Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

whimperative: the excessively diffident way of getting someone to do something, as in, “I was wondering if you might pass the salt.”

From John Derbyshire’s review of Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature.

Confessions of a home-schooler

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

Andrew O’Hehir shares his confessions of a home-schooler — including his answers to questions from a random lady outside the Burger King along the Garden State Parkway:

Mrs. GSP: Do you use a curriculum?

Me: Oh, sure! Absolutely.

Real answer: Give me a break! These kids are 5 years old. What curriculum was involved when you were in kindergarten? As I recall, it was mainly scissors and paste. My wife will talk as long as you want her to about the fact that there’s no real evidence to back up the recent move toward “academic,” full-day kindergarten, and plenty of evidence that young children need more unstructured playtime than most of them get. The real purpose of all this formal schooling is to get the kids out of the house and train them to stand in line and follow instructions while mommy and daddy get back to their ultra-important lives as economic production units. If you break down the impressive-sounding, bureaucratically adumbrated federal list of kindergarten standards, a whole lot of it amounts to learning to count from 1 to 20, learning the alphabet and the months of the year, and learning to tell time.

(Hat tip to Jesse Walker at Reason‘s Hit & Run.)

Whom should it elect?

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

Steve Sailer says that immigration is probably the single broadest, deepest, most intellectually challenging topic in all of public policy:

There’s no knottier or more significant question you can ask than: When the government elects a new people, how many and whom should it elect?

There is no crowd in crowdsourcing

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

There is no crowd in crowdsourcing, Dan Woods argues:

What really happens in crowdsourcing as it is practiced in wide variety of contexts, from Wikipedia to open source to scientific research, is that a problem is broadcast to a large number of people with varying forms of expertise. Then individuals motivated by obsession, competition, money or all three apply their individual talent to creating a solution.

Staffordshire Hoard

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

Terry Herbert, a 55-year-old jobless man living on welfare, recently scoured the English countryside with his metal-detector and uncovered the Staffordshire Hoard — 1,500 pieces of intricately worked gold and silver dating back to the seventh century:

They said it surpassed the greatest previous discovery of its kind, a royal burial chamber unearthed in 1939 at Sutton Hoo, in Suffolk. That find shaped scholars’ understanding of the warring Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of 1,300 years ago that ended up as the unified kingdom of England.

The new trove includes items that one expert in Anglo-Saxon artifacts said brought tears to her eyes: gold items weighing 11 pounds, and 5.5 pounds of silver. Tentatively identified by some experts as bounty from one of the wars that racked Middle England in the seventh and eighth centuries, they included dagger hilts, pieces of scabbards and swords, helmet cheekpieces, Christian crosses and figures of animals like eagles and fish.

Archaeologists tentatively estimated the value of the trove at 1 million pounds — about $1.6 million — but say it could be many times that. And they took a vicarious pleasure in noting that the discovery was not the outcome of a carefully planned archaeological enterprise, but the product of a lone amateur stumbling about with a metal detector.

The coming Stolen Generation of African-Americans

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

Maggie Jones has written about The Inner-City Prep School Experience, and Steve Sailer ironically warns of the coming Stolen Generation of African-Americans:

So, the solution is to take [poor black students] away from their families to the maximum extent possible and have them raised by salaried professionals. The problem is that we simply haven’t spent enough money on them. It’s our fault.

In other words, the trend is to re-enact the Australian Stolen Generation scheme. As you’ll recall, in the 1930s, half-blood children of alcoholic Aboriginal mothers were sent to boarding schools to learn how to function in white society by well-intentioned whites. This was condemned in the movie Rabbit Proof Fence, but, amusingly, the director, Philip Noyce, wound up paying to send his adolescent half-blood female star to boarding school to get her away from her alcoholic family.

SEED costs $35,000 per year for five days per week of school and boarding, but most of the article concerns whether or not having the kids go home on the weekends (which keeps the cost from being a lot higher than $35,000) just ruins whatever good is done by locking them up away from their friends and relatives on weeknights.

Didn’t we try that in 1938?

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

Didn’t we try that in 1938?, William Easterly asks:

African Problem to be Addressed African Research Survey, 1938 UN Millennium Project, 2005
Malaria “mosquito bed-nets …malaria control by the spraying of native huts with a preparation of pyrethrum” “insecticide-treated nets…. insecticides for indoor residual spraying …{with} pyrethroids”
Nutrition “…the African suffers from deficiency of Vitamin A” “Malnutrition {is also} caused by inadequate intake of … vitamin A”
Soil fertility “methods of improving soil fertility {such as} green manuring” “using green manure to improve soil fertility”
Soil erosion “increasing absorption and reducing runoff on cultivated land {through} the use of terraces” “Contour terraces, necessary on sloping lands… when furnished with grasses and trees…{to avoid} soil erosion”
Land tenure “… legal security against attack or disturbance can most effectively be guaranteed by registration” “security in private property and tenure rights … registration of property”
Clean drinking water sinking boreholes “Increase the share of boreholes”

People forget that technology does not implement itself:

Technical knowledge needs people to implement it — people who have the right incentives to solve all of the glitches and unexpected problems that happen when you apply a new technology, people who make sure that all the right inputs get to the right places at the right time, and local people who are motivated to use the new technology. The field that addresses all these incentives is called economics.

(Hat tip to Alex Tabarrok.)

John Derbyshire and the Little Dragon

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

Conservative commentator John Derbyshire (mis)spent some of his youth in Hong Kong — where he appeared in a Bruce Lee movie:

Well, I was sitting there reading when a young Chinese guy came in. Seeing that I was the only person in the lounge, he addressed me. “Do you speak English?” I said I did. “Know any martial arts?” I said I had taken a few lessons. “Want to be in a movie?” I asked him if it paid. “Sure. Seventy bucks a day.” (Hong Kong dollars, he meant — around US$12 at that time.) I said I was game. “Good. Be outside the Miramar Hotel front entrance tomorrow morning, seven thirty.”

There were half a dozen other ghost-heads (gwai-tau, the generic Cantonese term for a non-Chinese person) outside the Miramar. We must have looked an unsavory lot — the casting director had obviously just trawled around the low-class guest-houses for unemployed foreigners of a sufficiently thuggish appearance. One was a dead ringer for Jimi Hendrix. Another was a full-blood Maori from New Zealand, a huge fellow — an obvious rugby lock — who made a meager living as a night-club singer in the colony’s low dives. A minibus arrived and drove us out to the New Territories — that is, the countryside that stretches out back of urban Hong Kong forty miles or so to the Chinese border. (Beyond which Mao Tse-tung’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was going through one of its nastier phases. Rafts of rotting corpses would occasionally float down the Pearl River past the colony.) Here there was a movie studio. We were led into a huge shed used for indoor sets, and spent the next two days filming fight scenes in that shed.

Bruce himself directed Meng Long Guo Jiang. He was on set all the time, setting up the fights, working out positions, talking to the lighting crews and the cameramen. There was, by the way, no sound crew. Chinese movies at that time were shot without sound. The sound was dubbed in later. When you watch a Bruce Lee movie, you are not hearing Lee’s voice, though I think they might have inserted his qi-ai — the intimidating yells, grunts and howls he used when fighting — into the soundtrack of Meng Long Guo Jiang. The qi-ai sound like his, anyway. In fact the first dubbing was always into Mandarin, and the on-screen lip syncing was to Mandarin words. Bruce, though fluent in English and Cantonese, could not speak Mandarin, so this was a constant vexation to him when filming, and probably the main reason he has very few speaking lines in his movies.

Bruce Lee’s presence was as striking in person as on screen. I have never seen a man who gave such an impression of concentrated energy. If he got animated when talking to you, he would make little springy skipping movements with his feet, as if warming up for a fight. When nothing much was happening, he would drop down and do one-arm finger-thumb push-ups at one side of the set, or have someone hold up a board he could practice kicks on. Just as a skilful schoolteacher knows how to get the class’s attention by speaking very softly, you were most aware of Bruce’s presence, and he was most intimidating, on the rare occasions his body was dead still. In the relaxed state, he was in constant motion. Crouching tiger, indeed.

Movie fight scenes are a devil of a thing to get right. We did everything a dozen times, levels of frustration and discomfort rising each time. This was summer in the tropics, and if the place had any air conditioning, it wasn’t adequate. There were huge electric fans everywhere, but they had to be switched off for filming, or the actors’ hair would all be streaming out horizontally from their heads. Yet through the entire two days I was on the set, I never saw Bruce lose his temper, or display any negative emotion stronger than momentary mild annoyance. He was just as I had seen him on TV: smiling, cracking jokes, smoothing out difficulties and differences, coaching, teasing, encouraging, cajoling. I have a tall, lean physique, so he addressed me as “Slim.”

“Hey, Slim, let’s try that again — and this time look mean. You hate me, remember? I’m a runty obnoxious little Chink, just stole your woman, trashed your car and pissed in your beer. Whaddya gonna do to me? Huh? Whaddya gonna do? Come on …” (He spoke perfect idiomatic American English the whole time.)

The fight scenes were all improvised out of his head. I can say this authoritatively, as I got a chance to read one of the scripts. The entire section I was involved in — two days filming, though of course less than five minutes in the finished movie — was encompassed by four Chinese characters in the script: Li da xi ren — “Lee strikes the Westerners.”

Derbyshire put his two short scenes up on YouTube.

SFO Now Sells Indulgences

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

SFO now sells indulgences from kiosks — although they prefer to call them carbon offsets:

Michael Wara, an environmental law professor at Stanford, says the idea is pretty abstract.

“I mean, what are you buying?” he says. “You are buying a piece of paper that represents the fact that an emission of an odorless, colorless gas did not occur somewhere else.”

The airport is hoping to turn that abstract concept into reality. Kandace Bender, deputy airport director of communications and marketing says it cost $190,000 to develop the “climate passport” kiosks from scratch.

“We felt it was a good public service for our passengers and for the environment,” she says.

Evolution Rarely Backtracks

Monday, September 28th, 2009

Joseph Thornton and his colleagues explored why evolution rarely backtracks by studying the 450-million-year evolution of the glucocorticoid receptor (GR):

Around the time cartilaginous fish such as sharks split off from bony fish, roughly 440 million years ago, the ancestral protein that the scientists call GR1 responded to both cortisol and the hormone aldosterone. But 40 million years later, when four-legged creatures started to appear, the descendent GR2 had become cortisol-specific.

During these 40 million years, 37 amino acids changed. Only two were necessary to alter the function: One put a kink in the protein’s shape, making it unresponsive to both hormones, and another allowed the restructured molecule to interact with only cortisol. Thornton’s team next wondered if they could make GR2 recognize both cortisol and aldosterone by reverting these amino acids, which they call group X, back to their GR1 state. The researchers report today in Nature that this swap not only couldn’t restore GR’s original dual function but that it also killed the protein’s ability to recognize any hormone.

So what blocked the way back? By comparing images of GR2 and a putative ancestral protein, the scientists fingered another five of the 37 GR1-to-GR2 mutations as the culprits. These changes probably occurred randomly after the X mutations and had no significant effect on the protein’s function going forward. But in reverse, when the scientists tried to iron out the GR2 kink, these mutations caused protein parts to crash into one another. For GR2 to evolve back into GR1, these five mutations must be reversed first to avoid this molecular fender-bender. But because they have no effect on which hormone the protein recognizes, there would be no selective pressure to reverse these mutations. “They burn the bridge to return back to the ancestral function,” Thornton says.

Earliest Feathers

Monday, September 28th, 2009

Some exceptionally well preserved dinosaur fossils uncovered in north-eastern China display the earliest feathers known — 10 million years older than Archaeopteryx:

One of the new dinosaur specimens, named Anchiornis huxleyi, is spectacular in its preservation.

It has extensive plumage covering its arms and tail, and also its feet — a “four-winged” arrangement, says Professor Xu from the Chinese Academy of Science in Beijing.

Spider-Silk Cloth

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

It sounds like something from a fantasy novel — a fine silk tapestry made from the golden silk of one million spiders — but it’s on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City:

To produce this unique golden cloth, 70 people spent four years collecting golden orb spiders from telephone poles in Madagascar, while another dozen workers carefully extracted about 80 feet of silk filament from each of the arachnids. The resulting 11-foot by 4-foot textile is the only large piece of cloth made from natural spider silk existing in the world today.

French missionary Jacob Paul Camboué built a small, hand-driven machine to extract silk from up to 24 spiders at once, without harming them, back in the late 1800s:

“Simon managed to build a replica of this 24-spider-silking machine that was used at the turn of the century,” said Nicholas Godley, who co-led the project with Peers. As an experiment, the pair collected an initial batch of about 20 spiders. “When we stuck them in the machine and started turning it, lo and behold, this beautiful gold-colored silk started coming out,” Godley said.

But to make a textile of any significant size, the silk experts had to drastically scale up their project. “Fourteen thousand spiders yields about an ounce of silk,” Godley said, “and the textile weighs about 2.6 pounds. The numbers are crazy.”
By the end of the project, Godley and Peers extracted silk from more than 1 million female golden orb spiders, which are abundant throughout Madagascar and known for the rich golden color of their silk. Because the spiders only produce silk during the rainy season, workers collected all the spiders between October and June.

Then an additional 12 people used hand-powered machines to extract the silk and weave it into 96-filament thread. Once the spiders had been milked, they were released into back into the wild, where Godley said it takes them about a week to regenerate their silk. “We can go back and re-silk the same spiders,” he said.

AIDS Vaccine Shows Some Success

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

For the first time, an AIDS vaccine has shown some success in trials:

Results of the trial of the vaccine, known as RV 144, were released at 2 a.m. Eastern time Thursday in Thailand by the partners that ran the trial, by far the largest of an AIDS vaccine: the United States Army, the Thai Ministry of Public Health, Dr. Fauci’s institute, and the patent-holders in the two parts of the vaccine, Sanofi-Pasteur and Global Solutions for Infectious Diseases.

Col. Jerome H. Kim, a physician who is manager of the army’s H.I.V. vaccine program, said half the 16,402 volunteers were given six doses of two vaccines in 2006 and half were given placebos. They then got regular tests for the AIDS virus for three years. Of those who got placebos, 74 became infected, while only 51 of those who got the vaccines did.

Although the difference was small, Dr. Kim said it was statistically significant and meant the vaccine was 31.2 percent effective.

Dr. Fauci said that scientists would seldom consider licensing a vaccine less than 70 or 80 percent effective, but he added, “If you have a product that’s even a little bit protective, you want to look at the blood samples and figure out what particular response was effective and direct research from there.”

The most confusing aspect of the trial, Dr. Kim said, was that everyone who did become infected developed roughly the same amount of virus in their blood whether they got the vaccine or a placebo.

Normally, any vaccine that gives only partial protection — a mismatched flu shot, for example — at least lowers the viral load.

That suggests that RV 144 does not produce neutralizing antibodies, as most vaccines do, Dr. Fauci said. Antibodies are long Y-shaped proteins formed by the body that clump onto invading viruses, blocking the surface spikes with which they attach to cells and flagging them for destruction.

Instead, he theorized, it might produce “binding antibodies,” which latch onto and empower effector cells, a type of white blood cell attacking the virus.

Whatever the vaccine does, he said, it does not seem to mimic the defenses of the rare individuals known to AIDS doctors as “long-term nonprogressors,” who do not get sick even though they are infected. They have low viral loads because they block reproduction in some way that is still mysterious.

A Cheaper Brick

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

Calstar has devised a cheaper brick:

Ordinary bricks are fired for 24 hours at 2,000°F (1,093°C) as part of a process that can last a week, while Calstar bricks are baked at temperatures below 212°F (100°C) and take only 10 hours from start to finish, Kane said.

The recipe incorporates large amounts of fly ash — a fluffy, powdery residue of burned coal at electric plants, that can otherwise wind up as a troublesome pollutant.

“Ours is a precise product” that relies on getting the chemistry right, said Amitabha Kumar, Calstar’s director of research and development.

The process of making the bricks, which look and feel like any other brick, requires 80 to 90 percent less energy and emits 85 percent less greenhouse gas than ordinary bricks, according to Calstar.

Lower energy costs mean higher profit, allowing the company to pay for its research and compete against large companies that have economies of scale.

Naturally the Brick Industry Association says that they are not actually bricks, and that there is no proof that products using fly ash will last as well as traditional brick.

Of course, there’s no proof that they won’t last longer than traditional brick either.

The New Ones

Saturday, September 26th, 2009

S. T. Joshi summarizes Lovecraft’s vision:

Humanity is not at centre stage in the cosmos, and there is no one to help us against the entities who have from time to time descended upon the earth and wreaked havoc; indeed, the ‘gods’ of the Mythos are not really gods at all, but merely extraterrestrials who occasionally manipulate their human followers for their own advantage.

Samuel Francis, writing in the May 1997 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, offers his own take:

Mr. Joshi is correct about the cosmic level of meaning in Lovecraft’s stories, but he largely neglects another, social level of meaning. On that level, Lovecraft’s stories are dramas of modernity in which the forces of tradition and order in society and in the universe are confronted by modernity itself — in the form of the shapeless beings known (ironically) as the “Old Ones.” In fact, they are the “New Ones.” Their appearance to earthly beings is often attended by allusions to “Einsteinian physics,” “Freudian psychology,” “non-Euclidean algebra” (a meaningless but suggestive term), modern art, and the writing of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce. The conflicts in the stories are typically between some representative of traditional order (the New England old stock protagonist) on the one hand, and the “hordes” of Mongoloids, Levantines, Negroes, Caribbeans, and Asians that gibber and prance in worship of the Old Ones and invoke their dark, destructive, and invincible powers.

What Lovecraft does in his stories, then, is not only to develop the logic of his “cosmicism” by exposing the futility of human conventions, but to document the triumph of a formless and monstrous modernity against the civilization to which Lovecraft himself — if almost no one else in his time — was faithful. In the course of his brief existence, he saw the traditions of his class and his people vanishing before his eyes, and with them the civilization they had created, and no one seemed to care or even grasp the nature of the forces that were destroying it. The measures conventionally invoked to preserve it — traditional Christianity, traditional art forms, conventional ethics and political theory — were useless against the ineluctable cosmic sweep of the Old Ones and the new anarchic powers they symbolized.

Lovecraft believed that his order could not be saved, and that in the long run it didn’t matter anyway, so he jogged placidly and cynically on, one of America’s last free men, living his life as he wanted to live it and as he believed a New England gentleman should live it: thinking what he wanted to think, and writing what he wanted to write, without concern for conventional opinions, worldly success, or immortality. And yet, despite the indifference he affected, Howard Phillips Lovecraft has in the end attained a kind of immortality, for the classic tales of horror he created will be read as long as that genre of literature is read at all.

(Hat tip to Bradlaugh at Secular Right who correctly notes that Lovecraft is more fun to read about than he is to read.)