The Logic of Open-Source Moves to Biotech

From The New York Times, open-source is no longer simply restricted to software and information technology.

“The open-source movement, which has encouraged legions of programmers around the world to improve continually upon software like the Linux operating system, may be spreading to biotechnology.

Researchers from Australia will report in a scientific journal today that they have devised a method of creating genetically modified crops that does not infringe on patents held by big biotechnology companies.

They said the technique, and a related one already used in crop biotechnology, would be made available free to others to use and improve, as long as any improvements are also available free. As with open-source software, the idea is to spur innovation through a sort of communal barn-raising effort.”

For more information, here’s the hompage of Biological Innovation for Open Society.

Skocpol responds to David Brooks on Changes in American Politics

David Brook’s op-ed in the February 5th The New York Times has provoked a response from Theda Skocpol, whom he used to explain his take on changes in the American political landscape.

“Are and HowardDean, who is about to be named chairman of the Democratic National Committee, major threats to democracy in America — and bastions of elitism within the Democratic Party? That is what David Brooks would have us believe. His Feb. 5 Op-Ed column in the New York Times invoked my 2003 book, ‘Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life,’ in support of the notion that a secularist, ‘newly dominant educated class’ is using advocacy groups and Internet fundraising to take over the Democratic Party. In Brooks’ vision of politics, Republicans have meanwhile morphed into a true party of ordinary people.”

Rushdie on the proposed anti-religious hate law

Salman Rushdie comments on the proposed law against inciting hatred on religious grounds.

“[H]ere in Britain I discover another kind of Anschlussof liberal values in the face of resurgent religious demands. One of its results is the proposal by Tony Blair’s government – under the auspices of its Serious and Organised Crime and Police Bill – to introduce a ban on the ‘incitement to hatred on religious grounds’.

. . . It seems we need to fight the battle for the Enlightenment all over again in Europe as well as in the United States. . . Most of our contemporary ideas about freedom of speech and imagination come from the Enlightenment. We may have thought the battle won. If we aren’t careful, it is about to be ‘un-won’.

Offence and insult are part of everyday life for people in Britain. All you have to do is open a daily paper and there’s plenty to offend. Or you can walk into the religious books section of a bookshop and discover you’re damned to various kinds of eternal hellfire, which is certainly insulting, not to say overheated.

The idea that any kind of free society can be constructed in which people will never be offended or insulted is absurd. So too is the notion that people should have the right to call on the law to defend them against being offended or insulted.”

Geertz on the what became of the revolutionary promise of the third world

Cliffor Geertz tries to decipher the trajcetory of that began with national liberation more than half a century ago.

“Between 1945 and 1965, about fifty-four, depending on how you count, new, independent states, with borders, capitals, armies, leaders, policies, and names appeared in the world. Between 1965 and the end of the century, depending again a bit on how, and whom, you count, fifty-seven more appeared. . . The world resegmented, refounded, and reformatted in the space of a few decades. It was, clearly, some sort of revolution. But what sort-what it was that was turned around, and in which directions-was, and still is, imperfectly understood.

Indeed, its thrust and import, what it signifies for our common future, seems less clear today than it did at its outset, when the infinite grandeur of beginnings that attends all mold-breaking political transformations in the modern age clothed it in a dense symbology of selfhood, progress, solidarity, and liberation. In the Bandung Days of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the charismatic hero-leaders . . . projected a heady vision of radical nationalism, cold war neutrality, collective opposition to Western imperialism, and great-leap-forward material progress: a vision that was bound to come apart as the diversity of the interests, the variousness of the histories, and the incoherence of the worldviews it was designed to contain became apparent. Within ten or fifteen years, a generation of parochial and hard-fisted leaders appeared . . . replacing popular mobilization and national cheerleading with the pressures and calculations of disciplinary rule. That approach, too, in good part a product of the great-power alliance-balancing and aid-brokering that the spread of the cold war beyond Europe and its regional intrusions and intensifications made possible, didn’t last. A few relics or throwbacks, like Mugabe or Niyazov, or isolate outliers like Than Shwe or Ben Ali, aside most of the present-day leaders of the now not-so-new states . . . are suited and circumspect managerial politicians, not mini-leviathans or world-stage superstars.

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that things have come full circle.”

More Male Female Differences

To continue the theme of ” men are like this, women are like that”, here’s another finding, albeit with no claim to innate differences at the root. 

“That sought-after trait in a mate — ‘good sense of humour’ — is more complex than originally thought. In fact, men and women define it differently.

Eric Bressler, a graduate student at McMaster University who is studying the role of humour in personal attraction, discovered in a survey of 150 students that to a woman, ‘sense of humour’ means someone who makes her laugh; to a man, a sense of humour means someone who appreciates his jokes.”

And here are some related findings.

Robert Trivers on Ernst Mayr


Ernst Mayr is dead at a hundred years of age, as lordly a cedar as ever stood in evolutionary biology and life more generally. He was full of vigor right up to the end. A stronger phenotype I never saw, personal quality matched to intellectual power. Everyone needs a moral compass in life and for a time in my life Ernst was exactly that, integrity, honesty, and a life based on sound moral principles — a standard to which one could turn for self-criticism and inspiration. His intellectual powers were legendary. He had a photographic memory, which only gave way in his 50s. He kept it hidden in his youth, in part because it gave him a rather unfair advantage in the German educational system built on rote learning. Later it gave him an additional power to those of analysis and synthesis that permitted such great books as Animal Species and Evolution (1963) and (with Jared Diamond, 2001) The Birds of Northern Melanesia. The distinctions he emphasized were fundamental, meaning vs mechanism, for example. Mechanism is what most biologists study, how does the machine work. But what about meaning? Why has the machine evolved to work the way it does? What is the meaning of the mechanism? Put that way, it is obvious that evolutionary biology deals with the profounder of the two halves.

More here.

The Economics of “Open Source”

From The Economist:

The characteristics of information—be it software, text or even biotech research—make it an economically obvious thing to share. It is a “non-rival” good: ie, your use of it does not interfere with my use. Better still, there are network effects: ie, the more people who use it, the more useful it is to any individual user. Best of all, the existence of the internet means that the costs of sharing are remarkably low. The cost of distribution is negligible, and co-ordination is easy because people can easily find others with similar goals and can contribute when convenient.

The question is, can sharing be used to supply more than just information? One of the most articulate proponents of the open-source approach, Yochai Benkler of Yale Law School, argues in a recent paper that sharing is emerging for certain physical, rivalrous goods and will probably increase due to advances in technology. Where open source was about sharing information by way of the internet, what is happening now, Mr Benkler notes, is the sharing of the tangible tools of technology themselves, like computing power and bandwidth. This is because they are widely distributed among individuals, and sold in such a way that there is inherent (and abundant) unused capacity.

More here.

Iraq is not Vietnam

Christopher Hitchens in Slate:

Hitchens2Whatever the monstrosities of Asian communism may have been, Ho Chi Minh based his declaration of Vietnamese independence on a direct emulation of the words of Thomas Jefferson and was able to attract many non-Marxist nationalists to his camp. He had, moreover, been an ally of the West in the war against Japan. Nothing under this heading can be said of the Iraqi Baathists or jihadists, who are descended from those who angrily took the other side in the war against the Axis, and who opposed elections on principle. If today’s Iraqi “insurgents” have any analogue at all in Southeast Asia it would be the Khmer Rouge…

I suppose it’s obvious that I was not a supporter of the Vietnam War. Indeed, the principles of the antiwar movement of that epoch still mean a good deal to me. That’s why I retch every time I hear these principles recycled, by narrow minds or in a shallow manner, in order to pass off third-rate excuses for Baathism or jihadism. But one must also be capable of being offended objectively. The Vietnam/Iraq babble is, from any point of view, a busted flush. It’s no good. It’s a stiff. It’s passed on. It has ceased to be. It’s joined the choir invisible. It’s turned up its toes. It’s gone. It’s an ex-analogy.

More here.

Stalin Nostalgia

Jaroslaw Anders reviews Monumental Propaganda by Vladimir Voinovich, translated by Andrew Bromfield, in The New Republic:

Stalinface In 1999, in the Siberian town of Ishin, some 1,250 miles southeast of Moscow, a three-foot-tall bust of Stalin was discovered buried in a local garden. Apparently, it was hidden there by an anonymous idolater at the time of Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization campaign. For years the tyrant’s name was unmentionable, and his effigies were scrupulously removed from public view. Under Brezhnev, he enjoyed a partial comeback as the nation’s great war leader, but it was only in the new and supposedly free post-communist Russia that Stalin’s likeness could be displayed once more. In Ishin, the local “Committee to Study Stalinist Heritage,” led by a feisty pensioner named Tamara Sazhina, had the miraculously recovered bust mounted in a city square as part of a monument to the heroes of World War II. 

This true story illustrates a phenomenon that the Russian commentator Eugenie Ikhlov calls Stalinshchina, “Stalin fashion” or “Stalin nostalgia.” It can be seen in the growing popularity of Stalin memorabilia and repeated calls to restore Stalin’s name to various monuments and public facilities. Groups of World War II veterans have been demanding for some time that the city of Volgograd restore its wartime name of Stalingrad. That has not happened yet, but the appellation was recently placed on a plaque in the Kremlin commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of what was possibly the bloodiest battle in the history of humanity.

More here.

Marine biology: Whale fall

“The fatty bones of dead whales provide rich pickings for creatures on the sea floor. Amanda Haag meets the scientists who go to extreme and unpleasant lengths to study the unique ecosystems on these corpses.” From Nature:

433566ai1_1 In 1987, a manned submersible called Alvin was making a routine dive along the muddy plains of the deep sea when its pilot spotted what he thought was the fossilized remains of a dinosaur. Instead of an exotic underwater beast, it turned out to be the 21-metre-long skeleton of a blue whale. But atop this mass of bones the pilot did find something exotic: a carpet of creatures, including bacteria and worms, similar to those found on the flanks of underwater volcanoes.

The Alvin team had happened upon what have since become known as ‘whale falls’ — communities of creatures that thrive among the sulphur-laden ooze of decaying whales. Just as windfalls deliver a sudden bounty of ripened fruit, whale falls see the death of a whale bring a host of nutrients to the sea floor. The falls are few and far between, and difficult to track and study, but researchers are learning ever more — sometimes through extreme measures — about the new species to be found among the remains. Some 39 of the species discovered so far are thought to be especially suited or even unique to this environment.

More here.

Sean Carroll’s take on the Larry Summers uproar

By now, most people are probably quite sick of this subject, but let me give a final word to Sean Carroll, professor of physics at the University of Chicago, and author of the always-intelligent weblog Preposterous Universe:

In the wake of Larry Summers’ provocations, it’s hard not to notice something: people really like talking about innate cognitive differences between men and women. Regardless of what they think about them, it’s an irresistible topic on which to spin grand conclusions from sparse scraps of evidence. The more obvious and important fact, that systematic biases are turning women away from becoming scientists, is more mundane and depressing, not nearly as much fun to debate about.

Here’s a little bit of actual data. (Mentioned by Meghan O’Rourke in Slate; this table from an article by Sue Serjeantson, quoting a paper by Lynne Billard, in turn quoting results from a 1983 study by Paludi & Bauer.) This is the mathematical equivalent of the well-known fact that women musicians are more likely to be hired by orchestras if auditions are blind (pdf). Paludi and Bauer gave the same mathematics paper to various experts and asked for their opinion on its quality. The only difference was the name on the paper: some were told that the author’s first name was “John,” some were told “Joan,” and some were merely given the initial “J.” Here are the ratings the paper was given.

Read the rest here at Preposterous Universe.

Radical expansions in the reach of moral responsibility

Rochelle Gurstein in The New Republic:

…I made out the shape of what was certainly a human being lying on his or her side–a man or a woman who apparently was trying to stay warm inside and among a pile of trash bags on this cheerless, wintry afternoon.

Living in New York for over 20 years has not yet hardened me to the point where I can immediately recover my equilibrium after glimpsing such misery and degradation. Yet, I must admit that, except for giving a dollar to a beggar on the street or subway, I don’t do anything more, anything significant, to aid the shockingly large number of people in New York who live in poverty, which is estimated at 20 percent of the population. What accounts for my moral complacency? Even if there is something soul-numbing in the bureaucratic, value-free language of population and percentages, how do I simply go on with my daily life, knowing that so many people are suffering? In recent days, this question has visited me with renewed intensity, and this is because of all the talk of poverty on a global scale that has come with the unveiling of the United Nations Millennium Project, which seeks to cut world poverty in half by the year 2015.

More here.

Scientists Switch Stem Cells into Neurons

From Scientific American:

00048f8ac91a11fa891a83414b7f0000_1Su-Chun Zhang of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and his colleagues exposed human embryonic stem cells to a variety of growth factors and hormones in sequence in order to encourage them to change into motor neurons. “You need to teach the [embryonic stem cells] to change step by step, where each step has different conditions and a strict window of time,” Zhang explains. “Otherwise, it just won’t work.” The embryonic stems cells first became neural stem cells then changed into the beginnings of motor neurons before finally differentiating into spinal motor neuron cells, the cell type that, in the human body, transmits messages from the brain to the spinal cord. The newly generated motor neurons exhibited electrical activity, the signature action of neurons, and survived in culture for more than three months.

More here.


Via Crooked Timber:

Lifehacker makes getting things done easy and fun. Delving deep into the technoweb, Lifehacker brings back simple and totally life-altering tips and tricks for managing your information and time. Editor Gina Trapani, coder and computer expert, saucily deciphers the latest in personal productivity technology and reveals the million ways hardware and software can improve our busy lives. At this wild moment in the development of human-oriented technology, Lifehacker is your own personal early adopter, here to guide you through the onslaught of the new. The world is full of fascinating problems waiting to be solved: Lifehacker can help.”

Reinventing Physics: the Search for the Real Frontier

Robert B. Laughlin, a professor of physics at Stanford University and a 1998 Nobel laureate in physics, writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

20040909016l It is a terrible thing that science has grown so distant from the rest of our intellectual life, for it did not start out that way. The writings of Aristotle, for example, despite their notorious inaccuracies, are beautifully clear, purposeful, and accessible. So is Darwin’s Origin of Species. The opacity of modern science is an unfortunate side effect of professionalism, and something for which we scientists are often pilloried — and deservedly so. Everyone gets wicked pleasure from snapping on the radio on the drive home from work to hear Doctor Science give ludicrous answers to phone-in questions such as why cows stand in the same direction while grazing (they must face Wisconsin several times a day) and then finish up with, “And remember: I know more than you. I have a master’s degree in science.” On another occasion my father-in-law remarked that economics had been terrific until they made it into a science. He had a point.

The conversation about physical law started me thinking about what science had to say about the obviously very unscientific chicken-and-egg problem of laws, organizations of laws, and laws from organization. I began to appreciate that many people had strong views on this subject, but could not articulate why they held them. The matter had come to a head recently when I realized I was having the same conversation over and over again with colleagues about Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe (W.W. Norton, 1999), a popular book about string theory — a set of speculative ideas about the quantum mechanics of space. The conversation focused on the question of whether physics was a logical creation of the mind or a synthesis built on observation.

More here. (The essay is adapted from A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics From the Bottom Down, to be published in March by Basic Books.)

Roundups from the World Social Forum

If you missed the World Social Forum last week or any of the reports on it, here are some from across the spectrum.  The overall tone is disappointment, though from different perspectives and in varying degrees.

From The Nation, the most sagnuine account.

“This decentering of the United States and Europe is a major, if undeclared, achievement of the WSF. There’s no way to determine how many of the more than 100,000 participants come from that ‘so-called developed world,’ but Portuguese and Spanish dominate the presentations. It’s not that anyone regards the United States as irrelevant to the struggles described, debated and developed here–indeed, a prominent image in Wednesday evening’s kick-off march was a picture of Bush with the caption ‘Number 1 Terrorist.’ But as this motley movement has self-consciously shifted from protesting problems to proposing solutions, it has shoved the United States upstage. Without issuing manifestos, developing a joint list of demands or even trying to create a consensus political program, the WSF serves as a laboratory for new approaches to entrenched problems, favoring bottom-up organizing to party politics, participatory democracy to old-style hierarchies.”

From one of the reports at OpenDemocracy:

“Most people here will nod if you ask them if the common enemy is neo-liberal global capitalism (or imperialism, take your pick), but on a practical level, the enemies different groups are fighting in their home-countries have real names, addresses, and price tags. The WSF should take them on one by one, and not all in one bite.”

In Slate, Samuel Loewenberg begins on day 1 with . . .

“Call it the left’s version of Davos. Did I mention the Vietnamese couple wearing Ho Chi Minh shirts who handed me a flyer about the U.S. government’s cover-up regarding the use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Did I mention that the man sitting next to me is wearing camouflage pants, sports a compass on his belt, has lots of exposed gray chest hair, and is reading the ‘Dialects’ of Adorno and Horkheimer?” [I think he meant Dialectic of Enlightenment.]

and ends three days later,

“In practice, nonlinear organization meant lots of wasted time. It was typical that when I would go looking for tent K604 to sit in on a meeting about child trafficking, tent K604 was no longer located between tents K603 and K605; rather, it had been renamed K609 and now housed a meeting about justice and African women.

On the other hand, the opening up of the forum meant more people like Chisemphere and Veloso, who were actually doing hands-on work in various fields, and less insider babbling by academics and professionals. It’s probably safest to have a few of each.”

Fred Halliday, in The Observer, offers what sounds like an indictment.

“The Third Dustbin [of history] is that of the contemporary global protest movement, to a considerable degree a children’s crusade of intellectual demagogues, recycled 1960s bunkeristas with their fellow travellers in literary circles, dreamers and political manipulators, of the old and new lefts, whose claim to moral and analytic superiority too often masks a set of unexamined, and themselves often recycled, platitudes . . .

Indeed the contents of this Third Dustbin are familiar enough: a ritual incantantion of ‘no war’ that avoids any substantive engagement with problems of international peace and security, or reflection on how positively to help peoples in zones of conflict; a set of vague, unthought out, uncosted and often dangerous utopian ideas about an alternative world; a pleasing but vapid invocation of global human values and internationalism . . . a complacent attitude, innocent when not indulgent, towards political violence . . . This was a capitulation, that would have shocked their socialist forebears, to nationalist and religious bigots.”

Richard Rorty on Donald Davidson

Rorty reviews the late Donald Davidson’s Problems of Rationality (the fourth in a 5-volume collection of his writings from Oxford University Press) in the Notre Dame Philosophical Review:

As befits a reviewer who is also a fervent disciple, I have used the space at my disposal to expound Davidson’s views rather than to criticize them. I think that most of his critics have failed to grasp the audacity of his outlook—to realize that he is calling for what he once referred to as a “sea-change” in philosophical thinking. That change would make much of contemporary philosophical discussion seem as absurd as scholastic philosophy seemed to Hobbes and Descartes. 

Davidson had no taste for polemics, and he was too courteous ever to adopt a merely dismissive tone toward colleagues with whom he disagreed. But his ideas were as radically subversive of the traditional problematic of post-Cartesian philosophy as were Wittgenstein’s.

Many who have no use for Wittgenstein have none for Davidson, and for the same reason: to adopt the views of either would be to dissolve problems which they have spent the best years of their lives trying to solve.

Wittgenstein is no longer much read in graduate philosophy programs, and perhaps Davidson too will cease to be assigned. But if these five volumes of essays do suffer the neglect presently being suffered by Philosophical Investigations, they will remain, like time bombs, on the library shelves. They will be detonated sooner or later.

More here.

Charles Darwin just as punk as Sid Vicious

Greg Graffin, leader of the punk band Bad Religion, explains how he came to work with Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson in an interview at Seed Magazine:

Bad_religiongreg_graffin1624 You’ve mentioned before that you’ve corresponded with luminaries in your field like E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins—

Yeah, I met Richard Dawkins at his house in Oxford specifically to talk about my PhD project on evolution and religion. He was very kind, and he admired a portion of my work that helped clarify evolutionists’ philosophical beliefs. Likewise, E. O. Wilson was involved in my PhD study—he clarified his own philosophical stance in my dissertation. Essentially, I wanted to round up the best minds of this generation, to see what the prevailing views about evolution and religion were— and all of them were quite divided about whether the two were compatible. Darwin was the original interpreter, and he believed there was no compatibility between the two; he could not see how one could get behind religion. So I chose to survey various opinions.

Do elements of those ideas and conversations ever slip into your music?

Mostly, Dawkins’ and Wilson’s writings helped me form my evolutionary worldview—but they’re only a couple elements of my total evolutionary education. In addition to Dawkins, I met with Ernst Mayr, George C. Williams, John Maynard Smith, Richard Lewontin, and Tom Eisner. With such a privileged experience, it’s impossible to keep my music writing free of [their] ideas. Melding my experience in science with songwriting has helped Bad Religion remain viable and vital without becoming stale and boring, as any band of our age rightly should become!

More here.

Oft Overlooked Challenge of the Future: Droughts

Peter B. deMenocal, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences at Columbia University, writes in Orion Magazine:

…most climate scientists today agree that Earth’s climate is warming and changing as a result of human activity, and that the projected changes in coming decades will affect nearly all parts of the globe. This combination of exceptional risk and uncertainty has led to a lack of clear consensus among policy makers on how to address the global warming crisis. National-level planning and preparation for current and future climate change remain mired in dysfunction and polarized along a scientific/political divide. There are those who are convinced that there is a big problem and those who would make the case that there is no problem at all. A path of least resistance has led to a cul-de-sac of inaction…

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges to society, however, and one often overlooked, is the likelihood of drought events more severe than any we have experienced. The continental interiors, home to the breadbaskets of North America and Eurasia, are projected to become markedly drier in future decades, leading to a greater frequency of protracted regional drought. How a modern, urbanized society of today might respond to a period of pervasive, extended drought is yet to be seen, but climate history may offer some lessons in at least understanding the effects of this aspect of our climatically uncertain future.

More here.