Later On

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Archive for March 9th, 2014

What’s the Point If We Can’t Have Fun?

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Fascinating essay in The Baffler no. 24 by David Graeber:

My friend June Thunderstorm and I once spent a half an hour sitting in a meadow by a mountain lake, watching an inchworm dangle from the top of a stalk of grass, twist about in every possible direction, and then leap to the next stalk and do the same thing. And so it proceeded, in a vast circle, with what must have been a vast expenditure of energy, for what seemed like absolutely no reason at all.

“All animals play,” June had once said to me. “Even ants.” She’d spent many years working as a professional gardener and had plenty of incidents like this to observe and ponder. “Look,” she said, with an air of modest triumph. “See what I mean?”

Most of us, hearing this story, would insist on proof. How do we know the worm was playing? Perhaps the invisible circles it traced in the air were really just a search for some unknown sort of prey. Or a mating ritual. Can we prove they weren’t? Even if the worm was playing, how do we know this form of play did not serve some ultimately practical purpose: exercise, or self-training for some possible future inchworm emergency?

This would be the reaction of most professional ethologists as well. Generally speaking, an analysis of animal behavior is not considered scientific unless the animal is assumed, at least tacitly, to be operating according to the same means/end calculations that one would apply to economic transactions. Under this assumption, an expenditure of energy must be directed toward some goal, whether it be obtaining food, securing territory, achieving dominance, or maximizing reproductive success—unless one can absolutely prove that it isn’t, and absolute proof in such matters is, as one might imagine, very hard to come by.

I must emphasize here that it doesn’t really matter what sort of theory of animal motivation a scientist might entertain: what she believes an animal to be thinking, whether she thinks an animal can be said to be “thinking” anything at all. I’m not saying that ethologists actually believe that animals are simply rational calculating machines. I’m simply saying that ethologists have boxed themselves into a world where to be scientific means to offer an explanation of behavior in rational terms—which in turn means describing an animal as if it were a calculating economic actor trying to maximize some sort of self-interest—whatever their theory of animal psychology, or motivation, might be.

That’s why the existence of animal play is considered something of an intellectual scandal. It’s understudied, and those who do study it are seen as mildly eccentric. As with many vaguely threatening, speculative notions, difficult-to-satisfy criteria are introduced for proving animal play exists, and even when it is acknowledged, the research more often than not cannibalizes its own insights by trying to demonstrate that play must have some long-term survival or reproductive function.

Despite all this, those who do look into the matter are invariably forced to the conclusion that play does exist across the animal universe. And exists not just among such notoriously frivolous creatures as monkeys, dolphins, or puppies, but among such unlikely species as frogs, minnows, salamanders, fiddler crabs, and yes, even ants—which not only engage in frivolous activities as individuals, but also have been observed since the nineteenth century to arrange mock-wars, apparently just for the fun of it.

Why do animals play? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 March 2014 at 5:25 pm

Posted in Daily life, Science

Live-blogging watching The Eagle

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The Channing Tatum movie.

The opening really establishes how far they are “up country,” to use the phrase: they are the front lines—and they are isolated. The isolation and the ambush-ready terrain gives a sense of “beleaguered.”

When the new centurion Aquila inspects the troops, it really was an inspection, I now realize: looking carefully for signs of disease, for unhealed wounds, for malnourishment, and so on. When the whole enterprise (and one’s life) is depending on the troops, one can assume that the inspection was careful and not cursory. (UPDATE: I’m reminded of how I learned from my friend Spaeth the importance of morning roll-call in the Army: that told you who was left, how many you had to fight with that day.)

So also: the alacrity with which his command to strengthen the fort was undertaken. If not the actual impetus toward acceptance of his leadership, it certainly laid a solid foundation for that acceptance.

I can see that I will simply doing spoilers. Guess I’ll leave it at that. But the movie does resonate with modern times in many ways and is definitely worth seeing.

UPDATE: I will add a couple of things: Aquila post-battle is shown the row of dead, with one of the formerly skeptical officers saying a heartfelt, “Sir, if it hadn’t been for you, there would have been a lot more,” and meaning it and knowing exactly how true it was—the repair of the fort, the suiting up in the middle of the night: Aquila had directly and visibly saved the lives of the survivors. And I realized that was what real leadership meant: the loyalty and trust of a bunch of men (in this case) who know that he has saved their lives. That is the bond and trust of leadership, and of course Aquila immediately puts it to the test.

Very interesting movie. The device of having a Gael and a Roman as companions is clever: each must explain to the other his own point of view, and we the viewers get to eavesdrop on both explanations, which explain quite a bit, things that I certainly had not known. The importance of the Eagle, the standard of the century the centurion commands, is that it truly represents the Empire, in that wherever the standard is, there also is the Empire and the means to enforce it (the century whose standard it was). Losing the standard was like losing the Empire.

And then when the Gael explains what it looks like from the other side, we today must recognize that it sounds an awful lot like what the US has been doing in Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, and a lot of other places. And it puts that voice in a person of Gaelic persuasion, a people with which the US public has some identification. That makes the empathy harder to dislodge.

Highly entertaining—and Channing Tatum really seems to be a modern-day movie star, of the sort once more common: Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, James Stewart, and the like: translated to today, the format is a physical hyperfit martial-arts type body, chiseled visage (I believe that’s the term), and a strong and brooding presence. The first movie in which I saw him was Haywire (quite a good movie), and he pretty much stole every scene he played. “Who is this guy?” I kept asking. And he’s quite good here. And always good to see Donald Sutherland. And Jamie Bell isn’t bad.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 March 2014 at 1:50 pm

Posted in Movies & TV

It will be very interesting to see what happens on Idaho campuses

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My grandson is beginning the process of college selection. I’m recommending against Idaho colleges for reasons given in Ian Millhiser’s post at ThinkProgress:

On Tuesday, the Idaho house gave its approval to a bill that had already cleared the state senate permitting people with an “enhanced concealed-carry permit” to carry firearms on college campuses. Gov. Butch Otter (R-ID) is expected to sign it.

Although the bill was strongly opposed by university presidents and faculty, as well as the police chief in Boise, Idaho whose jurisdiction includes Boise State University, the bill was supported by the Idaho Sheriffs Association. Indeed, one sheriff defended the bill on the grounds that “I oftentimes fear that if you start restricting one thing at a time, like where you can carry guns, there will be a next step and a next step to the point where you’re not allowed to pack guns anywhere at any time.”

Which, of course, is a perfectly sensible argument. Since the fact that guns are banned in airport terminals has already led to a total, nationwide gun ban.

Although gun rights advocates typically defend permissive concealed carry laws on the theory that a person with a hidden firearm may be able to use it to defend against a killer — “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” in National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre’s words — the reality is that defensive use of guns is rare. In 2010, according to the Violence Policy Center, there were 230 justifiable homicides involving firearms. That compares to 8,275 criminal gun homicides (a number that does not include suicides or accidental deaths) in the same year.

A likely explanation for this disparity is that most gun murders do not occur during mass shootings, break-ins or other circumstances where it is easy to imagine how a concealed firearm could be useful. Rather, as Washington State Sociology Professor Jennifer Schwartz explains, “[n]early half of all homicides, committed by men or women, were preceded by some sort of argument or fight, such as a conflict over money or property, anger over one partner cheating on another, severe punishment of a child or abuse of a partner, retaliation for an earlier dispute, or a drunken fight over an insult or other affront.” In many of these cases, if no one had ready access to a firearm at the time of the argument, no one would have died.

Indeed, guns on university grounds is a particularly dangerous idea because heavy drinking is common on college campuses, and alcohol is a major contributor to gun homicides. According to Schwartz, “40% of male offenders were drinking alcohol at the time” that they committed a homicide crime, and about one third of female offenders were also drinking at the time of their crime.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 March 2014 at 12:35 pm

Posted in Education, Guns

This reminds me of a scene in the original (Peter Weller) Robocop

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Take a look. I wonder whether they tested it in the board room.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 March 2014 at 7:54 am

Posted in Movies & TV, Technology

Is Missouri the “Show me” state? or the “I’ll show you” state?

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The editors of the NY Times comment on California’s intelligent regulation on egg production—and Missouri’s challenge to it:

California voters and lawmakers have decided that, starting next year, all eggs sold in that state must come from hens that can stand up, lie down and extend their wings fully without touching another bird. This is a perfectly reasonable effort to improve, at least for one creature, the deplorable conditions associated with modern industrial farming. It could also improve public health. Astonishingly, the attorney general of Missouri, Chris Koster, has decided to sue to overturn the rule in federal court. The court should dismiss the case.

Mr. Koster argues that the rules violate the commerce clause of the Constitution by imposing regulations on businesses in other states. But courts have long held that states can enact food, safety and other regulations in the public interest, as long as they do not discriminate against businesses in other states. California’s egg-production rules clearly meet the nondiscrimination standard, because all egg producers who want to sell their products in the state must abide by them.

Moreover, the regulations, which go into effect next year, can provide benefits to consumers by . . .

Continue reading.

Here’s the news story that prompted the editorial

Written by LeisureGuy

9 March 2014 at 7:45 am

Posted in Business, Daily life, Food, Law

Continuing doses of antibiotics make animals fat; humans are animals; ergo, …

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Very interesting article, especially for those with a chronic condition that is treated by continually taking small doses of antibiotics. Pagan Kennedy (obviously, not one of the Catholic Kennedys) writes in the NY Times:

IF you walk into a farm-supply store today, you’re likely to find a bag of antibiotic powder that claims to boost the growth of poultry and livestock. That’s because decades of agricultural research has shown that antibiotics seem to flip a switch in young animals’ bodies, helping them pack on pounds. Manufacturers brag about the miraculous effects of feeding antibiotics to chicks and nursing calves. Dusty agricultural journals attest to the ways in which the drugs can act like a kind of superfood to produce cheap meat.

But what if that meat is us? Recently, a group of medical investigators have begun to wonder whether antibiotics might cause the same growth promotion in humans. New evidence shows that America’s obesity epidemic may be connected to our high consumption of these drugs. But before we get to those findings, it’s helpful to start at the beginning, in 1948, when the wonder drugs were new — and big was beautiful.

That year, a biochemist named Thomas H. Jukes marveled at a pinch of golden powder in a vial. It was a new antibiotic named Aureomycin, and Mr. Jukes and his colleagues at Lederle Laboratories suspected that it would become a blockbuster, lifesaving drug. But they hoped to find other ways to profit from the powder as well. At the time, Lederle scientists had been searching for a food additive for farm animals, and Mr. Jukes believed that Aureomycin could be it. After raising chicks on Aureomycin-laced food and on ordinary mash, he found that the antibiotics did boost the chicks’ growth; some of them grew to weigh twice as much as the ones in the control group.

Mr. Jukes wanted more Aureomycin, but his bosses cut him off because the drug was in such high demand to treat human illnesses. So he hit on a novel solution. He picked through the laboratory’s dump to recover the slurry left over after the manufacture of the drug. He and his colleagues used those leftovers to carry on their experiments, now on pigs, sheep and cows. All of the animals gained weight. Trash, it turned out, could be transformed into meat.

You may be wondering whether it occurred to anyone back then that the powders would have the same effect on the human body. In fact, a number of scientists believed that antibiotics could stimulate growth in children. From our contemporary perspective, here’s where the story gets really strange: All this growth was regarded as a good thing. It was an era that celebrated monster-size animals, fat babies and big men. In 1955, a crowd gathered in a hotel ballroom to watch as feed salesmen climbed onto a scale; the men were competing to see who could gain the most weight in four months, in imitation of the cattle and hogs that ate their antibiotic-laced food. Pfizer sponsored the competition.

In 1954, Alexander Fleming — the Scottish biologist who discovered penicillin — visited the University of Minnesota. His American hosts proudly informed him that by feeding antibiotics to hogs, farmers had already saved millions of dollars in slop. But Fleming seemed disturbed by the thought of applying that logic to humans. “I can’t predict that feeding penicillin to babies will do society much good,” he said. “Making people larger might do more harm than good.”

Nonetheless, experiments were then being conducted on humans. In the 1950s, a team of scientists fed a steady diet of antibiotics to schoolchildren in Guatemala for more than a year,while Charles H. Carter, a doctor in Florida, tried a similar regimen on mentally disabled kids. Could the children, like the farm animals, grow larger? Yes, they could.

Mr. Jukes summarized Dr. Carter’s research in a monograph on nutrition and antibiotics: “Carter carried out a prolonged investigation of a study of the effects of administering 75 mg of chlortetracycline” — the chemical name for Aureomycin — “twice daily to mentally defective children for periods of up to three years at the Florida Farm Colony. The children were mentally deficient spastic cases and were almost entirely helpless,” he wrote. “The average yearly gain in weight for the supplemented group was 6.5 lb while the control group averaged 1.9 lb in yearly weight gain.”

Researchers also tried this out in a study of Navy recruits. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 March 2014 at 7:33 am

Posted in Daily life, Food, Health, Science

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