body shots of 180-proof ideas

Monday, April 19, 2004   Mobile thinkness

Hey. Wanna hear some really exciting hott news? thinkness has moved, thanks to movable type and the generous efforts of nagu. I haven't quite finished up everything, and I'm still moving a few recent posts, but regular posting will start up again there soon (if you call thinkness 'regular,' in any sense of the word).

Don't look here ever again, or your hands will freeze in typing position for the rest of your life. But check the new site often, or your brain will freeze in the off position for even longer.

posted by soma | Monday, April 19, 2004

Thursday, April 15, 2004  

Nature of the beast

Former Harvard Professor Christian Schwabe has a whole different idea about how evolution works, though he can't get any folks in the mainstream science world to even give it a look.

His "genomic potential hypothesis" is "the idea that life on Earth arose not from a single, random-chance event, but from multiple, predictable, chemical processes...

"Rather than a world of diversely adapted species with one common origin, Schwabe saw each modern species as the ultimate expression of its own independent origin."

It's like each organism is its own Platonic ideal? Scientifically, I'm skeptical. But thematically, it's beautiful. Applies well to the timeless Monkey vs Robot duality.

posted by soma | Thursday, April 15, 2004

  Teach me all the ways of umami

Yum. An umami seminar.

posted by soma | Thursday, April 15, 2004

Tuesday, April 13, 2004  

The Good Life

Wow, this is a really interesting essay written by Martin Seligman, the president of the American Psychological Association. So much of interest in here; it'll take me a while to internalize much of it. Some good points:

- I'm pretty impressed by how open-minded he seems. If this guy is at the center of American psychology, the field must have some good stuff going on.

- I like the breakdown of the three types of satisfaction he talks about: the pleasant life -- pleasure, positive emotion, hedonistic joys, smiling and giggling, orgasm, etc.; eudaemonia -- the good life mentioned by Aristotle and Jefferson, the pleasures of contemplation and conversation, it leads to feeling "flow," "you're one with the music," centers around finding your strengths and jiggering your life to take advantage of them; the pursuit of meaning -- the attachment of yourself to something bigger than you are, finding your greatest strengths and using them for that is bigger than you are.

- Six universal clusters of strengths/virtues that apply for all of humanity and are centered around these qualities: wisdom and knowledge, courage, love and humanity, justice, temperance and moderation, and spirituality and transcendence. I see some potential problems with trying to universalize all human virtues, but it's an interesting idea.

- Objectively testing whether certain "interventions," or psychological/spiritual practices, lead to lasting happiness. This comes along with some of the potential problems of scientific hubris, but again quite interesting.

- A great story about a lizard, who is now my hero. As Jack says, "I wanted to put a bullet between the eyes of every panda that wouldn't fuck to save its species."

- He talks about how psychology has been only aimed at making the miserable less miserable. Now he wants to use "positive psychology" to make happier the people who are generally okay already, potentially through therapy or drugs. Seems bold to me that such a prominent figure in the field would go in for this, because it is contrary to some of the liberal-Enlightenment ideas about society. I took an interesting class in college about virtue and liberalism. We explored some of the tension between the equality fostered by liberalism and the urge to achieve human greatness. If some people are especially virtuous (meaning exceptional, not goodhearted), does that chip away at equality? Liberalism tends to go in the direction of explaining the root causes of all that happens, de-mystifying and equalizing things. We define deviancy downwards and propagate grade inflation. Liberal societies tend to focus on drawing lines showing what is unacceptable rather than showing what is preferred. Liberalism tends to point toward fixing problems rather than revelling in greatness, which is why it romantics push back against it. And it is surprising to hear about psychologists going in this other direction, of increasing happiness rather than decreasing sadness.

posted by soma | Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Monday, April 12, 2004  

The proof has left the pudding

Apparently, my favorite saying is wrong. "The proof is in the pudding" is supposed to be, "the proof of the pudding is in the eating." According to some guy named John Powers, anyway.

And I have been misusing the word livid. (And did I just misuse "apparently?")

The article's interesting, but one wonders if it's really sort of pointless to carp about the language changing and new words and definitions coming into play. The goal of language should not be navigating around a lot of rules. Livid's first definition -- one I've never heard -- is "black and blue." I've always used it to mean angry, which is the third definition. But is it really bad that it has multiple meanings now? Who cares?

I think that we should be rational here and pound misusages only when they actually cause problems. I don't see that using livid to mean angry is wrong, because it could still mean black and blue. I can't stand it, however, when people mix up infer and imply, because that can actually lead to confusion. And I can't stand that awesome has no meaning any more, because it was a great word, and was the only word that meant exactly that.

As for "the proof is in the pudding," it is just a lot more folksy than Powers' version. I'm all for language having a better flow, and the saying just goes better like that. Heaven forbid that we should all end up sounding like classist Victorian grammar Nazis.

posted by soma | Monday, April 12, 2004

Sunday, April 11, 2004  

The pervasive logic of death

The Pope, in his annual Easter address, tried to dissuade people from following a "logic of death" in Iraq and other violence-filled areas.

That's a heck of a statement coming from a guy who heads a religion whose symbol is a frickin crucifix. Whatever, guy.

posted by soma | Sunday, April 11, 2004

Thursday, April 08, 2004  

Cat is man's second-best friend

Cats were buried along with humans in Cyprus
almost 10k years ago, seeming to push back the amicable relationship between the two species significantly further than previously known. (Human-dog relations seem to go back around 12k years.)

I've talked a lot with people recently about how certain species have profitably moved into the unique ecological niche that are the regions around human communities. Pretty interesting stuff.

posted by soma | Thursday, April 08, 2004

Tuesday, April 06, 2004  

Anglophone GM-phobia

Sure, we Americans love technology and are relatively happy to take biotech foods. But the Aussies and Canucks are not diving in so eagerly. An interview with the vice president of the National Farmers Union of Canada shows they've tried the stuff and they for the most part don't like it. This story gets into some interesting points about how we think about farming, how we think about international trade of foods, and all this kind o' business.

posted by soma | Tuesday, April 06, 2004


Dog bites man; teevee bites child

Recent studies show that ever hour per day of teevee that a toddler watches makes them 10% more likely to develop ADHD by age 7. This is really not very surprising at all, but it's good when those science guys can confirm our intuition. Guess we can add toddlers to the list of this invention's casulaties.

posted by soma | Tuesday, April 06, 2004


Better bananas through biotech

The bananas we currently eat are all from the same breed, the Cavendish. In fact, these bananas are all identical twins, planted and grown from clippings of sterile banana plants. Over the past few decades that almost the entire world has created this banana monoculture, more and stronger pests are lining up to dig in on this massive flock of clones. And farmers use more and more pesticides to keep the bugs at bay, but it's getting harder and harder for them to win. (Farmworkers and the soil take much of the brunt from this chemical warfare.)

David Ewing Duncan wrote a very good story about scientists trying to develop a GM banana that will resist the worst bugs. Interesting stuff. It's seemed that much of the fight about GMOs recently has centered around whether transgenes will spread into conventional farmers' crops -- witness the brouhaha over growing biopharm rice in California and the Vermont bill that would hold biotech companies liable for any transgenic pollution of conventional crops. But transgenic bananas would avoid that problem, as the GMO bananas are still sterile; you want transgenic bananas, you gotta clip a stalk and plant it.

What's more transgenic bananas may offer a greater advantage than other transgenics, seeing as the crop is in danger of getting wiped out, anyway.

Some banana experts say that biotech may be helpful, but that more standard crossbreeding will be more beneficial in the long run.

New Scientist first brought the endangered-banana issue to my attention last year. (Their article is in the pay archives, but others covered their coverage.)

posted by soma | Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Friday, April 02, 2004  

Stunted Americans

I was just about to blog about a genetically engineered super rat that escaped in Michigan until I realized it was an April fool's joke. I'm an idiot, clearly, so take everything I say with a shaker full of salt, credulous reader.

But what I did want to say was that Burkhard Bilger wrote an interesting piece in the current New Yorker about diet, health, and the height of various peoples. It is a well-written piece, but I've got to say the science in it ain't so good. Is it fast food that is keeping Americans short? What is the good quality of a good diet? Calories? Nutrients? Huh?

I don't really buy that there is not very much difference in the genetic potential for different heights in different peoples, as is suggested by the piece. Perhaps I'm clinging to old, outdated notions, but that's just not true, damnit. North Europeans have tall genes! They just do. Crappy diets will, of course, prevent them from reaching their lofty genetic potential (height).

So is this what you get when you leave the science to the literary types -- a pretty story that entertains well enough, but doesn't really mean anything scientifically?

posted by soma | Friday, April 02, 2004


Biomimetics is cool

Don't have much to say about this summary of biomimetics by David Pescovitz. I suspect there's about a million other biomimetics efforts out there, no?

posted by soma | Friday, April 02, 2004

Wednesday, March 31, 2004  

Neural Darwinism

Edward Rothstein's NYTimes review of Wider Than the Sky, Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman's book about the nature of human consciousness. Rothstein gently chides Edelman for trying to shoehorn his complicated theory into a meager 148 pages; Rothstein's 2-page summary of that doesn't make a lot of sense to me. I'll have to check it out.

Anyone else read it?

posted by soma | Wednesday, March 31, 2004


Correct liberal bias

This is an old thought I wanted to catalog a while ago. I had been reading a few screeds from conservative types bitching that academia has such a terrible liberal bias, blah blah, same shit they say about the media.

Then I come across a David Brooks column in which he talks about the liberal bias -- as you'd expect, in gentler terms than the real battle axes of the right -- and unintentionally, I think, revealed what's really going on here:

"Conservative professors emphasize that most discrimination is not conscious. A person who voted for President Bush may be viewed as an oddity, but the main problem in finding a job is that the sorts of subjects a conservative is likely to investigate — say, diplomatic or military history — do not excite hiring committees."

I think what's really at the heart of this is that most academic studies are simply by their nature more suited to liberal ways of thinking. Think, for instance, of a liberal and a conservative looking at poverty in a society. Conservatives tend to say it comes down to individual responsibility. Liberals tend to look at the root causes that lead to poverty. Ending the conversation by attributing things to individual responsibility is not going to lead to much academic investigation, and academics, like everyone else, know how not to run themselves out of a job. Liberals, though, will argue for decades about what exactly is the reason for pervasive poverty, becoming increasingly more obscure as they tunnel through the ivory tower.

In a rebuke to Brooks, Christopher Shea pointed out in the Globe Ideas section that the bias was subject-related: 'Brooks speaks broadly of bias in the "humanities or social sciences." But what about, say, economics departments? If you wander from a meeting of the Modern Language Association to an economics conference, you exchange a world in which "market logic" is a punchline for one in which it's mostly an article of faith.'

I think it interesting that this widespread bias, which I would agree does exist, is an emergent phenomenon caused by the sum effect of individual, non-coordinated actions by academics. And I would argue that it is a good thing, at least to some degree, because conservative attitudes would not lead to the deepest exploration of many of the humanities and social sciences.

Of course, it can go too far the other way. More on this to come soon.

posted by soma | Wednesday, March 31, 2004


Neuromarketing marketing

Douglas Rushkoff, in his blog (thanks for the pointer, Chun), takes another whack at neuromarketing, which I posted about in October, and the NYTimes then quickly yanked away.

He spends a minute saying that neuromarketing is scary, yes, and aren't these advertisers just dodgy.

But then he makes the interesting claim that neuromarketing may just be so much bullshit that won't really work. So the fracas over all this stuff actually makes it seem to companies that neuromarketing is this all-powerful tool. 'Hey, if Ralph Nader hates it, it must be great.' The neuromarketers, Rushkoff says, have done a bang-up job only in their marketing of neuromarketing to stupid companies. Interesting.

But I wonder: If they are so good at marketing things to companies, might they also be good at marketing things to people? Or do they really not give a shit about what people think? It is the companies that pay them, not the people. How weak is the connection between advertising and results?

Am I still writing? Jeezus.

posted by soma | Wednesday, March 31, 2004


Internet saves us all

Allow me to wax overenthusiastic about the Internet for a moment.

Like so many things in life, the Internet was cool, and then discovered, and then everybody went hogwild with, and it got overhyped and played out and sucked. But, fact of the matter is, that it's really powerful from a human-discovery standpoint. I think that some of its advantage, in terms of journalism, are becoming clearer.

I've seen many blogs recently criticize journalists' propensity to mistake objectivity with neutrality. In many cases, politicians think they can wipe their asses with scientific consensus by using a little, idiotic shred of non-credible to fool many reporters (working on tight deadlines) into falling into the typical he-said, she-said formula.

Two sites have recently re-ignited my faith in the Internet leading to a new kind of journalism:, and The Campaign Desk. The both provide a similar sort of non-partisan news-analysis perspective, and really take aim at the idiotic neutrality that looks dumber and dumber in the mainstream press.

Blogs are, of course, a good addition to the journalistic discourse. But I'm especially liking the viewpoint brought by these two sites, which ditch political opinion for reasonable question-settling.

posted by soma | Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Sunday, March 28, 2004  

Dr Aas does poop transplants

Gene Weingarten's new column in the Washington Post is one of the funnier things I've ever read. Any further explanation will probably take away from it. Just read this and get transported away to that happy place.

posted by soma | Sunday, March 28, 2004

Saturday, March 27, 2004  

Orgasmatron has arrived!

Remember that part of Woody Allen's Sleeper when Woody hides (alas, by himself) inside the Orgasmatron, the device that couples use in the future to have clean, no-contact, antiseptic sex? Well, they're getting close:

The [Slightest Touch] stimulates the nerves sending gentle pulses up the woman's leg for between 10 and 30 minutes leaving women on the verge of climax.

"The Slightest Touch does not provide an orgasm," said Cherisse Davidson, the company's director of customer support.

"It gently stimulates the sexual nerve pathways taking the woman to a pre-orgasmic plateau where she dangles on the edge of orgasm for as long as she wants...

Ms Davidson, who first tested the device three years ago, insists it is effective.'

posted by soma | Saturday, March 27, 2004


Fall of the Public Intellectual

I first became acquainted with David Brooks' writing about a year and a half ago when I came across his story Patio Man and the Sprawl People in the Weekly Standard. The piece made a lot of sense to me, and I was frankly surprised that someone at the Standard could be so eminently reasonable, even if I disliked his prediction that US sociology would increase Republican control over the federal government.

I then saw his work popping up more often, usually doing similar sociological journalism. People referred frequently to his book Bobos in Paradise, which dubbed the members of the new wealthy class "bobos" -- bourgeois bohemians. His star was in the steep part of its ascent in 2002, and it hit the top a little while later when he became a columnist at the NYTimes.

Sasha Issenberg just wrote a story for Philadelphia magazine criticizing Brooks' journalism, especially in his influential story One Nation, Slightly Divisable that explained the difference between Red America and Blue America in the December 2001 Atlantic. Issenberg goes through Brooks' reporting -- much of which is based in Pennsylvania's Franklin County -- and finds that many of the specifics are slightly to very wrong. (Whoever titled Issenberg's piece "Boo-boos in Paradise" gets a tip of the hat from me.)

Issenberg did get Brooks on the phone to ask him about the errors, and Brooks said Issenberg was being too particular about a work that wasn't supposed to be a very specific investigated piece. Issenberg writes:

'He accused me of being "too pedantic," of "taking all of this too literally," of "taking a joke and distorting it." "That's totally unethical," he said... "I tried to describe the mainstream of Montgomery County and the mainstream of Franklin County. They're both diverse places, and any generalization is going to have exceptions. But I was trying to capture the difference between the two places... You've obviously come at this from a perspective. I don't think if you went to the two places you wouldn't detect a cultural difference."'

What Brooks says makes a fair amount of sense to me. It makes sense that this piece wasn't exactly correct in its points. But that did get me to wondering what it was Brooks was actually doing. He says Issenberg at one point distorts a joke he made. How much of Brooks' writing is a joke? At one point Brooks says people in red country wear sleeveless shirts, and Issenberg points out that this observation was the basis for a joke previously used by the somewhat funny comic Jeff Foxworthy, whose whole shtick was to make fun of rednecks.

Wonkette, who originally pointed me toward this story, sums it up well, in responding to Brooks' claim that Issenberg's reporting is 'unethical': "Yeah! We hate it when that happens. When someone, like, builds a career on interpreting literally a gross stereotype of middle America? Ew. And then gets all pedantic about it? Maybe even lectures potential Democratic candidates on how they should behave? That sucks!"

Perhaps this explains why Brooks' writing makes sense -- he's trading on stereotypes and updating them a little bit for the Bush II era? (There's a great part from a Simpsons episode in which a black stand-up comedian makes a hoary, cornball joke about how white people drive like dorks with sticks up their asses. "It's true," Homer says, laughing hysterically. "We're so lame!") Is Brooks simply re-working stand-up comedy for the Atlantic and the NYTimes?

Maybe. I don't really have a problem with him doing that. The problem, really, is in how that now everyone seems to think Brooks is a genius for this. Issenberg also explains this, and I agree with her/his(?) piece, so I don't really need to go too deep into this. Issenberg points out that prominent federal judge Richard Posner listed Brooks as the 85th highest-profile public intellectual. Is he actually an intellectual, or just a stand-up comic who is a geeky white guy (let's check his driving!) and therefore writes his jokes in snooty publications? (Posner's list of course has a lot to do with his own biases. Larissa MacFarquhar wrote a great profile of him in the New Yorker, claiming he's "more attracted to rhetoric than to proof," and Adam Liptak pointed out in the NYObserver that Posner thinks it's okay that "public intellectuals are often careless with facts and rash in prediction."

Issenberg suggests public intellectuals ain't what they used to be:

'Richard Florida, a Carnegie Mellon demographer whose 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class earned Bobos-like mainstream cachet, nostalgizes a time when readers looked to social scientists in academia for such insights:

'"You had Holly Whyte, who got Jane Jacobs started, Daniel Bell, David Riesman, Galbraith. This is what we're missing; this is a gap," Florida says. "Now you have David Brooks as your sociologist, and Al Franken and Michael Moore as your political scientists. Where is the serious public intellectualism of a previous era?"'

Interestingly, Richard Florida has recently come under attack for making mistakes in The Rise of the Creative Class that are pretty damn similar to what he seems to be criticizing in the not-serious public intellectualism. Christopher Shea recently wrote in The BoGlobe Ideas section about the Florida backlash (no, nothing to do with the election).

I'm almost dumb enough to suggest that the Internet will democratize information and let people do their own social judgments. It won't happen, of course, because people don't want to put in that much time; we need gatekeepers to interpret data and make conclusions. Still, I've found some interesting stuff just over the past few days:

- Most literate American cities
- 2004 Presidential election predictor (sadly, and almost unbelievably, this blogger's parents died in a drive-by attack in Iraq a week after I first looked at his site)
- Richest towns in America (5 Bay Area towns are not identified, btw)

posted by soma | Saturday, March 27, 2004

Friday, March 26, 2004  

The triple mixer

A Kerry financial advisor said, "each plank in and of itself is not a silver bullet, but a building block toward a comprehensive plan."

Everybody got that?

The best thing I've seen since Ari Fleischer's triple mixer back in October.

posted by soma | Friday, March 26, 2004


Smell is the biggest and best

People overlook the importance of smell at their own risk. We may be predominantly visual/verbal creatures, but smell connects our big cortexes with our most animalistic insides. Never forget...

Oh, and I have specifics for you, kind reader. Fear not! First, recent research shows how a particular olfactory defect is connected with the onset of Alzheimer's: "According to researchers, the sense of smell is one of the first casualties of the disease as it begins its cell-by-cell assault on the human brain. A smell-based early detection test might let patients be treated earlier and more effectively, they say."

Basically, scientists made mice that overproduce a protein called tau that interferes with the brains of people who have Alzheimer's. And the poor mice couldn't tell rotting meat from "meadow forest" and "vanilla orange spice," which are presumably really quite nice smells. (I'm being slightly creative with the test procedure here -- enjoyable as the scent of meadow forest, no?)

The Independent takes the opportunity to point out that aromatherapy may be useful psychologically, mostly because of olfaction's deep connection with emotion and memory. The article does point out, interestingly, that olfaction seems to take a subservient role to sight and hearing in terms of rational understanding of our surroundings. (You might say that smell accesses a more "monkey", concrete, or analog part of the brain.)

And speaking of monkeys, a study shows that "sexy smells" (uh huh) make male monkey brains go into overdrive -- and not just the horny parts, but also the more complicated areas that process decision-making and cognitive reasoning. (Is thinking about sex inherently complicated? Too bad Sex in the City isn't around to address this question any more.) This test is especially interesting because marmoset monkeys, the ones in the studies, form pretty similar social groups to humans'.

posted by soma | Friday, March 26, 2004


Drugs? Genetic engineering!? Run for the hills!!

After a big pot bust, the San Diego Union-Tribune says, "Most of the cannabis, which was genetically engineered to be considerably stronger than ordinary marijuana, was grown in rental properties in such residential areas as Del Mar, Mira Mesa and Rancho Penasquitos, Vigil said." [Emphasis mine.]

(Sigh.) I was really curious about this at first. Am I missing out on some groundbreaking pot? No, this is just cannabis that's been bred to have more THC in it -- like almost all the pot found in the Bay Area, for instance, or any decent pot anywhere in the world. Like all pot since the 70s, really, when people began making better -- ie, more potent -- strains. This use of breeding -- idiotically called "genetic engineering" here -- actually makes cannabis less bad for people, because they need smoke less of the plant to get the same high, and sucking on burnt anything is bad for you.

Just reminds you how the scientific/media establishment can dovetail so well with anti-drug propaganda, as I mentioned with regard to that pathetic Science report on MDMA.

And yes, the smokers are up in arms: "Isn't the proper term for what the DEA is using called Newspeak or Doublethink?" Yes. Big Brother gonna git yer momma.

posted by soma | Friday, March 26, 2004


Color - Time for wasting

"Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time."

- Bertrand Russell, via Mark Robinson in Wired

posted by soma | Friday, March 26, 2004

Thursday, March 25, 2004  

More on moderate environmentalism

Last week I mentioned the moderate environmentalism depicted in a New Scientist article. I just came across a Wired story by Drake Bennett that talks about Patrick Moore, a founder of Greenpeace who has become disenchanted with the environmental movement, saying its extreme positions are counterproductive.

Here's the essence of his argument: "'There's no getting around the fact that 6 billion people wake up every morning with a real need for food, energy, and material.' It is this fact, he charges, that environmentalists fail to grasp. 'Their idea is that all human activity is negative, while trees are by nature good,' he says. 'That's a religious interpretation, not a scientific or logical interpretation."

This also calls to mind Bjorn Lomborg, the scientist and Greenpeace member who wrote The Skeptical Environmentalist, an argument that environmental dangers are grossly overestimated. Of course, the book precipitated a massive backlash; Grist Magazine made a good clearinghouse for some of the strongest rebuttals to Lomborg.

And The Atlantic Monthly published a quite-interesting story by Jonathan Rauch a few months ago about how biotech crops could be an environmental boon.

posted by soma | Thursday, March 25, 2004

Wednesday, March 24, 2004  

Nibbling humans

New research suggests that part of what makes humans human was a mutation that decreased the size of our ancestors' jaw muscles, which allowed the skull to get bigger. The mutation came around 2.4M years ago, right around the time that the Homo species broke off from the other apes. They say that it might have had to do directly with a change in diet, e.g., if Homo was eating more meat than the other nut-chomping apes. This fits in with a bunch of research that suggests meat-eating was a critical component of the development of humans.

So where does this leave vegetarians? A sub-evolved sub-class? No. Humans had to take a little bit more from Mother Nature in order to get to where we are -- now it's time to give a little back, through eating less meat, burning fewer dinosaurs, etc.

posted by soma | Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Tuesday, March 23, 2004  

English history

I've always been interested in how modern English was formed from Old English and French/Latin influences. This site reveals a quick history about it. Neat stuff.

I'm happy that it mentions that sometime in the 13th century, the French word "moton" came into English as "mutton" (it's "mouton" in modern French). This is part of one of best factoids about the history of English: the names for farm animals are Anglo-Saxon, while the meat that comes from those animals are French. Cow and beef, sheep and mutton, pig (or swine) and pork. This is due to the fact that the Normans were in charge after the invasion. American Heritage says:

The French nobles who ruled England after the Norman Conquest of course used French words to refer to the meats they were served, so the animal called cow by the Anglo-Saxon peasants was called buef by the French nobles when it was brought to them cooked at dinner. Thus arose the distinction between the words for animals and their meat that is also found in the English word-pairs swine/pork, sheep/mutton, and deer/venison.

posted by soma | Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Monday, March 22, 2004  

Color -- Dynastic memories

Talking Points Memo says -- referring to the Bush admin's idiotic clutching to old, Cold War-era threats -- "As Talleyrand said of the restored Bourbons, they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing during their time in exile."

Well said, especially because it's such a good picture of the Bush crowd's mental shortcomings.

posted by soma | Monday, March 22, 2004

Thursday, March 18, 2004  

Science's shame

This blog-post title works for big-S and little-s science. One of the most pathetic episodes in the recent annals of science was this study published in Science that claimed that ectasy (MDMA) was incredibly bad for your brain, much of the monkeys' brains after just one night out on E. Other researchers thought this was a little strange, because if the drug had such dramatic effects we would see millions upon millions of severely brain-damaged zombie-kids wandering the streets (which we don't). They thought it particularly strange that many of the monkeys in the experiment died, which is still a pretty rare result of taking E.

It turned out later that the researchers had confused MDMA with methamphetamine (oops!) and made an enormous, colossal, stupendous error that somehow had made it through the review process of one of the two most prestigious science publications in the world. How this happened is way beyond me. But not the Village Voice. It suggests that the lead researcher, George Ricaurte, is pushing a politically popular anti-drug line which, entirely coincidentally, wins him a lot of money from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

This episode alone is almost enough to make you give up on the whole politico-scientific complex. (Sigh.)

posted by soma | Thursday, March 18, 2004


No-way Nader and Third-way environmentalism

I just came across this New Republic article that slags Nader, saying he hasn't only recently become an idiot -- he's been paranoid, monomaniacal, and disastrously inflexible and disloyal for decades. I believe it.

Reminded me of this good New Scientist article from last year describing moderate environmentalism, which some say is more effective because it turns off fewer stakeholders. Even some big environmental groups are getting into it. Believing that environmentalism is more an approach to getting things done rather than a position for argumentation and a badge of identity, I'm all in support of this.

posted by soma | Thursday, March 18, 2004

Saturday, March 13, 2004  

It takes a grandma to raise lots of children

Having grandmothers around increases the reproductive success of a family. Not terribly surprising, but interesting backup to the idea that strong extended-familial bonds are important for human survival. May also explain why human females are some of the only mammals who live beyond childbearing age.

posted by soma | Saturday, March 13, 2004


Torturous temptation

I'm currently in day 7 of a 10-day fast. I want everything umami in my mouth. Right now.

posted by soma | Saturday, March 13, 2004

Friday, March 12, 2004  

Poop power!

A new type of experimental fuel cell takes human sewage and turns it into electricity. No guarantee this will ever become practical or efficient, but we can hope.

posted by soma | Friday, March 12, 2004

Monday, March 08, 2004  

And another thing...

Speaking of the Union of Concerned Scientists, they are the same group that recently came out with that report saying the Bush administration was consistently ignoring scientific evidence in its decisions.

Reason magazine's Ronald Bailey wrote a sort of critique of that report saying that UCS is somewhat biased, and ignored some evidence that might disagree with its case, and Hey, government will never really heed science's lesson. I must say that Reason's article, while at least being part right, is also part wrong.

There are a couple of process problems with the story, like one very weakly-supported point about the FDA's decision not to approve silicone-breast implants, and a long, meaningless quote about the Office of Management and Budget that should have provided evidence for an important conjecture.

But the big problem is that it takes this newspaper-reporter type of analysis where it says there are some ways in which the Bush administration distorts science, and some other ways the Clinton administration distorted science, so government always does this kind of thing. But the degree to which the Bushies is much greater, and many scientists have legitimately been raising this flag. Bailey's piece doesn't make overt claims that the two administration's were equally non-scientific, but it should more clearly take this into perspective.

posted by soma | Monday, March 08, 2004



Experiments by a group at Purdue found that the release of a genetically engineered fish into the wild could, conceivably, lead to the fish's extinction. They were working with a fish called a medaka that was genetically engineered to grow faster. The GE males outcompeted normal males in fertilizing eggs, implying that in the wild they might turn the population into the genetically altered variety. The group also found that the GE fish's offspring have a certain dying problem and don't always make it to adulthood.

You might wonder if that means it's all fine, because the transgene won't propagate because the GE fishlings die out. But the researchers did a computer analysis of the fish's population dynamics and found that it could drive the species to extinction.

The company that creates these GE fish is also working on making fully sterile ones that would pose no threat to wild populations. Whether it'll work, who knows. But remember that part of Jurassic Park when they are sure the dinosaurs won't reproduce, but life finds a way to do it? As Michael Crichton is my God, I would be wary of this approach.

It's not exactly news, but now might be a good time to point out that the Union of Concerned Scientists recently reported that conventional varieties of canola, corn, and soybeans in the US have become contaminated with a measurable amount of genetically engineered material. No danger as of yet, just something to keep in mind (and supermarket, and bowl, and mouth...)

posted by soma | Monday, March 08, 2004

Thursday, March 04, 2004  

Consciousness components

Alfred North Whitehead, renowned English philosopher and mathematician, broke human consciousness down into 'Instinct, Intellect, and Wisdom.' I like that.

posted by soma | Thursday, March 04, 2004


Mendo no GMO

You know how there's dry counties around the American South? Well, now there's a no-GMO county: Mendocino, California, which illegalized transgenic crops through a referendum, despite the fact that a big biotech trade group spent the better part of a million dollars to defeat it, more than 7 times what the pro-initiative folks spent.

Now activistos [sic] in neighboring Humboldt County are trying to pass the exact same initiative (Sonoma's thinking about it, too), while the biotechers say they will fight against this currently symbolic ban. And they might win, because California has voided previous county bans against particular pesticides. Tune in next week.

(By the way, it turns out to be a bad all-round week for big, pushy corporations in NoCal: Humboldt County voters turned down a recall of District Attorney Paul Gallegos, an effort which Pacific Lumber put $250k behind. Gallegos had sued Pacific, claiming they basically lied and cheated the federal government out of hundreds of millions of dollars. Here's the kicker: Pacific says they funded the recall effort not because Gallegos is causing them problems, but because he's soft on crime. Bwah ha ha ha...)

posted by soma | Thursday, March 04, 2004


Emerging biological truths

Leaf stomata and ants both show complex emergent behaviors based on pretty rudimentary rules, sort of like the simple computer simulation Game of Life. Neato.

posted by soma | Thursday, March 04, 2004

Sunday, February 29, 2004  

Sympathy through war

Oy, it's been a long time. Gurp.

A couple weeks ago I saw The Fog of War, Errol Morris' amazing documentary about Robert McNamara. One thing in particular struck me. Over the past few weeks and months I have been thinking a lot about how powerful and important sympathy is for so many aspects of human existence: compassion, an individual's social well-being, society's well-being, spirituality, etc. (As in this post from a month ago about the Humble Approach Initiative -- it's about humility through sympathy with others.) One of McNamara's lessons is to empathize with your enemy during war. Here's a guy who had a hand in firebombing Japanese cities and getting us into the Vietnam war, in a documentary made by a liberal former campus radical, and he came off looking fairly sympathetic, not least because of his sympathy with the enemy. I remember thinking at times that I had seen soldiers express that kind of sympathy for people they have shot at. In some ways they have no animosity, although they're trying to kill each other.

This Slate article mentions a similar phenomenon in a video game in which you fight against the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Japanese gamers, Clive Thompson says, love the game. They don't care that they're killing their fathers and grandfathers. And it's not a Japanese thing -- he mentions plenty of other games in which people happily blew up their countrymen, even including us superpowerful Americans. It seems that gamers go past the cultural implications of their games, thinking only about the art of war. I suspect at least some soldiers are the same way.

posted by soma | Sunday, February 29, 2004

Tuesday, February 17, 2004  

The source of 'chick power'

In the previous post, I said that Slate's piece on The Apprentice got me started on this kick of thinking about women drawing power from their sexual attractiveness. I had forgotten that last week I saw "Live Nude Girls Unite!", a movie about a strip club here in SF where all the workers unionized, made by one of the girls herself. She saw it as a very empowering step, but her mother was not convinced.

posted by soma | Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Monday, February 16, 2004  

Chick power?

Over the past few days I have been thinking a lot about modern women, feminism and where they're going. It first popped up in my mind when I read Slate's take on The Apprentice, the reality show with Donald Trump which started out with a team of men facing a team of women in a weird capitalism game -- each week they have some kind of money-based competition, and each week the team that loses the competition also loses a teammate, sorta like Survivor. Turns out that the women cleaned up, winning every week. A few weeks into the show they had to shuffle the teams because the poor menfolk didn't have a chance. The thing is that the women did so well by dressing skimpy and exploiting their physical attractiveness. Essentially, they are using the old dynamic of prostitution, although not going through with any actual sex acts.

I have been torn about this sort of topic for a while. Lots of females I know seem to think this is totally fine, that women are smart to use their wiles to acquire stuff and power from men, who are starting out with most of the resources. This clashes sharply with the traditional feminist view of women needing to be respected for their minds and needing to stop men from seeing them as sex objects. I don't really know where I shake out on this issue, but I think it's sort of between the two sides. Politically, I tend to think more like the traditional feminists -- women using their sexual desirability to get things from men are trapping themselves in counterproductive roles.

At the same time, I am all in favor of women feeling free to live their sexual lives and dressing however the hell they want. I don't think it's necessarily bad for women to wear skimpy clothes or sleep with many partners, and straight sex is not necessarily a submissive role for women. I guess what I would hope for is that women could wear want they want, and sleep with whom they want, and not really have that have too much of a bearing on the other parts of their lives, like their profession. I don't really like it that the women on The Apprentice consciously wear belly T's to make money. If they wear them all the time because they like them, that's fine with me. I don't like feeling like the people around me are so exploitative.

I got in a debate with a few female friends over the movie Charlie's Angels. They thought it was fun and liked watching women kick ass. I couldn't help but think that some push for deeper empowerment of women was getting shrunk down into this little trifle. There's nothing wrong with the movie itself, but if that is what popular feminism is left with it's just damn sad.

These questions also arose when I came across this ESPN article about hot female athletes. There's an interesting mix of stuff going on here. First of all, the male author is saying that it's hot for women to play sports, and to be good at them. So we've made some progress. But in the end, one does get the feeling that the ultimate use of a female athlete for a male sports fan is as a sexual object -- it's just that what's sexy has changed from being demure, pretty, and passive; to assertive, toned, and athletic. It's definitely better, leaves a not-the-best feeling in my mouth.

posted by soma | Monday, February 16, 2004

Saturday, February 14, 2004  

In the works

Okay, they're making the bluetooth music transmitter. Give it to me for very little money.

posted by soma | Saturday, February 14, 2004


My umpteenth get-rich-quick scheme

Here it is: you make a plug-in attachment for a portable music player that sends out the audio signal to 6 nearby headsets. That's it. I guess I would use bluetooth for the transmission.

What this does is allows a bunch of people to walk around and all listen to the same music. It's like carrying a ghettoblaster in 1985 except it holds more music, batteries last longer, better sound quality, don't get kicked off the train, and you have your own secret content you're sharing with those people. (Yes, you do lose the 'Talk to me and I'll kick your ass' aesthetic, but it more than balances.)

This seems really obvious to me. Then I thought it would never happen, but bluetooth finally seems to be taking off in cellphones after being stillborn for several years. The Voice says people are now doing iPod swaps when they rendez-vous. Well, for God's sake, let them listen to each other's music at the same time, wirelessly, dammit! How fricking obvious is this?!

You might ask why thinkness has any authority to talk about get-rich-quick schemes. Not so much, but I will say that I thought of MP3 players over a year before they came out. ('It's just a hard drive that plays MP3s. Like a MP3 Walkman.') They laughed at me. Now I laugh at them, although I am locked up in a tiny little padded room.

Other ways to get rich quick: caffeinated beer, tupperware with the lid attached (it folds down and attaches to the bottom when open). If you make a lot of money with my ideas, at least give me a link, eh?

posted by soma | Saturday, February 14, 2004

Wednesday, February 11, 2004  

Life and death, GMO-style

Another interesting trend in genetic engineering is using the technology for targeted assassination, wiping out cells or perhaps even whole species. (And I promise this will be more interesting than yesterday's overly-detailed post.)

Here is some of the bigger stuff that's afoot in this field:

  • Scientists at Duke created a GM virus that attacks and kills brain tumors in mice and "nonhuman primates" within 6 hours. How did they do it? They used the polio virus and changed its internal ribosomal entry site (IRES), which is a sort of key that a virus uses to infiltrate a cell, take control of it, and force it to create more viruses, killing the poor cell. They switched the polio virus' IRES with the virus that causes the common cold, the rhinovirus, which does not affect the brain. The engineered virus still attacks the cancer cells. I don't know the biology so well, but this sounds amazing to me, though I am a little wary of whether the virus may attack a few normal brain cells.

  • Another side of the genetically-engineered virus story is that scientists can create killer viruses. A team at St Louis University spawned a beefed-up mousepox virus that was immune to individual vaccines and killed all mice it infected. They also found a two-drug mixture that protected against the virus. This research follows a similar study from Australia three years ago where researchers accidentally made a mouse-killing super virus but did not find a cure. The researchers say bad guys can make these killer viruses so we should make them first and figure out how to protect against them. Mousepox is very similar to smallpox, "which is believed to have killed more people than all wars and epidemics combined."

  • Other scientists are working on killing out entire species, like the mosquitoes that carry malaria and dengue fever. This is fairly far off, but they're working on making recessive, especially selfish, "knock-out" genes that propagate better than your conventional Mendelian-propagating gene. The gene would spread through the entire population and when any individual has two knock-outs it dies. Not only is it unclear whether this will work technically, it also raises concerns about wiping out species and the potential that knock-out genes could end up in places we don't want 'em.

posted by soma | Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Tuesday, February 10, 2004  

GMOs spreading

Seems to me one of the biggest issues concerning genetically engineered crops is their containability. Transgenes can certainly escape from their intended recipients. [You can use any one of a number of cliches: tough to keep a lid on, Pandora's box, genie back in the bottle, cat out of the bag, etc.] There's been a fair amount of news about this recently and it will be a very important issue into the future.

Roundup of what's going on:

Can gene flow happen?

  • Last fall Science News did a pretty comprehensive summary of what's known about gene flow. The answer is basically yes, genes flow pretty easily through cross-pollination, but this article doesn't discuss horizontal gene flow, i.e., through non-procreative means from one organism to another.
  • A recent study found that 10 out of 25 foods sold as organic or GMO-free in the UK contained measurable amounts of GMO. Six of them were below the legal limit of .1% but 4 were above.
  • The USDA tightened rules on biopharmaceuticals (plants engineered to produce medicines) slightly last year, but the National Research Council said recently that food or feed crops were bad choices for biopharmaceuticals unless they were grown under strict confinement. The fear here is that they will cross-pollinate with normal crops and then -- oops! -- there's morphine in your corn flakes.
What are the government attitudes on GMO spread?
  • Belgium recently rejected an application to grow GMO rapeseed because it might pollinate with non-GMO rapeseed and cause problems for conventional farmers.
  • CrapLife [sic] America, an agribusiness trade group, gave $150k to defeat a measure in California's Mendocino County that would have barred any planting of biotech plants. The other side has so far raised $18k. (Sound familiar? Last year CrapLife gave $3.7M to defeat a measure in Oregon that would've mandated labeling of all foods including biotech.)
  • Germany established preliminary plans for a law that says farmers growing GMOs are liable if their crops contaminate nearby conventional crops through cross-pollination. At least Germany's in its right mind.
  • Earthjustice sued the USDA last year saying the feds should better regulate open-air testing of biopharmaceutical GMOs and do environmental impact statements. Most of the biopharm uses food crops, and all the info about them is kept secret. There have been two problems with biopharm stuff in the Midwest already. (Beware that this is an Earthjustice press release.)
What's the status of GMO-spread litigation?
  • Wired says insurance companies don't want to touch GMO seed companies because the FDA doesn't regulate transgenics -- it says they're "substantially equivalent" to conventional crops, and don't need further oversight. It's pretty unclear how litigation issues surrounding GMOs will work out in the US: Farmers won a $110M settlement against Aventis CrapScience [sic] because it may have contaminated their own crops, and people who said they had allergic reactions got another $6M.
  • One of the biggest spreading-GMO cases around just hit the Canadian Supreme Court last month. It's farmer's seed-saving rights versus corporations' IP rights. We won't hear the decision for months, but it'll be big news. (Here's a long, personal view from Percy Schmeiser, the farmer fighting Mean Mr Monsanto in the case.)

posted by soma | Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Monday, February 09, 2004  

The coalescing Big knock on Bush

I'm seeing a very interesting phenomenon pop up after Bush's Meet the Press appearance. While news outlets mostly carried it pretty drily, just summarizing what he said [transcript for ya], a consensus is building among some pretty shrewd analysts. It's basically the same as the one advanced by Saletan, though not involving the Greek philosophy: Bush is unhooked from empirical reality.

- Saletan said it. ("He doesn't change his mind for anything, whether it's polls or facts... Bush has a difficult relationship with the truth, [as did Clinton]. It's just a different—and perhaps more grave—kind of difficulty.")

- The NYTimes editorial board said it. ("The fuzziness and inconsistency of his comments suggest he is still relying on his own moral absolutism, that in a dangerous world the critical thing is to act decisively, and worry about connecting the dots later.")

- Bob Herbert said it. ("Iraq has shown us the trouble that can lurk in the gaps between reality and whatever it is that George W. Bush believes or says... Mr. Bush would do himself and his country a favor by establishing a closer relationship with reality and a more intense commitment to the truth.")

- Joshua Micah Marshall said it. ("Since he's not willing to confront the debacle of the weapons search, the fiscal mess, or what's happening on the ground in Iraq he comes off sounding evasive, incoherent and out of touch with what's happening on his watch.")

- I've been convinced of it for years. I'm glad to see it picking up steam in the media -- it could form a powerful narrative working against Bush in the election.

posted by soma | Monday, February 09, 2004


Plato, Aristotle; abstract, concrete; digital, analog; monkey, robot

thinkness thinks all the time about differences between abstract and concrete existence. (It first came up overtly in a post about the difference between the 'technical' information contained in a recipe and the 'practical' information stored in a cook's brain.) There are lots of different ways to frame this distinction, like 'abstract & concrete' or 'digital & analog'. 'Monkey versus robot' is the whimsical one I think about that addresses human nature -- our concrete parts sympathize with the monkey, our abstract parts with the robot, and they forever will fight over humanity's soul.

Slate's William Saletan just added another dichotomy to the mix: Plato vs Aristotle. Plato believed in an ideal that existed beyond the material world [represented by his Allegory of the Cave], whereas Aristotle, his student, developed a much different, empirical view of understanding. Bush, he says, is a Platonist because he believes in ideas and cares not a whiff about facts. Saletan cites Dean as first putting forward this observation when he said if the Bushies "have a theory and a fact, and [the two] don't coincide, they get rid of the fact instead of the theory," but Saletan fleshes it out well.

posted by soma | Monday, February 09, 2004

Saturday, February 07, 2004  

Color -- animatronic Lincoln

That's the whole quote right there. It's in reference to John Kerry [who happily points out that his initials are JFK], from Mickey Kaus via Michael Kinsley's latest Slate column. I love animatronics -- there's something so spellbinding about those doppelgangers, that parody of life. Perhaps Kerry would fit in with the Chuck E. Cheese band. Hey, it might be even better if they made a whole animatronic-president band -- Mt Rushmore meets Chuck E. Cheese.

Btw, I really like Kinsley's columns. I'm sure I disagree with him on tons of issues, but I like that his columns don't really answer any questions. They're funny, they draw good connections, and they don't present smug answers. He's the anti-Friedman. [If you're not all news junkies, Thomas Friedman is a columnist for the NYTimes who writes mostly about the Middle East, and mostly in a tone like he is God and this latest column is another fucking testament or something.] The Seattle Weekly just did a good, positive piece on Slate.

Kinsley could fit in with the attitude I like from the Humble Approach Initiative. Friedman is suspect at best.

posted by soma | Saturday, February 07, 2004

Thursday, February 05, 2004  

Too good to go

Technology Review looks at '10 Technologies That Refuse to Die.' I like when people don't buy into unnecessary obsolescence. Of course, it would be nicer if people used less paper [the classical example mentioned in the article].

posted by soma | Thursday, February 05, 2004


Cutter Kennedy

Last year a whole fracas emerged surrounding ads using John Kennedy's likeness to sell Bush's income-tax cut. Kennedy, Bush said, was a tax cutter, and his tax cuts helped the economy. Ted Kennedy, John's younger brother, got pissed. ['Don't you exploit moy brotha, you consahvative ahsshole,' or something like that.] Republicans came out in force to say Bush was right: Kennedy did push hard for tax cuts. Zell Miller, a conservative Democratic senator from Georgia who wrote a book saying the Dems are too liberal, said the Dems don't win in the conservative South -- as Kennedy did -- partly because they love taxes so much.

What gets lost in this debate is what are the actual tax rates. All these Republicans say Kennedy was a tax-cutter. But does that mean he would always be a tax-cutter? Maybe he thought there would be some happy optimal point -- if taxes were above that they should be lowered and if they were below that they should be raised. I mentioned this to my brother the other day and said I thought that the top marginal income-tax rate in 1960, when Kennedy was elected, was something ridiculously high, like 90% [Bush lowered it from 39.6% to 33%]. I said I thought that sounded a little weird, so I just looked it up. I was wrong. The top marginal rate was !94%! when Kennedy came into office. He wanted to lower it to 65%, and Congress settled on 70%. Amusingly, I found this in an article on a libertarian site talking about how Kennedy was one of the few Democrats with a brain because he cut taxes. This point is so dumb I want to cry: Kennedy lowered taxes because they were extremely high. There is no reason one should conclude that because JFK wanted to lower taxes from 94% to 65%, he would also want to lower them from 39.6% to 33%. Maybe he would want to raise them to 50%! Who the hell knows!?

One interesting thing about this, I think, is the sociology of being a 'tax-cutter'. Many economic conservatives [and liberals, I'm sure] seem to think of this as a badge of belonging as much as a policy position with a specific goal. 'Kennedy was a tax-cutter because he lowered taxes to 65%. Bush is a tax-cutter because he wants to lower them to 33%. I am a tax cutter because I am lobbying my senator to lower them still further.' Saying you're a tax-cutter is supporting a certain ideology more than a particular position. But at some point doesn't the tax rate become a question best considered by analysis? [Perhaps at every point??] 'I support freedom and individuals over the government, so taxes should be lower. Bush and Kennedy agree with me, because they lowered taxes.' There's a word for this kind of thinking: facile. I could go on about why a person would need this kind of identity badge, but it's going to get nasty and long-winded, so I'll stop here.

[Btw, The New Republic pointed out an obvious weakness in Miller's analysis: Democrats have trouble in the South now because of racism.]

Color - whatever floats your boat

Regarding his tax cut, Kennedy said, 'A rising tide lifts all boats.'

posted by soma | Thursday, February 05, 2004

the chronic