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140 posts from July 2004

July 31, 2004

Nifty newly discovered species

New Species of Underwater Bone-Eating Worm Found

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two new species of primitive worms that feed off the bones of dead whales have been discovered off the coast of California, scientists reported on Thursday.
The blind worms have no proper stomachs, but employ bacteria to help break down nutrients from the whalebones and feed them into rootlike organs, the U.S. and Australian researchers said.

But wait, there's more

Marine biologist Greg Rouse of the South Australian Museum, and Shana Goffredi and Robert Vrijenhoek at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute said they were initially puzzled that they could only find females.
Then they looked closer and found the microscopic males inside the females, living off yolk left over from their larval stages, yet full of sperm.
The females also were full of eggs.
"These worms appear to be the ecological equivalent of dandelions -- a weedy species that grows rapidly, makes lots of eggs, and disperses far and wide," Vrijenhoek said in a statement.

EDIT: Click to see colorful pictures of these worms doing what they do best. [Via Monkeyfilter]

G. W. Rouse, S. K. Goffredi, and R. C. Vrijenhoek, Osedax—bone-eating marine worms with dwarf males. 2004. Science. Vol. 305 #5684 (July 30, 2004).

Extreme baking

Behold, the anatomically correct thoracic cavity cake. The meringue ribs are a tour de force.

Warning, far more disgusting than a real thorax.

[Link courtesy of The Presurfer.]


Absolutely beautiful pictures of deep sea fish and crustaceans, at Fish!

[Via Incoming Signals.]

Aesthetics discussion question

(DJ voice) Here's a little barstool aesthetics to ease into Saturday afternoon:

Can a musician who is primarily an interpreter/performer earn a place among the greatest musicians?

I'm thinking about artists like Billie Holiday, Johnny Cash, Glenn Gould, and Elvis. These great artists wrote little of the material they performed, but they were intellectual and aesthetic innovators whose creative contributions have had lasting influence. Thad and I were debating about whether people of this caliber should be eligible for "top ten lists" of the greatest musicians of the 20th Century. We weren't arguing about the stature of these particular artists, but rather whether an artist can contribute enough through interpretation and performance to be counted among the all time "greats."

Thad touched off a firestorm of controversy by arguing that absolute greatest musicians are those who write and perform their own work, e.g. Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Bob Dylan, Prince, etc.

(Note: Thad differentiates between improvisation and interpretation. He doesn't think that musicians necessarily have to write their own music down in order to be counted as writer/performers.)

I concede that, all other things being, equal, someone who combines brilliant writing and virtuosic performance is probably a more important artist that someone who is exclusively a brilliant interpreter/performer. However, when we're talking "top ten" lists, we're comparing lifetime acheivments. If you look at what some of the great interpreters have contributed to music, I think their accomplishments have earned them a place among the truly great artists. Writer/performers have an edge when you're forced to choose arbitrarily short list, but I'm not prepared to exclude interpreters from contention.



Thad and I have had "talks" about me venturing into the far-right wing blogosphere without supervision. He says it's not "healthy" or "natural" and that it just riles me up for no good reason. He's probably right.

But check this out American Patriot Friends Network! It's pure regressive gold.

APFN's greatest hits include: Gold, God, the Fed and Capitalism--a "very complete" essay on our global economic position; It's Time to Circle the Wagons, and much, much more.

My personal favorite is Get That Gold Fringe Off My Flag!:

The flags displayed in State courts and courts of the United States have gold or yellow fringes. That is your WARNING that you are entering into a foreign enclave, the same as if you are stepping into a foreign embassy and you will be under the jurisdiction of that flag. The flag with the gold or yellow fringe has no constitution, no laws, and no rules of court, and is not recognized by any nation on the earth, and is foreign to you and the United States of America.

July 30, 2004

What has Tom Ridge done?

Digby is concerned about Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who's talking about retiring after the election so that he can afford to send his kids to college:

July 30, 2004  |  WASHINGTON (AP) -- Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge is considering stepping down after the November election, telling colleagues he is worn out from the massive reorganization of government and needs to earn money in the private sector to put his teenage children through college, officials said.

I think Ridge's kids should join the National Guard for the educational benefits. It's just a couple weekends a year. Digby has even more helpful suggestions to help the Ridges stretch Tom's $175,000 salary:

Maybe Mrs Ridge could get a job and clip some coupons or perhaps they could go on a budget. [...] Hey, maybe he should require them to, you know, take out a loan or something. Or they could do what the Governator says all those kids who can't afford the state university in California anymore should do --- do two years at community college to save money.

I'm sure it's exhausting being Secretary of Homeland Security, especially in a homeland as insecure as ours. But my tinfoil senses start crinkling when I hear Ridge talk that way. It sounds like he's edging towards those little words that mean so much: "spend"..."time"..."family"...

Oh, those data!

Fla Elections Officials Find 2002 Data:

MIAMI (AP) -- Miami-Dade County elections officials said Friday they have found detailed electronic voting records from the 2002 gubernatorial primary that were originally believed lost in computer crashes last year. [Via NYT]

Sneering at science


Clive Thompson of Collision Detection has the definitive response to the Kerry spacesuit snarks:

A couple of days ago, John Kerry was touring Cape Canaveral when the scientists asked if he was interested in seeing the inside of the space shuttle Discovery. Of course, he said yes; hell, who wouldn't want to check out the inside of a shuttle? So he put on a protective jumpsuit and went in. At one point, someone took his picture...

Read the rest of this inspired rant in situ.

Gratitude journals and Loewenstein's challenge

Bryan Caplan of Marginal Revolution has a fascinating response to what he calls "Loewenstein's challenge."

Loewenstein is a leading researcher in economics and psychology. His challenge is to explain why anyone who cares about human happiness wouldn't also advocate the redistribution of wealth. Basically, the data confirm the diminishing marginal utility of wealth. Once people are relatively comfortable, increases in wealth don't necessarily increase their happiness. Whereas even small increases in wealth can dramatically increase the well being of those who are desperately poor. So, one would expect a certain amount of redistribution to increase overall happiness.

Caplan thinks that the answer to Loewenstein's challenge lies in the psychology of gratitude:

Several interesting experiments (like this one) ask subjects to keep a "gratitude journal." Main idea: Every day, write down things you are grateful for. Depending on the experiment, control groups either do nothing, or keep an "ingratitude" diary, or write down a random childhood memory. The main finding is that keeping a gratitude journal makes people happier than the other treatments.

He goes on to argue that redistributive economics may undermine happiness by fostering ingratitude. He claims that redistributive economic policies encourage people to think about how they're being screwed instead why they ought to be thankful.

A few points:

i) Do people in steeply progressive tax systems think about their own misfortune more than people who live in regressive tax systems? This is an empirical question. If so, Caplan has answered Loewenstein--provided that negative effects of griping outweigh the positive effects of redistribution.
ii) Maybe the transition from a regressive to a progressive tax system requires a shift in focus from gratitude to ingratitude. People who don't yet realize they are being screwed may have to confront this fact in order to generate the political will to change the tax system. If so then Loewenstein might have to take those transition costs into account.
iii) Caplan argues that redistributive policies will create "a lifestyle of ingratitude" because nobody will ever be satisfied, no matter how much redistribution there is. Again, that's an empirical question. If we encourage everyone to count their blessings, as Caplan suggests, we may find an optimal level of redistribution that minimizes resentment and increases gratitude. Maybe in that "zone" the poor will have more blessings to count and the rich will be too grateful to resent the redistribution.
iv) It's the wealthy who forget to count their blessings under our current regressive tax system. Instead of being grateful for their relative prosperity, many consume themselves with ingratitude at their insufficiently small tax cuts (think, Club for Growth). These ungrateful wretches waste their precious time going to boring meetings and prayer breakfasts to lobby for even bigger tax cuts instead of enjoying themselves with the money they have. For these tough cases, the solution seems to be a mixture of Loewenstein and Johnny Cash (cf. "Satisfied Mind"). If rational people like the members of The Club learn that more money doesn't necessarily translate into more happiness, they may be less emotionally attached to their surplus wealth and less concerned about progressive taxation.

Explaining the intellectual appeal of Stalinism

Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution writes:

If I could have the answers to five questions in political science/sociology, the appeal of Stalinism to intellectuals would be one of them.

John Quiggin of Crooked Timber replies:

I don’t think this is as difficult a question as is often supposed.
Most of the intellectuals who professed support for Communism during the rule of Stalin (and Lenin) were primarily victims of (self-)deception. They supported the stated aims of the Communist Party (peace, democracy, brotherhood), opposed the things the Communists denounced (fascism, racism, exploitation) and did not inquire too closely into whether the actual practice of the Soviet Union and the parties it controlled was consistent with these stated beliefs.

I agree with John. Self-deception is the most parsimonious explanation. At first, it seems inexplicable that so many smart, humane people could have been fooled so badly. Some authors invoke more elaborate mechanisms to explain their behavior.

Chris Bertram notes on John's CT comments thread that many Stalinist intellectuals were drawn to a relatively authoritarian conception of the good, that of a tidy, rationally ordered society. One could use Bertram's observation to argue that Stalinist intellectuals were drawn to a more sinister side of Stalinism and therefore, that they weren't as radically self-deceived as they might seem. Even so, we still have to explain why these smart people continued to uphold Stalin's Russia as an example of any conception of the good. Even at the time, I doubt there was a lot of evidence that Stalinist Russia was tidy, well-ordered or rational.

Scott Martens makes an excellent point in a subsequent comment:

I think one of the things that’s missing is something that haunts the right as well: The appeal of being in possession of True Knowledge, knowledge that empowers someone to disregard anyone who disputes their beliefs or conclusions.

(my comments, x-posted with CT comments comments thread:)

Anyone who thinks they have True Knowledge is at high risk for self-deception. In retrospect, it seems amazing that these smart people would continue to support Stalin.

Self-deception isn't pure wishful thinking. Simply wanting X to be true isn't usually sufficient to sustain massive self-deception. The self-deceiver must also engage in an active process of rationalization in which she explains away inconvenient observations in terms of her background theory. We call people self-deceived when they are unwilling to reexamine their background theories in light of the evidence, especially if wishful thinking fuels that reluctance.

When Stalinist intellectuals were confronted with evidence of Stalinist crimes against humanity they persuaded themselves that these were i) Lies and distortions perpetrated by an unreliable capitalist media, or, ii) Historical inevitabilities on the way to an equally inevitable utopia, and/or, iii) Snags that were only to be expected in the greatest experiment in human history.


All forms of fundamentalism are dangerous because they are epistemically self-sealing. A true believer will ignore any amount of data in order to save his background theory. Something similar probably happened in the intelligence community before the war in Iraq. Everyone was so convinced that there were WMD that they were apt to explain away evidence that was incompatible with their hypothesis, rather than reassess the hypothesis itself.