Friday, December 30, 2005

Science: Still Not Getting Any Respect

Did you know that an exhibit on Charles Darwin at the American Museum of Natural History hasn't been able find a corporate sponsor? London's Daily Telegraph suggests its “because American companies are anxious not to take sides in the heated debate between scientists and fundamentalist Christians over the theory of evolution.” Come on Microsoft, step up to the plate here! Without sponsorship, the museum will have to depend on the sale of Darwin-related paraphernalia, including, I kid you not, Darwin finger puppets (too late for my Christmas wish list!).

You might want to check out the podcast (not a direct link unfortunately). They also interviewed one of my personal heroes this afternoon: Oliver Sacks.

Speaking of NPR and science, I'm looking forward to this coming Monday's installment of "This I Believe," which I always find engaging. This time round we'll here from Alan Lightman, author of Einstein's Dreams and Good Benito. If you'll indulge me a moment, I'll share a story about why the former book is so special to me.

In May of 1995, I graduated with a Master's degree from Bob Jones University (yes, that BJU), a school known for its fundamentalist Christian bent. Evolution was not taught in the science classes there, except briefly to dismiss it and to endorse the Biblical seven-day creation. However, by the time I graduated, I had effectively parted ways with the university intellectually (how that happened and why I stayed there is a story best told over a few beers), and I have little in common with the institution any more. Well, on the day of graduation, I slipped a copy of Lightman's Einstein's Dreams up the sleeve of my gown and took it through the entire ceremony with me. I believe I even had it in my hand when I went up the stage in front of several thousand people, took my diploma and shook Dr. Bob Jones III's hand. I took the book for a couple of reasons: one, to entertain myself should the proceedings grow a little dull, and two, as a metaphor (known only to myself) for the new intellectual path I'd be taking upon leaving the institution (something by Bertrand Russell would've been, um, harsh).

So I look forward to hearing what Lightman has to say on Monday morning. It'll be a welcome reminder of a conscious path I took just over a decade ago.

A couple of meaningful related quotes:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. - Charles Darwin

I maintain there is much more wonder in science than in pseudoscience. And in addition, to whatever measure this term has any meaning, science has the additional virtue, and it is not an inconsiderable one, of being true. - Carl Sagan
(Crossposted over at Saheli's since she's gadding about India!)

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Most Depressing Xmas Song Ever

I would say that Same Old Lang Syne by Dan Fogelberg is hands down the most utterly depressing "Christmas song" ever written, wouldn't you?

I mean, people have been hospitalized after listening to this song. I mean happy, successful people have reached for a razor blade.

Joni Mitchell's "River" comes a close second, but it benefits from being painfully beautiful as well.

And I generally like the more melancholy Christmas songs--"In the Bleak Midwinter" may be my favorite carol (if I have to have one!)--but when you hear that Fogelberg song on the radio or (worse considering the lyrics) in the grocery store this time of year, it's like, turn it off! Please, for the love of god, turn it off. Maybe he should've set it during Halloween instead.

But here's the thing: whenever it comes on, despite its really borderline cheesiness on top of the whole depressing thing, I am compelled, compelled to listen to it. I can't switch it off.

And it will get stuck in your head. That part where he keens, "We drank a toast to innocence / we drank a toast to time." Well, there you go. Sorry.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Man of the Year

Too bad Time already awarded its "Person of the Year." I'd vote for Judge John E. Jones III for "Man of the Year." Well, how about U.S. Man of the Year anyway, since this issue is a complete non-issue in many other countries. Judge Jones was appointed by President Bush to his position in 2002. Bloomberg has a good high-level rundown of his landmark decision against Intelligent Design.

So, a spectacular victory for science today. Hooray!

No Doubt

Doubt is easy when it's not a matter of survival: We are as skeptical as we can afford to be, and it is easiest to be skeptical about things that do not fundamentally sustain us.

- from On Love by Alain de Botton
Skimming through this book again and I came across this quote, which I think rings so true. De Botton was talking about love, but from my experience, the principle applies well to the beliefs we're brought up with, those ideas we've steeped in since birth. It's sometimes easier to hang onto those, rather than shift the psychological weight it would take to alter those beliefs. Our doubts are often repressed, I think, but the immensity of the potential ramifications of exploring those doubts. Some part of us knows not to "go there" because changing our mind on a particular subject could ostracize us from people we're close to or force uncomfortable changes in our lives. I think this explains why progress in human understanding comes so slowly.

Tangetially, I reviewed this book ages ago on Amazon and was pleasantly surprised to review a kind and self-deprecating email from the author out of the blue, thanking me for my thoughts. One of the wonderful things about the Internet, they way we're truly "hitched to everything."

Another great thought on love I came across recently:
The absolute value of love makes life worth while and so makes Man's strange and difficult situation acceptable. Love cannot save life from death; but it can fulfill life's purpose.

- Arnold Toynbee, "Why and how I work," 1969
As adults, we encounter a lot of cynicism about love and we even learn to speak about it with a degree of embarrassment; but the older I get, the more I'm convinced of the importance of not growing cynical about love, but of better understanding it. So much of what is described as love seems so unhealthy, and perhaps that's why people have grown so cynical about it. So, instead of redefining love in healthy, productive, nurturing terms, many of us simply retreat to our corners, commit ourselves to lives of isolation (even within a relationship), and resort to describing the opposite gender (or humans in general) with the worst sort of stereotypes. I can't help but think that these tendencies play out into all sorts of societal problems, the roots of which people are often fond of politicizing.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Persons of the Year

Time's Person of the Year Cover, 2005

Why is Melinda Gates consigned to the right of the cover--almost crowded out of it? If she and her husband are both truly being awarded, why aren't they equally represented? And why is Bono wedged between them? Just because he's more famous? Picture says a thousand words, eh?

(Via CNN)

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Lagging Behind in the Gay Rights Race

Ever superlative on gay marriage, Andrew Sullivan notes the following:
In Britain, where "Virtually Normal" was published a decade ago, I faced derision from some in the gay community at the time for arguing that marriage was the central front in the battle for gay equality. It never occurred to me to believe that within ten years, we would have won. If I had stayed there, I'd be a fully equal citizen by now. Which prompts an interesting question: how many American immigrants in the past have actually had to give up liberty in order to come to this country? Welcome to the future.
Similarly, South Africa legalized gay marriage within the past week. South Africa. Where apartheid was the norm just over a decade ago.

We're seeing progress in the United States, of course, even as some states insist on besmirching their respective constitutions, but it is ironic that gay people may want to consider leaving the United States to enjoy what are essentially human rights in braver, freer nations.

Tangentially, if you're perturbed by Ford's decision to pull their advertising from GLBT media, consider forwarding this very level-headed email the Human Rights Campaign has created, simply asking the Ford Company to clarify their new position and to disavow the American Family Association's claim that they influenced the motor company.

Problems With Authority

Fast Company has this fun slideshow of 9 bosses you're lucky you don't work for, including David Brent, Tony Soprano, and Montgomery Burns.

On Dr. Evil:
Distinction: Sacked his No. 2 for not sticking to company goals and over-diversifying portfolio (evil real estate, evil corporations, etc.).

Redeeming quality: Bold vision. Ran large organization with frequent openings.

Quote: "Why must I be surrounded by frickin' idiots?"

Sunday, December 04, 2005

All Lobotomies All the Time

Here's a fascinating and rathering sobering nugget of information: Did you know that in 1936, the Nobel committee awarded Portuguese neurologist Egas Moniz the prize in physiology/medicine for inventing the frontal lobotomy (or prefrontal leucotomy).

Over at the Nobel site, Bengt Jansson curtly entertains the question of whether or not Moniz deserved to win a Nobel, but quickly determines that there's "no doubt" he did, if not for his rather barbaric invasive surgery (my words), then for his practice of injecting iodine into the brain (cerebral angiography), "which made it possible to diagnose tumors and vascular deformities."

Having said that, at the time, as this PBS report points out, Moniz was awarded the Nobel after the number of lobotomies in the United States took off--jumpstarted by the afore-mentioned Mr. Freeman--"from 100 in 1946 to 5,000 in 1949." Moniz got his Nobel in, ahem, 1949.

So, although I know the Nobels are often awarded for a body of work, even if they are attributed to particular discovery or novel, the Nobel folks do appear to be rewriting history a little.

It was the development of Thorazine in the early 50s that eventually drove the number of lobotomies down. Of course, Thorazine had its own problems. It produced effects that sometimes mimicked Parkinsons. But that effect leads to further discoveries about dopamine and brain function.

So . . . progress sure is ugly sometimes, ain't it? I think the important thing to consider is that the truly scientific evidence that lobotomies were successful appears always to have been scant. What one person perceives as "improvement," another might consider a stripping away of the patient's very identity or "soul," if you prefer.

Aside: I learned about Moniz from the Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality, an engaging lecture series of Robert Sapolsky, Professor of Nueroscience at Stanford--one of The Teaching Company's excellent Great Courses series, which I cannot recommend enough. No, I'm not getting paid by them to say all this stuff. It's just that buying a set of these lectures--at just about 50 bucks for 24 lectures--is like sitting through an entire semester's lecture series at Stanford. Just wish I got the college credit for it, too!

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Don't Bomb Us

Recently I mentioned Josh Rushing's decision to join Al Jazeera International, which must've pushed Donald Rumsfeld into full Strangelove mode. Well, today there's a perfect storm of Al Jazeera news.

First, word that none other than David Frost is joining the network, and former Nightline correspondent Dave Marash is apparently considering a job there, too. Even Ted Koppel is said to have met with Al Jazeera, though he apparently won't be working there.

Then Kevin Drum also directs us to this new blog by Al Jazeera employees, Don't Bomb Us, whose title is an allusion to the recent rumor that George Bush ordered an air strike on the network's Qatar offices.

Five things the Don't Bomb Us crew want us to know:
1. Al Jazeera was the first Arab station to ever broadcast interviews with Israeli officials.

2. Al Jazeera has never broadcast a beheading.

3. George W. Bush has recieved approximately 500 hours of airtime, while Bin Laden has received about 5 hours of airtime.

4. Over 50 million people across the world watch Al Jazeera.

5. The Al Jazeera websites are (Arabic) and (English)., and all other variations have nothing to do with us.
As anyone who's seen Jehane Noujaim's superlative documentary Control Room would know, there's more to Al Jazeera than the current U.S. administration would have us believe. Hopefully, this new international branch of the network, it's American bureau located on K Street in our own capital, will help more Americans to see there's much more to the Arab world in general than they've been lead to believe.

Of course, the onus is on the individual to learn, too, and I've been stunned to hear some of the things people believe about Islam and the Arab world over the past few years. Traveling to Morocco last year helped me dismantle some stereotypes about Islam I'd unwittingly held, though I know there's plenty more I could learn.

Related then: here's an page which focuses on some common myths people have about Islam. Not a particularly exhautive resource, so if you know of a better one, feel free to mention it in the comments.