Jurassic Dad

Carl Zimmer in his excellent blog, The Loom:

ScreenHunter_12 Dec. 27 12.45 Birds are like nothing else on Earth–in the sense that they have lots of traits in common that are not found in quite the same package in other animals. All birds have feathers, for example, and they can either fly or have evolved birds that did fly. You don’t see some feathered reptile running around on all fours. But that distinctness is merely an artefact of extinctions. The closest living relatives of birds today are alligators and crocs, and they share a common ancestor that lived some 250 million years ago. All of the species on the lineage that led from that ancestor to birds are extinct. The ground-running dinosaurs disappeared. There are fossils of birds that could fly 120 million years ago, but they became extinct too. To see how birds became so unique, scientists have to burrow down the evolutionary tree, and burrow into the ground.

I’ve written here about some of the things they’ve discovered in the process, such as flightless dinosaurs that probably used feathers to show off to the opposite sex. Feathered dinosaurs also laid eggs in nests and incubated them much as birds do today. And today (as in, this particulary day of the week), David Varricchio of Montana State and his colleagues are reporting that it was the father dinosaurs who were sitting on the eggs.

More here.

How Not to Make Peace in the Middle East

Hussein Agha and Robert Malley in the New York Review of Books:

Foreign affairs had no more than a small part in Barack Obama's presidential campaign, and the Middle East peace process only a fraction of that. Yet the sorry prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians make a break with past US policy on this matter imperative, regardless of the new administration's priorities.

The need for a move away from the lethal mix of arrogance and ignorance characteristic of George W. Bush's presidency is hard to dispute. That is not all that needs breaking away from. Some observers have welcomed the past year's surge of older-style US diplomacy, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's multiple visits to the region, efforts to build Palestinian institutions and security forces, and negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians over a final status agreement. Yet spin aside, these efforts hardly can be deemed successful. Realities on the ground—from settlement construction to deepening divisions within Palestinian and Israeli societies to growing disillusionment with a two-state solution—render the possibility of a peace accord increasingly remote.

The failings of Bush's efforts have also revived nostalgia for President Clinton's. But it is a nostalgia born as much of anger with the present as of longing for the past. The 1990s were a time of US activism on behalf of peace, yet there is a record to contend with. It is not as forgiving. On this issue, Clinton's term concluded in failure, and it is a failure that bears at least some relation to the policies so lamented today.

More here.

Reboot the FCC

Lawrence Lessig in Newsweek:

ScreenHunter_11 Dec. 26 20.26 Economic growth requires innovation. Trouble is, Washington is practically designed to resist it. Built into the DNA of the most important agencies created to protect innovation, is an almost irresistible urge to protect the most powerful instead.

The FCC is a perfect example. Born in the 1930s, at a time when the utmost importance was put on stability, the agency has become the focal point for almost every important innovation in technology. It is the presumptive protector of the Internet, and the continued regulator of radio, TV and satellite communications. In the next decades, it could well become the default regulator for every new communications technology, including, and especially, fantastic new ways to use wireless technologies, which today carry television, radio, internet, and cellular phone signals through the air, and which may soon provide high-speed internet access on-the-go, something that Google cofounder Larry Page calls “wifi on steroids.”

If history is our guide, these new technologies are at risk, and with them, everything they make possible. With so much in its reach, the FCC has become the target of enormous campaigns for influence. Its commissioners are meant to be “expert” and “independent,” but they've never really been expert, and are now openly embracing the political role they play. Commissioners issue press releases touting their own personal policies. And lobbyists spend years getting close to members of this junior varsity Congress.

More here.

One Hacker’s Audacious Plan to Rule the Black Market in Stolen Credit Cards

Kevin Poulsen in Wired:

ScreenHunter_10 Dec. 26 20.14 The heat in Max Butler's safe house was nearly unbearable. It was the equipment's fault. Butler had crammed several servers and laptops into the studio apartment high above San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood, and the mass of processors and displays produced a swelter that pulsed through the room. Butler brought in some fans, but they didn't provide much relief. The electric bill was so high that the apartment manager suspected Butler of operating a hydroponic dope farm.

But if Butler was going to control the online underworld, he was going to have to take the heat. For nearly two decades, he had honed his skills as a hacker. He had swiped free calls from local telephone companies and sneaked onto the machines of the US Air Force. Now, in August 2006, he was about to pull off his most audacious gambit yet, taking over the online black markets where cybercriminals bought and sold everything from stolen identities to counterfeiting equipment. Together, these sites accounted for millions of dollars in commerce every year, and Butler had a plan to take control of it all.

More here.

No bed for Francis Bacon

Crucify2 Alan Jenkins in the TLS:

For Bacon, a chronic asthmatic, the struggle began early: it was the struggle for breath itself. The second son of a bad-tempered military man-turned-horse breeder and the heiress to a Sheffield steel fortune, he was brought up in Ireland and England in a succession of big houses where the omnipresence of dogs and horses was a perpetual challenge to his well-documented will to live. Bacon senior made no secret of his disappointment in his sickly, sensitive son, whose party piece was to appear at family gatherings in full drag. Michael Peppiatt is one among many writers on Bacon to make the connection, in his absorbing biography Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an enigma (1995, now revised, updated and reissued by Constable in paperback), between the father’s screaming rages, the child’s gasping for air and the importance of the gaping mouth in the work of the mature artist. The killings and house-burnings of the Irish uprising and Civil War (“Violence upon the roads; violence of horses”, in Yeats’s words) formed the backdrop to Bacon’s childhood, further enlivened by the attentions of the grooms who were encouraged to take horsewhips to the young master to punish him for the attentions he was over-fond of paying them.

Three of his four siblings died premature deaths, but Francis would enjoy long life, vigorous appetites and legendary resilience, physical and psychological. Ejected from the family at sixteen, he soon discovered the resourcefulness and the hunger for risk that would sustain him both as a homosexual adventurer and a painter, along with his preferred modus vivendi: to lurch between opulence and squalor, between a punishing creative routine and an equally punitive, if delighted (and delightful), dissipation.

Michael Pollan on What’s Wrong with Environmentalism

Kate Davidson interviews Pollan In AlterNet:

Well, it's pretty simple. There are three things we need to do. One is fairly easy and the other two get harder. One is back off on this commitment to ethanol, reduce the subsidies we're giving– it's about 51 cents a gallon now– and cut out the tariffs on importing ethanol from Brazil. They can produce it more efficiently, and basically we're protecting our market by keeping that ethanol out.

The next thing we have to do is a little more complicated. The other reason for this increase in food prices, and it's related, is the high price of oil. If the food economy is as dependent on oil as I'm suggesting, we need to get the food economy off of fossil fuel and back onto the sun. We have to in effect “re-solarize” our food chain by getting animals off of feedlots, where they are eating grain and competing with people for grain.

We need to develop organic agriculture, which helps sequester carbon and reduces the need for fossil fuel in the form of synthetic fertilizers. We need to move towards a more sustainable, more solar-based agriculture. That will take a lot of price pressure off, because so much of the underlying, expensive input in agriculture is oil. So you have a situation today where SUVs in America are competing with eaters around the rest of the world for good food and arable land. You can imagine who's going to win.

Philosophers on God

Alex Byrne in Boston Review:

The world was very different when a distinguished philosopher could say, as St. Thomas Aquinas did, “the existence of God can be proved in five ways.” Contemporary Christian philosophers often content themselves with pulling up the drawbridge and manning the barricades, rather than crusading against the infidel. Alvin Plantinga, perhaps the most eminent living philosopher of religion, devotes the five hundred pages of his Warranted Christian Belief to fending off objections to either the truth or rationality of belief in traditional Christian doctrines. He does not argue for the existence of God, and still less for the truth of Christianity; rather, his main question is whether a reasonable person who finds herself with firm religious convictions should change her mind. Plantinga is not trying to persuade Dawkins and company to change their minds.

The traditional arguments for God’s existence are very much worth our attention, though, for at least three reasons: they are of great intrinsic interest; popular discussions of them often fail to pin down their defects; and one argument, the “design argument,” has had a new lease on life as the intellectual underpinning of the intelligent design movement.

The Dismal Economist’s Joyless Triumph

Joseph Stiglitz in Daily News Egypt (via Economist's Voice):

Many in the developing world have benefited greatly from the last boom, through financial flows, exports, and high commodity prices. Now, all of that is being reversed. Indeed, it is the ultimate irony that money is now flowing from poor and well-managed economies to the US, the source of the global problems.

The point of reciting these challenges facing the world is to suggest that, even if Obama and other world leaders do everything right, the US and the global economy are in for a difficult period. The question is not only how long the recession will last, but what the economy will look like when it emerges.

Will it return to robust growth, or will we have an anemic recovery, à la Japan in the 1990’s? Right now, I cast my vote for the latter, especially since the huge debt legacy is likely to dampen enthusiasm for the big stimulus that is required. Without a sufficiently large stimulus (in excess of 2 percent of GDP), we will have a vicious negative spiral: a weak economy will mean more bankruptcies, which will push stock prices down and interest rates up, undermine consumer confidence, and weaken banks. Consumption and investment will be cut back further.

Many Wall Street financiers, having received their gobs of cash, are returning to their fiscal religion of low deficits. It is remarkable how, having proven their incompetence, they are still revered in some quarters. What matters more than deficits is what we do with money; borrowing to finance high-productivity investments in education, technology, or infrastructure strengthens a nation’s balance sheet.

Chaplin lifted weary world’s spirits

From The Washington Times:

Chaplin The story of Chaplin's life is well-known, or at least, it is thought to be: The hellish Victorian upbringing and terrifying poverty, the lightning, apparently inexorable rise of the vaudeville protege, the journey to America, the early involvement in the one-reeler movies and then the dizzying ascent to superstardom and legendary status. Also, the notorious promiscuity throughout his prime years, improbably settling down to belated domesticity and enduring happiness in late-middle age with what was, in effect, a child bride; the principled and courageous defiance and condemnation of fascism and Nazism, and then the utterly naive soft spot for communism and Stalin. However, psychiatrist Stephen Weissman shines a fresh and fascinating light on all these things so it is as if we are learning them all anew.

Here at last is a showbiz biography that is not just a tired collection of superficial press clippings. Here is a psychological study of a major artist delivered without pretension, jargon or absurdity – three curses that poor Orson Welles has attracted in especial intensity. Dr. Weissman tells a riveting story delivered like a good dry martini – in perfect proportion, just right. It is also a story filled with surprises: Chaplin did not have a Jewish father. His father, Charlie Chaplin Sr., was a brief minor star of the English Victorian music hall in London who burned out fast and died of drink. Dr. Weissman convincingly argues Charlie's classic drunk slapstick routines as The Tramp were inspired directly by observation of his poor, permanently inebriated father.

More here.


Obituary: Harold Pinter, 1930-2008

From The Guardian:

Pinter-no-man300 Harold Pinter, who has died at the age of 78, was the most influential, provocative and poetic dramatist of his generation. He enjoyed parallel careers as actor, screenwriter and director and was also, especially in recent years, a vigorous political polemicist campaigning against abuses of human rights. But it is for his plays that he will be best remembered and for his ability to create dramatic poetry out of everyday speech. Among the dramatists of the last century, Beckett is his only serious rival in terms of theatrical influence; and it is a measure of Pinter's power that early on in his career he spawned the adjective “Pinteresque” suggesting a cryptically mysterious situation imbued with hidden menace.

Pinter was born into a Jewish family in the London borough of Hackney. His grandparents were Jews who had fled persecution in Poland and Odessa. His father, Jack, was a hard-working tailor whose own family had artistic leanings: his mother, Frances, came from a convivial, extrovert and spiritually sceptical clan. And it was not difficult to trace in Pinter's own complex personality elements from both sides of the family. He balanced his father's faintly authoritarian nature with his mother's instinctive generosity.

Pinter was an only child: as a boy, he conducted conversations in the back garden with imaginary friends. But such circumstances conspired to give him a sense of solitude, separation and loss: the perfect breeding-ground for a dramatist. He was evacuated to Cornwall at the age of nine where he became aware of the cruelty of schoolboys in isolation. Back in London during the Blitz, he also absorbed the dramatic nature of wartime life: the palpable fear, the sexual desperation, the genuine sense that everything could end tomorrow. All this fed into his work as a writer: his memories of wartime London led to a particularly vivid 1989 screen adaptation of Elizabeth Bowen's The Heat of the Day.

More here.

50 Things We Know Now (We Didn’t Know This Time Last Year)

Jeff Houck in the Tampa Tribune:

ScreenHunter_09 Dec. 26 10.48 Believe it or not, stuff happened that had nothing to do with the presidential election, gas prices or Michael Phelps. Not that you'd have an easy time sifting through all the media debris to find the information that actually meant something.

With so many distractions, you probably didn't hear that using Facebook makes you a better employee, or that drinking wine can help you avoid lung cancer, or that doing tai chi makes life easier for asthmatics. (Unless you do it in a public park wearing something approximating pajamas, of course. Then you just look silly.)

For those and other warm, delicious infomuffins, we humbly present our list of stuff you know this year that you didn't know this time last year. Feel free to unleash these at your New Year's Eve party:

1. Dogs appear to experience jealousy and pride. Previously, only humans and chimpanzees were thought to suffer those emotions.

Read About It

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2. Two pounds of a dried plant that turned out to be the oldest marijuana in the world was discovered in a 2,700-year-old grave in the excavated Yanghai Tombs in the Gobi Desert. The cannabis was found near the head of a blue-eyed, 45-year-old shaman among other objects intended for use in the afterlife.

Read About It

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3. Starch grains embedded in plaque on the teeth of early Peruvians show they had a more varied diet than previously believed, including beans and a local fruit known as pacay that indicate they had settled into farming long before we thought they had.

Read About It

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4. Scientists discovered a more efficient way to build synthetic genomes, which could lead to one day creating artificial life.

Read About It

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5. Puerto Rican anole lizards perform push-ups and unfurl their dewlaps, the flaps of skin beneath their chins, to grab the attention of others when the forest is noisy.

Read About It

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More here.

Harold Pinter, Playwright of the Pause, Dies at 78

Mel Gussow and Ben Brantley in the New York Times:

Pinter Harold Pinter, the British playwright whose gifts for finding the ominous in the everyday and the noise within silence made him the most influential and imitated dramatist of his generation, died on Wednesday. He was 78 and lived in London.

The cause was cancer, his wife, Lady Antonia Fraser, said Thursday.

Mr. Pinter learned he had cancer of the esophagus in late 2001. In 2005, when he received the Nobel Prize in Literature, he was unable to attend the awards ceremony at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm but delivered an acceptance speech from a wheelchair in a recorded video.

In more than 30 plays — written between 1957 and 2000 and including masterworks like “The Birthday Party,” “The Caretaker,” “The Homecoming” and “Betrayal” — Mr. Pinter captured the anxiety and ambiguity of life in the second half of the 20th century with terse, hypnotic dialogue filled with gaping pauses and the prospect of imminent violence.

Along with another Nobel winner, Samuel Beckett, his friend and mentor, Mr. Pinter became one of the few modern playwrights whose names instantly evoke a sensibility. The adjective Pinteresque has become part of the cultural vocabulary as a byword for strong and unspecified menace.

More here.

The world’s most famous atheist celebrates Christmas

Liz Todd in the Daily Mail:

ScreenHunter_07 Dec. 26 08.19 Scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins has admitted he does celebrate Christmas – and enjoys singing traditional Christmas carols each festive season.

The writer and evolutionary biologist told singer Jarvis Cocker that he happily wishes everyone a Merry Christmas – and used to have a tree when his daughter was younger.

Dawkins, one of the most famous atheists in the world, was interviewed by Sheffield born Cocker when he stepped in as a Christmas guest editor on Radio Four's Today programme.

'I am perfectly happy on Christmas day to say Merry Christmas to everybody,' Dawkins said. 'I might sing Christmas carols – once I was privileged to be invited to Kings College, Cambridge, for their Christmas carols and loved it.

'I actually love most of the genuine Christmas carols. I can't bear Jingle Bells and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and you might think from that that I was religious, that I can't bear the ones that make no mention of religion. But I just think they are dreadful tunes and even more dreadful words. I like the traditional Christmas carols.'

More here.

Climate Revelations

From Orion Magazine:

Birds ONE DAY, a man named Walter Bennett walked into my Aspen, Colorado, office holding a laptop. He was in his mid- to late fifties, with a graying crew cut, wearing khakis and a button-up shirt. He looked like, and described himself as, a west-Texas redneck. His younger (second) wife accompanied him, saying little. As we chatted, Walter mentioned that his daughter had just given birth to a baby boy—a grandson. Walter reminded me of the aging, Cheney-esque board members I’d been hoping would die off so we could actually start doing something on climate change. But that was exactly what he wanted to talk about. He set down his laptop and hooked it up to a projector.

“Do you mind if I show you this presentation I’ve prepared for my senior management?”

“No problem,” I said, thinking, Get me out of here. This is going to hurt.

I’m a climate guy. I work for a ski resort, Aspen Skiing Company, where my title is “sustainability director.” In theory, I work to address all aspects of the resort’s environmental impact, from weed control to cage-free eggs, from taking calls about new technologies to handling attacks about what a bunch of hypocrites we are. It’s fun. I enjoy it.

More here.