Everything you think you know about the death penalty is wrong

Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times:

President Trump is now calling for expanding the death penalty so it would apply to drug dealers and those who kill police officers, with an expedited trial and quick execution. A majority of Americans (56 percent, according to Gallup) favor capital punishment, believing that it will deter offenders or save money and presuming that it will apply only to the vilest criminals and that mistakes are not a serious risk.

All these assumptions are wrong.

My interest in the death penalty arises partly from a mistake of my own. At the beginning of 2000, I spoke to Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, who told me about a white man on death row in Texas, Cameron Todd Willingham, whom he believed to be innocent. I discussed with editors the possibility of doing a deep dive into the case but let myself be lured away by the sirens of that year’s Iowa caucuses instead. I never wrote about Willingham, and he was executed in 2004.

Subsequent evidence strongly suggests that not only was Willingham innocent but that no crime was even committed.

More here.

Laser Destroys Cancer Cells Circulating in the Blood

Emily Waltz in IEEE Spectrum:

Tumor cells that spread cancer via the bloodstream face a new foe: a laser beam, shined from outside the skin, that finds and kills these metastatic little demons on the spot.

In a study published today in Science Translational Medicine, researchers revealed that their system accurately detected these cells in 27 out of 28 people with cancer, with a sensitivity that is about 1,000 times better than current technology. That’s an achievement in itself, but the research team was also able to kill a high percentage of the cancer-spreading cells, in real time, as they raced through the veins of the participants.

If developed further, the tool could give doctors a harmless, noninvasive, and thorough way to hunt and destroy such cells before those cells can form new tumors in the body. “This technology has the potential to significantly inhibit metastasis progression,” says Vladimir Zharov, director of the nanomedicine center at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, who led the research.

More here.  [Thanks to Farrukh Azfar.]

Truth: A Love Story (a scientist discovers his own family’s secrets)

Stuart L. Schreiber in Harvard Magazine:

On July 17, 2017, my world turned upside down when I discovered that the man who raised me was not my biological father. What followed was a challenging path of learning and insight into family truths that ultimately brought great joy and made me a better person.

I am a biomedical truth seeker—looking to gain insights into human biology and our genomes in order to mitigate suffering and death from disease. By analyzing DNA variation in persons with and without disease, my research is providing blueprints for therapeutics that are safe and effective.

Good fortune has offered opportunities to realize my dreams. I’ve run a large lab with many of the best young trainees and scientists in the world during the past four decades at Harvard, and I co-founded the Broad Institute—now a 4,000-person biomedical center seeking “to propel the understanding and treatment of disease.” Following human biology-informed blueprints, my trainees and I are catalyzing the development of new types of medicine in diseases ranging from cancer to malaria. In the past 30 years, I’ve started a half-dozen biotechnology companies that have delivered novel medicines—including ones at Vertex Pharmaceuticals that are closing in on defeating cystic fibrosis. I’ve also been happily married to my true love, Mimi Packman, for 38 years.

These circumstances are highly unlikely. The physical and emotional trauma I experienced as a child and teenager, inflicted by my father, taught me the art of compartmentalization.

More here.  [Thanks to Ashutosh Jogalekar.]

Can Europe Come Together?

Jonathan Guyer in American Prospect:

Across the continent, many had anticipated further gains for far-right parties that masquerade in populism but spit raw racism. Thankfully, the so-called populist surge has been halted for the moment.

The elections offer a tale of two markedly different social democratic results: good in Spain and Portugal, and three of the Nordic countries now have left-led governments. The left recovered in the Netherlands, where the Dutch Labor Party had been comatose, and in national elections the Danish Social Democrats wrested control from the ruling liberal party and served a decisive defeat to the xenophobic Danish People’s Party.

But for socialist or social democratic parties in the largest member nations—Germany, France, and the U.K.—it was a wipeout. In the German EU elections, the Social Democrats came in third with 16 seats, running behind the conservative European People’s Party (29) and the Greens (24 seats). Nahles, the party chair, resigned. In France, the Socialists barely fielded a candidate list. And in Britain, Labour placed third.

Much of the continent-wide debate focused on the global climate emergency, which spelled success for greens. Left-green alliances are possible in several countries. So has the left recuperated across Europe—or simply bottomed out?

More here.

Mankind’s inner ant: why humans swarm together

Bryan Appleyard in New Statesman:

Say you walk into a café. You will be surrounded by strangers but you will not threaten or fight them. This is “one of our species’ most underappreciated accomplishments”. Most other vertebrates would only get their lattes if they recognised everybody in the café; Argentine ants would get a drink as long as everybody smelled the same. Only humans relax among total strangers because that is the way our societies work. On this peculiarity all history is constructed. As Moffett says: “Being comfortable around unfamiliar members of our society gave humans advantages from the get-go and made nations possible.” The human need for such societies shapes all our experience. People may say that the forms that differentiate societies – religious, political, moral, flags, anthems – are irrational, contingent or unreal. And so they are, but without them we are nothing. Humans imagine themselves into the security of their cafés. Moffett quotes the philosopher Ross Poole: “What is important is not so much that everyone imagines the same nation, but that they imagine that they imagine the same nation.”

Like the ants we need markers too, but these alone are not enough. Human societies also need an acceptance of “social control and leadership, along with increasing commitments to specialisations, such as jobs and social groups”. The first contentious implication of this is that, when we move out of our society, we remain always and irrevocably foreigners. In Moffett’s world nobody ever really blends in. From the moment we are born we are bathed in the mores of our society; by adulthood this conferred identity has become an absolute. We may thrive as foreigners but we will always be foreigners. Contemporary believers in fluid identities that float frictionlessly across different societies will find this bleak, even abhorrent. But they should bear in mind the other half of Moffett’s case. The very success of human societies rests on their ability to absorb foreigners. Without that we would still be living in small groups or bands. We are, like the ants, a densely populated species. The ants achieve this by breeding more of themselves; we do it by embracing others.

More here.

A Dad Defends Dad Jokes

Jason Zinoman in The New York Times:

I’m a comedy critic, so being a dad can seem like an occupational hazard. It may be professional suicide to admit, but since having children, I often find myself making lame puns as well as poop jokes. In subway stations, I have been known to silently mouth words to my daughters when a loud train goes by until the noise quiets and I add: “ … and that’s the secret to life.” Look, I’m not proud. The demise of a dad’s sense of humor begins in early parenthood while workshopping jokes in front of babies, tiny philistines who think peekaboo is a hilarious bit of misdirection. It isn’t long before these drooling rubes turn into trash-talking toddlers and fall in love with the scatological. Like so many lazy comics, we parents pander. If jokes work, they stay in the set. Gradually, we become hooked on cheap laughs. Some of us even delude ourselves into thinking we are actually funny.

…The most common dad joke relies on puns. (“What has two butts and kills people? An assassin.”) To redeem them, you needn’t point out that Shakespeare used such jokes.

…Say what you will about a joke like, “What do you call someone with no body and just a nose? Nobody knows,” but it doesn’t age.

More here.

Sunday Poem

Father Piña Said

the sky was full of angels.
I did hear wings, sometimes voices,
but no one had poured water over me,
no one had taught me the prayers.
If God were to choose one of us
to receive him as we knelt, colored light
mottling us like minnows,
it wouldn’t be me. Still,
the air was a room hallowed
by His breath, so when Father Piña
said, Let us bow our heads, I peeked.
Was it a joke or a miracle—the pigeon
fluttering in the rafters of the hot chapel,
mine the only eyes to see?

by Trish Crapo
Walk Through Paradise Backward
Slate Roof Publishing 2004

June 15, 2019

Reading Kafka in the Spring in Prague

Alice Whittenburg in 3:AM Magazine:

Construction projects abounded in Prague’s historic center during the Spring of 2018. Many picturesque buildings were hidden behind scaffolding, and the roar of heavy equipment drowned out church bells. One morning in May, I sat in a cafe on Vodičkova Street, just a few meters from Wenceslas Square. A small group of workmen, who had removed the cobblestones from the sidewalk near the café’s entrance and had already done some serious digging, stood waist-deep in a pit and used their pickaxes and shovels to engage with the city’s infrastructure. It seemed that every few meters throughout the tourist epicenter small groups of workers could be seen digging up or filling in such pits, despite the fact that hundreds of tourists were existing nearby. Though the workers outside the cafe had mastered the art of doing manual labor with a certain economy of motion, they seemed to swelter in the unseasonable heat. I drank my cappuccino, soon engrossed in a book, then lost track of the construction work going on just outside the door.

I had begun to re-read The Castle soon after I arrived in Prague. What struck me most during this reading was how much the novel focuses on the treatment and experiences of working people. In critical papers about the book there are frequent references to the law and the legal process, and Max Brod saw the titular castle as representing “divine guidance” [1]. But because this is Kafka we are talking about, a writer who is known for giving us “so many pointers to an unknown meaning,” [2] there is also the castle as a source of power and privilege. Sometimes this power and privilege is invested in K. himself or in an absurd figure like Klamm (who has, as Olga tells K., “… one appearance when he comes into the village and another on leaving it; after having his beer he looks different from when he’s talking to people, and – what is incomprehensible after all that – he’s almost another person up in the Castle.” [3]). Commonly, manual and menial workers have little power and privilege, but in this novel having any sort of job to do puts the worker at a serious disadvantage.

More here.

Why US rightwing populists and their global allies disagree over big tech

Evgeny Morozov in The Guardian:

[T]here’s one issue on which there’s no agreement between American rightwing populists and their peers in the rest of the world: what to make of Silicon Valley. On the one hand, its services and platforms have been a boon to the populists everywhere, greatly boosting their audience numbers and allowing them to target potential voters with highly personalized messages; the Cambridge Analytica fiasco has made it quite clear. Today, upstart and new rightwing parties like Spain’s Vox instinctively understand the primacy of digital battles; Vox already leads all other Spanish parties in terms of Instagram followers.

This pragmatic embrace of digital platforms is where the populist consensus ends; the intellectual evaluation of Silicon Valley’s significance is rather cacophonous. The American wing of the movement sees big tech as an attractive target of attack; for them, Silicon Valley is a bizarre mix of greedy capitalists and “cultural Marxists”, keen on indoctrinating their users into leftwing ideas while getting filthy rich off everyone’s data. Populists in the rest of the world, in contrast, see Silicon Valley’s platforms as their best chance of escaping the intellectual hegemony of their own domestic “cultural Marxists”, firmly ensconced in elite institutions, such as the media, the academia, and the Deep State.

More here.

Plans for a worker-led economy straddle America’s political divides

Rana Foroohar in the FT:

Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan has never been about effecting any real change at home. It’s always been about punishing adversaries — even allies — via tariffs, both real and threatened. While Mr Trump’s ability to disrupt the status quo is singular, he has no idea how to create a sustainable, long-term growth model for the US. But a spate of Democratic 2020 candidates, and even some Republicans, have. They want to Make America Great Again too, via radical shifts in economic thinking that represent a 21st century industrial policy for the US.

Most notable among them is Elizabeth Warren, who last week announced her “plan for economic patriotism”. That phrase, along with her assertion that “the giant ‘American’ corporations who control our economy . . . have no loyalty or allegiance to America”, sounds like something that could come out of the president’s hawkish economic adviser Peter Navarro’s mouth. This is a calculated move — Democrats need to win back the red states hit hardest by globalisation.

But unlike the Trump camp, Ms Warren has a theory for how to create sustainable growth. She points out — correctly — that despite the pushback around state planning, which most Americans view as suspiciously “socialist”, it’s a myth that our government doesn’t make economic choices — they’ve simply made the wrong ones, choosing to support a debt-driven, two-speed economy rather than one that prioritises income and industry.

More here.

Better Schools Won’t Fix America

Nick Hanauer in The Atlantic:

Long ago, i was captivated by a seductively intuitive idea, one many of my wealthy friends still subscribe to: that both poverty and rising inequality are largely consequences of America’s failing education system. Fix that, I believed, and we could cure much of what ails America.

This belief system, which I have come to think of as “educationism,” is grounded in a familiar story about cause and effect: Once upon a time, America created a public-education system that was the envy of the modern world. No nation produced more or better-educated high-school and college graduates, and thus the great American middle class was built. But then, sometime around the 1970s, America lost its way. We allowed our schools to crumble, and our test scores and graduation rates to fall. School systems that once churned out well-paid factory workers failed to keep pace with the rising educational demands of the new knowledge economy. As America’s public-school systems foundered, so did the earning power of the American middle class. And as inequality increased, so did political polarization, cynicism, and anger, threatening to undermine American democracy itself.

More here.

Saturday Poem

Theories of Beauty

1. Hook that pulls us out of time.

2. or a lure to catch us in it

3. Rupture in the boundary
….caused by delight, recognition of what
….we aren’t, then suddenly are?

4. Longing solidified

5. Flaunts some flaw
….—evanescence, radical pink—
….and owns that quality
so firmly it triumphs

6. Rilke: You, you only, exist.
….We pass away, till at last,
….our passing is so immense
….that you arise: beautiful moment,
….in all your suddenness . . .

7. The moment budded out of us?
by Mark Doty
from School of the Arts
Harper Collins, 2005

Suketu Mehta’s Manifesto: This Land is Our Land

Krzysztof Iwanek in The Diplomat:

Suketu Mehta traveled the same route five times. As a child, he settled with his family, originally from Gujarat in India, in the United States. As an adult, he returned to India, where he lived in Mumbai (Bombay) for two and a half years and wrote a book about the city. Titled Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found and published in 2004, it was a highly acclaimed work that I can’t recommend enough. Mehta later returned to the United States, only to retrace his footsteps years later – but this time in his reminisces and feelings – in a new book, where he returns to the memories of his family voyage, to the story of how they, like so many others, moved to America, the promised land of generations of migrants. The second part of the title of Mehta’s new work says it all — This Land is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto. It is a powerful defense of people’s right to migrate, a song of praise for multiculturalism, and a strong critique of Washington’s policies toward immigrants and refugees under President Donald Trump. The author took pains to travel and collect various stories of migration – he took these pains quite literally, as a large part of the book is a cataloging of sorrows that people shared with him. Focusing mainly on the United States as a destination country, he provides statistics and cases to show where and how migration policies are failing. Mehta wrestles with the exorbitant fears of the “Other,” with the myth that the influx of migrants will sweep the country away.

He also reminds us of the link – historical and moral – between migration and colonialism. Mehta’s grandfather was once asked by a British man what he was he doing in the United Kingdom, to which the Indian man replied: “We are the creditors. You took all our wealth [in the colonial period]… Now we have come to collect.” This is also Mehta’s standpoint. Not only does he believe that the West has a moral obligation to accept people from countries it had once ruled or influenced, but he thinks this responsibility comes also from the West’s (mainly the United States’) current military engagements in countries like Iraq. “Before you ask other people to respect the borders of the West, ask yourself if the West has ever respected anybody else’s border,” he remarks. And then there are the practical arguments: Developed countries need migrants for demographic and economic reasons.

More here.

Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch enabled white Americans to talk amongst themselves

Linda Besner in National Post:

To Kill a Mockingbird is a drama of white nobility in a white context, in which educated white people struggle decorously for black rights against the dangerous unreasonableness of uneducated white people. In one of the many passages in which Lee uses Atticus’ conversations with his children, Jem and Scout (the narrator of the novel) as Socratic expositions of the problems with the 1930s justice system, Jem asks this question: “why don’t people like us and Miss Maudie ever sit on juries? You never see anybody from Maycomb on a jury—they all come from out in the woods.” Jem is philosophically ready to abolish juries altogether. Atticus doesn’t put up much of an argument for why juries are necessary, saying only, “You’re rather hard on us, son” — meaning, presumably, that democracy has its good points too. Instead, Atticus offers a different solution: “I think there might be a better way. Change the law. Change it so that only judges have the power of fixing the penalty in capital cases.”

There is, of course, another, more egalitarian solution — though it may seem anachronistic to ask why there are no black jurors in To Kill A Mockingbird. In fact, black men have had the right and duty to serve on juries since 1880, due to the Supreme Court decision Strauder v. West Virginia. (Black women, like white women, would be largely automatically dismissed from jury duty in America until the 1970s). Harper Lee is widely believed to have based much of the book on the Scottsboro Boys, a case tried in 1931 in which an all-white jury convicted nine black defendants of raping two white women on a train. In 1934 a new lawyer, Samuel Leibowitz, argued before the US Supreme Court that the jury selection process had been unfair: qualified black jurors had been intentionally kept off the jury rolls. Upon examining the district’s list of potential jurors with a magnifying glass, the Supreme Court justices found that the names of black citizens had been written in after the fact.

More here.

June 14, 2019

Salman Rushdie on What Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” Tells Us Now

Salman Rushdie in The New Yorker:

I first read “Slaughterhouse-Five” in 1972, three years after it was published and three years before I published my own first novel. I was twenty-five years old. 1972 was the year of inching slowly toward the Paris Peace Accords, which were supposed to end the war in Vietnam, though the final, ignominious American withdrawal—the helicopters airlifting people from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon—would not take place until three years later, at which point, by way of a small footnote to history, I had become a published writer.

I mention Vietnam because, although “Slaughterhouse-Five” is a book about the Second World War, Vietnam is also a presence in its pages, and people’s feelings about Vietnam have a good deal to do with the novel’s huge success. Eight years earlier, in 1961, Joseph Heller had published “Catch-22” and President John F. Kennedy began the escalation of the United States’ involvement in the conflict in Vietnam. “Catch-22,” like “Slaughterhouse-Five,” was a novel about the Second World War that caught the imagination of readers who were thinking a lot about another war. In those days, I was living in Britain, which did not send soldiers to fight in Indochina but whose government did support the American war effort, and so, when I was at university, and afterward, I, too, was involved with thinking about and protesting against that war. I did not read “Catch-22” in 1961, because I was only fourteen years old. As a matter of fact, I read both “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “Catch-22” in the same year, a decade later, and the two books together had a great effect on my young mind.

More here.

Examining how people’s emotions are influenced by others

Alex Shashkevich in Phys.Org:

In a new study, Stanford psychologists examined why some people respond differently to an upsetting situation and learned that people’s motivations play an important role in how they react. Their study found that when a person wanted to stay calm, they remained relatively unfazed by angry people, but if they wanted to feel angry, then they were highly influenced by angry people. The researchers also discovered that people who wanted to feel angry also got more emotional when they learned that other people were just as upset as they were, according to the results from a series of laboratory experiments the researchers conducted.

…To learn how people react to upsetting situations and respond to others around them, the researchers examined people’s anger toward politically charged events in a series of laboratory studies with 107 participants. The team also analyzed almost 19 million tweets in response to the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. In the laboratory studies, the researchers showed participants images that could trigger upsetting emotions, for example, people burning the American flag and American soldiers abusing prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The researchers also told participants how other people felt about these images. The researchers found that participants who wanted to feel less angry were three times more likely to be more influenced by people expressing calm emotions than by angry people. But participants who wanted to feel angry were also three times more likely to be influenced by other people angrier than them, as opposed to people with calmer emotions. The researchers also found that these participants got more emotional when they learned that others also felt similar emotions to them.

More here.

Let’s Go Around The Room And Introduce Ourselves, For Introverts

Sarah Cooper in McSweeney’s:

Let’s go around the room and introduce ourselves.

Let’s go around the room and feel a rush of adrenaline as your mind races into a panic about which movie, superpower or most recent accomplishment you’re going to mention.

Let’s dart our eyes around the room, searching for the nearest exit.

Let’s go around the room and pretend you just got an urgent text message on your phone.

Let’s go around the room, cross our arms, and find a spot on the ceiling to stare at.

Let’s go around the room and email a personal bio to the instructor, telling her to read it whenever but never, ever mention it again.

Let’s go around the room and hug a large pillow against your stomach and rock back and forth so slowly it’s imperceptible to the naked eye.

More here.

Physicists are out to unlock the muon’s secret

Sabine Hossenfelder in Back Reaction:

Physicists count 25 elementary particles that, for all we presently know, cannot be divided any further. They collect these particles and their interactions in what is called the Standard Model of particle physics.

But the matter around us is made of merely three particles: up and down quarks (which combine to protons and neutrons, which combine to atomic nuclei) and electrons (which surround atomic nuclei). These three particles are held together by a number of exchange particles, notably the photon and gluons.

What’s with the other particles? They are unstable and decay quickly. We only know of them because they are produced when other particles bang into each other at high energies, something that happens in particle colliders and when cosmic rays hit Earth’s atmosphere. By studying these collisions, physicists have found out that the electron has two bigger brothers: The muon (μ) and the tau (τ).

The muon and the tau are pretty much the same as the electron, except that they are heavier. Of these two, the muon has been studied closer because it lives longer – about 2 x 10-6 seconds.

The muon turns out to be… a little odd.

More here.

Mexico’s Little-Known Attempt to Save Freud From the Nazis

Rubén Gallo in The MIT Press Reader:

In the spring of 1938, the Mexican press reported on the perils faced by Sigmund Freud in post-Anschluss Austria: The Gestapo had raided the offices of the Psychoanalytic Publishing House, searched the apartment at Berggasse 19, and briefly detained his daughter Anna. Freud himself — once reluctant to consider emigration — made up his mind to leave Vienna, but his decision seemed to come too late: obtaining an exit visa had become a nearly impossible ordeal for Austrian Jews. Freud would have been trapped in Vienna had it not been for a group of powerful friends who launched a full-scale diplomatic campaign on his behalf: William Bullitt, the American ambassador to France; Ernest Jones, who lobbied British Members of Parliament; and Princess Marie Bonaparte, who was in direct communication with President Roosevelt himself.

In Mexico, President Lázaro Cárdenas — one of the most popular leaders in twentieth-century history — had turned his country into a haven for persecuted intellectuals: after the fall of the Spanish Republic, he offered political asylum to thousands of refugees, and Mexico received a massive influx of artists, poets, academics, and philosophers who played a crucial role in postwar culture. In a world threatened by the rise of fascism, Cárdenas opened his nation’s doors to socialists and fellow travelers of all kinds. Leon Trotsky accepted Cárdenas’s invitation and settled in Mexico City in 1937. He would be followed by an impressive lineup of cosmopolitan refugees from Spain, France, Germany, Austria, and many other countries.

More here.