There’s a word for that?

LAS VEGAS - JUNE 16:  Cirque du Soleil perform...

Mamihlapinatapai is a word from the Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego, listed in The Guinness Book of World Records as the “most succinct word”, and is considered one of the hardest words to translate. It describes “a look shared by two people with each wishing that the other will initiate something that both desire but which neither one wants to start.”” (Best of Wikipedia)

Obama’s Delusion

SDEROT, ISRAEL - JULY 23:  Presumptive Democra...

“Long before he became president, there were signs in Barack Obama of a tendency to promise things easily and compromise often.

…For Obama to do the courageous thing and withdraw would mean having deployed against him the unlimited wrath of the mainstream media, the oil interest, the Israel lobby, the weapons and security industries, all those who have reasons both avowed and unavowed for the perpetuation of American force projection in the Middle East. If he fails to satisfy the request from General McChrystal – the specialist in ‘black ops’ who now controls American forces in Afghanistan – the war brokers will fall on Obama with as finely co-ordinated a barrage as if they had met and concerted their response. Beside that prospect, the calls of betrayal from the antiwar base that gave Obama his first victories in 2008 must seem a small price to pay. The best imaginable result just now, given the tightness of the trap, may be ostensible co-operation with the generals, accompanied by a set of questions that lays the groundwork for refusal of the next escalation. But in wars there is always a deep beneath the lowest deep, and the ambushes and accidents tend towards savagery much more than conciliation.” — David Bromwich, who teaches literature and political thought at Yale and writes on America’s wars for the Huffington Post

(London Review of Books)

Halloween Warning: That’s Not A Polar Bear Costume

“It's polar bear season in the town of Churchill, Manitoba. Officials usually warn kids to stay inside after dark in case a migrating bear comes too close to town. But on Halloween night, the town bands together in a polar bear patrol to keep the streets safe for trick-or-treaters.” (NPR)

The Defining Moment

“…[E]veryone in the political class — by which I mean politicians, people in the news media, and so on, basically whoever is in a position to influence the final stage of this legislative marathon — now has to make a choice. The seemingly impossible dream of fundamental health reform is just a few steps away from becoming reality, and each player has to decide whether he or she is going to help it across the finish line or stand in its way.” — Paul Krugman (New York Times op-ed via laurie)

Physicist makes high-res Milky Way photo

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‘A U.S. physics professor says he has put together 3,000 individual photographs to produce a high-resolution panoramic view of the Milky Way galaxy.

Axel Mellinger of Central Michigan University said he spent 22 months and traveled more than 26,000 miles to take digital photographs at dark sky locations in South Africa, Texas and Michigan to produce the panoramic view.

“This panorama image shows stars 1,000 times fainter than the human eye can see, as well as hundreds of galaxies, star clusters and nebulae,” Mellinger said.

…An interactive version of the panorama image can viewed at’ (UPI)

Philip Roth predicts novel will be minority cult within 25 years

Philip Roth

Roth has long been pessimistic about the survival of the novel in a gaudy, short-attention-span culture, but his latest prophesy is one of his bleakest yet, predicting that the form will dwindle to a “cultic” minority enthusiasm within 25 years.

The author believes that the concentration and focus required to read a novel is becoming less and less prevalent, as potential readers turn instead to computers or to television. “I was being optimistic about 25 years really. I think it’s going to be cultic. I think always people will be reading them but it will be a small group of people. Maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range,” Roth told Tina Brown, editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast“. (

You are all computer literati and most of you are readers. Are you noticing impairments to your attention span? Do you think Roth is right? Will you be in the (illustrious) minority, when it comes to that? [thanks, Barb S.]

Castle Frankenstein

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The real one, near Darmstadt, Germany, said to be the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, including photos. And here you can listen (Real Player) to the famous 1952 ‘Frankenstein prank’ in which something was waiting for an Armed Forces reporter who visited the crypt under the castle on Halloween night.

Happy Samhain (Hallowe’en)

A reprise of my Hallowe’en post of past years:

It is that time of year again. What has become a time of disinhibited hijinx and mayhem, and a growing marketing bonanza for the kitsch-manufacturers and -importers, has primeval origins as the Celtic New Year’s Eve, Samhain (pronounced “sow-en”). The harvest is over, summer ends and winter begins, the Old God dies and returns to the Land of the Dead to await his rebirth at Yule, and the land is cast into darkness. The veil separating the worlds of the living and the dead becomes frayed and thin, and dispossessed dead mingle with the living, perhaps seeking a body to possess for the next year as their only chance to remain connected with the living, who hope to scare them away with ghoulish costumes and behavior, escape their menace by masquerading as one of them, or placate them with offerings of food, in hopes that they will go away before the new year comes. For those prepared, a journey to the other side could be made at this time. It is fortunate that Hallowe’en falls on a Monday this year, as there is evidence that the pagan festival was celebrated for three days.

With Christianity, perhaps because with calendar reform it was no longer the last day of the year, All Hallows’ Eve became decathected, a day for innocent masquerading and fun, taking its name Hallowe’en as a contraction and corruption of All Hallows’ Eve. All Saints’ Day may have originated in its modern form with the 8th century Pope Gregory III. Hallowe’en customs reputedly came to the New World with the Irish immigrants of the 1840’s. The prominence of trick-or-treating has a slightly different origin, however.

The custom of trick-or-treating is thought to have originated not with the Irish Celts, but with a ninth-century European custom called souling. On November 2, All Souls Day, early Christians would walk from village to village begging for “soul cakes,” made out of square pieces of bread with currants. The more soul cakes the beggars would receive, the more prayers they would promise to say on behalf of the dead relatives of the donors. At the time, it was believed that the dead remained in limbo for a time after death, and that prayer, even by strangers, could expedite a soul’s passage to heaven.

Jack-o’-lanterns were reportedly originally turnips; the Irish began using pumpkins after they immigrated to North AMerica, given how plentiful they were here.

The Jack-o-lantern custom probably comes from Irish folklore. As the tale is told, a man named Jack, who was notorious as a drunkard and trickster, tricked Satan into climbing a tree. Jack then carved an image of a cross in the tree’s trunk, trapping the devil up the tree. Jack made a deal with the devil that, if he would never tempt him again, he would promise to let him down the tree.

According to the folk tale, after Jack died, he was denied entrance to Heaven because of his evil ways, but he was also denied access to Hell because he had tricked the devil. Instead, the devil gave him a single ember to light his way through the frigid darkness. The ember was placed inside a hollowed-out turnip to keep it glowing longer.

Folk traditions that were in the past associated wtih All Hallows’ Eve took much of their power, as with the New Year’s customs about which I write here every Dec. 31st, from the magic of boundary states, transition and liminality.

The idea behind ducking, dooking or bobbing for apples seems to have been that snatching a bite from the apple enables the person to grasp good fortune. Samhain is a time for getting rid of weakness, as pagans once slaughtered weak animals which were unlikely to survive the winter. A common ritual calls for writing down weaknesses on a piece of paper or parchment, and tossing it into the fire. There used to be a custom of placing a stone in the hot ashes of the bonfire. If in the morning a person found that the stone had been removed or had cracked, it was a sign of bad fortune. Nuts have been used for divination: whether they burned quietly or exploded indicated good or bad luck. Peeling an apple and throwing the peel over one’s shoulder was supposed to reveal the initial of one’s future spouse. One way of looking for omens of death was for peope to visit churchyards

The Witches’ Sabbath aspect of Hallowe’en seems to result from Germanic influence, and fusion with the notion of Walpurgisnacht. (Familiar with the magnificent musical evocation of this, Mussorgsky’s Night on Bare Mountain?) Although probably not yet in a position to shape mainstream American Hallowe’en traditions, Mexican Dia de los Muertos observances have started to contribute some delightful and whimsical iconography to our encounter with the eerie and unearthly as well.

What was Hallowe’en like forty or fifty years ago in the U.S. when, bastardized as it has become with respect to its pagan origins, it retained a much more traditional flair? For my purposes, suffice it to say that it was before the era of the pay-per-view ’spooky-world’ type haunted attractions and its Martha Stewart yuppification with, as this irreverent Salon article from several years ago [via walker] puts it, monogrammed jack-o’-lanterns and the like. Related, a 1984 essay by Richard Seltzer, frequently referenced in other sources, entitled “Why Bother to Save Hallowe’en?”, argues as I do that reverence for Hallowe’en is good for the soul.

“Maybe at one time Hallowe’en helped exorcise fears of death and ghosts and goblins by making fun of them. Maybe, too, in a time of rigidly prescribed social behavior, Hallowe’en was the occasion for socially condoned mischief — a time for misrule and letting loose. Although such elements still remain, the emphasis has shifted and the importance of the day and its rituals has actually grown.

…(D)on’t just abandon a tradition that you yourself loved as a child, that your own children look forward to months in advance, and that helps preserve our sense of fellowship and community with our neighbors in the midst of all this madness.”

That would be anathema to certain segments of society, however. Hallowe’en certainly inspires a backlash by fundamentalists who consider it a blasphemous abomination. ‘Amateur scholar’ Isaac Bonewits details academically the Hallowe’en errors and lies he feels contribute to its being reviled. Some of the panic over Hallowe’en is akin to the hysteria, fortunately now debunked, over the supposed epidemic of ‘ritual Satanic abuse’ that swept the Western world in the ’90’s.

The horror film has become inextricably linked to Hallowe’en tradition, although the holiday itself did not figure in the movies until John Carpenter took the slasher genre singlehandedly by storm. Googling “scariest films”, you will, grimly, reap a mother lode of opinions about how to pierce the veil to journey to the netherworld and reconnect with that magical, eerie creepiness in the dark (if not the over-the-top blood and gore that has largely replaced the subtlety of earlier horror films).

In any case: trick or treat!

Neanderthals ‘had sex’ with modern man

Neanderthal Skeleton, AMNH
Neanderthal skeleton

‘Modern humans and Neanderthals had sex across the species barrier, according to a leading geneticist who is overseeing a project to compare their genomes.

Professor Svante Paabo, director of genetics at the renowned Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, will shortly publish his analysis of the entire Neanderthal genome, using DNA retrieved from fossils. He aims to compare it with the genomes of modern humans and chimpanzees to work out the ancestry of all three species.

Modern humans arrived in Europe from Africa about 40,000 years ago to find Neanderthals already living there. The two species then co-existed for 10,000-12,000 years before Neanderthals died out — a fact that has caused endless academic speculation about whether they interbred.

Paabo recently told a conference at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory near New York that he was now sure the two species had had sex — but a question remained about how “productive” it had been.’ (Times.UK).

Research Reveals That Apocalyptic Stories Changed Dramatically 20 Years Ago

From Dr. Strangelove: Major "King" K...
Slim Pickens riding the bomb

“Most major religions, going back thousands of years, tell stories about the End of the World. And post-apocalyptic fiction is perennially popular. So why, in the last twenty years, has the apocalypse ceased to matter?

I recently finished a thesis project on post-apocalyptic genre fiction, and in my research I made a list of 423 books, poems, and short stories about the apocalypse, published between 1826-2007, and charted them by the way their earth met its demise (humans, nature, god, etc.) to see the trends over time.

It’s not the idea of Ending itself that has faded – that will be around until we are actually mopped off the face of the Earth. It’s the actual moment of disaster, the blood and guts and fire, that has been losing ground in stories of the End. Post-apocalyptic fiction is a 200-year-old trend, and for 170 of those years, the ways writers imagined the end were pretty transparently a reflection of whatever was going on around them – nuclear war, environmental concerns, etc. In the mid-1990s, though, everything just turned into a big muddle. Suddenly, we’d get a post-apocalyptic world whose demise was never explained. It was just a big question mark.” — Chanda Phelan (io9).

Pain Of Torture Can Make Innocent Seem Guilty

Instruments of Torture album cover

‘The rationale behind torture is that pain will make the guilty confess, but a new study by researchers at Harvard University finds that the pain of torture can make even the innocent seem guilty.’

Even without confessing anything, a subject suffering from torture is rated by observers as more guilty than otherwise.(Science Daily).

Bending the Rules of Clinical Trials for the Patient’s Sake

Newspaper advertisements seeking patients and ...
Newspaper ad solicits research volunteers

In the current issue of the bioethics journal IRB: Ethics & Human Research, investigators from four different institutions surveyed over 700 clinicians involved in clinical trials and found that 90 percent believed that ignoring certain entry criteria was acceptable if a patient could, in their estimation, benefit from the trial. In addition, over 60 percent of those surveyed also believed that researchers should deviate from study rules if doing so might improve a patient’s care.

While bioethicists and researchers have long suspected that doctors and other clinicians might be committing an occasional protocol infraction, few if any studies have looked at the extent to which such violations occur and how they might compromise research results.” (NYTimes)

I am not a researcher but purely a clinician. I’ve never been in a position to discover whether I would compromise a research protocol to benefit a patient, but I suspect the temptation would be strong (and would limit my ability to deliver good research findings).

Martin Scorsese’s 11 Scariest Horror Movies of All Time

Cover of "The Exorcist (The Version You'v...

Tina Brown asked her friend Martin Scorsese to give her a list and he made it a labor of love…with video clips. I can imagine him chuckling at the thought of how much sleep Tina will lose if she actually watches these. Although there are several pretty predictable entries (The Exorcist, The Shining, Psycho) most are obscure and often forgotten. Modern lists of ‘horror‘ films tend toward blood and gore; Scorsese is going for the truly eerie, as he says often embodied in what is not shown. As it turns out, I have seen all of these and am feeling proud and abit superior to be the same sort of horror aficionado he is. Most of the commenters to his Daily Beast post really put their feet in their mouths, suggesting additions to the list which are trite and embarrassing, although I’m glad someone thought of Funny Games. (The Daily Beast)

Ever Dream This Man?

Every night throughout the world hundreds of people dream about this face.

In January 2006 in New York, the patient of a well-known psychiatrist draws the face of a man that has been repeatedly appearing in her dreams. In more than one occasion that man has given her advice on her private life. The woman swears she has never met the man in her life.

That portrait lies forgotten on the psychiatrist’s desk for a few days until one day another patient recognizes that face and says that the man has often visited him in his dreams. He also claims he has never seen that man in his waking life.

The psychiatrist decides to send the portrait to some of his colleagues that have patients with recurrent dreams. Within a few months, four patients recognize the man as a frequent presence in their own dreams. All the patients refer to him as THIS MAN.

From January 2006 until today, at least 2000 people have claimed they have seen this man in their dreams, in many cities all over the world: Los Angeles, Berlin, Sao Paulo, Tehran, Beijing, Rome, Barcelona, Stockholm, Paris, New Dehli, Moskow etc.

At the moment there is no ascertained relation or common trait among the people that have dreamed of seeing this man. Moreover, no living man has ever been recognized as resembling the man of the portrait by the people who have seen this man in their dreams.” [Read more (]

“I’m a doctor. So sue me. No, really”

The doctors’ lobby says capping malpractice suits will make healthcare cheaper. I’m an M.D. and I don’t believe it.

Defensive medicine is just one of the supposed systemic ills that doctors, doctors' lobbies and doctors' insurers invoke when they shill for what they call malpractice reform. Proponents of reform say that defensive medicine, frivolous lawsuits and high premiums are behind the surge in healthcare expenses. They insist that malpractice costs are forcing doctors to close their doors and depriving patients of care. Recently, three past presidents of the American Medical Association coauthored an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal that bundled all of these arguments into an attack on the public option. Their piece attempted to shift the blame for America's healthcare crisis away from private insurers and onto a supposed scourge of ambulance chasers. “The nation needs comprehensive medical malpractice reform,” they wrote. “It is the surest and quickest way to slow down the rising cost of healthcare.”Their refrain is familiar to anybody following the healthcare reform debate. The only problem is that it's not true. There's nothing “sure or quick” about changing medical liability laws that will improve healthcare or its costs. Defensive medicine adds very little to healthcare's price tag, and rising malpractice premiums have had very little impact on access to care.Let's look at the numbers.” — Rahul Parikh MD (Salon)

As an MD, I heartily agree with Parikh.The arguments for capping malpractice awards have seemed duplicitous, self-serving and, ummm, very Republican. On the other hand, an effective mechanism for discouraging frivolous suits would benefit everyone.

New York Times Editorial – The Cover-Up Continues

2009 Five Presidents George W. Bush, President...

“The Obama administration has clung for so long to the Bush administration’s expansive claims of national security and executive power that it is in danger of turning President George W. Bush’s cover-up of abuses committed in the name of fighting terrorism into President Barack Obama’s cover-up.

We have had recent reminders of this dismaying retreat from Mr. Obama’s passionate campaign promises to make a break with Mr. Bush’s abuses of power, a shift that denies justice to the victims of wayward government policies and shields officials from accountability.”

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Molecule of Motivation (and Salience)

de: Struktur von Dopamin; en: Structure of dop...
dopamine molecule

“Dopamine has lately become quite fashionable, today’s “it” neurotransmitter, just as serotonin was “it” in the Prozac-laced ’90s.”

New York Times science writer Nathalie Angier, attending the neuroscience meetings, writes a very lucid piece on the current understanding of the crucial role of dopamine.

Musicians Protest the use of music during Gitmo Torture

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Zach de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine, during 2008 RNC

“A large contingent of American bands have joined the Close Gitmo Now campaign in direct protest of the use of their music during torture practices at Guantanamo Bay. The new campaign is led by two retired generals: Lieutenant General Robert Gard and Brigadier General John Johns. Robert Gard has spoken out in defense of the musicians, stating: “The musicians' music 'was used without their knowledge as part of the Bush administration's misguided policies'.”

Popular artists such as REM, Pearl Jam, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Morello, Billy Bragg, Michelle Branch, Jackson Browne, and The Roots have signed an open letter to Congress requesting the declassification of government records concerning how music was utilized during “futility” interrogation tactics – making the prisoner feel hopeless while exploiting his psychological, moral, and sociological weaknesses.” (Foreign Policy Passport)

Reality Check

Car bombing in Iraq, 2005. As Coalition Forces...

Andrew Sullivan: “The Beltway’s conventional wisdom has long been that the war in Iraq is over. According to the partisan GOP blogs, Bush won the war last year. And yet, for all the many reports of a new calm in Iraq, and on the day that Tom Friedman buys into Maliki’s hope that a new non-sectarian future is imminent, two massive car bombs reveal that security still needs a city divided by huge, concrete barriers, and American troops for investigation and clean-up. It’s worth recalling that this is still happening even as over 120,000 US troops remain in the country. If this can happen when they are there in such vast numbers, what are the odds that Iraq will remain half-way peaceful and unified when/if the US leaves?” (The Atlantic)

The Next Nerd Obsession?

‘A Google search of the phrase “Winter is coming” pulls up more than 4 million results, a great many of which are related to a swelling geekosphere devoted to A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin’s bestselling sci-fi fantasy series that is fast becoming this generation’s Lord of the Rings.

The phrase is a signifier of sorts in the books—in which seasons last a very, very long time—but it is also code for a development that has nerd hearts all over the globe palpitating: HBO is adapting the books, beginning with the first one, A Game of Thrones…’ (The Daily Beast)

Found: first ‘skylight’ on the moon

“A deep hole on the moon that could open into a vast underground tunnel has been found for the first time. The discovery strengthens evidence for subsurface, lava-carved channels that could shield future human colonists from space radiation and other hazards.

The moon seems to possess long, winding tunnels called lava tubes that are similar to structures seen on Earth. They are created when the top of a stream of molten rock solidifies and the lava inside drains away, leaving a hollow tube of rock.” New Scientist

Diagramming Won’t Help This Situation by Kevin Brown

Grammatical rules have always baffled

me, leaving me wondering whether my

life is transitive or intransitive, if I am the

subject or object of my life, and no one

has been able to provide words to describe

my actions, even if they do end in –ly.

But now the problem seems to be with

pronouns: I am unwilling to be him

and you are unable to be her, so we

will never be them~the ones talking

about what they need from the grocery

store because the Rogers are coming for

dinner tonight; the couple saving for a

vacation, perhaps a cruise to Alaska or a

museum tour of Europe; the two who meet

with a financial advisor to plan their children's

college fund while still managing to set enough

aside for their retirement~and so we will

continue to be nothing more than sentence

fragments, perfectly fine for effect,

but forever looking for the missing

part of speech we can never seem to find.

(The Writer’s Almanac)

‘To Be’ or Not ?

Alfred Korzybski, Polish philosopher and scien...

Explore, if you will, the world of E-Prime. Arising from the thinking of Alfred Korzybski and the International Society for General Semantics which he founded, E-Prime consists of the subset of the English language left after expunging it of the use of the verb ‘to be’ in its two major functions of connoting identity (“I am a weblogger”) and predication (“I am nice”). Proponents feel that these uses of ‘to be’ cause major confusion of thought and consequent social problems. To start with, consider how the use of the same verb for identity and predication readily obscures the distinction between opinion and fact. Moreover, it readily lends itself to stereotypy and inflexibility.

This paper claims that using “E-Prime in Negotiation and Therapy” can challenge dogmatic viewpoints, clarify confusion, and defuse conflict in daily life. I don’t conduct myself as a strong proponent of E-Prime in my life; awkward circumlocutory constructions arise whenever I try to write in that way. But the difficulty in using it perhaps speaks to how early in our lives the associated thought patterns were ingrained. Language doesn’t determine what we can and can’t think, but it does readily shape what can be thought with ease as opposed to with difficulty, IMHO. Does the challenge involved in thinking ‘outside this box’ perhaps indicate the importance of doing so? The links above have plenty of further links if you want to explore your identifications and predications more thoroughly.

R.I.P. Ururu

Amazon tribe down to five as oldest member dies: “The Akuntsu tribe in the Brazilian Amazon has lost its oldest member, Ururú, leaving the tribe with only five surviving members.

Ururú was the oldest member of this close-knit, tiny group and an integral part of it.
Altair Algayer, head of FUNAI’s (Brazilian government Indian affairs department) team which protects the Akuntsu’s land said, ‘She was a fighter, strong, and resisted until the last moment.’ In addition, the oldest-surviving Akuntsu, Ururú’s brother Konibú, is seriously ill.

Ururú witnessed the genocide of her people and the destruction of their rainforest home, as cattle ranchers and their gunmen moved on to indigenous lands in Rondônia state. Rondônia was opened up by government colonisation projects and the infamous BR 364 highway in the 1960s and 70s… [T]oday’s survivors say their family members were killed when ranchers bulldozed their houses and opened fire on them… The ranchers attempted to hide evidence of the crime, but wooden poles, arrows, axes and broken pottery were discovered.

…Survival’s Director Stephen Corry said today, ‘With Ururú’s death we are seeing the final stages of a 21st century genocide. Unlike mass killings in Nazi Germany or Rwanda, the genocides of indigenous people are played out in hidden corners of the world, and escape public scrutiny and condemnation. Although their numbers are small, the result is just as final. Only when this persecution is seen as akin to slavery or apartheid will tribal peoples begin to be safe.’ ” (Survival International)

Letters of Note

Letters of Note is an attempt to gather and sort fascinating letters, postcards, telegrams, faxes, and memos. Scans/photos where possible. Fakes will be sneered at.” [thanks, abby]

Light-Swallowing Desktop Black Hole

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“Two Chinese scientists have successfully made an artificial black hole. Since you’re still reading this, it’s safe to say that Earth hasn’t been sucked into its vortex.

That’s because a black hole doesn’t technically require a massive, highly concentrated gravitational field that prevents light from escaping, as postulated by Albert Einstein. It just needs to capture light — or, to be more precise, electromagnetic radiation, of which visually perceived light is one form.

em_blackholeThe desktop black hole, described in a paper submitted to arXiv on Monday, is made from 60 concentrically arranged layers of circuit board. Each layer is coated in copper and printed with patterns that alternately vibrate or don’t vibrate in response to electromagnetic waves.

Together, the patterns completely absorbed microwave radiation coming from any direction, and converted their energy to heat.”

(Wired Science)

Berners-Lee ‘sorry’ about the slashes

Tim Berners-Lee at a Podcast Interview

“There you go, it seemed like a good idea at the time.”The forward slashes at the beginning of internet addresses have long annoyed net users and now the man behind them has apologised for using them.Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, has confessed that the // in a web address were actually “unnecessary”.He told the Times newspaper that he could easily have designed URLs not to have the forward slashes.’ (BBC)

Can you tell if a man is dangerous just by looking at his face?

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Dave Johns writes in Slate Magazine about the resurgence of the long-discredited ‘science’ of physiognomy, the idea that personality attributes can be inferred from facial features alone.

“…[N]ew research suggests we are more skilled at “reading faces” than we knew. People are surprisingly adept at assessing sexual orientation from headshots. Five-year-olds can predict election outcomes based on photos of the candidates. We can even guess whether a face belongs to a Democrat or a Republican at a rate better than chance, according to a forthcoming study out of Princeton.

Now some of the “new physiognomists” are resurrecting an old claim: that you can gauge a man’s penchant for aggression by the cut of his jib. Last fall University of California-Santa Barbara psychologist Aaron Sell reported that college students could accurately estimate the upper body strength of unfamiliar men after viewing their faces alone. (The men’s necks were obscured.) The students did equally well with fellow undergraduates and men from South American indigenous groups—all of whom had had their strength measured using gym equipment. Interestingly, the toughest-looking undergrads also reported getting in the most fights. Another study by Sell suggests that such formidable men are more prone to use violence—or advocate military action—to resolve conflicts.”

My attention was grabbed by this on both a professional and personal basis. It is crucial for those in the behavioral sciences today to find their own position on the resurgence of biological determinism some would say has come to dominate the field. And, personally, I have always been dogged by the fact that people’s initial reaction to me seems to have a greater-than-chance tendency to find me intimidating. (I could understand it if they waited to hear what comes out of my mouth, but I think the reaction precedes any interaction with me.) It would be fine if I were the exception that proves the rule, but I think that, as is true of most of us, I am all too capable of falling into the role that has been shaped for me by those initial preconceptions. In addition to all the other prejudices in our society, are we face-ist?

A number of studies have demonstrated that most people hold …stereotypes about what criminals look like and believe that “the face fits the crime.” This can play out in court: The psychologist Leslie Zebrowitz has shown that “mature-faced” defendants are more likely to be found guilty of certain kinds of crimes. And when baby-faced defendants are found guilty, they tend to get more lenient sentences. She calls this form of discrimination “face-ism” and argues that defendants shouldn’t be required to show their faces in court. But if it is proved that the male face does indeed reveal “honest” signals about aggressiveness, jurors might deserve access to that information. (Then, too, defense attorneys might want to adopt a novel legal strategy: the meathead defense. “My client can’t be blamed for his actions because he suffers from high testosterone. Just look at his face!”)

Many of the supposedly indicative features are shaped by testosterone, which is linked to ‘masculine’ appearance and to aggression. But if the development of our frontal lobes has supposedly conferred on humans a much greater capacity to modulate our behavior, does the persistence of masculine aggression really reinforce biological determinism or merely that we have been pitiful failures at modifying the traditional male role definitions?

[On a lighter but related (?) note, I just realized that an anagram for my name is “genial towel.” Do I seem like a genial towel to you?]

What I Understood by Katha Pollitt

When I was a child I understood everything

about, for example, futility. Standing for hours

on the hot asphalt outfield, trudging for balls

I'd ask myself, how many times will I have to perform

this pointless task, and all the others? I knew

about snobbery, too, and cruelty—for children

are snobbish and cruel—and loneliness: in restaurants

the dignity and shame of solitary diners

disabled me, and when my grandmother

screamed at me, “Someday you'll know what it's like!”

I knew she was right, the way I knew

about the single rooms my teachers went home to,

the pictures on the dresser, the hoard of chocolates,

and that there was no God, and that I would die.

All this I understood, no one needed to tell me.

the only thing I didn't understand

was how in a world whose predominant characteristics

are futility, cruelty, loneliness, disappointment

people are saved every day

by a sparrow, a foghorn, a grassblade, a tablecloth.

This year I'll be

thirty-nine, and I still don't understand it.

Amor Fati by Katha Pollitt

Everywhere I look I see my fate.

In the subway. In a stone.

On the curb where people wait for the bus in the rain.

In a cloud. In a glass of wine.

When I go for a walk in the park it's a sycamore leaf.

At the office, a dull pencil.

In the window of Woolworth's my fate looks back at me

through the shrewd eyes of a dusty parakeet.

Scrap of newspaper, dime in a handful of change,

down what busy street do you hurry this morning,

an overcoat among overcoats,

with a train to catch, a datebook full of appointments?

If I called you by my name would you turn around

or vanish round the corner,

leaving a faint odor of orange-flower water,

tobacco, twilight, snow?

Today is political commentator and poet Katha Pollitt‘s 60th birthday. Many happy returns!

Is the Large Hadron Collider Jinxed by its own Future?

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“Forget the far-fetched belief that it will create a black hole, two distinguished physicists have gone even further claiming nature itself is stopping the troubled £4.4billion project from getting off the ground.” (Telegraph.UK)

The pair of theoretical physicists say that the Higgs boson, the postulated ‘God particle’ the LHC is supposed to discover, could ripple back in time from a future in which it exists and stop its own creation by interfering with the operation of the troubled particle accelerator, which is just about to come back online after its initial operation was beset by malfunction.

Nature and Compassion

“Nature might be red in tooth and claw, but even a glimpse of greenery can make us behave in kinder, gentler ways…I've written before about the powerful mental benefits of communing with nature – it leads to more self-control, increased working memory, lower levels of stress and better moods – but a new study by psychologists at the University of Rochester find that being exposed to wildlife also makes us more compassionate.” — Jonah Lehrer (The Frontal Cortex)

Supermassive Black Holes Collide

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“New X-ray data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory added to an image previously captured by the Hubble Space Telescope created this amazing composite image of two black holes on the verge of colliding.

The two supermassive black holes, which show up as two points of light in the center of the galaxy NGC 6240, are only 3,000 light-years apart. Astronomers think the two will eventually combine into a single, larger black hole.” (Wired)

Please Knock

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 31:  A young boy p...

A quote from np312 on MetaFilter: “I grew up in a college town, and one Halloween our doorbell rang and we opened the door expecting to see trickortreater—but what was in front of our open door—was another door! Like, a full-on wooden door, that had a sign that said “Please knock.” So we did, and the door swung open to reveal a bunch of college dudes dressed as really old grandmothers, curlers in their hair, etc, who proceeded to coo over our “costumes” and tell us we were “such cute trick or treaters!” One even pinched my cheek. Then THEY gave US candy, closed their door, picked it up and walked to the next house.” via Simon Willison’s Weblog.

Bloggers Must Disclose Product Ties

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“Bloggers, Tweeters and online marketers will have to tell consumers when they are paid or given freebies to write positive reviews or postings, federal regulators said Monday.

The Federal Trade Commission released updated guidelines Monday designed to provide clarity for bloggers and other online writers about their responsibility to provide consumer disclosure as well as liability issues they face for making false or deceptive claims about products and services.” (WSJ)

Not an issue for me, since I am not paid or given freebies by anyone for anything I write on FmH. (See the ‘disclaimers’ section in the right hand sidebar.)

Is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Jewish?

Vitriolic attacks on the Jewish world belie evidence of Jewish ancestry. “A photograph of the Iranian president holding up his identity card during elections in March 2008 clearly shows his family has Jewish roots.

A close-up of the document reveals he was previously known as Sabourjian – a Jewish name meaning cloth weaver.

The short note scrawled on the card suggests his family changed its name to Ahmadinejad when they converted to embrace Islam after his birth.” (Telegraph.UK)

Most Babies Born Today Will Live 100 Years

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Life expectancy at birth

“More than half of babies born today in rich nations will live for 100 years as earlier diagnoses and better treatment of illnesses such as heart disease extend lives, scientists estimate.

Life expectancy increased by three decades or more over the 20th century in countries such as the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Canada and Japan, and that trend will continue, according to a review published today in The Lancet medical journal. Without any further improvement in longevity, three- quarters of babies will mark their 75th birthdays, the Danish and German researchers wrote.” ()

Get Ready for ‘President’ Blair

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The Irish approval of the Lisbon accord apparently paves the way for Tony Blair to be the first president of the EU.

“Senior British sources have told The Times that President Sarkozy has decided that Mr Blair is the best candidate and that Angela Merkel has softened her opposition.

The former Prime Minister could be ushered into the European Union’s top post at a summit on October 29.” (Times.UK)

The Twilight Zone

Twilight Zone

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the debut of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (Wikipedia article).

“Despite his esteem in the writing community, Serling found The Twilight Zone difficult to sell. Few critics felt that science fiction could transcend empty escapism and enter the realm of adult drama. In a September 22, 1959, interview with Serling, Mike Wallace asked a question illustrative of the times: “…[Y]ou’re going to be, obviously, working so hard on The Twilight Zone that, in essence, for the time being and for the foreseeable future, you’ve given up on writing anything important for television, right?” While Serling’s appearances on the show became one of its most distinctive features, with his clipped delivery still widely imitated today, he was reportedly nervous about it and had to be persuaded to appear on camera. Serling often steps into the middle of the action and the characters remain seemingly oblivious to him, but on one notable occasion they are aware he’s there: In the episode “A World of His Own,” a writer with the power to alter his reality objects to Serling’s unflattering narration, and promptly erases Serling from the show.”

I was seven when the show first aired, although at first I was a viewer of something on a competing channel. I no longer recall what it was, perhaps Walt Disney. Within a short while, certainly before the end of the first season. I began to become aware of schoolmates talking about this new show with fascination and devotion. It was the first time I was sensitive to being out of the swing of things, and my insistence I be allowed to watch it was the first time I recall asserting myself against my parents’ preferences for me. The Twilight Zone thus not only played a pivotal role in my coming of age but, I am sure, shaped my lifelong interest in the eerie and macabre.

Here is an episode listing of the original five seasons of the show. If you are old enough, which do you recall? Which was your favorite? I would have to list “It’s a Good Life”, “Nightmare at 20,000 Ft” and, of course, “To Serve Man.”

Liu Bolin

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Camouflage series by Beijing-based artist Liu Bolin. Covered entirely in paint to blend into their surroundings, each installation can take up to 10 hours of painstaking work…

via wide open spaces.

Chirac gives away ‘violent’ dog

Sumo, a Maltese terrier, is reported to have bitten him in the stomach in their apartment in the capital, Paris.

Mr Chirac's wife, Bernadette, said the dog had been treated for depression after finding it difficult to come to terms with leaving the Elysee Palace.

via BBC.