Archive for November 17th, 2010
I highly recommend a subscription. Just in current issue:
Almost half of US could be obese by 2050 – Obesity will rise to around 42% of the population by 2050 and then stabilize at that level.
Human evolution was shaped by plate tectonics – Our remote ancestors preferred to live in tectonically active regions for reasons the article explains—and the evidence is convincing.
Born to laugh, we learn to cry – The two sounds we do not have to learn: laughing and the sound of relief.
Countdown to ‘thermogeddon’ has begun – Parts of the tropics will (with global warming) grow too hot for humans to survive. Projections say this could happen by 2100 and evidence shows that the process is underway. (The problem is that the stability threshold, which triggers cooling storms as a natural thermostat, will rise.)
And much more, including this note: “1 billion gigabytes of data will be uploaded or downloaded via US cellphone networks in 2010, up 112% from 2009.”
Editorial in New Scientist:
FOR believers in rationality, the modern world is often a frustrating and bewildering place.
Despite the many and manifest successes of science, it seems ever harder to penetrate the fog of superstition, magical thinking and prejudice that infects most human belief systems. Quack medicine, astrology, supernatural beings and denialist movements are not just alive in the 21st century, they are thriving. Herein lies a paradox for rationalists.
Those who find rational arguments persuasive naturally assume that others do too, and that the way to win a debate is simply to employ a cold-eyed blend of objectivity, data and logic. And if at first that doesn’t succeed, try, try again, but more forcefully.
Even then, success is far from guaranteed – and for good reason: the more we learn about irrational beliefs, the clearer it becomes that they are perfectly normal. Human beings are not wired for logic. Irrationality is our default state, and overcoming it is hard work. The dream of a glorious future when the march of progress automatically exorcises our demons will always remain a dream.
In How weird are you? Oddball minds of the western world we report on research revealing that rational, analytical thinking is alien to most people.
We like to think that western societies are more logical and rational. But there is a good reason why this 10 per cent or so of the world’s population is labelled "western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic" – aka WEIRD.
Among the WEIRD, irrational thinking proliferates – and always has. Take denial, for example. We tend to think of scientific denial movements as a modern phenomenon, but as our feature on page 48 shows, they are not.
Almost as soon as the theory of general relativity was published in 1915 it was being savaged by opponents on less-than-scientific grounds. Many opposed it because they saw it as a threat to the established order, part of the widespread social and political unrest of the time, while others were motivated by religion or anti-Semitism. That movement eventually dwindled, but has recently resurfaced in a different guise, showing that irrationality will always find a way.
What are we to do? Yes, rationality is the best way to solve problems and move forward, but we have to now focus the forces of rationality on developing an even deeper understanding of irrational thinking.
Stuart Vyse of Connecticut College in New London has highlighted our natural urge to find cause and effect in coincidences. And he suggests that superstitions are seen as an insurance policy, a variant of "Pascal’s wager", referring to how the 17th-century philosopher thought that it was rational to believe in God, just in case.
Shelley Taylor at the University of California in Los Angeles has done research to show how "positive illusions" – such as an unrealistic optimism, or an illusion of personal control – can offer psychological benefits, particularly in times of stress.
The more we understand about irrationality and why rational arguments fail, the better placed we are to apply rational thought to win over hearts as well as minds. Call it the rational case for irrational thinking.
In the last Congress, the House approved the Paycheck Fairness Act, only to see it die in the face of a Republican filibuster. This year, it’s happened again.
The first bill President Obama signed after taking office was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which made it easier for women to seek justice for pay discrimination. At the time, Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) joined with Democrats to overcome strong Republican opposition to the bill.
But today, all three Republican senators voted against a motion to proceed on the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill that "would further strengthen current laws against gender-based wage discrimination." [...]
Women earn barely three-quarters of what their male counterparts make for the same work, but conservatives have invented a number of ludicrous reasons for opposing equal pay legislation. For example, the Heritage Foundation has suggested that equal pay laws actually hurt women because businesses simply won’t hire them if they are required to pay them fair wages. And Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has claimed that women would receive better compensation if they just had more "education and training."
The final tally was 58 senators supporting the measure, and 41 opposing. Because our Senate is often ridiculous, 41 trumps 58.
What’s more, note that this was only a vote on the motion to proceed. In other words, opponents didn’t just disagree with the proposal, they filibustered a measure that would have let the Senate debate the idea.
And what did those opponents have in common? Looking at the roll call, every Republican in the chamber voted to kill the Paycheck Fairness Act, while every Democratic except one supported it. The lone exception was, of course, Ben Nelson.
Soon after, President Obama issued a statement, noting, "I am deeply disappointed that a minority of Senators have prevented the Paycheck Fairness Act from finally being brought up for a debate and receiving a vote. This bill passed in the House almost two years ago; today, it had 58 votes to move forward, the support of the majority of Senate, and the support of the majority of Americans. As we emerge from one of the worst recessions in history, this bill would ensure that American women and their families aren’t bringing home smaller paychecks because of discrimination. It also helps businesses that pay equal wages as they struggle to compete against discriminatory competition. But a partisan minority of Senators blocked this commonsense law. Despite today’s vote, my Administration will continue to fight for a woman’s right to equal pay for equal work."
I’m reading a totally fascinating book, The Horse, The Wheel, And Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, by David W. Anthony.
The steppes are the great grass savannah that stretches from Bucharest and Odessa in the West all across Asia to the Great Wall of China. As Anthony points out, this great plain of grass was an impenetrable barrier so long as humans traveled by foot—but with the domestication of sheep, goats, and horses, and in particular with the invention of the wheel, it became instead a communications channel. And along that channel poured a people from whom sprang our modern languages and cultures.
Who were they? They were the Indo-Europeans, who spoke the Indo-European language—and that’s a story in itself, a story that in modern times begins with Sir William Jones, a British judge in India who wrote an electrifying sentence in 1786:
The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure: more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either; yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.
Sir William was studying Sanskrit because Indian law depended on texts in that language. He already knew Welsh, English, Latin, Greek, German, and Persian—quite an amazing guy.
Anthony describes how the efforts to learn Indo-European took off, propelled by a variety of motivations. That in itself is fascinating. Then he turns to what we have learned from pursuing the Proto-Indo-European language.
The only aspect of the Indo-European problem that has been answered to most peoples’ satisfaction is how to define the language family, how to determine which languages belong to the Indo-European family and which do not. The discipline of linguistics was created in the nineteenth century by people trying to solve this problem. Their principal interests were comparative grammar, sound systems, and syntax, which provided the basis for classifying languages, grouping them into types, and otherwise defining the relationships between the tongues of humanity. No one had done this before…
Historical linguistics gave us not just state classifications but also the ability to reconstruct at least parts of extinct languages for which no written evidence survives. The methods that made this possible rely on regularities in the way sounds change inside the human mouth. If you collect Indo-European words for hundred from different branches of the language family and compare them, you can apply the myriad rules of sound change to see if all of them can be derived by regular changes from a single hypothetical ancestral word at the root of all the branches. The proof that Latin kentum (hundred) in the Italic branch and Lithuanian shimtas (hundred) in the Baltic branch are genetically related cognates is the construction of the ancestral root *k’mtom-. The daughter forms are compared sound by sound, going through each sound in each word in each branch, to see whether they can converge on one unique sequence of sounds that could have evolved into all of them by known rules. (I explain how this is done in the next chapter.) That root sequence of sounds, if it can be found, is the proof that the terms being compared are genetically related cognates. A reconstructed root is the residue of a successful comparison.
Linguists have reconstructed the sounds of more than fifteen hundred Proto-Indo-European roots. The reconstructions vary in reliability, because they depend on the surviving linguistic evidence. On the other hand, archeological excavations have revealed inscriptions in Hittite, Mycenaean Greek, and archaic German that contained words, never seen before, displaying precisely the sounds previously reconstructed by comparative linguistics. That linguists accurately predicted the sounds and letters later found in ancient inscriptions confirms that their reconstructions are not entirely theoretical. If we cannot regard reconstructed Proto-Indo-European as literally “real,” it is at least a close approximation of a prehistoric reality.
The recovery of even fragments of the Proto-Indo-European language is a remarkable accomplishment, considering that it was spoken by nonliterate people many thousands of years ago and never was written down. Although the grammar and morphology of Proto-Indo-European are most important in typological studies, it is the reconstructed vocabulary, or lexicon, that holds out the most promise for archaeologists. The reconstructed lexicon is a window onto the environment, social life, and beliefs of the speakers of Proto-Indo-European.
… But the proto-lexicon contains much more, including clusters of words, suggesting that the speakers of PIE inherited their rights and duties through the father’s bloodline only (patrilineal descent); probably lived with the husband’s family after marriage (patrilocal residence); recognized the authority of chiefs who acted as patrons and givers of hospitality for their clients; likely had formally instituted warrior bands; practiced ritual sacrifices of cattle and horses; drove wagons; recognized a male sky deity; probably avoided speaking the name of the bear for ritual reasons; and recognized two senses of the sacred (“that which is imbued with holiness” and “that which is forbidden”).
All that by page 15. Terrific book.
They really, REALLY did not want American to have affordable access to healthcare. Lee Fang reports at ThinkProgress:
This morning, Bloomberg reporter Drew Armstrong broke anincredible story revealing that health insurance companies, like UnitedHealth and CIGNA, funneled $86.2 million into the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 2009 to pay for the Chamber’s multifaceted campaign to kill President Obama’s health reform legislation. In January of this year, the National Journal’s Peter Stone reported that insurers had pumped $20 million into the Chamber for its anti-health reform campaign. Armstrong’s report exposes the true extent to which insurers worked to fool the public and defeat health reform. However, the report also poses new questions about the role of insurance companies in the health reform debate.
Why did insurance companies try to hide their donations to the Chamber’s anti-health reform campaign? Given their own unpopularity and Obama’s pledge to be the first leader to successfully reform America’s broken health system, the health insurance industry hatched a plan to fundamentally deceive the public, the press, and politicians. Instead of fighting reform tooth and nail, the insurance industry worked to manipulate the process and ultimately kill reforms by adopting what ThinkProgress termed “The Duplicitous Campaign.” In public, health insurance lobbyists and executives promised to support reform and work closely with reform advocates. The top health insurance lobbyist, Karen Ignagni, went to the White House early in the reform debate and promised Obama, “You have our commitment to play, to contribute and to help pass health-care reform this year.”
In private, the health insurance industry worked with conservative think tanks and media, right-wing front groups, and highly ideological trade associations like the National Association of Manufacturers and the Chamber to kill the bill. By using third party groups and ideological covers, the health insurance industry sought to trick Americans into hating reform. In September of 2009, while many in the media still believed insurance executives were honestly supporting reform, ThinkProgress released a report detailing the ways in which the health insurance industry secretly worked to undermine the process and poison public opinion (read it here). We also produced a video with health insurance whistle-blower Wendell Potter, who explained how insurers control the debate to defeat reform:
ThinkProgress busted several anti-reform groups, like Conservatives for Patients’ Rights,Coalition to Protect Patients’ Rights and Center for Medicine in the Public Interest as industry-created fronts used to deceive the public. As ThinkProgress has also first reported, health insurance companies like WellPoint and Blue Cross Blue Shield have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to anti-reform talking heads like Newt Gingrich. In December of 2009, ThinkProgress produced an exclusive investigation showing how health insurance executives are also secretly working to undermine and undo reform on the state level by orchestrating state-based constitutional challenges to the law. The question for the press and for politicians becomes: we now know that health insurance companies absolutely lied to the public about its role in the reform process in 2009. How much are health insurers funding efforts to repeal the law and weaken health reform regulations?
According to a new report by HCAN, health insurers posted a 22 percent increase in profits for 2010, largely by shedding customers. How much of that money — money from health insurance premiums — is being used on right-wing lobbying campaigns instead of actual treatments and health care for the sick?
By now, you all have heard that the Republicans, in one of their first acts back from the midterm elections, have decided to scuttle START. Yes, that is crazy, obscene, and will undercut our foreign policy with Russia while making the world less safe, but to me, the craziest thing I’ve seen about the whole affair came in this NY Times write-up:
President Obama’s hopes of ratifying a new arms control treaty with Russia by the end of the year appeared to come undone on Tuesday as the chief Senate Republican negotiator moved to block a vote on the pact, one of the White House’s top foreign policy goals, in the lame-duck session of Congress.
The announcement by the senator, Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Republican point man on the issue, blindsided and angered the White House, which vowed to keep pressing for approval of the so-called New Start treaty. But the White House strategy had hinged entirely on winning over Mr. Kyl, and Democrats, who began scrambling for a backup plan, said they considered the chances of success slim.
Really? This blind-sided them? Sweet mother of everything holy.
Just what the hell have the members of this administration been paying attention to for the last two years? The Republicans are going to do EVERY single thing they can to ruin your administration. If they sense there is the slightest chance for you to do anything positive or constructive, they will block it. Did you not see them demanding that Robert Byrd be wheeled to the floor of the Senate at midnight on Christmas to vote for HCR? Did they not learn from Chuck Grassley saying that sure, if everything I want in HCR is in there, I will still vote against it. Did they not learn anything from all their dealings with the snow princesses in Maine? Have they not learned anything from the antics of mean old man McCain in regards to DADT? Lindsey Graham on cap and trade and immigration? They are actively working to keep the economy in the shitter until 2012, for chrissakes.
With all due respect, what the hell are you idiots in the White House smoking? You incompetent boobs. THE REPUBLICANS WILL NOT WORK WITH YOU IN GOOD FAITH ON ANYTHING. Get it through your god damned heads. And they will screw you dim bulbs on tax cuts next, and then you all will throw up your hands and tell us no one could have predicted. The Republicans aren’t the only one living in their own reality, as this White House clearly has constructed a new reality in which Republicans act in good faith. It’s about as real as Narnia.