories of connection. I am delighted by accounts of barriers breaking down and disparate people uniting in purpose, of ideas coalescing and theories fusing to reveal the common threads that underlie diversity. As I look back upon the history of physics, what reaches out and grabs me are the moments of unification when strands long thought separate are suddenly braided together in a whole that is stronger and more beautiful than the sum of its parts. Sometimes we uncover hidden affinities by exploring a motif repeated in apparently unrelated contexts; at other times, we are compelled by circumstance to form alliances with those we may have neglected, to put our heads together and come up with a solution acceptable to all. The conundrum of dark matter falls solidly in the latter category.
For several decades, cosmologists and astronomers had been growing progressively distant from their particle physics colleagues. As one group craned their necks further out into uncharted space, the other crawled deeper into the recesses of the atom. The disciplines began to seem as divergent as the scales upon which they operate, but there is a surprising resonance between the minute and the colossal. Even objects of cosmic proportions are built from subatomic particles. The discovery of dark matter was a reminder that no part of the universe can be completely understood by those who turn their backs on the rest.
Discussions of dark matter (and dark energy) are often front-ended by a startling admission of ignorance: the entire gamut of matter particles we conventionally study - quarks and leptons combined - forms less than 5% of the known universe. There is about five times as much dark matter out there, we are told, while the rest of the universe is made up of dark energy. But, since neither dark matter nor dark energy can be seen, how do scientists justify this shocking claim? An analogy might help. The mechanism of human vision is such that we see objects only when they reflect light. But if you find yourself in a pitch dark room, you don't immediately conclude that just because nothing is visible, the room must be empty. You simply realize that sight is no longer a reliable guide under these circumstances, and you must lean on sounds and smells, and touch (and taste?) to probe your surroundings. For lifeforms less dependent on vision, the darkness is multi-textured and alive with variety. Consider bats, for instance. Where we rely on light hitting objects and bouncing back, bats bank on sound. They emit high frequency calls, inaudible to human ears, and use the resulting echoes to construct a sonic map of their surroundings (the further an object is, the longer it takes for the echo to come back). The moral of the story is this: as long as there is a way for you to interact with an object, you can "sense" its presence.
by Rishidev Chaudhuri
It's impossible for me to leave a place well. I used to think that I was merely bad at logistics and planning (and I am), but I manage to conspire against myself with such sinister competence that this explanation no longer seems viable. As the time to leave approaches my consciousness starts to fragment, and I become exhausted and flee into sleep. I wait too long to do things, unable to act unless I have killed my inertia with drink or other confusion, or distracted myself sufficiently that anything I do is useless. I spend hours on minutiae, reorganizing my book collection and cataloguing my kitchen equipment; they're happy hours, once I forget why I'm doing it.
Perhaps it's that leaving is quite obviously a rehearsal for death, disrupting even the faint illusions of permanence that spatial and environmental contiguity offer us. So is everything, if we have learned to listen to the philosophers and to live well, but of course we have not learned to listen and who has the time to rehearse for death these days?
I have trouble even with leaving hotel rooms and getting off of airplanes. I'm haunted by the sense that I've left traces of my self behind. Maybe in the shape of things: do I have my keys? has my wallet finalized the escape it has been plotting all these years? Perhaps these things I've left are important and their absence will make the self who leaves unviable. Eventually I get frustrated and resentful of the unreasonable claims of that future self but by then it is too late: I am nearly that future self and the instincts of self-preservation take over.
With leaving comes the return of beginner's mind, that flush of seeing things fresh as you did when you first arrived, of being once again surprised at the particularity of things, troubled by their contingency and delighted by the odd way the fragments of a world fit together (Louis Macneice's delightful "drunkeness of things being various"). As everyone knows by now, the only time it is truly possible to appreciate anything is when you are faced with its transience and, by then, it is too late and the moments are inextricably entangled with the melancholy of their endings. Sometimes, though, the melancholy parts to reveal intimations of an exuberant noonday joy, as when the sun stands still and makes the world bright and shimmering for a few moments before it begins to fall towards the horizon.
Bev Butkow. Untitled/Unknown/Unwanted. 2013
Vinyl collaged onto clear plastic sheeting.
by Akim Reinhardt
Thirteen year old Mo'ne Davis recently took America by storm when she pitched her south Philly baseball team deep into the Little League World Series, where clubs from around the world compete every August.
A beloved celebrity of the moment, her success brought to mind my own somewhat tortured little league experiences.
I. While not terribly big, my father was nevertheless a super-stud athlete at his highschool in Fresno, California during the mid-1950s. Captain of the football team (he played end on both sides of the ball), member of the track, field, diving, swimming, and basketball teams, he was popular enough to be voted president of the class of `56. And he was good enough, despite being only 145 pounds, to earn a football scholarship to Redding College in northern California, although he would soon lose it in a gambling scandal. True.
So you'd think I grew up in a household that paid attention to sports and that I learned it all from at my father's knee.
Quite to the contrary, not only didn't the old man watch sports, he didn't even understand the appeal. To him, sports were something to do, not something you watch other people do. I think he looked at it like drinking: he liked drinking, especially with others and alone if need be, but why on earth would he turn on the TV to watch someone else drink? Or drive across the city and pay for parking and admission to watch people drink. It didn't make any sense to him.
Fair enough, you say. But then he must've been a great coach when I was a kid, right? The kind of dad who could really teach the fundamentals and show you the tricks to getting ahead.
Again, not really.
Great players often make for lousy coaches. One common explanation is that their prodigious talent makes it more difficult for them to become good teachers, not easier. That the concept of pedagogy is foreign to them. That they are dumbfounded when mediocre players play, well, mediocre.
How could you not hit that ball or make that shot? That's easy, what's wrong with you? It was easy for them, of course. Not so much for the other 99% of humanity.
And that's kind of what it was like with my dad. As I became old enough to participate in organized sports on the rock and glass strewn fields of the Bronx, he was, more than anything, dumbfounded when it became obvious that I wasn't a great, natural athlete. He wondered about my eyesight (which was fine), and told me to concentrate more (which I did, sometimes). But generally, he was at a loss to explain it.
by Eric Byrd
There's a subgenre of military memoirs produced by elderly emeriti, the crew-cut close readers of postwar English departments, who in late career published personal recollections of they and the other terrified teenagers who mostly fought World War Two. Alvin Kernan (Shakespeare editor, torpedo bomber crewman) is like Paul Fussell (Johnsonian, infantry officer) and Samuel Hynes (Auden biographer, Marine aviator). Seventeen year-old Kernan joined the Navy before the war, to escape the bleakness of Depression Wyoming: Ma and Pa down on the ranch, hard winters and harder times. Kernan's mother had a representatively difficult life. She killed herself while he was at sea. Home on leave, he inspects her grave "already collapsing and pocked with gopher holes":
The World War I generation to which she, born in 1900, belonged was the first to leave the land, and with a little education, she married a soldier, moved to town, went to Florida, lost the money from the sale of her father's farm in the land boom, had a child, divorced, and began wandering—Chicago, Memphis, a ranch in Wyoming. She remarried, became a Catholic, and put a determined face on it all, but she was part of the first generation of really rootless modern Americans, moving restlessly by car about the country, emancipated socially and intellectually to a modest degree, but lost, really, without the supporting ethos and family that had protected people in the years when the continent was being settled. Alienation was the familiar state of my generation of Depression and another world war, but the old people had few defenses against it when it appeared.
Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Dos Passos are the favorite writers of young Seaman Kernan. He could be one of their characters. As with Hemingway's Nick Adams, death-shaded excursions in the American wilds precede and forebode initiation overseas. And Kernan must have recognized his family in Dos Passos' panorama of the wandering and the unmoored, the war-mobilized, the desperately migratory. The down but not out, bumming the freights, going to sea, following work; displaced but for all that able to dream of landing somewhere better:
Returning from out baseball game, we came alongside the ship and began to send sailors up the gangway. At that moment another landing craft came up carrying officers, including the executive officer of the Suwanee—a small, dark, mean man—who stood up in the bow, dead drunk, shouting in a loud voice to the officer-of-the-deck, "Get those fucking enlisted men out of there and get us aboard." Protocol was that officers always take precedence in landing, and our boat shoved off immediately, circling while the officers staggered up the gangway after their afternoon drinking in the officers' club. The gap between enlisted men and officers in the American navy during WWII was medieval. Enlisted men accepted the division as a necessary part of military life, but it never occurred to us that it in any way diminished our status as freeborn citizens who, because of a run of bad luck and some unfortunate circumstances like the Depression, just happened to be down for a brief time. "When we get rich" were still words deep in everybody's psyche. But the exec's words, "those fucking enlisted men," spoke of deep and permanent divisions. He obviously really disliked us, and his words made shockingly clear that he, and maybe the other officers he represented, had no sense that we had shared great danger and won great victories together.
Dos Passos' Three Soldiers, in a paragraph.
Beyond the charm of the Lost Generation atmosphere, the virtues of Crossing the Line are its swift pace and concision of evocation. No episode lasts longer than is necessary to make the essential impressions—usually Kernan's fear and awe (at times laced with boyish glee) before the military juggernauts whose savage collisions he is witnessing. Kernan did not set out to reconstruct the birth of his literary consciousness, or find the boy in the vitae. Quite the opposite. Seaman Kernan is a small animal in a world of threats. He thinks with his gut, senses through the soles of his feet.
by Evert Cilliers aka Adam Ash
You've got to be mad brave to whack yourself. Yep, suicide takes a lot of balls. The most courage any human can ever muster. Suicides are the bravest people who ever lived, because they commit the greatest act possible -- a deed against actual existence, against their very being. They say no to life itself, and then have the courage of that unbelievable conviction to end everything. Suck on the barrel of a gun or cast themselves down from a great height on to the indifference of solid ground.
And we often resent them for it. Because they say no to all of us, to all of us who persist in living. They place the idea of living in jeopardy. They undermine our pathetic belief in life. How could they? How dare they?
Why do they say no to life? Because for them, living is not worthy. Life is too crappy to merit a fart. Not up to scratch. They feel this way because they are depressed. So depressed, there is no more pleasure in being alive; only persistent, absolute pain. And no advice from the living can help.
I know about that.
I've been mortally depressed in my life, clinically depressed, and thought about committing suicide, but never got around to trying it. (I believe I saved myself from depression by exercise: as a runner all my life, I think I finally ran my topsy-turvy brain chemistry into balance: if more people exercised, we'd need fewer therapists.)
by Josh Yarden
I posted a story last month about biblical metaphor, entitled "What Fruit Grows on the Tree of Knowledge?" The class discussion I related there continues with this question from a student:
"Ok, let's get back into to the mythical garden."
"So, you're saying it's all just a myth?"
"It's not just a myth. When I say a text is mythic, I don't mean that it is false. I mean that the power of the story is in the way it reflects experiences that happen over and over again in our lives. That's how people in different cultures over thousands of years can relate to these essentially human stories. We do know for a fact that the story has existed for millennia, and it has had a powerful and a memorable impact on our society. That makes it real, whether or not the events happened as described.
"Ok, but that doesn't explain whether or not the tree of knowledge of good and bad is an actual tree."
"You can decide for yourself, but keep in mind that Torah does not claim to be ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.' There aren't enough details in these brief stories to suggest that any of them are full accounts of actual events, but they do contain enough symbolism to be read on three levels: the myth, the moral and the metaphor.