Wednesday Round Up #15


America Is Trapped in a Pandemic Spiral

Army ants will sometimes walk in circles until they die. The workers navigate by smelling the pheromone trails of workers in front of them, while laying down pheromones for others to follow. If these trails accidentally loop back on themselves, the ants are trapped. They become a thick, swirling vortex of bodies that resembles a hurricane as viewed from space. They march endlessly until they’re felled by exhaustion or dehydration. The ants can sense no picture bigger than what’s immediately ahead. They have no coordinating force to guide them to safety. They are imprisoned by a wall of their own instincts. This phenomenon is called the death spiral. I can think of no better metaphor for the United States of America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. enters the ninth month of the pandemic with more than 6.3 million confirmed cases and more than 189,000 confirmed deaths. The toll has been enormous because the country presented the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus with a smorgasbord of vulnerabilities to exploit. But the toll continues to be enormous—every day, the case count rises by around 40,000 and the death toll by around 800—because the country has consistently thought about the pandemic in the same unproductive ways.

When the World Isn’t Designed for Our Bodies

If we’re overly besotted with objects that promise assistance, maybe that’s because our default objects—the givens of the built world—can seem so incompatible with our needs. Look down. Your chair, Hendren declares, is murdering you. (The historian Galen Cranz has noted correlations between chair use and “back pain of all sorts, fatigue, varicose veins, stress, and problems with the diaphragm, circulation, digestion, and general body development.”) Yet long stretches of sitting are a societal norm. Why? Hendren invokes the chair’s historical function: in many cultures, including corporate culture, throne-like seats symbolize power and status. We may also be drawn to chairs’ animal charisma, to their torsos, bottoms, and four sturdy legs.

Regardless, Hendren argues, we could be sitting so much more comfortably if furniture makers were to attend as closely to matters of substance and sustainability as they do to matters of style. Disability activists, of course, have been making such arguments for years. One corollary of universal design—the idea that my perfect chair equals your perfect chair—states that improvements undertaken with disabled bodies in mind are likely to benefit everyone. (The telephone, for instance, emerged out of Alexander Graham Bell’s work with deaf students.)

Hendren gives universal design a hearing, but she would rather remain alert to difference. The book thus lingers over “diffuse design,” which thrives on grassroots connections. In the diffuse model, artists, guided by local desires, make bespoke modifications to a received archetype.

Think 2020′s disasters are wild? Experts see worse in future

“A year like 2020 could have been the subject of a marvelous science fiction film in 2000,” Cobb said. “Now we have to watch and digest real-time disaster after disaster after disaster, on top of a pandemic. The outlook could not be any more grim. It’s just a horrifying prospect.”

“The 2030s are going to be noticeably worse than the 2020s,” she said.

University of Michigan environment dean Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist, said that in 30 years because of the climate change already baked into the atmosphere “we’re pretty much guaranteed that we’ll have double what we have now.”

Expect stronger winds, more drought, more heavy downpours and floods, Abdalati said.

At 31, I have just weeks to live. Here’s what I want to pass on

I imagined settling down in my 30s or 40s with kids, a mortgage and so on. Or maybe I wouldn’t. Maybe my friends’ children would call me Uncle Elliot as their parents gathered in the kitchen looking slightly concerned about their single 45-year-old friend about to set off travelling around Mongolia. Either way, growing older with my mates and living my life to the full was always my ambition.

Of course, the second part of this storyline won’t be written now. It’s a shame I don’t get to see what happens. But everybody dies, and there will always be places and experiences missing from anyone’s life – the world has too much beauty and adventure for one person to see. I will miss marriage or children, blossoming careers and lives moving on. But I’m not alone in my life being cut short, and I think my time has been pretty good.

Is America in the Early Stages of Armed Insurgency?

Meanwhile, a powder keg is building. FBI background checks for gun sales hit 3.9 million in June—an all-time high. Many of them were for first-time gun buyers—by definition untrained, possibly rash in their actions. An estimated 20 million Americans carry a gun when they leave their homes. It takes just a few trigger-pullers to set off a conflagration; even in intense insurrections, such as the postwar rebellion in Iraq, only 2 percent of insurgents actually fired their weapons.

Kilcullen sees a pattern similar to the patterns that precipitated insurgencies in Colombia, Libya, and Iraq. The key factor is the rise of fear. He cites Stathis Kalyvas’ book The Logic of Violence in Civil War as observing that fear, not hate, drives the worst atrocities. “Every civil war and insurgency of the last 50 years has been driven by fear,” Kilcullen told me. Today’s politics and social tensions are dominated by three fears: fear of other social groups, fear that those other groups are encroaching on one’s territory, and fear that the state no longer has the ability to protect the people.

Things do not have to get worse. “Incipient insurgency” doesn’t mean “inevitable insurgency.” We are still in the very early phase of this rampage—a “pre-McVeigh moment,” as Kilcullen puts it. And the extent of disorder has been exaggerated, usually for political motives. When violence has occurred during protests, it has been confined to just a few blocks; it hasn’t spread throughout a city. Contrary to Trump and other Republican politicians, New York is not a “hellscape,” Portland is not “ablaze all the time,” and Chicago is not more dangerous than Afghanistan.

How to Deal With the Anxiety of Uncertainty

“Waiting periods are marked by two existentially challenging states: We don’t know what’s coming, and we can’t do much about it,” Sweeny explains. “Together, those states are a recipe for anxiety and worry. People would often rather deal with the certainty of bad news than the anxiety of remaining in limbo.”

That’s what researchers at three institutions in the UK found in a 2013 experiment, when they attached electrodes to 35 subjects and asked them to choose between receiving a sharp shock immediately or waiting for a milder one. The vast majority chose the more painful option, just to get it out of the way. “It’s counterintuitive,” admits Giles Story, one of the academics behind the study. “But it’s a testament to how anxiety-inducing and miserable it can be to have things looming in the future.”

How Scientists Discovered the Staggering Complexity of Human Evolution

From the rich assortment of fossils and artifacts recovered from around the world in the past century, however, paleoanthropologists can now reconstruct something of the timing and pattern of human evolution. The finds clearly show that this single-file scheme is no longer tenable. Evolution does not march steadily toward predetermined goals. And many hominin specimens belong not in our direct line of ancestry but on side branches of humankind—evolutionary experiments that ended in extinction.

From the outset, our defining traits evolved not in lockstep but piecemeal. Take our mode of locomotion, for example. H. sapiens is what anthropologists call an obligate biped—our bodies are built for walking on two legs on the ground. We can climb trees if we need to, but we have lost the physical adaptations that other primates have to arboreal life. Fragmentary fossils of the oldest known hominins—Sahelanthropus tchadensis from Chad, Orrorin tugenensis from Kenya and Ardipithecus kadabba from Ethiopia—show that our earliest ancestors emerged by around seven million to 5.5 million years ago. Although they are apelike in many respects. all of them exhibit characteristics associated with walking on two legs instead of four. In Sahelanthropus, for example, the hole in the base of the skull through which the spinal cord passes has a forward position suggestive of an upright posture. A bipedal gait may thus have been one of the very first traits that distinguished hominins from ancestral apes.

Excellent thread on advances in research on human evolution from a premier science writer – she highlights all the pieces she has written that provide an excellent recounting of the explosion in research over the past 20 years.

In the Animal Kingdom, the Astonishing Power of the Number Instinct

If these bacteria are in dilute water solutions (where they are alone), they make no light. But when they grow to a certain cell number of bacteria, all of them produce light simultaneously. Therefore, Vibrio fischeri can distinguish when they are alone and when they are together.

Somehow they have to communicate cell number, and it turns out they do this using a chemical language. They secrete communication molecules, and the concentration of these molecules in the water increases in proportion to the cell number. And when this molecule hits a certain amount, called a quorum, it tells the other bacteria how many neighbors there are, and all bacteria glow. This behavior is called “quorum sensing”: The bacteria vote with signaling molecules, the vote gets counted, and if a certain threshold (the quorum) is reached, every bacterium responds.

Wednesday Round Up #14

This photo in the Guardian illustrates so well the social forces, and their material approaches to society and change. The caption reads, “Protesters demanding justice for Breonna Taylor are confronted by far-right activists and self-described militia members during their march to Churchill Downs earlier Saturday.” Normally I put a photo or video to open the round up, but this time, go check out the original.

Greg already posted about the death of Graeber. But I want to also include some pieces here. David Graeber, activist scholar and public anthropologist, passed away this past week. Graeber was one of the organizing forces behind Occupy Wall Street and is credited with coining “We are the 99 percent.” He also wrote the best-selling book Debt: The First 5000 Years, and popularized the idea of “bullshit jobs.” Here are testimonials to his impact by colleagues in the New York Review of Books, David Graeber, 1961–2020.

This 2015 piece of his remains as relevant today as when he wrote it, Ferguson and the Criminalization of American Life.

The Department of Justice’s investigation of the Ferguson Police Department has scandalized the nation, and justly so. But the department’s institutional racism, while shocking, isn’t the report’s most striking revelation.

More damning is this: in a major American city, the criminal justice system perceives a large part of that city’s population not as citizens to be protected, but as potential targets for what can only be described as a shake-down operation designed to wring money out of the poorest and most vulnerable by any means they could, and that as a result, the overwhelming majority of Ferguson’s citizens had outstanding warrants.

Many will try to write off this pattern of economic exploitation as some kind of strange anomaly. In fact, it’s anything but. What the racism of Ferguson’s criminal justice system produced is simply a nightmarish caricature of something that is beginning to happen on every level of American life; something which is beginning to transform our most basic sense of who we are, and how we—or most of us, anyway—relate to the central institutions of our society, in ways that are genuinely disastrous.

Neural networks differentiate between Middle and Later Stone Age lithic assemblages in eastern Africa

The analyses above support many of the classical typological indicators of the transition: backed pieces, bipolar reduction, and blades all explicitly indicate the LSA; core tools, Levallois flakes, point technology, and scrapers all either indicate phases of the MSA or contra-indicate the LSA. Levallois blades and points did not reach statistical significance as indicators, and this may suggest the need to subsume these into a single ‘Levallois’ category in future analyses. There are also potential issues of non-independence: for example, experimental evidence suggests that bipolar reduction may be directly linked to the production of functionally microlithic tools [73,74]. The typology employed here does not distinguish between side- and end-scrapers, which some [e.g. 38] have argued to be another signature of the transition. Backed pieces, bipolar and blade technologies (especially the presence of bladelets) commonly, though not exclusively, focus on smaller tools sizes, which may indicate some interaction with a key change in size of lithic technology associated with the LSA, in contrast the role core tools can play in MSA assemblages. The typology employed does, however, demonstrate considerable power in discriminating between LSA and MSA assemblages, and in delineating changes within the MSA. By using a presence / absence classification, sample size is maximised, and maximum discriminatory power is achieved as a result.

Regardless of one’s confidence in the terms ‘LSA’ and ‘MSA’, the above analyses demonstrate that their current usage reflects a very real division in the data. The finding that LSA assemblages are indicated by the presence of backed pieces, bipolar technology, and blades, for example, could be re-written as: ‘the term ‘LSA’, as used by archaeologists working in eastern Africa, refers to an industrial complex marked by assemblages that contain backed pieces, bipolar technology, and blades’. The analyses reported above demonstrate that it is possible to distinguish between these polythetic industrial complexes as they have thus far been employed by archaeologists to describe variability in the lithic record. Had these analyses failed to find technological differences between assemblages labelled ‘LSA’ and ‘MSA’, the natural conclusion would have been that these terms are arbitrary and essentially meaningless. That the 2-way analyses achieve correct classification rates of almost 99% and pick out constellations of technologies that differ significantly in terms of probability of presence between the two industrial complexes suggests that the terms ‘LSA’ and ‘MSA’ remain highly valuable.

In summary, the analyses reported above employ neural networks to establish a total of 7 technologies that either distinguish between MSA and LSA assemblages or highlight changes within the MSA of MIS3-5 in eastern Africa; in doing so, they successfully classify over 94% of assemblages to the correct industry or period.

Oliver Burkeman’s last column: the eight secrets to a (fairly) fulfilled life
I quite liked this one. Here’s an excerpt:

The capacity to tolerate minor discomfort is a superpower. It’s shocking to realise how readily we set aside even our greatest ambitions in life, merely to avoid easily tolerable levels of unpleasantness. You already know it won’t kill you to endure the mild agitation of getting back to work on an important creative project; initiating a difficult conversation with a colleague; asking someone out; or checking your bank balance – but you can waste years in avoidance nonetheless. (This is how social media platforms flourish: by providing an instantly available, compelling place to go at the first hint of unease.)

High blood pressure and diabetes impair brain function – study

Doctors examined brain scans and medical data from 22,000 volunteers enrolled in the UK Biobank project and found significant structural changes in the grey and white matter among those with diabetes and high blood pressure.

The same individuals tended to fare worse on cognitive tests that measured their thinking speed and short-term memory, raising the possibility that the medical conditions were driving mental decline.

Why do you feel lonely? Neuroscience is starting to find answers.

“The recognition of the impact of social isolation on the rest of mental health is going to hit everyone really soon,” Tye says. “I think the impact on mental health will be pretty intense and pretty immediate.”

Yet quantifying, or even defining, loneliness is a difficult challenge. So difficult, in fact, that neuroscientists have long avoided the topic.

Loneliness, Tye says, is inherently subjective. It’s possible to spend the day completely isolated, in quiet contemplation, and feel invigorated. Or to stew in alienated misery surrounded by a crowd, in the heart of a big city, or accompanied by close friends and family. Or, to take a more contemporary example, to participate in a Zoom call with loved ones in another city and feel deeply connected—or even more lonely than when the call began.

This fuzziness might explain the curious results that came back when Tye, before publishing her first scientific paper on the neuroscience of loneliness in 2016, ran a search for other papers on the topic. Though she found studies on loneliness in the psychological literature, the number of papers that also contained the words “cells,” “neurons,” or “brain” was precisely zero.

David Graeber pushed us to imagine greater human possibilities
Another appreciation of Graeber.

There’s a section heading in a piece David published in 2018 that embodies his cheerful, insurrectionary verve: it says, simply, “Time for a re-think”. Actually it’s a collaborative work, an essay he co-wrote with his fellow anthropologist David Wengrow that is, apparently, the seed for their forthcoming book. That essay had a humorously ambitious title, “How to change the course of human history (at least, the part that’s already happened)”. It did so by questioning the conventional idea that human beings originated in egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands and then somehow fell from grace into inequality; that small is egalitarian, and big is hierarchical; and that, since we’re 8-billion big, we’re doomed. Like so much of his work, it looked at the wild variety of human societies as an invitation to … Well, as he said in The Utopia of Rules: “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.” His body of work is a series of invitations to make differently.

Wednesday Round Up #13

Octavia Butler on How (Not) to Choose Our Leaders

Again and again, Butler cautions against the blindness of choosing from a state of heightened emotion — the very blindness which political propaganda is aimed at blinkering over the eyes of the electorate with the constant stirring of our most reptilian fears:

When vision fails
Direction is lost.

When direction is lost
Purpose may be forgotten.

When purpose is forgotten
Emotion rules alone.

When emotion rules alone,
Destruction… destruction.

“Stress Hormone” Cortisol Linked to Early Toll on Thinking Ability

Working on the study “made me more stressed about not being less stressed,” Seshadri says, laughing. But, she adds, the bottom line is serious: “An important message to myself and others is that when challenges come our way, getting frustrated is very counterproductive—not just to achieving our aims but perhaps to our capacity to be productive.” …

Bruce McEwen, a neuroscientist and cortisol expert at The Rockefeller University who also was not part of the study, says he found it “frankly remarkable.” Cortisol, he notes, is necessary for life—so it is obviously not all bad. But stress can lead people to potentially problematic behaviors such as smoking, drinking and eating unhealthy food. “Cortisol is itself the tip of the iceberg of things that are going on in a person’s life and a person’s body,” he says.

The Cultural Formulation Interview: Progress to date and future directions

The Cultural Formulation Interview (CFI) developed for DSM-5 provides a way to collect information on patients’ illnessexperience, social and cultural context, help-seeking, and treatment expectations relevant to psychiatric diagnosis andassessment. This thematic issue of Transcultural Psychiatry brings together articles examining the implementation andimpact of the CFI in diverse settings.

These Scientists Just Completed a 3D ‘Google Earth’ for the Brain

Have you ever wondered: how well do those maps represent my brain? After all, no two brains are alike. And if we’re ever going to reverse-engineer the brain as a computer simulation—as Europe’s Human Brain Project is trying to do—shouldn’t we ask whose brain they’re hoping to simulate?

Enter a new kind of map: the Julich-Brain, a probabilistic map of human brains that accounts for individual differences using a computational framework. Rather than generating a static PDF of a brain map, the Julich-Brain atlas is also dynamic, in that it continuously changes to incorporate more recent brain mapping results. So far, the map has data from over 24,000 thinly sliced sections from 23 postmortem brains covering most years of adulthood at the cellular level. But the atlas can also continuously adapt to progress in mapping technologies to aid brain modeling and simulation, and link to other atlases and alternatives.

How Treating People With Brain Injuries Helped Me Forgive My Mother

“You might feel shocked the first few times you experience an inappropriate behavior,” she warned. “You’ll get used to it.”

But there wasn’t much “getting used to it” that I had to do. I had been raised by a woman who lacked inhibition, a woman who said what she felt and thought at all times, unaware of how it might make another person feel, including her children. I had survived her biggest impulsive act. I was more prepared for the job than I ever should have been.

This public US university has seen grades soar despite Covid. What’s it doing right?

A minority student from a mediocre high school and a poor family is now just as likely to cross the Georgia State graduation stage as a child of wealth and white privilege – a singular achievement. In the wake of the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis and the widespread calls for a national reckoning on race, it is also striking that Georgia State, once a segregated whites-only commuter school, boasts one of the country’s most diverse residential campuses and graduates more African Americans each year than any other university.

Wednesday Round Up #12

The Conscience of Silicon Valley

I said I was particularly interested in his most recent work, 2018’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, which is as clear and definitive an account of the damage companies like Twitter and Facebook and Google do to society and to our individual psyches as you’ll ever read. The book felt relevant again right now, I said, in a way that made my bones actually vibrate. Lanier had been early to the idea that these platforms were addictive and even harmful—that their algorithms made people feel bad, divided them against one another, and actually changed who they were, in an insidious and threatening manner. That because of this, social media was in some ways “worse than cigarettes,” as Lanier put it at one point, “in that cigarettes don’t degrade you. They kill you, but you’re still you.”

A Radical New Model of the Brain Illuminates Its Wiring

“The overwhelming amount of evidence is saying that if you want to understand brain function, symptoms, brain disease, that the fundamental unit of how the brain operates is not a brain region but a brain circuit,” says Michael Fox, associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.

Even at the level of single cells, brains show plentiful evidence of their networked character. “Neurons are not spherical—neurons have a cell body, and then they have this long tail that allows them to connect to many other cells,” Bassett says.

What If Consciousness Is Not What Drives the Human Mind?

We suggest that our personal awareness does not create, cause or choose our beliefs, feelings or perceptions. Instead, the contents of consciousness are generated “behind the scenes” by fast, efficient, non-conscious systems in our brains. All this happens without any interference from our personal awareness, which sits passively in the passenger seat while these processes occur.

Put simply, we don’t consciously choose our thoughts or our feelings – we become aware of them.

Wabi-Sabi: The Japanese Philosophy For a Perfectly Imperfect Life

Bringing wabi-sabi into your life doesn’t require money, training, or special skills. It takes a mind quiet enough to appreciate muted beauty, courage not to fear bareness, willingness to accept things as they are — without ornamentation. It depends on the ability to slow down, to shift the balance from doing to being, to appreciating rather than perfecting.

Sick But Not Sick

Excellent exploration of psychosomatic illness, diagnosis, and the art and skill of medicine

This Twist on Schrödinger’s Cat Paradox Has Major Implications for Quantum Theory

Now Tischler and her colleagues have carried out a version of the Wigner’s friend test. By combining the classic thought experiment with another quantum head-scratcher called entanglement—a phenomenon that links particles across vast distances—they have also derived a new theorem, which they claim puts the strongest constraints yet on the fundamental nature of reality. Their study, which appeared in Nature Physics on August 17, has implications for the role that consciousness might play in quantum physics—and even whether quantum theory must be replaced.

The new work is an “important step forward in the field of experimental metaphysics,” says quantum physicist Aephraim Steinberg of the University of Toronto, who was not involved in the study. “It’s the beginning of what I expect will be a huge program of research.”

Wednesday Round Up #11

What a Korean Teenage Fashion Trend Reveals About the Culture of Mask-Wearing

In 2009, you could immediately spot the cool kids at my middle school in Seoul based on a single item: face masks. The masks specifically had to be from Sakun, a Korean streetwear brand that became known for its black masks with teeth marks printed on the front. It was common all over Korea to see 15-year-olds with thick bangs and Sakun masks, only their eyes visible. The masks signaled that you were mysterious, trendy and a little intimidating—everything a middle-schooler wanted to be.

How to drive fossil fuels out of the US economy, quickly

Griffith takes a “yes, and” approach. If carbon capture sequestration works out, great. If next-gen nuclear reactors work out, great. If hydrogen-based fuels work out, great. But we shouldn’t rely on any of them until they are real. We need to figure out how to do the job with the technology available.

On that score, Griffith’s modeling reaches two key conclusions.

First, it is still possible to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions in line with a 1.5°C pathway. Specifically, it is possible to reduce US emissions 70 percent to 80 percent by 2035 (and to zero by 2050) through rapid electrification, relying on five already well-developed technologies: wind and solar power plants, rooftop solar, electric vehicles, heat pumps, and batteries.

Think of those technologies as the infrastructure of 21st century life. If everyone uses carbon-free energy to heat their homes and get around, the bulk of the problem will be solved.

Second, to decarbonize in time, substitution of clean-energy technologies for their fossil-fuel counterparts must ramp up to 100 percent as fast as possible, after a brief period of industrial mobilization. Every time a gas or diesel car is replaced, it must be replaced with an EV; every time an oil or gas furnace is replaced, it must be replaced with a heat pump; every time a coal or gas power plant goes offline, it must be replaced with renewable energy.

Rick Perlstein: ‘If you’re not writing about the berserk, you’re not writing about America’ – The historian has completed his epic on the rise of the US right – just in time for Donald Trump’s attempt to hold on to his throne

“By talking about how many electoral votes [Trump’s] trying to get in the suburbs with his law-and-order appeal, you’re kind of doing active harm to contemporary understanding. That sort of consensus frame, that things aren’t really as bad as they seem, is a story that gatekeeping media elites tell about the world, that makes them actors in the story, not merely commentators.”

A man of the left, Perlstein agrees his books are as much about the failures of liberalism and the media as the success of the right.

“The only reason we’re talking about 1968 is because Trump wants to talk about 1968. He sets the agenda by tweeting ‘law and order’ and ‘silent majority’. That’s his story.

“My shorthand is history is process, not parallels. There really can’t be a historical parallel. You can’t step in the same river twice or even once because the thing that happened in 1968 happened and we were responding to what happened. Even if there are similarities.

Researchers Doubt That Certain Mental Disorders Are Disorders At All

What if mental disorders like anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder aren’t mental disorders at all? In a compelling new paper, biological anthropologists call on the scientific community to rethink mental illness. With a thorough review of the evidence, they show good reasons to think of depression or PTSD as responses to adversity rather than chemical imbalances. And ADHD could be a way of functioning that evolved in an ancestral environment, but doesn’t match the way we live today.

People slept on comfy grass beds 200,000 years ago

Until now, the oldest bedding archaeologists had ever found came from another South African site called Sibudu, where people 77,000 years ago had piled up layers of grasslike wetland plants called sedge, mixed with assorted medicinal plants, and occasionally burned the old layers. Some modern people in parts of Africa also use plants as bedding in similar ways. The Border Cave find shows that people have been making comfy sleeping pallets out of grass for at least 200,000 years—nearly as long as there have been Homo sapiens in the world…

Wadley and her colleagues also found stone flakes and other debris from toolmaking, which means people probably also used the comfy piles of grass as a soft place to sit while working on a new stone tool. For the record, flint-knapping in bed is probably an even worse idea than eating crackers in bed, but it’s a delightfully human thing to find traces of. Grains of red and orange ocher also mingled with the bedding layers, and Wadley and her colleagues say the grains had probably rubbed off from someone’s body art.

The Cultural Distances Between Us

How do you measure cultural differences?

We apply a statistical technique used in genetics, called (FST), or the fixation index, not to a genome, but a culturome, or surveys of cultural beliefs and behaviors—in this case, the World Value Survey. So, in the genetics case, say you’re looking at the allele frequencies for eye color. If you have one population that’s entirely blue eyes and another population that’s entirely brown eyes, all of the variation between those populations is between groups. The between-group variation is equivalent to the total variation. When you divide the two, you’re going to get 1. That’s the maximum (FST), as different as any of the population can be. You could do this sort of analysis across all of the loci in a genome to figure out how genetically distant, for example, two fish populations are that live in two different ponds that, occasionally, becomes a single pond. We use the same math to look at a culturome. Instead of loci for eye color or hair type, we treat questions on the survey as loci.

What sort of traits are covered in the World Values Survey?

There’s politics, like attitudes toward democracy; social relationships, like how to raise children; religious norms and traditions; and attitudes toward sex, finances, law, environment, science and innovation, arts and creativity, sports and recreation, the media, and consumerism.

There Never Was a Real Tulip Fever

All the outlandish stories of economic ruin, of an innocent sailor thrown in prison for eating a tulip bulb, of chimney sweeps wading into the market in hopes of striking it rich—those come from propaganda pamphlets published by Dutch Calvinists worried that the tulip-propelled consumerism boom would lead to societal decay. Their insistence that such great wealth was ungodly has even stayed with us to this day.

How Cheese, Wheat and Alcohol Shaped Human Evolution

Ancient DNA shows how recent this adult lactose tolerance is, in evolutionary terms. Twenty-thousand years ago, it was non-existent. As of 2018, about one-third of all adults have tolerance.

That lightning-fast evolutionary change suggests that direct milk consumption must have provided a serious survival advantage over peoples who had to ferment dairy into yogurt or cheese. During fermentation, bacteria break down milk sugars including lactase, turning them into acids and easing digestion for those with lactose intolerance. Gone with those sugars, however, is a good chunk of the food’s caloric content.

Hawks explains why being able to digest milk would have been such a boon in the past: “You’re in a nutrition limited environment, except you have cattle, or sheep, or goats, or camels, and that gives you access to a high energy food that infants can digest but adults can’t,” he says. “What it does is allow people to get 30 percent more calories out of milk, and you don’t have the digestive issues that come from milk consumption.”

The DecanoniZine

Footnotes is very pleased to present The DecanoniZine, the final project of Theory of Culture, a core course in the Applied Anthropology graduate program at Oregon State University. The DecanoniZine follows in the steps of the Decanonizing Anthropology syllabus created by graduate students-teachers during the Theory of Culture seminar the previous year, which was adapted into a guest post on Footnotes in early 2019. The DecanoniZine syllabus reflects coursework carried out in-person, before COVID19, but the Zine form can be easily adapted for remote pedagogies. To learn more about Zines, their making, lesson plans, and access to an impressive archive, check out the “Zine Library” at Barnard College.

Wednesday Round Up #10

The Big Melt

As Serreze makes clear, the Arctic climate system is now entering uncharted territory, with the computer models no longer providing a reliable guide to the future. Will we see an ice-free North Pole in 2018? Or an ice-free Arctic just twelve years from now, in the summer of 2030? Since the US North Pole Environmental Observatory was shut down in 2015, it has been much harder to answer such questions. And the public seems apathetic. On the phone with Serreze, the veteran journalist Seth Borenstein lamented, “How many times can a journalist report on what is happening in the Arctic before it becomes so repetitive that people lose interest?”

The great Dutch writer and historian Geert Mak once told me that in 1933 the Dutch newspapers were full of stories of the threat of Nazism, yet by 1938 those same papers were all but silent on the subject. Sometimes, it seems, threats to our future become so great that we opt to ignore them. Yet if we fail to act with the utmost urgency to slow climate change, we will invite catastrophe on all humanity.

Why Are Plants Green?

Gabor and his team developed a model for the light-harvesting systems of plants and applied it to the solar spectrum measured below a canopy of leaves. Their work made it clear why what works for nanotube solar cells doesn’t work for plants: It might be highly efficient to specialize in collecting just the peak energy in green light, but that would be detrimental for plants because, when the sunlight flickered, the noise from the input signal would fluctuate too wildly for the complex to regulate the energy flow.

Instead, for a safe, steady energy output, the pigments of the photosystem had to be very finely tuned in a certain way. The pigments needed to absorb light at similar wavelengths to reduce the internal noise. But they also needed to absorb light at different rates to buffer against the external noise caused by swings in light intensity. The best light for the pigments to absorb, then, was in the steepest parts of the intensity curve for the solar spectrum — the red and blue parts of the spectrum.

How Cops Can Secretly Track Your Phone

Stingrays have been used on the ground and in the air by law enforcement for years but are highly controversial because they don’t just collect data from targeted phones; they collect data from any phone in the vicinity of a device. That data can be used to identify people — protesters, for example — and track their movements during and after demonstrations, as well as to identify others who associate with them. They also can inject spying software onto specific phones or direct the browser of a phone to a website where malware can be loaded onto it, though it’s not clear if any U.S. law enforcement agencies have used them for this purpose.

Bild, Merkel and the Culture Wars: The Inside Story of Germany’s Biggest Tabloid

There are a few non-populist positions Reichelt takes that have the appearance of principle. “He has staked out anti-Putin, pro-Nato, pro-Israel positions well beyond the standard German line,” says Niggemeier. But the majority of the paper’s content is an ever-shifting attempt to harness popular discontent rather than indoctrinate readers in any specific programme. Reichelt himself has, for instance, repeatedly come to Merkel’s defence on her decision not to close the border to Syrian refugees in 2015, describing it as an ethical “no-brainer”, but the paper goes to great lengths to associate migrants with crime, and to demand deportations.

On the environment, one day Bild might be lamenting Merkel’s call to shutter coal factories by 2038 (“The coal deadline is going to cost us!” ran a headline about the prospective job losses.) But another day you might read that “Our government officials are destroying the environment!” atop an article detailing the 200,000 yearly flights German officials take between ministries in Berlin and Bonn. Like Merkel herself, Reichelt is an arch-opportunist, congenitally averse to letting crises go to waste.

‘A failure of our system’: inside a damning take on the Great Recession

“Everybody knows the system’s rigged, everybody knows the system’s corrupt, but it’s the difference between common knowledge and specific knowledge,” said Lovell. It’s one thing to know the banks were too big to fail, that Wall Street was driven by greed, that the housing market collapse was avoidable. It’s another thing to see, over and over again, examples of false signatures on fraudulent loans drummed up to meet sales quotas, to hear testimonies of bonus policies predicated on ignoring clear red flags. To hear, time and again, how a bank perched on an air bubble of junk securities made someone hundreds of millions. To rewatch the sheen of respectability perpetuated in the Super Bowl commercials of the sub-prime pioneer AmeriQuest, which went belly up in 2007.

Lovell’s series is heavy on the detail, if low on hope for the greed-incentivized financial world’s capacity to change. “What we’ve created is a system that is an incubator and factory of deception,” said Lovell, in which it follows that you’d get a president “who’s made his entire career on deception”.

We train police to be warriors — and then send them out to be social workers

For decades, the warrior cop has been the popular image of police in America, reinforced by TV shows, movies, media, police recruitment videos, police leaders, and public officials.

This image is largely misleading. Police do fight crime, to be sure — but they are mainly called upon to be social workers, conflict mediators, traffic directors, mental health counselors, detailed report writers, neighborhood patrollers, and low-level law enforcers, sometimes all in the span of a single shift. In fact, the overwhelming majority of officers spend only a small fraction of their time responding to violent crime.

However, the institution of policing in America does not reflect that reality. We prepare police officers for a job we imagine them to have rather than the role they actually perform. Police are hired disproportionately from the military, trained in military-style academies that focus largely on the deployment of force and law, and equipped with lethal weapons at all times, and they operate within a culture that takes pride in warriorship, combat, and violence.