Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day Cat Blogging

My friend Lauren's bengal, Dr. Zaius, in the garden.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Jerry Falwell -- RIP

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Conceive in The Summer, Get a Dumb Kid; or, Why My Job Is Alarming

You'd be forgiven for thinking a news story about how the season a child was conceived is linked to intelligence is a bunch of crump, as JW so memorably called the ethanol study I linked to. But that would only be because you couldn't possibly guess the scientific reason it's probably accurate: pesticide spraying.
When researchers linked standardized test scores of 1,667,391 Indiana students in grades 3 through 10 with the month in which each student had been conceived, they found that children conceived May through August scored significantly lower on math and language tests than children conceived during other months of the year.

The correlation between test scores and conception season held regardless of race, gender, and grade level.

Why might this be? According to Dr. Paul Winchester of Indiana University School of Medicine who led the study, says the evidence points to environmental pesticides, used most often in the summer months, as a possible player.

The lower test scores correlated with higher levels of pesticides and nitrates in the surface water (nearby streams and other bodies of water) during that same time period, he told Reuters Health.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Haunted Manuscripts! The United Nations! The Future of The Novel!

I'm going through an active patch in my free time, so I haven't set aside a good chunk for the old blogorino in a while. Until I finish another book -- although I can't recommend Christopher Isherwood's "The Berlin Stories" highly enough, which I read in the evenings to get through a conference in a strange city -- I might not be able to tell you about any deep feelings or whatever they're called, but I can tell you what's going on in the world. You know what to do.

U.N. Says Biofuels Will Probably Hurt People

This comes on the heels of my other recent post about ethanol, which is a pig in a poke no matter what anyone tells you.

Biofuels like ethanol can help reduce global warming and create jobs for the rural poor, but the benefits may be offset by serious environmental problems and increased food prices for the hungry, the U.N. said Tuesday in its first major report on bioenergy.


The report said bioenergy represents an "extraordinary opportunity" to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But it warned that "rapid growth in liquid biofuel production will make substantial demands on the world's land and water resources at a time when demand for both food and forest products is also rising rapidly."

Changes in the carbon content of soils and carbon stocks in forests and peat lands might offset some or all of the benefits of the greenhouse gas reductions, it said.

"Use of large-scale monocropping could lead to significant biodiversity loss, soil erosion and nutrient leaching," it said, adding that investments in bioenergy must be managed carefully, at national, regional and local levels to avoid new environmental and social problems "some of which could have irreversible consequences."

It noted that soaring palm oil demand has already led to the clearing of tropical forests in southeast Asia.
John Steinbeck Manuscript Found in Dumpy Little Closet

I predicted this in a fever dream several months ago after drinking a bottle of champagne and eating a bar of soap. Ask around.

A handwritten draft of John Steinbeck's novel "Sweet Thursday," along with an unpublished story and other works, will be auctioned by a writer who says they were sitting in a closet for 50 years.


Eisenberg found a 188-page manuscript of "Sweet Thursday," the sequel to Steinbeck's famous "Cannery Row"; a manuscript from another book, "The Log from
the Sea of Cortez"; an unpublished story, "If This Be Treason," set during the McCarthy era; the unfinished draft of a musical comedy called "The Bear Flag Cafe" and carbon copies of 13 Steinbeck letters from 1953.

The collection will be auctioned May 24 in San Francisco in two lots. The auction could generate more than $500,000.
The Novel Is Headed For Oblivion, But Is Better Than TV

This essay is the kind of thing I read all the time, which is why my head is manured with ideas about art and literature rather than pop culture trivia that would probably make for better conversation.

In our Man Booker Prize judging for 2006, however carefully we analyzed our books, however good we agreed our preferred choices were (and we could easily have had a long list of thirty rather than nineteen novels), in the end our arguments came down to matters of taste. The most hotly debated novels on our list (for instance by Nadine Gordimer, Barry Unsworth, Howard Jacobson, Andrew O'Hagan, and Edward St. Aubyn) divided us, finally, not because of objective aesthetic judgements, but because some of us disliked the moral atmosphere of the books, or found them claustrophobic or overinsistent, or were unable to enjoy a particular style of historical recreation, or were irritated by the narrative voice. And there is no accounting for boredom. The critic Jonathan Zwicker writes, in Moretti's collection, of a marginal note scribbled by an anonymous Japanese reader in a 1908 library copy of Tolstoy's newly translated Kreutzer Sonata, whose title in translation was "Chôkon," meaning "long resentment." The marginal note read: "A boring book. Where is the long resentment? The resentment is in having read the book. There is no value in its being translated."

That early-twentieth-century Japanese reader of Tolstoy, just like any judging panel or reading group today, shows that coming to conclusions about the novel is as impure a process as writing one. Indeed that is one of the few aspects of the novel generally agreed on in all these books. "The novel thrives on the impurity of its forms." "Novel writing is not pure." Impurity makes categorization and classification difficult. Yet this is one of the favorite activities of commentators on the novel, at every level. Bookstores organize themselves by genre (Sutherland lists some examples of current British "genres within genres" as "chicklit, ladlit, weepies, creepies, shopping and fucking, docuthrillers.") Reviewers will often reach quickly for typecasting—magical realist, Jamesian, Faulknerian. (It's a mark of fame when an author's surname turns into a genre—Rushdiesque—and of neglect when that usage begins to fade away. You don't hear many writers being referred to now as "Murdochian.") Jacket-copy writers love nothing so much as summing up a new book with a reassuring cliché and placing it in its stable. Reading the formulaic publicity apparatus that came with the Booker-submitted novels, I lost count of the number of times I encountered the "X meets Y" formula, as in "Ian McEwan meets John le Carré" or "Roddy Doyle meets Angela Carter."
Mitt Romney, Torn Between Two Cults

As long as you count Scientology as a cult.

Did Mitt Romney really declare L. Ron Hubbard's Battlefield Earth his favorite novel? Apparently he did.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Iraq

But first, a banana souffle to the first one who tells me where I got the wording of this headline.

This post from the good people at Talking Points Memo, who consistently do some of the best journalism and reportage around, lays out exactly what we need to remember when we're thinking about the state of Iraq. It's nice to be reminded of all the dots and how they connect. To whit (although there's a lot more):

With Harry Reid's controversial 'war is lost' quote and with various other pols weighing in on whether we can 'win' or whether it's 'lost', it's a good time to consider what the hell we're actually talking about. Frankly, the whole question is stupid. Or at least it's a very stilted way of understanding what's happening, geared to guarantee President Bush's goal of staying in Iraq forever. A more realistic description is President Bush's long twilight struggle to see just how far he can go into one brown paper bag.

We had a war. It was relatively brief and it took place in the spring of 2003. The critical event is what happened in the three to six months after the conventional war ended. The supporters of the war had two basic premises about what it would accomplish: a) the US would eliminate Iraq's threatening weapons of mass destruction, b) the Iraqi people would choose a pro-US government and the Iraqi people and government would ally themselves with the US.

Rationale 'A' quickly fell apart when we learned there were no weapons of mass destruction to eliminate.
Chimps Have Evolved More Than Humans -- No Joke

Not much to add, although you should definitely read the whole thing.

Changes in DNA that affect the making of proteins are considered functional changes, while “silent” changes do not affect the proteins. “If we see an excess of functional changes (compared to silent changes) the inference is these functional changes occurred because they were positively selected, because they were useful in some way to the organism,” said study team member Margaret Bakewell, also of UM.

Bakewell, Zhang and a colleague found that substantially more genes in chimps evolved in ways that were beneficial than was the case with human genes. The results could be due to the fact that over the long term humans have had a smaller effective population size compared with chimps.

“Although there are now many more humans than chimps, in the past, human populations were much smaller, and may have been fragmented into even smaller groups,” Bakewell told LiveScience.
Is Freakonomics Any Good? and Who Won the GOP Debate?

First the book, which I haven't even read but am told is very enlightening in a funky sort of way.
A few weeks ago I wrote a piece about how too many academic economists are doing cute and clever work instead of tackling weighty questions. I placed some of the blame for this on Steve Levitt, the University of Chicago professor and author of Freakonomics. Levitt, I argued, was both a leading practitioner of cute-and-clever and a role model to top young economists. Now Levitt has responded with a blog post so strange and incoherent it is almost hard to believe he wrote it.

It's worth pointing out that I wrote my piece feeling ambivalent about Levitt. For one thing, I'm a fan of his work in general and Freakonomics in particular. His papers are consistently entertaining and his book was engrossing, something I'd be hard-pressed to say about most journalists, much less a first-rate economist. For another thing, based on my limited experience talking with Levitt and people who know him, I didn't find him to be anything other than a total mensch. Finally, having briefly languished in a graduate economics program several years ago, I actually thought the profession needed a little spicing up along the lines of what Levitt had introduced. All of these sentiments were reflected in my piece. My concern was simply that, while one or two Levitts were clearly a good thing, diminishing returns had set in as more and more economists had begun to imitate him. Hardly the kind of claim that should make anyone sputter.
Now the reactionary squawk-fest, which was noticeable for the number of people on the stage who raised their hand to say they didn't believe in evolution (I'll let you find out, but the answer is not one or two). There's something for everyone in this analysis:

It was great to hear Mitt Romney speak about a fundamentalist religions like Islam and then praise the “God-loving Americans.” Governor Huckabee, on the other hand, was more subtle on his attack directed towards Romney. According to Huckabee, if a person says their faith doesn’t affect their decision-making (as Romney has said), it implies that their faith isn’t strong enough to affect their decision-making process. Senator Brownback was quick to point out that even Jews like Senator Lieberman are people of faith.

The sense of the group was not to change the Constitution to allow distinguished Governors like Arnold to run the President. Congressman Ron Paul left no doubt that he was the most fiscally conservative candidate on the stage. Congressman Paul who is the only candidate who is a doctor, gave the least medically-based answer to a question about stem-cell research. And Congressman Tancredo left no doubt he hated illegal immigrants more than any of the other candidates.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

My Shameful Philosophical Ignorance, At Last Dispelled

I always sort of wondered whether my ideas about things had a dignified intellectual pedigree. If so, I thought, what is it? If not, how did I cobble together this bunch of nonsense?

It turns out, at least in one important respect, they do have a history, although a sordid and unwelcome one: Immanuel Kant.
"Because a ... community widely prevails among the Earth's peoples," Kant remarked, "a transgression of rights in one place in the world is felt everywhere." John Rawls argued that we should choose society's main rules as if we did not even know which family or ethnic group we belong to. To a pure liberal, if people are dying in a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing, all that matters is that people are dying.
The article, which is actually a New Republic book review, goes on to point out that in practice this doesn't work politically, but it captures exactly how I've always felt. In fact I took it for granted that everyone felt this way. I guess I'm wrong. But I can blame it on an obscurantist, doddering old Prussian now.