Friday, June 24, 2016

Trump's attack on the "Mexican" judge has a basis in a liberal worldview

Federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who was born in Indiana to parents of Mexican origin and belongs to an association of lawyers of Mexican origin, is sitting on a case in the Southern District of California that charges fraud against Trump University. Donald Trump in recent days has attracted much attention by suggesting that Judge Curiel should be disqualified for bias because the judge’s rulings are adverse to Mr. Trump and because, in campaigning for the presidency, the candidate has criticized Mexicans and proposed building a wall on the southwest U.S. border.

Mr. Trump’s claim against Judge Curiel is both baseless and squalid, but some in the chorus of critics are not themselves entirely without fault. ...

After all, suggesting that a judge would allow his ethnic ancestry to govern his rulings is simply unacceptable in America.

Or is it?

Following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February, President Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. When some on the left questioned the nomination of a man in his 60s who is of the Jewish faith, the president conceded that Judge Garland is indeed “a white guy, but he’s a really outstanding jurist.” Note the “but,” which may well have been inserted for the benefit of the questioner, and perhaps in a mild jest, but it is nonetheless there, whether meant to represent the president’s values or those of his interlocutor.

Before her 2009 elevation to the Supreme Court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor once gave a speech saying that she hoped “a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” The president who appointed her said he was seeking judges who have “empathy” with those who appear before them.

Such pronouncements reflect how identity politics have become, increasingly and inappropriately, a part of the conversation surrounding courts and judges.

Whether they know it or not, judges demonstrate symbolically every time they mount the bench that personal considerations have no place in deciding cases. Their black robes are supposed to suggest that judges are all the same ... Donald Trump’s claims may be the dirty underside of what we get when we abandon that aspiration, but they are by no means the whole of it.

Perhaps the Chinese don't take such a long view of history

The impact of the French Revolution? “Too early to say.”

Thus did Zhou Enlai – in responding to questions in the early 1970s about the popular revolt in France almost two centuries earlier – buttress China’s reputation as a far-thinking, patient civilisation.

The former premier’s answer has become a frequently deployed cliché, used as evidence of the sage Chinese ability to think long-term – in contrast to impatient westerners.

The trouble is that Zhou was not referring to the 1789 storming of the Bastille in a discussion with Richard Nixon during the late US president’s pioneering China visit. Zhou’s answer related to events only three years earlier – the 1968 students’ riots in Paris, according to Nixon’s interpreter at the time.

At a seminar in Washington to mark the publication of Henry Kissinger’s book, On China, Chas Freeman, a retired foreign service officer, sought to correct the long-standing error.

“I distinctly remember the exchange. There was a mis­understanding that was too delicious to invite correction,” said Mr Freeman.

He said Zhou had been confused when asked about the French Revolution and the Paris Commune. “But these were exactly the kinds of terms used by the students to describe what they were up to in 1968 and that is how Zhou understood them.” ...

Dr Barme added that Chinese researchers with access to the foreign ministry archives in Beijing said that the records made clear that Zhou was referring to the 1968 riots in Paris. ...

The oft-quoted Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times”, does not exist in China itself, scholars say.
--Richard McGregor, Financial Times, on a gaffe spun wise

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Standing desks won't help you lose weight

So for the new experiment, which was published this month in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, researchers affiliated with the Physical Activity and Weight Management Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh rounded up 74 healthy volunteers. Most were in their mid-20s, of normal weight, and with some acquaintance with office life. ...

Throughout, the volunteers wore masks that precisely measured their energy expenditure, which means how many calories they were using.

Unsurprisingly, sitting was not very taxing. The volunteers generally burned about 20 calories during their 15 minutes of sitting, whether they were typing or staring at a television screen.

More unexpected, standing up was barely more demanding. While standing for 15 minutes, the volunteers burned about 2 additional calories compared to when they sat down. ...

Over all, in fact, the researchers concluded, someone who stood up while working instead of sitting would burn about 8 or 9 extra calories per hour. (Just for comparison, a single cup of coffee with cream and sugar contains around 50 calories.)

But walking was a different matter. When the volunteers walked for 15 minutes, even at a fairly easy pace, they burned about three times as many calories as when they sat or stood.
--Gretchen Reynolds, NYT, on why I have a treadmill desk

Friday, June 17, 2016

How bad is London's weather?

Though Britain suffered through the Blitz, it didn’t experience the devastation that befell Germany and France. [Robert] Tombs [author of The English and Their History] cites a Gallup poll from 1941 that says Londoners were more depressed by the weather than the bombing.
--Kabir Chibber, Quartz, on what's worse than Nazi bombs

Monday, June 13, 2016

Organic food isn't better for the environment

Organic farming is sold as good for the environment. This is correct for a single farm field: organic farming uses less energy, emits less greenhouse gasses, nitrous oxide and ammonia and causes less nitrogen leeching than a conventional field. But each organic field yields much, much less. So, to grow the same amount of wheat, spinach or strawberries, you need much more land. That means that average organic produce results in the emission of about as many greenhouse gasses as conventional produce; and about 10 per cent more nitrous oxide, ammonia and acidification. Worse, to produce equivalent quantities, organic farms need to occupy 84 per cent more land – land which can’t be used for forests and genuine nature reserves. For example, to produce the amount of food America does today, but organically, would require increasing its farmland by the size of almost two United Kingdoms. That is the equivalent of eradicating all parklands and wild lands in the lower 48 states.

But surely organics avoid pesticides? No. Organic farming can use any pesticide that is “natural”. This includes copper sulphate, which has resulted in liver disease in vineyard sprayers in France. Pyrethrin is another organic pesticide; one study shows a 3.7-fold increase in leukaemia among farmers who handled pyrethrins compared to those who had not.

Conventional food, it’s true, has higher pesticide contamination. Although it is still very low, this is a definite benefit of organics. However, using a rough upper estimate by the head of the US Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Toxicology, all conventional pesticide residues may cause an extra 20 cancer deaths per year in America.

This pales in comparison to the impact of organics. If all of the United States were to go organic, the cost would likely be around $200 billion annually from lower productivity. This is money we can’t spend on hospitals, pensioner care, schools, or infrastructure.

Such economic impacts also have life and death consequences. Research shows that when a nation becomes $15 million poorer, it costs one “statistical” life, because people are able to spend less on health care and good food. This means that going organic in the US will kill more than 13,000 people each year. Scaling these findings to the UK would indicate that while extra pesticides in conventional cause perhaps four deaths each year, the UK going completely organic would cost £22 billion per year, resulting in more than 2,000 extra deaths each year.
--Bjørn Lomborg, The Telegraph, on the hidden costs of organic food. HT: MM

Friday, June 10, 2016

Artificial meteor showers might become the new fireworks

When the 2020 Summer Olympics begin in Tokyo, attendees might find themselves looking up into the night sky to see an unprecedented public spectacle. If an event production firm called ALE Co. has its way, an artificial meteor shower will begin, a spray of tiny manufactured objects falling from space and igniting in the Earth’s atmosphere upon reentry.

These artificial meteors will be dropped by satellite.

Mixed in amongst the television signals and invisible communications relays bouncing down from space will be minuscule particles, only a few millimeters in size, made from elements such as lithium, calcium, strontium, rubidium, and copper, each of which releases a different hue when burned. ...

Like planet-spanning showerheads of light, such shows could augment a presidential inauguration, a state funeral, an international holiday, or even be enlisted for narrative purposes. Ten years from now, a Christmas celebration could involve a historical reenactment of the Star of Bethlehem, using a combination of Iridium flares and artificial shooting stars; famous meteors from myth and history could be recreated at appropriate times of year.
--Geoff Manaugh, The Atlantic, on upping the ante on spectacle

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Neuroscience techniques can't even help us understand Donkey Kong

...the MOS 6502 microchip contains 3510 transistors, runs Space Invaders, and wouldn’t even be the most complex object in my pocket. We know very little about how the brain works, but we understand the chip completely.

So, Eric Jonas and Konrad Kording wondered, what would happen if they studied the chip in the style of neuroscientists? How would the approaches that are being used to study the complex squishy brain fare when used on a far simpler artificial processor? ...

Even though the duo knew everything about the chip—the state of each transistor and the voltage along every wire—their inferences were trivial at best and seriously misleading at worst. ...

Last week, the duo uploaded their paper, titled “Could a neuroscientist understand a microprocessor?” after a classic from 2002. It reads like both a playful thought experiment (albeit one backed up with data) and a serious shot across the bow. And although it has yet to undergo formal peer review, other neuroscientists have already called it a “landmark paper”, a “watershed moment”, and “the paper we all had in our minds but didn't dare to write”. ...

Rather than working with an actual chip, Jonas and Kording used a simulation, albeit one accurate enough to run classic games like Donkey Kong, Space Invaders, and Pitfall. That gave them experimental omniscience and omnipotence—they knew everything and could tweak anything. For example, they could disable each of the chip’s transistors one at a time. And by doing so, they found several that were essential for booting up all three games, and others that were essential for just one.

Brain scientists have doing something similar for centuries, either by studying people with localized brain damage or by temporarily shutting down specific brain regions. Through such studies, they’ve labelled different areas as memory centers or language centers or emotional centers. But Jonas and Kording’s work shows why such inferences can be deceptive. They didn’t find “Donkey Kong transistors” or “Space Invaders transistors”; instead, they found components that carry out basic processes that just so happen to be important for those particular games.

They also tried out five other common approaches—the equivalents of analyzing individual neurons, or averaging activity in a small region as in fMRI brain-scanning, or taking a god-like view and look for patterns across the entire brain. None of these told the team anything useful about how the chip works. ...

To move forward, Jonas says that neuroscientists need to put more effort into testing their theories about the brain. “There are a lot of theories about how different parts of the brain might function, but they don’t make falsifiable predictions. They have so many different knobs you can turn that they can be arbitrarily extended to fit arbitrary bits of data. It’s very hard to kick any of these ideas to the curb.”
--Ed Yong, The Atlantic, on the blind men and the elephant

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The movie to broadcast after a nuclear strike

...to the passing motorist, there is nothing about Wood Norton Hall to identify it as the site of the BBC's secret nuclear bunker. ...

While the Cabinet would be secreted away in another bunker in Corsham, Wiltshire, pre-recorded tapes kept at Wood Norton would be broadcast across the nation in the minutes before any bomb was dropped. ...

Thankfully, the bunker was never needed, although secret documents have revealed that 100 days of broadcasting was lined up and ready to play in the event of a nuclear attack. A mix of comedy, drama and religious programmes, as well as Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, was kept at the ready until 1993.