“THE EARLY BIRD GETS THE WORM, but the second mouse gets the cheese.” Different circumstances present different risks and opportunities, and in this brave new world of psychobiology and genetics, how and why we respond to any specific circumstance seems to be increasingly explained by what’s in our genes rather than what kind of diapers we wore growing up. In other words, nature seems to be edging out nurture as the chief culprit for shaping our behavior and identities. But, of course, the whole story is a little more complicated than that. Steven Pinker talks about the somewhat muddled implications of getting to know your genome in his New York Times Magazine article “My Genome, My Self”. Mapping our individuality through our genes at first seems like a straightforward proposition (i.e. this gene makes you fat, this one makes you good at math). But the endeavor quickly becomes a rabbit hole that leads you from piece to piece to piece – all of which refuse to neatly add up and explain a concept like intelligence, let alone demystifying what makes you you:
The search for I.Q. genes calls to mind the cartoon in which a scientist with a smoldering test tube asks a colleague, “What’s the opposite of Eureka?”
MAN ALLEGEDLY ASSAULTS GIRLFRIEND WITH BURGER, as reported by the Onion. Sorry, I mean, the New York Times.
LET’S WIN ONE FOR THE GIPPER — er, I mean, the black dude! Salon takes a peek at the wacky world of “Racists for Obama” – just a little light reading to distract you on the day the nation attempts to save its soul:
Sean Quinn, of the polling site FiveThirtyEight, respected for its obsessiveness and eerie prescience, recently posted a hair-raising story about a pair of Barack Obama supporters. Quinn seems ready to verify its source, but only after the election. At any rate, it goes like this: A man canvassing for Obama in western Pennsylvania asks a housewife which candidate she intends to vote for. She yells to her husband to find out. From the interior of the house, he calls back, “We’re voting for the nigger!” At which point the housewife turns to the canvasser and calmly repeats her husband’s declaration.
Ah, racism. It’s always a step ahead of us. Even before the majority of Democrats decided that Obama was electable despite being the first openly black presidential candidate, pollsters began gradually raising the level of speculation about the tide of bigotry that might overwhelm white voters once they got into that private little booth and faced the prospect of pulling a lever that suddenly seemed to read “Some Black Dude”. . . .
TOM WAITS INTERVIEWS HIMSELF, which is predictably a bit self-involved, but at least it’s more interesting than your usual music magazine article.
Q: What’s wrong with the world?
A: We are buried beneath the weight of information, which is being confused with knowledge; quantity is being confused with abundance and wealth with happiness. Leona Helmsley’s dog made $12 million last year . . . and Dean McLaine, a farmer in Ohio, made $30,000. It’s just a gigantic version of the madness that grows in every one of our brains. We are monkeys with money and guns.
A COUPLE OF OLD GUYS SUBDUE A CRAZY PASSENGER on a Northwest Airlines flight while all the young dudes on the plane basically acted like weenies and “averted their eyes” to avoid involvement in the coming confrontation. Both of the old guys who stepped up are retired badasses — one is a former police commander, the other is a former marine captain. The best part though is how the wife of one of the geezer’s reacted:
Hayden’s wife of 42 years, Katie, who was also on the flight, was less impressed. Even as her husband struggled with the agitated passenger, she barely looked up from “The Richest Man in Babylon,” the book she was reading.
“The woman sitting in front of us was very upset and asked me how I could just sit there reading,” Katie Hayden said. “Bob’s been shot at. He’s been stabbed. He’s taken knives away. He knows how to handle those situations. I figured he would go up there and step on somebody’s neck, and that would be the end of it. I knew how that situation would end. I didn’t know how the book would end.”
Clearly, all the excitement is gone from this marriage. I mean, what’s a guy got to do to impress a lady these days?
WHEN HUMAN AND APE GO TO WAR, it’s good to know that the pigeons will be on our side – whether they like it or not.
Scientists in eastern China have successfully experimented with brain-motor skill manipulation in pigeons to “force the bird to comply with their commands.” Micro electrodes have been planted into the brains of these pigeons to control their movement left, right, up, and down during flight.
Beware of bombs, Koko!
NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING and just to prove it, Wired’s made a list of 40 big unanswered questions of the universe. This one’s my favorite because even if you answer it, it’s still bewildering and bad:
How do entangled particles communicate?
One of the zanier notions in the plenty zany world of quantum mechanics is that a pair of subatomic particles can sometimes become “entangled.” This means the fate of one instantly affects the other, no matter how far apart they are. It’s such a bizarre phenomenon that Einstein dissed the idea in the 1930s as “spooky action at a distance,” saying it showed that the developing model of the atomic world needed rethinking.
But it turns out that the universe is spooky after all. In 1997, scientists separated a pair of entangled photons by shooting them through fiber-optic cables to two villages 6 miles apart. Tipping one into a particular quantum state forced the other into the opposite state less than five-trillionths of a second later, or nearly 7 million times faster than light could travel between the two. Of course, according to relativity, nothing travels faster than the speed of light – not even information between particles.
Even the best theories to explain how entanglement gets around this problem seem preposterous. One, for example, speculates that signals are shot back through time. Ultimately, the answer is bound to be unnerving: According to a famous doctrine called Bell’s Inequality, for entanglement to square with relativity, either we have no free will or reality is an illusion. Some choice.
The other fun and disturbing thing you realize as you read the other articles is how often scientists use giant particle smashing machines called super colliders to test their theories — and that smashing particles in giant machines could possibly result in creating a black hole that sucks us all up into oblivion. Crazy scientists.
THE PERILS OF CELEBRITY ACTIVISM IN CHINA are revealed in this article about Yao Ming trying to dissuade Chinese from eating shark fin soup. (Apparently, shark fin soup is bad for sharks.) All very noble, indeed. But be careful not to offend Chinese tradition too much or you might end up like this poor girl:
And when Zhao Wei, a popular singer, donned a Japanese military flag for a fashion shoot — disrespecting not just government policy but perhaps the sensibilities of Chinese still angry over the war with Japan — her career began to fizzle. At a concert, she was tackled by a construction worker who said his grandparents had been killed during the war. He smeared her face with feces.
Old grudges are hard to give up, I suppose. Also, more evidence that the Chinese only hurry at change as long as change means more moolah. And more moolah means more shark fin soup, naturally.
WHY WE SUCK is well-stated in Robert Wright’s review of books on anti-Americanism. This bit pretty much sums up why we can’t all get along, whether we’re talking about conflicts of nationality, race, class, gender, sexuality, age, weight, baseball teams, or even musical preferences:
In other words: We’re not obnoxiously evangelistic, just obnoxiously self-involved. So even if Bush doesn’t reflect the real America, and is replaced by someone who does, we’ll still be in trouble. At least, we’ll be in trouble if much of the problem is indeed, as Sweig argues, the longstanding “near inability of the United States to see its power from the perspective of the powerless.” Changing that will require not a leader worthy of the people, but a leader willing to lead the people.
Sweig complains that “Americans think of themselves as kings and queens of the world’s prom.” But, actually, we can’t escape that role, at least for now. In wealth and power we are No. 1. The question is whether we’ll be the typical prom king or queen — resented by most at the bottom of the social hierarchy and many in the middle — or instead the rare prom king or queen who manages to be really, truly, you know, popular.
Americans may be bad at doing what Sweig recommends — “seeing ourselves as others see us” — but we’re not alone in this. People in general have trouble putting themselves in the shoes of people whose circumstances differ from theirs. That’s why the world is such a mess — and why succeeding at this task would qualify as real moral progress.
WHAT’S GREAT ABOUT AMERICA is that Stephen Colbert wasn’t immediately brought outside and shot twice in the head by Secret Service agents for his surreal antics at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Maybe freedom is still alive, after all. (Nah.)