The Truth About Autism

David Wolman in Wired (I highly recommend watching the video):

The YouTube clip opens with a woman facing away from the camera, rocking back and forth, flapping her hands awkwardly, and emitting an eerie hum. She then performs strange repetitive behaviors: slapping a piece of paper against a window, running a hand lengthwise over a computer keyboard, twisting the knob of a drawer. She bats a necklace with her hand and nuzzles her face against the pages of a book. And you find yourself thinking: Who’s shooting this footage of the handicapped lady, and why do I always get sucked into watching the latest viral video?

But then the words “A Translation” appear on a black screen, and for the next five minutes, 27-year-old Amanda Baggs — who is autistic and doesn’t speak — describes in vivid and articulate terms what’s going on inside her head as she carries out these seemingly bizarre actions. In a synthesized voice generated by a software application, she explains that touching, tasting, and smelling allow her to have a “constant conversation” with her surroundings. These forms of nonverbal stimuli constitute her “native language,” Baggs explains, and are no better or worse than spoken language. Yet her failure to speak is seen as a deficit, she says, while other people’s failure to learn her language is seen as natural and acceptable.

And you find yourself thinking: She might have a point.

More here.  [Thanks to Harry Walsh.]

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

State Subsidized Gender Reassignment Surgery, In Iran

In Foreign Policy:

Last fall, Passport noted that more sex-change surgeries are performed in Iran than in any other country except Thailand. Ayatollah Khomeini approved them for “diagnosed transsexuals” 25 years ago, and today the Iranian government will pay up to half the cost for those in financial need. Former FP researcher David Francis wrote, “In a country that shuns homosexuality, this makes perverse sense, as after a sex-change operation, one technically isn’t attracted to one’s own sex and therefore isn’t gay.”

For more, see here.

[H/t: Jonathan Kramnick]

On Open Minds and Equal Time

My old professor Akeel Bilgrami once remarked that he didn’t get the fetish of being “open minded.” “I don’t keep an open mind on whether the Earth is flat,” he said to drive the point home. This isn’t that bad, but Sean Carroll spells out a similar problem with the fetish of “equal time.”

Arts & Letters Daily is a useful website, sort of a proto-blog, that brings together links to all sorts of interesting articles about, you know, arts and letters. If you follow it just a little bit, a decided political bent becomes clear, as you read headlines like “Do professors indoctrinate students by expressing a political ideology in the classroom?” and “Ask any soul-baring 40-year-old single woman what she most longs for, and she likely won’t tell you it’s a better career or a smaller waist: she wants a man and a baby…” The site’s impresario, Denis Dutton, is a right-tilting philosopher and entrepreneur, who occasionally enjoys ranting against the postmodern obscurantism of the left-tilting academy.

But Prof. Dutton has apparently discovered that a touch of relativist anything-goes-ism can be useful in certain circumstances: in particular, when science is telling you something you don’t want to hear. These days, science is telling us that we are bollixing up the planet by dumping tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The very idea that the unchecked engines of capitalism could somehow lead to something bad, rather than all-pervading and unalloyed good, offends Prof. Dutton’s free-market sensibilities. So he has launched Climate Debate Daily, where both “Calls to Action” and “Dissenting Voices” are given equal time in a different free market, this one of ideas.

William F. Buckley, 1925-2008

He was someone I disagreed with on almost everything and many of his ideas horrify me. Yet, in the wake of O’Reilly and Hannity, I do find myself missing Firing Line, to my own shock, which I suppose is something to be shocked by. In the NYT:

Mr. Buckley’s greatest achievement was making conservatism — not just electoral Republicanism, but conservatism as a system of ideas — respectable in liberal post-World War II America. He mobilized the young enthusiasts who helped nominate Barry Goldwater in 1964, and saw his dreams fulfilled when Reagan and the Bushes captured the Oval Office.

To Mr. Buckley’s enormous delight, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., the historian, termed him “the scourge of liberalism.”

In remarks at National Review’s 30th anniversary in 1985, President Reagan joked that he picked up his first issue of the magazine in a plain brown wrapper and still anxiously awaited his biweekly edition — “without the wrapper.”

“You didn’t just part the Red Sea — you rolled it back, dried it up and left exposed, for all the world to see, the naked desert that is statism,” Mr. Reagan said.

“And then, as if that weren’t enough,” the president continued, “you gave the world something different, something in its weariness it desperately needed, the sound of laughter and the sight of the rich, green uplands of freedom.”

Here, Buckley v. Vidal, and Buckley v. Chomsky:

Déjà vu in belgrade


Driving down the Danube side of the city to my lunch appointment I saw the only Belgrade mosque, damaged by fire in a nationalist attack in 2004 and since restored, sternly guarded by a police division that had closed the entire street at both ends with a full bus of police reinforcement in anti-riot gear on stand by. Entering the nearby Theatre Museum, I remembered how I had been scheduled to give a lecture there in 1988 or 1989, on a day when Milosevic called another mass anti-Albanian protest in front of the parliament building. In the morning, I’d panicked when I could not buy milk for my baby daughter – all the stores were closed in the morning and the employees forced to march to the rally – and in the afternoon I had lectured on the history of Shakespeare productions through the centuries to some 30 people who sought sanity and diversion in the museum, while the echo of a huge angry mob could be heard outside, only a kilometre or so away. Now Belgrade was experiencing a re-run of the same hate-inducing theatrics, the same mis-en-scene of protest and destruction, the same careful orchestration of nationalist anger and the same outpouring of rabble-raising rhetoric by politicians, Orthodox bishops, academics and artists alike, filmmaker Emir Kusturica inevitably among their ranks.

more from Sign and Sight here.

art and the albatross


There’s Yves Klein’s blue, Anselm Kiefer’s black, and Jasper Johns’ gray. Dare one say that Klein’s blue is gloriously French, Kiefer’s black is dismally German, and Johns’ gray derives from the flag of the defeated Confederacy, of which Johns, being from South Carolina, is a native son? No doubt it’s an all too naïve and simplistic interpretation, but it suggests the point I want to make: Johns’ gray is about self-defeat — the self-defeat of modernism, its dead-ending in a hallucinatory whimper. Wearing the vestment of gray, it becomes what Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner called “the Night-mare Life-in-Death.” Johns is an ancient modernist mariner: corroded by gray, his alphabet, flags, maps and numbers decay into hallucinatory oblivion even as they remain charged with nightmarish life by his painterliness.

It is an increasingly rancid, ruthless painterliness: John Coplans once said to me that there was not a gesture of Johns’ that was not full of contempt. But I think it is the angry indifference (and pessimism) of Duchamp, which Johns celebrated as “hilarious” — ironic comedy: Duchamp plus gesturalism — intellectualism plus impulsiveness (Idea Art plus Abstract Expressionism) — is the formula of Johns’ art.

more from artnet here.

james wood on fugitive lives


Ever since the attack on the World Trade Center, we have all heard a lot about “the Professor,” the chilling anarchist in Conrad’s “The Secret Agent,” who walks around with a bomb strapped to himself and one hand on the detonator. Far more attention has been paid to this ruthless fanatic—unsuggestively reprised by Cormac McCarthy as Anton Chigurh, in “No Country for Old Men”—than to Verloc, the harried, soft, pithless entity who is the novel’s actual protagonist. But Verloc is more interesting than the Professor because he is so much less confident. The Professor is an arrow; Verloc is a target, helplessly bearing the gouges of the various assaults made on him. He works for the anarchists, but he also works against them, as a double agent; he is despised by his handler at the embassy, and feels bullied into following the diplomat’s order to blow up the Greenwich Observatory, a job that he fatally bungles; he is a minor London shopkeeper, who sells pornography under the table; he moves through his shabby domestic existence sluggishly, as if under water.

more from The New Yorker here.

Dear Irrational Reader: Close the Door!

Yesterday Azra posted a fascinating article which seems to have been largely ignored, at least judging from the lack of comments on it, so I invite you to have another look:

John Tierney in the New York Times:

Let’s make a deal: Door Number 1? Door Number 2? Or Door Number 3?

Screenhunter_02_feb_27_1354The choice is yours when you try to rack up points in an experiment being run by Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at M.I.T. — who, by the way, is not trying to bring back Monty Hall’s “Let’s Make A Deal ” TV show. This is a different three-door game and does not have any new cars or donkeys behind the doors. It takes just a couple of minutes, and you’ll get your score at the end.

To play, click here. I’ll write about the experiment in my Findings column this coming Tuesday. [Ed note: That was yesterday.]

First try playing the game by clicking the link above, then go here for Tierney’s comments.

Food Containers Leach a Potentially Harmful Chemical

David Biello in Scientific American:

Screenhunter_01_feb_27_1309Bisphenol A (BPA) is a ubiquitous compound in plastics. First synthesized in 1891, the chemical has become a key building block of plastics from polycarbonate to polyester; in the U.S. alone more than 2.3 billion pounds (1.04 million metric tons) of the stuff is manufactured annually.

Since at least 1936 it has been known that BPA mimics estrogens, binding to the same receptors throughout the human body as natural female hormones. And tests have shown that the chemical can promote human breast cancer cell growth as well as decrease sperm count in rats, among other effects. These findings have raised questions about the potential health risks of BPA, especially in the wake of hosts of studies showing that it leaches from plastics and resins when they are exposed to hard use or high temperatures (as in microwaves or dishwashers).

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found traces of BPA in nearly all of the urine samples it collected in 2004 as part of an effort to gauge the prevalence of various chemicals in the human body.

More here.

Ted Kennedy on Torture

From the Brennan Center for Justice:

581pxted_kennedy_official_photo_porThe Bush administration’s approach to torture has betrayed everything America stands for. Its implausible reinterpretations and repeated violations of prohibitions against torture undermine our commitment to the rule of law. Its refusal even to disclose its practices to Congress undermines our commitment to checks and balances. Its dishonest claims to have rejected torture undermine our commitment to government accountability.

By passing the Detainee Treatment Act in 2005 and the Army Field Manual provision yesterday, the Senate has registered its clear opposition to these policies. I introduced legislation to apply the Field Manual’s interrogation standards government-wide in August, and I’ve worked since then with a broad coalition of Senators and outside groups to make this reform a reality. Particularly notable was the leadership of our current military leaders, Judge Advocates General, and retired generals in explaining-through personal meetings and through the media-why the Field Manual approach is the most realistic way to develop a lawful and effective interrogation policy.

Congress was moved to act when Attorney General Mukasey refused during his confirmation process to acknowledge that waterboarding is unlawful. The outrage increased when the Director of National Intelligence said that waterboarding would be torture if used against him, but then refused to say that it would be unlawful if used against others. The last straw was the President’s astonishing claim that waterboarding is lawful and might be used again.

More here.

Malcolm X (1925-1964)


X_young_2 Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. His mother, Louis Norton Little, was a homemaker occupied with the family’s eight children. His father, Earl Little, was an outspoken Baptist minister and avid supporter of Black Nationalist leader Marcus Garvey. Earl’s civil rights activism prompted death threats from the white supremacist organization Black Legion, forcing the family to relocate twice before Malcolm’s fourth birthday. Regardless of the Little’s efforts to elude the Legion, in 1929 their Lansing, Michigan home was burned to the ground, and two years later Earl’s mutilated body was found lying across the town’s trolley tracks. Police ruled both accidents, but the Little’s were certain that members of the Black Legion were responsible. Louise had an emotional breakdown several years after the death of her husband and was committed to a mental institution. Her children were split up amongst various foster homes and orphanages.

Malcolm was a smart, focused student and graduated from junior high at the top of his class. However, when a favorite teacher told Malcolm his dream of becoming a lawyer was “no realistic goal for a nigger,” Malcolm lost interest in school. He dropped out, spent some time in Boston, Massachusetts working various odd jobs, and then traveled to Harlem, New York where he committed petty crimes. By 1942 Malcolm was coordinating various narcotic, prostitution and gambling rings.

Eventually Malcolm and his buddy, Malcolm “Shorty” Jarvis, moved back to Boston, where they were arrested and convicted on burglary charges in 1946. Malcolm placated himself by using the seven-year prison sentence to further his education. It was during this period of self-enlightenment that Malcolm’s brother Reginald visited and discussed his recent conversion to the Muslim religious organization the Nation of Islam. Intrigued, Malcolm studied the teachings of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. Muhammad taught that white society actively worked to keep African-Americans from empowering themselves and achieving political, economic and social success. Among other goals, the Nation of Islam fought for a state of their own, separate from one inhabited by white people. By the time he was paroled in 1952, Malcolm was a devoted follower with the new surname “X.” He considered “Little” a slave name and chose the “X” to signify his lost tribal name.

Malcolmx_2 Intelligent and articulate, Malcolm was appointed a minister and national spokesman for the Nation of Islam. Elijah Muhammad also charged him with establishing new mosques in cities such as Detroit, Michigan and Harlem, New York. Malcolm utilized newspaper columns, radio and television to communicate the Nation of Islam’s message across the United States. His charisma, drive and conviction attracted an astounding number of new members. Malcolm was largely credited with increasing membership in the Nation of Islam from 500 in 1952 to 30,000 in 1963.

The crowds and controversy surrounding Malcolm made him a media magnet. He was featured in a week-long television special with Mike Wallace in 1959, The Hate That Hate Produced, that explored fundamentals of the Nation of Islam and Malcolm’s emergence as one of its most important leaders. After the special, Malcolm was faced with the uncomfortable reality that his fame had eclipsed that of his mentor Elijah Muhammad.

Racial tensions ran increasingly high during the early 1960s. In addition to the media, Malcolm’s vivid personality had captured the government’s attention. As membership in the Nation of Islam continued to grow, FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) agents infiltrated the organization (one even acted at Malcolm’s bodyguard) and secretly placed bugs, wiretaps and cameras surveillance equipment to monitor the group’s activities.

X_and_ali Malcolm’s faith was dealt a crushing blow at the height of the civil rights movement in 1963. He learned that Elijah Muhammad was secretly having relations with as many as six women in the Nation of Islam, some of which had resulted in children. Since his conversion Malcolm had strictly adhered to the teachings of Muhammad, including remaining celibate until his marriage to Betty Shabazz in 1958. Malcolm refused Muhammad’s request to keep the matter quiet. He was deeply hurt by the deception of Muhammad, whom he had considered a prophet, and felt guilty about the masses he had lead into what he now felt was a fraudulent organization.

When Malcolm received criticism after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy for saying, “[Kennedy] never foresaw that the chickens would come home to roost so soon,” Muhammad “silenced” him for 90 days. Malcolm suspected he was silenced for another reason. In March 1964 he terminated his relationship with the Nation of Islam and founded the Muslim Mosque, Inc.

Malcolmking1 That same year, Malcolm went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The trip proved life altering, as Malcolm met “blonde-haired, blued-eyed men I could call my brothers.” He returned to the United States with a new outlook on integration. This time, instead of just preaching to African-Americans, he had a message for all races.

Relations between Malcolm and the Nation of Islam had become volatile after he renounced Elijah Muhammad. Informants working in the Nation of Islam warned that Malcolm had been marked for assassination (one man had even been ordered to help plant a bomb in his car). After repeated attempts on his life, Malcolm rarely traveled anywhere without bodyguards. On February 14, 1965 the home where Malcolm, Betty and their four daughters lived in East Elmhurst, New York was firebombed (the family escaped physical injury).

At a speaking engagement in the Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965 three gunmen rushed Malcolm onstage and shot him 15 times at close range. The 39-year-old was pronounced dead on arrival at New York’s Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. Fifteen hundred people attended Malcolm’s funeral in Harlem at the Faith Temple Church of God in Christ on February 27, 1965. After the ceremony, friends took the shovels from the gravediggers and buried Malcolm themselves. Later that year, Betty gave birth to their twin daughters. Malcolm’s assassins, Talmadge Hayer, Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson were convicted of first-degree murder in March 1966. The three men were all members of the Nation of Islam.

The legacy of Malcolm X has moved through generations as the subject of numerous documentaries, books and movies. A tremendous resurgence of interest occurred in 1992 when director Spike Lee released the acclaimed Malcolm X movie. The film received Oscar nominations for Best Actor (Denzel Washington) and Best Costume Design. Malcolm X is buried at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.

Fertile wives find single men sexy

From Nature:

Womenbar_2 Women beware: instinctive preferences might up the odds of getting pregnant when cheating on a partner. In a study looking at the ever-interesting (and ever-mysterious) question of why women are attracted to certain men, researchers found that sexual interest shifts with a partnered woman’s menstrual cycle. When fertile, women in relationships are most attracted to single men; when infertile their attraction shifts to coupled men.

The reason, the researchers suggest, is that coupled women who are thinking of having an affair (even when asked to think about it by researchers) subconsciously select a man who is more likely to be a willing partner when they are fertile. Courting a coupled man may be both a waste of time — as he is less likely to participate in an affair — and hazardous, as there is a greater chance of getting caught. “Ancestral women who felt more attracted to a single man than to an already coupled one would have been more likely than others to succeed and transmit this preference to their daughters,” says Paola Bressan of the University of Padua in Italy. “These subconscious preferences are apparently still with us.”

More here.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Poverty and Brain Development

Mauricio Delgado over at the Scientific American blog:


Membership in a high social class is thought to contribute to good mental well-being and physical health. Low socioeconomic status, in contrast, increases one’s vulnerability for developing psychiatric or chronic medical conditions, research suggests. Various aspects of socioeconomic status could affect personal health in different ways, but most scientific attention has focused on the role of stress. Surprisingly, the most stressful part of being of lower socieconomic status might not be feelings of deprivation, as might be expected, but rather the subjective perception of our lower social standing.

Although epidemiological associations between low socioeconomic status and stress, and their consequences on mental health have been well documented, there have been fewer attempts to understand the neural pathways through which status and stress may interact in human society. That is the goal of the intriguing study by Peter Gianaros and colleagues entitled “Perigenual anterior cingulate morphology covaries with perceived social standing.” Gianaros and colleagues take advantage of the idea that the subjective perception of low socioeconomic status is a strong predictor of future health. They use a computational structural neuroimaging method to investigate if brain volume of neural substrates linked to stress varies according to perceived social standing.

Act Responsibly: Don’t Vote!

Wendy McElroy on why (via Crooked Timber):

Act Responsibly: Don’t Vote! That’s not a bumper sticker you’re likely to see in coming weeks. Instead the ballot will be revered like a religious object and voting will be declared a duty. But what if the ballot is just one more government form to fill out? What if the most politically powerful act is to say “no” by tearing the form in half?

This November, most people won’t “do it” in the voting booth despite attempts to shame them. They will spend the time on activities that enrich their lives: buying groceries, playing with children, catching up on work. Even the recent primary, which was supposed to reflect a galvanized and outraged Democratic Party, drew only about 11.4 percent of those eligible to vote. The Republican primary fared worse with a record low turnout of about 6.6 percent.

If war itself can’t motivate people to put a checkmark in a box, it is time to consider non-voting from a radically different perspective. Maybe non-voters are right.