Archive for July, 2010

Is homosexuality a recent invention?

July 31, 2010

That’s the question J. Michael Bailey takes up in Chapter 7 of his book, The Man Who Would Be Queen. See my earlier post on the controversy surrounding the book.

Bailey’s purpose with this chapter is to refute some common objections to the idea that male homosexuality is, to a significant degree, innate to the individual, meaning a male born with a certain set of genes in a certain womb environment has X probability of being gay, irrespective of the culture in which he is born and raised. Read the rest of this entry »


Just say no to economic growth

July 30, 2010

Back when I was an anarcho-capitalist, my answer to poverty was simple: economic growth. I believed that over time, entrepreneurs would figure out how to make more and better stuff from the same amount of input, resulting in more stuff for everyone.

The role of law, whether provided by a government or by competing legal systems, was to create a stable environment in which entrepreneurs would be free do their thing. Sure, I may have been a little bit fuzzy on the details of how economic growth worked in practice, and therefore who it benefited, but I was confident that a rising tide would lfit all ships.

Read the rest of this entry »

Neoliberalism – a term you should familiarize yourself with

July 30, 2010

Ok everybody, if we’re going to solve the whole income inequality – racism – patriarchy – climate change gamish, we’ll need to get our terms straight.

Here’s Step 1: Instead of calling it “free market economics,” we’re going to call it neoliberalism.

This word will be useful for you to know when you’re reading David Harvey’s book A Brief History of Neoliberalism. If you don’t remember David Harvey from my post “Marxism for visual learners,” please refresh your memory now.

Read the rest of this entry »

The hardest math problem yet in my GRE review book

July 28, 2010

Last night, Dave and Kathy both arrived at Pizza Palace at two different random times between 10:00 p.m. and midnight. They had agreed to wait exactly 15 minutes for each other to arrive before leaving. What is the probability that Dave and Kathy were together at Pizza Palace last night between 10:00 p.m. and midnight?

I can rock the hell out of a math class, but I’m no math prodigy. Not by a long shot. After looking up the worked answer to the problem above, I wrote “holy shit” in my notes. How was I supposed to get that? I’ll write you a free blog post if you know the answer and can explain how you got it.

Update: We have a winner.

What not to say at a climate change meetup

July 27, 2010

If we take climate change seriously, we have to acknowledge that it’s going to take away a lot of the control we have over our lives, including the circumstances of our deaths. So why aren’t we angry?

From my first ever guest blog post, at

Read the whole thing. I dare you.

Women are underrepresented in drug studies

July 27, 2010

From an interesting Slate article by Melinda Wenner Moyer:

According to a 2006 study in the Journal of Women’s Health, women made up less than one-quarter of all patients enrolled in 46 examined clinical trials completed in 2004. And although more women than men die from heart disease each year, a 2008 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology reported that women comprised only 10 percent to 47 percent of each subject pool in 19 heart-related trials.

The pro-male bias even extends to animals: Read the rest of this entry »

When smashing bricks (or faces), be sure to follow through

July 26, 2010

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out a delightful little post on karate breaking — the bare-knuckled smashing of hard objects — by former Sci Am editor in chief John Rennie (aka my former boss). Rennie, a 17-year karate practitioner, is striking back against an io9 post that propagates a misunderstanding of breaking physics.

From io9 (emphasis Rennie’s):

It’s also important to strike quickly at the surface of the block. Most blows are part connective smack and part push. This delivers the most damage when fighting flesh, but helps protect concrete or wood. Concrete and wood have a good mix of rigidity and elasticity. The materials will bend, and even flex back like a rubber band would, but the limits of their malleability are much lower. Bending and snapping back can do more damage to them than it can to things that flex easier. By making the blow fast and pulling back, the striker hits the block hardest and allows the material to do the maximum amount of bending. A follow-through push will keep the material from snapping back, and snapping itself.

Follow through is actually all important, Rennie says:

When you break a board, or concrete, or a Louisville slugger or anything else routinely used these days in demonstrations of tameshiwari (breaking), you have to follow through on the strike. Indeed, advice commonly given to students learning to break is that they should aim at an imaginary target several inches beyond the actual object, for two reasons. First, doing so helps to make sure that the actual strike occurs closer to the movement’s point of peak biomechanical efficiency. Second, it helps to override our natural tendency (partly psychological, partly reflexive) to slow down ballistic movements such as punches and kicks before they reach full extension, which helps to protect the connective tissues around our joints.

Similarly, it’s my understanding as a fan of mixed martial arts and other schools of whoop-ass that when punching someone, kneeing them, etc., you want to aim a little behind where your strike will hit, presumably to take advantage of the biomechanical efficiency mentioned above. Rennie links to a technical discussion of breaking [pdf] that corroborates me on that:

One well-known piece of advice that karate instructors give their students is to focus their punches into their target. Thus if you were striking another person in the chest you would aim to terminate the punch about a fists length inside of your opponent.

Kids, go practice this at home and report back in comments.

I’m talking about drawing a line in the sand, Dude

July 23, 2010

Here’s writer and activist Alex Steffen commenting on the official death of the carbon cap:

We already know what the next big battleground in this fight will be: the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA, it’s worth remembering, has the right — confirmed by the U.S Supreme Court — to regulate greenhouse gasses as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. That makes it both our next best hope… and the neoconservatives’ next target.

The stakes are high. The EPA has enormous capacity to create change, if the President were to direct it and act boldly. A recent study suggests that better Federal regulations on electricity generation, auto standards, landfills and appliances could spur a 22% reduction in greenhouse gasses by 2030. That figure, however, almost certainly low-balls the Federal government’s total capacity to make change, especially if it ties in policies that impact land use and transportation (not just fuel standards for cars). A climate-focused EPA, backed by a clean energy and smart-growth focused Administration, might actually do significantly more to build a thriving bright green economy than a milquetoast climate bill.

That’s why the minions of coal, oil and car companies are already gunning for the EPA, and we can bet that we have yet to see the full force of their hate machine turned on the EPA and its allies. That’s why it’s absolutely critical that the EPA not only be lobbied and pressured, but defended.

I’ll have to look into Steffen’s numbers. The World Resources Institute published a report this week saying that if federal and state governments really tried, we could get part of the way toward the 17 percent emissions reduction from 2005 levels Obama pledged in Copenhagen last December, and anything less than an ambitious push would bring us far short of that goal.

Here’s a handy chart:

Either way, Steffen’s strategy sounds like a good one: Celebrate the EPA.

There ought to be a nationwide effort to celebrate the EPA and tell memorable stories of its successes. That effort should include strategic communications work in the next few months, pitching magazines and TV shows that have long lead-times to cover the anniversary, and offering helpful resources for telling one of America’s greatest success stories. (One thing in particular that ought to be done immediately is gathering interviews with old-guard Republicans who helped create the EPA; getting it on the record that this was a bi-partisan achievement, and something Americans of all stripes can support.)

So let it be done.

“The average temperature of the planet for the next several thousand years will be determined this century—by those of us living today.”

July 23, 2010

That’s the dire pronouncement of my former Sci Am colleague David Biello in his writeup of a National Research Council report issued last week, which I’ll use as an excuse to take stock of where we stand on climate change. The NRC put a different twist on climate projections by estimating not how much warming we’re in for, but what impacts a given amount of warming will have on the environment.

According to the report, for every degree Celsius of warming, impacts include:

* A 5 to 15 percent lower yield for some crops, including corn in Africa and the U.S., and wheat in India
* A 3 to 10 percent increase in heavy rainfall globally
* A 5 to 10 percent drop in rainfall in southwestern North America, southern Africa and the Mediterranean, among other precipitation changes
* A 5 to 10 percent change (increases in some regions, decreases in others) in stream flow in many river basins globally
* A 15 to 25 percent decrease in the extent of Arctic Ocean sea ice

Here’s what the IPCC projected in 2007:

The average surface temperature of the Earth is likely to increase by 2 to 11.5°F (1.1-6.4°C) by the end of the 21st century, relative to 1980-1990, with a best estimate of 3.2 to 7.2°F (1.8-4.0°C) (see Figure 1). The average rate of warming over each inhabited continent is very likely to be at least twice as large as that experienced during the 20th century.

So, to take heavy rainfall as an example, that’s a best estimate of a 10 to 72 percent increase globally. In case you’ve forgotten, Tennessee experienced a 1,000-year flood in early May (see the red streak below), killing 21 and causing an estimated $1.5 billion-plus in damages.

Climate change was surely a major contributor to the flooding, according to Kevin Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, who was quoted back in June on Climate Progress (emphasis CP’s):

I find it systematically tends to get underplayed and it often gets underplayed by my fellow scientists. Because one of the opening statements, which I’m sure you’ve probably heard is “Well you can’t attribute a single event to climate change.” But there is a systematic influence on all of these weather events now-a-days because of the fact that there is this extra water vapor lurking around in the atmosphere than there used to be say 30 years ago. It’s about a 4% extra amount, it invigorates the storms, it provides plenty of moisture for these storms and it’s unfortunate that the public is not associating these with the fact that this is one manifestation of climate change. And the prospects are that these kinds of things will only get bigger and worse in the future.

For good measure, please keep in mind too that 2010 is on pace to be the warmest year since record keeping began in 1880.

Surely the wise leaders of business and industry who foresaw the implosion of the housing bubble will save us from choking on our own emissions, right? Oh, wait. No. This week Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) officially ruled out the possibility of a carbon cap, saying, “we know we don’t have the votes.”

Scroll down this page for a little video on how Obama and his team squandered the opportunity for serious action on climate change.

More in my next post.

I hope Jonah Lehrer reads New Scientist

July 22, 2010

Because they have the story he should have written:

In their book The Spirit Level (Allen Lane, 2009), epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, of the universities of Nottingham and York, UK, respectively, emphasise the degree of income inequality in a society rather than poverty per se as being a major factor in issues such as death and disease rates, teenage motherhood and levels of violence. They show that nations such as the US and UK, which have the greatest inequality in income levels of all developed nations, also have the lowest life expectancy among those nations, the highest levels of teenage motherhood […] and a range of social problems.

The effects are felt right across society, not just among poor people. “Inequality seems to change the quality of social relations in society,” says Wilkinson, “and people become more influenced by status competition.” Anxiety about status leads to high levels of stress, which in turn leads to health problems, he says. In unequal societies trust drops away, community life weakens and society becomes more punitive because of fear up and down the social hierarchy.

“Really dealing with economic inequalities is difficult because it involves unpopular things like raising tax,” says Nettle. “So rather than fighting the fire, people have been trying to disperse the smoke.” Politically it is much easier to pump money into education programmes even if the evidence suggests that these are, on the whole, pretty ineffective at reducing the effects of poverty.

I might have to pick The Spirit Level from ye olde library.

From an interview with the authors in the Boston Globe:

IDEAS: How did you come to link inequality to social ills?

PICKETT: We considered a whole range of alternative explanations – the size of the countries, the racial mix, the proportion of poor people – and it’s clearly not those things. It’s telling us it’s something about the structure of whole societies that really matters.

And the scale of the differences we find between more and less equal societies are very, very large – teenage birth rates might be 6 or 8 times as high in a more unequal society. Again, that tells us that we’re looking at something that affects the whole of society.

IDEAS: What are the psychological or sociological effects of inequality? Are you saying that the “social pain” you describe can be a cause of violence in unequal societies?

WILKINSON: I think people are extremely sensitive to status differentiation and to being looked down on, or disrespected, and those often seem to be the triggers to violence. We quote an American prison psychiatrist who goes so far as to say he’s never seen a serious act of violence that wasn’t provoked by loss of face or humiliation, and so on. And in more unequal societies, status matters even more. People judge each other more by status. There’s more insecurity. And people at the bottom are more often excluded from the markers of status, the jobs and housing and cars, so they become even more touchy about how they’re seen.


IDEAS: What is the reaction to the book like here in the US? […]

PICKETT: It’s a very emotional reaction, and that surprised us. We sense a real hunger for change, a feeling that people would like society to move in a different direction.

Damn straight.