Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for January 4th, 2012

Things that get up my nose: Bad writing division

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While I’m greatly enjoying Extra Virginity and I think that anyone who uses oil (of any type) in cooking should certainly read it, the author can really drag his nails across the blackboard of my mind. One example, and you need the background information that lampante is the Italian word for very low-quality olive oil (“lamp oil”), not supposed to be sold for human consumption but regularly sold as “olive oil,” such is the nature of that industry.

The author has had his eight- and ten-year-old sons, Jeremy and Nicholas, test olive oils with him, tasting them, inhaling the fragrance, and so on. He writes how they quickly learned to detect the various notes, and they developed a taste for certain oils.

Now and then I brought home bad oils from a discount supermarket or a well-meaning but maladroit farmer, and watched the boys sniff, wince, and hiss “lampante!” with the same righteous anger as Flavio Zaramella

But “lampante“, with the best will in the world, cannot be “hissed”: it is devoid of sibilants. No hissing to be done, no hissing possible.

What on God’s green earth was he thinking? “Hiss” is not a verb one uses casually or thoughtlessly—it’s not an automatic choice, in other words—and even the most maladroit writer would not fail so badly. But clearly this is not a matter of the word that was hissed being revised to a word sans sibilants along the way: the word “hissed” was always “lampante.” It just an error, and an egregious one at that. Brought me to a shuddering halt, as you see.

Maybe I’m becoming a curmudgeon?

Written by LeisureGuy

4 January 2012 at 9:21 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Writing

Mark Bittman and people power

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You really should read this column by Mark Bittman in the NY Times today. From the column:

. . . We should be able to agree on this: there is an oligarchy in this country, one that uses financial strength to gain political power, one that fights and bullies for its “right” to make money regardless of the consequences to the earth or anything on it. Exxon will do all it can to prevent meaningful climate change legislation; Cargill and Pepsi will fight any improvement in agriculture or diet that threatens their profits; Bank of America would rather see homeowners go under than discuss changes in financial structures. And so on.

There are two ways to fight this oligarchy: by making personal and local changes that counter its power, and by joining mass movements that protest that power. The first can be as simple as light-bulb changing (which Republicans famously detest) and salad-eating [1], though obviously it can be far more involved. The second begins with voting, but it takes more than a president, however well-intentioned, to bring about real change. Does anyone believe that Lyndon Johnson wanted to combat racism, or that Richard Nixon cared about American troops or Vietnamese citizens? No: they were forced, respectively, to support civil rights legislation and to begin ending the Vietnam War. Forced by masses of Americans marching, yelling, demonstrating, sitting in and more — Americans driven by their conscience, not by profits.

Only if there is collective action by large numbers of citizens will politicians — even principled ones — have the support they need to resist the power of corporate lobbyists. It’s not an easy process, and it’s one that’s often met by violence.

I focus on the effect the oligarchy has on the food system — and in turn on our health and that of the environment, farm laborers, animals and so on — but in 2011 I was most inspired whenthousands of people sat in front of the White House to protest the approval of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which the climate scientist Jim Hansen called the “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.” More than 1,000 people were arrested, but the pipeline’s approval, supported by the State Department and taken for granted, was subsequently delayed, possibly forever.

Why? Certainly not thanks to the pipeline’s 234 supporters in the House of Representatives, who collectively pocketed $42 million (Speaker John A. Boehner’s office alone took in more than $1 million) from the fossil fuel industry. [I’ll do the math for you: about $180,000 per “representative” (they’re not representing you or me), with the implied promise of more to come.] No, it was delayed because President Obama was responding to pressure from normal people, rather than pressure exerted by the energy industry.

A system that allows what amounts to direct payments to congressmen from corporations may be technically legal, but as the journalist and activist Bill McKibben — one of the organizers of the Washington Keystone protest — said to me last week, “Not only does it offend the notion of fairness, it leads to irrational outcomes.”

The most “irrational outcome” is permission to poison air, land, water and living things in the name of profits and without penalty: a hefty subsidy for the products of both the fossil fuel and big food industries. The relatively paltry sums these corporations pay to members of Congress are nothing compared to their profits. (Because $42 million isn’t much  when you consider that the total profits of Exxon, for example, were more than $30 billion in 2010.)

That’s oligarchy in action, and the lesson of Keystone is as old as protest itself: only by uniting people who are willing to fight for a cause can we change things. . .

The country is increasingly run by the oligarchs, and unfortunately our politicians have, for the most part, become quite tolerant of corruption.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 January 2012 at 6:37 pm

Either Sen. Mitch McConnell is stupid, or he thinks you are. (Or, most likely, both.)

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James Fallows:

In response to President Obama’s “what took him so long?” recess appointment of Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Board, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell responded thus, according to CNN:

“President Obama, in an unprecedented move, has arrogantly circumvented the American people by ‘recess’ appointing Richard Cordray as director of the new CFPB,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in a statement.

Let’s take this in order:

Unprecedented move“? There is some technical dispute about when the Congress is and is not in recess. But the only thing “unprecedented” about Obama’s use of recess appointments is how rarely he has done it. According to the Congressional Research Service, Bill Clinton made 139 recess appointments in 8 years, and George Bush made 171. According to Wikipedia (only source I immediately found), Obama made 28 in his first three years — or less than half of Bush’s rate, 9+ per year, versus 21+.

Arrogantly circumvented“? At the moment, Obama is the elected president of the United States. The Consumer Financial Protection Board was approved by both houses of Congress and duly signed into law by the president. There is no doubt that Cordray would receive a majority Senate vote in favor of his appointment — if the nomination were ever allowed to come to a vote. And Obama is the one “arrogantly circumventing” Constitutional processes and the American people? Seriously, this kind of thing need to be called out for what it is: nonsense.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 January 2012 at 5:29 pm

Kindle update

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Okay, I got a new Kindle after all. This one. No keyboard, so it’s harder to make notes, but then I observed with my Kindle DX I don’t make notes all that often.

The size is hard to beat: book size rather than (as with the Kindle DX) magazine size. Me gusta, as Mantic59 frequently writes. Also, the display seems much crisper on the (little) Kindle than the DX. Wi-fi only is not a problem: I mostly use it at home, where Wi-fi abounds, and even on the road, Wi-fi is easy.

The thing that convinced me was the Collections feature that TYD pointed out. Once I could group books into collections—and even more when I learned that a book can be in more than one collection (e.g., Extra Virginity is in “Food,” “Business,” and “History”), I was a happy person.

I also like that the back of this Kindle is a kind of rubbery surface instead of satin-finish metal: much nicer to hold.

Minor improvement: the screen savers are much more interesting.

I’m happy I got it. (If I hadn’t been, it would have been silently returned. 🙂 )

Written by LeisureGuy

4 January 2012 at 1:08 pm

Ignorant animals influence group decisions

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I don’t know that the finding applies to humans—humans certainly do not base their decisions on ignorant supposition, nor would they follow leaders who did. Right? Jef Akst in The Scientist has an interesting write-up of several findings in animal behavior, and this one caught my eye:

. . . In a study published last month in Science, ecologist and evolutionary biologist Iain D. Couzin of Princeton University and his colleagues observed an interesting trend in how groups of golden shiners make decisions. The researchers trained one group golden shiners to associate food with a blue target, and another, smaller group to associate food with a yellow target, which the fish prefer naturally. The researchers then put the fish together and watched as they tended towards the yellow targets. This suggested that the smaller group had a more intense preference, which influenced the entire population. “A strongly opinionated minority can dictate group choice,” the authors wrote.

But when the researchers added fish that hadn’t been trained, they found that they started to favor the blue target. Though the result may seem counterintuitive at first, the researchers argue that “the presence of uninformed individuals spontaneously…[returns] control to the numerical majority.”

The experiments may have been done with fish, but it’s tempting to think of the implications for people, particularly with the upcoming elections, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported. The results suggest that “uninformed agents can promote democratic outcomes in collective decision problems,” wrote Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. West of the University of Washington at Seattle in a commentary in the same issue. “Jefferson’s passionate arguments on the importance of education for democratic society notwithstanding,” the commenters wrote, the Couzin team has “identified circumstances in which ignorance can promote democracy.”

Not everyone agrees that the studies have such dramatic implications for human behavior, however. “The claims [the authors] make are not ones made by political scientists,” Lynn Vavreck, an associate professor of political science at the University of California at Los Angeles, told The Chronicle. “In fact, they are opposite.” . . .

Also interesting is that animals learned to walk before emerging onto land. Makes sense, when you think about it: swimming animals likely could not get very far once they were on the beach.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 January 2012 at 10:52 am

Mind control in the animal kingdom

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It seems that any new capability results in parasites evolving to exploit it, whether in human society or in the animal kingdom. Some of the adaptations achieved by the slow process of mutation and natural selection are amazing. Jef Akst describes some in an intriguing article in The Scientist:

Anormally insatiable caterpillar suddenly stops eating. A quick look inside its body reveals the reason: dozens of little wasp larvae gnawing and secreting digestive enzymes to penetrate its body wall. They have been living inside the caterpillar for days—like little vampires, feeding on its “blood”—and are finally making their exodus to build their cocoons on its bright-green exterior.

In the caterpillar’s brain, a massive immune reaction is taking place—the invertebrate equivalent of a cytokine storm—and among the factors being released is an invertebrate neurohormone called octopamine. “It’s a very important compound for controlling behavior in insects,” says invertebrate behavioral physiologist Shelley Adamo of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “Octopamine levels go up, and that plays a role in shutting off feeding.”

But the parasitic larvae don’t stop there. They also inhibit the host’s ability to break down the substance. “Octopamine levels remain high for days, and this caterpillar never really eats again,” Adamo explains. “Basically, it starves to death.” This plays the important role of preventing the caterpillar from picking off the cocoons, one by one, and eating the metamorphosing larvae alive. Simply killing their host isn’t an option, Adamo says, because if the caterpillar dies, its body will become overrun with fungal pathogens—unwelcome visitors to a wasp nursery. Plus, non-eating caterpillars retain their defensive reflexes, which protect both them and the young wasps from arthropod predators. “They’ve turned their host from being a meal ticket [into] their bodyguard,” Adamo says.

Although researchers have observed countless examples of parasites hijacking the autonomy of their hosts, only now are they beginning to understand how the parasites tinker with numerous systems within the host, ultimately changing the host’s behavior in grotesque and horrific ways. Taking a proteomics approach, for example, scientists have compared the proteins expressed in the brains of infected and uninfected animals to gain clues about which molecules might be involved in the manipulation. And more directed neurological approaches have flagged certain brain regions and particular neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, as likely culprits.

“The real nuts and bolts have yet to be figured out for any system,” says Adamo. “But we have some hints—good hints.”

Imagine a person walking his dog on a leash, only in place of the dog, substitute a cockroach, and holding the leash, picture a wasp. The female parasitoid jewel wasp doesn’t actually paralyze its cockroach victim, but impairs the roach’s ability to initiate movement of its own accord. This allows the wasp to . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 January 2012 at 10:28 am

Posted in Evolution, Science

Book trailer for Dig Two Graves

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A book trailer! Cool idea, eh? Full disclosure: Eric Beetner, the guy in the trailer and the author of the book, is also a highly regarded film/video editor whose credits include Fear Factor, among other things. (Important, since that show and others on which he’s worked depend totally on the editing for their impact.) Eric is the son of Mr. Beetner, who, while not a lifelong friend, missed that by only 24 years, a period now much shorter than the period for which we’ve been friends. Here’s more info on the book. And now, the trailer (NB: you should already have your popcorn, because the trailer’s not long enough for it to pop):

Written by LeisureGuy

4 January 2012 at 10:11 am

Posted in Books, Video

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