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“Slowly I Turned”

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I had enjoyed this Three Stooges vignette (“Niagara Falls”) from my childhood. Recently, someone pointed me to an Abbott and Costello version on YouTube. How strange, I thought; did the Stooges swipe this? Was it their homage to Abbott and Costello, which I assume came first? Come to find out that variations on this routine were a vaudeville staple, performed by many (Wikipedia). (And thanks, Bob, for sending me the related “Susquehanna Hat Company” A &;;; C clip!)

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Magnetic manipulation of the sense of morality

A chimpanzee brain at the Science Museum London

‘When making moral judgements, we rely on our ability to make inferences about the beliefs and intentions of others. With this so-called “theory of mind“, we can meaningfully interpret their behaviour, and decide whether it is right or wrong. The legal system also places great emphasis on one’s intentions: a “guilty act” only produces criminal liability when it is proven to have been performed in combination with a “guilty mind”, and this, too, depends on the ability to make reasoned moral judgements.

MIT researchers now show that this moral compass can be very easily skewed<. In a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they report that magnetic pulses which disrupt activity in a specific region of the brain’s right hemisphere can interfere with the ability to make certain types of moral judgements, so that hypothetical situations involving attempted harm are perceived to be less morally forbidden and more permissable.’ (Neurophilosophy)

Does this scare you?

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The Hutaree Militia bust

Teresa Nielsen Hayden at Making Light has a comprehensive and cogent take on the bust of the Michigan paramilitary group, for any of you as interested as I am in the extreme right. She concludes “Since I have no chance of getting called for jury duty on this case, I’m free to air my prejudices. I’m glad they busted the Hutaree. They’re not criminal masterminds, but few criminals are. These guys sound like they’re competent enough to be dangerous.”

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Monkey See

Saimiri sciureus.

Or: Is One Man’s Fix Another’s Enhancement? ‘While eight percent of human males are colorblind, all male squirrel monkeys are colorblind, so that makes them perfect guinea pigs — so to speak — to study potential solutions. The September 16, 2009 online edition of New Scientist reports that scientists from the University of Washington modified a virus to carry the missing patch of red-green-distinguishing DNA as a payload. Then they found a way to introduce this modified virus into the eyes of the male squirrel monkeys. And then… they waited. During this time, they hoped, the virus would take up happy residence and start multiplying. It took 20 weeks, but eventually the monkeys started distinguishing between red and green.

It was clever how they got the also-clever monkeys to reveal what colors they could and could not see. (It turns out male squirrel monkeys like video games! Who knew? See Resources) But the point I want to make here starts with the ability to easily introduce new strands of DNA into living, breathing creatures — which would include you and me.

Who would deny a person the richness of a glorious sunset? The vision of the world’s greatest paintings? The diversity of the Internet? The fullness of the faces of our loved ones? In this situation, science is applauded for trying to fix a capability that the great swath of the human race enjoys. But could it be viewed differently? Are we trying to “normalize” humans to a threshold of experience?

What if things were different? What if, for example, over 99% of humans were colorblind, so that there were only a handful of people in the world who could distinguish between red and green? (For starters … they’d be keeping their mouths shut. The accusation “You’re seeing things!” has special meaning here.) One could even imagine scientists trying to correct the ability to see both red and green. They would be trying to eradicate what would be generally considered an annoying problem.’ (h+ Magazine)

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A history of anti-government rage and violence

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‘The passage of President Obama's healthcare plan in the House of Representatives last Sunday has unleashed seething anger and rage from the far right. Protesters hurled racial epithets at Democratic lawmakers just before the final vote, and this week's news has been littered with unnerving instances of retribution against Democrats who voted for reform.

Sadly, this all has the ring of familiarity. The right's often hysterical resentment of Obama and what it perceives him to represent has resulted in similar episodes throughout his presidency. Think of the protesters who showed up outside his town hall meetings last summer with guns.

And rage toward a president — and toward the federal government in general — is hardly a new phenomenon. It has reared its head (sometimes even on the left) throughout American history. In this slide show, Salon looks back at some other notable episodes.’ (Salon)

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Kristallnacht, Revisited

Stock Photo of the Consitution of the United S...

Jim MacDonald writes at Making Light: ‘Today, at CNN. The story is called “House Democrats report increased threats since health care vote.”

An Alabama-based blog, called “Sipsey Street Irregulars,” says it has launched a so-called “window war” against Democrats and has kept a tally of the recent incidents of damage, including ones in New York and Kansas.

Blogger Michael B. Vanderboegh of Pinson, Alabama, said Monday that in a Friday blog, he called for people to break windows at Democratic headquarters at the city and county level. He said he didn’t call for the damages to congressional offices because, “I didn’t want to be responsible for anybody breaking a federal law.”

However, “I can understand how someone can be frustrated enough to throw a brick through a congresswoman’s window,” Vanderboegh said. He said he feels the health care bill is “unconstitutional and tyrannical.”

“My answer is violence, by getting their attention,” he said, adding, “If we can get across to the other side that they are within inches of provoking a civil war in this country, then that’s a good thing.”

Terrorism is the use of force or violence against persons or property in violation of the criminal laws of the United States for purposes of intimidation, coercion, or ransom. I do wonder what the Homeland Security folks are doing about these guys. (Probably nothing, since they aren’t named Mohammad, don’t dress funny, and aren’t brown.)

There’s another name for what the Tea Baggers are doing. I’m waiting for a group of them to get together in a beer hall to install the Permanent Republican Majority.’

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Worst lesson plan ever?

The Market Place in Evesham - from Project Gut...

Blackminster Middle School in Evesham, Worcs: “…youngsters, aged between 10 and 13, thought they were taking part in a fire drill when an alarm bell rang and they were ushered out into the playground.

But they were left in terror as a man appeared brandishing a gun and appeared to shoot dead Richard Kent, their science teacher, as he ran across a field.

Following a loud bang simulating a gunshot, other staff involved in the act rushed to the teacher’s aid and appeared to try to resuscitate him.

There was a delay of 10 minutes before weeping pupils were taken back to the assembly hall where teachers explained that the pretend shooting had been laid on as part of a science lesson.” (Telegraph.UK)

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“It’s Self-Defeating Behavior That Done Them Wrong”

100% Acrylic Art Guards by Agata Olek / Dumbo ...

“Of all human psychology, self-defeating behavior is among the most puzzling and hard to change. After all, everyone assumes that people hanker after happiness and pleasure. Have you ever heard of a self-help book on being miserable?

So what explains those men and women who repeatedly pursue a path that leads to pain and disappointment? Perhaps there is a hidden psychological reward…” (New York Times )

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An Absence of Class…

…in the G.O.P.: “Some of the images from the run-up to Sunday’s landmark health care vote in the House of Representatives should be seared into the nation’s consciousness. We are so far, in so many ways, from being a class act.” — Bob Herbert (New York Times op-ed)

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Snake oil?

Clark Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment. Before 1920.

Scientific evidence for popular health supplements depicted visually. The size of the ‘bubble’ for each supplement indicates its relative popularity, as measured by Google hits. Coloration indicates credibility of evidence. Of course, this is just the opinion of one source, but it largely parallels my own impressions from following the literature. (Information is beautiful)

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Hollywood movies follow a mathematical formula

Fat Fourier Transform

Hollywood movies have found a mathematical formula that lets them match the effects of their shots to the attention spans of their audiences.

Psychologist Professor James Cutting and his team from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, analyzed 150 high-grossing Hollywood films released from 1935 to 2005 and discovered the shot lengths in the more recent movies followed the same mathematical pattern that describes the human attention span. The pattern was derived by scientists at the University of Texas in Austin in the 1990s who studied the attention spans of subjects performing hundreds of trials. The team then converted the measurements of their attention spans into wave forms using a mathematical technique known as the Fourier transform.

They found that the magnitude of the waves increased as their frequency decreased, a pattern known as pink noise, or 1/f fluctuation, which means that attention spans of the same lengths recurred at regular intervals. The same pattern has been found by Benoit Mandelbrot (the chaos theorist) in the annual flood levels of the Nile, and has been seen by others in air turbulence, and also in music.’ Hollywood movies follow a mathematical formula.’ (phys.org via kottke)

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Team creates biggest quantum object by factor of billions

Wave functions of the first five atomic orbita...

‘Researchers have created a “quantum state” in the largest object yet.

Such states, in which an object is effectively in two places at once, have until now only been accomplished with single particles, atoms and molecules.

In this experiment, published in the journal Nature, scientists produced a quantum state in an object billions of times larger than previous tests.’ (BBC)

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It’s money that matters

Jack Whinery, homesteader, and his family, Pie...

“If you like to think of America as The Greatest Country on Earth, and you’d rather not examine its claim to that title too closely, The Spirit Level will not be your favorite new book. On nearly every one of its 250-plus pages, a stark, unflattering graph shows the USA topping the charts among developed countries for some social ailment: drug use, obesity, violence, mental illness, teenage pregnancy, illiteracy. But authors Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, a pair of British social scientists, have another, more enlightening point to make. With striking consistency, they say, the severity of social decay in different countries reflects a key difference among them: not the number of poor people or the depth of their poverty, but the size of the gap between the poorest and the richest. (Boston Globe)

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Weaponizing Mozart

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Weaponizing How Britain is using classical music as a form of social control. “Britain might not make steel anymore, or cars, or pop music worth listening to, but, boy, are we world-beaters when it comes to tyranny. And now classical music, which was once taught to young people as a way of elevating their minds and tingling their souls, is being mined for its potential as a deterrent against bad behavior.” (Reason Magazine)

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Saluting Cops with One Finger

Legal, Not Advised: ‘…[An] Oregon man is suing suburban Portland cops (.pdf) over his use of the gesture, claiming civil rights violations. Twice he flipped them off for no apparent reason while driving and was pulled over each time — resulting in what he said was a “bogus” traffic citation that was later dismissed, and a tongue lashing he still remembers.

“The guy flew into a road rage,” Robert Ekas, a retired Silicon Valley systems analyst, said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

Lawrence Wolf, a Los Angeles criminal defense attorney, said there was no law against flipping off cops. And in most instances when it leads to an arrest or conviction, the charges are dismissed. But the gesture invites police confrontation, he said.

“It’s certainly not the smartest thing one can do,” Wolf said.

American University legal scholar Ira Robbins has written a definitive paper on flipping the bird: “Digitus Impudicus: The Middle Finger and the Law.” (.pdf)…’ (Wired)

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Giant Iceberg Collision as Seen From Space

The collision in early February of the 60-mile-long B-9B iceberg with the protruding tongue of the Mertz Glacier in East Antarctica is captured here in a series of satellite radar images.

The crash created a second massive iceberg nearly 50 miles long and 25 miles wide, named C-28. The name means that it’s the 28th glacier since 1976 that has broken off from the quadrant of Antarctica that faces Australia.

The two icebergs have since drifted into a polynya, which is an area of open water that’s surrounded by sea ice but stays unfrozen for much or all of the year. The bergs are obstructing the ocean circulation created by the polynya, and could deprive local marine life of oxygen if they don’t move.

The images were taken by the synthetic-aperture-radar instrument aboard the European Space Agency’s Envisat satellite.” (Wired)

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How Big Waves Go Rogue

Freak wave. Picture taken in the Bay of Biscay...

An extra-tall wave struck a cruise ship off the Mediterranean coast of Spain this week, claiming two lives and injuring one person on board. Though the wave may not qualify as a “rogue wave,” it could have been created by the same forces.” (Wired)

World’s Biggest Recorded Tsunami

1720 feet-tall – Lituya Bay, Alaska, July 9, 1958 (geology.com). Yes, that’s 1720 feet, 1/3 of a mile high.

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24 Shakes

Title page of Shake-Speares Sonnets''

Wellesley College Tries to Read Complete Works of Shakespeare in 24-Hour Marathon. “On Friday, March 5, at 3 pm the students will launch “24 Shakes,” an all day and night literary adventure, as they read aloud all of Shakespeare’s works:14,000 lines, 154 sonnets and 39 plays. The event, which is free and open to the public, will take place in the Shakespeare House, the small Tudor cottage by the Davis Museum and Cultural Center on Wellesley’s campus.”

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Huge Garbage Patch Found in Atlantic Too

The Atlantic Ocean.

‘Billions of bits of plastic are accumulating in a massive garbage patch in the Atlantic Ocean—a lesser known cousin to the Texas-size trash vortex in the Pacific, scientists say.

“Many people have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” said Kara Lavender Law, an oceanographer at the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. “But this issue has essentially been ignored in the Atlantic.”

The newly described garbage patch sits hundreds of miles off the North American coast. Although its east-west span is unknown, the patch covers a region between 22 and 38 degrees north latitude—roughly the distance from Cuba to Virginia…’ (National Geographic)

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Republicans red-faced over fundraising on fear

Official presidential portrait of Barack Obama...

‘US Republicans drew fire this week after the disclosure of an internal fundraising memo that portrays President Barack Obama as the Batman films’ crazed killer “The Joker.”

The Republican National Committee document, first revealed by the online politics publication Politico, also describes fanning fears that Obama is a socialist as a good way to get donors to open their wallets.

“What can you sell when you do not have the White House, the House or the Senate…? Save the country from trending toward Socialism!” it declares, urging fundraisers to harness givers’ “fear” and “reactionary” sentiments.

The document, a 72-page PowerPoint presentation, says wealthy donors can also be motivated by “ego-driven” appeals, peer pressure, and “tchochkes!!!!!!!!!” — inexpensive knick-knacks often given as rewards.

On page, headlined “The Evil Empire” — a former moniker for the Soviet Union — shows an Obama poster altered to make him look like The Joker from the 2008 Batman blockbuster “The Dark Knight” with the caption “socialism.”

It also likens Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to the “Cruella” villain from Disney’s “101 Dalmatians,” who hopes to turn the films’ titular animals into a fur coat, and compares Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to the bumbling animated dog “Scooby-Doo.” ‘ (AFP).

Now this is the high-minded incisive political debate I have been looking for on the American scene!

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The Chile Earthquake Deformed The Earth And Shortened Our Days

“Megathrust quakes like Chile’s are so huge, and cause such a giant release of energy, that they change the shape of the Earth. In the case of Chile’s subduction quake, the planet became slightly denser and more compact. Mass was pulled closer to the Earth’s center as one plate was thrust under the other. And that affected the Earth’s spin. It made the planet spin slightly faster, to be precise, and shortened the length of the Earth day” (io9)

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The mystery of the silent aliens

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“Sixty years ago, space aliens were the preserve of lunatics and eccentrics, thanks to decades of sci-fi schlock, flying-saucer nonsense and Lowellian fantasies of Martian canals. Then, in 1950, came Enrico Fermi and his paradox – “Where the hell is everyone?” – and, 10 years later, the first attempts to put the search for ET on a scientific footing, courtesy of Frank Drake, who pointed a radio telescope at Tau Ceti and heard… silence.

Since then, a modestly funded programme to detect alien radio transmissions has stepped up a gear, and we have made significant astronomical discoveries pertinent to the question of alien life. Despite this, Fermi’s paradox has deepened, as the sheer size and antiquity of the universe has become increasingly apparent.

Today it is rare to meet an astronomer who doesn’t believe that the universe is teeming with life. There is a feeling in the air that light will soon be shed on some of science’s most fundamental questions: is Earth’s biosphere unique? Do other minds ponder the universe?

In April, the world will celebrate the quinquagenary of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, so it seems a good time to take stock of the silence. Three new books tackle the issue in three different ways. One, an immensely readable investigation of the SETI enterprise (with a surprising conclusion); the second, a technical guide to what we should be looking for and how; and the third, a left-field argument that the alien question has already been answered…” (New Scientist)

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Depression’s Upside

On the Threshold of Eternity

Wonderful behavioral science writer Jonah Lehrer (Proust Was a Neuroscientist) writes for the New York Times Magazine on the idea that depression may be adaptive. It is not a new idea; I have followed the intriguing literature about possible evolutionary reasons for the persistence of depression ever since I was a psychiatric resident troubled by how readily we in the field want to obliterate any signs of the condition whenever our patients present with it. Some theories have focused on the advantages of resource preservation, given the social isolation, decreased motivation and lessened self-indulgence the depressed person displays. It has also been suggested that the depressive alteration in cognition, in the direction of impaired self-esteem, decreased sense of efficacy and control over one’s circumstances, and pessimism , may actually be more realistic, at least in some circulstances, than the rose-colored glasses with which we usually walk around.

But recent research adds neuropsychological evidence of increased brain activity in depressed patient in regions of the prefrontal cortex associated with problem-solving, proportional to the degree of depression. It is certainly not the whole explanation, as critics counter, because some of the maladaptive impact of depression, including poor self-care, impairment in childrearing, increased susceptibility to other illness, and last but not least suicide, will outweigh the problem-solving advantages it might confer. Furthermore, there are many different kids of depression both in terms of precipitant and symptomatology. At one extreme, a person may become depressed in response to an acute recent loss (or even a future anticipated one); on the other hand, some people can develop either a dense acute depression or a smouldering chronic one without substantial stresses or losses. The imprecisions in both the lay person’s use of the term depression and its more technical clincal utilization muddy the waters in this regard.

Still, it is worth asking why a condition that is so painful and takes such a heavy toll would persist if it were not at least some of the time of some use… and whether, at least some of the time, we do more harm than good in leaping to treat it. Except, of course, the unequivocal good done to the pockets of the shareholders and executives of the pharmaceutical companies, reaping the profits from the explosive growth in antidepressant sales of the last few decades. (New York Times Magazine)

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The mystery billboard

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Miss me yet?

“It was late at night and I wasn't sure I'd seen the billboard correctly as I whizzed past it on I-35 in Wyoming last week on the way back from Wrenshall. But an e-mailer confirms I saw what I thought I saw.

It's beginning to sweep along the Internet, accompanied by various claims that it's a Photoshop fake. But it's not. It's real.

There's no billboard ownership plate on this particular billboard, making tracing the person who had the cash to post it difficult to find. It's time to crowdsource this puppy.” (Minnesota Public Radio)

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Carl And Ann’s Ultimate Mix Tape Of The Human Experience

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‘…[H]ow do you decide what to put on the ultimate mix tape of the human experience? What do you do if you have one shot at describing humanity to an unknown life form? That was the charge of Carl Sagan — astronomer, astrophysicist and famed popularizer of science. Of course, Sagan had a lot of help, including the creative director of the project, Ann Druyan.

“It was a chance to tell something of what life on Earth was like to beings of perhaps 1,000 million years from now,” Druyan says. “If that didn't raise goose bumps, then you'd have to be made out of wood.”

For Druyan, though, the summer of 1977 and the Voyager project carry a deeply personal meaning, too. It was during the Voyager project that she and Sagan fell in love.’ (Radiolab: NPR).