A man who compared a woman’s anatomy to a carburetor won an annual contest that celebrates the worst writing in the English language.
Dan McKay, a computer analyst at Microsoft Great Plains in Fargo, North Dakota, bested thousands of entrants from North Pole, Alaska to Manchester, England to triumph Wednesday in San Jose State University’s annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.
“As he stared at her ample bosom, he daydreamed of the dual Stromberg carburetors in his vintage Triumph Spitfire,” he wrote, comparing a woman’s breasts to “small knurled caps of the oil dampeners.”
The competition highlights literary achievements of the most dubious sort — terrifyingly bad sentences that take their inspiration from minor writer Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton, whose 1830 novel “Paul Clifford” began, “It was a dark and stormy night.”
More here. [Thanks to Margit Oberrauch.]
Speaking of Andrew Gelman, Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science (the blog he runs with Samantha Cook) has an intereting post and follow ups about estimations of minority populations by ordinary people.
Across the western world, the average estimates by people on the street of the size of minorities tend to be way off from the actual share of the population minorities make up. For example, when Americans are asked what percentage of the population is black, the average response is usually around 25%; the actual share of blacks and African-Americans in the population is about 12%. This tendency to overestimate the (immigrant) minority population is also found in Europe, but interestingly, the overestimate becomes larger as the size of the immigrant minority population grows smaller.
The misperceptions are clearly biased; the means of the errors of individual estimates don’t equal zero.
See the posts and commenst for possible causes behind the misperception. Some possible reasons suggested by the cognitive psychologist David Budescu:
This overestimation is, probably, due to a combination of several factors: (a) different definions of the target event (the judges may generalize and assume, for example, that all the children of foreign born residents are also born abroad), (b) vividness (members of of the target population stand out — looks, accent, language, clothing), (c) clustering (often they are concentrated in certain areas), (d) typically, these surveys don’t employ incentives for truthful responding (i.e. proper scoring rules), and some people may respond “strategically” by inflating their estimates to make a political point.
‘For a few days after the explosions, the atmosphere was bad on the buses. Passengers were looking into every face as they sat on a Number 30 from King’s Cross, and if the face happened to be brown, they looked to their bag or backpack. That is how fear and paranoia work: they create turbulence in your everyday passivity, and everyone was affected after the attempted bombings on 22 July in ways that won’t quickly go away. In the realm of paranoia, the second bombings were more powerful than the first, for they made it clear how very gettable we are, even in a culture of high alert.’
From the LRB’s Andrew O’Hagan on the fallout from the London bombings.
Over at Talking Points Memo, there’s a discussion of Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? Thomas Frank, the author, is participating in the debate. The blogosphere, being what it is, has been proving to be a salon, with discussion of the book and the debate at Majikthise.
Relatedly, those who are interested in the issue of why economically poorer but culturally conservative people seem to vote for the Republicans may also be interested the research of Andrew Gellman, Boris Schor, Joseph Bafumi and David Park. The paper is still being worked on, but their presentation (follow the link) from the Midwest Political Science Association Conference back in April is available. Their paper:
For decades, the Democrats have been viewed as the party of the poor with the Republicans representing the rich. In recent years, however, a reverse pattern has been seen, with Democrats showing strength in the richer “blue” states in the Northeast and West, and Republicans dominating in the “red” states in the middle of the country. Through multilevel analysis of individual-level survey data and county- and state-level demographic and electoral data, we reconcile these patterns. We find that there has indeed been a trend toward richer areas supporting the Democrats–but within states and counties, and overall, the Democrats retain the support of the poorer voters. This pattern has confused many political commentators into falsely believing that Republicans represent poorer voters than Democrats.
From Scientific American:
Antibodies, often described as magic bullets, are actually more like tanks: big, complicated and expensive. Tinier “nanobodies,” derived from camels and llamas, may be able to infiltrate a wider range of diseases at lower cost. That is the hope, at least, of one small start-up in Belgium. Like many biotech companies, Ablynx emerged from the confluence of a serendipitous discovery, an open window of opportunity and an unreasonable ambition. Housed on two floors in a nondescript gray laboratory on a technology campus outside the university town of Ghent, Belgium, the three-year-old company employs just 45 people, 33 of them scientists and bioengineers. It is a minimal staff with a simply stated mission: find the tiniest sliver of protein that will do the job of a full-size antibody, then turn it into a billion-dollar medicine–or better yet, into the first of a whole new class of “nanobody” drugs against cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, perhaps even Alzheimer’s disease.
3 Quarks Daily‘s own J. M. Tyree has a superb essay on Oprah’s recent book club summer choice, William Faulkner, in The Nation:
While bookstores and literary supplements were studiously dumbing down their lists of summer book picks, Oprah Winfrey announced that her Book Club would be embarking on an ambitious program called “A Summer of Faulkner.” Faulkner? Oprah? Really? The announcement amounted to nothing less than a sneak attack on the whole idea of beach reading–and on the intelligentsia’s perception of her as the Queen of Midcult. Not that we should have been that surprised: For some time now, Oprah has been ignoring pleas for a return to contemporary fiction, instead sending the likes of Tolstoy, Steinbeck and García Márquez up the charts. Still, as a sheer challenge, Faulkner is a quantum leap up from other classics.
By proposing to read not one but three works by a dead white male whose prose laid siege to the conventions of narrative fiction, and whose furiously lyrical exploration of race and the American South still manages to unsettle readers, Oprah is taking a major gamble on her audience’s attention span and political sensitivities. Once again, she has proved she is a more serious reader than many people–that is, anybody besides her millions of fans–reckoned. The woman Forbes magazine recently dubbed the most powerful celebrity in America seems intent on using some of her cultural capital for the brave if improbable purpose of a Faulkner revival–a project that reflects her belief in uplift through education.
From Scientific American:
What most distinguishes humans from other creatures is our ability to create and manipulate a wide variety of symbolic representations. This capacity enables us to transmit information from one generation to another, making culture possible, and to learn vast amounts without having direct experience–we all know about dinosaurs despite never having met one. Because of the fundamental role of symbolization in almost everything we do, perhaps no aspect of human development is more important than becoming symbol-minded. The first type of symbolic object infants and young children master is pictures. No symbols seem simpler to adults, but my colleagues and I have discovered that infants initially find pictures perplexing. The problem stems from the duality inherent in all symbolic objects: they are real in and of themselves and, at the same time, representations of something else. To understand them, the viewer must achieve dual representation: he or she must mentally represent the object as well as the relation between it and what it stands for.
John Gray reviews Twilight in the Desert: the coming Saudi oil shock and the world economy by Matthew R Simmons, in The New Statesman:
Matthew R Simmons is convinced that Saudi oil production is near its peak, or indeed may have passed it, a development with awesome implications. Simmons, a veteran oil finance insider who has been an important adviser to the Bush administration, has done a huge amount of research and bases his conclusions on carefully sifted evidence, not large theories. Yet his view is consistent with the theory of M King Hubbert, a Shell geophysicist who argued in 1956 that production rates for oil and other fossil fuels exhibit a bell curve: when roughly half the oil has been extracted, production declines. No one took much notice of Hubbert at the time, but he predicted that oil production in the continental United States would peak and start declining in the late 1960s or early 1970s – as it did. Since then a number of large oilfields have also peaked, including the North Sea in 1999. When oil peaks it does not run out – there is usually a slow decline that can be spun out by new technologies – but the unavoidable result is falling production.
Could we be near a global oil peak? Simmons believes that point may already have passed and warns that the idea that technology can arrest the decline may be a delusion. In his view, Saudi oil production has been boosted by the use of technologies which actually reduce the future supply of recoverable oil. The impli-cation is that Saudi production has peaked, and with it global oil production, at a time when demand is rising inexorably.
Ishani Ganguly in The Scientist:
An improved ability to distinguish the bitter taste of natural toxins in foods may have made a difference in the survival of early humans as they radiated out of Africa, according to a genetic analysis by researchers led by a group at University College London, appearing in the July 26 issue of Current Biology. The new study suggests that a particular allele for the G protein-coupled taste receptor TAS2R16-which mediates the response to bitter cyanogenic glycosides found in many food plants-has been favored by human evolution.
“There is a general understanding that higher primates and humans in particular are losing some of their sensory capabilities because we have replaced sensory perception with other means of protecting ourselves-cooking food, for instance, or even changing diet,” said coauthor Nicole Soranzo.
However, these results suggest that there is more to the evolutionary story, said John Glendinning, of Barnard College in New York, who did not participate in the study. “This is the first study that’s really looked seriously at the functional consequences of one of these [receptors] as it relates to bitter taste ecology,” Glendinning told The Scientist.
“The debut of an oral contraceptive for women helped fuel a sexual revolution in the 1960s. Will the birth of a male pill once again change our understanding of gender roles?”
Kimberly Roots in Science & Spirit:
“Historically, of course, before the advent of the pill in 1960, it had been the male responsibility to buy condoms,” says University of Chicago sociologist Edward O. Laumann, who is arguably sex researcher Alfred Kinsey’s most prominent intellectual heir. “The balance of decision-making authority over that sort of thing has shifted pretty definitively to the woman and to having control over her own body.”
We may be on the brink of another shift. Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and a Norwegian biotechnology company called SpermaTech announced they are close to developing a male contraceptive pill. If the project—or any of a number of other male contraceptive research efforts currently under way around the world—is successful, men may have their first real chance in forty-five years at having a voice in the reproductive rights discussion. The question is: Do they want one?
Sociologists familiar with the situation say wide acceptance of a male pill would come only after a serious overhaul of the way both women and men think about male identity.
David Dudley in Cornell Alumni Magazine:
If you’re looking for architectural anxiety, Eisenman is your man. Since his arrival on the stage in the 1960s as one of a league of loosely affiliated American followers of Le Corbusier known as the “New York Five” (the others were Meier, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey, and John Hedjuk), Eisenman has been all but synonymous with a heady theory-driven audacity that tends to leave both admirers and critics baffled. He designed a deviously unlivable house based on the linguistic principles of Noam Chomsky, collaborated with Jacques Derrida in an effort to find an architectural equivalent to the French philosopher’s theory of deconstruction, and generally pushed the practical envelope of what the discipline was capable of. “Peter had a lot to do with turning architecture into an intellectual pursuit,” says his friend Phyllis Bronfman Lambert ’48, founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. “His influence was enormous. If he hadn’t come along, I don’t know where we’d be.”
More here. And here is something I had posted some time ago by Richard Rorty on Eisenman.
Alessandra Stanley in the New York Times:
Timing is the questionable element in “Over There,” Steven Bochco’s 13-episode series about soldiers fighting in Iraq. It is not only the first television drama about the conflict, but also the first American television series that has tried to process a war as entertainment while it was still being fought.
School shootings, presidential scandals and even abuse of Iraqi prisoners are now routinely sifted into “Law & Order” subplots; viewers have become just as inured to the fictionalization of real life on so-called reality television. But even in our hyperaccelerated media culture, “Over There” is fast work.
And that is both troubling and comforting. “Over There,” which begins tonight on FX, is a slick, compelling and very violent distillation of the latest news reports and old war movies and television shows. That alone could make it seem like a show business atrocity, a commercial abuse of a raw and unresolved national calamity.
Except that exploitation is not necessarily a bad thing.
Katha Politt in The Nation:
Should prochoicers just give up and let Roe go? With the resignation of Sandra Day O’Connor, more people are asking that question. Democratic Party insiders quietly wonder if abandoning abortion rights would win back white Catholics and evangelicals. A chorus of pundits–among them David Brooks in the New York Times and the Washington Post‘s Benjamin Wittes writing in The Atlantic–argue that Roe‘s unforeseen consequences exact too high a price: on democracy, on public discourse, even, paradoxically, on abortion rights. By the early 1970s, this argument goes, public opinion was moving toward relaxing abortion bans legislatively–New York got rid of its ban in 1970, and one-third of states had begun to liberalize their abortion laws by 1973. By suddenly handing total victory to one side, Roe fueled a mighty backlash (and lulled prochoicers into relying on the courts instead of cultivating a popular mandate). In 1993 Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg caused a flurry when she seemed to endorse this view: Roe, she declared in a speech, had “halted a political process that was moving in a reform direction and…prolonged divisiveness and deferred stable settlement of the issue.” It’s not an insane idea, even if most of its proponents (a) are men; (b) think Roe went too far; and (c) want abortion off the table because they are tired of thinking about it.
Michael Schirber at Space.com:
Near midnight of July 11, several telescopes in Chile caught a rare and wonderful sight: the shadow of Pluto’s moon, Charon, as it passed in front of — or occulted — a distant star.
The observations, now being analyzed, may pin down the size of the moon and whether or not it has an atmosphere. Preliminary indications from one group seem to suggest little or no gaseous envelope.
Charon blocked the light of the relatively faint star C313.2, casting a shadow that was roughly the same size as the moon itself — around 630 miles wide. A previous occultation by Charon of a different background star was observed in 1980, but only one telescope — with limited precision — managed to observe that event.
To have eight major telescopes and three separate astronomy teams recording this most recent alignment is considered very fortuitous — especially since a year ago no one knew that this shadowy event would happen at all.
Christopher Orr in The New Republic:
A Very Long Engagement is all that its title promises. At two and a quarter hours, it is the longest film yet by French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet; happily, it is also the most engaging, a stylish and satisfying epic of love and war, hope and memory.
After an early career of directing shorts and commercials, in 1991 Jeunet and partner Marc Caro broke into feature films with the post-apocalyptic black comedy Delicatessen. This was followed by City of Lost Children, another meticulously designed dystopian nightmare. Jeunet and Caro then went their separate ways, with Jeunet pinballing from the embarrassment of Alien: Resurrection to the redemption of Amélie. Throughout this period, it was easy to view Jeunet as essentially a technical director, a kind of Gallic Tim Burton, with a gift for visual dreamscapes but an uneven knack for storytelling. Even in Amélie, his most successful film, the breathless whimsy and directorial gimmickry that made the first hour such a delight began wearing thin well before the film was over.
Well, what is synaesthesia? Everybody knows the word ‘anesthesia’ which means no sensation.
Synaesthesia means joined sensation, where two or more of the senses are hooked together, so that my voice for example is not only something that they hear but also something that they see or taste or touch.
The most common form of synaesthesia is colored letters and numbers. That is, joining color to integers. That accounts for about two-thirds of cases. The next big group would be sight and sound synaesthesia, or what is called colored hearing. In this, voices, music, environmental sounds will make people see colored photisms—these are shapes that arise, they change and metamorphose a little bit and fade away. Think of it as a little bit like fireworks. So they have a location and space they move around. And they enjoy it very much. There is almost a eureka sensation with this. They can’t imagine what listening to music is like for the rest of us. Of how do we remember people’s names or phone numbers if there is no color there to help us?