You are what your mother eats

Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

You are what your mother eats:

New research by the Universities of Exeter and Oxford provides the first evidence that a child’s sex is associated with the mother’s diet. Published today (23 April 2008), in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, the study shows a clear link between higher energy intake around the time of conception and the birth of sons.

Intriguing. This conclusion seems odd though:

The findings may help explain the falling birth-rate of boys in industrialised countries, including the UK and US.

The best-fed nations on earth have falling birth-rates for boys, because a higher energy intake leads to boys? Well, we have to distinguish between energy intake and energy surplus:

The study focused on 740 first-time pregnant mothers in the UK, who did not know the sex of their fetus. They were asked to provide records of their eating habits before and during the early stages of pregnancy. They were then split into three groups according to the number of calories consumed per day around the time they conceived. 56% of the women in the group with the highest energy intake at conception had sons, compared with 45% in the lowest group. As well as consuming more calories, women who had sons were more likely to have eaten a higher quantity and wider range of nutrients, including potassium, calcium and vitamins C, E and B12. There was also a strong correlation between women eating breakfast cereals and producing sons.

Over the last 40 years there has been a small but consistent decline, of about one per 1000 births annually, in the proportion of boys being born in industrialised countries, including the UK, the USA and Canada. Previous research has also shown a reduction in the average energy intake in the developed world. The ‘obesity epidemic’ is largely ascribed to declines in physical activity and differences in food quality and eating habits. There is also evidence that skipping breakfast is now common in the developed world: in the USA, the proportion of adults eating breakfast fell from 86% to 75% between 1965 and 1991.

Further, there was also no correlation between the body mass index (BMI) of a mother and the sex of her child.

Orangutan attempts to hunt fish with spear

Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

Orangutan attempts to hunt fish with spear:

The extraordinary image, a world exclusive, was taken in Borneo on the island of Kaja, where apes are rehabilitated into the wild after being rescued from zoos, private homes or even butchers’ shops.

“Orang hutan” means “forest man” in one of Indonesia’s many languages and our long-armed cousins do indeed show a remarkable ability to mimic our behaviour.

This individual had seen locals fishing with spears on the Gohong River.

Although the method required too much skill for him to master, he was later able to improvise by using the pole to catch fish already trapped in the locals’ fishing lines.

The image is part of a series taken for a new book, Thinkers of the Jungle, which also includes the first photograph of an orangutan swimming.

From the Dungeon to the Dictionary

Monday, April 28th, 2008

The game of D&D has popularized a number of words that have since moved from the dungeon to the dictionary — or at least to more common use:

From its inception, Dungeons and Dragons has provided a cornucopia of new vocabulary to its mostly younger audience. As a child, I was filled with wonderment at my first encounter with electrum coins, potions of diminution, and lycanthropic foes. What joy to find treasure hoards full of sardonyxes, olivines, and my semi-eponymous favourite, chrysoprases. How delightful to slay one’s imaginary foes with a halberd, guisarme or bec de corbin (this last one was particularly amusing because one of the guys in my gaming group was named Corbin, although I don’t ever recall his characters using one). And without the game, thousands of youths would still be holding on to the misconception that a brazier is a support undergarment.

I remember vividly an encounter with my seventh-grade French teacher, who was astonished that I knew the word ‘toxic’; I was (and am still) astonished that she was astonished, as I considered it quite ordinary. I told her at the time that it was a ‘D&D word’, although in actuality I think that toxic is one of those words that all parents should teach their children as soon as possible! It’s true that if you want your child simply to learn words outside of any context, Scrabble is a much better vocabulary-building game, but in my experience, Scrabble is mostly about using existing vocabulary, and that in a decontextualized way. Give me D&D any day, and I’ll give you a child who learns to love words.

One side effect of a game that is played by so many children, and uses such a rich vocabulary of obscure terms, is that non-standard words acquire considerable currency. So, for instance, the older and etymologically correct but less common petrification has achieved great popularity from its use in D&D and is now over twice as common on the Internet (41000 to 17400 Google pages) over the formerly standard petrifaction. The nonsense-word vorpal used by Lewis Carroll in his poem “Jabberwocky”, which from context in the poem probably means ‘deadly, keen’, through transference to the general term ‘vorpal weapon’ in D&D, has come to acquire the sense ‘capable of beheading’ (cf. this article). This abundance of odd words can be a double-edged sword, or perhaps a guisarme of linguistic confusion amidst an arsenal of linguistic joy.

Marx In Disguise

Monday, April 28th, 2008

Fred Reed peers at Marx In Disguise:

On the principle that leprosy is more fun if you understand why your fingers are falling off, permit me a few thoughts on Karl Marx, his witless theories, and our descent into a Disney version of them.

Marxism is a stupid, and almost comically wrong, hotchpotch of nonsense by a man who had little grasp of humanity, politics, or economics. He is an economist whose theories invariably lead to impoverishment. As a claim to greatness, this would seem defective. He is a major figure for the same reason that Typhoid Mary is — for damage done rather than intelligence exercised.

(Bear with me. This is not boilerplate denunciation of all things leftist. There is actually a point coming.)

Further, the errors of Marx were not of detail. They were fundamental. For example, he expected workingmen to unite. Instead, WWI showed that, with monotonous regularity (and perhaps questionable wisdom), their loyalty went to their countries. He thought that revolution would come in industrialized nations with suitable proletariats. Instead it came first in creaky agricultural countries, and never did come where he expected it. He thought that European economies would never give rise to the liberal democracies that seem today to be what everyone wants. They did.

In short, he was a crackpot. He was, however, either a crackpot who had correctly calculated the manipulability of the congenitally angry, or just lucky. No one, ever, has been responsible for as much death and brutality as Karl Marx. It wasn’t what he had in mind, not consciously anyway. But it is what he caused.

It is what Marxists always cause. With perfect predictability, Marxist states are police states. The chief trait of the workers’ paradise is that the workers all want to leave, and must be kept in with machine guns and land mines. In divided countries like Korea, we have what approach being laboratory experiments. South Korea is a high-tech industrial power. In North Korea, they eat grass and, occasionally, each other. If Korea is a geographical example, China is a temporal one: As soon as it began to abandon Marxism, it began to progress.

Marxism is a proven disaster. And Marxists know it. Elementary history is not a secret.

All of this would be of academic interest only, if the same spirit, under other names, were not so very active in America today. We see it in a variety of disguises. When Russia practiced censorship, we called it ” censorship.” Here, we call it political correctness. You still have to look over your shoulder before saying the wrong things. The difference is…what? In Russia, Marxists preached class warfare. Here they preach multiculturalism. The difference is…what? The Russians, unable to speak openly, passed around samizdat. We have the Internet. The difference, other than efficiency, is…what?


Monday, April 28th, 2008

Alex Tabarrok cites Patri Friedman (son of David, son of Milton) and Wayne Gramlich, from their seasteading manifesto:

A small but passionate minority is deeply dissatisfied with current political systems. These people seek the autonomy to live under and experiment with different political, social, and economic systems than currently exist. It is this search for sovereignty, for the freedom of self-government, which is the fundamental motivation for seasteading.

Why is this coming up?

In interesting news, The Seasteading Institute has secured funding of $500,000 from PayPal founder Peter Thiel to help make the idea a reality.

Tabarrok’s thoughts:

Long-term trends are somewhat favorable for seasteading because with a cell phone and internet access more and more people could live on a seastead and make a living. Cruise ships are already floating cities with few regulations or taxes. Harold Berman argues that the rise of the West was due to competitive law. Homeowner’s organizations, hotels and condos are private governments (for more see my edited book The Voluntary City.).

Of course, seasteading is only necessary because there’s no established way to perform a leveraged buyout of a sovereign state.

Gin, Television, and Social Surplus

Sunday, April 27th, 2008

Clay Shirky (Here Comes Everybody) looks at Gin, Television, and Social Surplus:

I was recently reminded of some reading I did in college, way back in the last century, by a British historian arguing that the critical technology, for the early phase of the industrial revolution, was gin.

The transformation from rural to urban life was so sudden, and so wrenching, that the only thing society could do to manage was to drink itself into a stupor for a generation. The stories from that era are amazing — there were gin pushcarts working their way through the streets of London.

And it wasn’t until society woke up from that collective bender that we actually started to get the institutional structures that we associate with the industrial revolution today. Things like public libraries and museums, increasingly broad education for children, elected leaders — a lot of things we like — didn’t happen until having all of those people together stopped seeming like a crisis and started seeming like an asset.

It wasn’t until people started thinking of this as a vast civic surplus, one they could design for rather than just dissipate, that we started to get what we think of now as an industrial society.

Perhaps you can see his point about television coming:

If I had to pick the critical technology for the 20th century, the bit of social lubricant without which the wheels would’ve come off the whole enterprise, I’d say it was the sitcom. Starting with the Second World War a whole series of things happened — rising GDP per capita, rising educational attainment, rising life expectancy and, critically, a rising number of people who were working five-day work weeks. For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before — free time.

And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.

We did that for decades.

So, if sitcoms “essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat,” where does that leave us now?

I was being interviewed by a TV producer to see whether I should be on their show, and she asked me, “What are you seeing out there that’s interesting?”

I started telling her about the Wikipedia article on Pluto. You may remember that Pluto got kicked out of the planet club a couple of years ago, so all of a sudden there was all of this activity on Wikipedia. The talk pages light up, people are editing the article like mad, and the whole community is in an ruckus — “How should we characterize this change in Pluto’s status?” And a little bit at a time they move the article — fighting offstage all the while — from, “Pluto is the ninth planet,” to “Pluto is an odd-shaped rock with an odd-shaped orbit at the edge of the solar system.”

So I tell her all this stuff, and I think, “Okay, we’re going to have a conversation about authority or social construction or whatever.” That wasn’t her question. She heard this story and she shook her head and said, “Where do people find the time?” That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, “No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you’ve been masking for 50 years.”

So how big is that surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project — every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in — that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it’s the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, “Where do they find the time?” when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that’s finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.

The article isn’t complete without this cute anecdote:

I was having dinner with a group of friends about a month ago, and one of them was talking about sitting with his four-year-old daughter watching a DVD. And in the middle of the movie, apropos nothing, she jumps up off the couch and runs around behind the screen. That seems like a cute moment. Maybe she’s going back there to see if Dora is really back there or whatever. But that wasn’t what she was doing. She started rooting around in the cables. And her dad said, “What you doing?” And she stuck her head out from behind the screen and said, “Looking for the mouse.”

Here’s something four-year-olds know: A screen that ships without a mouse ships broken. Here’s something four-year-olds know: Media that’s targeted at you but doesn’t include you may not be worth sitting still for.

Stem Rust Never Sleeps

Sunday, April 27th, 2008

Norman Borlaug, the Father of the Green Revolution, is worried about Stem Rust:

Stem rust, the most feared of all wheat diseases, can turn a healthy crop of wheat into a tangled mass of stems that produce little or no grain. The fungus spores travel in the wind, causing the infection to spread quickly. It has caused major famines since the beginning of history. In North America, huge grain losses occurred in 1903 and 1905 and from 1950 to ’54.

During the 1950s, I and other scientists, first in North America and later throughout the world, developed high-yielding wheat varieties that were resistant to stem rust and other diseases. These improved seeds not only enabled farmers around the world to hold stem rust at bay for more than 50 years but also allowed for greater and more dependable yields. Indeed, with this work, global food supplies rapidly increased and prices dropped.

From 1965 to 1985, the heyday of the Green Revolution, world production of cereal grains — wheat, rice, corn, barley and sorghum — nearly doubled, from 1 billion to 1.8 billion metric tons, and cereal prices dropped by 40 percent.

Today, wheat provides about 20 percent of the food calories for the world’s people. The world wheat harvest now stands at about 600 million metric tons.

In the last decade, global wheat production has not kept pace with rising population, or the increasing per capita demand for wheat products in newly industrializing countries. At the same time, international support for wheat research has declined significantly. And as a consequence, in 2007-08, world wheat stocks (as a percentage of demand) dropped to their lowest level since 1947-48. And prices have steadily climbed to the highest level in 25 years.

The new strains of stem rust, called Ug99 because they were discovered in Uganda in 1999, are much more dangerous than those that, 50 years ago, destroyed as much as 20 percent of the American wheat crop. Today’s lush, high-yielding wheat fields on vast irrigated tracts are ideal environments for the fungus to multiply, so the potential for crop loss is greater than ever.

Naturally he’s writing all this for funding:

The State Department is recommending ending American support for the international agricultural research centers that helped start the Green Revolution, including all money for wheat research. And significant financial cuts have been proposed for important research centers, including the Department of Agriculture’s essential rust research laboratory in St. Paul.

This shocking short-sightedness goes against the interests not only of American wheat farmers and consumers but of all humanity. It is tantamount to the United States abandoning its pledge to help halve world hunger by 2015.

Gas May Finally Cost Too Much

Sunday, April 27th, 2008

Gas May Finally Cost Too Much — for a few percent of drivers:

For 20 years now, county workers in Palm Beach County, Fla., have been counting cars with sensors at strategic points along its 4,000 miles of roads. Nearly every year traffic volume has climbed at least 2%. But in 2007 there was a slight decline in the number of vehicles on the roads. This year traffic is down 7.5% through March. “We’re seeing a very significant change,” says county engineer George Webb. “We’re having a good time speculating why.”

It’s not just Palm Beach. Traffic levels are trending downward nationwide. Preliminary figures from the Federal Highway Administration show it falling 1.4% last year. Now, with nationwide gasoline prices having passed the inflation-adjusted record of $3.40 a gallon set back in 1981, the U.S. Energy Information Administration is predicting that gasoline consumption will actually fall 0.3% this year. That would be the first annual decline since 1991. Others believe the falloff in consumption is steeper than the government’s numbers show. “Our canaries out there tell us they are seeing demand drop much more considerably than the fraction the EIA is talking about,” says Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at Oil Price Information Service, a Gaithersburg (Md.) market research firm.

Is oil-guzzling America changing its ways? Some think so, though it’s worth noting the U.S. still consumes one-third of the world’s annual gasoline output.

I don’t think these stats say quite what the writer thinks they say:

Just look at the latest auto sales figures. Sales fell 8% overall during the first quarter of 2008, and those of gas-hungry SUVs and pickup trucks dropped off a cliff, down 27% and 14%, respectively.

I doubt auto sales dropped 8 percent because potential drivers gave up on the idea entirely.

Sita Sings the Blues at Tribeca

Saturday, April 26th, 2008

Sita Sings the Blues at Tribeca:

Amid the documentaries and live-action features at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival is a first for the event — a feature-length, computer-generated animated film rendered entirely by a single animator, working out of a home office.

Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues, which makes its North American premiere Friday at the festival, tells two parallel stories: the ancient Hindu epic the Ramayana and the breakup of Paley’s 21st-century marriage. It does so through four distinct styles of animation, a “greek chorus” of Indonesian shadow puppets and wildly imaginative musical interludes that use authentic 1920s blues recordings to link narratives 3,000 years apart.

Best known in the 1990s for her comic strip Nina’s Adventures, Paley turned to animation in 1998, mostly using Flash, and produced the illusion-rich Fetch and the award-winning series of shorts The Stork (which portrayed each “bundle of joy” delivered by the stork as a population bomb).

Legally blind man teaches alleged intruder a lesson

Saturday, April 26th, 2008

Legally blind man teaches alleged intruder a lesson:

A legally blind man beat up an intruder and held him at knifepoint until police arrived at the man’s eastside home, authorities said. Allan Kieta, 49, told police he was at home Monday morning when his small dog began barking and he encountered the man.

“I opened the door and just ran into him. I had him pinned in the laundry room and just kept pummeling,” said Kieta, a former wrestler in high school.

He said he grabbed the intruder by the belt and dragged him into the kitchen, where he put a knife at the man’s throat and tried to dial 911.

“Being visually impaired, I couldn’t get the buttons because I was using my left hand,” he said. “It took me about 20 tries.”

Unpredictable elections

Saturday, April 26th, 2008

Nick Szabo extolls the not-so-obvious benefits of unpredictable elections:

If would-be purchasers of political favors cannot predict who will win, or even who might win with substantial probability, they cannot purchase any favors prior to an election. A perfectly unpredictable election would be bribe-free.

We can’t make elections perfectly unpredictable, but we can get pretty close. There are historical and even contemporary precedents. For example, we choose jurors by lot from a pool much larger than the twelve jurors selected. This prevents wealthy plaintiffs, defendants, or governments from buying jurors through the selection process. (After selection, there are a number of legal and physical sequestering mechanisms that can be used to isolate a jury from contact with favor purchasers. As for political office, this article deals only with bribery during the selection process).

In ancient Athens, not only juries but many office-holders were selected by lot. But the most intriguing unpredictable election process was probably that of the medieval Venetian Republic. This republic helped turn a secure island into Europe’s wealthiest trading empire. In Venice, many political offices were selected by a repeated cycle of lottery, vote, … lottery, vote. The final lottery and vote, at least, were held one after the other in the same room, giving favor purchasers no time or privacy to do their business. The leading office in Venice, the Doge, was selected by a Great Council of about 2,000 members from those members, through a process [of lotteries and votes].

The process is loosely similar to the confusion/defusion cycles of encryption or the repeated mixing phases used for securely anonymous Internet communications. The Venetians alternated a randomizing step with a debate-and-voting step.

Vengeance Is Ours

Saturday, April 26th, 2008

In Vengeance Is Ours, Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel, Collapse) looks at what tribal societies can tell us about our need to get even:

We regularly ignore the fact that the thirst for vengeance is among the strongest of human emotions. It ranks with love, anger, grief, and fear, about which we talk incessantly. Modern state societies permit and encourage us to express our love, anger, grief, and fear, but not our thirst for vengeance. We grow up being taught that such feelings are primitive, something to be ashamed of and to transcend.

There is no doubt that state acceptance of every individual’s right to exact personal vengeance would make it impossible for us to coexist peacefully as fellow-citizens of the same state. Otherwise, we, too, would be living under the conditions of constant warfare prevailing in non-state societies like those of the New Guinea Highlands. In that sense, [Holocaust-survivor] Jozef was right to leave punishment of his mother’s killer to the Polish state, and it was tragic that the Polish state failed him so shamefully. Yet, even if the killer had been properly punished, Jozef would still have been deprived of the personal satisfaction that Daniel enjoyed.

My conversations with Daniel [who had his uncle's killer paralyzed with an arrow] made me understand what we have given up by leaving justice to the state. In order to induce us to do so, state societies and their associated religions and moral codes teach us that seeking revenge is bad. But, while acting on vengeful feelings clearly needs to be discouraged, acknowledging them should be not merely permitted but encouraged. To a close relative or friend of someone who has been killed or seriously wronged, and to the victims of harm themselves, those feelings are natural and powerful. Many state governments do attempt to grant the relatives of crime victims some personal satisfaction, by allowing them to be present at the trial of the accused, and, in some cases, to address the judge or jury, or even to watch the execution of their loved one’s murderer.

Daniel concluded his story in the same happy, satisfied, straightforward tone in which he had recounted the rest of it. “Now, when I visit an Ombal village to play basketball, and Isum comes to watch the game in his wheelchair, I feel sorry for him,” he said. “Occasionally, I go over to Isum, shake his hand, and tell him, ‘I feel sorry for you.’ But people see Isum. They know that he will be suffering all the rest of his life for having killed Soll. People remember that Isum used to be a tall and handsome man, destined to be a future leader. But so was my uncle Soll. By getting Isum paralyzed, I gained appropriate revenge for the killing of my tall and handsome uncle, who had been very good to me, and who would have become a leader.”

Crazy English

Friday, April 25th, 2008

Li Yang, the founder, head teacher, and editor-in-chief of Li Yang Crazy English, is China’s Elvis of English. He teaches under the slogan: “Conquer English to Make China Stronger!”

Oh, and he teaches via a technique that one Chinese newspaper called English as a Shouted Language. You see, shouting unleashes your “international muscles”:

Li long ago expanded from language instruction to personal motivation. His aphorisms mingle Mao with Edison and Teddy Roosevelt. Li’s shtick is puckish and animated. He mocks China’s rigid classroom rules, and directs his students to hold his books in the air, face the heavens, and shout in unison — a tactic known in Crazy English and other teaching circles as T.P.R., or total physical response, a kind of muscle memory for the brain. His yelling occupies a specific register: to my ear, it’s not quite the shriek reserved for alerting someone to an oncoming truck, but it’s more urgent than a summons to the dinner table.

Penis theft panic hits city

Thursday, April 24th, 2008

A penis -theft panic has hit the city of Kinshasa, capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo:

Police in Congo have arrested 13 suspected sorcerers accused of using black magic to steal or shrink men’s penises after a wave of panic and attempted lynchings triggered by the alleged witchcraft.

Reports of so-called penis snatching are not uncommon in West Africa, where belief in traditional religions and witchcraft remains widespread, and where ritual killings to obtain blood or body parts still occur.

Rumors of penis theft began circulating last week in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo’s sprawling capital of some 8 million inhabitants. They quickly dominated radio call-in shows, with listeners advised to beware of fellow passengers in communal taxis wearing gold rings.

Purported victims, 14 of whom were also detained by police, claimed that sorcerers simply touched them to make their genitals shrink or disappear, in what some residents said was an attempt to extort cash with the promise of a cure.

“You just have to be accused of that, and people come after you. We’ve had a number of attempted lynchings. … You see them covered in marks after being beaten,” Kinshasa’s police chief, Jean-Dieudonne Oleko, told Reuters on Tuesday.

Police arrested the accused sorcerers and their victims in an effort to avoid the sort of bloodshed seen in Ghana a decade ago, when 12 suspected penis snatchers were beaten to death by angry mobs. The 27 men have since been released.

Trying to Understand Liberals and Conservatives

Thursday, April 24th, 2008

Fred Reed is trying to understand Liberals and Conservatives:

Conservatives believe in the wisdom of common Americans to manage their affairs and make decisions for themselves. Exceptions to this are the half of the public who regularly vote Democratic. These common Americans are unfit to run their affairs and make decisions for themselves. It is because they been deluded by liberal propaganda.

Liberals also believe in the inherent wisdom of common Americans, especially those who don’t have any. They think that the mother lode of wisdom lies on the low side of the bell curve. They discern qualities in the stupid, ignorant, and shiftless that engender a capacity to govern a country they can’t spell. Coincidentally, these people vote Democratic.

Liberals do not believe in the wisdom of the half of the country who vote Republican, as these are all CEOs of major corporations. The Left knows that CEOs, unlike welfare recipients, are motivated by economic interest.

Conservatives believe that it is not the business of government to legislate morality, and thus want laws against abortion, pornography, sex education, and marijuana. Liberals don’t want to legislate morality either. They want to eliminate it, along with learning, thought, civility, and other impediments to the undisturbed enjoyment of uniform mental darkness.