Does a MacArthur grant make a genius smarter?

Via ‘The real promise of the MacArthur Fellowship program is that it does not require grant writing, or applications, or even achievement of a conventional sort. It could theoretically be used to bypass the world of foundation favorites altogether. It could single out worthy individuals who have been unfairly overlooked, lift them up, launch their careers, and force the world to pay attention. That even seems to have been one of the ideas for the program in the beginning.

Well, today the program rarely does any of those things. Instead, and just like nearly every other prize program in the world, it chooses noncontroversial figures and rewards the much-rewarded, giving in to what James English calls “the desire to have already famous and massively consecrated individuals on their list of winners.

”Sort through that list of winners and you’ll find lots of the usual prize magnets, the foundation favorites, the celebrated New Yorker authors, the “20 Under 40” set, the people you heard profiled on NPR a short while ago, the person who just got the National Book Award, or the John Bates Clark medal, or a Ford Foundation Leadership Grant. The résumés of certain winners are thick with honors: Junot Diaz was a literary champion many times over by the time he won in 2012, while Robert Penn Warren, who received one of the very first MacArthur Fellowships, had won the Pulitzer three times by that point in his life and had received more than a dozen honorary degrees.My point here is not that some particular Genius didn’t deserve the prize. Few of the MacArthur Fellows represent genuinely poor choices. But many are certainly unoriginal choices, choices that by definition do nothing to advance creativity or innovation, as they are given to people who already have tenure, or recognition, or funding.

This particular criticism of the Genius Grant has been around since the beginning, but instead of changing course and concentrating on the business of finding brilliant but obscure people, the Foundation seems to have persuaded itself that rewarding the amply rewarded isn’t really a problem at all…’

How to Defend Your Home Against the Prying Eyes of UAVs

Via Gizmodo: ‘If you want protection from privacy intrusions by private UAV pilots, dont go all Annie Oakley on your neighbors quadcopter like this guy; thats super illegal in most American cities. Instead, try these simple means of dissuasion. Youll definitely look like a bit of a loon, but thats just the price of freedom. And/or paranoia…’

Th-th-th-that’s all folks!

This Is the First Weekend in America With No Saturday Morning Cartoons

First Weekend in America With No Saturday Morning Cartoons (via Gizmodo): ‘Saturday morning American broadcast TV was once animations home field. Filling a cereal bowl with artificially colored sugar pebbles and staring at the tube was every kids weekend plan. Not any more: For the first time in 50-plus years, you wont find any animation on broadcast this morning….’

How Animals Get High

Via ANIMAL: ‘Everyone likes to get high. Whether from your morning cup of coffee, taking 2C-I to trip balls, or a surge of endocannabinoids after doing exercise, we love the feeling. This is rooted in a common chemistry that all creatures share.Scientists and cat toy makers have long known that animals too enjoy the fruits of our shared biology. They go for the chemical shortcut to fun times as much as we do. Here are just a few…’


“I Couldnt Smell, and Then I Died”

I Couldnt Smell, and Then I Died - The Atlantic

Via The Atlantic: ‘This week surgeons at the University of Chicago found that the strength of a person’s ability to identify odors is an eerily excellent predictor of impending death. If and when your sense of smell fades, it seems, your risk of dying within the next five years is several times higher than that of your inviolate friends…’

The Link Between Depression and Radicalization

Via Pacific Standard: ‘An intriguing detail made its way into the middle of an Associated Press story this summer about a young Canadian man who converted to Islam, became radicalized, and ultimately died fighting in Syria. According to the piece, the youth, Damian Clairmont, “found religion at 17 after battling depression.” He was just one person, of course, but newly published research finds there may indeed be a link between depression and radicalization. It suggests that, in searching for ways to deter young Western Muslims from the path of jihad, officials may be overlooking an important mental-health component…’

Is There Such A Thing As Volcano Season?

Via io9: ‘This mornings eruption at Mount Ontake in Japan is the latest in a recent spate of volcanic blasts to have threatened lives and forced evacuations. The timing and global distribution of these recent eruptions raise an intriguing question: Is there such a thing as a season for volcanic eruptions?’


The right’s war on black voters continues

Not just ancient history (via ‘When Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion striking down a key part of the Voting Rights Act, he said “our country has changed,” arguing that the circumstances that led to the initial formula for preclearance was no longer valid because the country had overcome much of its racial prejudice. But in the year immediately following the decision, many Southern conservatives have shown that many of the prejudices that prevented blacks from voting in the past are still manifesting themselves today through attempts to suppress the vote of minorities.’

7 different types of non-believers

Via ‘For those who have lost their religion or never had one, finding a label can feel important. It can be part of a healing process or, alternately, a way of declaring resistance to a dominant and oppressive paradigm. Finding the right combination of words can be a challenge though. For a label to fit it needs to resonate personally and also communicate what you want to say to the world. Words have definitions, connotations and history, and how people respond to your label will be affected by all three. What does it mean? What emotions does it evoke? Who are you identifying as your intellectual and spiritual forebears and your community? The differences may be subtle but they are important.If, one way or another, you’ve left religion behind, and if you’ve been unsure what to call yourself, you might try on one of these…’

One in four Americans support idea of splitting from the union

Via Slate: ‘After Scotland, all eyes are turning to Catalonia, where voters will hold a non-binding vote on independence from Spain on Nov. 9. But maybe Americans need to focus closer to home. We already knew—courtesy of Slate’s David Weigel—that breakaway movements in the United States were feeling inspired by the Scotland independence referendum vote. But it turns out that wanting to break away from the union is not as much of a fringe idea as some might think. According to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, almost one-quarter of Americans said they either strongly supported or tended to support the idea of their states leaving the union.’

Alliance invites a hollow laugh

Via The Japan Times: ‘To date, Iran is the only country in the region actually fighting against Islamic State on both fronts, the one in Syria defending Bashar Assad’s government, which Iran has supported since the beginning of the uprising in Syria, and the other front in Iraq opposing the Sunni Islamic State. On the face of it, this suggests that a strategic alliance of Iran with the United States might benefit both.

In Washington last week, Sen. Rand Paul went on record as declaring on Buzzfeed that “If we were to get rid of Assad, it would be a jihadist wonderland in Syria.” He sees Syria and Iran as the “the two allies” who together would have the means, ability and motivation “to wipe out ISIS.”

But Barack Obama and John Kerry — and above all, both parties in the American Congress — are not interested.’

William Pfaff is an American journalist who focuses on foreign policy. His latest book is “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy”

Meet The 2014 Winners Of The MacArthurs

Via NPR: ‘One is becoming as well-known for her autobiographical work as she is for her test for what movies meet a gender-balance baseline. Another directed one of the best-reviewed and most surreal documentaries of the past decade and has a follow-up on this year’s film-festival circuit. Another has been leading the fight for gay-marriage rights since 2004 in Massachusetts.

Alongside cartoonist Alison Bechdel, The Act of Killing director Joshua Oppenheimer and attorney Mary Bonauto, other 2014 MacArthur Award winners are exploring the subtleties of race via psychology and poetry, using math to model the human brain or define the limits of prime numbers, or providing physical, home and job security to some of the country’s most at-risk populations. Learn more about them below…’


Human Language Gene Speeds Up Learning in Mice

Via IFLScience: ‘For over two decades, scientists have suspected a link between the Foxp2 gene and the development of speech and language in humans. Now, researchers show that introducing the human version of this gene into mice speeds up their learning. The findings, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week, could help explain the evolution of our unique ability to produce and understand speech — which may be the result of a gene mutation that arose more than half a million years ago.

Nicknamed the language gene, Foxp2 was first identified in a family with severe speech difficulties; they carried only one functional copy of the gene coding for transcription factor forkhead box P2. Since humans split from chimps, there’ve only been two key mutations in this gene, which makes you wonder: What would happen if chimps had our version of the gene?

For starters, a large international team led by MIT’s Ann Graybiel and Svante Pääbo from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology engineered mice to express “humanized” Foxp2 by introducing two human-specific amino acid changes into the gene. This change affected their striatum, a brain area essential for motor and cognitive behaviors in humans. Different parts of the striatum are responsible for two modes of learning: a conscious form called declarative learning and a non-conscious form called procedural learning.

The team placed the mice through a series of maze experiments. Mice with humanized Foxp2 performed the same as normal mice when just one type of memory was needed. But when both declarative and procedural forms of learning were engaged, mice with humanized Foxp2 learned “stimulus-response associations” much faster than regular mice. For example, knowing whether to turn left or right at a T-shaped junction — based on the texture of the maze floor and visible lab furniture — to earn a tasty treat.

Turns out, humanized Foxp2 gene makes it easier to transform new experiences and mindful actions into behavioral routine procedures. The engineered mice learned the route within a week, while regular mice did it in 11…’

Schizophrenia Is Actually Eight Distinct Genetic Disorders

Via io9: ‘New research published in the American Journal of Psychiatry suggests that schizophrenia is not a single disease, but rather a group of eight genetically distinct disorders, each of them with its own set of symptoms. The finding could result in improved diagnosis and treatment, while also shedding light on how genes work together to cause complex disorders.

…Complex diseases like schizophrenia may be influenced by hundreds or thousands of genetic variants that interact with one another in complicated and dynamic ways, leading to what scientists call “multifaceted genetic architectures.” Now, thanks to the work of investigators at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, the genetic architecture for schizophrenia is starting to take shape.

…So, for example, hallucinations and delusions were associated with one set of DNA variations, that carried a 95% risk of schizophrenia. Another symptom, disorganized speech and behavior, was found to carry a 100% risk with another set of DNA.

…When it comes to schizophrenia and other complex conditions, individual genes have only a weak and inconsistent association (which is why it’s often silly to look for single-gene factors). But groups of interacting gene clusters create an extremely high and consistent risk of illness — in this case, on the order of 70% to 100%. It’s nearly impossible for people with these precise genetic variations to avoid the condition. In all, the researchers found no less than 42 clusters of genetic variations that significantly increase the risk of schizophrenia. “…What was missing was the idea that these genes don’t act independently. They work in concert to disrupt the brain’s structure and function, and that results in the illness.” ‘

As a clinical psychiatrist focusing on patients with this condition, this is a confirmation of my certainty about the heterogeneity of schizophrenia. When you try to do research on characteristics, causes, or treatment approaches to a diverse group of people sharing little beyond a diagnosis, it is no wonder that no strong conclusions emerge.

The Scent of a Conservative

Via Pacific Standard: Newly published research… finds that, to a relatively small but observable degree, people are attracted to the body odor of others who share their political ideology.That’s right: To some extent, we emit red smells or blue smells, and consciously or not, potential mates can and do notice the difference.’

Is Wine Tasting Nonsense?

3quarksdaily: Is Wine Tasting Nonsense?

Via 3quarksdaily: ‘Wine tasting has become one of the favorite playthings of the media with articles appearing periodically detailing a new study that allegedly shows wine tasters to be incompetent charlatans, arrogantly foisting their fantasies on an unsuspecting public. But these articles seldom reflect critically on their conclusions or address the question of what genuine expertise in wine tasting looks like. In fact, articles in this genre routinely misinterpret the results of these studies and seem more interested in reinforcing partly undeserved stereotypes of snobbish sommeliers…

What is puzzling about this whole debate about the objectivity of wine critics, however, is why people want objective descriptions of wine. We don’t expect scientific objectivity from art critics, literary critics, or film reviewers. The disagreements among experts in these fields are as deep as the disagreements about wine. There is no reason to think a film critic would have the same judgment about a film if viewed in a different context, in comparison with a different set of films, or after conversing about the film with other experts. Our judgments are fluid and they should be if we are to make sense of our experience. When listening to music aren’t we differently affected by a song depending upon whether we are at home, in a bar, going to the beach, listening with friends or alone? Why would wine be different? The judgment of any critic is simply a snapshot at a particular time and place of an object whose meaning can vary with context. Wine criticism cannot escape this limitation…’

Long-term Use of Anxiolytics Linked to Alzheimer’s Disease, Study Suggests

Via Psych News Alert: ‘The results, published in BMJ, showed that past use of benzodiazepines for three months or more was associated with an increased risk—up to 51%—for AD. The association increased even more with longer exposure to the anxiolytic. In addition, the use of long-acting forms of benzodiazepines increased risk for AD by 19 percent more than that of the short-acting. Results were sustained after adjusting for anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders.“Benzodiazepines are known to be associated with an increased risk of worsening cognition…even in cognitively normal elderly subjects,” said Davangere Devanand, M.D., director of the geriatric psychiatry program at Columbia University, in an interview with Psychiatric News…’

The researchers, and the reaction to the study, focused on the potential pharmacological basis for the finding. But I have a different thought. There is substantial evidence that maintaining mental agility and stimulation can ward off the development of Alzheimer’s Disease. But chronic anxiolytic medication users are generally chronically anxious and risk-averse, thus probably less prone to continue to challenge themselves mentally.

Can a Book Ever Change a Reader’s Life for the Worse?

Via ‘Each week in Bookends, two writers take on questions about the world of books. “The book that changed my life” is usually taken to mean “for the better.” This week, Leslie Jamison and Francine Prose discuss whether a book can ever transform a reader’s life for the worse.’

US officials threatened James Foley’s family with criminal charges if they raised ransom money to free him

Via Boing Boing: ‘Slain journalist James Foley’s mom says federal officials threatened the Foley family with criminal charges if they raised money to pay ransom to free him. The “devastating” message didn’t surprise her, she told ABC News, but the way it was delivered shocked her.“I was surprised there was so little compassion,” Diane Foley told ABC News today of the three separate warnings she said U.S. officials gave the family about the illegality of paying ransom to the terror group ISIS.’

An earlier death

Via Mind Hacks: ‘Journalism site The Toast has what I believe is the only first-person account of Cotard’s delusion – the belief that you’re dead – which can occur in psychosis.The article is by writer Esmé Weijun Wang who describes her own episode of psychosis and how she came to believe, and later unbelieve, that she was dead. It’s an incredibly evocative piece and historically, worth remembering.’  — Vaughan Bell

Obama is losing his battle with perpetual war

Is It Peacetime or Wartime in America? - The Atlantic

Via The Atlantic:  ‘Barack Obama delivered a bewildering speech on Wednesday. The pledge to “destroy” the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria; the deployment of U.S. troops to do just that; the flag-flanked, sober-sounding president addressing the American people behind a podium in prime-time—all appeared to amount to a declaration of war. But Obama never used the word “war” to describe his decision to launch airstrikes against ISIS and provide military assistance to regional forces fighting the extremist group. When he employed the w-word, it was to clarify what this is not. Its not “another ground war in Iraq.” Its not Afghanistan. Its a “counterterrorism campaign” to “take out ISIL wherever they exist.” Obama didn’t say how long the campaign would take, or how well know when its mission is accomplished.’

Q: If You Find Alien Life, Do You Have to Report It to the Government?

If You Find Alien Life, Do You Have to Report It to the Government? | WIRED

Via WIRED:  ‘First thing I did was call Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at SETI. He laughed and said, “You’re certainly not obligated to report it: Theres no law, theres no policy. Nobody forces you to report that any more than you’re forced to report a sighting of a ghost or a leprechaun. But if you don’t tell anybody else, its just your story. And if nobody can verify what you saw, its not that meaningful … So if you didn’t tell, it wouldn’t do much good. And if you did tell someone, it usually doesn’t do much good anyway because theres usually very thin evidence.” I took this to mean that as far as he’s concerned, it doesn’t matter what you do—because you probably didn’t see anything anyway. To me, this is an argument for keeping it to yourself: Its probably nothing.

But then I called Mufon, the Mutual UFO Network, an organization that compiles and investigates these claims. You say it this way: “Moo-FAWN.” Mufon’s communications director, Roger Marsh, was adamant: Yes, you should report it. Mufon needs you to report it. “Its hard to study UFOs,” he said. Mufon is trying to make a rigorous scientific study of extraterrestrial sightings, but their sample size is inevitably very small; they need more people to come forward out of the darkness. And the more people who do, the less ridiculed they’ll be—the less lonely they’ll feel. And the easier it will be for the next person. This is a pretty good argument for reporting what you saw: It just might be something.

But no one thinks of these encounters from the aliens point of view—the risk that creature took, to fly beyond its frontiers and reveal itself to you. Maybe it took you aboard for a quick surgical analysis. And for what? When it returns and reports to the monarchs or venture capitalists that bankrolled its voyage, what sort of deliverables will it have to impress them? Maybe mass hysteria on our part is the only way to make alien investors feel they’re getting their moneys worth.Which is to say, maybe—just maybe—reporting an alien visitation actually encourages more alien encounters. Anyway, those are the facts, as best I can puzzle them out. I lean toward reporting. But now, at least, you can make an informed decision.’

What Scottish Independence Might Mean for a Less-Great Britain

What Scottish Independence Might Mean for a Less-Great Britain - The Atlantic

The referendum is finally here, next Thursday, Sept. 18th. As a lover of Scotland, I have closely followed the issue. James Fallow, via The Atlantic, writes:  

As advertised, I don’t plan to host an open-ended forum on the merits of the Scottish independence vote. If you’d like to see the Scottish government’s white paper supporting a Yes vote, go here. If you’ve missed Paul Krugman’s economic argument against it “Spain without the sunshine”, it’s here. If you’d like to know what the term “devo max” means, you can go here. Essentially, it’s much-increased Scottish autonomy within the U.K. If you’d like an apparently serious sky-is-falling argument that the Russians will invade Scotland if it votes Yes, you can find it here. But to round out the arguments, in one omnibus update, here are reader messages from four distinct perspectives.’



Via The Washington Post:  ‘A foundation in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education is exceptional at making us more efficient or increasing speed all within set processes, but it’s not so good at growing our curiosity or imagination. Its focus is poor at sparking our creativity. It doesn’t teach us empathy or what it means to relate to others on a deep emotional level. Singapore and Japan are two great examples. “[They] are looked to as exemplar STEM nations, but as nations they suffer the ability to be perceived as creative on a global scale.” [one critic] said.

Is the United States completely misinformed and heading down the wrong track? Not entirely. Science, technology, engineering and math are great things to teach and focus on, but they can’t do the job alone. In order to prepare our students to lead the world in innovation, we need to focus on the creative thought that gives individuals that innovative edge.

To learn where that edge comes from, Michigan State University observed a group of its honors college graduates from 1990 to 1995 who majored in the STEM fields. Their research uncovered that of those students, the ones who owned businesses or filed patents had eight times the exposure to the arts as children than the general public. The researchers concluded that these results are important to note in our rebuilding of the U.S. economy. “Inventors are more likely to create high-growth, high-paying jobs in our state and that’s the kind of target we think we should be looking for”…’


Is Mindfulness Dangerous?

Via Big Think:  ‘Mindfulness is a trendy catch word, one numerous life coaches take advantage of. Genevieve Smith writes in Harpers that there are now roughly 50,000 life coaches in America. While some are trained therapists and psychologists who added the term to their business card to take advantage of a trend, many are not trained at all. When uncertified coaches encounter clients experiencing profound emotional distress or serious existential crises, they are not equipped to properly treat them. The road of mindfulness has never been about feeling good all the time. Experiencing the depths of despair and anger might very well be encountered along the way.’


America’s top 50 healthiest counties for kids

Via Maps on the Web:  ‘America’s 50 Healthiest Counties for Kids represents a national, county-level assessment of how health and environmental factors affect the well-being of children younger than 18. It highlights counties that feature, among other child-friendly data, fewer infant deaths, fewer low birth weight babies, fewer deaths from injuries, fewer teen births and fewer children in poverty.’


The Book of Miracles: Rare Medieval Illustrations of Magical Thinking

Via Brain Pickings: ‘In 1552, a curious and lavishly illustrated manuscript titled Augsburg Book of Miraculous Signs appeared in the Swabian Imperial Free City of Augsburg, then a part of the Holy Roman Empire, located in present-day Germany. It exorcised, in remarkable detail and wildly imaginative artwork, Medieval Europe’s growing obsession with signs sent from “God” — a testament to the basic human propensity for magical thinking, with which we often explain feelings and phenomena beyond the grasp of our logic. This unusual Roman manuscript was recently discovered and published for the first time as The Book of Miracles (public library) — a sumptuous box-sized trilingual tome in English, French, and German, produced in Taschen‘s typical fashion of pleasurable aesthetic bombast. Somewhere between Salvador Dalí’s illustrations of Montaigne, the weird and wonderful Codex Seraphinianus, and the visual history of Gotham’s imaginary apocalypse, the book is a singular shrine to some of the most eternal of human hopes and fears, and, above all, our immutable longing for grace, for mercy, for the miraculous.’


Fisherman Pulls Monstrous Nightmare Shrimp Out Of Ocean

Via Deadspin:  ‘This foul beast was plucked from the depths by a fisherman named Steve Bargeron, who then sent pictures to the The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission… It appears that this monster is something called a mantis shrimp, and a cursory Google search reveals that mantis shrimps are badass. Here, watch one punch this shit out of a dumb crab and then stab a fish head right through the eye…’


Mass Hysteria with an Anti-Vaccine Twist

Via The Daily Beast:  ‘Some 200 preteen and teenage girls in a Colombian village have suddenly developed symptoms, including nausea, dizziness and fatigue, without clear explanation. The rapidity of onset has raised concerns that there might be an infection going through the town or—more sinister—that it could be a reaction to a vaccine introduced to prevent human papilloma virus HPV.

Likely it is neither. In fact, the exact story has played out previously in another town—Le Roy, New York, in 2012—with the same age group and sex of the affected all girls but one, and the same vaccine just introduced. There was a call from anti-vaccine enthusiasts and others to halt the vaccine ASAP until the inconvenient fact came out that, though the vaccine was indeed being given in the town, many of the teens with the symptoms had not received it. Ah, well.

Rather than a strict medical cause, many have labeled the Le Roy problem and the current Colombia illnesses as “mass hysteria” or a “mass psychogenic illness” MPI. This diagnosis occupies a uniquely dark and uncomfortable corner of medicine. The concept of mass hysteria is rather chilling to consider. It is particularly awkward given the demographic: Almost every example is that of young girls who develop a cluster of near-identical symptoms. And, after much sturm und drang, all are diagnosed as nuts though with gentler, more clinical terms by older men who, let’s face it, are not without their own issues. ‘


The Strange History of ‘Mad Honey’

Via Modern Farmer:  ‘Visit the remote mountainside towns in Turkey’s Black Sea region during springtime and you may witness beekeepers hauling their hives upslope, until they reach vast fields of cream and magenta rhododendron flowers. Here, they unleash their bees, which pollinate the blossoms and make a kind of honey from them so potent, it’s been used as a weapon of war.

The dark, reddish, “mad honey,” known as deli bal in Turkey, contains an ingredient from rhododendron nectar called grayanotoxin — a natural neurotoxin that, even in small quantities, brings on light-headedness and sometimes, hallucinations. In the 1700s, the Black Sea region traded this potent produce with Europe, where the honey was infused with drinks to give boozers a greater high than alcohol could deliver.

When over-imbibed, however, the honey can cause low blood pressure and irregularities in the heartbeat that bring on nausea, numbness, blurred vision, fainting, potent hallucinations, seizures, and even death, in rare cases. Nowadays, cases of mad honey poisoning crop up every few years—oftentimes in travelers who have visited Turkey.’ (thanks to Boing Boing)


New species of giant dinosaur unearthed

Via  ‘A new species of gigantic dinosaur that weighed more than 59 tonnes and stretched 26 metres from head to tail has been unearthed in an Argentinian desert. And the giant plant eater, named Dreadnoughtus schrani, had not finished growing when it died between 83 million and 66 million years ago. “Dreadnoughtus schrani was astoundingly huge,” said palaeontologist Kenneth Lacovara, who discovered the fossil skeleton in southern Patagonia and led the excavation and analysis.’


New Orleans Voodoo: Before and After Hurricane Katrina

Via Pacific Standard:  ‘When Hurricane Katrina broke the levees of New Orleans and flooded 85 percent of the city, 100,000 people were left homeless. Disproportionately, these were the poor and black residents of New Orleans. This same population faced more hurdles to returning than their wealthier and whiter counterparts thanks to the effects of poverty, but also choices made by policymakers and politicians—some would say made deliberately—that reduced the black population of the city.

With them went many of the practitioners of voodoo, a faith with its origins in the merging of West African belief systems and Catholicism. At Newsweek, Stacey Anderson writes that locals claim that the voodoo community was 2,500 to 3,000 people strong before Katrina, but after that number was reduced to around 300.’