IN MEMORIAM Merle Haggard, 1937–2016

Merlehaggardserving190proofLorin Stein at The Paris Review:

The print headline of Haggard’s New York Times obituary called him “a poet of the common man.” He was that, certainly. When Merle released his first singles, in the early sixties, he had spent half his adult life in prison, and in his songs he wrote eloquently—for a mass audience—about being in prison, getting out of prison, and running from the law. My sister and I used to sing those songs with our father, pretty much from the time we could talk. I remember asking my father about the explosive refrain of “Mama Tried”: “I turned twenty-one in prison, doing life without parole.” I understood the words, but I found the past tense confusing and upsetting. Didn’t it mean the man singing was still in prison … and always would be? That refrain is the key to the song. It’s about having already been condemned to life. It is a line from beyond the grave.

As I got older, we sang together less and I listened to records more. Merle still had hits on the radio in those days—the late seventies and early eighties. These songs weren’t all about prison, or about growing up in the dust bowl and the oil fields. His 1979 LP, Serving 190 Proof, is not about the common man at all. “I live the kind of life most men only dream of” is how the first song, “Footlights,” begins:

I make my living writing songs and singing them.
But I’m forty-one years old, and I ain’t got no place to go when it’s over,
So I’ll hide my age and take the stage
And try to kick the footlights out again.

more here.

The Paradox of the Elephant Brain

Suzana Herculano-Houzel in Nautilus:

BrainWe have long deemed ourselves to be at the pinnacle of cognitive abilities among animals. But that is different from being at the pinnacle of evolution in a number of very important ways. As Mark Twain pointed out in 1903, to presume that evolution has been a long path leading to humans as its crowning achievement is just as preposterous as presuming that the whole purpose of building the Eiffel Tower was to put that final coat of paint on its tip. Moreover, evolution is not synonymous with progress, but simply change over time. And humans aren’t even the youngest, most recently evolved species. For example, more than 500 new species of cichlid fish in Lake Victoria, the youngest of the great African lakes, have appeared since it filled with water some 14,500 years ago. Still, there is something unique about our brain that makes it cognitively able to ponder even its own constitution and the reasons for its own presumption that it reigns over all other brains. If we are the ones putting other animals under the microscope, and not the other way around,1 then the human brain must have something that no other brain has.

Sheer mass would be the obvious candidate: If the brain is what generates conscious cognition, having more brain should only mean more cognitive abilities. But here the elephant in the room is, well, the elephant—a species that is larger-brained than humans, but not equipped with behaviors as complex and flexible as ours. Besides, equating larger brain size with greater cognitive capabilities presupposes that all brains are made the same way, starting with a similar relationship between brain size and number of neurons. But my colleagues and I already knew that all brains were not made the same. Primates have a clear advantage over other mammals, which lies in an evolutionary turn of events that resulted in the economical way in which neurons are added to their brain, without the massive increases in average cell size seen in other mammals.

We also knew how many neurons different brains were made of, and so we could rephrase “more brain” and test it.

More here.

Fathered by the Mailman? It’s Mostly an Urban Legend

Carl Zimmer in The New York Times:

ZIMMER-master675Five days a week, you can tune into “Paternity Court,” a television show featuring couples embroiled in disputes over fatherhood. It’s entertainment with a very old theme: Uncertainty over paternity goes back a long way in literature. Even Shakespeare and Chaucer cracked wise about cuckolds, who were often depicted wearing horns. But in a number of recent studies, researchers have found that our obsession with cuckolded fathers is seriously overblown. A number of recent genetic studies challenge the notion that mistaken paternity is commonplace. “It’s absolutely ridiculous,” said Maarten H.D. Larmuseau, a geneticist at the University of Leuven in Belgium who has led much of this new research.

The term cuckold traditionally refers to the husband of an adulteress, but Dr. Larmuseau and other researchers focus on those cases that produce a child, which scientists politely call “extra-pair paternity.” Until the 20th century, it was difficult to prove that a particular man was the biological father of a particular child. In 1304 a British husband went to court to dispute the paternity of his wife’s child, born while he was abroad for three years. Despite the obvious logistical challenges, the court rejected the husband’s objection. “The privity between a man and his wife cannot be known,” the judge ruled. Modern biology lifted the veil from this mystery, albeit slowly. In the early 1900s, researchers discovered that people have distinct blood types inherited from their parents. In a 1943 lawsuit, Charlie Chaplin relied on blood-type testing to prove that he was not the father of the actress Joan Barry’s child. (The court refused to accept the evidence and forced Chaplin to pay child support anyway.)

More here.

3 Quarks Daily Welcomes Our New Monday Columnists

Hello Readers and Writers,

We received a large number of submissions of sample essays in our search for new columnists. Most of them were very good (with a small number of incomprehensible pieces thrown in just to test our sanity, I suppose) and it was hard deciding whom to accept and whom not to. If you did not get selected, it does not at all mean that we didn't like what you sent, we just have a limited number of slots. We will once again be expanding the number of 3QD columns on Mondays, which have withered by attrition in the last couple of years. Today we welcome to 3QD the following persons, in alphabetical order by last name:

  1. Fountain-pens-530Humera Afridi
  2. Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad
  3. Christopher Bacas
  4. Aasem Bakhshi
  5. Katalin Balog
  6. Libby Bishop
  7. Holly Case
  8. Evan Edwards
  9. Elise Hempel
  10. Richard King
  11. Michael Liss
  12. Paul North
  13. Daniel Ranard
  14. Ryan Ruby
  15. Max Sirak
  16. Genese Marie Sodikoff
  17. Katrin Trüstedt
  18. Olivia Zhu

I will be in touch with all of you in the next days to schedule a start date. The “About Us” page will be updated with short bios and photographs of the new writers no later than the day they start.

Thanks to all of the people who sent samples of writing to us. It was a pleasure to read them all. Congratulations to the new columnists!

Best wishes,


Monday Poem


in shifts from bright to dim
there is no edge, no interim,
as also none exists from wide to slim Morning cliuds over Hagers
the sun comes up in orange blaze
night evaporates in such displays
lines are indiscernible in nights to days
when life from bud to apple goes
and succulence and color grows
earth is smoothly changing pose
breath segues in respiration
in which we find no separations
as intervals might mean cessation
birth moves on to what comes next
years tick off from more to less,
what follows then we have to guess

Jim Culleny

Why do we laugh?

by Emrys Westacott

Tuxedo-obama-laughing-afp-640x480Why do human beings laugh? The question is ambiguous. It could be understood in at least three ways:

1) What features of jokes or amusing situations prompt us to laugh?

2) What psychological mechanism is called into play by the things we find amusing?

3) What evolutionary process led to the phenomenon of human laughter and our capacity for humor?

The first question has often been posed by thinkers seeking to identify the essence of humor, the thing that all amusing phenomena have in common. The second question sees humor as a possible avenue of insight into human nature. Philosophers and psychologists who have sought to understand humor and laughter have typically focused on (1) and (2). The third question has only been asked more recently as the popularity of evolutionist thinking has grown.

The evolutionary question is certainly fascinating and has produced some ingenious hypotheses. Perhaps the simplest view is that laughter originated in the cry of triumph let out by a victorious hunter or warrior. As Stephen Leacock puts it: “The savage who first cracked his enemy over the head with a tomahawk and shouted “Ha ha!” was the first humorist.

More subtle is the “false alarm” theory which notes that we typically laugh after some gradually built-up expectation is resolved in a non-threatening way. This happens, for instance, when we hear the punch line of a joke, when we are saved from danger, or when the monster threatening us with outstretched talons turns out to be a tickling monster. The theory suggests that laughter began as a specific kind of signal from one individual to others that what had seemed threatening was in fact harmless.

Read more »

More than an Object

by Carl Pierer

“(…) [M]y own body is the primordial habit, the one that conditions all others and by which they can be understood. Its near presence and its invariable perspective are not a factual necessity, since factual necessity presupposes them. (…) I observe external objects with my body, I handle them, inspect them, and walk around them. But when it comes to my body, I never observe it itself. I would need a second body to be able to do so, which would itself be unobservable.” —Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Phenomenology of Perception, p. 93)

3149749131_ef741f9664_oHaving criticised the two dominant, opposing camps – one, broadly speaking, Humean, one Kantian – in the introduction, Merleau-Ponty tries to understand in the present section the role of our body in perception. He argues that the commitment to certain notions as fundamental shared by the two camps is mistaken; most relevant here are those of ‘subject' and ‘object'. In contrast to the inherited view that the subject-object distinction is fundamental, he argues there exists something more primordial: the body. For Merleau-Ponty, because of the body's priority, the accepted distinctions make sense only against the background of the body. To establish this, Merleau-Ponty first shows that our relation to our body is different from our relation to any other object. Then, he demonstrates that the former relation prefigures the latter.

In this quotation, Merleau-Ponty argues that the body cannot be thought as an object among others. If it could, then it would need to be given to us as an object of perception. But, unlike genuine objects of perception:

  1. The body as an object of perception is not the same as the body that perceives.
  2. Even as an ‘object' of perception, our relation to it is different from the one we have to any other object of perception. In particular, it features:
    1. ‘Near presence', and
    2. ‘Inevitable perspective'.

This essay will focus on (2.) to illustrate how thinking about its ‘near presence' and ‘inevitable perspective' reveals the inherited view to render our relation to the body ambiguous, one that fits neither that of a subject nor that of an object. This ambiguity will lead to the idea of the ‘primordial habit'. It would then be but a small step to show that the distinction is based on this primordial relation, yet to do so is beyond this essay.

Read more »


by Mathangi Krishnamurthy

My struggleWelcome to April. It is already the fourth month of the year, and I meditate as I write, on the simultaneous passage and non-passage of time. Everyday the newspaper tells me of a number of unbidden catastrophes, accidents of fate, so many lives snuffed out as if life were not, as I think it to be, certain and plan-worthy. The rude interruption of children, men, and women, to and fro in the business of life, and the visitation of deep and unthinking sorrow upon all those whose lives they touch.

Those lists I peruse a couple of times a week, “Ten Ways to be more Productive”, “Fifty Tips to Happiness”, and “The One Secret to finding your Purpose in Life”, all tell me to stop reading the newspaper. But this I cannot do. Long years ago, I was taught by well-meaning, upstanding, middle-class family members, that to be engaged in the business of the world, one must read the newspaper. And after all, if I am not nationalist enough to yell out praises at the nation morning, noon, and night, I can, at least, in good old Benedict Anderson fashion, read the damn newspaper.

Why, pray, you ask, are you so melancholic? This isn't on me, I plead. I am in the throes of PMS. Now the thing, of course, is that I may or may not be. Not that PMS is not real. But its symptoms, ranging across 200 or more possible sensations, and consequences, provide a wide ambit of possibilities. And within this ambit of possibilities, it feels as though my body gives me the permission to feel all those things that I keep tightly suppressed for worry of work, schedules, time, and money. So for a couple of days a month, I feel free. To not be cheerful, or happy, or certain, or plant my feet on the ground. I feel the freedom to be burdened, and uncomfortable. And this of course, is a gendered function; not a function of the female gender mind you, but a gendered function. For both, the inability and ability to show emotion, are deeply gendered propositions. The one that gives in to deeply felt traumas, and hysteria, and dislocations is weak, and not in control. But the one that is otherwise controlled, but feels compelled at key moments to give in to emotion is primal. And I'm in the throes of a primal PMS.

Read more »

How Should the U.S. Fund Research and Development?

Robinson Meyer in The Atlantic:

A&Q is a special series that inverts the classic Q&A, taking some of the most frequently posed solutions to pressing matters of policy and exploring their complexity.


ResearchThere’s no need to read any further: As this 2013 paper from Cato Unbound argues, it’s folly for the government to fund public science. Terence Kealey, a sociologist of science, argues that scientific research is not a public good—and, regardless, investment in, and the advancement of, science will occur regardless of who pays for it. Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, after all, did not have DARPA. Following Kealey’s argument, and considering past examples, research should be concentrated in industries, alongside “an armamentarium of private philanthropic funders of university and of foundation science by which non-market, pure research (including on orphan diseases) would be funded.”


The first question we must ask: What the hell’s an armamentarium? “A collection of resources available for a certain purpose,” answers the New Oxford American, supplying the more concise arsenal as a synonym. But I digress. Kealey imagines the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other organizations like it stepping in to fund basic research. Right now, he says, money from those organizations are getting crowded out. So how would he answer Bill Gates himself, who in the pages of this magazine called for the U.S. government to triple its energy investment funding? Gates himself says he would only invest (patiently, at great risk, and looking to the long term) “the spin-offs that will come out of that government-funded activity.”

More here.

Salman Rushdie: how Cervantes and Shakespeare wrote the modern literary rule book

Salman Rushdie in The New Statesman:

ScreenHunter_1844 Apr. 10 20.24As we honour the four hundredth anniversaries of the deaths of William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, it may be worth noting that while it’s generally accepted that the two giants died on the same date, 23 April 1616, it actually wasn’t the same day. By 1616 Spain had moved on to using the Gregorian calendar, while England still used the Julian, and was 11 days behind. (England clung to the old ­Julian dating system until 1752, and when the change finally came, there were riots and, it’s said, mobs in the streets shouting, “Give us back our 11 days!”) Both the coincidence of the dates and the difference in the calendars would, one suspects, have delighted the playful, erudite sensibilities of the two fathers of modern literature.

We don’t know if they were aware of each other, but they had a good deal in common, beginning right there in the “don’t know” zone, because they are both men of mystery; there are missing years in the record and, even more tellingly, missing documents. Neither man left behind much personal material. Very little to nothing in the way of letters, work diaries, abandoned drafts; just the colossal, completed oeuvres. “The rest is silence.” Consequently, both men have been prey to the kind of idiot theories that seek to dispute their authorship.

More here.

Making Salt Water Drinkable Just Got 99 Percent Easier

Andrew Tarantola in Gizmodo:

ScreenHunter_1843 Apr. 10 20.18Access to steady supplies of clean water is getting more and more difficult in the developing world, especially as demand skyrockets. In response, many countries have turned to the sea for potable fluids but existing reverse osmosis plants rely on complicated processes that are expensive and energy-intensive to operate. Good thing, engineers at Lockheed Martin have just announced a newly-developed salt filter that could reduce desalinization energy costs by 99 percent.

The Reverse Osmosis process works on a simple principle: molecules within a liquid will flow across a semipermeable membrane from areas of higher concentration to lower until both sides reach an equilibrium. But that same membrane can act as a filter for large molecules and ions if outside pressure is applied to one side of the system. For desalinization, the process typically employs a sheet of thin-film composite (TFC) membrane which is made from an active thin-film layer of polyimide stacked on a porous layer of polysulfone. The problem with these membranes is that their thickness requires the presence of large amounts of pressure (and energy) to press water through them.

Lockheed Martin's Perforene, on the other hand, is made from single atom-thick sheets of graphene. Because the sheets are so thin, water flows through them far more easily than through a conventional TFC.

More here. [Thanks to Sean Carroll.]

The Time of the Assassins

Jesse McCarthy in The Point:

ScreenHunter_1842 Apr. 10 20.13The Bataclan is one of the oldest music venues in Paris. Situated on the Boulevard Voltaire and named after an 1855 operetta by Jacques Offenbach, it has operated as an entertainment venue more or less continuously since its opening in 1865 under the Second Empire. After a period of decline in the Sixties and Seventies it was reopened in 1983 with a particular emphasis on providing a platform for post-punk and rock on the Parisian scene. Perhaps befitting its name, onomatopoetic for a sonorous cacophony, it has long maintained a reputation for eclecticism.

Offenbach’s 1855 Ba-ta-clan is an orientalist comic operetta about a Chinese emperor whose subjects are ostensibly in a conspiracy to revolt and overthrow him. It turns out, however, that the emperor and the conspirators are all French aristocrats who share a desperate homesickness for the gay life of Paris that they enjoyed in their youth. It’s a light satire spoofing Napoleon III and the hapless members of the courtier class around him. But it also suggests a pervasive French fantasy: that cultural differences are really more like costumes, and that underneath those exotic garbs, which are amusing but insubstantial, all people want to be French—or at least to live the life of pleasure as the French conceive it. When things are set aright, as they must be at the end of any comic play, all will sing together as one. All will be dissolved in the irresistible cheer of a French republican chorus.

More here.

Yanis Varoufakis: Why we must save the EU

Yanis Varoufakis in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_1841 Apr. 10 20.02The first German word I ever learned was Siemens. It was emblazoned on our sturdy 1950s fridge, our washing machine, the vacuum cleaner – on almost every appliance in my family’s home in Athens. The reason for my parents’ peculiar loyalty to the German brand was my uncle Panayiotis, who was Siemens’ general manager in Greece from the mid-1950s to the late 1970s.

A Germanophile electrical engineer and a fluent speaker of Goethe’s language, Panayiotis had convinced his younger sister – my mother – to take up the study of German; she even planned to spend a year in Hamburg to take up a Goethe Institute scholarship in the summer of 1967.

Alas, on 21 April 1967, my mother’s plans were laid in ruins, along with our imperfect Greek democracy. For in the early hours of that morning, at the command of four army colonels, tanks rolled on to the streets of Athens and other major cities, and our country was soon enveloped in a thick cloud of neo-fascist gloom. It was also the day when Uncle Panayiotis’s world fell apart.

Unlike my dad, who in the late 1940s had paid for his leftist politics with several years in concentration camps, Panayiotis was what today would be referred to as a neoliberal. Fiercely anti-communist, and suspicious of social democracy, he supported the American intervention in the Greek civil war in 1946 (on the side of my father’s jailers). He backed the German Free Democratic party and the Greek Progressive party, which purveyed a blend of free-market economics with unconditional support for Greece’s oppressive US-led state security machine.

More here.

Rational reproduction

Natasha Loder in More Intelligent Life:

BabyMartin Varsavsky, a serial technology entrepreneur, takes a radical view of reproduction. “Sex is great, but maybe it is not the best way to make a baby,” he says. This startling proposition is behind his plan to build a network of clinics offering millennials an alternative to the unreliable and unpredictable business of creating offspring the usual way. Varsavsky argues that leaving it to nature is risky, especially when people are breeding later and later (see chart on next page): the chances of conceiving fall, not only for women but for men too. At the same time, the chances of a child being born with Down’s syndrome rise with the age of the mother, and those of a child developing autism or schizophrenia rise with the age of the father. The risks remain tiny, but some people would prefer not to take them.

The technology to improve on nature is developing. Healthy eggs and sperm can be frozen while people are young and stored for use later in life. Freezing sperm is a trivial matter, but freezing eggs requires hormone treatments and minor surgery to extract eggs, which must then be frozen safely and stored for years; later they must be thawed, mixed with sperm to create embryos and implanted. The process can be unpleasant for the women who undergo the treatment, and risky for the eggs, which can get damaged, though freezing techniques are improving and raising the survival rate. The technique was pioneered mainly to help women likely to be rendered sterile by cancer treatments, but there is growing interest in the method as a solution to the problem of the ticking biological clock. Almost 1,000 women in Britain and Denmark were asked about egg freezing in 2014: 19% said they were considering it and another 27% were interested.

More here.