Bad Science On The Big Screen

Jul 30 2014 @ 10:59am

Jeffrey Kluger is frustrated by Lucy, a film premised on the widely believed misconception that we only use 10 percent of our brains:

The fact is, the brain is overworked as it is, 3 lbs. (1,400 gm) of tissue stuffed into a skull that can barely hold it all. There’s a reason the human brain is as wrinkled as it is and that’s because the more it grew as we developed, the more it bumped up against the limits of the cranium; the only way to increase the surface area of the neocortex sufficiently to handle the advanced data crunching we do was to add convolutions. Open up the cerebral cortex and smooth it out and it would measure 2.5 sq. ft. (2,500 sq cm). Wrinkles are a clumsy solution to a problem that never would have presented itself in the first place if 90% of our disk space were going to waste.

What’s more, our bodies simply couldn’t afford to maintain so much idle neuronal tissue since the brain is an exceedingly expensive organ to own and operate—at least in terms of energy needs…. “We were a nutritionally marginal species early on,” the late William Greenough, a psychologist and brain development expert at the University of Illinois, told me for my 2007 book Simplexity. “A synapse is a very costly thing to support.”

So why does the myth persist? A theory from neuroscientist David Eagleman:

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Director’s Cuts For Novels

Jul 30 2014 @ 10:29am

Andrew Ladd suggests that publishers take a hint from the popularity of “director’s cuts” and release alternative drafts of books:

[W]hat’s wrong with a little naked commercial ambition in the publishing industry, given everything we’re always hearing about the death of the book? There’s clearly a demand for this sort of thing. The New Yorker, for instance, has previously published “early drafts” of well-known stories by famous authors, and there’s already a market for new translations of foreign language work – not to mention the perennial re-issuing of Shakespeare and other classics according to slightly different original texts. If we’re already doing all that, why not different drafts of contemporary books as well?

I suppose part of the objection might be that, by definition, an author’s last draft is supposedly the best. So when we have the definitive final text – unlike with Shakespeare et al – there’s no reason to publish a “worse” earlier one. Yet this is a silly argument, because any writer will tell you that, by the final stages of revision, most changes are a matter of minor rearrangement rather than major improvement. There are certainly plenty of things in my early drafts that I cut and now wistfully re-read.

Minimalist Or Just Dull?

Jul 30 2014 @ 10:03am

Ian Svenonius calls out the new minimalist aesthetic of places like the Apple stores as a new form of snobbery:

The anti-stuff crowd invokes Buddhism and Communism-lite in their put-down of possessions and the people who “hoard” them. It’s supposed to be a sign of superstition, a hang-up, a social disease, greedy, sick. People who have things are derided as “fetishists.” Why would one have a record collection when all information is available online to be had by the technologically savvy? … Why should there be record stores, shopping areas, kiosks, video stores, movie houses, bookstores, libraries, schools, theaters, opera houses, parks, government buildings, meeting houses, et al? Public spaces, markets, and interacting with one’s surroundings are primeval, germy and dangerous. After all, it can all be done online.

Anna North expands upon this class analysis:

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A Well-Oiled Caliphate

Jul 30 2014 @ 9:30am

In Charlie Cooper’s estimation, ISIS is handling governance surprisingly well. Part of that is down to its control of strategic resources:

Currently, it controls many of Iraq’s northern oilfields and is in a strong position to take its largest refinery at Baiji. On top of this, three weeks ago, IS took over Syria’s largest oilfield in al-Omar. Once a field is secured, IS has been quick to make a profit, reportedly earning millions of dollars selling oil to the Assad regime and, allegedly, to Iraqi businessmen.

In terms of water, IS has long controlled the Tabqa Dam and, hence, Lake Assad, in Syria, as well as the Fallujah and Mosul dams in Iraq. It thus falls to IS to provide drinking water and irrigation to massive areas of farmland. In a sense, IS has become a de facto state provider that enjoys a complex economic and infrastructural interdependence with the populations that live within its territories, something that further insulates it from outside attack.

But Keith Johnson finds reason to believe that the shady oil deals that fund the group’s activities aren’t sustainable:

With the Islamic State at the helm, that oil boom certainly won’t last forever.

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Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, examines why nearly all stories are problem stories:

[I]f you think about it, it’s not at all obvious that stories should be that way. You might really expect to find stories that really did function as portals into hedonistic paradise. Paradises where there were no problems and pleasure was infinite. But you never, ever find that.

Why are stories so trouble-focused? You have quite a bit of convergence among scholars and scientists who are looking at this from an evolutionary point of view, and what they’re saying is that stories may function as kind of virtual reality simulators, where you go and you simulate the big problems of human life, and you enjoy it, but you’re having a mental training session at the same time. There’s some kind of interesting evidence for this, that these simulations might help people perform better on certain tasks.

So in the same way that children’s make-believe helps them hone their social skills, it seems to be true of adult make-believe, too. If adult make believe is novels and films, it seems they’re entering into those fictional worlds and working through those fictional social dilemmas actually does, as hard as it may be to believe, enhance our social skills, our emotional intelligence, our empathy.

(Painting: The Death of Desdemona by Eugène Delacroix [1858], via Wikimedia Commons)

Fishing For Trouble

Jul 30 2014 @ 8:34am

Michelle Nijhuis notes that that declining fish populations are associated with a variety of social ills:

[Professor Justin] Brashares detailed examples: declining fish populations off the coast of southern Thailand are forcing Thai fishing fleets to work harder for the same catch, and the resulting desperation for labor has triggered an epidemic of indentured servitude and child slavery.

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Trophy Children

Jul 30 2014 @ 8:00am

swimming trophies

Teacher Molly Knefel defends giving every kid a trophy:

The disgust that so many adults feel at the idea of everyone getting a trophy has to do with creating incentives. If everyone gets a trophy then no one will try hard; if everyone gets basic food and housing to survive, then no one will work. Of course, this isn’t true. A soccer team full of 10-year-olds who all get participation trophies won’t all sit down and stop playing soccer– the kids who are good at scoring points will still want to do so. But the kid who never scored a point will, for a moment, be recognized: You played soccer too.

Instead, that kid is supposed to get the message: If you didn’t score a lot of points, no one gives a shit about you. And if that makes you sad, or if you feel that it’s not fair, get used to it. The world is a sad and unfair place. Score more goals next time. This message has always felt at odds, to me, with the equally ubiquitous platitude that children are the future. If children are the future, then why are we so gung ho about preparing them to be treated unfairly?

(Photo by Flickr user terren in Virginia)


Jul 30 2014 @ 7:28am

Rebecca Traister revisits Susan Faludi’s 1991 Backlash and analyzes the impact of the Internet on the feminist movement:

Feminism online is now so populated with younger women, just out of school. And generations who are new to feminism don’t have a comparative context so they understandably feel furious about the variety of injustices and prejudices that we are facing right now, and furious at the way media deals with women and furious at the way it deals with race and sexuality. But every once in a while, as the older person who remembers this time really clearly, I just want to say, “No, no, no, you have no idea how much better it is right now than it was in the early ’90s, you don’t remember what it was like when there was no feminist internet.” I’m grateful for this book for so thoroughly cataloguing how bad that period of backlash was, how grim it felt then.

Sarah Miller shares Traister’s ambivalence about online feminism and goes further:

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The Best Of The Dish Today

Jul 29 2014 @ 9:15pm

Screen Shot 2014-07-29 at 11.53.08 AM

Above is an info-graphic from the Washington Post that visualizes the 815 civilian dead in Gaza (it’s updated day by day). The small red figures are children. 232 children have now died under the Israeli assault on Gaza, which originated in the outrage at the murder of three Israeli teens. I cede my time to Roger Cohen:

No argument, no Palestinian outrage or subterfuge, can gloss over what Jewish failure the killing of children in such numbers represents.

And to Jon Chait:

It is not just that the unintended deaths of Palestinians is so disproportionate to any corresponding increase in security for the Israeli targets of Hamas’s air strikes. It is not just that Netanyahu is able to identify Hamas’s strategy — to create “telegenically dead Palestinians” — yet still proceeds to give Hamas exactly what it is after. It is that Netanyahu and his coalition have no strategy of their own except endless counterinsurgency against the backdrop of a steadily deteriorating diplomatic position within the world and an inexorable demographic decline. The operation in Gaza is not Netanyahu’s strategy in excess; it is Netanyahu’s strategy in its entirety.

This does seem to be a tipping point, doesn’t it?

Today, we remembered Tony Judt’s prescience and the shifting American debate on Israel; noted a sea-change among the younger generation of Americans; and chronicled the latest bout of Israeli hating on Kerry and Obama. I tried to pre-empt George Tenet’s doomed attempt to prove he wasn’t a war criminal by authorizing torture; I parsed Montaigne’s conservative disposition – and Oakeshott’s “conservatism of joy.” And we noted the progress on the right marked by Paul Ryan’s latest plan on poverty.

The most popular post of the day was Why Am I Moving Left?, followed by The Shifting Israel Debate.

Some 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. 24 27 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 and polos are for sale here. One reader is about to snatch one up:

I’m much taken by the new Dish logo T-shirts and wanted to thank you for producing versions that have only the beagle logo and are thus recognizable only to the cognoscenti. An order will be forthcoming. But surely someone with your experience in pun-laden headlines should not have missed the opportunity to label this approach as “dog-whistle marketing?” Oh, the opportunity lost …

See you in the morning.

Toward A Conservatism Of Joy

Jul 29 2014 @ 8:38pm

Noting that Michael Oakeshott’s classic essay, “On Being Conservative” (pdf) was published nearly sixty years ago, Aaron Taylor notes a few of the distinctive features of what Oakeshott described as “not a creed or a doctrine, but a disposition”:

The real foes of conservatism are not socialism and liberalism, but the reactionary and innovating mentalities. Neither the reactionary nor the innovator share the joie de vivre of the conservative mindits natural inclination to rejoice in and savor what is. They are restless and tormented if things are not in a state of perpetual flux, if “progress” is not being made either backward toward an imagined age of innocence, or forward toward an imagined age of future liberation. If nothing is changing, then nothing is happening. Reactionaries and innovators eschew what Oakeshott calls the conservative mind’s “cool and critical” attitude toward change, advocating instead a radical overhaul of society and its refashioning in the image of a golden age which is either imagined to have existed in the past or lusted after as a possible future.

I think that’s what Dan Drezner is expressing in his formulation of the “Zen Masters'” approach to foreign policy:

These people think that the long arc of history is bending in their direction — that the fundamental strengths of the United States and its key allies are more robust than any potential rivals on the global stage. The worst thing to do, therefore, is to overreact in the short run to things that will balance out in the long run. They don’t believe in getting riled up too much, and that, in the end, the universe tends to unfold as it should. It’s not that they’re unaware of what Russia or China or the Islamic State is doing — it’s that they believe that these actions are short-sighted, counterproductive and very likely to fail. They believe that actors that try to forcibly revise the status quo will pay a serious price.

So, yes, Obama is a conservative. Taylor’s take on the future of this style of conservatism:

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