Wanted: A Few Good Sperm

Jennifer Egan in the New York Times Magazine:

19coverSperm donors, like online daters, answer myriad questions about heroes, hobbies and favorite things. Karyn read her donor’s profile and liked what she saw. “You can tell he comes from a warm family, some very educated,” she said. He had worked as a chef. He had “proven fertility,” meaning that at least one woman conceived using his sperm. Like all sperm donors, he was free from any sexually transmitted diseases or testable genetic disorders. “People in New York change sex partners quicker than the crosstown bus,” Karyn said. “I’d be a lot more concerned about my date next week.” But she especially liked the fact that he was an identity-release donor (also called an “open donor” or a “yes donor”) — a growing and extremely popular category of sperm donors who are willing to be contacted by any offspring who reach the age of 18.

More here.

Ernest Hemingway, secret agent

Peter Moreira in the Toronto Star:

060319_e_hemingway_300Hemingway, however, caught the espionage bug in Asia and didn’t shake it until World War II ended. When he returned to Cuba, he headed an FBI-funded spy ring to monitor Spanish fifth columnists in Havana. Gellhorn nicknamed the operation “The Crook Factory.” After that, he loaded drinking buddies on to his fishing boat with guns and a bomb and plied the Caribbean looking for U-boats.

Later, in France, Hemingway headed a small band of irregulars that moved in tandem with other allied troops heading westward to Berlin.

More here.

Busting people for “public intoxication” in bars

William Saletan in Slate:

Texas is busting people for “public intoxication” in bars. Undercover agents have “infiltrated” 36 bars and arrested 30 drinkers. Explanations from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission: 1) We’re doing it to stop drinkers before they get in a car. 2) Even if they’re not going to get in a car, maybe they’ll “walk out into traffic and get run over.” 3) Or maybe they’ll “jump off of balconies trying to reach a swimming pool and miss.” 4) Anyway, bars aren’t exempt from laws against public intoxication…

Smoking may increase a man’s risk of impotence by almost 40 percent. The correlation shows up in men who smoke more than a pack a day. Smoking up to 20 cigarettes a day correlated with a 24 increase in impotence. Theory: Nicotine and other related chemicals “diminish blood flow to the penis and blood pressure in it.” Bonus finding: Moderate alcohol consumption “significantly reduced” the risk of impotence. (For Human Nature’s previous updates on the benefits of alcohol, click here and here.)

More here.

Deliberative Polling and Policy

In the Boston Review, James Fishkin looks at the problems of transforming public opinion into policy and discusses a way of making better public opinion, “Deliberative Polling”, on which I posted earlier.

After seven decades of public-opinion research, we see both the power and the limitations of this vision. The power is that we can take the public’s pulse on almost every conceivable issue on a regular basis. The limitations come from what is being measured. Consider three basic limitations. First, while everyone may, in some sense, be “in one great room,” the room is so big that often no one is listening, and no one is motivated to think much about the issues. In the 1950s, the political economist Anthony Downs coined a term for this problem: “rational ignorance.” If I have but one vote or opinion out of millions, why should I spend a lot of time and effort becoming informed about complex policy questions? My individual vote or opinion will not make much difference. And most of us have more urgent demands on our time and attention. The public’s well-documented low levels of information might be regrettable to democratic theorists, but they are understandable given the incentives facing any individual citizen.

Second, sometimes the “opinions” reported in polls do not exist. Because respondents do not like to say “I don’t know,” they often pick an answer more or less at random. When George Bishop of the University of Cincinnati asked in surveys about the “Public Affairs Act of 1975,” the public offered opinions even though the act was fictional. (And when The Washington Post celebrated the fictional act’s 20th anniversary by proposing its repeal, the public offered opinions about that as well.) Of course, on some issues the public has well-formed opinions, but on many others their opinions may represent nothing more than spontaneous impressions.

A third limitation comes from the way people choose interlocutors and news sources. Even when people discuss politics or policy—and many Americans do—they tend to talk to people like themselves, from similar social spheres and often with similar views. When an intense issue divides the country and you know someone on the other side, you are more likely to discuss the weather than risk potentially unpleasant disagreements.

“Spirituality” and the Revival of Liberalism

In the Wilson Quarterly, Leigh Schmidt makes the case that hopes for the revival of liberalism rests in “spirituality”, itself an old and important American tradition.

America may be polarized, but in one activity its social critics have achieved a rare unanimity: lambasting American “spirituality” in all its New Age quirkiness and anarchic individualism. The range of detractors is really quite impressive. James A. Herrick, an evangelical Christian author, deplores the “new spirituality” as a mélange of Gnostics, goddess worshipers, and self-proclaimed UFO abductees out to usurp the place of Christianity: all told, a widespread but shallowly rooted challenge to the mighty religious inheritance of the West. The neoconservative pundit David Brooks of The New York Times thinks that a “soft-core spirituality,” with its attendant “psychobabble” and “easygoing narcissism,” is epidemic. Observers on the left are no less prone to alarm. One pair of such commentators warned recently that the rebranding of religion as “spirituality” is part of corporate capitalism’s “silent takeover” of the interior life, the sly mar keting of a private, consumerist faith in the service of global enterprise.

Even many scholars of religion have jumped on the bandwagon. Martin E. Marty, the widely esteemed historian of American Christianity and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, published an opinion piece this past January in Christian Century in which he labeled the “spirituality” versus “religion” debate “a defining conflict of our time.” …

All this criticism of the “new spirituality” has obscured and diminished what is, in fact, an important American tradition, one in which spiritual journeying has long been joined to social and political progressivism. Emerson’s “endless seeker” was, as often as not, an abolitionist; Whitman’s “traveling soul,” a champion of women’s rights; Henry David Thoreau’s “hermit,” a challenger of unjust war. A good sense of the continuing moral and political import of this American vocabulary of the spirit comes from Barack Obama, the recently elected Democratic senator from Illinois. Obama has said that, despite the results of the 2004 election, it “shouldn’t be hard” to reconnect progressive politics with religious vision: “Martin Luther King did it. The abolitionists did it. Dorothy Day did it. . . . We don’t have to start from scratch.”

How Computer Science Is Changing the Scientific Method

In the Economist:

WHAT makes a scientific revolution? Thomas Kuhn famously described it as a “paradigm shift”—the change that takes place when one idea is overtaken by another, usually through the replacement over time of the generation of scientists who adhered to an old idea with another that cleaves to a new one. These revolutions can be triggered by technological breakthroughs, such as the construction of the first telescope (which overthrew the Aristotelian idea that heavenly bodies are perfect and unchanging) and by conceptual breakthroughs such as the invention of calculus (which allowed the laws of motion to be formulated). This week, a group of computer scientists claimed that developments in their subject will trigger a scientific revolution of similar proportions in the next 15 years.

That claim is not being made lightly. Some 34 of the world’s leading biologists, physicists, chemists, Earth scientists and computer scientists, led by Stephen Emmott, of Microsoft Research in Cambridge, Britain, have spent the past eight months trying to understand how future developments in computing science might influence science as a whole. They have concluded, in a report called “Towards 2020 Science”, that computing no longer merely helps scientists with their work. Instead, its concepts, tools and theorems have become integrated into the fabric of science itself. Indeed, computer science produces “an orderly, formal framework and exploratory apparatus for other sciences,” according to George Djorgovski, an astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology…Stephen Muggleton, the head of computational bio-informatics at Imperial College, London, has, meanwhile, taken the involvement of computers with data handling one step further. He argues they will soon play a role in formulating scientific hypotheses and designing and running experiments to test them.

Here is the report “Towards 2020 Science”.

Climate Model Predicts Greater Melting, Submerged Cities

From Scienctific American:Rainbow

Over the past 30 years, temperatures in the Arctic have been creeping up, rising half a degree Celsius with attendant increases in glacial melting and decreases in sea ice. Experts predict that at current levels of greenhouse gases–carbon dioxide alone is at 375 parts per million–the earth may warm by as much as five degrees Celsius, matching conditions roughly 130,000 years ago. Now a refined climate model is predicting, among other things, sea level rises of as much as 20 feet, according to research results published today in the journal Science.

More here:

An Ointment in the Fly

From Science:Fly_3

Viruses are deceptive little buggers, mutating often to dodge their hosts’ immune defenses. Plants fight back using a weapon called RNA interference (RNAi), which rips apart the viral machinery. Now, a new study shows that fruit flies employ the same defense–the first example of animals using this antiviral strategy. According to a related study, the genes behind this resistance are evolving rapidly to keep up with an ever-changing adversary.

For most creatures, RNA is just the middle man that helps a gene make a protein. But many viruses can get by on RNA alone. When they invade a cell, their RNA infiltrates the host’s genetic machinery, tricking it into making viral proteins. Scientists knew that all cells can shred unwanted RNA using RNAi, but they had never observed living animals using this strategy to defend against viruses.

More here:

Marek Kohn

Interview in Ready Steady Book:

Marek Kohn is a Marekkohn_1writer who lives in Brighton. His most recent book, A Reason For Everything: Natural Selection and the English Imagination, looks at the key thinkers behind the development of evolutionary theory in Britain, and why these ideas have thrived better in Britain than in other countries. His previous books have looked at drug culture, race, and the evolution of the human mind. Marek Kohn was talking to Stuart Watkins and Dave Flynn.

RSB: In your most recent book, A Reason For Everything, you talk about the different impact Darwinian thinking has had in Britain compared with the rest of Europe and the US. How do you account for this difference?

Marek Kohn: The distinguishing feature of English evolutionary thought has been its attitude to adaptation. An adaptationist tends to see the work of natural selection in every aspect of an organism – a reason for everything. You see bands on a snail’s shell: you wonder what good the bands do for the snail. And you go out into the field, and you look for possible reasons for them. In the case of the snails there’s a camouflage effect – different coloured or banded shells are better suited to different habitats, such as leaf litter or grass. Not the whole story but a robust example of English adaptationism in practice.

The palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould called this the British “hang-up”, and his colleague the geneticist Richard Lewontin said that it arose in large part from the fascination for butterflies, snails, birds and gardens typical of the pre-war upper middle class from whose ranks these scientists mostly came. True enough, though it doesn’t acknowledge the fascination with natural history that used to run right across the social spectrum. Also one can see its roots in Victorian natural history, which of course is where all this began. As Alfred Russel Wallace observed, it was a fascination with species and the subtle distinctions between them – beetle-collecting – that allowed him and Darwin to realise, independently, how natural selection works.

If by contrast your vision is shaped, as that of their counterparts on the continent was, by idealist philosophy, you are unlikely to see what is going on in nature. Idealism is concerned with ideal types and therefore discounts variation as ‘noise’. You need to be fascinated by variation to see natural selection, because variations are what nature selects.

More here.  [Thanks to Mark Thwaite.]

Giving Children the Vote

Over at Lawyers, Guns and Money, djw has an interesting post on letting children vote.

When I teach American Political Thought, I close with what always turns out to be a vigorous class discussion on Michael S. Cummings essay “On Children’s Right to Vote”* which is a brief, uncompromising case for extending the franchise to those under 18. My pedagogical reason is clear–they’ve all had the luxury of being casually correct and shaking their heads in dismay at the various arguments and justifications for *not* extending the franchise and full citizenship to various oppressed groups. Reading this essay, rightly or wrongly, tends to put most of them on the side of tradition and exclusion. Even those who are 100% convinced the proposal is insane tend to find this new position they find themselves in rather uncomfortable.

But I want to talk briefly about Cummings argument (sorry, it’s not available online) because it’s surprisingly seductive. I’ll summarize it in a series of premises:

1) The exclusion of any group from the franchise requires positive justification, as exclusion based on tradition has a poor track record.

2) The argument that children would take the responsibility of voting less seriously than other groups is an argument we’d reject out of hand if applied to other groups, even if it were empirically demonstrable.

3) The argument that children generally aren’t full economic citizens with jobs and taxes is a) often untrue and more often partially true, and b) is also true of many adults, but we’d never tolerate arguments to disenfranchise the chronically unemployed or dependent adults, and c) is perhaps the point.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Learning from Athens

Josiah Ober in the Boston Review:

The great legacy of the 20th century may be the emergence of democracy as a universal value: the conviction that whenever people are subjected to power, their views about the exercise of that power must be taken into consideration. This democratic principle, it is now widely agreed, is a fundamental moral requirement on the governance of states, global institutions, and even nongovernmental organizations.

But if democracy is now generally regarded as morally superior to other forms of political organization, its effectiveness in delivering the goods remains a matter of sharp contest. How does democracy fare when it comes to assuring physical security, protecting health, and fostering economic growth? We know, for example, from the economist Amartya Sen that famines are all too common under authoritarian regimes but do not occur in democratic states with a free press. Yet Sen also acknowledges that we do not know the effects of democracy on economic growth: “If all the comparative studie s are viewed together, the hypothesis that there is no clear relation between economic growth and democracy in either direction remains extremely plausible.”

Democracy may be right, then, but is it good?

More here.

In the Jungle, the Unjust Jungle, a Small Victory

Sharon LaFraniere in the New York Times:

Africa184As Solomon Linda first recorded it in 1939, it was a tender melody, almost childish in its simplicity — three chords, a couple of words and some baritones chanting in the background.

But the saga of the song now known worldwide as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is anything but a lullaby. It is fraught with racism and exploitation and, in the end, 40-plus years after his death, brings a measure of justice. Were he still alive, Solomon Linda might turn it into one heck of a ballad…

Some 150 artists eventually recorded the song. It was translated into languages from Dutch to Japanese. It had a role in more than 13 movies. By all rights, Mr. Linda should have been a rich man.

Instead, he lived in Soweto with barely a stick of furniture, sleeping on a dirt floor carpeted with cow dung.

Mr. Linda received 10 shillings — about 87 cents today — when he signed over the copyright of “Mbube” in 1952 to Gallo Studios, the company that produced his record. He also got a job sweeping floors and serving tea in the company’s packing house.

More here.  [Mr. Linda leftmost in photo.]

Is happiness genetic?

Nancy Etcoff in Science & Spirit:

17Some people are happier than others, some people seem never to be happy, and others seem glad to be unhappy. In his memoir, Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis contrasts his father’s sentimental, passionate family with his mother’s cheerful clan, which “had the talent for happiness in a high degree—went straight for it as experienced travelers go for the best seat in a train.” In American psychologist William James’ words, “There are men who seem to have started in life with a bottle or two of champagne inscribed to their credit, whilst others seem to have been born close to the pain-threshold, which the slightest irritants fatally send them over.” The question is: What accounts for such enduring individual differences?

One answer comes from behavioral geneticists trying to determine how much of the variance we see in happiness levels may be due to genetic differences.

More here.

Carl Linnaeus: his nomenclatural wantonness, vulgar lasciviousness, and the gross prurience of his mind

Jim Endersby in the Times Literary Supplement:

Tulip_carllinnaeusportraitIn 1771, the Scottish naturalist William Smellie used an article in the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (of which he was the main compiler) to attack the “alluring seductions” of the Linnaean system of plant classification. Smellie accused Linnaeus of taking his analogies “beyond all decent limits”, claiming that the Swedish naturalist’s books were enough to make even the most “obscene romance writer” blush. His outrage was shared by the English naturalist William Goodenough, who was appalled by Linnaeus’s “disgusting names, his nomenclatural wantonness, vulgar lasciviousness, and the gross prurience of his mind”.

The subject of all this moral outrage was the methodus propria (“proper method”) of plant classification, devised by the Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné, better known by the Latinized version of his name as Linnaeus. His system was published in a series of books that started appearing in the 1750s, the most important of which were the Philosophia Botanica (“Philosophy of Botany”, 1751) and the Species Plantarum (“Species of Plants”, 1753). These provided the foundations for all subsequent classification, not least because the two-part Latin scientific names, such as Homo sapiens, that we still use were regularized and – even more importantly – publicized by Linnaeus.

More here.

R. Crumb: Mr. Natural

Ian Buruma in the New York Review of Books:

Crumb_01Great claims have been made for the art of Robert Crumb, creator of Mr. Natural, Angelfood McSpade, Devil Girl, Fritz the Cat, and the Snoid, among other comic masterpieces. Crumb’s Zap Comix is a cultural landmark of the 1960s, as much as the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. “Keep on Truckin’,” the title of a series of drawings of strutting men in oversized shoes, like stoned dancers in a great nationwide cakewalk, became a catchphrase of the hippy era, immortalized in a song by the Grateful Dead. It was so overused that Crumb himself grew heartily sick of it.

Perhaps the greatest, and by now best-known, cartoon character in Crumb’s rich oeuvre is R. Crumb himself, a little mustachioed figure in a tweed jacket and glasses with a rampant penis, playing the banjo, or jumping on large athletic women in tight jeans, or getting beaten up, or masturbating over his own cartoons. R. Crumb, the comic figure, is not quite Mr. Everyman. Rather, he is the artist as loser, the sensitive nerd, who feels humiliated by the handsome bullies who are dumb and cruel but get the girls, while he can only dream about them. That is, until R. Crumb becomes a famous cartoonist and can suddenly do whatever he likes with the “gurls,” which is usually something rather drastic, like slamming them face-down on the floor and riding them like a jockey.

More here.

Western and Muslim worlds clash again

Tom Heneghan in Reuters UK:

Western political leaders and the media have reacted with mounting indignation to the news that a Kabul court threatened to impose the death sentence on an Afghan man who abandoned Islam and converted to Christianity.

Two months ago, political and religious leaders in the Muslim world were rounding on Western European media and governments for printing and defending caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad that they considered blasphemous.

The cases are clearly different. Western leaders from President George W. Bush down have spoken up to save the life of a man whose religious freedom is a universal human right which his judges say is secondary to Islamic law.

More here.

Tackle your cholesterol early

From Nature:Cholesterol

Think you’re too young to worry about cholesterol? Think again. Many people could drastically reduce their future risk of heart disease by lowering their cholesterol levels from as early as their 20s. That’s the bottom line of a study showing that people born with low cholesterol are protected from heart problems. High levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), a molecule that transports cholesterol in the blood, are strongly associated with heart disease. Doctors already know that reducing LDL with exercise or drugs can reduce a person’s risk of heart attack. But it has been harder to find out whether heart health could be improved further by lowering LDL from a young age.

Helen Hobbs at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, and her colleagues saw an opportunity to find out. Last year, they discovered that a fraction of the population are genetically programmed to have low LDL levels, because they carry particular versions of a gene called PCSK9 that help the liver to eliminate LDL cholesterol.

More here.

Sinister secret of snail’s escape

From BBC News:

Crab Snails with left-handed shells can have a big advantage in life – predators may find it impossible to eat them. That is the conclusion of research just published in the Royal Society’s journal Biology Letters. Scientists from the US examined whelks and cone shells preyed on by the crab Calappa flammea. They found the crab is unable to open left-handed shells because it only has a tool for peeling tSnail hem on its right claw; so it discards them. “The crabs have a special tool on their claw, a tooth that’s used like a can-opener,” said Gregory Dietl from Yale University. “So, if you imagine trying to use a right-handed can-opener with your left hand – it’s very hard to do,” he told the BBC News website.
More here.

U.S. stuns Canada at curling worlds

From the Toronto Star:

CurlingCanada’s Kelly Scott missed an opportunity to grab a share of second place Wednesday night after a disappointing effort against the U.S. at the Ford World Women’s Curling Championship.

The troubles for the skip from Kelowna, B.C. began in the second end when Scott was heavy on a draw to score one against Debbie McCormick of the United States and gave up a steal instead. The Americans scored a deuce in the 6th end and picked up another steal in the seventh on the way to a 6-2 victory.

As a result, Canada’s dropped to 6-3 and into a tie with Andrea Schoepp of Germany, who blasted Switzerland 10-3.

More here.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Bill O’Reilly’s baroque period

Nicholas Lemann in The New Yorker:

JoeoreillymadDuring what you could call Bill O’Reilly’s classical period, the first few years of “The O’Reilly Factor”—which débuted in 1996, at the same time as Fox News—O’Reilly seemed to be a recognizable member of the conservative-talk-show-host species, like his Fox stablemate Sean Hannity, or like Joe Scarborough, on MSNBC. He attacked Bill Clinton and Al Gore relentlessly; the Monica Lewinsky scandal was his signature subject. Now, ten years later, O’Reilly has become baroque, and “The O’Reilly Factor” is a complex affair, dense with self-references, obsessions, and elaborations, even though it still delivers a satisfying punch.

O’Reilly is the most popular host on cable news; his average nightly audience is about two million people, while Larry King, on CNN, has an audience about half that size.

More here.