grumpy bird

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Don't you just hate people who wake up cheerful? Give me a Grumpy Birdanytime:

When Bird woke up, he was grumpy.

He was too grumpy to play.

In fact, he was too grumpy to fly.

“Looks like I'm walking today,” said Bird.

“Grumpy Bird” (Scholastic: $12.99, ages 3-6) is the creation of Jeremy Tankard, for my money the most thrilling picture-book artist to arrive on the children's book scene in recent years. The author and illustrator — “authorstrator,” one young fan called him — can make people of all ages laugh out loud.

His first book, “Grumpy Bird” (2007) introduced Bird, whose one-eyed squint at the irritating morning world made him an instant hero to anyone with a cranky toddler or a morning coffee jones. In the just-published sequel, “Boo Hoo Bird” (Scholastic: $14.99, ages 3-6), Bird gets a bonk on the head and develops the situation into the proportions of opera while taking all the consoling he can get. In between these two books, there was last year's “Me Hungry” (Candlewick: $15.99, ages 3-6), about a caveboy's epic, life-changing search for a bite to eat.

more from Sonja Bolle at the LA Times here.

an architecture of the sky

31weber-600

Ever since its appearance on the Parisian skyline in 1889, the Eiffel Tower has drawn criticism and praise aplenty. Among its earliest detractors, Guy de Maupassant saw the tower as an affront to his nation’s proud cultural heritage and dined regularly in its restaurant because that was the one spot in Paris from which he didn’t have to look upon “this giant and disgraceful skeleton.” (Other­wise, he complained, “you see it from everywhere . . . an unavoidable and horrid nightmare.”) Maupassant’s contemporary Paul Gauguin stood at the opposite end of the spectrum, hailing the tower as a “triumph of iron” and an exciting new art form. But across the board, as Roland Barthes has noted, the Eiffel Tower “attracts meaning, the way a lightning rod attracts thunderbolts.” Indeed, to offer an opinion of this monument is to comment, wittingly or otherwise, on the past, present and future of French civilization. In “Eiffel’s Tower: And the World’s Fair Where Buffalo Bill Beguiled Paris, the Artists Quarreled, and Thomas Edison Became a Count,” Jill Jonnes examines — with splendid attention to detail, if not always with writerly finesse — the importance the tower assumed in its own historical moment. Built by the engineer Gustave Eiffel as the centerpiece of the 1889 Exposition Universelle, the vaulting iron structure was intended, Jonnes writes, as “a potent symbol of French modern industrial might, a towering edifice that would exalt science and technology, assert France’s superiority over its rivals (especially America) and entice millions to visit Paris.” These were pressing goals, for by 1889, the French government had — after a century of pendulum swings between the forces of revolution and reaction — reinvented itself yet again, as the Third Republic.

more from Caroline Weber at the NYT here.

3 Quarks Daily 2009 Science Prize: Vote Here

ScreenHunter_12 May. 30 15.04 Dear Reader,

Thanks very much for participating in our contest. For details of the prize you can look at the announcement here, and to read the nominated posts you can go here for a complete list with links.

If you are new to 3 Quarks Daily, we welcome you and invite you to look around the site after you vote. Learn more about who we are and what we do here, and do check out the full site here. Bookmark us and come back regularly, or sign up for the RSS feed. If you have a blog or website, and like what you see here, we would very much appreciate being added to your blogroll. Please don’t forget!

Results of the voting round (the top twenty most voted for posts) will be posted on the main page on June 8, 2009. Winners of the contest, as decided by Steven Pinker, will be announced on June 21, 2009.

Now go ahead and submit your vote below!

Cheers,

Abbas

P.S. If you notice any problems, such as a nominee is missing from the list below, please leave a comment on this page. Thanks.

BEWARE: We have various independent ways of keeping track of attempts at voting multiple times, which I am deliberately not revealing publicly. Any attempts at fraud will be thoroughly investigated, and anyone caught trying to vote multiple times will be instantly disqualified. I don’t think I really need to say this, but there are always a couple of bad eggs who will try!

Wimps have rapid reaction times

ScreenHunter_11 May. 30 14.49Holly Hight in Cosmos Magazine:

Unfit or weak people react sooner to sounds of approaching danger than strong, healthy people – which may be an evolutionary adaptation to allow them a larger margin of safety, says a new study.

Test subjects listened to a sophisticated sound system that mimicked an approaching object, explained John Neuhoff, an evolutionary psychologist at the College of Wooster in Ohio, U.S., and co-leader of the study.

The 'virtual object' sounded like a motorcycle passing on a highway, approaching the subject at 15 m/s and then whizzing past them. The subjects were asked to hit a key when they thought the sound was right in front of them.

Fitness was measured by two variables: heart rate after a bout of moderate cardiovascular exercise and muscular power, measured by the strength of their hand grips.

More here.

The Case for Working With Your Hands

Matthew B. Crawford in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_10 May. 30 12.03 The trades suffer from low prestige, and I believe this is based on a simple mistake. Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid. This is not my experience. I have a small business as a motorcycle mechanic in Richmond, Va., which I started in 2002. I work on Japanese and European motorcycles, mostly older bikes with some “vintage” cachet that makes people willing to spend money on them. I have found the satisfactions of the work to be very much bound up with the intellectual challenges it presents. And yet my decision to go into this line of work is a choice that seems to perplex many people.

After finishing a Ph.D. in political philosophy at the University of Chicago in 2000, I managed to stay on with a one-year postdoctoral fellowship at the university’s Committee on Social Thought. The academic job market was utterly bleak. In a state of professional panic, I retreated to a makeshift workshop I set up in the basement of a Hyde Park apartment building, where I spent the winter tearing down an old Honda motorcycle and rebuilding it. The physicality of it, and the clear specificity of what the project required of me, was a balm. Stumped by a starter motor that seemed to check out in every way but wouldn’t work, I started asking around at Honda dealerships. Nobody had an answer; finally one service manager told me to call Fred Cousins of Triple O Service. “If anyone can help you, Fred can.”

I called Fred, and he invited me to come to his independent motorcycle-repair shop, tucked discreetly into an unmarked warehouse on Goose Island. He told me to put the motor on a certain bench that was free of clutter.

More here. [Thanks to Ruchira Paul.]

Can a machine change your mind?

Jane O'Grady in OpenDemocracy:

Scrnshotsdesktop-1243243050png_large Can a machine read your mind?’ – the title of a recent (February 2009) article in the Times — is meant to be sensational but is similar to hundreds of other articles appearing with increasing frequency, and merely repeating a story that has been familiar for the last 50 years. ‘It’s just a matter of time’ is the assumption behind such articles – just a matter of time before the gap between physical brain-stuff and consciousness is bridged. The Times article plays up the social interest angle of its story by describing experiments in which people’s brain activity is taken as proof of their guilt or innocence of crimes, or in which a computer ‘could tell with 78 per cent accuracy’ which of a number of drawings shown to volunteers was the one they were concentrating on …

There are in fact even more extreme examples than those in the Times article of how neuro-science and social science increasingly overlap. Alan Sanfey, of the Neural Decision Science Laboratory at the University of Arizona, for example, describes a neuro-economic analysis of an Ultimatum Game in which one person is given the power over another to make an offer to split £100. If the other rejects the offer, no one gets anything. So far so familiar — to other behavioural economics experiments that study the norms of fairness. One neuro-twist to the story, though, is that experimenters can make subjects more or less willing to accept unfair offers by subjecting their brains to Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), non-invasive and painless stimulation of the brain.

More here.

The Latest AfPak War

Carlo Cristofori in CounterPunch:

Hamid Karzai The June, 2002, National Assembly (Loya Jirga) held in Afghanistan to select the head of state was rigged by the Bush administration, forcing the former king, who had majority support among the delegates, to withdraw from consideration*. This shows that the “Bush freedom agenda” was basically a sham–a political gimmick, a phony; and that Karzai is a U.S. puppet. Once he was installed, the subsequent elections, held without established political parties, were little more than a rubber stamp.

However, many Americans think that the U.S. brought freedom to Afghanistan, and cling to the notion of Afghanistan as “the good war.” The original U.S. sin behind the lack of legitimacy of the Karzai regime, although factually incontrovertible, has remained almost unnoticed.

The result is that blame for the situation tends to be placed on other factors, such as corruption and poor governance. Both are essentially a function of government weakness. But a puppet regime is weak virtually by definition.

The decision to sideline the king aggravated the disenfranchisement and oppression of the Pashtun tribes (the majority political element in Afghanistan) occasioned by U.S. support for the Northern Alliance and other warlords. Northern Afghanistan, for example, has been brutally ethnic-cleansed of Pashtuns since 2001–another fact that has remained almost completely unreported.

More here.

The Crisis and How to Deal with It

20090611-symposium Bill Bradley, Niall Ferguson, Paul Krugman, Nouriel Roubini, George Soros, and Robin Wells discuss over at the NYRB:

[Krugman] One way to think about the global crisis is a vast excess of desired savings over willing investment. We have a global savings glut. Another way to say it is we have a global shortage of demand. Those are equivalent ways of saying the same thing. So we have this global savings glut, which is why there is, in fact, no upward pressure on interest rates. There are more savings than we know what to do with. If we ask the question “Where will the savings come from to finance the large US government deficits?,” the answer is “From ourselves.” The Chinese are not contributing at all.

Those extra savings are, in effect, the savings that America has wanted to make anyway, but that US business is not willing to invest under current conditions. That is the way Keynesian policy works in the short run. It takes excess desired savings and translates them into some kind of spending. If the private sector won't do it, the government will. There is actually no contradiction between the Federal Reserve's actions and the actions of the US government with a fiscal stimulus. It's very much necessary to do both. By buying a lot of private securities, the Federal Reserve is essentially going out there and playing the role that the private banking system is no longer playing properly; by engaging in investment, the federal government is playing the role that businesses are not now willing to play. All that debt-financed spending on infrastructure by the Obama administration is basically filling the hole left by the collapse in business investment in the United States. There is not an excess demand for savings that is going to drive up interest rates. The only thing that might drive up interest rates—and this is a real concern—is that people may grow dubious about the financial solvency of governments.

Also see Delong on the talk.

More WTF is Wrong with the Human Rights Council: UN Praises the Sri Lankan Massacre of Civilians

In the Times:

Sri Lanka claimed a propaganda victory last night after the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution praising its defeat of the Tamil Tigers and condemning the rebels for using civilians as human shields.

China, India, Egypt and Cuba were among the 29 developing countries that backed a Sri Lankan-proposed resolution describing the conflict as a “domestic matter that doesn’t warrant outside interference”. The resolution also supported Colombo’s insistence on allowing aid group access to 270,000 civilians detained in camps only “as may be appropriate”.

The Sri Lanka Ambassador in Geneva said that European nations had failed with their “punitive and mean-spirited agenda” against his country. “This was a lesson that a handful of countries which depict themselves as the international community do not really constitute the majority,” Dayan Jayatilleka said. “The vast mass of humanity are in support of Sri Lanka.”

Western diplomats and human rights officials were shocked by the outcome at the end of an acrimonious two-day special session to examine the humanitarian and human rights situation in Sri Lanka after the blitzkrieg of the final military offensive that wiped out the Tiger force.

The vote is extremely disappointing and is a low point for the Human Rights Council. It abandons hundreds of thousands of people in Sri Lanka to cynical political considerations,” Amnesty International said.

Sri Lanka, unable to stop the Human Rights Council taking up its case, rushed its own motion to the floor in time to beat a more censorious resolution tabled by Switzerland.

A Human Language Gene Changes the Sound of Mouse Squeaks

Nicholas Wade in The New York Times:

Mouse People have a deep desire to communicate with animals, as is evident from the way they converse with their dogs, enjoy myths about talking animals or devote lifetimes to teaching chimpanzees how to speak. A delicate, if tiny, step has now been taken toward the real thing: the creation of a mouse with a human gene for language.

The gene, FOXP2, was identified in 1998 as the cause of a subtle speech defect in a large London family, half of whose members have difficulties with articulation and grammar. All those affected inherited a disrupted version of the gene from one parent. FOXP2 quickly attracted the attention of evolutionary biologists because other animals also possess the gene, and the human version differs significantly in its DNA sequence from those of mice and chimpanzees, just as might be expected for a gene sculpted by natural selection to play an important role in language.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have now genetically engineered a strain of mice whose FOXP2 gene has been swapped out for the human version. Svante Paabo, in whose laboratory the mouse was engineered, promised several years ago that when the project was completed, “We will speak to the mouse.” He did not promise that the mouse would say anything in reply, doubtless because a great many genes must have undergone evolutionary change to endow people with the faculty of language, and the new mouse was gaining only one of them. So it is perhaps surprising that possession of the human version of FOXP2 does in fact change the sounds that mice use to communicate with other mice, as well as other aspects of brain function.

More here.

Your Body Is a Wonderland … of Bacteria

From Science:

Bacteria Where can you find your skin's most diverse community of bacteria? Not in a sweaty armpit or linty belly button. According to a new survey of the bacterial ecosystem that covers us, the diversity hot spot of the body's exterior is the forearm. And the surprises don't end there.

Microbes that live in and on our bodies outnumber our own cells 10 to one, but researchers have only recently begun to catalog the residents on our skin. Traditionally, scientists identified human skin bacteria by swabbing volunteers and culturing the samples, but those results skewed toward microbes that grow well in the lab. Thanks to ever-evolving gene-sequencing technology, scientists can now use microbial RNA to identify organisms. With these techniques, researchers have found an unexpectedly wide variety of bacteria on human skin (Science, 23 May 2008, p. 1001). But no one had ever systematically compared bacterial colonies from different areas on the human body.

More here.

Can control theory save the economy from going down the tubes?

Brian Hayes in American Scientist:

ScreenHunter_08 May. 29 12.38 In 1949, faculty and students at the London School of Economics gathered to observe a demonstration. At the front of the room was a seven-foot-tall contraption assembled out of plastic pipes, tanks, valves and other plumbing hardware. The device, later dubbed the MONIAC, was a hydraulic analog computer for modeling the flow of money through a national economy. When the machine was powered up, colored water gurgled through the transparent tubes and sloshed into reservoirs. Various streams represented consumption, investment, taxes, savings, imports and exports. Crank-wheels and adjustable cams allowed the water levels and flows to be regulated—the hydraulic equivalent of setting interest rates or tax policies. This was real trickle-down economics!

The MONIAC attracted much attention, and it lives on in folklore. Later generations of students called it the “pink lemonade national income machine.” Punch magazine tried to satirize the device, but their cartoon was really no more outlandish than the construction drawings for the machine itself. There are tales of leaks; according to one source, the machine couldn’t cope with inflation, which caused red fluid to squirt out through a hole in one of the cylinders. And then there’s the story about the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Governor of the Bank of England; when they were given a turn at the controls, the results showed “why the U.K. economy was in the state it was.”

This is all good fun, but the MONIAC was not just a toy or a joke. It embodied a style of thinking about economic problems that may still be worth revisiting, especially at a time when real economies are leaking liquid assets at an alarming rate.

More here.

The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History

Andrew Roberts in Literary Review:

ScreenHunter_07 May. 29 12.31 David Aaronovitch is one of those few Britons who can be referred to as an intellectual without it being pejorative. He is also a master of the art of ridicule, as this reviewer once discovered to his cost at a public debate. This superbly researched, wittily written and eminently sane book explodes conspiracy theories by the dozen, and highlights the psychological disorders from which their promoters often suffer. Best of all, however, it points out how dangerous conspiracy theories can be to society.

Of course, it's perfectly true that sometimes in history there have indeed been genuine conspiracies. The Catiline conspiracy in Ancient Rome, the Gunpowder Plot, the Cato Street Conspiracy to blow up the British Cabinet in 1820, the Bolshevik conspiracy to overthrow the Kerensky government in Russia in October 1917, and the Iran-Contra conspiracy in Reagan's White House in 1985-6 are all cases in point. Generally, however, it is the cock-up explanation rather than the conspiracy that provides the best guide to what really happened. To believe that dark forces control our lives, and have done so for centuries, is a sure sign of weak-mindedness, akin to a belief in UFOs or that one's destiny is affected by the zodiac.

More here.

Another nuclear anniversary

Pervez Hoodbhoy in Dawn:

Pervez_Hoodbhoy Some had imagined that nuclear weapons would make Pakistan an object of awe and respect internationally. They had hoped that Pakistan would acquire the mantle of leadership of the Islamic world. Indeed, in the aftermath of the 1998 tests, Pakistan’s stock had shot up in some Muslim countries before it crashed. But today, with a large swathe of its territory lost to insurgents, one has to defend Pakistan against allegations of being a failed state. In terms of governance, economy, education or any reasonable quality of life indicators, Pakistan is not a successful state that is envied by anyone.

Contrary to claims made in 1998, the bomb did not transform Pakistan into a technologically and scientifically advanced country. Again, the facts are stark. Apart from relatively minor exports of computer software and light armaments, science and technology remain irrelevant in the process of production. Pakistan’s current exports are principally textiles, cotton, leather, footballs, fish and fruit. This is just as it was before Pakistan embarked on its quest for the bomb. The value-added component of Pakistani manufacturing somewhat exceeds that of Bangladesh and Sudan, but is far below that of India, Turkey and Indonesia. Nor is the quality of science taught in our educational institutions even remotely satisfactory. But then, given that making a bomb these days requires only narrow technical skills rather than scientific ones, this is scarcely surprising.

What became of the claim that the pride in the bomb would miraculously weld together the disparate peoples who constitute Pakistan?

More here.