Sunday, April 30, 2006

Holy crap that's funny

"Mayor Nagin! Mayor Nagin is here from New Orleans, the chocolate city! Yeah, give it up. Mayor Nagin, I'd like to welcome you to Washington, D.C., the chocolate city with a marshmallow center. And a graham cracker crust of corruption. It's a Mallomar, I guess is what I'm describing, a seasonal cookie." - Stephen Colbert

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Democracy Isn't 'Western'

Democracy Isn't 'Western'
Cultural determinists should look beyond Ancient Greece.

Friday, March 24, 2006 12:01 a.m.

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings." Culture too, like our stars, is often blamed for our failures. Attempts to build a better world capsize, it is alleged, in the high sea of cultural resistance. The determinism of culture is increasingly used in contemporary global discussions to generate pessimism about the feasibility of a democratic state, or of a flourishing economy, or of a tolerant society, wherever these conditions do not already obtain.


Insightful comments on democracy and capitalism

Rebecca Mackinnon

... Over the long run China is becoming freer than before - culturally and economically. But politically it is probably less free than it was in the late 1980s. Americans often make the mistake of equating capitalism with democratization. This is a false equation. Despite being ruled by a bunch of people who still call themselves the Communist Party, China is no longer [a] communist country in practice. ... I think [a] better description of the current system is corporatist-fascist rather than communist. ... It is a party dedicated to preserving its power and enriching its loyal supporters.

... [T]he presence of free market capitalism doesn't necessarily mean economic freedom if the system is corrupt and the leaders are unaccountable to the governed. There is a rapidly growing gap between rich and poor in China right now. The government is doing its best to censor media reports and Internet discussions of unrest in the countryside. Provincial officials do private deals with local businesses to sell off peasants' land, leaving the farmers without recourse or compensation. Peasants try to protest, then journalists get beaten up by thugs in local government employ for trying to report ... what happened.

Workers go unpaid or work under substandard environmental conditions, and the press isn't allowed to report on these situations very much either -- except in a very limited and fragmented way that avoids asking the bigger questions. ... Capitalism is incredibly liberating and empowering, ... when combined with an accountable government and a functioning legal system. When combined with a corrupt dictatorship, ... it can be a tool for the elites to exploit everybody else quite efficiently.

Savannah, Georgia and MLK

"...they all flew to Savannah on an early morning flight. The mood of the occasion was grimly practical, but the preachers among them appreciated that the Savannah region was a fitting site for revolutions grounded in religion. From Savannah, in 1738, the British revivalist George Whitefield had launched his first phenomenal tour of the American colonies, creating a mass intoxication--known as the Great Awakening--that swept from Georgia to New Hampshire. He drew 30,000 people to the Boston Common in 1740, when the city's entire population was less than two-thirds that number. From Savannah, where John Wesley first landed from England with his Anglican theology shaken by Whitefield's preaching on the voyage, Whitefield's influence spawned Baptist congregations and later Wesleyan (Methodist) ones. The small, malaria- infested seaport in Georgia became mother to the two massed-based Protestant denominations that captured early American churchgoers. In Savannah itself, the spirit of conversion was so strong that many of the whites accepted the idea of promoting religion among the slaves. First African Baptist was established there in 1788 as one of the first Negro congregations on the North American continent. A pastor of First African led the slave preachers who parleyed with General Sherman when his March to the sea reached Savannah."

Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters, Simon & Schuster, 1988, pp. 688-9

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Daily Howler on Duke

MAYBE THESE LOSERS SHOULD TAKE IN A MOVIE: We don’t know if an assault occurred. But what makes these young men such complete, total losers? Duke is full of smart, attractive, hip young women. Why were these idiots off at their frat house, getting drunk and wasting money like this?

This brings us to our all-time favorite movie—Hitchcock’s Notorious, a decades-before-its-time look at male hatred of women (and a great thriller to boot). Essentially, Notorious is a much better version of Psycho (conversely, Psycho can be thought of as Notorious on steroids.) For the central male character (played by Cary Grant), we see the same themes explored later in Psycho—the controlling mother at the top of the stairs, and the lovely woman he’s drawn to and yet wants to hurt (in this case, Ingrid Bergman). Notorious is a fascinating psychological study—and a truly great work of suspense.

Monday, April 24, 2006




The Sublime


Sunday, April 23, 2006

Smoking is Bad.

Dear Cecil:

A character in Christopher Buckley's 1994 novel Thank You for Smoking (now a film) quotes a then-current prediction in the medical journal the Lancet: "[In the] next ten years, 250 million people in the industrialized world are going to die from smoking--one in five." It's now 12 years later. I certainly hope the Lancet's prediction--which I am guessing was bona fide, and not an invention of the novelist--proved to be overpessimistic. In the best estimate of the experts (and by "experts" I do not mean tobacco spokespersons), how many lives were lost to smoking during that ten-year period? --David English, Somerville, Massachusetts

Cecil replies:

You'll excuse my jumping immediately into the arithmetic, David, but let's think. If Buckley meant that 250 million deaths due to smoking would account for a fifth of all deaths in the industrialized countries in the coming ten years, we'd be talking 1.25 billion total deaths--absurd given that the population of those countries in 1994 was right around 1.25 billion. But even if he just meant that the 250 million smoking deaths would claim a fifth of all people then living in the industrialized world, that's still nuts. The U.S. Census's international database tells us there were 539 million deaths worldwide between 1995 and 2004. Tobacco's a scourge all right, but if smoking in the industrialized nations alone accounted for half of human mortality over a decade, it'd make the Black Death look like a bad cough.

This isn't to say Christopher Buckley manufactured that horrifying statistic; he probably just misread his notes. Undoubtedly he's referring to a 1992 Lancet article entitled "Mortality From Tobacco in Developed Countries: Indirect Estimation from National Vital Statistics" by Richard Peto et al. (Sounds familiar? Maybe it's because I cited this article when trying to compute smoking deaths among U.S. WWII veterans. Incidentally, Peto, an Oxford don, was knighted in 1999, making him Professor Sir Richard Peto. Sometimes I wish I lived in England.) Peto and friends projected that "[based] on current smoking patterns just over 20% of those now living in developed countries will eventually be killed by tobacco (i.e., about a quarter of a billion, out of a current total population of just under one and a quarter billion)." So we're looking at 250 million lifetime smoking deaths, not just in the next ten years. In the shorter term, Peto's group projected that tobacco would kill 2.1 million people in 1995, or 21 million for 1990-'99. In sum, Buckley was off by an order of magnitude, a sizable boo-boo even for a novelist. Then again, the AIDS pandemic, generally regarded as the great plague of our time, has killed an estimated 25 million since 1981, so 21 million tobacco deaths in ten years still qualifies as a lot.

Be that as it may, we're now fourteen years on and one naturally wonders how things look on the fatal scorecard. Last December Peto and colleagues issued a revised version of their 1994 opus Mortality From Smoking in Developed Countries 1950-2000. The 50-year total, since you're probably wondering: 63 million, or one death in eight. Mean years lost per smoking death: 15. Returning to the matter at hand, Peto et al calculate 2 million smoking-related deaths in 1995 in the 45 industrialized nations and 1.9 million in 2000.

Offhand those numbers suggest the toll is mounting more slowly than expected. Maybe, but it's not like somebody is going around counting toe tags. All statistics on tobacco deaths, whether looking forward or back, are estimates of varying reliability, and from what I can tell, virtually all the synoptic international figures are the work of Peto and associates. For example, in the World Health Organization's Tobacco Atlas (2002) I find a page of color graphics with a mortality bar chart in the form of little tombstones, in my mind a sure mark of reliability, plus, in big red numbers, an estimate "of everyone alive today [who] will eventually be killed by tobacco": 500,000,000. (Attention novelists: That's lifetime, not in the next ten years, OK? Lifetime.) Confirmation of Peto's worst fears? Hold on. The likely source of the scary statistic is longtime WHO consultant--you guessed it--Richard Peto.

I'm not saying the numbers are bunk. It's true, as tobacco apologists argued for years, that given the long latency and complex causality of lung cancer, the chief smoking-related killer, it's difficult to conclusively pin any particular death on tobacco use--mostly you're stuck comparing cancer rates among smokers and nonsmokers. What's more, anyone working up a global estimate has to generalize from narrow research (Peto's major source on differential cancer rates was an American Cancer Society study). So smoking-death projections are inherently soft and won't ever be confirmed in a rigorous way. Still, there's reasonably good evidence that the leading cause of death in this bloody era is a form of suicide committed one puff at a time.


Wednesday, April 19, 2006


"Weasels, at first glance, seem to be designed wrongly. They are beautifully camouflaged in white, yet that conspicuous black tip of a tail seems an odd, inexplicable anomaly--until experiments showed that hawks easily captured fake weasels that had no black tipped tail. When the hawks were baited with fakes that had black tipped tails, however, the birds grew confused, either momentarily hesitating or attacking the tails as though they were the head- end. Other small animals also use deception-evolved tails. Many lizards, for example, have colorful, conspicuous tails that divert or distract predators. The tail is easily detachable, and starts writhing and flailing after being detached to divert the predator even more from the live whole animal that slinks away. Lycaenid butterflies also have similarly distracting and detachable "tails" on their wings that fake out a predator in much the same way a good basketball passer fools his opponent on the court. The butterflies' tails imply to a predator that its prey is about to head in one direction, when it then turns and escapes in the opposite."

Bernd Heinrich , Winter World, The Ingenuity of Animal Survival, Harper Collins, 2003, p. 48

Politicians and Parents

"There does seem to be a preponderance of distinctly type A, superdetermined parents--mother or father or both--behind the people who achieve prominence in Washington..."Harry Truman wrote his mother ("Dear Mama...") almost every day while he was president. Rebekah Johnson is generally credited with having assiduously propelled her son Lyndon up the ladder to making himself a public somebody. George Bush's (41) well-born mother is generally credited with imbuing the son with what he saw as the better-off person's duty to participate in public life. There were other driving dads, albeit fewer than driving moms. The hurricane force determination of John F. Kennedy Sr. is notorious.

"I don't count something totally exotic or peculiar to Washington...after all, the ability of doddering parents reduce even their aged offspring to kidlike universally understood and, to most of us, a matter of rueful amusement...

"I remember witnessing one such classic encounter between Rose Kennedy, then well into her nineties, and her fifty- or sixty-something children Edward Kennedy and Eunice Shriver...After dessert at a large, fancy dinner party Senator Kennedy gave for his mother during one of these visits, when Eunice Shriver had already made an affectionate, lighthearted toast referring to her mother's undiminished ability to terrorize them on such matters, and while her son, the Senate committee chairman, was still on his feet delivering his speech of welcome, Rose Kennedy, apparently provoked beyond endurance by what she considered yet another lapse, interrupted him in mid-sentence to hiss in reproving tones heard by all, "Teddy, the coffee should have been served by now."

Meg Greenfield, Washington, Public Affairs Press, 2001, pp. 110-1

Thursday, April 13, 2006

A nice surprise

"Finally, in the spring of 2004...Dr. Gebreihiwot Abraham received a fax from a University of Toronto research team asking if he had an appropriate candidate for a clinical trial of a new, experimental surgery for treatment-resistant depression. The operation borrowed a procedure called deep brain stimulation, or DBS, which is used to treat Parkinson's. It involves planting electrodes in a region near the center of the brain called Area 25 and sending in a steady stream of low voltage from a pacemaker in the chest.

...(Researchers) found that Area 25 was smaller in most depressed patients; that it lighted up in every form of depression and also in nondepressed people who intentionally pondered sad things, that it dimmed when depression was successfully treated; and that it was heavily wired to brain areas modulating fear, learning, memory, sleep, libido, motivation, reward and other functions that went fritzy in the depressed.

...As it turned out, 8 of the 12 patients he operated on...felt their depression lift while suffering minimal side effects--an incredible rate of effectiveness in patients so immovably depressed. Nor did they just vaguely recover. Their scores on the Hamilton depression scale...(became) essentially normal."

David Dobbs, A Depression Switch?, The New York Times Magazine, April 2, 2006, pp. 52-3

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Is there any food one can ethically eat?

"On a mission from their leader, five young men arrived in Chicago to open a little fish shop on Elston Avenue. Back then, in 1980, people of their faith were castigated as "Moonies" and called cult members. Yet the Japanese and American friends worked grueling hours and slept in a communal apartment as they slowly built the foundation of a commercial empire.

They were led by the vision of Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the self-proclaimed messiah who sustained their spirits as they played their part in fulfilling the global business plan he had devised.

To find our survey of prominent Chicago-area sushi restaurants that use the Unification Church-affiliated True World Foods, see Wednesday's Tribune.

Moon founded his controversial Unification Church six decades ago with the proclamation that he was asked by Jesus to save humanity. But he also built the empire blending his conservative politics, savvy capitalism and flair for spectacles such as mass weddings in Madison Square Garden.

In a remarkable story that has gone largely untold, Moon and his followers created an enterprise that reaped millions of dollars by dominating one of America's trendiest indulgences: sushi. "


June 2, 2003 - London - Unanimously agreeing to alter their resources to better correspond to the most precise definition available, the editorial teams of Webster's, Random House, and Oxford English dictionaries unveiled plans today to replace the entry "Pyrrhic Victory," with the more accurate "Bush Victory" in their next editions.

"We were attempting to best define this new type of military 'success' the Bushes have created," said Random House Dictionary editorial staff member Steve Carlson. "We discussed the Bushes' 'success' in kicking Russia out of Afghanistan by arming Osama bin Laden, their 'success' in helping Iraq's Saddam Hussein beat Iran in the Iran-Iraq War, and now the grand 'success' of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the word 'Pyrrhic' came up so many times that we all realized something had to be changed."

Monday, April 10, 2006

William Shakespeare

"Nothing is so common-place as to wish to be remarkable."

"Virtue and genuine graces in themselves speak what no words can utter."

"Action is eloquence."

"How poor are they who have not patience! What wound did heal but by degrees?"

"In peace there's nothing so becomes a man as modest stillness and humility."

William Shakespeare, English dramatist, 1564-1616

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Bicycle Racing Strategy

Horner's finish-line stand

Chris Horner (Davitamon-Lotto) couldn't believe his bad luck. The plucky American made the selection of the elite group up the final climb when he punctured with about 7km to go. He knew that was no-man's land despite a fast wheel change.

When he rolled up to the finish line, he stopped just short of the tape and just idled there before slipping across 50th at 3:28 back.

"I got the flat, so there goes the GC. I knew there was no way I was chasing back, so that's why I wanted to lose as much time as possible," Horner said. "I just sat there two minutes. Maybe that's enough time that they'll let me go in a break and not worry about me."

Horner was poised for a solid result in the demanding Pais Vasco race. In Monday's opener, he finished a solid sixth against the likes of three-time world champion Oscar Freire and Valverde.

"The legs aren't super, but they are good enough to be in that lead group," Horner lamented. "I came here to win something. So the GC's gone, so maybe I can get a stage."

Sunday, April 02, 2006

A Sentimental Education, Flaubert.

"And Frederic's mind went back to those now far-off days when he used to envy the unuterrable bliss of someone sitting in one such carriage beside one such woman. He was such a man and he was none the happier." (227)

America Is (still) Waiting

America Is Waiting

Brian Eno and David Byrne

(From the album "MY LIFE IN THE BUSH OF GHOSTS")

America is waiting for a message of some sort or another.
Takin' it again. Again! Again! Takin' it again.
Well now... no, no... now, we ought to be mad at the government not mad at the people.
Takin' it again. Again! Again! Takin' it again.
I mean, yeah, well... wha-what're ya gonna do?
America is waiting for a message of some sort or another.
No will whatsoever. No will whatsoever! Absolutely no honor.
No will whatsoever. No will whatsoever! Absolutely no integrity.
No will whatsoever. No will whatsoever! I haven't seen any any any citizen over there stand up and say ";Hey, just a second.";
No will whatsoever. No will whatsoever! I mean, yeah, so... wha-what're ya gonna do?
America is waiting for a message of some sort or another.

What do these comments have in common?

"Working in a large medical center like Mayo, Mr. Marek [a hospital chaplain] said, 'You hear tons of stories about the power of prayer, and I don't doubt them.'" (NY Times)

"A person of faith would say that this study is interesting," Mr. Barth [spiritual director of Silent Unity] said, "but we've been praying a long time and we've seen prayer work, we know it works, and the research on prayer and spirituality is just getting started." (NY Times)

"Dr. David Stevens, executive director of the Christian Medical and Dental Associations, said he believes intercessory prayer can influence medical outcomes, but that science is not equipped to explore it. 'Do we control God through prayer? Theologians would say absolutely not. God decides sometimes to intervene, and sometimes not,' he said." (Houston Chronicle)

"'Maybe the people weren't praying very hard,' Higgins said of the study. 'I have no doubts that intercessory prayer works, (just) not all the time.' Even Christ's prayers in the garden of Gethsemane weren't answered, Higgins said. 'At the end, it's God's will be done. ... I don't know how you can measure those things.'" (St. Petersburg Times)

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Remember Me

Grant Urry

Of Winchester on January 04, 2006. Husband of Lillian (Alibertini) Urry. Father of Lisa Urry of El Cerrito, CA, Meg Urry of Guilford, CT, Serena Urry of Detroit, MI and Anthony Urry of Livonia, MI. Grandfather of Amelia, Lily, Sophia, Alex, Grant and Evan. Brother of Zada Christiansen of Salt Lake City, UT and Daniel Urry of Birmingham, AL. Also survived by many nieces and nephews. Ph.D. from University of Chicago 1953. Professor of Chemistry (retired) at Tufts University. There will be no Funeral Services. Friends are asked to remember him by voting Democratic.

Bicycle Quotes

"Get a bicycle. You will not regret it if you live."

Mark Twain, Taming the Bicycle

"The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man. Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart."

Iris Murdoch, The Red and the Green


OK, this (via Mind Hacks) is just cool, even if I don't know quite how seriously to take it. Apparently there's been a fair amount of research over the last few years on changes in attitudes, values, and behaviors that occur when bilinguals (or multilinguals) switch between languages. For example, in one study (p. 2):

Hong Kong bilingual-Chinese managers who responded to a values questionnaire in English displayed means closer to a group of American managers in the US than did the bilingual-Chinese managers who responded to the same questionnaire in Chinese (Ralston et al., 1995).

The explanation, which the authors of the linked study (two of whom I know pretty well personally, and still had never heard of this stuff) attribute to "Cultural Frame Switching" or "cultural accomodation," is that the language primes the culture that goes with it, and the cultures values and atitudes are thus primed as well. You know, I can almost buy that.

But for social psychologists, the mere priming of values and attitudes is not sexy enough. They need something bigger; they need to show that switching between languages causes personality changes. Of course, this requires showing something equally sexy, namely that differences in personality exist between Spanish and English speakers in the first place. So the paper is, like, doubly sexy ("sexy" is, of course, a technical term in social psychology, and doesn't refer to anything related to actual sex... I hope).