Archive for March, 2009

What’s wrong with the world?: Seth Roberts edition

March 30, 2009

Null hypothesis: The reason Seth Roberts and his diet don’t get more respect is because for him to do so might jeopardize a lot of somebody’s profits. Of course, that would require him to be right, about which I have little idea. But his ideas don’t sound especially crazy to me. Why wouldn’t we trust his own self reports and the way he treats them? That’s a big part of what the practice of science is, right?

Do we think NIH-funded science is somehow completely untainted by even the possibility of data fudging? Then how do the merest suggestions of such possibilities result in coverage like this?

Fad diets are always crazy. Until we all start incorporating them into our own. Tell me Gary Tabues or Michael Pollan or Mark Bittman haven’t had some influence on the food you chose to eat today. Check out Seth’s blog and decide what you think of his approach. read about Seth’s diet and decide for yourself. Then try googling “who owns Nabisco” and see for yourself what name comes up top on the search list.

If I’m crazy … nya-nya-nya-nya-nya-nya-nya-nya – you have entered a world beyond sight and sound – you have entered – the marxist zone … then tell me why. I’m legitimately curious!

Stoney McGee time: humor as (reverse?) d*ck measuring contest

March 30, 2009

when men trade jokes back and forth, it’s like a reverse dick measuring contest in that the point is to come up wit the shortest or most efficient possible joke. the one who made the last joke in effect said “i’m better than you.”** i guess it’s more like the game where everybody’s holding a baseball bat and the next person tries to reach a tiny bit higher. the one at the end is holding the knob (whatever it’s name is; i’m sure it has one) – he’s got the weak joke, the one that doesn’t quite fit, i.e., the failed comeback, the “yeah, well, suck it.” it’s like the uncertainty principle. the difference between the information content of the words uttered and the information content of the words implied can’t vary too widely from round to round. the information content  of the words implied increases in a certain way because the added implied words are to the effect of, “oh yeah, well i know that you know that i know …” (huh. so i guess it’s straightforward d*ck measuring after all. anyway:) hence (or something) the pleasure of getting a joke after a time. you walk around under the illusion you won – or fear you may not have. and then – bzzht! – you hadn’t won at all! HE’S keyser soeze.

**I’m being wildly uncharitable to myself and Others. There are (at least) two ways to take an interaction like understand a comic back-and-forth interpret comic sparring. One is negatively, as adversaries. The other positively, as creative partners. “I’m better than you” becomes “you’re all right – no YOU’RE all right” and so on.

Scientists are such navel gazers

March 30, 2009

So I’m scanning the Science Blogs home page when I spot this Neurotopia post on why belly buttons collect lint – a real fluff piece – nyuk nyuk. It’s about a study reported in the journal Medical Hypotheses that made the rounds in mid-March, in which a Viennese researcher collected his belly button lint for three years – he was an innie, I take it – and even shaved his belly to test whether the hair there was the source. Let me ruin it for you: apparently so!

Now what this makes me think is

1. Seth Roberts is a true scientist, because

2. the scientific mind is addicted to curiosity.

As Neurotopia’s Scicurious puts it:

We get hold of a question, and we just can’t let it go! Often, that question is something like “why do pancreatic beta cells in the Islets of Langerhans self-destruct in type I diabetes, but alpha cells are left unharmed?”, or “what are the mechanisms in the brain which bring about the symptoms of depression?” But sometimes, those questions are “why do some people have SO MUCH belly button lint?”

Gabby neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran made the same point in a book I read recently called Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist. It’s a bunch of autobiographical essays by well-spoken scientists and related thinkers. (And edited by John Brockman – natch.) I’d recommend you check it out from the library, like I did.

Oddly, Ramachandran was I believe the only one to make the point about how important raging curiosity is to a scientist. Question: Does that go for all scientists? All science enthusiasts? V.S. also compared himself to a Victorian gentleman scientist – an amateur, in other words – and I kind of respect that. See his contribution to Atul Gawande’s brilliant New Yorker piece about uncontrollable itching.

Freeman Dyson proves that children should be given the vote

March 30, 2009

So you may have seen this f*cking awesome profile of Freeman Dyson in the Times magazine, about which much ballyhoo in some popular regions of the blogosphere. Dyson, if you don’t know, is an old guy who sort of looks like Spock or maybe like that nasty orc from LOTR but a cuter, more English version.

He also thinks it would be cool if airplanes spaceplanes rode on nuclear explosions, and I can’t argue with him there, especially if by “cool” he means effing sweet.

But apparently Dyson doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to climate science, which sort of complicates the premise of the article, to wit, “hey here’s a really smart guy who’s skeptical of climate change harms – we know climate change is bad, but what this article presumes is, maybe it isn’t?”

I thought it my duty to report all this to you, my readers. (Hi, Sue.) The over-achievers among you will want to check out some of the other, more obscure regions of the blogosphere dealing with Dyson’s climate crack-pottery, including his claim that Merry and Pippin know some dudes who might be able to help with the climate thing. Thank you, commenters.

I commend the Times for flushing the fox of Dyson’s ignorance into a clearing so the hounds of expertise might chase it down. It’s the same strategy as one of my favorite blogs.

So anyway: give kids the vote.

Freeman Dyson gives us permission to think

March 29, 2009

If this profile of Freeman Dyson in the Times magazine doesn’t make it into both science writing anthologies, there is no justice in the world. I can’t recommend it enough. The hook is that Dyson doesn’t think climate change is a big deal. But it touches on everything: life, beauty, genius, science, masculinity, war, string theory, expertise, libertarianism, Greek mythology, polar bears, the Obamas.

I once claimed that journalists don’t play favorites. I’m forced to eat my words: Freeman Dyson is officially my favorite scientist. Bar none.

Some immediate reactions:

  • Science is a weapon. 
  • Reasonable people – read: sides of JR’s brain – can disagree about how to frame the potential threats of climate change; or in other words, how shrill to be. (The fact that I always find myself referring to them as “potential threats” says something – to myself, if to noone else.).
  • I think the point for everyone – and by everyone, I mean “me” – is don’t let your commitment to your personal identity blind you to how you’re using “facts” against other people. Translation: I’m sorry, Patrick.

More textually:

On why we could have flying cars if we wanted to:

“I don’t think of myself predicting things,” he says. “I’m expressing possibilities. Things that could happen. To a large extent it’s a question of how badly people want them to. The purpose of thinking about the future is not to predict it but to raise people’s hopes.” 

On specialists vs. informed outsiders:

Experts are, he thinks, too often crippled by the conventional wisdom they create, leading to the belief that “they know it all.” 

On how to disagree with someone:

“I don’t think it’s time to panic,” [expert says] but contends that, because of global warming, “more sea-level rise is inevitable and will displace millions; melting high-altitude glaciers will threaten the food supplies for perhaps a billion or more; and ocean acidification could undermine the food supply of another billion or so.” Dyson strongly disagrees with each of these points, and there follows, as you move back and forth between the two positions, claims and counterclaims, a dense thicket of mitigating scientific indicators that all have the timbre of truth and the ring of potential plausibility. 

On facts vs. values:

Beyond the specific points of factual dispute, Dyson has said that it all boils down to “a deeper disagreement about values” between those who think “nature knows best” and that “any gross human disruption of the natural environment is evil,” and “humanists,” like himself, who contend that protecting the existing biosphere is not as important as fighting more repugnant evils like war, poverty and unemployment.

On coal – well scrubbed, of course:

Dyson has great affection for [it] and for one big reason: It is so inexpensive that most of the world can afford it. “There’s a lot of truth to the statement Greens are people who never had to worry about their grocery bills,” he says.

On how not to become speaker for the dead:

Dyson writes in “Weapons and Hope,” he became an expert on “how to murder most economically another hundred thousand people.” This work, Dyson told the writer Kenneth Brower, created an “emptiness of the soul.”

On funny and less funny:

Like many physicists, Dyson has always loved explosions, and, of course, uncovering the secrets of nature is the first motivation of science. […] “I felt it myself, the glitter of nuclear weapons. It is irresistible if you come to them as a scientist.”

And finally, on being Michelle Obama:

Other physicists quietly express disappointment that Dyson didn’t do more to advance the field, that he wasted his promise. […] “I’ve always enjoyed what I was doing quite independently of whether it was important or not,” he says.

my final, highly personal interpretation of DFW

March 29, 2009

I believe David Foster Wallace tried to say everything out of fear he had nothing to say. One gets the impression that if he could have broken down the anticipation of a lover’s kiss into Planck units and built it back up again, he would have done it. He was the purest expression of the American masculine mind failing in its struggle to reassert control. He believed himself capable of perfection. As a result, he couldn’t just DO anything. He couldn’t BE. He had to show us he knew everything – the physics of swinging of a tennis racket; the construction of an electoral campaign; the mind of the lobster. But his nonfiction digressions were only breaks – pauses – in his overarching project of tearing himself apart to find the thing that made him feel unfit to achieve perfection. It was his quest to find God; and the fear that he might never find her finally broke him. He flayed himself alive for us. And it was tragic precisely because many of us knew how he felt. We’re left to find the lesson in his suffering, and it’s not that hard to find. He was a writer’s writer, after all. He knew the point was not to tell, it was to show.

How Malcolm Gladwell ruined climate discourse

March 28, 2009

Threatdown: Andrew Revkin, the climate guru for the New York Times, catches me up on the rhetoric and epistemology of the tipping point in climate change.

You know tipping points – small change, bit effect. It’s a perfectly valid concept in complex systems. In the case of the climate it’s used to refer to scenarios in which an incremental increase in emissions might produce a huge change such as the total melting of the Greenland ice sheet.

Revkin informs me that there are two camps of climate scientists, and one of them believes the tipping point meme has wrongly become the centerpiece of activists’ calls for reduced emissions, when in fact we have little idea whether, when and in what ways we would tip. This group – the “others,” as opposed to the “some” – “worry that the use of the term ‘tipping point’ can be misleading and could backfire, fueling criticism of alarmism and threatening public support for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Both camps agree climate change is a serious potential threat. One camp is just worried about giving the forces of climate inaction more fodder for making scientists and activists sound like a cult that keeps pushing back the date the world will end – no, for real this time.

I’m actually not in a position to judge whether activists have overused the idea. I definitely picked up some fear of a big jump in sea levels from An Inconvenient Truth – on which see Prometheus science policy blog – and from reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe. Here are five tipping points from Nat Geo. I don’t know where they fall in Revkin’s rubric. (Side note for wonks: Where’s Roger Pielke, Jr., on all this?)

I am certainly aware of the phenomenon of finding a trick rhetorical pony and riding it into the ground. As a journalist trying to meet daily deadlines, it’s soooo much easier to rely on boilerplate than to pick through the subtleties of an issue and try to convey the bottom line precisely and accurately. 

Revkin says we’re now back to the old way of thinking about climate harms, which is that, given the complexities of the system, emissions business as usual amounts to a “smooth curve” of risk – no big jumps we can be sure of. Anticipating my friend Patrick’s objections that we don’t have “credible scenarios” for climate change harms, be they gradual or sudden, I’m not in a position to provide lots of specific links.

I will say that if we have climate modeling that is deemed credible by the relevant community of experts and in which the range of possible outcomes includes those that would be hard for a lot of the world to adapt to, then to say we have to wait for perfect knowledge before we take action reminds me of the Simpsons episode where Homer lets Groundskeeper Willie take the rap for a grift he and Bart committed. Instead of fessing up, Homer lets Wille go berserk on the stand, while he keeps repeating “let’s see how this plays out” as Willie gets himself into more and more trouble on the witness stand.

Big boo yahs on working the Simpsons in to this post. +10 points for Gryffindor.

speaker for the dead

March 27, 2009


speakerforthedeadRemember when I mentioned Ender’s Game, the story about children trained to wage space war against bug-like aliens? I’m now going to ruin the surprise: the kids think they are playing simulated war games but the battles on their view screens are in fact real. They win the war in some daring maneuver that completely wipes out the alien enemy. Then they find out what they’ve done.

In the sequels, Ender, the leader of the battle school kids, is wrought with grief for his role in the genocide and has fled to a foreign world, where he has adopted the role of “speaker for the dead” for the departed race. Mostly what I remember about the sequel is that he meets some aliens described as piggy and they end up having weird rituals. I forget the particulars of Ender’s being speaker, but I think the point was to preserve some trace of the departed aliens identity by having someone think about them and maybe griever for them, giving them a representative of sorts, someone who listened with their ears and spoke with their voice.

The phrase popped into my head tonight while I was sitting at the end of the driveway staring at the trees down the broad, steep hill in our backyard. First I thought about whether Zach Braff was a cliche of a human being. Then I thought about my dad. I need to go talk to my parent’s old pastor, Revered Jim, the one who did the memorial service. I touched on the same ideas in my rumblings on the distributed identity of David Foster Wallace.

If you’re interested in the speaker for the dead role I’ll let you look it up. Better yet, read the book and refresh my memory.

Best-selling thriller writer abets death of American justice system

March 24, 2009

From a Newsweek profile of David Baldacci, writer of 14 best-selling thrillers. (My mom reads him.)

“As a lawyer, as a private citizen, you see a lot of injustice. You see a lot of people who should have been punished and are not, and people who were punished wrongfully are not vindicated,” he says. “Fiction is sort of a way to set the record straight, and let people at least believe that justice can be achieved and the right outcomes can occur.” 

Um, does he see anything self-reinforcing in that dialectic?

(via @RebeccaSkloot)

Watchmen: uglier than I would have admitted

March 23, 2009

Remind me to take myself less seriously when i drone on and on unironically. I’m referring to my analysis of Watchmen. In scrutinizing the story on its own terms, I may have missed a large chunk of the point.

Here’s Anthony Lane in the New Yorker: “The problem is that [director Zack] Snyder, following [author Alan] Moore, is so insanely aroused by the look of vengeance, and by the stylized application of physical power, that the film ends up twice as fascistic as the forces it wishes to lampoon.”

So, authoritarian? Check. But what about misogynistic?

You want to see the attempted rape of a superwoman, her bright latex costume cast aside and her head banged against the baize of a pool table? The assault is there in Moore’s book, one panel of which homes in on the blood that leaps from her punched mouth, but the pool table is Snyder’s own embroidery.


[N]either author nor director has much grasp of what genuine, unhyped suffering might be like, or what pity should attend it; they are too busy fussing over the fate of the human race—a sure sign of metaphysical vulgarity—to be bothered with lesser plights.

To dwell any longer on why this is gross would be to grant it too much power.