Sunday, August 07, 2011
Friday, July 15, 2011
Monday, July 04, 2011
by Zoë Pollock
The Big Bang merely separated out a uniform state of chargelessness into many individual instances of charge, positive and negative. The same goes for matter and energy generally: the total amount of matter and energy in the universe seems to be balanced out by huge amounts of "dark matter" and "dark energy," which express themselves in terms of gravitational attraction. The Big Bang didn't create all that energy, as such. Instead, it seems to have turned an initial Nothingness into a "much more interesting and potent" Nothingness -- a "Nothing that has been separated into opposites to give, thereby, the appearance of something."
The main point is that the Big Bang doesn't mark, necessarily, the creation of something out of nothing. If that happened at all -- and it may be, Atkins points out, that there was has never been absolutely Nothing, in a total sense -- then it probably happened further back in the pre-cosmological past. Instead, it marks the emergence of texture, differentiation, and particularity out of even, unchanging featurelessness.
(Video: Timelapse from the Atacama Desert, in Chile, that has been digitally rotated so that the stars stay steady while the earth rotates, via NASA.)
Friday, July 01, 2011
Part of the logic behind insurance is that it's a risk pool; none of us knows when we're gonna go, so we agree to split the costs. But genetic profiling may increasingly give each of us our own set of pre-existing conditions, good or bad. And that may test people's willingness to chip in for the health costs of their fellow-citizens. When "it coulda been me" turns into "nope, it couldn't", we may start seeing...hm, I was about to say "a breakdown in social solidarity", but then I remembered we're talking about America here. How about "even less willingness to do anything for people who aren't as lucky as you are."
Thursday, June 30, 2011
Wednesday, June 29, 2011
By Matthew Cameron
Yesterday’s Brookings Institution event “PhDs, Policies and Patents” focused on ways the government can invest in research and technology that will spur innovation and lead to long-term economic growth. Although much of the discussion had to do with biomedical advancements and infrastructure development, the lessons from the conference relate to higher education as well. Specifically, there is tremendous potential to use online technology to lower the skyrocketing cost of college attendance. This is necessary because expanding access to higher education is a surefire way to boost innovation and the nation’s economic prospects – individuals who graduate from college conduct more research, develop more technologies, and earn higher incomes than non-degree holders.
Unfortunately, a combination of skewed incentives, backwards priorities and traditionalist mindsets make this a difficult objective to achieve. Universities have little reason to cut costs because their reputations directly benefit from higher per student academic spending. So even if a school achieves cost savings without sacrificing quality – say, by replacing large, intro-level lectures with online courses – it will be regarded as less prestigious by many ranking methodologies. Public colleges face an additional problem. State support for higher education has declined steadily during the past few decades, and recent budget crises have exacerbated this trend. This means that if public schools save money by embracing online courses, state legislatures likely will view it as an opportunity to further reduce their appropriations to higher education. This means the benefits of cost savings would not accrue to students through reduced tuition but rather to state governments that could avoid raising taxes or cutting other services. Finally, university faculty view online technology as a threat to their role at the heart of the higher education system. This was evident during an exchange between George Mason University Prof. Tyler Cowen and Stanford University Prof. Tim Bresnahan at yesterday’s conference. When Cowen raised the possibility of universities employing fewer professors once online courses are widespread, Bresnahan responded defensively by asserting that he does more than just teach.
Obviously, Bresnahan has a point – the specialized expertise and personalized guidance that professors can convey to students in higher-level college courses truly is indispensible. For entry-level lectures with hundreds of students, however, faculty members often don’t do much more than teach. They don’t grade papers, they don’t meet their students and they aren’t able to delve into the finer details of the subjects they teach. These classes aren’t just a waste of students’ money, however; they’re also a drain on professors’ time. If they were freed from their obligation to teach such classes, professors would be able to devote more effort toward their niche in the higher education system – stimulating students’ intellectual curiosity through personal interactions and engaging learning experiences.
All of which is to say the problem the U.S. faces today isn’t how to make higher education more affordable. Rather, it’s convincing various groups that doing so will benefit them.
Tuesday, June 28, 2011
A reader writes:
It seems to me that the debate between spiritualist and scientific interpretations of the psilocybin experience depends on a false alternative. It's true that a scientific perspective rules out witnessing supernatural facts. But that's not the same as ruling out witnessing spiritual facts, at least not in the sense that most people mean by the word "spiritual".
It is entirely compatible with what science has revealed about the world that human individuals bear a profound kinship to other parts of the universe, a kinship that ought to have tremendous value. The common misconception that science - unlike the Medieval world-view it replaced - implies our alienation from the world - our being strangers in a valueless world indifferent to our fates - ignores what science has shown. Darwin's theory, for example, shows the profound connections that all creatures, including human beings, bear to each other. We learn about our own bodies by studying the genes of house flies!
If contemporary science is right, we are parts of the universe in a more profound way than most religious traditions have ever suspected. Furthermore, we play a very special role in the universe: we (as well as other sapient species, if there are any) are the universe becoming conscious of itself - matter coming to the realization of its own existence, both the fact of it and its nature.
The realization of our connectedness with and kinship to everything is a deeply spiritual one. If anything should be valued (and valuing is a non-negotiable part of human experience), then this reflexive awareness that, through our existence, the universe has of its own beauty, power, and complexity, should be. The valuing of this profound fact is as spiritual an experience as I can think of.
Of course, it's not the same kind of spirituality as many mainstream religions offer. It's true that it eliminates the notion of a personal God, separate from the universe, with an interest in the fates of each and everyone of us. But the alternative it offers is still profoundly spiritual. As one of your other commentators noted, the idea that our existence is fleeting makes each moment precious and irreplaceable. Each human individual is a unique manifestation of the universe's growing awareness of itself. I certainly find this thought awesomely spiritual. And psilocybin experiences give individuals the direct experience of such facts. One looks at a tree, and one feels at home with it, part of the same enterprise, in some sense.
This is exactly what science teaches. But psilocybin enables one to experience such facts directly - thus its spiritual value. It is one thing to theoretically appreciate a natural phenomenon - say a supernova - and another to experience it directly through instruments, like telescopes. I think psilocybin is an instrument that enables us to experience directly facts that science has long appreciated theoretically: that we are profoundly at home in this universe, and have a special role in it - that of constituting its growing awareness of itself.
This may be a kind of Spinozistic pantheism enhanced with a Hegelian conceptualization of the human role in it. So it's not the kind of spirituality preached by most religions. But it is a kind of spirituality consistent with science, that makes clear why the human experience of and connection to nature is of paramount value. It is this spiritual insight that the psilocybin experience can reveal in a uniquely direct way.
But what if the universe being conscious of itself is a workable definition of God? In which case, we are indeed made in the image of God but our consciousness is limited by our humanity, by the "fall". I find far less conflict between these spiritual experiences and the religions that feel threatened by them than others do.
Sunday, June 26, 2011
Saturday, June 25, 2011
Thursday, June 23, 2011
Adam Frank believes we are witnessing the advent of the Anthropocene, a unique geological age where human activity, not natural processes, is the principal driver of planetary change:
The first point to absorb is that there are no politics in the designation. It is neither a value judgment nor a critique. Instead, it is simply a recognition that human activity has now come to be the most significant ... [force] driving the various interlocking systems that define the current "state" of the planet. Scientists digging through sediments millions of years from now should easily be able to identify the transition from the Holocene to the Anthropocene. From the fossilized remains of our cities to changes in the carbonate content in sea-floor sedimentation, the Anthropocene may appear as clearly to future scientists as the Cretaceous appears to us.
The Economist did a feature on this last month.
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
Monday, June 20, 2011
Richard C. Francis' Epigenetics: How a new field has changed the way we think about genes. - By Christine Kenneally - Slate Magazine
Saturday, June 18, 2011
Thursday, June 16, 2011
David Leonhardt makes the case for targeted payroll tax cuts
In my column Wednesday morning, I argued for a similar approach for a new payroll-tax cut for businesses. Rather than giving a tax cut to all businesses, as the White House seems to be mulling (though the details are unclear), a targeted tax cut would reward only those business that added to their payroll. This approach does less to increase the deficit and yet could do more to promote hiring.
I have to take a fairly strong stand against this type of thinking. While targeting sounds very savvy I think in practice it’s a bad idea. One its just hard to pull off neatly. We are driving a freight train here not a Maserati. No dicing through the orange cones.
Moreover, the point of the stimulus isn’t simply to pull hiring forward, though that’s not a bad outcome. It is to lesson the constraints on business and to get cash flowing in the economy.
Right now the government can borrow money at less than the rate of inflation. That means free in real terms. It can give that money to business who may or may not be cash strapped. If they are then this opens up new opportunities for them in a dramatic way.
If the businesses are not cash strapped then in the absolute worse case they simply hoard the cash and its no harm, no foul. Remember we are paying less than the rate of inflation to borrow. Perhaps, however, they will find a useful investment for it, which means the total return in the economy goes up.
The government borrows money for free, gives it to businesses who then invest it with some positive rate of return. That’s good.
Lastly, it also lowers the cost of labor. That’s good because it mimics painful wage declines that would be needed to clear the labor market. Rather than waiting for slow moving inflation to drive down real wage rates, we can drive them down right now with a business side payroll tax cut.
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Wednesday, June 15, 2011
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
I think I want to add a clarification to this formula: "texting while male and horny." This implies that more younger men would be texting their pecs/biceps/member than older ones because testosterone declines with age; but that no one would be free from temptation or from giving into it. The horned up male mind is not something to be trifled with, and it is not, pace some feminists and prudes, a sickness, although it may be a curse. James Taranto:
The idea that Weiner has a medical problem is ludicrous. Indisputably, his behavior was sleazy and foolish. It turned out to be self-destructive too, but only because it was publicly exposed. Had he been more technically savvy, it's quite possible that he could have covered his tracks and never put his career in jeopardy.
On what basis does one posit that there is "something deeper going on"? To explain what motivated his actions, it is sufficient to observe that he seems to have a healthy male libido--indeed, perhaps a bit too healthy. Of course, "I'm sick" is just the latest in a string of Weiner excuses: "I was hacked," "I take full responsibility," etc. But it is also an example of his feminist hypocrisy. It is as if a family-values conservative were caught in gay sex chats and announced that he was entering therapy to overcome his "sick" homosexual impulses.
Here's some evidence from a big Pew survey that what Weiner was doing is increasingly the norm:
Nearly one-third of 18 - 29 year-olds say they have received sexually suggestive or nude photos of someone they know, and 13 percent say they have sent them, the report said. Even among 30-to-49-year-olds, 17 percent say they have received such photos and 5 percent admit sending them. Similar Pew research finds that the comparable figures among adolescents are 15 percent and 4 percent...
Slight shifts in infidelity rates among young people and women suggest that digital media may be playing a role. Anecdotally, therapists report that electronic contact via Facebook, e-mail and text messages has allowed women in particular to form more intimate relationships.
“There’s no question that the Internet has increased the availability of alternative romantic partners, whether it’s flirtation, reuniting with old lovers or having texting sexual relationships,” Dr. Baym said. “The Internet dramatically expands the scope of potential people that we can meet.”
Of course it does. If it has transformed journalism, stock-picking, porn, and even Arab dictatorships, do we really think our sex lives would remain untouched? In fact, of course, the Internet was partly founded and driven by sexual desire and the anonymity the web fosters. It was pioneered by porn. It has altered gay culture beyond recognition. I think it's worth assuming that these numbers are low estimates, given the private nature of the activity involved, the stigma surrounding it, and the discrepance between giving and receiving sex pics.
The key thing: this may not be appropriate for a congressman, but it isn't a fringe activity, it isn't a crime, and it may often lead to no sex whatever.
It's the coming affluent society. It integrates cohesively with the sociocultural elite that have traditionally been the opinion makers.
It will be the crucial cultural touchpoint going forward.
We are all mutants: First direct whole-genome measure of human mutation predicts 60 new mutations in each of us
Saturday, April 16, 2011
Saturday, April 09, 2011
Wednesday, April 06, 2011
Mangroves among the most carbon-rich forests in the tropics; Coastal trees key to lowering greenhouse gases
Sunday, February 06, 2011
Eric Dishman: Take health care off the mainframe | Video on TED.com
Sunday, January 23, 2011
One of the most interesting findings from the happiness research literature is that human beings are remarkably good at adapting to all kinds of misfortunes. Chronic pain, however, is an exception. People either get effective treatment for their pain, or else they’re miserable. Adaptation is fairly minimum. The upshot is that from a real human welfare perspective, we ought to put a lot of weight on making sure that people with chronic pain get the best treatment possible. Minimizing addiction is a fine public policy goal, but the priority should be on making sure that people with legitimate needs can get medicine.This is definitely a problem for those of us trying to live EVERYDAY with chronic conditions. And the psychological battle of fighting pain leaves little reserve to battle the condition. Those people with true painful conditions will rarely get addicted, mainly because the pain medicine simply gets them back to "normal," not to some high.
Jeremy Allaire of Brightcove, on Shaping a Firm’s DNA - NYTimes.com: "- Sent using Google Toolbar"