Wednesday, July 14, 2010

insects as model animals

Video - Jeremy Niven's locust walking a ladder experiment.


A. In 2007, we were able to study how much energy neurons used and we quantified it. We studied different types of insect eyes — from tiny fruit fly eyes to huge blowfly eyes. In each creature, we worked out how much energy it takes for neurons in the brain to process information. What we learned was that the more information a fly’s eye needed to process, the more energy each unit of information consumed. That means that it’s bad, in the evolutionary sense, for an animal to have a bigger brain than it needs for survival. It’s like having a gas-eating Ferrari, when what you really need is Honda Civic.

A. Bigger is better if you want to produce enormously complicated behavior. But in evolution, brains evolve by selection. There always is pressure on animals to produce behaviors for as little energy as possible. And that means for many animals, smaller brains are better because they won’t waste energy.

You know, there’s this pervasive idea in biology that I think is wrong. It goes: we humans are at the pinnacle of the evolutionary tree, and as you get up that tree, brain size must get bigger. But a fly is just as evolved as a human. It’s just evolved to a different niche.

In fact, in evolution there’s no drive towards bigger brains. It’s perfectly possible that under the right circumstances, you could get animals evolving small brains. Indeed, on some islands, where there’s reduced flora and fauna, you’ll see smaller versions of mainland species. I would argue that their brain size has been reduced because it saves energy, which permits them to survive in situations of scarcity. They also might not need big brains because they don’t have natural predators on the islands—and don’t have to be as smart because there’s nothing to avoid.

mind is the most precious thing in the universe...,

NYTimes | Think of the universe as a box of scrabble letters. There is only one way to have the letters arranged to spell out the Gettysburg Address, but an astronomical number of ways to have them spell nonsense. Shake the box and it will tend toward nonsense, disorder will increase and information will be lost as the letters shuffle toward their most probable configurations. Could this be gravity?

It’s hard to imagine a more fundamental and ubiquitous aspect of life on the Earth than gravity, from the moment you first took a step and fell on your diapered bottom to the slow terminal sagging of flesh and dreams.

But what if it’s all an illusion, a sort of cosmic frill, or a side effect of something else going on at deeper levels of reality?

So says Erik Verlinde, 48, a respected string theorist and professor of physics at the University of Amsterdam, whose contention that gravity is indeed an illusion has caused a continuing ruckus among physicists, or at least among those who profess to understand it. Reversing the logic of 300 years of science, he argued in a recent paper, titled “On the Origin of Gravity and the Laws of Newton,” that gravity is a consequence of the venerable laws of thermodynamics, which describe the behavior of heat and gases.

“For me gravity doesn’t exist,” said Dr. Verlinde, who was recently in the United States to explain himself. Not that he can’t fall down, but Dr. Verlinde is among a number of physicists who say that science has been looking at gravity the wrong way and that there is something more basic, from which gravity “emerges,” the way stock markets emerge from the collective behavior of individual investors or that elasticity emerges from the mechanics of atoms.

Looking at gravity from this angle, they say, could shed light on some of the vexing cosmic issues of the day, like the dark energy, a kind of anti-gravity that seems to be speeding up the expansion of the universe, or the dark matter that is supposedly needed to hold galaxies together.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

the creativity crisis

Newsweek | For the first time, research shows that American creativity is declining. What went wrong—and how we can fix it. Back in 1958, Ted Schwarzrock was an 8-year-old third grader when he became one of the “Torrance kids,” a group of nearly 400 Minneapolis children who completed a series of creativity tasks newly designed by professor E. Paul Torrance. Schwarzrock still vividly remembers the moment when a psychologist handed him a fire truck and asked, “How could you improve this toy to make it better and more fun to play with?” He recalls the psychologist being excited by his answers. In fact, the psychologist’s session notes indicate Schwarzrock rattled off 25 improvements, such as adding a removable ladder and springs to the wheels. That wasn’t the only time he impressed the scholars, who judged Schwarzrock to have “unusual visual perspective” and “an ability to synthesize diverse elements into meaningful products.”

The accepted definition of creativity is production of something original and useful, and that’s what’s reflected in the tests. There is never one right answer. To be creative requires divergent thinking (generating many unique ideas) and then convergent thinking (combining those ideas into the best result).

In the 50 years since Schwarzrock and the others took their tests, scholars—first led by Torrance, now his colleague, Garnet Millar—have been tracking the children, recording every patent earned, every business founded, every research paper published, and every grant awarded. They tallied the books, dances, radio shows, art exhibitions, software programs, advertising campaigns, hardware innovations, music compositions, public policies (written or implemented), leadership positions, invited lectures, and buildings designed.

Nobody would argue that Torrance’s tasks, which have become the gold standard in creativity assessment, measure creativity perfectly. What’s shocking is how incredibly well Torrance’s creativity index predicted those kids’ creative accomplishments as adults. Those who came up with more good ideas on Torrance’s tasks grew up to be entrepreneurs, inventors, college presidents, authors, doctors, diplomats, and software developers. Jonathan Plucker of Indiana University recently reanalyzed Torrance’s data. The correlation to lifetime creative accomplishment was more than three times stronger for childhood creativity than childhood IQ.

Like intelligence tests, Torrance’s test—a 90-minute series of discrete tasks, administered by a psychologist—has been taken by millions worldwide in 50 languages. Yet there is one crucial difference between IQ and CQ scores. With intelligence, there is a phenomenon called the Flynn effect—each generation, scores go up about 10 points. Enriched environments are making kids smarter. With creativity, a reverse trend has just been identified and is being reported for the first time here: American creativity scores are falling.

Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William & Mary discovered this in May, after analyzing almost 300,000 Torrance scores of children and adults. Kim found creativity scores had been steadily rising, just like IQ scores, until 1990. Since then, creativity scores have consistently inched downward. “It’s very clear, and the decrease is very significant,” Kim says. It is the scores of younger children in America—from kindergarten through sixth grade—for whom the decline is “most serious.”

fighting christian supremacists in the military

truthout | In his fight against British imperialism, Mahatma Gandhi described the life cycle of successful civil disobedience: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." Mikey Weinstein, the 55-year-old founder of the Albuquerque, New Mexico-based Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), likes to quote it, knowing full well he's crossed the line into a bloody-knuckle brawl. Over the past year, Weinstein and his organization have recorded a tremendous string of victories in the fight against Christian supremacists inside the armed forces.

In January, the MRFF broke the story on the Pentagon's Jesus Rifles, where rifle scopes used in Afghanistan and Iraq were embossed with New Testament verses. In April, he got the military to rescind its invitation to the Reverend Franklin Graham to speak at May's National Prayer Day because of Islamophobic remarks. Most shockingly, MRFF received its second nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in late October. These high-profile victories have earned him the enmity of the hardcore Christian Right and the mentally unstable. And the crazies are getting crazier. Weinstein and his family are bombarded with hate mail, from the grammatically incorrect and easy to dismiss - "I hope all your kids turn out gay as hell, take it in the ass, and get aids and die!!!!" - to the kind of threats that immediately make you leap out of your chair and double-check that the doors and windows are locked. (MRFF has referred multiple death threats on Mikey, his family, and MRFF employees to the FBI.)

Unlike Gandhi, Mikey's no pacifist. Aggression rises up in his voice like a white shark's fin breaks the waves. In a recent conversation, Mikey bragged how a punk wouldn't shut up in a movie. When a confrontation ensued and the man took a wild swing, Mikey put him down. None of this is surprising. Weinstein boxed during his Air Force days, his face marked by a strong jawline sitting below a bald head on top of a stocky body - a cross between Rocky Marciano and Butter Bean. Simply put: Mikey Weinstein can be a brute and a zealot. He knows this and admits it freely. But he believes it's the only position a reasonable person can take when confronted with a faction dedicated to mutating the U.S. military into "a weaponized Gospel of Jesus Christ."

But for all of his rhetorical excesses and bravado, Weinstein's fight is simple and correct. The United States military cannot favor one religious sect over another, staying true to the Constitution's establishment clause that service members pledge to defend. More pragmatically, the military cannot favor one religious sect over another because it's destructive of good order and discipline, creating divisions between service members when they must rely on the guy next to them to survive in a firefight. Yet inside the U.S. military a small, determined, and fanatical clique wants to abuse its power and prosetlyze to service members below them in the chain of command. Through this captive market, they can inject their peculiar ideology into the most powerful institution on earth. As Weinstein likes to say, this isn't just a civil rights issue, it's a national security threat of the gravest magnitude. The description sounds hyberbolic, but according to Weinstein there's a pervasive Christian supremacist milieu inside the U.S. military that's a danger not only to constitutional order, but to the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. What's ironic about Mikey's fight is that he never thought about becoming "a civil rights activist." He discovered his calling by rising up like a grizzly bear for his son. Fist tap Davera.

restricting citizenship for converts?

WaPo | An Israeli parliamentary committee on Monday advanced a bill that could lead to lack of recognition for conversions to Judaism performed by rabbis from the Reform and Conservative movements.

The bill could give the chief rabbinate, the religious authority in Israel run by ultra-Orthodox Jews, the power to decide which conversions are accepted, overturning an Israeli Supreme Court decision that ensures eligibility for Israeli citizenship for Jews converted by rabbis from all branches of Judaism.

Representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements, which have been battling for years for more rights in Israel, saw the committee vote as a threat to their efforts to strengthen their legitimacy in Israel. The chief rabbinate already holds a monopoly on such rituals as marriage and divorce.

"It sets us back 20 years in terms of the advances that were made," said Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, an umbrella organization of Conservative Jewish congregations in the United States, who spoke by telephone during a visit to Jerusalem. "The practical implication of this bill is one that we are very, very concerned about and angry about."

The bill "delegitimizes most of North American Jewry" and brings back the question of "who has the authority to determine someone's Jewish identity," Wernick added, noting that 85 percent of American Jewry is affiliated with non-Orthodox branches of Judaism.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

genomes of the permanent parasitic lifestyle

PNAS | As an obligatory parasite of humans, the body louse (Pediculus humanus humanus) is an important vector for human diseases, including epidemic typhus, relapsing fever, and trench fever. Here, we present genome sequences of the body louse and its primary bacterial endosymbiont Candidatus Riesia pediculicola. The body louse has the smallest known insect genome, spanning 108 Mb. Despite its status as an obligate parasite, it retains a remarkably complete basal insect repertoire of 10,773 protein-coding genes and 57 microRNAs. Representing hemimetabolous insects, the genome of the body louse thus provides a reference for studies of holometabolous insects. Compared with other insect genomes, the body louse genome contains significantly fewer genes associated with environmental sensing and response, including odorant and gustatory receptors and detoxifying enzymes. The unique architecture of the 18 minicircular mitochondrial chromosomes of the body louse may be linked to the loss of the gene encoding the mitochondrial single-stranded DNA binding protein. The genome of the obligatory louse endosymbiont Candidatus Riesia pediculicola encodes less than 600 genes on a short, linear chromosome and a circular plasmid. The plasmid harbors a unique arrangement of genes required for the synthesis of pantothenate, an essential vitamin deficient in the louse diet. The human body louse, its primary endosymbiont, and the bacterial pathogens that it vectors all possess genomes reduced in size compared with their free-living close relatives. Thus, the body louse genome project offers unique information and tools to use in advancing understanding of coevolution among vectors, symbionts, and pathogens.

the human edge - finding our inner fish

NPR | It took him years of searching in the Canadian Arctic, but in 2004, Neil Shubin found the fossilized remains of what he thinks is one of our most important ancestors.

Turns out, it's a fish.

Shubin says his find, which he named Tiktaalik, represents an important evolutionary step, because it has the structures that will ultimately become parts of our human bodies. Shoulders, elbows, legs, a neck, a wrist — they're all there in Tiktaalik.

"Everything that we have are versions of things that are seen in fish," says Shubin.

Of course, there are things that we have that Tiktaalik doesn't.

"We have a big brain, and portions of that big brain are not seen in Tiktaalik," says Shubin. "But the template, all the way down to the DNA that builds it, is already present in creatures like this."

Inside this fish, Shubin sees us.

"It's like peeling an onion," he says. "Layer after layer after layer is revealed to you. Like in a human body, the first layer is our primate history, the second layer is our mammal history, and on and on and on and on, until you get to the fundamental molecular and cellular machinery that makes our bodies and keeps are cells alive, and so forth."

Our Inner Yeast
In fact, not only are we related to an ancient fish, but many of the parts critical for making yeast are also critical for making us, says Gavin Sherlock, a geneticist at Stanford University.

"About one-third of the yeast genes have a direct equivalent version that still exists in humans," he says.

Sherlock says that not only do many of the same genes still exist in humans and yeast, but they're so similar that you can exchange one for the other.

"There are several hundred examples where you can knock out the yeast gene, put in the human equivalent, and it restores it back to normal," he says.

Think about it, he says: We have a lot in common with yeast. Yeast consume sugars like we do, yeast make hormones like we do, and yeast have sex — not quite like we do, but sex.

Sex isn't just fun and games. Sexual reproduction is critical for stirring the genetic pot, speeding the evolution of endless forms most beautiful, from fruit flies to blue whales to humans.

Now yeast is a single-celled organism. We have trillions and trillions of cells in our bodies — different kinds of cells, all fitting together. How did that happen?

The answer is at the Field Museum in Chicago.

fish "talk" to one another

Discovery | The undersea world isn't as quiet as we thought, according to a New Zealand researcher who found fish can "talk" to each other.

Fish communicate with noises including grunts, chirps and pops, University of Auckland marine scientist Shahriman Ghazali has discovered according to newspaper reports Wednesday.

"All fish can hear, but not all can make sound -- pops and other sounds made by vibrating their swim bladder, a muscle they can contract," Ghazali told the New Zealand Herald.

Fish are believed to communicate with each other for different reasons, including attracting mates, scaring off predators or orienting themselves.

The gurnard species has a wide vocal repertoire and keeps up a constant chatter, Ghazali found after studying different species of fish placed into tanks.

On the other hand, cod usually kept silent, except when they were spawning.

"The hypothesis is that they are using sound as a synchronization so that the male and female release their eggs at the same time for fertilization," he said.

Some reef fish, such as the damselfish, made sounds to attempt to scare off threatening fish and even divers, he said.

But anyone hoping to strike up a conversation with their pet goldfish is out of luck.

"Goldfish have excellent hearing, but excellent hearing doesn't associate with vocalization. They don't make any sound whatsoever," Ghazali said.

He was to present his findings to the New Zealand Marine Sciences Society conference on Wednesday.

geithner and summers should mcchrystal

truthout | What we need is for the president's economic hotshots, Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers, to grant damaging interviews to Rolling Stone, as Gen. Stanley McChrystal recently did in self-destructing. Perhaps then President Obama would have the gumption to fire the misleaders of his economic team.

It was always bizarre that those two, who did so much to wreck the economy, were put in charge of the effort to salvage it. Their previous records should have provided ample warning that their economic outlook begins and ends with the demands of Wall Street.

It was Geithner who, as head of the New York Fed, presided over the $180 billion bailout of AIG, which, as revealed by the 500-page documented record of that travesty released last week by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, was a scam to pass taxpayer money to Goldman Sachs and the other large banks that had created the problem.

And it was Summers who, as President Bill Clinton's treasury secretary, pushed through the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which guaranteed "legal certainty" for the toxic derivatives packages that Goldman and the others sold. At the time, Summers assured Congress that "the parties to these kinds of contracts are largely sophisticated financial institutions that would appear to be eminently capable of protecting themselves from fraud and counterparty insolvencies."

For such not-so-prescient but very convenient insight, Goldman Sachs rewarded Summers with $200,000 for two speeches he gave to its executives while he was an adviser to candidate Obama. Not surprisingly, the new financial regulations proposed by this administration and soon to be signed into law let Goldman and the others so much at fault off the hook.

There is enormous and justifiable populist outrage out there over the antics of a runaway Wall Street that is not being held accountable. Obama could tap into that outrage by taking his cues from a true populist, Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. One of only eight senators to vote against the Clinton-backed 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which had done so much to protect the economy, Feingold voted against the Bush bailout, too, and is now breaking with Obama on his so-called financial reform:

"The bill does not eliminate the risk to our economy posed by 'too big to fail' financial firms, nor does it restore the proven safeguards established after the Great Depression, which separated Main Street banks from big Wall Street firms and are essential to preventing another economic meltdown. The recent financial crisis triggered the nation's worst recession since the Great Depression. The bill should have included reforms to prevent another such crisis. Regrettably, it did not."

The president's record on the economy is even worse than his performance in Afghanistan, and a reversal of course is much in order. If he doesn't get the message now, the voters will give it to him loud and clear come the November midterm elections.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

is humanity inherently unsustainable?

economic deathride - hitler vs. stalin 1941-1945

Boston | We think we understand the great German-Russian conflict of the Eastern Front of World War II. We think it was the great grudge match of the tyrants, Stalin and Hitler. We think Stalin panicked in June 1941 when his Nazi ally turned on him. We think Hitler was beaten by the same Russian winter that defeated Napoleon a century earlier. We think Stalin was steadfast in refusing to consider surrender. We think the Soviets prevailed in the greatest tank battle ever, at Kursk.

Maybe not. At least that is what the historian John Mosier, who in an earlier volume shattered the myths surrounding Hitler’s Blitzkrieg, is telling us in “Deathride: Hitler vs. Stalin — The Eastern Front, 1941-1945.’’ It is a dramatic departure from the conventional wisdom and is itself a dramatic chronicle of the most brutal theater in the most brutal war in one of history’s most brutal centuries. But the real theme is even bigger than the Eastern Front, which itself stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Mosier is arguing that World War II was fought for economics, not for political or ideological reasons. That is not a new thesis, to be sure, but his is a creative approach, holding that not only the motivations but also the maneuvers of the war were almost entirely economic in nature.

Hitler, for example, wanted Poland because it was a net exporter of goods to Germany. The Allies then tried to block iron ore shipments from Scandinavia, hoping to deny the Nazis the materials required to build tanks and planes. And the whole bloody thing was a war on an economic, not a political, front. The Allies, which included the Soviet Union by war’s end, simply out produced Germany, and in fact the Third Reich was defeated by two nations that weren’t even their adversaries when the war began, the United States and the Soviet Union.

This is a clear-eyed, compelling description of a battle that has been described many times, but seldom with such an ironic eye. This monstrous war, conducted against the backdrop of the tyrants’ purges and their mechanical approaches to civilian death, was conducted in a great killing field of ethnic groups, including the Poles and other Slavic peoples, many of whom fared little better under Stalin than they did under Hitler. And these persecuted Eastern Europeans were themselves no friends of the Jews, who were virtually exterminated in this charnel house.

What emerges from these pages is a struggle between vicious Soviet bunglers with a craven leadership willing to sacrifice millions to survive versus vicious German technocrats with a leadership that didn’t anticipate the dangers of military over-extension and the advantages its rival possessed by fighting a defensive war in a primitive land with unlimited cannon fodder. That said, Mosier believes that Stalin was closer than anyone (including Stalin himself) knew to running out of men, some of whom by 1943 were getting only two days of training.

the mile long glass

TheOilDrum | The longer straw - the future of fossil fuels (and most other resources)

The future of fossil fuels, particularly of oil, but also many other resources including water and minerals, looks problematic. People keep discussing proven reserves and whether peak oil already has arrived or not. Unfortunately, we will only be able to put this argument to rest in hindsight. But what is more important is the fact that - no matter how much additional oil we can still retrieve - future barrels will be much more difficult to extract relative to the past.

Drilling a hole in the desert and waiting for black gold to gush out is infinitely less complex than drilling a much deeper hole 5000 feet under water, as the public is now painfully beginning to understand. Many experts agree that we probably have used about 40-50% of recoverable oil. It is difficult to prove such numbers, but we may for a minute assume that this is true. For pessimists, this makes our glass half empty. For optimists, it remains half full. This has been the exact argument the energy community has been having, to little avail, so let’s play with that analogy some more: our oil reserves can be compared with a 1 mile deep glass full of our favorite drink. Getting the first sips is easy. Whenever we are thirsty, we lower a straw into the fluid and drink as much as we like. After a while, that straw might become too short, so we have to find a longer one. Not really a problem. We might even get better at making straws for a while. And so it continues.

But once we are half a mile down into this huge glass, the straw will be so long that one might need help to even hold it, and we will most likely require help to suck hard enough to make the fluid come all the way up. What has happened? We still have half of our favorite drink left, but the efforts to get to it are becoming increasingly painful, significantly diminishing the net benefit of that next sip. And so we might (have to) give up drinking long before the glass is empty, just because its too difficult to get at the fluid in a meaningful way, and because the effort of sucking eventually exceeds the benefit and joy from each sip.

The concept behind our "mile-long glass" analogy unfortunately applies to almost every raw material and energy source we are currently using. The more we have extracted, the more difficult it becomes to get to the next unit. Our organization (IIER) looks at this phenomenon using the term "Resource Return on Energy Investment" (RREI), which is based on established approaches used for Energy Returns on (Energy) Investment (EROI). It describes the amount of effort (energy) needed to get one unit of a resource we want to extract. To extract the next unit, our effort typically increases compared to the past, as we have mostly exploited the easy finds and must pursue the ones that are further away, harder to get, more difficult to secure politically, or any such combination. Over time, this increasing effort makes the production less and less useful to societies. Or to use our drinking straw example: at one point sucking out more from that glass exhausts us so much (e.g. the energy invested per sip becomes so big) that we will have to stop our effort and turn to something else, or - if there is no equivalent alternative - drink less.

When looking at RREI, almost all resources currently used in human processes show declines. Less "easy oil" means that we have to drill in hostile environments deep under the surface of oceans, lower ore grades mean that we have to move four times as much rock to extract the same amount of copper when compared to a couple of decades ago, and the depletion of groundwater sources translates to getting drinking water from desalination plants or from fossil (non-renewable) aquifers far away, at much higher energy cost.

This decline in easily extractable resources and the increased effort to retrieve them is much more important than the exact year when peak production of a particular resource actually occurs. It is today's reality, and helps explain why we are drilling at the bottom of the ocean at depths where no human being could survive for even a second.

big brother's a good thing

Wired | The NSA is denying a report from the Wall Street Journal that a secret program code-named “Perfect Citizen” will be monitoring civilian networks.

That’s from a rare public statement by the ultra-secret agency responsible for spying on outsiders and defending classified networks. The NSA, as a wing of the military, is largely prohibited from operating within the U.S.

The Journal reported Wednesday that defense contractor Raytheon won a $100 million contract that would involve sensors in the networks of “critical infrastructure” such as utilities and nuclear power plants. The sensors would report anomalies to the NSA via a partnership with Homeland Security, the Journal reported. According to an e-mail cited in the report, a Raytheon employee described it as a “Big Brother” system.

Our take on the original report is here.

But, in a statement put out by NSA spokeswoman Judith Emmel Thursday, the agency denies there is any monitoring activities and called on the public to trust the NSA’s adherence to the law (despite the Bush-era warrantless wiretapping to the contrary). The NSA did, however, confirm the creepy code name.

Today’s Wall Street Journal article by Siobhan Gorman, titled “US Plans Cyber Shield for Utilities, Companies,” is an inaccurate portrayal of the work performed at the National Security Agency. Because of the high sensitivity surrounding what we do to defend our nation, it is inappropriate to confirm or deny all of the specific allegations made in the article. We will, however, provide the following facts:

- PERFECT CITIZEN is purely a vulnerabilities-assessment and capabilities-development contract. This is a research and engineering effort. There is no monitoring activity involved, and no sensors are employed in this endeavor.

- Specifically, it does not involve the monitoring of communications or the placement of sensors on utility company systems.

- This contract provides a set of technical solutions that help the National Security Agency better understand the threats to national security networks, which is a critical part of NSA’s mission of defending the nation.

- Any suggestions that there are illegal or invasive domestic activities associated with this contracted effort are simply not true. We strictly adhere to both the spirit and the letter of U.S. laws and regulations.

Now, if you understand what “vulnerabilities-assessment and capabilities-development” means, please let us know, because it just sounds like security gobbedly-gook to us.

Friday, July 09, 2010

lady gaga and the new world order?

Guardian | You might think that by know you've read more than enough online exegesis of Lady Gaga's videos but you haven't even scratched the surface until you've read the work of The Vigilant Citizen. This anonymous Canadian blogger explained last year's Paparazzi video with reference to the CIA's MK-ULTRA mind-control programme, Fritz Lang's Metropolis, the Eye of Horus and the goat-god Baphomet, concluding that Gaga was indubitably an "Illuminati puppet". Bad Romance apparently "offers a chilling description of a music industry ruled by the elite". In Alejandro, she "flashes in her fans' faces the symbols of their own oppression".

The Vigilant Citizen has a good claim to be the world's most distinctive music critic. On his website,, he describes himself as a graduate in communications and politics and a producer for "some fairly well-known 'urban' artists". He has spent five years researching "Theosophy, Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, the Bavarian Illuminati and Western Occultism". All of these interests converge in his insanely detailed analyses of the symbolism of pop videos and lyrics. Thus Pink's MTV awards performance mimics a Masonic initiation; Jay-Z's Run This Town trumpets the coming of the New World Order (NWO); and the video for Black Eyed Peas' Imma Be Rocking That Body advances "the transhumanist and police state agenda".

What's surprising is the methodical, matter-of-fact, occasionally humorous tone of his essays. He does not write like a swivel-eyed loon rambling about Obamunism (although, inevitably, there's an unsavoury fascination with Jewish influence). To those who don't study occult symbolism, he concedes, it might all seem "totally far-fetched and ridiculous", but for those in the know "I was simply stating the obvious". His examinations are certainly exhaustive. Scrolling down his densely illustrated posts, you may find yourself thinking, "Say, Lady Gaga really does very often cover up one eye. And a lot of pop stars really do pretend to be robots."

But the Vigilant Citizen can't encounter a predictable pop trope without interpreting it as part of an occult music-industry plot to brainwash the masses. The ostensibly meaningless "Bum bum be-dum" refrain in Rihanna's Disturbia, for example, is decoded as: "You good-for-nothing, idiotic person, let yourself become dumb, stop thinking and let yourself be hypnotised and possessed." It's something of a stretch.

take cover son...,

NYTimes | WITH the stock market lurching again, plenty of investors are nervous, and some are downright bearish. Then there’s Robert Prechter, the market forecaster and social theorist, who is in another league entirely.

Mr. Prechter is convinced that we have entered a market decline of staggering proportions — perhaps the biggest of the last 300 years.

In a series of phone conversations and e-mail exchanges last week, he said that no other forecaster was likely to accept his reasoning, which is based on his version of the Elliott Wave theory — a technical approach to market analysis that he embraces with evangelical fervor.

Originating in the writings of Ralph Nelson Elliott, an obscure accountant who found repetitive patterns, or “fractals,” in the stock market of the 1930s and ’40s, the theory suggests that an epic downswing is under way, Mr. Prechter said. But he argued that even skeptical investors should take his advice seriously.

“I’m saying: ‘Winter is coming. Buy a coat,’ ” he said. “Other people are advising people to stay naked. If I’m wrong, you’re not hurt. If they’re wrong, you’re dead. It’s pretty benign advice to opt for safety for a while.”

His advice: individual investors should move completely out of the market and hold cash and cash equivalents, like Treasury bills, for years to come. (For traders with a fair amount of skill and willingness to embrace risk, he suggests other alternatives, like shorting the market or making bets on volatility.) But ultimately, “the decline will lead to one of the best investment opportunities ever,” he said.

Buy-and-hold stock investors will be devastated in a crash much worse than the declines of 2008 and early 2009 or the worst years of the Great Depression or the Panic of 1873, he predicted. Fist tap Nana.

the preznit's ceo problem..,

WaPo | The American economy is sputtering and we are running out of options. Interest rates can't go any lower. Another burst of government spending -- whether a good or bad idea -- looks politically impossible. Can anything protect us from the dangers of stagnation or a double dip? Actually, there is a second stimulus that could have a dramatic effect on the economy -- even more so than government spending. And it won't add to the deficit.

The Federal Reserve recently reported that America's 500 largest nonfinancial companies have accumulated an astonishing $1.8 trillion of cash on their balance sheets. By any calculation (for example, as a percentage of assets), this is higher than it has been in almost half a century. Yet most corporations are not spending this money on new plants, equipment or workers. Were they to loosen their purse strings, hundreds of billions of dollars would start pouring through the economy. These investments would probably have greater effect and staying power than a government stimulus.

To be clear: There is a strong case for a temporary and targeted government stimulus. Consumers and companies are being very cautious about spending. Right now, government spending is keeping the economy afloat. Without a second stimulus, state and local governments will have to slash spending and raise taxes, which will produce a downward spiral of higher unemployment, slower growth, lower tax revenue and a larger deficit. Joel Klein, the New York City schools chancellor, told me that when the stimulus money runs out at the end of this year, he will be forced to lay off 5,000 teachers. Multiply that example a thousand times to get a sense of what 2011 could look like.

But government spending can only be a bridge to private-sector investment. The key to a sustainable recovery and robust economic growth is to get companies investing in America. So why are they reluctant, despite having mounds of cash? I put this question to a series of business leaders, all of whom were expansive on the topic yet did not want to be quoted by name, for fear of offending people in Washington.

Economic uncertainty was the primary cause of their caution. "We've just been through a tsunami and that produces caution," one told me. But in addition to economics, they kept talking about politics, about the uncertainty surrounding regulations and taxes. Some have even begun to speak out publicly. Jeffrey Immelt, chief executive of General Electric, complained Friday that government was not in sync with entrepreneurs. The Business Roundtable, which had supported the Obama administration, has begun to complain about the myriad laws and regulations being cooked up in Washington.

another round of prohibition....ta loco?!?!?

WaPo | Before the 18th Amendment could make drink illegal, the 16th Amendment had to make the income tax legal. It was needed because by 1910 alcohol taxes were 30 percent of federal revenue.

Workmen's compensation laws gave employers an interest in abstemious workers. Writes Okrent, Asa Candler, founder of the Coca-Cola Co., saw "opportunity on the other side of the dry rainbow." World War I anti-German fever fueled the desire to punish brewers with names such as Busch, Pabst, Blatz and Schlitz. And President Woodrow Wilson's progressivism became a wartime justification for what Okrent calls "the federal government's sudden leap into countless aspects of American life," including drink.

And so Prohibition came. Sort of. Briefly.

After the first few years, alcohol consumption dropped only 30 percent. Soon smugglers were outrunning the Coast Guard ships in advanced speedboats, and courts inundated by violations of Prohibition began to resort to plea bargains to speed "enforcement" of laws so unenforceable that Detroit became known as the City on a Still.

Prohibition agents cherished $1,800 jobs because of the bribes that came with them. Fiorello La Guardia taunted the government that it would need another "150,000 agents to watch the first 150,000." Exemptions from Prohibition for church wine and medicinal alcohol became ludicrously large -- and lucrative -- loopholes.

After 13 years, Prohibition, by then reduced to an alliance between evangelical Christians and criminals, was washed away by "social nullification" -- a tide of alcohol -- and by the exertions of wealthy people, such as Pierre S. du Pont, who hoped that the return of liquor taxes would be accompanied by lower income taxes. (They were.)

Ex-bootleggers found new business opportunities in the southern Nevada desert. And in the Second World War, draft boards exempted brewery workers as essential to the war effort.

The many lessons of Okrent's story include: In the fight between law and appetite, bet on appetite. And: Americans then were, and let us hope still are, magnificently ungovernable by elected nuisances.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

building one big brain?

NYTimes | Maybe the essential thing about technological evolution is that it’s not about us. Maybe it’s about something bigger than us — maybe something big and wonderful, maybe something big and spooky, but in any event something really, really big.

Don’t get me wrong. I join other humans in considering human welfare — and the welfare of one human in particular — very important. But if we’re going to reconcile human flourishing with the march of technology, it might help to understand what technology is marching toward.

Could it be that, in some sense, the point of evolution — both the biological evolution that created an intelligent species and the technological evolution that a sufficiently intelligent species is bound to unleash — has been to create these social brains, and maybe even to weave them into a giant, loosely organized planetary brain? Kind of in the way that the point of the maturation of an organism is to create an adult organism?

If we grant the superorganism scenario for the sake of argument, is it spooky? Is it bad news for humans if in some sense the “point” of the evolutionary process is something bigger than us, something that subsumes us?

I have to admit that I’m not totally loving the life of a cell. I’m as nostalgic as the next middle-aged guy for the time when focus was easier to come by, and I do sometimes feel, after a hard day of getting lots of tiny little things more-or-less done, that the superorganism I’m serving is tyrannical — as if I’m living that line in Orwell’s “1984”: “Can you not understand, Winston, that the individual is only a cell? The weariness of the cell is the vigor of the organism.”

But at least the superorganism that seems to be emerging, though in some ways demanding, isn’t the totalitarian monster that Orwell feared; it’s more diffuse, more decentralized, more reconcilable — in principle, at least — with liberty.

And that’s good news, because I do think we ultimately have to embrace a superorganism of some kind — not because it’s inevitable, but because the alternative is worse. If technological progress grinds to a halt, it will be because chaos has engulfed the world; and if we don’t use technology to weave people together and turn our species into a fairly unified body, chaos will probably engulf the world — because technology offers so much destructive power that a sharply divided human species can’t flourish. Fist tap Nana.

is the synthetic cell about life?

The Scientist | The announcement that the J. Craig Venter Institute has succeeded (finally) in synthesizing the genome of Mycoplasma mycoides—inserting it into a cell of Mycoplasma capricolum whose genome had been removed, and creating a fully functioning Mycoplasma mycoides—has been heralded as the moment that science finally took the magic out of life. Venter has said that the achievement has changed the definition of life. Bioethicist Art Caplan, a friend of mine, thinks it puts forever to rest the idea that living things are “endowed with some sort of special power, force, or property.” It is conclusive proof that life is nothing more than interacting chemicals.

The achievement is arguably a landmark moment in science, but it’s not a philosophical watershed.

First, as many have noted, the technical accomplishment is not quite what the JCVI press release claimed. It’s hard to see this as a synthetic species, or a synthetic organism, or a synthetic cell; it’s a synthetic genome of Mycoplasma mycoides, which is familiar enough. David Baltimore was closer to the truth when he told the New York Times that the researchers had not created life so much as mimicked it. It might be still more accurate to say that the researchers mimicked one part and borrowed the rest.

The explanation from the Venter camp is that the genome took over the cell, and since the genome is synthetic, therefore the cell is synthetic. But this assumes a strictly top-down control structure that some biologists now question. Why not say instead that the genome and the cell managed to work out their differences and collaborate, or even that the cell adopted the genome (and its identity)? Do we know enough to say which metaphor is most accurate?

For the sake of argument, let’s grant that JCVI created a synthetic cell. This is when we must address Caplan’s question. Does creating life in a lab demystify it?