Archive for August, 2010

10 points if you can answer this math problem

August 28, 2010

Show your work. 20 points gets you a free blog post.

Triangle ABC has coordinates A, B and C equal to (5,3), (19,7) and (17,25), respectively. By how much does the largest slope for any median of the triangle exceed the largest slope for any altitude of the triangle?


Books I’m reading 8/28/10

August 28, 2010

1. The History of White People | Nell Irvin Painter

The modern intellectual history of whiteness began among the 18th-century German scholars who invented racial “science.” Johann Joachim Winckelmann made the ancient Greeks his models of beauty by imagining them white-skinned; he may even have suppressed his own (correct) suspicion that their statues, though copied by the Romans in white marble, had originally been painted. The Dutchman Petrus Camper calculated the proportions and angles of the ideal face and skull, and produced a scale that awarded a perfect rating to the head of a Greek god and ranked Europeans as the runners-up, earning 80 out of 100. The Englishman Charles White collected skulls that he arranged from lowest to highest degree of perfection. He did not think he was seeing the gradual improvement of the human species, but assumed rather the polygenesis theory: the different races arose from separate divine creations and were designed with a range of quality.

2. Confessions of an Economic Hitman | John Perkins

“Basically what we were trained to do and what our job is to do is to build up the American empire. To bring—to create situations where as many resources as possible flow into this country, to our corporations, and our government, and in fact we’ve been very successful. We’ve built the largest empire in the history of the world. It’s been done over the last 50 years since World War II with very little military might, actually. It’s only in rare instances like Iraq where the military comes in as a last resort. This empire, unlike any other in the history of the world, has been built primarily through economic manipulation, through cheating, through fraud, through seducing people into our way of life, through the economic hit men. I was very much a part of that.”

3. The Long Default | William Tabb

In the mid-1970s, New York City teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, faced with a constrained tax base and unable to pay its bills. President Ford, as the Daily News famously paraphrased it, told the city to “drop dead.” Economist William Tabb wrote a book at the time about what he termed “the long default.”

To fight racism, watch BET

August 27, 2010


That’s the lesson I took from this story I wrote last December for Scientific American:

Popular television shows that put black and white characters on an equal footing as doctors or detectives may still be transmitting racial bias nonverbally, according to a new study. Researchers found that in a selection of brief, silent clips from 11 prime-time television shows, white characters were consistently rated as behaving more positively toward other white characters than toward black ones, even when the black characters were deemed equal to their white counterparts in attractiveness, kindness and intelligence.

“What this suggests is the media is one of the mechanisms of how we see people’s true feelings and therefore how we form our own biases,” says John Dovidio, a social psychologist at Yale University who did not take part in the study. “The nonverbal behavior really conveys what people are thinking and feeling, and that’s why it’s so potent.” Read the rest of this entry »

Why I don’t buy – or maybe just don’t care – that xenophobia is an evolutionary adaptation

August 26, 2010

Via @ericmjohnson comes this little essay by evolutionary biologist and philosopher of science Massimo Pigliucci of City University of New York, who recounts a lunchtime tête-à-tête between himself, a couple of colleagues and some undergraduates on the subject of racism:

At issue was the question of why it seems to be next to inevitable that regardless of race or ethnicity, a good number of our fellow human beings display a certain degree of xenophobia. I ventured to suggest that part of the answer is probably to be found in our evolutionary past. For most of our history, ‘outsiders’, especially if they looked or behaved differently from our in-group, were far more likely to be a threat to our survival and possessions than interested in cultural exchanges for reciprocal edification. In other words, xenophobia possibly arose as an advantageous instinct that aided our survival.

This, predictably, was not well received by my less scientifically-inclined colleagues Read the rest of this entry »

Kate Bornstein on male privilege

August 25, 2010

From Gender Outlaw, p. 108:

“Male privilege” is assuming one has the right to occupy any space or person by whatever means, with or without permission. It’s a sense of entitlement that’s unique to those who have been raised male in most cultures–it’s notably absent in most girls and women. Male privilege is not something that’s given to men in this culture; it’s something that men take. It’s not that women don’t have the ability to have and wield that privilege; some do. It’s that in most cases, this privilege is withheld from them culturally and emotionally. Male privilege is woven into all levels of the culture, from unearned higher wages to more opportunities in the workplace, from higher quality, less expensive clothing to better bathroom facilities.

Nicer bathrooms? Really? Not in my experience.

Male privilege extends into sexual harassment, rape and war. Combine male privilege with capitalism (which rewards greed and acquisition) and the mass media (which, owned by captialists, highlights only the rewards of acquisition and makes invisible its penalties), and you have a juggernaut that needs stopping by any means.

Bornstein suggests that an “interesting way” to take a swipe at male privilege would be “to mandate not an increase in wages for women, but rather a decrease in wages for men to the level of any woman holding a similar position” (108-109; emphasis hers).

Want: Ray Kurzweil to proselytize about climate change

August 25, 2010

Greetings to my new readers from Pharyngula. I’m glad to have struck your fancy. I’ll try to keep it interesting for you.

Enough, please.

In my Kurzweil/geoengineering post, I made the definitive claim that Ray Kurzweil’s vision of uploading consciousness into computers would never happen. I also linked his dream to an allegedly oppressive over-emphasis on technological solutions to the serious global problem of climate change.

In general, my commenters challenged me to back up my talk. Ryan McGivern in particular questioned what Kurzweil has to do with marginalized groups or with fetishizing technology. McGivern seems like a fellow traveler, and I feel obliged to answer him, at least in part. So let’s see if I can clarify my position a little. Read the rest of this entry »

Did baby slings drive human brain evolution?

August 24, 2010

Gizmodo talks to a researcher who thinks so:

What were these tools used for?

Upright female hominins walking the savannah had a real problem: their babies couldn’t cling to them the way a chimp baby could cling to its mother. Carrying an infant would have been the highest drain on energy for a hominin female – higher than lactation. So what did they do? I believe they figured out how to carry their newborns using a loop of animal tissue. Evidence of the slings hasn’t survived, but in the same way that we infer lungs and organs from the bones of fossils that survive, it is from the stone tools that we can infer the bits that don’t last: things made from sinew, wood, leather and grasses.

How did the slings shape our evolution?

Once you have slings to carry babies, you have broken a glass ceiling – it doesn’t matter whether the infant is helpless for a day, a month or a year. You can have ever more helpless young and that, as far as I can see, is how encephalisation took place in the genus Homo. We used technology to turn ourselves into kangaroos. Our children are born more and more underdeveloped because they can continue to develop outside the womb – they become an extra-uterine fetus in the sling. This means their heads can continue to grow after birth, solving the smart biped paradox [that walking upright should favor smaller brains]. In that sense technology comes before the ascent to Homo. Our brain expansion only really took off half a million years after the first stone tools. And they continued to develop within an increasingly technological environment.

via BoingBoing.

The Kochtopus wants to crush your freedom to live above ground

August 24, 2010

Oil profits! Feed me oil profits!

I actually read a good chunk of this New Yorker piece on the Koch brothers, the oil billionaires who secretly bankroll the Tea Party “movement” and are funding efforts to kill California’s 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act. Worth a combined $35 billion, together they are richer than everybody except Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. Unlike Gates and Buffet, they have no pesky social conscience to get in the way of their pure lust for profit. Read the rest of this entry »

Tyrone Hayes has Syngenta’s “vital tool” right here

August 23, 2010
Biologist Tyrone Hayes.

Biologist Tyrone Hayes. J. MONE/AP

“Holy shit” is the only conceivable reaction to this 102-page collection of trash-talking emails from Berkeley endocrinologist Tyrone Hayes to Syngenta, the company that manufactures the weedkiller atrazine. Hayes, 43, has scored gobs of publicity for his work showing that atrazine feminizes male frogs in the wild, and in so doing touched off a bitter feud between the South Carolina-bred scientist and the $12 billion Swiss company, which at first tried to buy Hayes off.

Nature News has the dish: Read the rest of this entry »

The most striking science analogy I’ve ever heard

August 23, 2010

Next time I need an off-the-chain neuroscience analogy, I’ll know to call David Linden of Johns Hopkins. He floored me with the following, from the August 12 NPR: Environment podcast:

If there were a giant with her head in Baltimore and her toe off the coast of South Africa and she was bit by a great white shark on the toe on Monday, she wouldn’t feel it until Wednesday and she wouldn’t jerk her toe until Saturday.

The segment begins at 16:24. The quote comes at 17:50.

Here’s a world map:

Update [8/24/10]: Science writer Lauren Rugani wants your best (and worst) science analogies.