The Origin of Life: A case is made for the descent of electrons

James Trefil, Harold Morowitz, and Eric Smith in American Scientist:

ScreenHunter_05 May. 23 20.37 As the frontiers of knowledge have advanced, scientists have resolved one creation question after another. We now have a pretty good understanding of the origin of the Sun and the Earth, and cosmologists can take us to within a fraction of a second of the beginning of the universe itself. We know how life, once it began, was able to proliferate and diversify until it filled (and in many cases created) every niche on the planet. Yet one of the most obvious big questions—how did life arise from inorganic matter?—remains a great unknown.

Our progress on this question has been impeded by a formidable cognitive barrier. Because we perceive a deep gap when we think about the difference between inorganic matter and life, we feel that nature must have made a big leap to cross that gap. This point of view has led to searches for ways large and complex molecules could have formed early in Earth’s history, a daunting task. The essential problem is that in modern living systems, chemical reactions in cells are mediated by protein catalysts called enzymes. The information encoded in the nucleic acids DNA and RNA is required to make the proteins; yet the proteins are required to make the nucleic acids. Furthermore, both proteins and nucleic acids are large molecules consisting of strings of small component molecules whose synthesis is supervised by proteins and nucleic acids. We have two chickens, two eggs, and no answer to the old problem of which came first.

More here.

The Torture Memos and Historical Amnesia

Noam Chomsky in The Nation:

ScreenHunter_04 May. 23 20.27 The torture memos released by the White House elicited shock, indignation and surprise. The shock and indignation are understandable. The surprise, less so.

For one thing, even without inquiry, it was reasonable to suppose that Guantánamo was a torture chamber. Why else send prisoners where they would be beyond the reach of the law–a place, incidentally, that Washington is using in violation of a treaty forced on Cuba at the point of a gun? Security reasons were, of course, alleged, but they remain hard to take seriously. The same expectations held for the Bush administration's “black sites,” or secret prisons, and for extraordinary rendition, and they were fulfilled.

More importantly, torture has been routinely practiced from the early days of the conquest of the national territory, and continued to be used as the imperial ventures of the “infant empire”–as George Washington called the new republic–extended to the Philippines, Haiti and elsewhere. Keep in mind as well that torture was the least of the many crimes of aggression, terror, subversion and economic strangulation that have darkened US history, much as in the case of other great powers.

Accordingly, what's surprising is to see the reactions to the release of those Justice Department memos, even by some of the most eloquent and forthright critics of Bush malfeasance: Paul Krugman, for example, writing that we used to be “a nation of moral ideals” and never before Bush “have our leaders so utterly betrayed everything our nation stands for.” To say the least, that common view reflects a rather slanted version of American history.

More here.

the most artificial person you’ll ever meet


Francis Bacon, whose centenary is being marked by a Metropolitan Museum of Art retrospective opening this week, is the Irish-born English artist whom the English consider their Achilles: a truculent hero rising from the turbulence, an outlaw god. Indeed, the first word of Homer’s Iliad comes to mind when thinking about his paintings and tumultuous life: “Rage.” Those who knew the artist—some of them his friends—described him variously as “devil,” “whore,” “one of the world’s leading alcoholics,” “bilious ogre,” “sacred monster,” and “a drunken, faded sodomite swaying nocturnally through the lowest dives and gambling dens of Soho.” Bacon was no kinder: He called himself a “grinding machine” and “rotten to the core.” This hasn’t stopped admirers and critics alike from proclaiming him “the greatest painter in the world,” “the best … since Turner.” Never one to spare hyperbole, Robert Hughes wrote, “This painter of buggery, sadism, dread, and death-vomit has emerged as the toughest, the most implacable, lyric artist in late-twentieth-century England, perhaps in all the world.” For me, Bacon—who may be the only artist sharing a name with one of his main subjects, meat—has always been more of a cartoonist. He’s an illustrator of exaggerated, ultimately empty angst.

more from Jerry Saltz at New York Magazine here.

these are the killed


“The Collected Works of Billy the Kid” was first published by a small press in the 1970s when its author, Michael Ondaatje, was still in his 20s and two decades away from the success and fame that would arrive with “The English Patient.” Yet this early work already shows a door opening into the future; indeed, it might be argued that here, in his meditation on the legendary American outlaw, Ondaatje was already assembling the key tools in his writer’s bag. Not much is known for sure about Billy the Kid: His real name was William Bonney; he was involved, on the losing side, in a vicious land war in Lincoln County, N.M., then the most violent territory in America; he killed many men and himself died in 1881, at age 21, shot by his friend Pat Garrett at Fort Sumner. These are the bare bones of the legend, but Ondaatje pries the reader’s mind loose from them, bringing the climax of Billy’s tale, and his psychology, to life with a shocking ferocity.

more from Richard Rayner in the LA Times here.

majority rules


If language were set in concrete, there would be no call for new books on how to use it. These days, most such books are at pains not to seem prescriptive. In 1996, Patricia T. O’Conner gave us the admirably entitled “Woe Is I,” aptly subtitled “The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English.” In this lucid and sensible book she criticized the use of “hopefully” to mean “It is hoped” or “I hope”: “Join the crowd and abuse ‘hopefully’ if you want; I can’t stop you. But maybe if enough of us preserve the original meaning it can be saved. One can only hope.” Now, in “Origins of the Specious,” she says, “I’m not hopeful about convincing all the fuddy-duddies out there, but here goes: It’s hopeless to resist the evolution of ‘hopefully.’ ” So use it, she says. “Hopefully, the critics will come to their senses.” According to how you look at it, O’Con­ner has turned on her fellow preservationists (“fuddy-duddies,” is it?), or she has evolved along with the language. In “Woe Is I,” she took a hard line on the difference between “disinterested” and “uninterested.” Now she says the one, generally speaking, means the other, because “as we all know, in English the majority rules.

more from Roy Blount Jr. in the NYT here.

Could Pakistan Dissolve Altogether?

From Mother Jones:

Pakistan-300x250.300wide Boston University anthropologist Thomas Barfield has been publishing relentlessly ever since the mid-1970s, when he wandered northern Afghanistan doing doctoral fieldwork. He has since emerged as one of America's foremost experts on the region, focusing on political development, provincial-state relations, and customary law. In 2006, Barfield, now president of the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies, received a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship to complete his upcoming book on the changing concepts of political legitimacy in Afghanistan. I caught up with the professor to discuss the P-word—Pakistan—and its role in our current predicament. At the time of our interview, Pakistan's government had not yet signed its agreement with the Taliban that allowed for the imposition of strict Islamic law in six northwestern regions, including Swat.

Mother Jones: To what degree does future Afghan stability depend on reconciliation between India and Pakistan?

Thomas Barfield: The India/Pakistan relationship is probably central. Pakistan has from its inception defined itself in opposition to India, and that makes it difficult. But Kashmir needs to be reconciled. Pakistan could also dissolve: The four provinces have very little holding them together.

More here.

Mirror on America

David Brooks in The New York Times:

Cover-600 Alexis de Tocqueville introduced the genre and ruined it by actually being brilliant. In the 19th century Brilliant authors came with their superior European sensibilities. In the 1980s, Jean ­Baudrillard came armed with Theory and set the modern standard by dropping puerile paradoxes from coast to coast: “Americans believe in facts, but not in facticity.” Brilliant! “Here in the most conformist society the dimensions are immoral. It is this immorality that makes distance light and the journey infinite, that cleanses the muscles of their tiredness.” Brilliant!

Today, Brilliant writers seem to come with camera crews, and they seem to do much of their reporting while the crews set up their visuals. I enjoyed Bernard-Henri Lévy’s meditation a few years ago, and now the great historian Simon Schama has entered the field. Schama was born in Britain and makes documentaries for the BBC, but he has spent more time in the United States than most Brilliant authors, having taught at Harvard and now Columbia. But this is very much an outsider’s book, and if Schama doesn’t come from a strictly European perspective, let’s just say he comes from the realm of enlightened High Thinking that exists where The New York Review of Books reaches out and air-­kisses The London Review of Books.

His book is called “The American Future: A History” (which is a puerile paradox before you even open the cover), and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the American future.

More here.

Saturday Poem

On an Acura Integra
Paul Violi

Please think of this as not merely a piece
Of writing that anyone would fully
Appreciate, but as plain and simple
Words that attempt to arouse whatever
Appetencies you, especially, depend
Upon language to fulfull; that drench you
In several levels of meaning at once,
Rendering my presence superfluous.
In other words, welcome this as a poem,
Not merely a missive I've slowly composed
And tucked under your windshield wiper
So that these onlookers who saw me bash
In your fender will think I'm jotting down
The usual information and go away.

from Fracas by Paul Violi, Hanging Loose Press, 1999.

Nothing to be done

Mouin Rabbani in The National:

ScreenHunter_03 May. 23 11.25 Even in the event of a transformation of American policy, the prospect for a viable two-state settlement has almost certainly been overtaken by reality. By waiting until 2009 to reverse the occupation of 1967, in other words, the United States and its partners chose to miss the boat.

For all intents and purposes, every Israeli under the age of 50 has grown up with the doctrine that the Green Line does not exist, that the West Bank is in fact Judea and Samaria, and that the latter – liberated rather than occupied territories – are the historical heartland of the Jewish people. Not a foreign possession or outlying province, but rather as Israeli as Tel Aviv, if not more so. The last time these territories were under Arab rule, Netanyahu was a teenager and Avigdor Lieberman was completing elementary school in the Soviet Union. For more than a decade, Israel’s leaders have successfully persuaded their population that concessions to their adversaries produce not peace and compromise but rather more violence stemming from a fundamental Arab desire to eradicate Israel.

Currently, almost 10 per cent of Israel’s Jewish population lives in settlements beyond the green line. Conservatively estimating that an additional 20 per cent of Israeli citizens would vote against a full withdrawal to the 1967 boundary, and that a significant minority of this total would seek to obstruct and engage in active opposition, some of it violent, to a government decision to implement such a withdrawal, it is difficult to see how the Israeli government could successfully engineer an end to the occupation, even under severe international pressure. In the foreseeable future a French withdrawal from Alsace-Lorraine or an American repudiation of Hawaii seems more likely.

More here.

Easy Solutions #1

From Batteries Feel Included:

So, you're in love with one of your friends, but she has a boyfriend and probably wouldn't have sex with you anyway.

What you will need: 1 x knife, 1 x ring, access to a sunbed, the ability to grow a beard.

Step One: Place the ring on your wedding finger and avoid contact with your friend for a month.

Step Two: Stop shaving and use the sunbed to gain a tan.

Step Three: After a month when your beard is full and your tan is noticeable, remove the ring from your finger.

Step Four: Remove all your clothes and break into your friend's house.

Step Five: Use the knife to cut your body in various places. Avoid the face. If possible, focus on your back. The more blood the better.

Step Six: Enter your friend's bedroom and lie face down on the floor. Wait for her return.

Step Seven: When she enters the room pretend to be unconscious. Allow her to turn you over and try to wake you for a few seconds before you open your eyes. The injuries to your body will serve as a distraction to your nakedness. She will be more concerned about your wellbeing instead of fearing the naked man in her room.

Continue reading here.

My vices protect me but they would assassinate you!


Most people use alcohol as a social rather than creative stimulant, banishing cares with a potation or two after work; lubricating discourse rather than inspiring the intellect. Yet a number of our greatest writers, painters and musicians also seem to have relied on it as fuel for their muse. Winston Churchill claimed it crucial for The World Crisis, his six-volume memoirs, stating: “always remember that I have taken more out of alcohol than it has taken out of me.” Novelist William Faulkner drank more intermittently, but claimed not to be ab le to face a blank page without a bottle of Jack Daniels. Beethoven fell under the influence in the later part of his creative life. Among painters, Van Gogh, Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon and many others liked a drop or two while working. Such figures make alcohol part of the territory of creativity. An exceptional few seemed to thrive on drink, leading to the idea of a “Churchill gene”: where some have a genetic makeup allowing them to remain healthy and brilliant despite consumption that would kill others. Mark Twain endorsed this view saying: “My vices protect me but they would assassinate you!”

more from Prospect Magazine here.


Roubini mag

This year, Nouriel Roubini, the economist known to the general public as Dr. Doom, Prophet of the Financial Apocalypse, spent the early hours of Mardi Gras on the floor of the Frankfurt Stock Exchange. It was only 11 a.m., but the party was rollicking. Traders careened around the floor, hooting and honking, dressed as dragons and devils and convicts. Rock music roared overhead, and no one seemed to care that, by the bye, the market had tanked. Tickled, Roubini registered the flicker of amusement on his Twitter thread: “Nouriel is at the Frankfurt Stock Exchange,” he wrote, “where everyone is dressed in Mardi Gras costumes even if the market is down 2.5%.” Roubini has always been a bon vivant–a trait that has mesmerized the tabloids ever since Facebook photos surfaced of him, the professional pessimist, partying … with women. But, today, there was no time to celebrate. First, he had to go see Axel Weber, head of the nearby German Central Bank, to discuss “how the German taxpayer is going to have to bail out the lazy Italians and the lazy Greeks,” who were up to their eyebrows in debt. Then there was a panel discussion with finance gurus Robert Merton and Stephen Ross; there were clients to counsel, a keynote address to deliver, and e-mails, hundreds of e-mails, slowly piling up in the BlackBerry on his belt. By the time he responded to the ones worth responding to and updated his blog, it was nearing 4 a.m., and he only had time to sneak in a few hours of sleep before another day of flights, meetings, conferences, and TV appearances.

more from TNR here.

big adam


John Maynard Keynes is high in the list of bestselling books now. Adam Smith is not quite as popular. The reason is not that books from the 18th century tend to be a demanding read: Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, although from the 20th century, is no piece of cake either. Instead, the present global financial crisis has made the godfather of classical economics look strikingly irrelevant in comparison with Keynes, the inventor of modern disequilibrium theory. Even worse, now that bankers are being castigated as the incarnation of greed, blindness and irresponsibility, the man who wrote in his famous Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations that “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker” – or perhaps the banker in our day – “that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest” is again accused of being the chief advocate of heartless laissez-faire capitalism, a system that failed and had to fail. In this view, capitalism is nothing but a false religion, with Mammon as its god and Smith as its high priest. Critics worry that markets need a moral foundation that they automatically erode. They ridicule the naïve belief that free markets bring everybody happiness at no cost, a conviction allegedly lacking all philosophical underpinnings. This is entirely off the mark. The last thing one can say about Smith is that he lacked philosophical depth. A moral philosopher, Smith was a figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, a progressive school of philosophy with members including Francis Hutcheson, David Hume and Adam Ferguson. Their approach was inspired by Isaac Newton, perhaps the greatest scientist ever. His deep persuasion was that simply observing reality enables us to discover the underlying natural principles. The Scottish Enlightenment thinkers aimed at shedding light on the laws governing human behaviour, and on their consequences for life in society.

more from Standpoint here.

The Importance of Reading in Earnest

From The Washington Post:

Wilde When he was 16, Thomas Wright happened upon a collection of Oscar Wilde's writing in a Cambridge, England, bookshop. He bought the book and later the same day began to read Wilde's “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” that languidly diabolical novel about the seductive young man who sells his soul for eternal youth. Wright was simply overwhelmed. “Wilde's elegant prose and his agile intellect dazzled me; I was thrilled, too, by his effervescent, Mozartian wit. . . . I was so enchanted by the novel that I read it fifteen, or perhaps even twenty times, sometimes finishing it and beginning it again on the same day.” Having fallen under Wilde's spell, like so many others before him, Wright conceived of his “great literary mission. In a moment of quixotic madness, I resolved to read all the books my hero had read.”

Twenty years later, the result is this exploration of “how reading defined the life of Oscar Wilde.” For most people today, Wilde (1854-1900) is remembered chiefly as a wit or a martyr. Entire books have been assembled of his seemingly frivolous yet disorientingly astute quips and paradoxes: “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself.” Certainly Wilde's “The Importance of Being Earnest” rivals or even outshines William Congreve's “The Way of the World” for sparkling, ever-fresh comedy. Nearly every exchange, virtually every sentence, approaches the condition of perverse aphorism: “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train. . . . No woman should ever be quite accurate about her age. It looks so calculating. . . . The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.”

More here.

Solving the Mystery of the Bearded Lady

From Science:

Lady Julia Pastrana was history's most famous bearded lady. In the 19th century, she fascinated spectators as part of a traveling circus, dancing and singing in clothes that showed off her hairy visage and limbs. In 1857, The Lancet documented Pastrana as a “peculiarity,” but modern medicine shows that she suffered from a real disorder known as congenital generalized hypertrichosis terminalis (CGHT), sometimes called “werewolf syndrome.” Now, Chinese scientists have begun to unravel the genetic story behind her condition. CGHT is an extremely rare but highly heritable disorder. Scientists are unsure how many people have the condition, but there are at least 30 cases in China's billion-strong population. Affected men and women develop excessive dark hair across their bodies and faces. Some sufferers also have a broad, flat nose, large ears, a large mouth, and thick lips, and, occasionally, an enlarged head and jaw.

Hoping to discover the genetic basis of CGHT, geneticist Xue Zhang of the Peking Union Medical College in Beijing scoured his country for cases of the disease. After 4 years of searching through medical literature, the Internet, and even television, his team found three affected families, including 16 afflicted members willing to participate in the study. The researchers scanned the DNA of these individuals and compared it with the DNA of 19 family members without CGHT. After narrowing down the search to a short section on chromosome 17, the team looked for mutations called copy number variations, in which large chunks of DNA are repeated or removed. All of the CGHT sufferers had a copy number variation in which DNA was deleted across the same four genes, the authors report today in the American Journal of Human Genetics. None of the unaffected family members had the mutations.

More here.

Einstein & Faith

Walter Isaacson in Time:

ScreenHunter_02 May. 22 11.40 Viereck began by asking Einstein whether he considered himself a German or a Jew. “It's possible to be both,” replied Einstein. “Nationalism is an infantile disease, the measles of mankind.”

Should Jews try to assimilate? “We Jews have been too eager to sacrifice our idiosyncrasies in order to conform.”

To what extent are you influenced by Christianity? “As a child I received instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.”

You accept the historical existence of Jesus? “Unquestionably! No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.”

Do you believe in God? “I'm not an atheist. I don't think I can call myself a pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws.”

Is this a Jewish concept of God? “I am a determinist. I do not believe in free will. Jews believe in free will. They believe that man shapes his own life. I reject that doctrine. In that respect I am not a Jew.”

More here.

Read it and weep

From The Economist:

D2109US0 Real reporting is easy. Making the news up is much harder. So the weekly editorial meeting at the Onion, a spoof newspaper based in New York, is intense. One writer clutches a human skull. Another wields a threatening stick. Yet another walks in late, looking scruffy and eating a chocolate cereal bar. Alert readers would recognise him as the cover model for a feature in 2006 on “Heterosexual Men’s Fashion”.

Someone hands round a list of 124 bogus headlines, all written in the sombre style of the New York Times. After two hours of raucous banter, the list is winnowed to a dozen. At a second meeting, the chosen headlines are fleshed out and writers are assigned to turn them into stories. Recent gems include “Detroit Mayor Throws First Brick in Glass-Breaking Ceremony for New Slum” and “Hero Woman Changes in Front of Open Window”. Alas, Lexington is not at liberty to disclose next week’s fake news. But the headlines that were scrapped are not bad. An opinion piece by Barack Obama, for example, is entitled “Should You Ever Feel Despair, Simply Remember How Eloquent I Am”.

The real Mr Obama baffles other comedians. David Letterman, a talk-show host, describes him as “cogent, eloquent, and in complete command of the issues” and sighs: “What the hell am I supposed to do with that?” The new president is “not fat, not cheating on his wife, not stupid, not angry and not a phoney”, complains Bill Maher, another small-screen joker. Chris Rock, a stand-up comic, likens Mr Obama to Brad Pitt. “There’s no Brad Pitt jokes,” he told CNN. “You know, what are you going to say? ‘Ooh, you used to have sex with Jennifer Aniston. Now you have sex with Angelina Jolie. You’re such a loser’.”

More here.