‘Gender-bending’ chemicals found to ‘feminise’ boys

Andy Coghlan in New Scientist:

“Gender-bending” chemicals mimicking the female hormone oestrogen can disrupt the development of baby boys, suggests the first evidence linking certain chemicals in everyday plastics to effects in humans.

The chemicals implicated are phthalates, which make plastics more pliable in many cosmetics, toys, baby-feeding bottles and paints and can leak into water and food.

All previous studies suggesting these chemicals blunt the influence of the male hormone testosterone on healthy development of males have been in animals. “This research highlights the need for tougher controls of gender-bending chemicals,” says Gwynne Lyons, toxics adviser to the WWF, UK. Otherwise, “wildlife and baby boys will be the losers”.

More here.

Oriana Fallaci to Face Defamation Trial

Marta Falconi of the Associated Press:

FallaciA judge has ordered best-selling author Oriana Fallaci to face trial on charges of defaming Islam in her recent book “The Strength of Reason,” the writer and an attorney in the case said Wednesday.

The case arose after Muslim activist Adel Smith charged that “some of the things she said are offensive to Islam,” said Smith’s attorney, Matteo Nicoli. He cited a phrase from the book that refers to Islam as “a pool … that never purifies.”

Fallaci, who is in her 70s, said she is accused of violating an Italian law that prohibits “outrage to religion.”

More here.

Why is America still so prone to wars of religion?

From The Economist:

In 1782, a French immigrant named Hector St John de Crèvecoeur predicted that America was destined to be a much more secular place than Europe. In America “religious indifference” was rapidly becoming the rule, and “the strict modes of Christianity as practised in Europe” were being lost. “Persecution, religious pride, the love of contradiction, are the food of what the world commonly calls religion,” he argued. In America, their absence meant that religious passion “burns away in the open air, and consumes without effect.”

Suffice to say that de Crèvecoeur has not found a place alongside Alexis de Tocqueville as an anatomist of the American soul. In Europe religion doesn’t rise to the level of burning away “in the open air”; in fact, it barely smoulders. Most European politicians would rather talk about sexually transmitted diseases than their own faith in God. The hugely bulky European constitution doesn’t mention Christianity.

America’s policymakers, by contrast, don’t seem to talk about anything else. Look at the issues that have dominated the past week: the Supreme Court’s decision to take up an abortion case, George Bush’s threat to veto a bill on stem cells, even the tortuous debate about filibusters. Religion is at the heart of each one…

More here.

C. Hitchens, finest English critic of his generation…

David Herman reviews Love, Poverty and War by Christopher Hitchens, in Prospect:

Review_hitchens_1With the publication of his fifth collection of essays, it is time to acknowledge that Christopher Hitchens, as well as an exceptional political polemicist, is also one of the best literary and cultural critics of the past 20 years. Put his introduction to the late Saul Bellow’s Augie March next to Martin Amis’s and there is no doubt which cuts closer to the centre of Bellow’s achievement. Compare Hitchens’s essay on Michael Ignatieff’s Isaiah Berlin biography with any other review, and Hitchens’s hatchet job is easily the best. As the politically correct brigade denounced Larkin and Kingsley Amis, Wodehouse and Waugh, Hitchens fought a lonely battle on behalf of a very English, mid-20th-century canon. It is time to take Christopher Hitchens seriously…

More here.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Experts Campaign for Long, Pointy Knife Control

John Schwartz in the New York Times:

Knife184The authors of an editorial in the latest issue of the British Medical Journal have called for knife reform. The editorial, “Reducing knife crime: We need to ban the sale of long, pointed kitchen knives,” notes that the knives are being used to stab people as well as roasts and the odd tin of Spam.

The authors of the essay – Drs. Emma Hern, Will Glazebrook and Mike Beckett of the West Middlesex University Hospital in London – called for laws requiring knife manufacturers to redesign their wares with rounded, blunt tips.

The researchers noted that the rate of violent crime in Britain rose nearly 18 percent from 2003 to 2004, and that in the first two weeks of 2005, 15 killings and 16 nonfatal attacks involved stabbings. In an unusual move for a scholarly work, the researchers cited a January headline from The Daily Express, a London tabloid: “Britain is in the grip of knives terror – third of murder victims are now stabbed to death.” Dr. Hern said that “we came up with the idea and tossed it into the pot” to get people talking about crime reduction. “Whether it’s a sensible solution to this problem or not, I’m not sure.”

More here.

Immortality is within our grasp

David Smith in The Observer:

Aeroplanes will be too afraid to crash, yoghurts will wish you good morning before being eaten and human consciousness will be stored on supercomputers, promising immortality for all – though it will help to be rich.

These fantastic claims are not made by a science fiction writer or a crystal ball-gazing lunatic. They are the deadly earnest predictions of Ian Pearson, head of the futurology unit at BT.

‘If you draw the timelines, realistically by 2050 we would expect to be able to download your mind into a machine, so when you die it’s not a major career problem,’ Pearson told The Observer. ‘If you’re rich enough then by 2050 it’s feasible. If you’re poor you’ll probably have to wait until 2075 or 2080 when it’s routine. We are very serious about it. That’s how fast this technology is moving: 45 years is a hell of a long time in IT.’

More here.

Scientists analyze Archimedes text at accelerator center

Keay Davidson in the San Francisco Chronicle:

A super-X-ray beam in Menlo Park is literally shedding new light on the achievements of an ancient titan of math and engineering who lived almost 23 centuries ago.

Just as today’s scientists learn the latest developments from journals such as Science and Nature, scholars circa A.D. 1000 consulted scientific writings etched in ink on goatskin parchments. A millennium later, time has seriously eroded these inky ruminations of scholars who perhaps scribbled within earshot of chanting monks, feudal lords, suffering serfs and armor- clanking knights.

Those old writings are being recovered thanks to scientists at Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. With excruciating slowness and care, they have begun using a beam of X-ray radiation no thicker than a human hair to scan a goatskin parchment known as the Archimedes Palimpsest. It’s of unusual interest because it shows how advanced mathematics — the so-called Queen of the Sciences — was in ancient times, at least in the mind of a legendary mathematician.

More here.


Elbert Ventura in The New Republic:

In the new documentary Tell Them Who You Are, director Mark Wexler trains the camera’s gaze on his father, Haskell Wexler, legendary cinematographer and, it turns out, ambivalent parent. A tribute that doubles as an exorcism of a legacy, the movie veers from biography to autobiography: what seemed at first a simple hagiography becomes a painful exploration of father-son tensions. After reenacting a lifetime’s worth of resentments, the two men fumble toward something like reconciliation. That “closure,” with all its hackneyed implications, is reached should hardly be a surprise. Less a depiction of the healing process, the movie is in fact the healing process itself, the catalyst that brings about their rapprochement. It’s filmmaking as therapy–and it feels no less flimsy than the counterfeit epiphanies of a Dr. Phil session.

With its weakness for the confessional and hunger for histrionics, Wexler’s movie is hardly unique. It is, however, an exponent of a newly ascendant genre in American movies. Embracing the first-person, Wexler has made a filmic memoir, equal parts confession, critique, and psychoanalysis. It’s an approach that can be seen in other notable movies of the last couple of years…

More here.

Amartya Sen and the Search for 100 Million Missing Women

Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt in Slate:

What is economics, anyway? It’s not so much a subject matter as a sort of tool kit—one that, when set loose on a thicket of information, can determine the effect of any given factor. “The economy” is the thicket that concerns jobs and real estate and banking and investment. But the economist’s tool kit can just as easily be put to more creative use.

Consider, for instance, an incendiary argument made by the economist Amartya Sen in 1990. In an essay in the New York Review of Books, Sen claimed that there were some 100 million “missing women” in Asia. While the ratio of men to women in the West was nearly even, in countries like China, India, and Pakistan, there were far more men than women. Sen charged these cultures with gravely mistreating their young girls—perhaps by starving their daughters at the expense of their sons or not taking the girls to doctors when they should have. Although Sen didn’t say so, there were other sinister possibilities. Were the missing women a result of selective abortions? Female infanticide? A forced export of prostitutes?

Sen had used the measurement tools of economics to uncover a jarring mystery and to accuse a culprit—misogyny. But now another economist has reached a startlingly different conclusion. Emily Oster is an economics graduate student at Harvard who started running regression analyses when she was 10 (both her parents are economists) and is particularly interested in studying disease. She first learned of the “missing women” theory while she was an undergraduate…

More here.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Mother India’s son is no more: Sunil Dutt dies in his sleep

Sunildutt90_2 Sunil Dutt, one of Bollywood’s best known faces, Union Sports Minister and five times MP, passed away in his sleep today following a heart attack. The 75-year-old, who shot to fame with his role in the classic Mother India, is survived by his actor-son Sanjay and daughters Namrata and Priya. Family sources said Dutt, who would have turned 76 on June 6, had not been well ever since he returned from Kanpur where he had a heatstroke. He did not surface this morning at 7 am as he normally did. At 11 am, his family decided to check on him. The family doctor who was called in declared him dead. 

Sunilduttdeath_2 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who flew to Mumbai, described Dutt as a ‘‘colourful and charismatic’’ personality and a celebrity in the world of cinema who touched the hearts of millions with his purposeful and socially relevant roles in films. ‘‘Deeply influenced by our ethos and traditions, he brought to bear on his thinking and outlook the liberal, secular and Gandhian values of our society,’’ Singh said.

More here.

Miller’s Walden

From The Harvard Gazette:

Walden The life and writings of Harvard graduate Henry David Thoreau have for a century and a half spurred writers, artists, naturalists, and everyday citizens to engage more deeply with the natural world. One such person is Scot Miller, a native Texan whose nature photography has taken him all over the United States and Europe.

Palette A new exhibition, “Thoreau’s Walden: A Journey in Photographs,” featuring Miller’s photography shot over a five-year period at Walden Woods immerses the visitor in the beauty and solitude that triggered Thoreau’s provocative “Walden.”

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Americas had seventy ‘founding fathers’

From Nature:

Native The first people to colonize the Americas were a band of just 70 hardy explorers and their families, a genetic study suggests. Analysis of Native Americans’ genes shows that their ancestors represented just a tiny fraction of the Asian population at the time. This intrepid group is thought to have made the arduous journey across a long-lost land bridge between Siberia and Alaska about 14,000 years ago. The research suggests that this entire group might have numbered just 200 people, since experts generally expect populations to be about three times the size of the group that ultimately pass on their genes.

“The number of founders might be a surprise to some, although we knew that there was a bottleneck of some magnitude,” says Jody Hey of Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, who carried out the study. The fact that the most plausible way on to the American continent involved a trek through the frozen north probably meant that few attempted the journey.

More here.

Female spiders exploit double-barrelled sperm storage

From Nature:

Redback_2 Female redback spiders are not the most sympathetic of lovers: they routinely begin to eat their suitors before they’ve had a chance to finish mating. And now research shows that their internal anatomy also helps them get one over males, by influencing which mates get to fertilize their eggs. The female redback (Latrodectus hasselti) has two organs for storing sperm, called spermathecae, explain Lindsay Snow and Maydianne Andrade, of the University of Toronto in Canada. Although biologists already knew about these twin sperm sacs, they had not investigated how they affect the issue of paternity when a spider mates with more than one male. The two sperm sacs help to prevent a male from stealing a mating advantage simply by being the first to court a female, Snow and Andrade suggest. A male has two sperm-depositing organs, called palps, that correspond to the female’s two sperm sacs, although he can use only one palp in a mating session. A male tends to break off the end of his mating palp inside the female’s sperm sac, partly blocking its entrance, the researchers say. “This functions as a plug, a kind of chastity belt,” explains Paul Hillyard, curator of arachnids at the Natural History Museum in London. Having two sperm sacs may therefore give females extra choice over who fathers her young, Snow and Andrade say. If one of the sacs is blocked by a mate, a subsequent partner can still be given the opportunity to deposit his sperm in the other.

More here.

Scientists study how music stirs memories

From MSNBC:Music

A new study backs the obvious notion that a song can evoke strong memories. It also reveals that you don’t even have to hear a song for the past to come flooding back. In fact, most people have an amazing ability to effectively hear songs that aren’t even being played. The new study involved 124 people, average age 19, who were asked to choose from a list of old songs and pick the one that evoked the strongest memory. One group just saw the title, another saw the lyrics, the third saw the album cover or a photo of the artist. A fourth group heard a snippet of the song.

The participants ranked the vividness of their memories. The recollections were extremely clear for each group, said researcher Elizabeth Cady. “Music is a big cue,” she concludes. You can test the power of song titles right now. But beware, one of these could ruin your day:

  • “The Theme from Gilligan’s Island”
  • “Mission: Impossible”
  • “We Will Rock You”
  • “The Macarena”

These ditties, along with “Small World,” were cited in a 2001 study by James Kellaris at the University of Cincinnati as among the most common that get stuck in peoples’ heads. 

More here.

Whitman: 150

Virginia Quarterly Review on Leaves of Grass 150 years later. The following from Diane Ackerman’s contribution:

Whitman really wrote only one poem, although he added to it throughout his life and sometimes made separate books of it. It was the great poem of being, the great epic of life in America in the 19th century, in the solar system, in the Milky Way, in the infinite reaches of space. He began with a microscopic eye focused on the beauty of the lowliest miracle, say a leaf of grass, and then stretched his mental eye out to the beauty of the farthest nebulae. An earth-ecstatic, he was not a churchgoer, but deeply religious. If there is no choired Heaven in his poems, there is also no death: “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, / If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.” He taught his contemporaries and his latter-day children, such as Loren Eiseley, a new way of prayer.

Air Guitar


Having witnessed the spaz bacchanal of New York’s regional Air Guitar Championship, I’d like to see a statistical graph of the relative fortunes of performance art and air guitar. My hunch is that factor analysis would reveal a strong negative correlation between the two. That is, as performance art declined into masturbatory irrelevance in the 1980s and ’90s, air guitar—a far more honest type of masturbatory irrelevance—rose like David Lee Roth in midair split. Take the politics out of performance art, after all, and you’re left with untrammeled histrionics, potential nudity, and indiscriminate fluids (bodily or otherwise)—and you can get all that from an air guitar competition.

More here.

Mr and Mr and Mrs and Mrs

James Davidson in the London Review of Books:

What needs to be confronted is not so much the juxtaposition of intra-sex with inter-sex pairings but the imposition of the homophobic (properly speaking) notion that the one is an imposture – a threatening parody – of the other, Black Odile distracting the Prince from White Odette, a ‘pretended family relationship’ in the words of Section 28, which undermines the authentic coinage. In case that seems like homophobophobia on my part, let us remember what Norman Stone foresaw for Denmark when it legalised gay marriage in 1989: ‘Its population will consist of golden oldies watching porn videos. The only people to get married will be the gays, and the only people to have children will be the Kurdish immigrants.’ No wonder American voters were so worried about gay marriage. The Kurds are coming! Remember the Danes!

More here.

Highest functions of brain produce lowest form of wit

David Adam in The Guardian:

Dr Shamay-Tsoory, a psychologist at the Rambam Medical Centre in Haifa and the University of Haifa, said: “Sarcasm is related to our ability to understand other people’s mental state. It’s not just a linguistic form, it’s also related to social cognition.”

The research revealed that areas of the brain that decipher sarcasm and irony also process language, recognise emotions and help us understand social cues.

“Understanding other people’s state of mind and emotions is related to our ability to understand sarcasm,” she said.

More here.

syzygy and cats and dogs

John Roach in National Geographic:

050523_moonquakeCan the moon cause earthquakes? …James O. Berkland is a Glen Ellen, California-based geologist and editor of Syzygy—An Earthquake Newsletter. He believes the gravitational tugs of the moon, sun, and other planets can influence earthquake activity. Berkland said he has accurately predicted tremors based on factors such as syzygy…

Using syzygy and other factors—such as the number of cats and dogs listed in the lost and found in newspaper classified advertisements—Berkland said he accurately predicted several earthquakes, including the October 17, 1989 earthquake in San Francisco, California. Berkland said the number of cats and dogs reported missing goes up prior to an earthquake. The numbers went up significantly prior to the 1989 San Francisco quake, he said.

More here.

Fuel for the New Millennium

Karen Epper Hoffman in MIT’s Technology Review:

As a future fuel source, hydrogen inspires a lot of hope — and more than a little wariness. But one New Jersey startup has developed a hydrogen-powered fuel cell technology for portable devices that it’s promising can be as safe and even longer-lasting than today’s batteries.

Millennium Cell of Eatontown, N.J. has developed a proprietary process that uses sodium borohydride — a chemical synthesized from borax, a mineral commonly found in laundry detergents — to produce hydrogen. Stored in its liquid form, the sodium borohydride solution is passed through a chamber containing a proprietary catalyst, and hydrogen is released as needed. Millennium Cell doesn’t make the actual fuel cells, but instead partners with different fuel cell manufacturers that license its system.

More here.