In Search of the Perfect 100-Year-Old Sandwich


Cultures the world-over have been wrapping edible delicacies in bread for thousands of years. But for some reason English-speaking nations attribute this concoction to John Montagu, the 18th century 4th Earl of Sandwich. Legend has it that he would demand that his serving staff deliver slices of meat between two pieces of bread so that he could eat one-handed and continue playing his favorite card games and gamble without interruption.

In honor of this remarkable invention, and with apologies to the real inventor(s) and the many precursors to the modern sandwich, the Public Domain Review has published, “The Up-To-Date Sandwich Book: 400 Ways to Make a Sandwich“, by Eva Green Fuller in 1909.

Check out the yummy egg sandwiches beginning on page 31. While I’m dubious about some of the fishy sandwiches the author is certainly correct on the first prerequisite for a good sandwich, “perfect bread in suitable condition”.

From Public Domain Review:

Although the sandwich became well established in England, the uptake in the US was a little slow (perhaps in opposition to their former rulers), a sandwich recipe not appearing in an American cookbook until 1815. By 1909 it was a different story, as the wonderfully no-nonsense Up-To-Date Sandwich Book featured here can attest to, a popularity no doubt linked to what made the food form soar amongst the working classes of the British industrial revolution — it was fast, portable, and cheap. As the subtitle betrays, no less than four hundred different sandwiches are detailed in the book.

Image: The Up-To-Date Sandwich Book: 400 Ways to Make a Sandwich (1909). Courtesy: Public Domain Review.

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Morality and a Second Language

Frequent readers will know that I’m intrigued by social science research into the human condition. Well, this collection of studies is fascinating. To summarize the general finding: you are less likely to follow ethical behavior if you happen to be thinking in an acquired, second language. Put another way, you are more moral when you think in your mother tongue.

Perhaps counter-intuitively a moral judgement made in a foreign language requires more cognitive processing power than one made in the language of childhood. Consequently, moral judgements of dubious or reprehensible behavior are likely to be seen as less wrong than those evaluated in native tongue.

I suppose there is a very valuable lesson here: if you plan to do some shoplifting or rob a bank then you should evaluate the pros and cons of your criminal enterprise in the second language that you learned in school.

From Scientific American:

What defines who we are? Our habits? Our aesthetic tastes? Our memories? If pressed, I would answer that if there is any part of me that sits at my core, that is an essential part of who I am, then surely it must be my moral center, my deep-seated sense of right and wrong.

And yet, like many other people who speak more than one language, I often have the sense that I’m a slightly different person in each of my languages—more assertive in English, more relaxed in French, more sentimental in Czech. Is it possible that, along with these differences, my moral compass also points in somewhat different directions depending on the language I’m using at the time?

Psychologists who study moral judgments have become very interested in this question. Several recent studies have focused on how people think about ethics in a non-native language—as might take place, for example, among a group of delegates at the United Nations using a lingua franca to hash out a resolution. The findings suggest that when people are confronted with moral dilemmas, they do indeed respond differently when considering them in a foreign language than when using their native tongue.

In a 2014 paper led by Albert Costa, volunteers were presented with a moral dilemma known as the “trolley problem”: imagine that a runaway trolley is careening toward a group of five people standing on the tracks, unable to move. You are next to a switch that can shift the trolley to a different set of tracks, thereby sparing the five people, but resulting in the death of one who is standing on the side tracks. Do you pull the switch?

Most people agree that they would. But what if the only way to stop the trolley is by pushing a large stranger off a footbridge into its path? People tend to be very reluctant to say they would do this, even though in both scenarios, one person is sacrificed to save five. But Costa and his colleagues found that posing the dilemma in a language that volunteers had learned as a foreign tongue dramatically increased their stated willingness to shove the sacrificial person off the footbridge, from fewer than 20% of respondents working in their native language to about 50% of those using the foreign one. (Both native Spanish- and English-speakers were included, with English and Spanish as their respective foreign languages; the results were the same for both groups, showing that the effect was about using a foreign language, and not about which particular language—English or Spanish—was used.)

Using a very different experimental setup, Janet Geipel and her colleagues also found that using a foreign language shifted their participants’ moral verdicts. In their study, volunteers read descriptions of acts that appeared to harm no one, but that many people find morally reprehensible—for example, stories in which siblings enjoyed entirely consensual and safe sex, or someone cooked and ate his dog after it had been killed by a car. Those who read the stories in a foreign language (either English or Italian) judged these actions to be less wrong than those who read them in their native tongue.

Read the entire article here.

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A Common Language

Researchers at Cornell’s Cognitive Neuroscience Lab suggest that all humans may share one common ancestral language. This is regardless of our geographic diversity and seemingly independent linguistic family trees.

Having studied linguistics I can attest that one of its fundamental tenets holds that the sound of a word and its meaning tends to be an arbitrary relationship. Recently, a number of fascinating studies have shown that this linkage may not be as arbitrary as first thought.

For instance, words for small, prickly things — across numerous languages — are likely to be made up of high-pitched, “spiky” sounds, known as “kiki”. On the other hand, words for smoother, round objects are likely to contain “ooo” or “ou” sounds, known as “bouba”.

A great overview of the current thinking comes courtesy of  Scientific American’s recent article “‘R’ Is For Red: Common Words Share Similar Sounds in Many Languages“.

From Scientific American:

In English, the word for the sniffing appendage on our face is nose. Japanese also happens to use the consonant n in this word (hana) and so does Turkish (burun). Since the 1900s, linguists have argued that these associations between speech sounds and meanings are purely arbitrary. Yet a new study calls this into question.

Together with his colleagues, Damián Blasi of the University of Zurich analyzed lists of words from 4,298 different languages. In doing so, they discovered that unrelated languages often use the same sounds to refer to the same meaning. For example, the consonant r is often used in words for red—think of French rouge, Spanish rojo, and German rot, but also Turkish k?rm?z?, Hungarian piros, and Maori kura.

The idea is not new. Previous studies have suggested that sound-meaning associations may not be entirely arbitrary, but these studies were limited by small sample sizes (200 languages or fewer) and highly restricted lists of words (such as animals only). Blasi’s study, published this month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, is notable because it included almost two thirds of the world’s languages and used lists of diverse words, including pronouns, body parts,verbs,natural phenomena,and adjectives—such as we, tongue, drink, star and small, respectively.

The scope of the study is unprecedented, says Stanka Fitneva, associate professor of psychology at Queen’s University in Canada, who was not involved in the research. And Gary Lupyan, associate professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, adds, “Only through this type of large-scale analysis can worldwide patterns be discovered.”

Read the entire article here.

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A Vinyl-head’s Dream


If you’ve ever owned vinyl — the circular, black, 12 inch kind — you will know that there are certain pleasures associated with it. The different quality of sound from the spiraling grooves; the (usually) gorgeous album cover art; the printed lyrics and liner notes, sometimes an included wall poster.

Cassette tapes and then CDs shrank these pleasures. Then came the death knell, tolled by MP3 (or MPEG3) and MP4 and finally streaming.

Fortunately some of us have managed to hold on to our precious vinyl collections: our classic LPs and rare 12-inch singles; though not so much the 45s. And, to some extent vinyl is having a small — but probably temporary — renaissance.

So, I must must admit to awe and a little envy over Zero Freitas’ collection. Over the years he has amassed a vast collection of over 6 million records. During his 40 plus years of collecting he’s evolved from a mere vinyl junkie to a global curator and preservationist.

From the Vinyl Factory:

Nearly everyone interested in records will have, at some point heard, the news that there is a Brazilian who owns millions of records. Fewer seem to know, however, that Zero Freitas, a São Paulo-based businessman now in his sixties, plans to turn his collection into a public archive of the world’s music, with special focus on the Americas. Having amassed over six million records, he manages a collection similar to the entire Discogs database. Given the magnitude of this enterprise, Freitas deals with serious logistical challenges and, above all, time constraints. But he strongly believes it is worth his while. After all, no less than a vinyl library of global proportions is at stake.

How to become a part of this man’s busy timetable – that was the question that remained unanswered almost until the very end of my stay in São Paulo in April 2015. It was 8 am on my second last morning in the city, when Viviane Riegel, my Brazilian partner in crime, received a terse message: ‘if you can make it by 10am to his warehouse, he’ll have an hour for you’. That was our chance. We instantly took a taxi from the city’s south-west part called Campo Belo to a more westerly neighbourhood of Vila Leopoldina. We were privileged enough to listen to Freitas’ stories for what felt like a very quick hundred minutes. His attitude and life’s work provoked compelling questions.

The analogue record in the digital age
What makes any vinyl collection truly valuable? How to tell a mere hoarder from a serious collector? And why is vinyl collectable now, at a time of intensive digitalization of life and culture?

Publically pronounced dead by the mainstream industry in the 1990s, vinyl never really ceased to live and has proved much more resilient than the corporate prophets of digital ‘progress’ would like us to believe. Apart from its unique physical properties, vinyl records contain a history that’s longer than any digital medium can ever hope to replicate. Zero Freitas insists that this history has not been fully told yet. Indeed, when acquired and classified with a set of principles in mind, records may literally offer a record of culture, for they preserve not just sounds, but also artistic expression, visual sensibility, poetry, fashion, ideas of genre differentiation and packaging design, and sometimes social commentary of a given time and place. If you go through your life with records, then your collection might be a record of your life. Big record collections are private libraries of cultural import and aesthetic appeal. They are not so very different from books, a medium we still hold in high regard. Books and records invite ritualistic experience, their digital counterparts offer routine convenience.

The problem is that many records are becoming increasingly rare. As Portuguese musicologist Rui Vieria Nery writes reflecting on the European case of Fado music, “the truth is that, strange as it may seem, collections of Fado recordings as recent as the ’50s to ’70s are difficult to get hold of.“ Zero Freitas emphasizes that the situation of collections from other parts of the world may be even worse.

We have to ask then, what we lose if we don’t get hold of them? For one thing, records preserve the past. They save something intangible from oblivion, where a tune or a cover can suddenly transport us back in time to a younger version of ourselves and the feelings we once had. Rare and independently released records can provide a chance for genuine discovery and learning. They help acquire new tastes, delve into different under-represented stories.

What Thomas Carlyle once wrote about books applies to vinyl perhaps with even greater force: ‘in books lies the soul of the whole past time, the articulate audible voice of the past when the body and material substance of it has altogether vanished like a dream’. This quote is inscribed in stone on the wall of the Mitchell Library in Sydney. Having listened to Zero Freitas, this motto could just as easily apply to his vinyl library project. Focusing on rare Brazilian music, he wants to save some endangered species of vinyl, and thus to raise awareness of world’s vast but jeopardised musical ecologies. This task seems urgent now as our attention span gets ever shorter and more distracted, as reflected in the uprooted samples and truncated snippets of music scattered all over the internet.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Vinyl LPs. Courtesy of the author.

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MondayMap: European Stereotypes

map-europe-google-stereotypeHot on the heels of the map of US state stereotypes I am delighted to present a second one. This time it’s a map of Google searches in the UK for various nations across Europe. It was compiled by taking the most frequent result from Google’s autocomplete function. For instance, type in, “Why is Italy…”, and Google automatically fills in the most popular result with “Why is Italy shaped like a boot”.

Highlighting just a few: Switzerland is viewed as rich; Austria is racist; Ireland is green.

Map: European nation stereotypes by British Google users. Courtesy: Independent Media.

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Please Don’t Send in the Clowns


By some accounts the United States is undergoing an epidemic of (scary) clown sightings. For those who have been following the current election cycle — for what seems like years — this should come as no surprise. After all, a rather huge (or is it “yuuge”) one wants to be President.

That aside, this creepy game [for want of a better word] began in August in South Carolina, and has since spread to New York, New Jersey, Texas, Oregon, Florida and a host of other States.

I think author Stephen King has a lot to answer for.

Humor aside for a moment. A study on the nature of creepiness published in April 2016, ranks clowns as the most creepy occupation followed by taxidermist and sex shop worker; funeral director and taxi drivers rounded out the top 5. Many psychologists and anthropologists will find this result to be unsurprising — clowns, court jesters, jokers and village fools have been creeping out (and entertaining) audiences for thousands of years.

And, then of course, there’s an even more serious clown show going on at the moment, headed by a truly dangerous one — especially if you’re female:


From the Guardian:

The first person to spot a clown, the patient zero in the current epidemic of threatening clowns sightings spreading across the US, was a little boy at a low-income apartment complex in Greenville, South Carolina.

He ran to his mother, Donna Arnold, and told her what he had seen: two clowns in the woods, both brightly dressed and made up. One with a red fright wig and the other with a black star painted on his face. They whispered something to the boy.

“They were trying to lure him to the house,” his mother told me, pointing toward the woods.

A path into the woods led down into a shaded hollow, at the bottom of which was a small pond. Beside it sat a house that seemed abandoned. Someone had boarded up the windows, and the balcony sagged. New bags of potting soil sat near the basement door, though. And a modern security system looked recently installed.

After sunset a car approached the house; a gleaming white, new-model Mercedes that looked as out of place as any clown car. The driver stepped out and said she had recently bought the old house as an investment because it sits on five acres in an otherwise densely populated area. “You think it looks bad now, you should have seen it before I came in,” she said.

While we talked she wore an in-ear headset, so it wasn’t always clear whether she was speaking to me or someone on her phone.

No, she didn’t want to give her name, she said.

Yes, she had heard about the clown sightings.

Read the entire story here.

Images courtesy of Google Search.

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Times Continue to Change

A thoroughly well-deserved Nobel Prize in Literature to America’s unofficial poet laureate — Bob Dylan. Some good news that we can all cheer during these troubled, changing times. In the Nobel committee’s words,

For having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.

Video: TV Movie, The Times They are a Changing’ (1964), directed by Daryl Duke and starring Bob Dylan.

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Oilfield Prayer Day


Today, October 13, 2016, is officially Oilfield Prayer Day in Oklahoma. Governor Mary Fallin proclaimed it to raise awareness of the state’s economic troubles, particularly the energy sector and the depressed oil industry.

Ex-governor of Texas, Rick Perry, famously asked residents to pray for rain back in April 2011, during a prolonged drought and wildfire season.

But praying for the oil industry? Well! [pun intended]. Perhaps, praying for corporations and industry will catch on. If so, my next thoughts and prayers will go to the gun manufacturers, big pharma, car airbag manufacturers, private prison companies, Koch Industries, and hedge fund managers.

Read more here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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The Conspiracy of Disbelief

Faux news and hoaxes are a staple of our culture. I suspect that disinformation, fabrications and lies have been around since our ancestors first learned to walk on their hind legs. Researchers know that lying provides a critical personal and social function; white lies help hide discomfort and often strengthen support with partners and peers. Broader and deeper lies are often used to build and maintain power and project strength over others. Indeed, some nations rise and fall based on the quality of their falsehoods and propaganda.

The rise of the internet and social media over the last couple of decades has amplified the issue to such an extent that it becomes ever more challenging to decipher fact from fiction. Indeed entire highly profitable industries are built on feeding misinformation and disseminating hoaxes. But while many of us laugh at and dismiss the front page headlines of the National Enquirer proclaiming “aliens abducted my neighbor“, other forms of fiction are much more sinister. One example is the Sandy Hook mass shooting, where a significant number of paranoid and skeptical conspiracy theorists continue to maintain to this day — almost 4 years on — that the massacre of 20 elementary school children and 6 adults was and is a well-fabricated hoax.

From NY Magazine:

On December 14, 2012, Lenny Pozner dropped off his three children, Sophia, Arielle, and Noah, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Noah had recently turned 6, and on the drive over they listened to his favorite song, “Gangnam Style,” for what turned out to be the last time. Half an hour later, while Sophia and Arielle hid nearby, Adam Lanza walked into Noah’s first-grade class with an AR-15 rifle. Noah was the youngest of the 20 children and seven adults killed in one of the deadliest shootings in American history. When the medical examiner found Noah lying face up in a Batman sweatshirt, his jaw had been blown off. Lenny and his wife, Veronique, raced to the school as soon as they heard the news, but had to wait for hours alongside other parents to learn their son’s fate.

It didn’t take much longer for Pozner to find out that many people didn’t believe his son had died or even that he had lived at all. Days after the rampage, a man walked around Newtown filming a video in which he declared that the massacre had been staged by “some sort of New World Order global elitists” intent on taking away our guns and our liberty. A week later, James Tracy, a professor at Florida Atlantic University, wrote a blog post expressing doubts about the massacre. By January, a 30-minute YouTube video, titled “The Sandy Hook Shooting — Fully Exposed,” which asked questions like “Wouldn’t frantic kids be a difficult target to hit?,” had been viewed more than 10 million times.

As the families grieved, conspiracy theorists began to press their case in ways that Newtown couldn’t avoid. State officials received anonymous phone calls at their homes, late at night, demanding answers: Why were there no trauma helicopters? What happened to the initial reports of a second shooter? A Virginia man stole playground signs memorializing two of the victims, then called their parents to say that the burglary shouldn’t affect them, since their children had never existed. At one point, Lenny Pozner was checking into a hotel out of town when the clerk looked up from the address on his driver’s license and said, “Oh, Sandy Hook — the government did that.” Pozner had tried his best to ignore the conspiracies, but eventually they disrupted his grieving process so much that he could no longer turn a blind eye. “Conspiracy theorists erase the human aspect of history,” Pozner said this summer. “My child — who lived, who was a real person — is basically going to be erased.”

Read the entire disturbing story here.

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One Month to Go!


On November 8, 2016 citizens of the United States will decide who takes up residence in the Oval Office on the following January. If you remain undecided — which I doubt — please select from any one of the following links or stories or visit this summary page.

Gathered for the first time in one place, I present daily Trumpian #NeverTrump #DumpTrump vulgarities, bigotry, hypocrisy and other dangerously ignorant and poisonous nonsense from the volatile, puerile, vindictive, noxious, misogynistic, racist, insensitive, naive, irrational, petulant, authoritarian, disgraceful, irresponsible, narcissistic, vacuous, cowardly, pathologically deranged, completely detached-from-reality, and chronically repulsive and incoherent mind mouth of the “Republican” nominee for President (think about that very carefully for several minutes).

There is such a goldmine cesspool of material stretching back years, nay decades, that it’s difficult to recommend just a couple of highlights. However, if you’re a connoisseur of such ignorant vulgarities then I would suggest days 31 and 42 for their “jaw-droppingness”.

As we count down to Election Day — a potentially apocalyptic event — I plan to add a daily key “thought” (I use this term loosely) from the increasingly deranged and highly volatile mind of the Republican nominee.

For the sake of historical completeness I’ve also included some of Mr. Trump’s most recent choice vulgarities, bulls**t and other nonsense pre-100 days. I’m not going back more than a couple of years because, quite simply, there’s far too much crass stupidity to cover on one simple web page.

This truly is a gift that keeps on giving — but only up until November 8, 2016, of course.

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The Elitist Media

The sad, low-energy, loser, elitist media just can’t get it right.

Local and national newspapers, magazines, TV and online media — on the left and right — continue to endorse Hillary Clinton and bash Donald Trump. Some have never endorsed a candidate before, while others have never endorsed a Democrat for President. Perhaps not surprisingly the non-elitist National Enquirer has endorsed Trump. Here are just a few of those elitist endorsements:

The Atlantic: Against Donald Trump

[O]ur interest here is not to advance the prospects of the Democratic Party, nor to damage those of the Republican Party,” the editorial concludes. “We believe in American democracy, in which individuals from various parties of different ideological stripes can advance their ideas and compete for the affection of voters. But Trump is not a man of ideas. He is a demagogue, a xenophobe, a sexist, a know-nothing, and a liar. He is spectacularly unfit for office, and voters—the statesmen and thinkers of the ballot box—should act in defense of American democracy and elect his opponent.

USA Today: Trump is ‘unfit for the presidency’

From the day he declared his candidacy 15 months ago through this week’s first presidential debate, Trump has demonstrated repeatedly that he lacks the temperament, knowledge, steadiness and honesty that America needs from its presidents.

Arizona Republic: Hillary Clinton is the only choice to move America ahead

Since The Arizona Republic began publication in 1890, we have never endorsed a Democrat over a Republican for president. Never. This reflects a deep philosophical appreciation for conservative ideals and Republican principles. This year is different. The 2016 Republican candidate is not conservative and he is not qualified.

Dallas Morning News: We recommend Hillary Clinton for president 

Trump’s values are hostile to conservatism. He plays on fear — exploiting base instincts of xenophobia, racism and misogyny — to bring out the worst in all of us, rather than the best. His serial shifts on fundamental issues reveal an astounding absence of preparedness. And his improvisational insults and midnight tweets exhibit a dangerous lack of judgment and impulse control.

Houston Chronicle: These are unsettling times that require a steady hand: That’s Hillary Clinton

Any one of Trump’s less-than-sterling qualities – his erratic temperament, his dodgy business practices, his racism, his Putin-like strongman inclinations and faux-populist demagoguery, his contempt for the rule of law, his ignorance – is enough to be disqualifying. His convention-speech comment, “I alone can fix it,” should make every American shudder. He is, we believe, a danger to the Republic.

Cincinnati Inquirer: Enquirer: It has to be Hillary Clinton

Trump is a clear and present danger to our country. He has no history of governance that should engender any confidence from voters. Trump has no foreign policy experience, and the fact that he doesn’t recognize it – instead insisting that, “I know more about ISIS than the generals do” – is even more troubling.

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Why Collect Art?


Art collectors have probably been around since humans first started scribbling, painting, casting and throwing (clay). Some collect exclusively for financial gain or to reduce their tax bills. Others accumulate works to signal their worth and superiority over their neighbors or to the world. Still others do so because of a personal affinity to the artist. A small number use art to launder money. Some even collect art because of emotional attachment to the art itself.

A new book entitled Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors by Erin Thompson, delves into the art world and examines the curious mind of the art collector. Thompson is assistant professor of art crime at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. Parts of her recent essay for Aeon are excerpted below.

From Aeon:

The oil billionaire J Paul Getty was famously miserly. He installed a payphone in his mansion in Surrey, England, to stop visitors from making long-distance calls. He refused to pay ransom for a kidnapped grandson for so long that the frustrated kidnappers sent Getty his grandson’s ear in the mail. Yet he spent millions of dollars on art, and millions more to build the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. He called himself ‘an apparently incurable art-collecting addict’, and noted that he had vowed to stop collecting several times, only to suffer ‘massive relapses’. Fearful of airplanes and too busy to take the time to sail to California from his adopted hometown of London, he never even visited the museum his money had filled.

Getty is only one of the many people through history who have gone to great lengths to collect art – searching, spending, and even stealing to satisfy their cravings. But what motivates these collectors?

Debates about why people collect art date back at least to the first century CE. The Roman rhetorician Quintilian claimed that those who professed to admire what he considered to be the primitive works of the painter Polygnotus were motivated by ‘an ostentatious desire to seem persons of superior taste’. Quintilian’s view still finds many supporters.

Another popular explanation for collecting – financial gain – cannot explain why collectors go to such lengths. Of course, many people buy art for financial reasons. You can resell works, sometimes reaping enormous profit. You can get large tax deductions for donating art to museums – so large that the federal government has seized thousands of looted antiquities that were smuggled into the United States just so that they could be donated with inflated valuations to knock money off the donors’ tax bills. Meanwhile, some collectors have figured out how to keep their artworks close at hand while still getting a tax deduction by donating them to private museums that they’ve set up on their own properties. More nefariously, some ‘collectors’ buy art as a form of money laundering, since it is far easier to move art than cash between countries without scrutiny.

But most collectors have little regard for profit. For them, art is important for other reasons. The best way to understand the underlying drive of art collecting is as a means to create and strengthen social bonds, and as a way for collectors to communicate information about themselves and the world within these new networks. Think about when you were a child, making friends with the new kid on the block by showing off your shoebox full of bird feathers or baseball cards. You were forming a new link in your social network and communicating some key pieces of information about yourself (I’m a fan of orioles/the Orioles). The art collector conducting dinner party guests through her private art gallery has the same goals – telling new friends about herself.

People tend to imagine collectors as highly competitive, but that can prove wrong too. Serious art collectors often talk about the importance not of competition but of the social networks and bonds with family, friends, scholars, visitors and fellow collectors created and strengthened by their collecting. The way in which collectors describe their first purchases often reveals the central role of the social element. Only very rarely do collectors attribute their collecting to a solo encounter with an artwork, or curiosity about the past, or the reading of a textual source. Instead, they almost uniformly give credit to a friend or family member for sparking their interest, usually through encountering and discussing a specific artwork together. A collector showing off her latest finds to her children is doing the same thing as a sports fan gathering the kids to watch the game: reinforcing family bonds through a shared interest.

Read the entire article below.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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MondayMap: State Stereotypes


An interesting map courtesy of Google searches in the UK shows some fascinating stereotypes for each of the US fifty states. It was compiled by taking the most frequent result from Google’s autocomplete function. For instance, type in, “Why is Colorado so…”, and Google automatically fills in the most popular result with “Why is Colorado so fit”.

It’s not entirely scientific but interesting nonetheless. Highlighting just a few: Wisconsin is viewed as drunk; Louisiana as racist; Colorado as fit; and, Nevada as dangerous.

Map: US state stereotypes by British Google users. Courtesy: Independent Media.

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The Banana Republic Nextdoor


The United States has no problem raking other nations and their leaders over the coals for violating fundamental human rights. We don’t like it when certain countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America trample on democracy, restrict free speech and restrict the ability of citizens to vote.

Yet, North Carolina clearly sees itself as a leading anti-democratic banana republic. Restricting voting rights of huge parts of the population under the guise of non-existent or insignificant voter fraud is nothing more than institutionalized racism.

The state’s leaders should be ashamed — the US Supreme Court seems to agree.

So, the next time you think of visiting a “third-world” nation to experience their “antiquated” governmental practices and their “quaint” discriminatory worldview put North Carolina on your bucket list.

From Washington Post:

The emails to the North Carolina election board seemed routine at the time.

“Is there any way to get a breakdown of the 2008 voter turnout, by race (white and black) and type of vote (early and Election Day)?” a staffer for the state’s Republican-controlled legislature asked in January 2012.

“Is there no category for ‘Hispanic’ voter?” a GOP lawmaker asked in March 2013 after requesting a range of data, including how many voters cast ballots outside their precinct.

And in April 2013, a top aide to the Republican House speaker asked for “a breakdown, by race, of those registered voters in your database that do not have a driver’s license number.”

Months later, the North Carolina legislature passed a law that cut a week of early voting, eliminated out-of-precinct voting and required voters to show specific types of photo ID — restrictions that election board data demonstrated would disproportionately affect African Americans and other minorities.

Critics dubbed it the “monster” law — a sprawling measure that stitched together various voting restrictions being tested in other states. As civil rights groups have sued to block the North Carolina law and others like it around the country, several thousand pages of documents have been produced under court order, revealing the details of how Republicans crafted these measures.

A review of these documents shows that North Carolina GOP leaders launched a meticulous and coordinated effort to deter black voters, who overwhelmingly vote for Democrats. The law, created and passed entirely by white legislators, evoked the state’s ugly history of blocking African Americans from voting — practices that had taken a civil rights movement and extensive federal intervention to stop.

Last month, a three-judge federal appeals panel struck down the North Carolina law, calling it “the most restrictive voting law North Carolina has seen since the era of Jim Crow.” Drawing from the emails and other evidence, the 83-page ruling charged that Republican lawmakers had targeted “African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

Gov. Pat McCrory (R) filed an emergency petition to restore the law, but a deadlocked Supreme Court on Wednesday refused his stay request, meaning the law will not be in effect for the Nov. 8 election. Because the lower court did not offer specific guidelines for reinstating early voting, however, local election boards run by Republicans are still trying to curb access to the polls.

In lengthy interviews, GOP leaders insisted their law is not racially motivated and their goal was to combat voter fraud. They called their opponents demagogues, who are using the specter of racism to inflame the issue.

Read the entire story here.

Image: State seal of North Carolina. Public Domain.

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Murderers or Terrorists and the Real Tragedy

The United States is a wonderful, yet thoroughly paradoxical place. Take the general reactions to gun violence, murder and terrorism, during a two week period in mid-September 2016, for example.

Exhibit A: Ahmad Khan Rahami, a would-be murderer, planted several home-made pipe and pressure cooker bombs in New Jersey and New York on September 17. Result: no deaths, several minor injuries, local property damage. Our news media spun days worth of front page coverage, outrage, analysis, hearsay, opinion, soul-searching. Reason: the perpetrator had a beard, Muslim name and found to have espoused sympathies with radicals.

Exhibit B: Arcan Cetin shot four women and one man at a Macy’s store in Burlington, Washington on September 23. Result: 5 deaths. The rampage in a suburban mall barely made the national headlines, and didn’t last beyond the 24-hour news cycle. Reason: the perpetrator was clean-shaven, had personal problems and found to have no “terrorist” links or sympathies.

Exhibit C: Nathan DeSai, a 46-year-old Texas attorney, went on a shooting spree in Houston on September 26. Result: 9 wounded. This made a minor flutter in the news media and has since disappeared from national consciousness even though he was wearing an antique German uniform with Swastikas.

In 2013, over 16,000 people were murdered in the US, around 11,000 at the hands of someone armed with a gun. In 2015, 475 people were killed in 372 mass shootings. Many of these go completely unreported, aside from a paragraph or two at the local level.

And yet.

And yet, our media and a large number of US citizens fret and decry events at the hands of the “terrorist”, while barely blinking at the daily carnage caused by our domestic, homicidal neighbors. Who are the real terrorists and why have we come to accept so many daily murders — averaging over 40 — as so utterly banal and trivial? Is the politically motivated “international” assassin any more dangerous than the disturbed suburban version? They’re both driven by a distorted worldview and their place in it. Perhaps, they’re not that different after all.

But, more importantly, rather than focusing on a 55 ft wall to deter illusory armies of terrorists it might be more rational to tackle the causes that lead to tens of thousands of our own citizens killing their spouses, families, neighbors, school children, work colleagues, church-goers, drivers, runners and shoppers. We are desensitized to our home-grown “domestic terrorism”. That’s the real tragedy.

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Europa, Europa


A couple of days ago, September 26, 2016, tens of millions of us tuned in to the gory — and usually devoid of fact — spectacle that is the US Presidential election debate. On the same day, something else rather newsworthy took place; some would say much more important than watching two adults throw puerile nonsense at one another.

NASA has found evidence of water plumes spouting from a subsurface ocean on Europa, Jupiter’s fourth largest moon. The agency used the Hubble Space Telescope to look for signs of plumes as the icy moon transited Jupiter.

This should make for an fascinating encounter when NASA launches a mission in 2020 to examine Europa more closely, especially to investigate whether it could harbor conditions suitable for life.

Image: Trailing hemisphere of Jupiter’s ice-covered satellite, Europa. Europa is about 3,160 kilometers (1,950 miles) in diameter, or about the size of Earth’s moon. Courtesy: NASA/JPL/DLR (Deutsche Forschungsanstalt fuer Luftund Raumfahrt e.V., Berlin, Germany).

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Ideological Entertainment

Vermont_state_fair_barker_bwEver wondered what really fuels the right-wingers in the media. Is it genuine, hard-felt belief — however unpalatable those beliefs may be to the mainstream — or is it about cold, hard cash and puerile attention seeking?

The cynic in mean tends to agree with Michael Gerson’s op/ed, that much of the conservative media vitriol makes for good clickbait. So, where does this leave the true citizen-believers? Well, to the media carnival barkers they are just gormless marks to be had at the freakshow. It’s ideaological entertainment folks!

You decide.

From the Washington Post:

Of the 2016 election’s lightning storm of shocks, few will have more lasting political consequence than the discrediting of the main media organs of movement conservatism.

Fox News — the “fair and balanced” alternative to the liberal media, the voice of traditional values, the never-ceasing hum in the background of American conservatism — has been revealed as the personal fiefdom of a Donald Trump shill and as an institution apparently operating (according to one lawsuit) “like a sex-fueled, Playboy Mansion-like cult, steeped in intimidation, indecency and misogyny.” While Fox News is not going away, it will need to be relaunched and rebranded as the network of Bret Baier and Megyn Kelly (both fine journalists), rather than of angry white television personalities who employ perpetual outrage as a business model.

Speaking of which, a similar unveiling has occurred with the right’s defining radio personality, Rush Limbaugh. It is difficult to overestimate Limbaugh’s influence on two generations of intensely loyal listeners. Steve Forbes has called him “part of the trinity that made modern conservatism,” in the company of Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley.

In this campaign cycle, Limbaugh fully embraced right-wing populism, including defending Trump’s hard line on immigration and mass deportation — a position Limbaugh once described as “standing up for the American way of life.” During the recent six-day period in which Trump moderated his immigration stand and essentially embraced Jeb Bush’s views, Limbaugh fielded a call from “Rick in Los Angeles,” who was angry at Trump for adopting a position he had savaged other Republicans for holding. “This is going to enrage you,” Limbaugh replied. “I can choose a path here to try to mollify you. I never took him seriously on this.”

It is an admission of astounding cynicism.

Read the full op/ed here.

Image: Barker at the Vermont State Fair, 1941. Courtesy: Jack Delano, photographer. United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division. Public Domain.

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Lab-Grown Beef and Zombie Cows


Writer and student of philosophy Rhys Southan provides some food for thought in his essay over at Aeon on the ethics of eating meat. The question is simple enough: would our world be better if humans ate only lab-grown meat or meat from humanely raised farm animals?

The answer may not be as simple or as black and white as you first thought. For instance, were we to move to 100 percent lab-grown beef, it is likely that there would be a far reduced need, if any, for real cattle. Thus, we’d be depriving an entire species from living and experiencing some degree of sentience and happiness. Or, if we were to retain some cows, but only in the wild, wouldn’t that be tantamount to torture for a domestic animal raised for millennia in domesticity? This might actually be worse than allowing cows to graze on humane farms for a good portion of their lives before being humanely killed — if there is such a thing — and readied for our plates.

From Aeon:

Three years ago, a televised taste test of a lab-grown burger proved it was possible to grow a tiny amount of edible meat in a lab. This flesh was never linked to any central nervous system, and so there was none of the pain, boredom and fear that usually plague animals unlucky enough to be born onto our farms. That particular burger coalesced in a substrate of foetal calf serum, but the goal is to develop an equally effective plant-based solution so that a relatively small amount of animal cells can serve as the initial foundation for glistening mounds of brainless flesh in vats – meat without the slaughter.

For many cultured-meat advocates, a major motive is the reduction of animal suffering. Vat meat avoids both the good and the bad of the mixed blessing that is sentient existence. Since the lives of animals who become our food are mostly a curse, producing mindless, unfeeling flesh to replace factory farming is an ethical (as well as literal) no-brainer.

A trickier question is whether the production of non-sentient flesh should replace what I will call ‘low-suffering animal farming’ – giving animals good lives while still raising them for food. Ideally, farmed animals would be spared the routine practices that cause severe pain: dehorning, castration, artificial insemination, branding, the separation of mothers from calves for early weaning, and long, cramped truck rides to slaughterhouses. But even in its Platonic form, low-suffering animal farming has detractors. If we give farm animals good lives, it presumably means that they like their lives and want to keep living – so how do we justify killing them just to enjoy the tastes and textures of meat? By avoiding all the good aspects of subjective experience, growing faceless flesh in vats also escapes this objection. Since vat meat cannot have any experiences at all, we don’t take a good life away by eating it.

This could avoid what many see as the fatal contradiction of humane animal farming: it commits us to treating animals with love and kindness… before slashing their throats so that we can devour their insides. It’s not the most compassionate end to a mutually respectful cross-species friendship. However, conscientiously objecting to low-suffering animal husbandry can be paradoxical as well. Those who want plants and nerveless animal cells to replace all animal farming because they think it wrong to kill happy creatures seem to believe that life for these farmed animals is such a good thing that it’s a shame for them to lose it – and so we should never create their lives at all. They love sentience so much, they want this to be a less sentient world.

So, which of these awkward positions has more going for it? In order to figure this out, I’m afraid we’ll need a thought experiment involving, well, zombie cows.

Read the entire essay here.

Image: Highland cow, in southern Dartmoor, England, 2009. Courtesy: Nilfanion / Wikipedia. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.

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Clicks or Truth

The internet is a tremendous resource for learning, entertainment and communication. It’s also a vast, accreting blob of misinformation, lies, rumor, exaggeration and just plain bulls**t.

So, is there any hope for those of us who care about fact and truth over truthiness? Well, the process of combating conspiracies and mythology is likely to remain a difficult and continuous one for the foreseeable future.

But, there are small pockets on the internet where the important daily fight against disinformation thrives. As managing editor Brooke Binkowski at the fact-checking site puts it, “In cases where clickability and virality trump fact, we feel that knowledge is the best antidote to fear.”

From Washington Post:

In a famous xkcd cartoon, “Duty Calls,” a man’s partner beckons him to bed as he sits alone at his computer. “I can’t. This is important,” he demurs, pecking furiously at the keyboard. “What?” comes the reply. His answer: “Someone is wrong on the Internet.”

His nighttime frustration is my day job. I work at, the fact-checking site pledged to running down rumors, debunking cant and calling out liars. Just this past week, for instance, we wrestled with a mysterious lump on Hillary Clinton’s back that turned out to be a mic pack (not the defibrillator some had alleged). It’s a noble and worthwhile calling, but it’s also a Sisyphean one. On the Internet, no matter how many facts you marshal, someone is always wrong.

Every day, the battle against error begins with email. At Snopes, which is supported entirely by advertising, our staff of about a dozen writers and editors plows through some 1,000 messages that have accumulated overnight, which helps us get a feel for what our readers want to know about this morning. Unfortunately, it also means a healthy helping of venom, racism and fury. A Boston-based email specialist on staff helps sort the wheat (real questions we could answer) from the vituperative chaff.

Out in the physical world (where we rarely get to venture during the election season, unless it’s to investigate yet another rumor about Pokémon Go), our interactions with the site’s readers are always positive. But in the virtual world, anonymous communication emboldens the disaffected to treat us as if we were agents of whatever they’re perturbed by today. The writers of these missives, who often send the same message over and over, think they’re on to us: We’re shills for big government, big pharma, the Department of Defense or any number of other prominent, arguably shadowy organizations. You have lost all credibility! they tell us. They never consider that the actual truth is what’s on our website — that we’re completely independent.

Read the entire article here.

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Tabby’s Star


Tabby’s Star, officially known by the cryptic notation KIC 8462852 is a very odd object. The star is around 1,500 light years from Earth, and has been puzzling astronomers with its strangely fluctuating brightness. Recent analysis shows that is even weirder than first thought, which has scientists baffled. Could the observations be caused by a storm of wildly orbiting comets? Or, much more compelling (for SciFi buffs), could it be an alien megastructure periodically shrouding the star?

From Space:

KIC 8462852 was observed by NASA’s Kepler mission and has become infamous for its bizarre and unprecedented transit signal that was flagged by citizen scientists. Now new research of precision Kepler observations has shown that the overall brightness of the star — unofficially named “Tabby’s Star” after astronomer Tabetha S. Boyajian who discovered the peculiar signal — has been decreasing, which poses a new and confusing problem for astronomers trying to understand what the heck is going on.

Kepler’s prime mission is to look for small worlds that pass in front of their parent stars causing a slight dimming of starlight. The “transit method” has been hugely successful and has confirmed well over 2,000 planets orbiting other stars in our galaxy.

But Tabby’s Star’s transit signal, otherwise known as a “light-curve”, stopped astronomers in their tracks. Something passed in front of it, dimming its starlight a whopping 20 percent and other jumbled transit signals revealed that something wasn’t quite right with this particular star. Then, in an interview with The Atlantic, Penn State University astronomer Jason Wright speculated that the signal could be indicative of an “alien megastructure” that’s in the process of being built. You can catch up on the controversy surrounding the anomalous signal in my recent Discovery News article “Closing In on ‘Alien Megastructure’ Clues.”

So, in an effort to track down a rational explanation, Bradley Schaefer from Louisiana State University decided to study historical observations of KIC 8462852 in astronomical photographic plates from the past century to see if the star exhibited any bizarre fluctuations in brightness in the past. Sure enough, yes, the star is a bit of an oddball and has shown a long-term decreasing trend in brightness! Since the 19th Century, its brightness has decreased steadily by nearly 20 percent.

Now, astronomers Ben Montet (from Caltech) and Joshua Simon (from the Carnegie Institute) have released a paper to the arXiv preprint service detailing recent Kepler observations of KIC 8462852 since the space telescope was launched in 2009. Although the dataset for this time period is comparatively small, Monet and Simon found yet another surprise.

In the 4 years of Kepler’s primary mission, the star showed an unprecedented dimming of 3.5 percent. So not only did Kepler detect transient dips in brightness of up to 20 percent, there also seems to be a very definite downward trend in brightness throughout our observational history of the star.

No matter how you slice it, this is strange.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Tabby’s Star, KIC 8462852, in infrared (2MASS survey) and ultraviolet (GALEX). Courtesy: IPAC/NASA (Infrared), STScI/NASA (Ultraviolet). Public Domain.

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Of Zebrafish and Men


A novel experiment in gene-editing shows how limbs of Earth’s land-dwelling creatures may have evolved from their fishy ancestors.

From University of Chicago:

One of the great transformations required for the descendants of fish to become creatures that could walk on land was the replacement of long, elegant fin rays by fingers and toes. In the Aug. 17, 2016 issue of Nature, scientists from the University of Chicago show that the same cells that make fin rays in fish play a central role in forming the fingers and toes of four-legged creatures.

After three years of painstaking experiments using novel gene-editing techniques and sensitive fate mapping to label and track developing cells in fish, the researchers describe how the small flexible bones found at the ends of fins are related to fingers and toes, which are more suitable for life on land.

“When I first saw these results you could have knocked me over with a feather,” said the study’s senior author, Neil Shubin, PhD, the Robert R. Bensley Distinguished Service Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago. Shubin is an authority on the transition from fins to limbs.

The team focused on Hox genes, which control the body plan of a growing embryo along the head-to-tail, or shoulder-to-fingertip, axis. Many of these genes are crucial for limb development.

They studied the development of cells, beginning, in some experiments, soon after fertilization, and followed them as they became part of an adult fin. Previous work has shown that when Hox genes, specifically those related to the wrists and digits of mice (HoxD and HoxA), were deleted, the mice did not develop those structures. When Nakamura deleted those same genes in zebrafish, the long fins rays were greatly reduced.

“What matters is not what happens when you knock out a single gene but when you do it in combination,” Nakamura explained. “That’s where the magic happens.”

The researchers also used a high-energy CT scanner to see the minute structures within the adult zebrafish fin. These can be invisible, even to most traditional microscopes. The scans revealed that fish lacking certain genes lost fin rays, but the small bones made of cartilage fin increased in number.

The authors suspect that the mutants that Nakamura made caused cells to stop migrating from the base of the fin to their usual position near the tip. This inability to migrate meant that there were fewer cells to make fin rays, leaving more cells at the fin base to produce cartilage elements.

Read more here. A female specimen of a zebrafish (Danio rerio) breed with fantails. Courtesy: Wikipedia / Azul.

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Prepping for the Day When Something Hits the Fan


The end of the world may come in any one of hundreds of forms. Off the top of my head I can think several Hollywood-esque grand finales: a global pandemic, an errant asteroid, a careless Presidential error with nuclear codes, a biological terrorism attack, a leftist mind-control takeover, unfriendly aliens from Proxima Centauri, a misanthropic AI.

But a growing cadre of survivalists isn’t idly debating the pros and cons and probabilities of one apocalyptic scenario versus another. No. These “preppers”, as they have come to be known in some quarters, are actively preparing; they’re planning, moving, hoarding and readying themselves for the ultimate civilizational collapse. You’ll find quite a number of preppers in a rural area of the Pacific Northwest known as the American Redoubt.

Quite why the number of preppers has been rising recently is open to speculation. But I’d hazard a guess that most perceive their current lives under threat from a collection of at least three of the following: politicians (probably left-leaning ones), global elites, multiculturalism, atheists, the media, investment banks, Muslims, Jews, the Pope, and millennials [this last one is a joke].

From the Washington Post:

Don and Jonna Bradway recently cashed out of the stock market and invested in gold and silver. They have stockpiled food and ammunition in the event of a total economic collapse or some other calamity commonly known around here as “The End of the World As We Know It” or “SHTF” — the day something hits the fan.

The Bradways fled California, a state they said is run by “leftists and non-Constitutionalists and anti-freedom people,” and settled on several wooded acres of north Idaho five years ago. They live among like-minded conservative neighbors, host Monday night Bible study around their fire pit, hike in the mountains and fish from their boat. They melt lead to make their own bullets for sport shooting and hunting — or to defend themselves against marauders in a world-ending cataclysm.

“I’m not paranoid, I’m really not,” said Bradway, 68, a cheerful Army veteran with a bushy handlebar mustache who favors Hawaiian shirts. “But we’re prepared. Anybody who knows us knows that Don and Jonna are prepared if and when it hits the fan.”

The Bradways are among the vanguard moving to an area of the Pacific Northwest known as the American Redoubt, a term coined in 2011 by survivalist author and blogger James Wesley, Rawles (the comma is deliberate) to describe a settlement of the God-fearing in a lightly populated territory that includes Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and the eastern parts of Washington and Oregon.

Those migrating to the Redoubt are some of the most motivated members of what is known as the prepper movement, which advocates readiness and self-reliance in man-made or natural disasters that could create instability for years. It’s scenario-planning that is gaining adherents and becoming mainstream in what Redoubt preppers described as an era of fear and uncertainty.

They are anxious about recent terrorist attacks from Paris to San Bernardino, Calif., to Orlando; pandemics such as Ebola in West Africa; potential nuclear attacks from increasingly provocative countries such as North Korea or Iran; and the growing political, economic and racial polarization in the United States that has deepened during the 2016 presidential election.

Nationally, dozens of online prepper suppliers report an increase in sales of items from water purifiers to hand-cranked radios to solar-powered washing machines. Harvest Right, a Utah company that invented a $3,000 portable freeze dryer to preserve food, has seen sales grow from about 80 a month two years ago to more than 900 a month now, said spokesman Stephanie Barlow.

Clyde Scott, owner of Rising S Bunkers, said pre-made, blast-proof underground steel bunkers are in big demand, including his most popular model, which sleeps six to eight people and sells for up to $150,000.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Luxury bunker able to withstand a 20-kiloton nuclear blast. Courtesy of Harry Norman Realtors / Cater News. Daily Mail.

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Intolerance and Divine Revelation


Another day, another heinous, murderous act in the name of religion — the latest this time a French priest killed in his own church by a pair shouting “Allahu akbar!” (To be fair countless other similar acts continue on a daily basis in non-Western nations, but go unreported or under-reported in the mainstream media).

Understandably, local and national religious leaders decry these heinous acts as a evil perversion of Islamic faith. Now, I’d be the first to admit that attributing such horrendous crimes solely to the faiths of the perpetrators is a rather simplistic rationalization. Other factors, such as political disenfranchisement, (perceived) oppression, historical persecution and economic pressures, surely play a triggering and/or catalytic role.

Yet, as Gary Gutting professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame reminds us in another of his insightful essays, religious intolerance is a fundamental component. The three main Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — are revelatory faiths. Their teachings are each held to be incontrovertible truth revealed to us by an omniscient God (or a divine messenger). Strict adherence to these beliefs has throughout history led many believers — of all faiths — to enact their intolerance in sometimes very violent ways. Over time, numerous socio-economic pressures have generally softened this intolerance — but not equally across the three faiths.

From NYT:

Both Islam and Christianity claim to be revealed religions, holding that their teachings are truths that God himself has conveyed to us and wants everyone to accept. They were, from the start, missionary religions. A religion charged with bringing God’s truth to the world faces the question of how to deal with people who refuse to accept it. To what extent should it tolerate religious error? At certain points in their histories, both Christianity and Islam have been intolerant of other religions, often of each other, even to the point of violence.

This was not inevitable, but neither was it an accident. The potential for intolerance lies in the logic of religions like Christianity and Islam that say their teaching derive from a divine revelation. For them, the truth that God has revealed is the most important truth there is; therefore, denying or doubting this truth is extremely dangerous, both for nonbelievers, who lack this essential truth, and for believers, who may well be misled by the denials and doubts of nonbelievers. Given these assumptions, it’s easy to conclude that even extreme steps are warranted to eliminate nonbelief.

You may object that moral considerations should limit our opposition to nonbelief. Don’t people have a human right to follow their conscience and worship as they think they should? Here we reach a crux for those who adhere to a revealed religion. They can either accept ordinary human standards of morality as a limit on how they interpret divine teachings, or they can insist on total fidelity to what they see as God’s revelation, even when it contradicts ordinary human standards. Those who follow the second view insist that divine truth utterly exceeds human understanding, which is in no position to judge it. God reveals things to us precisely because they are truths we would never arrive at by our natural lights. When the omniscient God has spoken, we can only obey.

For those holding this view, no secular considerations, not even appeals to conventional morality or to practical common sense, can overturn a religious conviction that false beliefs are intolerable. Christianity itself has a long history of such intolerance, including persecution of Jews, crusades against Muslims, and the Thirty Years’ War, in which religious and nationalist rivalries combined to devastate Central Europe. This devastation initiated a move toward tolerance among nations that came to see the folly of trying to impose their religions on foreigners. But intolerance of internal dissidents — Catholics, Jews, rival Protestant sects — continued even into the 19th century. (It’s worth noting that in this period the Muslim Ottoman Empire was in many ways more tolerant than most Christian countries.) But Christians eventually embraced tolerance through a long and complex historical process.

Critiques of Christian revelation by Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, Rousseau and Hume raised serious questions that made non-Christian religions — and eventually even rejections of religion — intellectually respectable. Social and economic changes — including capitalist economies, technological innovations, and democratic political movements — undermined the social structures that had sustained traditional religion.

The eventual result was a widespread attitude of religious toleration in Europe and the United States. This attitude represented ethical progress, but it implied that religious truth was not so important that its denial was intolerable. Religious beliefs and practices came to be regarded as only expressions of personal convictions, not to be endorsed or enforced by state authority. This in effect subordinated the value of religious faith to the value of peace in a secular society. Today, almost all Christians are reconciled to this revision, and many would even claim that it better reflects the true meaning of their religion.

The same is not true of Muslims. A minority of Muslim nations have a high level of religious toleration; for example Albania, Kosovo, Senegal and Sierra Leone. But a majority — including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq and Malaysia — maintain strong restrictions on non-Muslim (and in some cases certain “heretical” Muslim) beliefs and practices. Although many Muslims think God’s will requires tolerance of false religious views, many do not.

Read the entire story here.

Image: D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) movie poster. Courtesy: Sailko / Dekkappai at Wikipedia. Public Domain.

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Tantalizing Enceladus


Sorry, Moon but my favorite satellite doesn’t even orbit the Earth.

Enceladus is my favorite moon, despite its diminutive size — its diameter is only around 500 km. It circles Saturn and while it only ranks as the ringed planet’s sixth largest moon, it is perhaps the most fascinating.

A decade of images courtesy of the Cassini spacecraft and the Hubble Space Telescope show amazing  plumes of icy material spouting from one or more underground sources. To date, astronomers and planetary scientists have catalogued over 90 geyser-like jets on the surface of Enceladus.

More recently, a couple of year’s ago, NASA’s researchers confirmed the presence of a vast subsurface ocean of liquid water beneath Enceladus’ icy crust. Scientists believe this ocean powers its many geysers or cryovolcanoes. Moreover, the many geysers spew a particle cocktail of ices and organic compounds. It is this mixture of liquid water and organic chemistry that has many scientists agog — pondering the possibility of life beyond the shores of our home planet.

Catch the latest on the search for possible signs of life on Enceladus from Scientific American, here.

Image: Fountains of Enceladus. Recent Cassini images of Saturn’s moon Enceladus backlit by the sun show the fountain-like sources of the fine spray of material that towers over the south polar region. Courtesy: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute. Public Domain.

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176 Reasons to Vote Against the Bully

I implore you to watch the entire video and (re-)learn why the Republican nominee for President should never be elected. The piece is 17 minutes long — it’s increasingly impossible to distill Trump’s truly deplorable and vulgar bile into anything shorter.

Video: 176 Reasons Donald Trump Shouldn’t Be President
In the debut episode of his new series, “The Closer with Keith Olbermann,” GQ’s Keith Olbermann tallies the most outrageous of Donald Trump’s offenses in what is now his 15-month assault on American democracy. Courtesy: GQ.

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If it Disagrees With Experiment it is Wrong


This post’s title belongs to the great physicist and bongo player Richard Feynman. It brings into sharp relief one of the many challenges in our current fractured political discourse — that objective fact is a political tool and scientific denialism is now worn as a badge of honor by many politicians (mostly on the right).

Climate science is a great example of the chasm between rational debate and established facts on the one hand and anti-science, conspiracy mythologists [I’m still searching for a better word] on the other. Some climate deniers simply wave away evidence as nothing but regular weather. Others pronounce that climate change is a plot by the Chinese.

I firmly believe in the scientific method and objective fact; the progress we have witnessed over the last 150 or so years due to science and scientists alone is spectacular. Long may it continue. Yet as Scientific American tells us we need to be alarmed and remain vigilant — it wouldn’t take much effort to return to the Dark Ages.

From Scientific American:

Four years ago in these pages, writer Shawn Otto warned our readers of the danger of a growing antiscience current in American politics. “By turning public opinion away from the antiauthoritarian principles of the nation’s founders,” Otto wrote, “the new science denialism is creating an existential crisis like few the country has faced before.”

Otto wrote those words in the heat of a presidential election race that now seems quaint by comparison to the one the nation now finds itself in. As if to prove his point, one of the two major party candidates for the highest office in the land has repeatedly and resoundingly demonstrated a disregard, if not outright contempt, for science. Donald Trump also has shown an authoritarian tendency to base policy arguments on questionable assertions of fact and a cult of personality.

Americans have long prided themselves on their ability to see the world for what it is, as opposed to what someone says it is or what most people happen to believe. In one of the most powerful lines in American literature, Huck Finn says: “It warn’t so. I tried it.” A respect for evidence is not just a part of the national character. It goes to the heart of the country’s particular brand of democratic government. When the founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, scientist and inventor, wrote arguably the most important line in the Declaration of Independence—“We hold these truths to be self-evident”—they were asserting the fledgling nation’s grounding in the primacy of reason based on evidence.

Read the article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Beware the Nooscope


Now we know why Donald Trump is cozying up with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It’s not about the budding bromance between two so-called strong men. It’s not that Trump is financially beholden to various, shady Russian money men.

It’s all about the Nooscope.

The Nooscope is described in complex academic papers authored by Puti’s new chief of staff Anton Vaino. Apparently, the Nooscope can “tap into global consciousness and detect and register changes in the biosphere and in human activity”.

Is the Nooscope the ultimate weapon, allowing a government to control both its citizens and its enemies? If so, it’s no wonder Trump continues to look towards the Kremlin.

Or is the Nooscope nothing more than pseudo-scientific hot air?

Please let me know if you figure it out.

From BBC:

He does not appear to have given any press interviews in his past career, and his official biography reveals little, beyond a steady rise over many years of service to the Kremlin.

Before his Kremlin promotion the Estonian-born high flyer served as a diplomat, including a stint at the Tokyo embassy.

But an investigation by BBC Russian into Mr Vaino’s academic work reveals intriguing details about him and may offer clues about his worldview.

Like many officials of his generation, reports say he has a master’s degree in economics and has contributed to various scientific publications.

In 2012 an article appeared in a specialist journal called Economics and Law written by an “AK Vaino” – widely believed to be one and the same person as Mr Putin’s new chief of staff.

It was titled “The capitalisation of the future”.

Levers of power

Written in a dense academic prose – which many Russian commentators this week said they found almost impossible to understand – and accompanied by even more complex charts and diagrams, the article outlines new ways of organising and understanding society.

Mr Vaino argues that the economy and society in general have become too complex to manage by traditional means. Governments need to seek new ways of regulating and controlling them.

The article describes a new device called a “nooscope” which, it says, can tap into global consciousness and “detect and register changes in the biosphere and in human activity”.

The “nooscope” bewildered many in Russia this week. Does the device really exist, they asked. What does it actually do? Is Mr Vaino really serious?

BBC Russian tracked down Viktor Sarayev, an award-winning economist and businessman who has co-authored a number of articles with Mr Vaino.

He described the nooscope as “a device that scans transactions between people, things and money”, and claimed it was an invention of parallel significance to the telescope and the microscope.

Read the entire story here.

Image: The capitalisation of the future diagram. Courtesy: BBC.

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Hedging With Death


I’ve never met a hedge fund guy. I don’t think I ever will. They’re invariably male and white. Hedge fund guys move in very different circles than mere mortgage-bound morals like me, usually orbited by billions of dollars and extravagant toys like 200 ft yachts, Tuscan palazzos and a Lamborghini on every continent. At least that’s the popular stereotype.

I’m not sure I like the idea of hedge funds and hedge fund guys with their complex and obfuscated financial transactions, nano-second trading, risk shifting strategies, corporate raids and restructurings. I’m not against gazillionaires per se — but I much prefer the billionaires who invent and make things over those who simply bet and gamble and destroy.

So, it comes as no surprise to learn that one predatory hedge fund guy has found a way to make money from the death of strangers. His name is Donald F. “Jay” Lathen Jr. and his hedge fund is known as Eden Arc Capital Management. Lathen found a neat way for his hedge fund to profit from bonds and CDs (certificates of deposit) with survivor options. For each of his “death transactions” there would be two named survivors: himself or an associate and a terminally-ill patient at a nursing home or hospice. In exchange for naming Lathen as a financial beneficiary the patient would collect $10,000 from Lathen. Lathen would then rake in far greater sums from the redeemed bonds when the patient died.

Lathen’s trick was to enter into such deals only with patients that he calculated to be closest to death. Nothing illegal here, but certainly ethically head-scratching. Don’t you just love capitalism!

From Bloomberg:

A vital function of the financial system is to shift risk, but that is mostly a euphemism. Finance can’t make risks go away, or even really move them all that much. When the financial system shifts the risk of X happening from Y to Z, all that means is that Z gives Y money if X happens. If X was going to happen to Y, it’s still going to happen to Y. But now Y gets money.

Death is a central fact of human existence, the fundamental datum that gives meaning to life, but it is also a risk — you never know when it will happen! — and so the financial industry has figured out ways to shift it. Not in any supernatural sense, I mean, but in the regular financial-industry sense: by giving people money when death happens to them. One cannot know for certain how much of a consolation that is.

Another vital function of the financial system is to brutally punish the mispricing of risk through arbitrage. Actually I don’t really know how vital that one is, but people are pretty into it. If someone under- or overestimates a risk, someone else will find a way to make them pay for it. That’s how markets, even the market for death, stay efficient.

The normal way to shift the risk of death is life insurance — you die, the insurance company gives you money — but there are other, more esoteric versions, and they are more susceptible to arbitrage. One version involves “medium and long-term bonds and certificates of deposit (‘CDs’) that contain ‘survivor options’ or ‘death puts.'” Schematically, the idea is that a financial institution issues a bond that pays back $100 when it matures in 2040 or whatever. But if the buyer of the bond dies, he gets his $100 back immediately, instead of having to wait until 2040. He’s still dead, though.

But the bond can be owned jointly by two people, and when one of them dies, the other one gets the $100 back. If you and your friend buy a bond like that for $80, and then your friend dies, you make a quick $20.

But what are the odds of that? “Pretty low” was presumably the thinking of the companies issuing these bonds. But they didn’t reckon with Donald F. “Jay” Lathen Jr. and his hedge fund Eden Arc Capital Management:

Using contacts at nursing homes and hospices to identify patients that had a prognosis of less than six months left to live, and conducting due diligence into the patients’ medical condition, Lathen found Participants he could use to execute the Fund’s strategy. In return for agreeing to become a joint owner on an account with Lathen and/or another individual, the Participants were promised a fixed fee—typically, $10,000.

That is, needless to say, from the Securities and Exchange Commission administrative action against Lathen and Eden Arc. Lathen and a terminally ill patient would buy survivor-option bonds in a joint account, using Eden Arc’s money; the patient would die, Lathen would redeem the bonds, and Eden Arc would get the money. You are … somehow … not supposed to do this?

Read the entire story here.

Image: Antoine Wiertz’s painting of a man buried alive, 1854. Courtesy: Wiertz Museum, Netherlands / Wikipedia. Public Domain.

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The Ambition of Limited Access to Email


Ubiquitous and constant connectivity has thoroughly reshaped our world over the last couple of decades. We are always reachable, personally and professionally — mobile phones, email and texting have seen to that. Yet, the automated out-of-office message still persists. You know, the email text goes something like this:

I’m currently out of the office and have limited access to email.

Yet, we all know that we can have unlimited access, all the time, and from almost anywhere on the planet. So, what do our automated messages of absence really mean? There are some suggestions that our absence from the connected world ranks as an indicator of status — the less reachable you are, the higher your status. Also, it’s quite possible that some of us use the rather lame excuse of communications service interruption as a smoke-screen for our inability to say no to the 24/7 demands of our work.

From the Guardian:

My favorite literary form of the summer of 2016 is the automatic email out-of-office message. When future scholars of literature reflect on the way that we wrote in this tumultuous, steaming-hot summer, what will they focus on? Perhaps it will be the way these utilitarian missives shifted towards a particular kind of magical thinking.
“I’m away,” these out-of-office messages say, dropping into my inbox one after another, “and I have limited access to email.”

Limited access wasn’t always our collective ambition. Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, when Wi-Fi was but a dream for the masses, I recall a television commercial that often aired during my father’s favorite basketball games. A tropical beach, a sleeves-rolled-up business executive kicking back with a clunky, black-box laptop. This was the exciting future of work: going somewhere beautiful but still being able to show everyone how important you were by bringing your 30lb ThinkPad, kicking back with a couple of spreadsheets and a piña colada.

Now, a generation later, with unprecedented portability, connection, we feel the urge to note our limitations, or the ones that we’d like to envision that we have. We are world-weary: with staring at screens, yes. But also with anticipation of how important we’ll feel when we look at our inbox after two, three hours away, note the stack of communiques at which we will sigh, with which we’ll reluctantly cope.

This is progress: the demonstration of status not through our ability to work wherever we go, but our inability to work. Our distance. Our ability to divide between the mundanity of day-to-day life and the sublimity of vacation. Our genuine and admirable devotion to personal time and space. Or at least our desire to have that devotion: our understanding that it is something to aim for. A wish.

“Limited access to email,” we write, wilfully overlooking the existence of smartphones, playacting as if every hotel in the world doesn’t place the Wi-Fi password in our sweaty palms along with our room key cards. We are aloof, too good to feel a thrill at the buzzing notification that our high school friend has posted a 20-year-old photo of the time that we all went to a water park.

Read the entire story here.

Image: No signal from here. Courtesy: the author.

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