Emily Singer introduces the innovative research of Harvard biologist Michael Desai, who “has created hundreds of identical worlds in order to watch evolution at work”:

Each of his meticulously controlled environments is home to a separate strain of baker’s yeast. Every 12 hours, Desai’s robot assistants pluck out the fastest-growing yeast in each world — selecting the fittest to live on — and discard the rest. Desai then monitors the strains as they evolve over the course of 500 generations. His experiment, which other scientists say is unprecedented in scale, seeks to gain insight into a question that has long bedeviled biologists: If we could start the world over again, would life evolve the same way?

Many biologists argue that it would not, that chance mutations early in the evolutionary journey of a species will profoundly influence its fate. “If you replay the tape of life, you might have one initial mutation that takes you in a totally different direction,” Desai said, paraphrasing an idea first put forth by the biologist Stephen Jay Gould in the 1980s. Desai’s yeast cells call this belief into question. According to results published in Science in June, all of Desai’s yeast varieties arrived at roughly the same evolutionary endpoint (as measured by their ability to grow under specific lab conditions) regardless of which precise genetic path each strain took. It’s as if 100 New York City taxis agreed to take separate highways in a race to the Pacific Ocean, and 50 hours later they all converged at the Santa Monica pier.

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As the West suffers from an ongoing drought, Brad Plumer flags a sobering chart from The Hamilton Project’s “Nine Economic Facts about Water in the United States“:

What’s interesting is that many cities in dry areas – Denver, El Paso, Phoenix, Las Vegas – have some of the lowest water bills around, whereas a wet city like Seattle has much higher bills. Some of that can be explained by provisions in the Clean Water Act that required cities like Boston to upgrade their sewage-treatment systems. Still, the disparity is notable. Other surveys have also found that there’s little relationship between the price of water and how scarce it is.

The report notes that some cities, like Phoenix and Los Angeles, have begun to reform their pricing schemes so that heavier water users get charged more. But this is hardly universal. In most parts of the United States, the price of water doesn’t reflect the infrastructure costs of delivering that water or the environmental damage that excessive water withdrawals can cause. As long as that’s the case, there are few market incentives to conserve or allocate water more efficiently.

A Diploma Wrapped In Red Tape

Oct 23 2014 @ 7:32am

Albert H. Teich urges legislators to chuck a part of the student visa process:

The United States is in a worldwide competition for the best scientific and engineering talent. But its regulations and procedures have failed to keep pace with today’s increasingly globalized science and technology. Rather than facilitating international commerce in talent and ideas, they too often inhibit it, discouraging talented scientific visitors, students, and potential immigrants from coming to and remaining in the United States.

Many elements of the visa and immigration system need attention, as I discuss at length in an article for Issues in Science & Technology. But one critical reform involves reconsidering the requirement that STEM students demonstrate intent to return home.

Read On

The Best Of The Dish Today

Oct 22 2014 @ 9:15pm

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A reader sends the above screenshot:

You might note the contrast between American and Canadian reporting on the Ottawa shooting. I listened to CBC on my drive in to work (I live in Los Angeles), and I was impressed by just how measured the reporting was, even with the crisis still ongoing. The attached picture probably goes a long way to explaining why Americans are terrified that tomorrow ISIS will be invading and imposing Sharia, and that we’re all going to die of Ebola, even though the chance of that actually happening is about 1/100th the chance of getting hit by lightning.

Meanwhile, there is a truly disturbing blog-post out there by Chicago Sun-Times reporter, Dave McKinney. It’s simply his letter of resignation to the chairman of the paper, Michael Ferro, after his reporting of a tough story on the GOP candidate for governor, Bruce Rauner. According to McKinney, the Rauner campaign was furious at the story – it detailed an ugly dispute with a business associate, Christine Kirk, in which Rauner allegedly threatened to “bury her”. The editor of the paper defended the story and McKinney in the strongest terms, but McKinney subsequently found his beat curtailed, and some of his reporting excised from the paper:

I was told to go on leave, a kind of house arrest that lasted almost a week. It was pure hell. Kirk told me that his bosses were considering taking me away permanently from the political and Springfield beats. He offered up other potential jobs at the paper, all of which I considered demotions. Because of my unexplained absence from my beat, colleagues started calling, asking if I had been suspended. Or fired.

Eventually, he was allowed back – but then told not to pursue the story any further, as he was intending to. He asks the chairman of the paper, Michael Ferro:

Was all this retaliation for breaking an important news story that had the blessing of the paper’s editor and publisher, the company’s lawyer and our NBC5 partners? Does part of the answer lie in what Kirk told me – that you couldn’t understand why the LeapSource story was even in the paper? Days later, the newspaper reversed its three-year, no-endorsement policy and unequivocally embraced the very campaign that had unleashed what Sun-Times management had declared a defamatory attack on me.

Readers of the Sun-Times need to be able to trust the paper. They need to know a wall exists between owners and the newsroom to preserve the integrity of what is published. A breach in that wall exists at the Sun-Times.

The race between Rauner and the Democratic governor, Pat Quinn, is currently too close to call. Stay tuned.

Today, we published both a riposte to our readers’ defense of #gamergate and an apologia of sorts by a self-described nerd. This topic clearly touches a whole bunch of nerves all round, judging by the avalanche in the in-tray.

So too did my citation of the inebriated tale of Bristol Palin in the now-famous brawl in Alaska. I’m sorry of some of you thought I was belittling a woman claiming she was attacked; my point was merely the sorry, Springer-style language and general mayhem of the moment, captured by one quote. I could have used others. But I have to say I’ve tried mighty hard to restrain myself with respect to the fantasist and fabulist whom John McCain thought could be president at a moment’s notice. I treat the Palins these days a little like an alcoholic would treat a Jäger shot. I sip. And put it down. Don’t I get any props for that? Or do you secretly want me to get all obsessed again?

Four other posts: the growing evidence that the Obama administration is going to bat for the CIA on torture; the news – surprise! – that intervening in Syria can sometimes help the people we’re trying to defeat; an homage to Shia LaBoeuf of viral proportions; and a stunning fall view from St Paul, Minnesota.

The most popular post of the day was Bristol Palin’s quote and John McCain’s shame; the runner up was Vengeance of the Nerds, Ctd.

Many of today’s posts were updated with your emails – read them all here. You can always leave your unfiltered comments at our Facebook page and @sullydish. 22 more readers became subscribers today. You can join them here – and get access to all the readons and Deep Dish – for a little as $1.99 month. Gift subscriptions are available here. Dish t-shirts are for sale here, including the new “Know Dope” shirts, which are detailed here. One reader really wants one:

Please keep up the “Know Dope” shirts for sale as long as possible. I’m broke right now, but I know I’ll have some money around tax season (Jan-Feb) so I can re-new (for the second time!) and buy one of these shirts. I know supplies are limited, but I just wanted to say that IF they are still available then, I will cop one, so I hope you don’t take them down once November 4th passes.

Also, I’m looking forward to the November 2016 California versions!

Know hope. And see you in the morning.

(Photo: A sign is displayed at the Ottawa City Hall, 4 blocks away from National War Memorial where a soldier was shot earlier in the day in Ottawa, Canada on October 22, 2014. By Mike Carroccetto/Getty Images.)

Face Of The Day

Oct 22 2014 @ 8:32pm

The Moscow State Circus Returns To The UK

Acrobat Vlad Khvostik performs during a photocall at the Moscow State Circus in Clapham in London, England on October 22, 2014. The circus is located at Clapham Common from 22nd October to 2nd November. By Carl Court/Getty Images.

Mike Konczal lets the air out of Cathie Jo Martin and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez’s claim that the US has a more progressive tax system than Sweden:

They are measuring how much of tax revenue comes from the top decile (or, alternatively, the concentration coefficient of tax revenue), and calling that the progressivity of taxation (“how much more (or less) of the tax burden falls on the wealthiest households”). The fact that the United States gets so much more of its tax revenue from the rich when compared to Sweden means we have a much more progressive tax policy, one of the most progressive in the world. Congratulations?

The problem is, of course, that we get so much of our tax revenue from the rich because we have one of the highest rates of inequality across peer nations. How unequal a country is will be just as much of a driver of the progressivity of taxation as the actual tax polices. In order to understand how absurd this is, even flat taxes on a very unequal income distribution will mean that taxes are “progressive” as more income will come from the top of the income distribution, just because that’s where all the money is. Yet how would that be progressive taxation?

Giving Gray Some Shade

Oct 22 2014 @ 7:31pm

The political philosopher John Gray is known, among other things, for his iconoclastic and often brilliant review essays (we recently featured his takedown of Richard Dawkins here). Anthony McCarthy returns the favor by panning Gray’s recent book, The Silence of Animals, quipping that it “could equally well have been called The Silence of Turnips:

Things take a downward turn towards the end of the first part of the book, where at least the examples are engaging and concern recognisable human travails. At the end of this first section, there is the statement: ‘When truth is at odds with meaning, it is meaning that wins.’ What is this supposed to mean?

Read On

Although the poet’s famed 1882 meeting with Oscar Wilde is now perhaps best known for alleged sexual shenanigans, David M. Friedman, the author of Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity, emphasizes the role their confab played in the development of celebrity culture. Friedman writes, “the real subject of Whitman’s conversation [with Wilde] was how to build a career in public, with all the display that self-glorifying achievement requires”:

Whitman_with_butterflyWe can deduce that with confidence because the first thing Whitman did when he reached his den was to give his guest [Wilde] a photograph of himself. … The portrait Whitman gave Wilde in 1882 appeared on his next book, Specimen Days & Collect, an assemblage of travel diaries, nature writing, and Civil War reminiscences. (Whitman had spent the war years in Washington, working as a government clerk and volunteering as a hospital visitor.) He is in profile in the photograph, sitting in a wicker chair wearing a wide-brimmed hat, an open-necked shirt, and a cardigan. A butterfly is perched on his index finger, held in front of his face. “I’ve always had the knack of attracting birds and butterflies,” Whitman once told a friend. Years later Whitman’s “butterfly” was found in the Library of Congress. It was made of cardboard; it had been tied to his finger with string.

By handing Wilde that photo Whitman was teaching him that fame as a writer is only partly about literature. It is also about committing oneself to a performance. Such role-playing isn’t the act of a phony; in Whitman’s mind every pose he struck was authentic. This type of authenticity – the fashioning of an image one would be faithful to in public – Wilde had experienced on a small scale playing the aesthete on the campus of Oxford’s Magdalen College and at parties in London. It was instructive to have its truth verified by a literary star who had proved its efficacy on an international scale. Wilde had always believed there was nothing inglorious about seeking glory. By handing Wilde his portrait, Whitman was confirming that instinct.

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Losing The Opium War

Oct 22 2014 @ 6:17pm

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A new report (pdf) from the office of John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, reveals that poppy production in Afghanistan hit a record high of 209,000 hectares last year, despite a $7.6 billion eradication effort:

“In past years, surges in opium poppy cultivation have been met by a coordinated response from the U.S. government and coalition partners, which has led to a temporary decline in levels of opium production,” Sopko said in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other top U.S. officials. “The recent record-high level of poppy cultivation calls into question the long-term effectiveness and sustainability of those prior efforts,” he said.

No shit, Sherlock. Keating notes that poppy production “actually fell dramatically from 2007 to 2009, and has been climbing steadily ever since”:

Read On

How SpaceX Achieved Lift Off

Oct 22 2014 @ 5:43pm

Tim Fernholz has a lengthy profile of the aerospace company:

SpaceX currently charges $61.2 million per launch. Its cost-per-kilogram of cargo to low-earth orbit, $4,653, is far less than the $14,000 to $39,000 offered by its chief American competitor, the United Launch Alliance. Other providers often charge $250 to $400 million per launch; NASA pays Russia $70 million per astronaut to hitch a ride on its three-person Soyuz spacecraft. SpaceX’s costs are still nowhere near low enough to change the economics of space as Musk and his investors envision, but they have a plan to do so (of which more later).

The secret to the low cost is relatively simple, at least in principle: Do as much as possible in-house, in an integrated manufacturing facility, with modern components; and avoid the unwieldy supply chains, legacy designs, layers of contractors, and “cost-plus” billing that characterized SpaceX’s competitors. Many early employees were attracted to the company because they wanted to avoid the bureaucracy of the traditional aerospace conglomerates.

Fernholz determines that the “question for Musk and his investors now is whether he can be more than just a better rocket builder”:

Read On