Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Real Science

A very depressing article on scientific research, primarily biomedical research, at PLoS Biology. Science these days, it seems, is mostly about writing grants and producing publications, and very little about discovery.

The article has struck a nerve with researchers and generated lots of emails:
“The problem is, over and over again, that many very creative young people, who have demonstrated their creativity, can't figure out what the system wants of them—which hoops should they jump through? By the time many young people figure out the system, they are so much a part of it, so obsessed with keeping their grants, that their imagination and instincts have been so muted (or corrupted) that their best work is already behind them. This is made much worse by the US system in which assistant professors in medical schools will soon have to raise their own salaries. Who would dare to pursue risky ideas under these circumstances? Who could dare change their research field, ever?”—Ted Cox, Edwin Grant Conklin Professor of Biology, Director of the Program on Biophysics, Princeton University

“You can write a grant for an important project for which there is ample pilot data. It can be very well reviewed but still fail to be funded. Money is limited, and maybe the projects funded are even better, so you cannot necessarily complain. But the issue is wastage. The pilot data may go nowhere—just languish in a drawer. Expertise will be lost—the applicants will have to work on something else. Eventually, someone else may repeat the work and bring it to publication, but without the advantage of knowing what had already been done. So the previous investment of the funding bodies is wasted.”—David Strutt, Senior Research Fellow, Professor, Department of Biomedical Science, University of Sheffield
Science has become a bureaucratic activity, like just about everything else in our bureaucratic age. Everyone complains about the horrid drain of writing endless grant proposals, but how else to decide who will get the funding? It is one of the peculiarities of our age that we have both a huge problem with illiteracy and innumeracy in the population and an oversupply of professors and researchers.

Annals of Really Obvious Research

High-heels Linked To Heel And Ankle Pain.

The mind boggles at the audacity of this claim.

Andy Warhol

A dispute has broken out over which works by Andy Warhol are "authentic." This has a marvelous irony about it, because Warhol's whole career was aimed at undermining the concept of "authentic" art. He was fascinated by the notion of creating works of art that he never touched with his hands, and he even created a stamp of his signature. He was interested in the image, not doing anything with his own hands, which is why he called his studio the Factory. Nonetheless, the art world has decided that there must be authentic Warhols and inauthentic Warhols, and so now we have lawsuits over the matter. What a joke.

But I am writing about Warhol not because of this absurd fooferaw about authenticity, but because of the widely entrenched notion that he was some kind of sage:
Warhol asked different questions about art. How does it differ from any other commodity? What value do we place on originality, invention, rarity, and the uniqueness of the art object? To do this he revisited long-neglected artistic genres such as history painting in his disaster series, still life in his soup cans and Brillo boxes, and the society portrait in Ethel Scull Thirty-Six Times. Though Warhol isn't always seen as a conceptual artist, his most perceptive critic, Arthur C. Danto, calls him "the nearest thing to a philosophical genius the history of art has produced."

Everything that passed before Warhol's basilisk gaze—celebrities, socialites, speed freaks, rock bands, film, and fashion—he imprinted with his deadpan mixture of glamour and humor, then cast them back into the world as narcissistic reflections of his own personality. This is what makes him one of the most complex and elusive figures in the history of art. As Danto explains in his brilliant short study of Warhol, the question Warhol asked is not "What is art?" but "What is the difference between two things, exactly alike, one of which is art and one of which is not?"
Now I grant you that Warhol was clever, and he certainly understood some things about the twentieth-century art world better than anyone else. Hence his mockery of the fetish for "authenticity," and his insights into the nature of celebrity and the power of a simple image reproduced a thousand times.

To me, though, philosophy should go beyond this. To me, sages are supposed to do something besides observe the foibles of their own times. They should point toward something of value; they should say, not just how things are, but how they might be better. Warhol explicitly rejected this notion of wisdom. To him artists were people who made striking images, and who somehow embodied the excitement, the glamor, and the eroticism of art as a way of life. Which is certainly his right, and I have no real complaint about Warhol's life. He made striking images, got rich, and lived just the way he wanted to. Great for him.

What bothers me is holding Warhol up as some kind of model of what art is. To me, Warhol was essentially a clown. Or perhaps a fool would be better. Just as fools mocked kings in some way that was supposed to enhance the kings' glory, Warhol mocked art, and the art world has decided that his mockery somehow enhances the glory of contemporary art. But it doesn't. Warhol showed that art is just a species of entertainment and artists are no different from other celebrities, and therefore that is it completely absurd to pay thousands of dollars for works that are no different in kind from Campbell's Soup cans. Somehow the art world embraces this notion while still insisting that works of art are objects of great value. If Warhol was right, original works of art have no value at all. If he was wrong -- well, what? What would show that he was wrong? Have any of the people who buy and sell contemporary art given any thought to what would show that Warhol was wrong? To what would really give art value?

Warhol's questions are neither original nor interesting. The problem of what constitutes art has been debated since the 1700s, and Marcel Duchamp already asked Warhol's questions in the most extreme possible way. And, frankly, who cares? Nobody but people who have millions of dollars invested in things that they consider works of art. I couldn't care less what art is. When I look at something, I ask myself, is it interesting? Is it beautiful? Does it have some effect on my mind and my emotions that goes beyond the effect that reading the catalog description would have? And is that effect a good thing or a bad one?

But this is somehow too deep for the contemporary art world, just as it was too deep for Andy Warhol. His glitzy silk screens leave me completely cold. I have read in several places that Warhol was proud of having no hidden depths. Everything, he liked to say, was right there on the surface, and likewise there was nothing to his art except what you saw. Still, critics have loaded his works with meaning, just as they have loaded some of his silk screens with authenticity.

Enough already. There is nothing to Warhol's works but the image, and there is nothing to his thinking but one long-running joke. There is no there there.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The American Speech Community (?)

E.D. Hirsch, Jr., writing in the Chronicle ("How Schools Fail Democracy"), bemoans the many Americans who don't seem to have a common language for talking about political problems:
Full membership in any speech community and in any democracy involves mastery not just of grammar and pronunciation, but also of commonly shared knowledge—often unspoken and unwritten—that is equally essential to communication. All effective writers and speakers have learned the convention of tacit knowledge. They know that a baseball metaphor like "he struck out" can be confidently used, but a cricket metaphor like "he was leg before" cannot. Their audience will know the name Franklin D. Roosevelt, but not necessarily Harold L. Ickes.
Obviously there is something to this. You can't have much of a conversation without some shared knowledge and experience. We do count on our schools to teach students enough American history and civics to understand the basic political discourse.

But the whole piece still reeks of white privilege and smug conservatism. Hirsch assumes that everybody but a few kooks agrees on what our students ought to be learning, and that what they agree on is the standard patriotic historical narrative, plus the Bible, Shakespeare, and a few other classics. In fact there is no such agreement, and every time somebody tries to create such a standard curriculum a horrible row breaks out. Who are the historical figures American students should be learning about? Should we have Ronald Reagan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Thomas Edison? Or perhaps Nat Turner, Samuel Gompers, and Medgar Evers?

And what should the students learn about whatever heroes we choose? I think we could probably agree that George Washington belongs in the curriculum, but what will we say about him? Should we point out that he believed very strongly that society should be dominated by the wealthy, educated elite, and that he was very suspicious of democracy? Should we note that he was a deist who said a great deal about Providence and next to nothing about Jesus, and who explicitly said that the United States was not a Christian nation? (I dare you to try that one in rural Virginia.) Should we point out that Thomas Jefferson was one of history's leading hypocrites? That Martin Luther King cheated on his wife and was at least interested in socialism?

There is no politically neutral way to teach history. By what we choose to include or exclude, and what we chose to say, we offer an interpretation of the past that somebody else will challenge. When I teach recent history I try to convey what political activists of all stripes believe in and what vision they pursued, and I strive to be even-handed. But this is itself a political act, because it asserts that the past is not of immediate political relevance. It denies the stories that, for example, labor activists and religious conservatives believe ought to be told. By teaching without villains and heroes, without white hats and blacks, I reject certain approaches to both the past and to contemporary politics.

Literature is no easier. There is no list of books that everyone agrees are important, nor is there any agreed way to teach the ones that show up on numerous lists. And why do kids need to know baseball metaphors, when a lot more of them play soccer?

Hirsch wants to use the school curriculum to promote American unity:
Mastery of the knowledge assumed within the American speech community is not just a technical prerequisite for proficiency in the standard language. It is also a prerequisite to something equally profound in a democracy—a sense of community and solidarity within the nation.
But does a real knowledge of history promote a "sense of community," or does it show that we have always been in conflict with each other? Should we exclude, say, slavery, the Civil War, the coal mine wars, and the Civil Rights struggle in the name of "solidarity"?

I have a better idea: instead of trying to create a sense of community through shared metaphors, how about we actually work together and help each other? When rich bankers oppose giving basic health care to poor people, and CEOs take no interest in whether their lower-ranking employees can make ends meet, maybe people should fight them, instead of looking for some kind of common ground based on baseball metaphors and the Federalist Papers.

Hyenas are Smarter than You Think

At least when they are working together:
Spotted hyenas may not be smarter than chimpanzees, but a new study shows that they outperform the primates on cooperative problem-solving tests.

Captive pairs of spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) that needed to tug two ropes in unison to earn a food reward cooperated successfully and learned the maneuvers quickly with no training. Experienced hyenas even helped inexperienced partners do the trick.

When confronted with a similar task, chimpanzees and other primates often require extensive training and cooperation between individuals may not be easy, said Christine Drea, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University.

I think this study supports the notion that "Intelligence" is not a simple, single thing, but a bundle of skills, some of them only loosely connected. Hyenas survive by hunting as a pack, so they are good at seeing how their actions will work together with those of a companion to achieve a desired goal: if I make this zebra turn while you go for the hind leg. . . . Chimps by contrast rarely do that sort of thing, so they aren't naturally good at it. On the other hand they were able to learn with enough work, which shows an advantage they have over hyenas: they can learn to do unnatural, unfamiliar things if they have to.

Monday, September 28, 2009

New Species

As a result of all the biodiversity surveys going on around the world, hundreds of new animal species are being discovered every year. Of course a lot of them are nematodes and ants, but many of them are mammals, like the Laotian Rock Rat, reptiles like this gekko, and amphibians. The world truly is a big and fascinating place.


"Reasoning is a robust source of hope and confidence in a world darkened by murky deeds. . . . The remedy for bad reasoning is better reasoning."

-- Amartya Sen

My Favorite Definition of Justice

". . . the tolerable accommodation of the conflicting interests of society."

--Learned Hand

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Mandatory Flu Shots?

The New York state government is requiring that all health care workers who have direct contact with patients get both the annual flu and H1N1 vaccines. And lots of people are upset about it. Some, of course, are crying "big government" and moaning about the erosion of individual rights. But in another sign that anarchists understand the world better than libertarians, some private companies, including HCA, the largest private hospital chain, are requiring the vaccinations for their employees. All big bureaucracies, private or public, limit freedom, and since public bureaucracies are subject to more kinds of pressure, they are generally less arbitrary than private companies. Case in point: NY is allowing a religious exemption from the vaccination requirement, but HCA is not.

The rationale is that doctors and nurses who get the flu can spread it to their patients, especially hospital employees who work with sick and vulnerable people.
"The rationale begins with the health-care ethic, which is: The patient's well-being comes ahead of the personal preferences of health-care workers," New York State Health Commissioner Richard F. Daines said.
I find it interesting that only about half of health care workers get the annual flu vaccine, a number that is frustrating to disease fighters. Some of this is just the inevitable carelessness that people develop about routine activities, like doctors who don't wash their hands, or organic chemists who have to be forced by OSHA to work under fume hoods. But I think lots of people, including doctors and nurses, are freaked out about shots. A nurse in NYC:
I have a problem with being mandated to put something in my body.
Is this fed by the movies, in which injections are almost always given by bad guys and contain something horrible?

But NY State and the hospital companies are holding firm, saying that the vaccines are safe. An HCA administrator:
If somebody didn't want to wash their hands or scrub before going into surgery, you can imagine there wouldn't be a lot of tolerance for that.
There certainly wouldn't. The protection of public health is one area in which governments have long wielded great powers, going back to medieval efforts to combat the plague, so there is nothing new about any of this. And I think in this case the bureaucrats are right. Health care providers do have an obligation not to make their patients sick, one they very often fail at. Here is a simple way they can perform their duties better. If you're that freaked out about shots, and about regulations designed to protect patient health, maybe you shouldn't be working in health care.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Genetic Evidence for an Aryan Invasion of India

The languages of northern India are Indo-European, related to the languages of Iran and Europe. This, plus the caste system and certain other details of ancient Indian society, have long led European scholars to imagine an invasion of India by Indo-European or Aryans around 3000 years ago. However, Indian nationalists hate this notion. They want Indian civilization to be wholly native-grown, and they want all Indians to more closely related to each other than they are to any outside growth. They especially hate the notion that the caste system is the remnant of an ancient conquest, since in their view it was an organic product of Indian religion.

Now a genetic study of the Indian population by an international Indian and American team supports the invasion hypothesis:
The new research reveals that nearly all Indians carry genomic contributions from two distinct ancestral populations. Following this ancient mixture, many groups experienced periods of genetic isolation from each other for thousands of years. . . .

These genomic analyses revealed two ancestral populations. "Different Indian groups have inherited forty to eighty percent of their ancestry from a population that we call the Ancestral North Indians who are related to western Eurasians, and the rest from the Ancestral South Indians, who are not related to any group outside India," said co-author David Reich.
All current genetic research should carry the label, "interesting if true," but this seems like a good study, and it confirms what I think is the obvious interpretation of Indian history.

Anglo-Saxon Gold

What can you say about this discovery except, wow. The hoard contains 1500 objects and 12 pounds of gold. From the curator:
The two most striking features of the hoard are that it is unbalanced and it is of exceptionally high quality. It is unbalanced because of what we don’t find. There is absolutely nothing feminine. There are no dress fittings, brooches or pendants. These are the gold objects most commonly found from the Anglo-Saxon era. The vast majority of items in the hoard are martial - war gear, especially sword fittings.

The quantity of gold amazing but, more importantly, the craftsmanship is consummate, this was the very best that the Anglo-Saxon metalworkers could do, and they were very good. Tiny garnets were cut to shape and set in a mass of cells to give a rich, glowing effect, it is stunning. Its origins are clearly the very highest-levels of Saxon aristocracy or royalty. It belonged to the elite.

Most of the gold and silver items appear to have been deliberately torn from the objects to which they were originally attached. We have over 80 gold and garnet pommel caps, and there also appear to be fittings from helmets.

This is not simply loot; swords were being singled out for special treatment. If it was just gold they were after we would have found the rich fittings from sword belts. Perhaps gold fittings were stripped from the swords to depersonalise them – to remove the identity of the previous owner. The blades then being remounted and reused.

It looks like a collection of trophies, but it is impossible to say if the hoard was the spoils from a single battle or a long and highly successful military career. We also cannot say who the original, or the final, owners were, who took it from them, why they buried it or when. it will be debated for decades.

We don’t know how it came to be buried in that field, it may have been a tribute to the pagan gods or concealed in the face of a perceived, but all too real, threat, which led to it not being recovered.

The Lure of Tabloid Love

Sometimes I just can't resist the articles of dating advice that Yahoo dangles before my eyes when I sign out of my email account. There is something so intriguingly tawdry about them. Something sexy and ridiculous at the same time. And the worldview they represent is so incoherent. Take this latest, "Nine Signs a Guy is a Keeper," from Glamour magazine.

1) He has his act together.

Girls, fight that impulse to heal a crazy guy with your love and settle for the stable lunkhead!

2) He puts you first. Picture a delicious platter of grilled steak. Does your man offer it to you first to pick the best piece? He does if he's a keeper!

Because you're so narcissistic you couldn't possibly live with a guy who didn't accept how much more important you are than he is.

3) He's not afraid of your germs. You know a guy is really into you when he can't stay away, even when you're bedridden and snotty. When you're sick with the flu, he says, 'Let me come over and take care of you,' rather than, 'Oooh, you sound really contagious... call me when you're feeling better."

The first clue that there is something weirdly maternal going on here.

4) He asks about your family, and he seems to genuinely want to hear about them.

Now I see; this wasn't written by a woman of dating age, but a mother with daughters of dating age. Date nice boys who will want to take me to lunch!

5) He makes time for your friends. In the beginning of your relationship, does your man show an interest in meeting your besties? And does he follow it up with a plan, like hosting a low-key dinner party?

Honestly, ladies, how many of you have ever dated a man who would hold a dinner party and invite your friends? And why doesn't he have any friends of his own?

6) He's your biggest cheerleader.

Is this your boyfriend or your mom?

7) He remembers the little things. Does your man really listen to you? You'll know he's a keeper if you tell him you have a big scary work meeting and the next time you talk, he asks how it went. Or if you tell him you left your sunglasses at his house and he remembers them on your next date.

Looking past weird assumption that "you" have "scary" work meetings -- why are "you" scared of your job, anyway? -- we have to ask what this implies. If you ask me, it means, "only guys who act like girlfriends can be considered keepers."

8) He's happy when you're happy. This is the guy who goes to a chick flick with you on Friday night rather than an action film -- not because he actually wants to, but because it makes you happy.

Or because he's a weak-kneed mama's boy with no mind of his own and a deep-seated need to please women.

9) He makes you the best you can be. A guy who makes you feel like the luckiest woman alive -- like you can (and should!) be your confident, fabulous self -- is worth hanging on to.

Well, it's hard to argue with that.

Read this list over, close your eyes, and imagine the man who would meet all of these criteria. I see a sweet gay guy in a light blue sweater. Just what your mom wants for you.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Biden Turns Against the Afghan War

Joe Biden, who was one of the biggest early supporters of the Afghan War (and who voted for the Iraq war), has now turned against sending more troops. He has not said much in public, but all the usual sources are saying that in the administration's internal debates he is the loudest voice against continuing the war. The New Republic:
When Obama's national security team first considered a troop increase for Afghanistan in March, Biden circulated a document that outlined alternatives to a major escalation. Although the White House won't provide precise details, aides acknowledge that Biden urged the president to consider a narrow counterterrorism mission, heavy on Special Forces and Predator drone strikes, which would require far less manpower than the military was seeking. Obama ultimately sided with other administration officials arguing for a larger counterinsurgency operation, and approved 4,000 more troops on the heels of the 17,000 he'd dispatched in February. But Biden continues to argue that it may not be possible to defeat the Taliban and stabilize Afghanistan at a reasonable cost.
Good for Biden. I hope Obama listens.

Everything I Hate is the Same Thing

There is a common human error, for which there ought to be a name, which is assuming that all the things you hate are somehow connected, or even are somehow expressions of the same deeper reality. Case in point: Republican Congressman Steve King of Iowa has decided that gay marriage is socialism:
If there's a push for a socialist society where the foundations of individual rights and liberties are undermined and everybody is thrown together living collectively off one pot of resources earned by everyone, this is one of the goals they have to go to, same sex marriage, because it has to plow through marriage in order to get to their goal. They want public affirmation, they want access to public funds and resources. . . . Not only is it a radical social idea, it is a purely socialist concept in the final analysis.
But as this case shows to anyone with a mind, the things we hate may be completely unrelated. It is not true that warmongering is racist, that capitalism is sexist, that high taxes destroy traditional communities, or that gay marriage promotes socialism.

Now that I think about it, this might be a subspecies of "tabloid thinking," which is defined in rhetoric as assuming that things are much simpler than they are. But it still deserves a special name.

The Very Small

Those aren't bacteria in this picture, they're molecules. Pentacene, to be precise, which consists, as you can see, of five fused benzene rings. Astonishing.

Note the scale: 20 angstroms is 0.000000002 meters.

The News Business

From Michael Massing, former editor of the Columbia Journalism Review:
While doing some recent research on the news business, I came upon this remarkable fact: Katie Couric's annual salary is more than the entire annual budgets of NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered combined. Couric's salary comes to an estimated $15 million a year; NPR spends $6 million a year on its morning show and $5 million on its afternoon one. NPR has seventeen foreign bureaus (which costs it another $9.4 million a year); CBS has twelve. Few figures, I think, better capture the absurd financial structure of the network news.
Of course this isn't really CBS's fault. Most people don't choose which news show to watch based on the quality of the reporting, but on whether they like the anchor. But this does point out the absurd salary structure at the heights of American corporate power. Does anybody think they couldn't get lots of charismatic people to apply for the job even if it only paid $2 million a year?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

One Seriously Weird Fish

According to National Geographic, this thing, recently caught off the coast of Brazil, is a member of a group called the "jellynose fish", which live in deep waters around the world. Weird.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Those to Whom Evil is Done

In 1994, Rwandan Hutus killed about 800,000 of their Tutsi compatriots. Before they finished their genocide their government was overthrown by an invading Tutsi army, widely assumed to have been backed by the CIA and British intelligence. The Tutsi invaders set up a new government and told the world that they supported peace and "ethnic reconciliation."

Alas, they have turned out to be monsters. They have fomented a war in eastern Congo that has claimed more than 5 million lives; their stated reason for intervening is to fight the remnants of the genocidal Hutu state, gone into Congolese exile. But it has become clear that they continue to intervene mainly to loot Congo's minerals, which they trade for the weapons they use to strengthen their dictatorship at home and increase their control of eastern Congo.

We would like to think that the victims of horrible crimes will be strengthened in virtue, but it is not so. Instead, what we see again and again is that "those to whom evil is done do evil in return."

Carl Woese's History of Life

From Freeman Dyson's fascinating article on the future of genetic engineering:
When did Darwinian evolution begin? By Darwinian evolution Woese means evolution as Darwin understood it, based on the competition for survival of noninterbreeding species. He presents evidence that Darwinian evolution does not go back to the beginning of life. When we compare genomes of ancient lineages of living creatures, we find evidence of numerous transfers of genetic information from one lineage to another. In early times, horizontal gene transfer, the sharing of genes between unrelated species, was prevalent. It becomes more prevalent the further back you go in time.

Whatever Carl Woese writes, even in a speculative vein, needs to be taken seriously. In his "New Biology" article, he is postulating a golden age of pre-Darwinian life, when horizontal gene transfer was universal and separate species did not yet exist. Life was then a community of cells of various kinds, sharing their genetic information so that clever chemical tricks and catalytic processes invented by one creature could be inherited by all of them. Evolution was a communal affair, the whole community advancing in metabolic and reproductive efficiency as the genes of the most efficient cells were shared. Evolution could be rapid, as new chemical devices could be evolved simultaneously by cells of different kinds working in parallel and then reassembled in a single cell by horizontal gene transfer.

But then, one evil day, a cell resembling a primitive bacterium happened to find itself one jump ahead of its neighbors in efficiency. That cell, anticipating Bill Gates by three billion years, separated itself from the community and refused to share. Its offspring became the first species of bacteria—and the first species of any kind—reserving their intellectual property for their own private use. With their superior efficiency, the bacteria continued to prosper and to evolve separately, while the rest of the community continued its communal life. Some millions of years later, another cell separated itself from the community and became the ancestor of the archea. Some time after that, a third cell separated itself and became the ancestor of the eukaryotes. And so it went on, until nothing was left of the community and all life was divided into species. The Darwinian interlude had begun.

The Darwinian interlude has lasted for two or three billion years. It probably slowed down the pace of evolution considerably. The basic biochemical machinery of life had evolved rapidly during the few hundreds of millions of years of the pre-Darwinian era, and changed very little in the next two billion years of microbial evolution. Darwinian evolution is slow because individual species, once established, evolve very little. With rare exceptions, Darwinian evolution requires established species to become extinct so that new species can replace them.

Now, after three billion years, the Darwinian interlude is over. It was an interlude between two periods of horizontal gene transfer. The epoch of Darwinian evolution based on competition between species ended about ten thousand years ago, when a single species, Homo sapiens, began to dominate and reorganize the biosphere. Since that time, cultural evolution has replaced biological evolution as the main driving force of change. Cultural evolution is not Darwinian. Cultures spread by horizontal transfer of ideas more than by genetic inheritance. Cultural evolution is running a thousand times faster than Darwinian evolution, taking us into a new era of cultural interdependence which we call globalization. And now, as Homo sapiens domesticates the new biotechnology, we are reviving the ancient pre-Darwinian practice of horizontal gene transfer, moving genes easily from microbes to plants and animals, blurring the boundaries between species. We are moving rapidly into the post-Darwinian era, when species other than our own will no longer exist, and the rules of Open Source sharing will be extended from the exchange of software to the exchange of genes. Then the evolution of life will once again be communal, as it was in the good old days before separate species and intellectual property were invented.

First Day of Fall

Happy Equinox!

More on Women's Happiness

The most read thing on the NY Times web site for the past week has been Maureen Dowd's "Blue is the New Black," on women getting less happy. Dowd's piece is a sort of response to one by Arianna Huffington, “The Sad, Shocking Truth About How Women Are Feeling,” which she posted to introduce a series on women's happiness by pollster Marcus Buckingham.

I've already written a little about what I think is going on. (To the extent that there is anything going on; the changes are not very big, and I am not really all that convinced by these surveys. But in the spirit of the thing I will ask what might be behind these numbers.) Women have more choices now, which is ambivalent, because it ads to stress and leaves us wondering if we have done the right thing. Many women also have trouble finding an identity that fits them. They are also embarking on a new experiment in social roles, which means that they lack the supports that tradition gives to people who doing pretty much the same things their parents did.

I was especially interested in the data that show women get less happier as they age, while men get happier:
This creeping unhappiness can seep into all aspects of a woman's life. When the researchers asked more specific questions, such as, "How satisfied are you with your marriage?" and "How satisfied are you with the things you own?" and "How satisfied are you with your finances?" the pattern was always the same: women begin their life more satisfied than men, and wind up less satisfied. Sure, the crossover points vary a little--women's happiness with their marriage sinks below men's at age thirty-nine; their satisfaction with their finances dips at age forty-one; and by forty-four, they're more dissatisfied than men with stuff they own.
I have a theory about this. In my experience, based on the non-random sample of women I have known, young women are prone to thinking that their future happiness will be assured if they achieve certain things. Many young women think that if they get married, have children, and find a career, they will be happy. The pursuit of these goals is exciting and makes them happy. But once they achieve them, they slowly realize that having those things is not nearly as nice as anticipating them was. So they get sad.

Happiness is not a race to a goal, or a matter of achieving certain things. Having children, in particular, does not seem to make people happier. According to what I have read, what leads to happiness is:

1) doing the things you love
2) being with friends
3) cultivating a positive attitude

Achieving goals doesn't seem to make much impact. Happiness is an ongoing, day-to-day thing. So my theory is that contemporary women are too focused on goals and not enough on having fun and making friends, so once they have achieved those goals they end up wondering why they did it or what went wrong.

Or maybe it's just that the reality of being married to a man is a lot less fulfilling than the fantasy.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Those Voids in the Biosphere

This map shows something that I alluded to when I was writing about fish farming. The big blue areas are parts of the ocean where little photosynthesis takes place, and therefore places with very little life. What is missing is minerals, especially iron. Is there a reason we can't pump minerals into those areas and start some food chains?

A Troubled Future for Higher Education

This interesting article by Kevin Carey describes a new venture that offers online college courses for $99 a month.

As I have noted before, colleges depend financially on offering big lecture courses to freshmen and sophomores. Carey speculates that they are financially vulnerable to cheap online schools in the same way that newspapers were vulnerable to online classified ads. Newspapers depended on the big profits from classified ads to fund their money-losing news bureaus, and colleges depend on the profits from offering big lecture classes to freshmen to subsidize upper division courses; when online schools pick off many of those students, a lot of colleges are going to be in big financial trouble.

I am not sure that this is true, in the short term, except for certain marginal public universities and for profit schools like Strayer. What universities offer students is not just the content of their courses but a much broader experience.

In the long term, though, the existence of programs like this one will put pressure on universities to explain what it is they offer, beyond course credits and certifications.


An amusing blog chronicling how the future was imagined in the past.

2009's Most Amusing Protest Signs

From the Huffington Post. My favorite:


Leaving the Factory

Moving article at the Chronicle about Ford assembly-line workers who took buyouts and went to community college.

Meanwhile, the Trash Piles up in Cairo

From the NY Times:

When the government killed all the pigs in Egypt this spring — in what public health experts said was a misguided attempt to combat swine flu — it was warned the city would be overwhelmed with trash.

The pigs used to eat tons of organic waste. Now the pigs are gone and the rotting food piles up on the streets of middle-class neighborhoods like Heliopolis and in the poor streets of communities like Imbaba.
I love this summation of Egyptian government:
“The main problem in Egypt is follow-up,” said Sabir Abdel Aziz Galal, chief of the infectious disease department at the Ministry of Agriculture. “A decision is taken, there is follow-up for a period of time, but after that, they get busy with something else and forget about it. This is the case with everything.”

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Thought for Today

I have always thought the actions of men the best interpreters of their thoughts.

--John Locke

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Today's Weirdly Frightening News

Some bacteria get more virulent in space:

When the Shuttle returned, the team recovered the space-bound bacteria and analysed the pattern of genetic activity across their entire genomes using microarrays. This modern and powerful technique allows scientists to measure the activity of thousands of genes at the same time. The researchers also measured the levels of every protein in the samples.

The team looked at the entire Salmonella genome and found that the expression of 167 genes and the levels of 73 proteins had changed in the space-travellers. Clearly, the environmental changes of space-flight had triggered changes in the bacteria at the molecular level.

When fed to mice, the altered bacteria were three times more virulent than their Earth-bound counterparts. The infected mice succumbed to much lower concentrations of space-faring bacteria and in much shorter times.

Money Can't Buy Happiness (or Brains)

From Sports Illustrated:

• By the time they have been retired for two years, 78% of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress because of joblessness or divorce.

• Within five years of retirement, an estimated 60% of former NBA players are broke.

Of the many other tidbits in the article, this is my favorite: in the past three months, 400 championship rings have been pawned with one company,, including a 2008 Super Bowl ring.

Pro athletes, it seems, are regarded by sleazy businessmen as the easiest source of capital for dubious ventures, and the roll of big name athletes who have lost everything investing in questionable inventions, bad real estate deals, silly theme businesses, and so on is lengthy and sad.

Reading the first part of the article, I kept thinking, "Where are their wives?" I mean, what some of these guys obviously need is to use the time-honored trick of the newly rich man and marry an educated woman from an old money background, or else a stock broker. Then I got to the section on divorce. There aren't any statistics, but the people SI spoke to estimate the divorce rate for pro athletes at 60 to 80 percent. A lot of them marry girlfriends from their old neighborhoods, partly because they have more faith in the people who liked them before they made it. But that means their girlfriends are as ignorant about money as they are, and every bit as whipsawed by the flood of wealth and its sudden disappearance. After they retire, the athletes go from being rich and very busy to being bored, lost, and unemployed, and of course active athletes are famously unfaithful, so they have a lot to argue with their wives about when they are home together.

The whole thing is a sad sermon on how fleeting money and fame are, and how much better most people are without them.

Wassily Kandinsky

There is a major show of Wassily Kandinsky's paintings at the Guggenheim in New York -- no surprise there, he has always been one of their favorite artists. He belongs to the generation that created "modern" painting, a process that always looks to me like an act of demolition. Starting with paintings that were much like the representational art of the nineteenth century, or the colorful crayon landscapes of the Impressionists, Kandinsky, Picasso and their peers gradually broke their images apart into collages and rendered the elements in simpler and more distorted ways, until they ended up with abstraction. Like, I think, a lot of people who don't get abstract painting, I have always found the early stages of this process fascinating, but wish they had not carried on. I also wonder why they did. Was ever increasing abstraction just a fashion that captured their imaginations? Was it some internal dynamic of their work, which, once started on, almost forced to continue down that path? Was some outside political or intellectual force driving them away from depicting recognizable objects and people? Were they running away from photography?

Anyway, Kandinsky's career provides a great view of this process, and I wish I could get to New York for the show. The NY Times has a slideshow of some works, but for reasons I will not ponder there is a much better collection at a site called "chess theory." Below, four images that show the general arc of Kandinsky's career, dated 1902, 1907, 1909, and 1912.

Friday, September 18, 2009

In Today's News

George Takei and husband will be the first gay couple on the Newlywed Game.

The "Art Instinct"

Whenever I encounter an evolutionary argument about why people do something, I w0nder about all the people who don't do it. Like, there is a book called "Why We Run" which, according to a brief review I read, presents a bunch of evolutionary arguments to explain why people enjoy running, and although I hate to judge books by reviews -- well, no, I don't hate it, I do it all the time, I just feel a certain scholarly guilt about it -- I think this argument has a problem explaining why 95% of us don't run.

Which brings me to the "Art Instinct." There is certainly something fundamentally human about art. Just about everyone has aesthetic feelings: we may disagree on what is beautiful, but we all know what it means to think that something is beautiful. We all share some form of the decorative impulse, the desire to make things pretty by putting pleasing designs on them. We adorn our bodies with jewelry, clothes, and tattoos, which seems so natural to us that we forget how weird it would be to see any other animal species doing the same thing.

And yet, the degree to which we care about art and the amount of effort we put into it varies greatly from person to person and culture to culture. Case in point: neolithic Britain. The picture shows what archaeologists are calling the oldest artistic depiction of a person in Britain, and my reaction is, why were neolithic Britons less artistically skilled than my six-year-old son? These were the descendants of people who filled Europe's caves with amazing paintings of animals. What happened? Obviously, the ancient Britons were putting their energies somewhere other than sculpture. They built stone circles on striking moorlands, and large chambered tombs, but they seem to have completely given up representational art. Maybe they had other arts we can't recover, like dance or music. But then again, maybe not.

Art is strange this way. For something so fundamental, it is oddly variable and transient. Some cultures are just vastly better at certain arts than others. Even in a culture that assigns a very high value to certain arts, these may be created by a tiny portion of the population. Other arts may arise in particular aristocratic cultures and become an obsession, for a while, to a tiny group, developing such dense networks of symbols and references that outsiders can only shrug at them. When those groups disappear, their art vanishes with them.

The Dog or the Family?

From the BBC:

An Australian man who freed his dog from an animal pound's "death row" and then went on the run has offered to surrender, police say.

Ron Gilbertson's dog, Max, was going to be put down for mauling sheep.

Mr Gilbertson went to say goodbye to Max last week, but instead cut the dog from his cage and fled, leaving his wife and two children.

Police in South Australia say the renegade pair were located after a search and were prepared to surrender.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

"Unconditional Love"

I was going to let this nonsensical story at the NY Times pass without comment into the dustbin where it belongs, but I can't stop myself from ranting. The thesis is that children given "unconditional love" grow up happier than those whose parents only give them love with they are obedient:
This raises the intriguing possibility that the problem with praise isn’t that it is done the wrong way — or handed out too easily, as social conservatives insist. Rather, it might be just another method of control, analogous to punishment. The primary message of all types of conditional parenting is that children must earn a parent’s love. A steady diet of that, [psychologist Carl] Rogers warned, and children might eventually need a therapist to provide the unconditional acceptance they didn’t get when it counted.

. . . . In a companion study, Dr. Assor and his colleagues interviewed mothers of grown children. With this generation, too, conditional parenting proved damaging. Those mothers who, as children, sensed that they were loved only when they lived up to their parents’ expectations now felt less worthy as adults. Yet despite the negative effects, these mothers were more likely to use conditional affection with their own children.
First, a bit of social science nerdiness: the data presented here to show that unconditionally loved children grow up happier is meaningless, because it could just as well be that happy people think better of their parents than the miserable. The effect is small enough that a few malingerers and a few of the rosy-cheeked could be responsible for all of it.

And, second, what on earth would "unconditional love" of your children mean? I think children hate to be criticized, in any way by anyone. I don't think correction ever makes them feel loved. So, to me, you can't offer "unconditional love" while ever criticizing or correcting your child, and since you can't keep a toddler alive without correcting him or her, this is baloney. What does "use conditional affection" mean, if it doesn't mean smiling at your child when he learns a new word and frowning when he hits his sister? Is it wrong to scold your child for hitting his sister? Is it wrong to smile at your child when she learns something new, or gives you a present?

And is it really so wrong to try to "control" your children? I hope not, because anyone who has been around toddlers knows that they need a lot of control. They need to learn not to bite and hit and call names, not to eat dirt, not to break Daddy's computer for fun. They need to learn to speak and put on their shoes and to say please and thank you. And a lot of other stuff.

As a theoretical proposition, is it possible to live with anyone without trying to shape that person? I doubt it, and I certainly don't think any adult can live with a child without trying to.

So enough with the extremist theorizing about parenting. Just do the best you can.

Martian Canals

Why do "scientists" insist on saying that this pattern represents cracks left by drying Martian lakes, when it is so clearly the remains of a canal system used by an ancient alien civilization?

The Hobo Code

There's nothing cooler than a secret alphabet. From Wikipedia:

To cope with the difficulty of hobo life, hobos developed a system of symbols, or a code. Hobos would write this code with chalk or coal to provide directions, information, and warnings to other hobos. Some signs included "turn right here", "beware of hostile railroad police", "dangerous dog", "food available here", and so on. For instance:
  • A cross signifies "angel food," that is, food served to the hobos after a party.
  • A triangle with hands signifies that the homeowner has a gun.
  • Sharp teeth signify a mean dog.
  • A square missing its top line signifies it is safe to camp in that location.
  • A top hat and a triangle signify wealth.
  • A spearhead signifies a warning to defend oneself.
  • A circle with two parallel arrows means to get out fast, as hobos are not welcome in the area.
  • Two interlocked humans signify handcuffs. (i.e. hobos are hauled off to jail).
  • A Caduceus symbol signifies the house has a medical doctor living in it.
  • A cross with a smiley face in one of the corners means the doctor at this office will treat hoboes for free.
  • A cat signifies that a kind lady lives here.
  • A wavy line (signifying water) above an X means fresh water and a campsite.
  • Three diagonal lines mean it's not a safe place.
  • A square with a slanted roof (signifying a house) with an X through it means that the house has already been "burned" or "tricked" by another hobo and is not a trusting house.
  • Two shovels, signifying work was available (Shovels, because most hobos did manual labor).
The image of wandering people finding their way by reading the mysterious symbols scratched by those who came before makes me want to tell a story. Maybe a ghost story, about an abandoned station at a western ghost town, where strange markings left by earlier victims warn others away lest they become prey for the spectral beast. Or a more ambitious story with a secret community hidden in the mountains, welcoming to all who can unravel the clues and reach it, with unknown enemies known only by frightened symbols scratched by those who disappeared, with some sort of treasure or revelation hinted at by symbols none of the living can understand.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Making the World a Little Better

Just suppose there were a government program that actually seems to make poor children so much healthier that it more than pays for itself through reduced emergency room visits and the like. And what if this program had the side effect that children who went through it were much less likely to become teenage criminals. What would America's charming conservative media stars say about it? The program is home nursing for poor families:
Thirty years ago, a professor of pediatrics named David Olds (then at Cornell, now at the University of Colorado, Denver) came up with a straightforward idea: send nurses into the homes of poor and undereducated first-time teenage mothers to coach them through their children's difficult first two years. There are now 18,000 families receiving that service in 29 states, from a variety of local government agencies and nonprofit groups, supported by some $80 million per year of federal, state, and foundation funds, under the watchful eye of the Nurse-Family Partnership National Service Office, a spinoff of the University of Colorado.

The program was designed to improve health, not to control crime, and the health-care savings from lower rates of sickness, substance abuse and welfare dependency among the mothers and children more than cover its costs. But it turned out that by the time the kids were 15 years old, those served by the program had been arrested less than half as often, and convicted only one fifth as often, as similar children who weren't given the assistance.

And what do Republicans think of this idea?

When a provision for nurse home visit grants was added to the House version of the health-care bill, the House Republican Conference promptly issued a statement mocking the program as a "nanny-state boondoggle." They called it "billions for babysitters" and suggested buying copies of Dr. Spock's child-care book instead. Lindsey Burke of the conservative Heritage Foundation warned of a "stealth agenda" to "impose a federally directed, top-down approach to parenting" and an increase in the federal role in preschool education.

Fox News anchor Glenn Beck says the program reminds him of 1984, suggesting it will be forced on families with overweight children by the fat police. Chuck Norris, TV's Walker, Texas Ranger and an early supporter of Mike Huckabee's presidential campaign, calls the program "Obamacare's home intrusion and indoctrination family services."

Now I wouldn't stake too much on this particular program; these things sometimes turn out to depend on the efforts of a single dedicated director and the staff that he or she personally instills with commitment, and when made into bigger, more bureaucratic programs they often falter. But wouldn't it be worth a try? After all, it doesn't cost much. Right now America seems to be full of motivated young people who want to "make a difference." Couldn't we direct a few thousand of them into programs like this? Everybody knows that America suffers terribly from the existence of an underclass that is barely part of our society, but nobody seems to know how to bring them in. When an inexpensive program shows as much promise as this one, shouldn't it be tried? And when you oppose a new idea that really might help miserably poor people in your own country, besides reducing crime, without spending a lot of money, are you a conservative or just a jerk?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Today's Kinda Sorta Good News

The world recovers much more quickly from mass extinctions that we thought. It seems that although 90 percent of ammonite species (squiddy things with shells) were wiped out during the Permian mass extinction, they recovered their pre-mass-extinction diversity within a million years, instead of the 5 to 15 million years previously estimated.

See, on the geological time scale, nothing you do matters at all, not even causing mass extinctions.

Ali Soufan on the Torture Reports

Former FBI agent and torture opponent Ali Soufan fires another salvo against Cheney and company. To him, the CIA Inspector General's report provides clear evidence of torture's ineffectiveness. He points out that most if not all of the evidence said to have been provided by tortured men had already been acquired by other methods:

Some of the information that is cited in the memos — the revelation that Mr. Mohammed had been the mastermind of 9/11, for example, and the uncovering of Jose Padilla, the so-called dirty bomber — was gained from another terrorism suspect, Abu Zubaydah, by “informed interrogation,” conducted by an F.B.I. colleague and me. The arrest of Walid bin Attash, one of Osama bin Laden’s most trusted messengers, which was also cited in the 2005 C.I.A. memo, was thanks to a quick-witted foreign law enforcement officer, and had nothing to do with harsh interrogation of anyone. The examples go on and on.

A third top suspected terrorist who was subjected to enhanced interrogation, in 2002, was Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the man charged with plotting the 2000 bombing of the Navy destroyer Cole. I was the lead agent on a team that worked with the Yemenis to thwart a series of plots by Mr. Nashiri’s operatives in the Arabian Peninsula — including planned attacks on Western embassies. In 2004, we helped prosecute 15 of these operatives in a Yemeni court. Not a single piece of evidence that helped us apprehend or convict them came from Mr. Nashiri.
Soufan also laments what might have been learned from Khalid Sheik Mohammed if had been questioned by knowledgable agents instead of CIA psychologists:
Mr. Mohammed knew the location of most, if not all, of the members of Al Qaeda’s leadership council, and possibly of every covert cell around the world. One can only imagine who else we could have captured, or what attacks we might have disrupted, if Mr. Mohammed had been questioned by the experts who knew the most about him.

Chicken Parents, or, Irrational Fear is not Love

From the NY Times, a piece on parents who are afraid to let their children walk to school:
It has been 30 years since the May morning when Julie Patz, a Manhattan mother, finally allowed her 6-year-old son, Etan, to walk by himself to the school-bus stop, two blocks away. She watched till he crossed the street — and never saw him again. Since that haunting case, a generation of parents and administrators have created dense rituals of supervision around what used to be a mere afterthought of childhood: taking yourself to and from school. . . .

Parents’ worst nightmares were inflamed recently by the re-emergence of Jaycee Dugard, the 11-year-old girl who was kidnapped on her way to the school bus 18 years ago in northern California.
Some people are nuts. Because of two (TWO!) cases over the past 30 years -- ok, so maybe they left out a couple and the real number is, say, ten -- some parents are afraid to let their kids out of their sight? This isn't parenting, it's insanity. Everyone who has ever taken a serious look at the problems says stranger abductions are vanishingly rare. But do facts have any impact on this fear? No:
In a study of San Francisco Bay Area parents who drove children ages 10 to 14 to school, published this summer in the Journal of the American Planning Association, half would not allow them to walk without supervision, and 30 percent said fear of strangers governed their decision.
And while there are certainly many parents who scoff at this crap, there are enough scaredy cats to have a real impact on how kids live:
In 1969, 41 percent of children either walked or biked to school; by 2001, only 13 percent still did, according to data from the National Household Travel Survey. . . During the same period, children either being driven or driving themselves to school rose to 55 percent from 20 percent.
And it isn't just parents:

And Mrs. Pierce faces another obstacle to becoming a free-range mother: public opinion.

Last spring, her son, 10, announced he wanted to walk to soccer practice rather than be driven, a distance of about a mile. Several people who saw the boy walking alone called 911. A police officer stopped him, drove him the rest of the way and then reprimanded Mrs. Pierce. According to local news reports, the officer told Mrs. Pierce that if anything untoward had happened to the boy, she could have been charged with child endangerment. Many felt the officer acted appropriately and that Mrs. Pierce had put her child at risk.
I think real harm is being done to kids by all this fear. First, they grow up thinking of the world as a dangerous place full of bad people, which it really is not. Psychopaths who kidnap and kill children exist, but there just aren't enough of them to comprise a real threat. This fear distorts how and where we live, how we think about crime and punishment, how we vote. Second, kids are being deprived of the chance to build their own lives outside their homes, roaming their neighborhoods with their friends. When I was 9 to 13 I lived on my bike, traveling miles, visiting friends' houses, playing pick-up soccer games, exploring the woods. Looking around my exceptionally safe neighborhood now I see none of that. Part of the difference is surely the spread of cable tv and video games, which give kids more reasons to stay inside, but part of it it wholly unreasonable parental fears.

My middle school kids walk to school.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Another Socialist for National Health Insurance

Nor is there any reason why the state should not assist the individuals in providing for those common hazards of life against which, because of their uncertainty, few individuals can make adequate provision. Where, as in the case of sickness and accident, neither the desire to avoid such calamities nor the efforts to overcome their consequences are as a rule weakened by the provision of assistance - where, in short, we deal with genuinely insurable risks - the case for the state's helping to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong... Wherever communal action can mitigate disasters against which the individual can neither attempt to guard himself nor make the provision for the consequences, such communal action should undoubtedly be taken.
-- Friedrich Hayek, The Road To Serfdom (Chapter 9).
Hayek, for those who don't know his work, was every libertarian's favorite economist, a nearly fanatical advocate of free markets. This passage, which I got from Andrew Sullivan, points out better than anything else I have seen how bizarre and senseless American opposition to health reform really is. National health insurance isn't a left wing thing, it is a moral and sensible thing.

Finally, the Reason We Invaded Iraq

Fouad Ajami, in the course of explaining why the war in Afghanistan is not "better" than the Iraq war, offers what I always thought was the real reason Bush, Cheney and company chose to invade Iraq:
To begin with, a policy that falls back on 9/11 must proceed from a correct reading of the wellsprings of Islamist radicalism. The impulse that took America from Kabul to Baghdad had been on the mark. Those were not Afghans who had struck American soil on 9/11. They were Arabs. Their terrorism came out of the pathologies of Arab political life. Their financiers were Arabs, and so were those crowds in Cairo and Nablus and Amman that had winked at the terror and had seen those attacks as America getting its comeuppance on that terrible day. Kabul had not sufficed as a return address in that twilight war; it was important to take the war into the Arab world itself, and the despot in Baghdad had drawn the short straw. He had been brazen and defiant at a time of genuine American concern, and a lesson was made of him. No Arabs had been emotionally invested in Mullah Omar and the Taliban, but the ruler in Baghdad was a favored son of that Arab nation. The decapitation of his regime was a cautionary tale for his Arab brethren.
I personally think this is a totally lame reason to invade a country and kill 100,000 people, which is why Bush & Co. dreamed up so many other justifications. But I think this was always the real reason: to send a message to Arabs that we won't be attacked and pushed around.

A Warning to Non-Sewing Wives

Curiously, vague feelings against Lady Davy have remained in the collective folk memory of Penzance. . . . I was told on several occasions that the large stone statue erected to (chemist Sir Humphrey) Davy, dominating Market Street, showed his frock coat with a missing button "because Lady Davy was a bad wife and would never sew it back on."

--Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder.

No, it isn't News

Various people are going ga-ga over a story in the London Times about Margaret Thatcher's reaction to the possibility of German re-unification in 1989:
Two months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Margaret Thatcher told President Gorbachev that neither Britain nor Western Europe wanted the reunification of Germany and made clear that she wanted the Soviet leader to do what he could to stop it. . . .

“We do not want a united Germany,” she said. “This would lead to a change to postwar borders, and we cannot allow that because such a development would undermine the stability of the whole international situation and could endanger our security.”

Details about what was said have just been released from the Russian archives. But Thatcher's uneasiness about German unification, which she shared with the British foreign policy establishment and most of the British press, was no secret at the time, and I read in detail about it years ago, in George H.W. Bush's joint memoir with Brent Scowcroft. Of all the major non-German figures involved, only Bush was a strong supporter of unification from beginning to end. It was his finest hour. Scowcroft admitted in the memoir to his own grave doubts. The whole thing was an exercise in how a big change of any kind, even a really good change, makes people very, very nervous. Although I suppose you have to factor in the historical reasons Europeans had to distrust a powerful German state.

Today's reaction to the Times story is a lesson in how quickly people forget. Now that eastern Europe has been peacefully re-integrated with the west, nobody remembers how scary it seemed at the time, and how many thoughtful people opposed it. "But Thatcher is our hero!" you can hear the young Tories saying. "How could she ever have been against such a good thing?" Because she, unlike them, did not know the future.

The Romance of Chemistry, ca. 1817

I'm reading The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, about science in the Romantic period, 1780 to 1820 or so. It's quite interesting, if slow in parts. From it I extract this, which is from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, an account of a chemistry lecture that inspired the hero:
"The ancient teachers of this science," said he, "promised impossibilities and performed nothing. The modern masters promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted, and that the elixir of life is a chimera. But these philosophers, whose hands seem only to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of Nature, and show how she works in her hiding places. They ascend into the heavens; they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited Powers: then can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadow."

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Just Toys

More evidence that the little womanish figurines found at Çatalhöyük and other neolithic sites in the Near East are just toys, not "goddess statuettes." They are found in regular trash dumps, not graves or niches, and they seem to be made in the same way and of the same stuff as the more common figurines of goats. Interestingly, as many seem to be male as female.

College Graduation Rates and One Other Thing

Two former college Presidents have a new book out on the state of our universities. They are particularly worried about low graduation rates. From a summary in the NY Times:

At its top levels, the American system of higher education may be the best in the world. Yet in terms of its core mission — turning teenagers into educated college graduates — much of the system is simply failing.

Only 33 percent of the freshmen who enter the University of Massachusetts, Boston, graduate within six years. Less than 41 percent graduate from the University of Montana, and 44 percent from the University of New Mexico. The economist Mark Schneider refers to colleges with such dropout rates as "failure factories," and they are the norm.
Overall, only around 60% of the students who enter public universities graduate in six years. This observation is usually followed by lots of numbers on the effects of race and class and whether students live on or off campus and the like. But neither they NY Times piece nor, so far as any review I can find tells me, the university presidents' new book says anything about why we want students to go to college and what they are supposed to be learning there. What good does it do to have a debate about how to get kids to go to college when we have no idea what college is for? When I was at the University of Minnesota in the late 1980s they commissioned their own study of why students dropped out, and the overwhelming explanation given by the students they interviewed was that the education they were being offered seemed boring and pointless to them. They just didn't see the value of what they were learning.

Maybe instead of tweaking the financial aid system we should take a serious look at how we structure higher education and what we teach students in four-year colleges.

If it were up to me, I would turn half the four-year colleges in the country into community colleges focused on technical and business training. Then I would make the remaining four-year colleges much tougher and more intellectual, forcing the students through rigorous programs in math, science, literature and thinking.

But that's just my suggestion, and I would be willing to entertain others. What makes me crazy is the continued insistence that there is nothing wrong with higher education that can't be fixed by more financial aid and a little counseling of freshman. The problem is that universities don't know what it is they want to teach or how to go about teaching it. The problem is that we don't know what it means to be educated. As things stand now, students finish college mostly because it is a sort of habit of the middle class, so sticking it out shows your commitment to middle class life and its values. No wonder poor and minority students can't be bothered.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Child Soldiers, or, Everything is Complicated

One of the most worried over groups in the world today is "child soldiers." The words summon up an awful image of boys impressed at gunpoint into pointless wars, learning brutality as they live in greater fear of their own tyrannical commanders than of their enemies, and in the end being cast aside, too psychologically damaged by a youth spent at war for any sort of productive civilian life. This narrative even appeared in the TV series "Lost."

And no doubt it is that way for many. But no category so vague as "child soldiers" really describes the lives of everyone who can be said to belong. And here we come to the experience of child soldiers in the Maoist rebel army of Nepal, which is the subject of a documentary getting attention on anthropological blogs. The filmmakers seem to be sympathetic to the rebels, but then I suppose if they weren't they would never have gotten to interview so many child rebels. And they came back with stories like this:
Asha, a girl from a Dalit Hindu caste in southern Nepal, described how she became associated with the Maoist People’s Liberation Army (PLA) -- “I was born into a poor family.” She pointed to a few pounds of cornmeal and then the one goat outside her thatched hut, “We just have this much, nothing more. I was a very good student [but] my parents told me: ‘We have no money so you have to leave school and take care of your brothers and sister.’” With few economic resources, Asha’s mother decided to pay for her brothers’ schooling rather than “waste money on a girl’s education.”

With no hope to pursue an education in her village, Asha was drawn to the Maoists women’s brigades traveling through her village. They promised girls an education and the opportunity to live in a Maoist society where men and women are treated equally. “I was 13 years old when I joined the Maoists,” Asha told me. The Maoist Army was comprised of many young women like Asha, the majority of whom joined voluntarily. For Asha and other girl soldiers, the most difficult part of being a soldier came after the war was over when they returned home. Former child soldiers, especially girl soldiers, returned to communities where they were feared, stigmatized, and vulnerable to myriad abuses.

So here we have "child soldiers" who signed up voluntarily to get away from boring, oppressive homes and felt no special anguish about their wartime experiences, and whose problem with reintegrating into civilian life is not their own psychic trauma, but how other people feel about them.

The Overblown Giant Pacific Garbage Patch

As I said recently, attempted expeditions to the supposed "Giant Pacific Garbage Patch" or "Plastic Vortex" have been disappointing to environmental alarmists. National Geographic is promoting the latest such voyage with a hype that strikes me as downright nutty. Take this photo:

Yes, there are plastic bottles in the ocean. But look at the water in the background!

Or this, which they use as their lead:

Is that a giant Pacific garbage patch, or just a lost fishing net with some other stuff caught up in it?

Pollution of the oceans is a major problem, but creating this image of a giant garbage vortex that looks to the rest of us like, well, an ocean, is going to backfire and make environmentalists look like liars.

More Messel Fossils

A collection of new and old finds.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Two Interesting Statistics on Driving Safety

These are from a NY Times piece on texting while driving. First, "The federal government estimates that at any given time about 11 percent of drivers, or about two million people, are talking on a cellphone." Their risk of crashing is about 4 times as high as non-talkers, says the National Transportation Safety Board. We don't have an official estimate of the risk being run by people who text while driving, but the NTSB thinks the risk is "much higher" than just talking on the phone.

Of course, your chance of crashing on any given day is so low that even ten times that risk is very low, so very few people will have their attitudes toward texting changed by being in an accident while texting themselves.

The other bit of government data, which I found even more interesting, is that having an adult passenger with you in the car makes your trip much safer. About 85% of drivers are alone, but when they have another adult passenger with them, their chance of crashing falls by 50%.

So let's hear it for backseat drivers....

Nobody Found the North Pole

I have finally delved sufficiently into the matter to decide that the cynics are right, and neither Frederick Cook nor Robert Peary reached the north pole in 1909. Both were frauds. You can read John Tierney's summary of the evidence here. Tierney reports that the first human to cross the pole may have been Roald Amundsen, who floated over it in a dirigible in 1926. But the first undisputed claim to have reached the pole on land belongs to Minnesotan Ralph Plaisted, who traveled by snowmobile in 1968.

That Peary's claim stood up for so long is rather remarkable, given how flimsy it seems to me after reading something about the evidence. All of which goes to show that hype can be a very bad thing for science, as likely to lead to sloppiness and fraud as to real discovery.

Explain these Away

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has been sending back thousands of high-resolution photographs of the moon, including many that show the Apollo landing sites. The one above shows the Apollo 11 site; the descent stage of the lander is casting the long shadow in the center. Click on the picture for a larger image. In the one below you can see the tracks left by the Apollo 12 astronauts as they traveled around their landing site, including a visit to the remains of the Surveyor 3 space probe. Surveyor, Head, and Bench are the names of craters.

These ought to be hard for conspiracy buffs to explain away, but then I suppose any agency capable of faking the moon landings could fake a few dozen photographs.

A Tsunami of Stuff

Interesting piece by Jon Mooallem in the NY Times, on the self-storage industry. When these facilities first opened, they were marketed toward people who were moving or between homes or whatever, as temporary places to stash their stuff. But now most people rent their storage space on a permanent basis, to store stuff they just can't fit in their houses. There are now 51,000 storage centers in America, with 7 square feet of space for every American:

“A lot of it just comes down to the great American propensity toward accumulating stuff,” Litton explained. Between 1970 and 2008, real disposable personal income per capita doubled, and by 2008 we were spending nearly all of it — all but 2.7 percent — each year. Meanwhile, the price of much of what we were buying plunged. Even by the early ’90s, American families had, on average, twice as many possessions as they did 25 years earlier. By 2005, according to sociologist Juliet B. Schor, the average consumer purchased one new piece of clothing every five and a half days.

Schor has been hacking intrepidly through the jumble of available data quantifying the last decade’s consumption spree. Between 1998 and 2005, she found, the number of vacuum cleaners coming into the country every year more than doubled. The number of toasters, ovens and coffeemakers tripled. A 2006 study found middle-class families in Los Angeles “battling a nearly universal overaccumulation of goods.” Garages were clogged. Toys and outdoor furniture collected in the corners of backyards. “The home-goods storage crisis has reached almost epic proportions,” the authors of the study wrote. . . .

Consider our national furniture habit. . . . We’ve spent more on furniture even as prices have dropped, thereby amassing more of it. The amount entering the United States from overseas doubled between 1998 and 2005, reaching some 650 million pieces a year. Comparing Schor’s data with E.P.A. data on municipal solid waste shows that the rate at which we threw out old furniture rose about one-thirteenth as fast during roughly the same period. In other words, most of that new stuff — and any older furniture it displaced — is presumably still knocking around somewhere. In fact, some seven million American households now have at least one piece of furniture in their storage units. Furniture is the most commonly stored thing in America.