September 2013 Archives

Mobile Pitstop

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False Memory

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I've never believed in the repressed memory idea. Memory is completely plastic and subject to implant and revision.

Sisters Beneath the Skin

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"Fanaticism consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim." (Santayana)

Freedom's Just Another Word

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"Freedom for the pike means death to the minnows."

Free to Be Hungry

By Paul Krugman

The word "freedom" looms large in modern conservative rhetoric. Lobbying groups are given names like FreedomWorks; health reform is denounced not just for its cost but as an assault on, yes, freedom. Oh, and remember when we were supposed to refer to pommes frites as "freedom fries"?

The right's definition of freedom, however, isn't one that, say, F.D.R. would recognize. In particular, the third of his famous Four Freedoms -- freedom from want -- seems to have been turned on its head. Conservatives seem, in particular, to believe that freedom's just another word for not enough to eat.

Hence the war on food stamps, which House Republicans have just voted to cut sharply even while voting to increase farm subsidies.

In a way, you can see why the food stamp program -- or, to use its proper name, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) -- has become a target. Conservatives are deeply committed to the view that the size of government has exploded under President Obama but face the awkward fact that public employment is down sharply, while overall spending has been falling fast as a share of G.D.P. SNAP, however, really has grown a lot, with enrollment rising from 26 million Americans in 2007 to almost 48 million now.

Conservatives look at this and see what, to their great disappointment, they can't find elsewhere in the data: runaway, explosive growth in a government program. The rest of us, however, see a safety-net program doing exactly what it's supposed to do: help more people in a time of widespread economic distress.

The recent growth of SNAP has indeed been unusual, but then so have the times, in the worst possible way. The Great Recession of 2007-9 was the worst slump since the Great Depression, and the recovery that followed has been very weak. Multiple careful economic studies have shown that the economic downturn explains the great bulk of the increase in food stamp use. And while the economic news has been generally bad, one piece of good news is that food stamps have at least mitigated the hardship, keeping millions of Americans out of poverty.

Nor is that the program's only benefit. The evidence is now overwhelming that spending cuts in a depressed economy deepen the slump, yet government spending has been falling anyway. SNAP, however, is one program that has been expanding, and as such it has indirectly helped save hundreds of thousands of jobs.

But, say the usual suspects, the recession ended in 2009. Why hasn't recovery brought the SNAP rolls down? The answer is, while the recession did indeed officially end in 2009, what we've had since then is a recovery of, by and for a small number of people at the top of the income distribution, with none of the gains trickling down to the less fortunate. Adjusted for inflation, the income of the top 1 percent rose 31 percent from 2009 to 2012, but the real income of the bottom 40 percent actually fell 6 percent. Why should food stamp usage have gone down?

Still, is SNAP in general a good idea? Or is it, as Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, puts it, an example of turning the safety net into "a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency."

One answer is, some hammock: last year, average food stamp benefits were $4.45 a day. Also, about those "able-bodied people": almost two-thirds of SNAP beneficiaries are children, the elderly or the disabled, and most of the rest are adults with children.

Beyond that, however, you might think that ensuring adequate nutrition for children, which is a large part of what SNAP does, actually makes it less, not more likely that those children will be poor and need public assistance when they grow up. And that's what the evidence shows. The economists Hilary Hoynes and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach have studied the impact of the food stamp program in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was gradually rolled out across the country. They found that children who received early assistance grew up, on average, to be healthier and more productive adults than those who didn't -- and they were also, it turns out, less likely to turn to the safety net for help.

SNAP, in short, is public policy at its best. It not only helps those in need; it helps them help themselves. And it has done yeoman work in the economic crisis, mitigating suffering and protecting jobs at a time when all too many policy makers seem determined to do the opposite. So it tells you something that conservatives have singled out this of all programs for special ire.

Even some conservative pundits worry that the war on food stamps, especially combined with the vote to increase farm subsidies, is bad for the G.O.P., because it makes Republicans look like meanspirited class warriors. Indeed it does. And that's because they are.

Prescriptivist vs Descriptivist

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False Fronts in the Language Wars

Why New Yorker writers and others keep pushing bogus controversies.

Steven Pinker

Nature or nurture. Love it or leave it. If it doesn't fit, you must acquit.

pinker.jpgIf you didn't already know that euphonious dichotomies are usually phony dichotomies, you need only check out the latest round in the supposed clash between "prescriptivist" and "descriptivist" theories of language. This pseudo-controversy, a staple of literary magazines for decades, was ginned up again this month by The New Yorker, which has something of a history with the bogus battle. Fifty years ago, the literary critic Dwight Macdonald lambasted the Third Edition of Webster's New International Dictionary for aiming to be "a recording instrument rather than ... an authority" and insufficiently censuring such usages as "deprecate" for depreciate, "bored" for disinterested, and "imply" for infer. And in a recent issue, Joan Acocella, the magazine's dance critic, fired a volley of grapeshot at the Fifth Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary and at a new history of the controversy by the journalist Henry Hitchings, The Language Wars. Acocella's points were then reiterated this week in a post by Ryan Bloom on the magazine's Page-Turner blog. The linguistic blogosphere, for its part, has been incredulous that The New Yorker published these "deeply confused" pieces. As Language Log put it, "Either the topic was not felt to be important enough to merit elementary editorial supervision, or there is no one at the magazine with any competence in the area involved."

According to the sadly standard dichotomy, prescriptivists believe that certain usages are inherently correct and others inherently incorrect, and that to promote correct forms is to uphold truth, morality, excellence, and a respect for the best of our civilization. To indulge incorrect ones, meanwhile, is to encourage relativism, vulgar populism, and the dumbing down of literate culture.

Descriptivists, according to this scheme, believe that norms of correctness are arbitrary shibboleths of the ruling class, designed to keep the masses in their place. Language is an organic product of human creativity, and the people should be given the freedom to write however they please.

These antagonists, to be sure, are not made entirely out of straw. A few tenured radicals (mostly obscure) are full-strength descriptivists, and a few crotchety critics (such as the late Macdonald, as well as John Simon and Jacques Barzun) are avowed prescriptivists. Yet most writers who have given serious thought to language are neither kind of iptivist, and react to such pigeonholing the way Alison Porchnik does in Annie Hall after Alvy Singer pegs her as "New York Jewish left-wing intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University, socialist summer camps" and so on. ("That was wonderful," she says. "I love being reduced to a cultural stereotype.") Among the Porchniks are the late, allegedly prescriptivist style mavens Henry Fowler, E.B. White, and William Safire, and such allegedly descriptivist writers on language as Hitchings, Lane Greene, John McWhorter--and me.

The thoughtful, nondichotomous position on language depends on a simple insight: Rules of proper usage are tacit conventions. Conventions are unstated agreements within a community to abide by a single way of doing things--not because there is any inherent advantage to the choice, but because there is an advantage to everyone making the same choice. Standardized weights and measures, electrical voltages and cables, computer file formats, the Gregorian calendar, and paper currency are familiar examples.

The conventions of written prose represent a similar kind of standardization. Countless idioms, word senses, and grammatical constructions have been coined and circulated by the universe of English speakers, and linguists capture their regularities in the "descriptive rules"--that is, rules that describe how people speak and understand. A subset of these conventions has become accepted by a virtual community of literate speakers for use in nationwide forums such as government, journalism, literature, business, and academia. These are "prescriptive rules"--rules that prescribe how one ought to speak and write in these forums. Examples include the rules that govern agreement and punctuation as well as fine semantic distinctions between such word pairs as militate and mitigate or credible and credulous. Having such rules is desirable--indeed, indispensable--in many arenas of writing. They lubricate comprehension, reduce misunderstanding, provide a stable platform for the development of style and grace, and credibly signal that a writer has exercised care in crafting a passage.

Once you understand that prescriptive rules are conventions, most of the iptivist controversies evaporate. One such controversy springs from the commonplace among linguists that most nonstandard forms are in no way lazy, illogical, or inferior. The choice of isn't over ain't, dragged over drug, and can't get any over can't get no did not emerge from a weighing of their inherent merits, but from the historical accident that the first member of each pair was used in the dialect spoken around London when the written language became standardized. If history had unfolded differently, today's correct forms could have been incorrect and vice-versa.

But the valid observation that there is nothing inherently wrong with ain't should not be confused with the invalid inference that ain't is one of the conventions of standard English. Dichotomizers have difficulty grasping this point, so I'll repeat it with an analogy. In the United Kingdom, everyone drives on the left, and there is nothing sinister, gauche, or socialist about their choice. Nonetheless there is an excellent reason to encourage a person in the United States to drive on the right: That's the way it's done around here.

Koch Stupidity

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Consider how incredibly stupid these ads look to Canadians

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Love and Respect

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Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

When Race is Irrelevant

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What Does Aaron Alexis' Race Say About the Navy Yard Shooting?

By Lauren Williams


The details emerging about Aaron Alexis, the now-dead 34-year-old suspected of killing 12 people and injuring more at the Washington Navy Yard Monday morning, paint the picture of a complicated and troubled man. He loved Thai culture and went to a Buddhist temple. He served in the Navy from February 2008 to January 2011, most recently as an Aviation Electrician's Mate, 3rd Class. In 2010, prior to leaving the Navy, he was arrested by Fort Worth police after being accused of recklessly discharging a gun; no charges were brought. Prior to enlisting, he shot the tires out of someone's car in an "anger-fueled 'blackout'"; Seattle detectives referred the case the DA's office, which never filed charges.

But one detail, like a shiny object to a magpie, has captivated a certain segment of the population: Alexis' race. A few enterprising Twitter users have even found a way to loop both Barack Obama and Trayvon Martin into their commentary on the shooter's skin color, using a tragedy to further a political viewpoint or validate a convenient narrative about race and violence. But the facts on mass shootings in the US tell a much different tale than the one some are spinning.

A look at the data compiled by Mother Jones on mass shootings shows that 16 percent of the 67 mass shootings that have occurred since 1982 were committed by black shooters, including the alleged Navy Yard shooter, while 66 percent were committed by whites. Monday's shooting, and all the others that have occurred in the last 30 years, does tell a story--about guns and safety and violence in the US. But if you're looking at Aaron Alexis' skin color, you're missing the point.

Do the basics, people

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What You Did vs What You Are

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Disembodied Brains

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Doomsday and disembodied brains? Tiny particle rules universe's fate

Charles Q. Cho

The universe may end in another 10 billion years or sooner if the heaviest of all the known elementary particles, the top quark, is even heavier than previously thought, researchers say.

If the top quark is not heavier than experiments currently suggest, then an even stranger fate may await the cosmos: disembodied brains and virtually anything else could one day randomly materialize into existence.

top_quark.gifThe protons and neutrons that make up the nuclei of atoms are made of elementary particles known as quarks. Protons and neutrons are made up of the lightest and most stable flavors of quark : the up quark and down quark. The heaviest and most unstable flavor of quark is the top quark, which current experiments suggest is about 184 times heavier than the proton. [ Wacky Physics: The Coolest Little Particles in Nature ]

Microscopic bubbles

Now, theoretical physicists find that if the top quark is heavier than currently thought, the energy suffusing the vacuum of empty space may one day destabilize.

"If the vacuum destabilizes, we would all die," said researcher Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology.

First, microscopic bubbles would appear and affect the Higgs field, which pervades space and is thought to be responsible for the masses of particles such as electrons and quarks. Those tiny bubbles in space, however, would cause the Higgs field to have lower energy than its current value.

"These bubbles appear only rarely, but when they do, they expand at close to the speed of light," Carroll told LiveScience.

If such a bubble were to hit Earth, the masses of all the particles that depend on the Higgs field would suddenly change.

"Physics and chemistry as we know them would become very different, and certainly no living creature would survive," Carroll said. [ The Top 10 Ways to Destroy Earth ]

These bubbles may appear every 20 billion years or so. In comparison, the universe is about 13.8 billion years old, meaning the universe may have 10 billion years or so left to live. These bubbles could possibly materialize even faster -- tomorrow or in the next few years -- although the chances are quite slim, Carroll and his colleague Kimberly Boddy at the California Institute of Technology said.

USB Charging Condom

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'USB condom' prevents data hijackings at rogue ports

Devin Coldewey

usb.condoml.pngWorried about plugging your device into an unfamiliar port and exposing it to horrible viruses or trojans? Simply put this "USB condom" between the male and female ends before docking and the only thing transmitted will be safe, clean electricity.

Security-conscious individuals are probably aware that plugging your phone or drive into an unfamiliar computer or USB charging jack presents something of a risk. There are ways to hijack devices, surreptitiously install software or access files without the owner knowing. In less malicious, but potentially still awkward scenarios, the host computer may simply make an honest mistake and back up all your data -- including pictures and financial information you weren't planning on sharing.

So if you're often charging on the go, and you don't truly know whether a given port is safe or not, it's time to think about a USB condom.

Every USB port and cable has several electrical channels, some of which are used to transfer power, the others data. The USB condom simply blocks the current on the data channels, meaning only the power channels make the connection between the device charging and the one being charged.

There are simpler solutions, such as power-only USB cables that simply don't have the data channels to begin with. But carrying two cables at all times could be a pain, and power-only cables may not come in the varieties you need -- extra long, for example, or with a custom termination.

A USB condom may seem like overkill, but it may also be the easiest way to be sure your devices are safe from USB intrusion. The price is right, too: they should cost less than $10.


Syria: Here We Go Again

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Again and again the same situation for so many years...

Then of course there are the facile solutions:

But the real problem is how we perceive the default construct about war:

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