Friday, September 22, 2006

American Airlines homophobia

As if the terrible food and movie selection on the last American Airlines flight I took weren't enough, along comes this story to make me boycott American Airlines.
American Airlines Flight 45 ... Assigned to seats 20A and 20B were George Tsikhiseli, a television journalist, and his writer boyfriend, Stephan Varnier. “We’ve been together only four months,” Tsikhiseli said last week. “So it felt like a honeymoon.” ...

Shortly after takeoff, Varnier nodded off, leaning his head on Tsikhiseli. A stewardess came over to their row. “The purser wants you to stop that,” she said.

“I opened my eyes and was, like, ‘Stop what?’ ” Varnier recalled the other day.

“The touching and the kissing,” the stewardess said, before walking away.

Tsikhiseli and Varnier were taken aback. “He would rest his head on my shoulder or the other way around. We’d kiss—not kiss kiss, just mwah,” Tsikhiseli recalled, making a smacking sound. ...

A little later, the purser appeared at Row 20. She was, by all accounts, calm and professional; to the men’s surprise, she said that she knew nothing about the incident and had not instructed the stewardess to tell Tsikhiseli and Varnier to stop touching each other.

“Which stewardess was it?” she asked.

One of the men pointed out the stewardess—a woman with, as Jackson put it, “Texas hair, like from the nineteen-sixties.” According to Leisner, the purser rolled her eyes and said, “Oh, say no more. I know.”

The purser asked the men to describe what they’d been doing, and she acknowledged that their behavior had not been inappropriate. Tsikhiseli then asked if the stewardess would have made the request if the kissers had been a man and a woman. Suddenly, Leisner said, the purser “became very rigid.” Contradicting what she’d told them before, she stiffly said, “Kissing is inappropriate behavior on an airplane.” She then said that she was busy with the meal service and promised to come back.

Half an hour later, the purser returned, this time saying that some passengers had complained about Tsikhiseli and Varnier’s behavior earlier. The men asked more questions. ... Finally, the purser said that if they didn’t drop the matter the flight would be diverted. ...

Maybe an hour later, the purser approached Tsikhiseli and said that the captain wanted to talk to him. Tsikhiseli went up to the galley and gave the captain his business card. The captain told Tsikhiseli that if they didn’t stop arguing with the crew he would indeed divert the plane. “I want you to go back to your seat and behave the rest of the flight, and we’ll see you in New York,” he said. Tsikhiseli returned to coach.

Tim Wagner, a spokesman for American, said that the stewardess’s injunction to the men was reasonable, and would have been made whether the couple was gay or straight. “Our passengers need to recognize that they are in an environment with all ages, backgrounds, creeds, and races. We have an obligation to make as many of them feel as comfortable as possible,” he said. (He added, “Our understanding is that the level of affection was more than a quick peck on the cheek.”) But a customer-service representative named Terri, reached last week on the telephone, offered the opinion that kissing on airplanes is indeed permissible. “Oh, yeah! Sure. I’ve seen couples who are on honeymoons,” she said. “They just don’t want you to go into the bathroom together.”

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Dog bites man

"Ann Coulter Calls 9/11 Widows 'Witches'".

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Clones are not the same

Today's silly misunderstanding of cloning comes from the New York Times:
Anyone trying to select a winner at the mule races this weekend in Winnemucca, Nev., will no doubt have a hard time choosing between Idaho Gem and Idaho Star. They may have different names, but they are not necessarily different mules.

Idaho Gem and Idaho Star are clones. They are two of three mules who were born in 2003 as the result of a cloning project at the University of Idaho and Utah State University.
No, no, no! This is like saying "Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen may have different names, but they are not necessarily different people." The two mules, like the Olsen twins or any other identical twins, merely share their DNA. This doesn't mean they're the same mule. This misunderstanding pops up quite a lot (especially with journalists trying to get a nice "twist" on the story for an eye-catching lead) and it's really quite pernicious as it distorts the debate about reproductive cloning.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Musician of State

Speaking of Brahms, Condoleeza Rice has astonishingly similar taste in classical music to me. The classical pieces on her list of top ten favorite musical pieces are Mozart's D minor piano concerto, Brahms' Bb major Piano Concerto, Brahms' Piano Quintet, Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, and Mussorgsky's Boris Glazunov. I don't know the Mussorgsky opera, but the Seventh is my favorite Beethoven symphony, and as I said in my last post, the two Brahms works are my favorite pieces - probably the greatest piano concerto and chamber music piece of all time. Like Condi, I too want to learn the Brahms 2nd Piano Concerto "before I leave this earth." I might not agree with her politics, but I like her music taste!

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Four reasons why Brahms is my favorite composer

1. The re-entrance of the theme, played by the solo cello in F# major after the long hushed suspension, two-thirds of the way through the slow movement of the Second Piano Concerto.

2. The minor second in the piano after the long solo statement of the second theme in the first movement of the First Piano Concerto, just before the piano hands off to the winds.

3. The soaring soprano at "Die mit tränen säen, werden mit Freuden ernten" in the first movement of Ein deutsches Requiem.

4. The end of the first movement of the Piano Quintet.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Nature red in tooth and claw

Yet another lovely example of horrifying savagery in the natural world:
When Douglas W. Mock of the University of Oklahoma began studying egrets in Texas three decades ago, he knew that the bigger babies in a clutch would peck the smaller ones to death. Still, Dr. Mock was caught off guard by what he saw — or failed to see. He had assumed that the murderous attacks would surely take place while Mom and Dad egret were out fishing. ...

Instead, Dr. Mock witnessed utter parental indifference. The mother or father would stand by the side of the nest, doing nothing as one chick battered its sibling bloody. "The parent would yawn or groom itself and look completely blasé," said Dr. Mock... "In the 3,000 attacks that I witnessed, I never saw a parent try to stop one. It's as though they expect it to happen."

One researcher watched a nest of African black eagles for three days as the larger eaglet alternated between tirelessly stabbing at its sibling and taking food from its solicitous mother's mouth. There was prey to spare, but the mother did not bother feeding the second, abused baby. When the eaglet's poor, tattered body was finally tossed to the ground, the researcher calculated that it had been pecked 1,569 times.
Another reason to hesitate before too eagerly making the analogy between the "positive" results generated by natural selection and by pure, unfettered market forces.

PS: It also adds yet more to the "problem of evil" flaw in "intelligent design" - why on earth would God design hatchlings to kill each other by pecking? Surely the mother could at least have been designed to slip the unwanted hatchlings a bit of painless poison.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Blame Orwell

Language Log notes yet another example of the "X have no word for Y" Sapir-Whorf fallacy (in fact, they have a whole list of them, with the "Inuit have no word for robin" meme a particularly egregious example) - the idea that since a certain culture has no word for something, they must be totally incapable of conceiving of it, describing it, understanding it, etc. - a notion completely absurd on its face, given that a) people invent new words all the time, and b) you can just describe the thing with a phrase, not a word. For example, if I had never heard the word Schadenfreude, that doesn't mean I don't understand the concept of "taking pleasure in another's suffering."

I blame Orwell for the popularity of this trope. It's true that the hypothesis is named after Sapir and Whorf, but who's ever heard of them? On the other hand, almost everyone read 1984 in high school, along with its compelling - yet linguistically unrealistic - description of Newspeak as the language that would make it literally impossible to even think about concepts like "freedom" because there would be no word for it. 1984 posited that once Newspeak was fully adopted, the language itself would do the work of the thought police. But this makes no sense, since without the thought police (and crimestop, doublethink, blackwhite, etc), people could easily just talk about freedom using circumlocutions or a newly invented word. That is to say, Newspeak is functionally superfluous as a mind-control device. People have taken Newspeak too seriously as a real linguistic possibility, rather than seeing it for what it really is - just another symbol of a Party that wants power for its own sake, a linguistic analog of the "boot stamping on the human face - forever."

Friday, April 28, 2006

Displaying execution devices

Mark Kleiman, writing about possible Republican presidential candidate George Allen, notes that, among other dubious actions, Allen used to display a noose in his law office early in his career.
Even if — stretching things a bit — we imagine that the noose was intended to refer to legal Western hangings rather than the more common informal variety, what kind of twisted character uses a replica of an execution device as office decoration?
One might well ask what kind of twisted character uses a replica of an execution-and-torture device as a religious symbol... Oh, wait.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Random question of the day

Why does this Italian "Wanted" sign for Mafia boss Bernardo Provenzano have the word WANTED printed in English, especially when the rest of the sign is in Italian?

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Hanzi Smatter

Here's a hilarious blog about one of my pet peeves, the misuse of Chinese characters in Western culture: Hanzi Smatter.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Tragedy, then farce

Marx said, "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce." What a fitting quotation to describe the current ideological campaign by the Chinese Communist Party:
Like a giant company concerned with organizational disarray and a sinking public image, the Chinese Communist Party is trying to remake itself into an efficient, modern machine. But to do so, it has chosen one of its oldest political tools — a Maoist-style ideological campaign, complete with required study groups.

For 14 months and counting, the party's 70 million rank-and-file members have been ordered to read speeches by Mao and Deng Xiaoping, as well as the numbing treatise of 17,000-plus words that is the party constitution. Mandatory meetings include sessions where cadres must offer self-criticisms and also criticize everyone else. ...

Campaigns of this sort are a legacy of the Chinese Communist Party. When he was president, Jiang Zemin initiated study campaigns, including one for his signature "political thought," the Three Represents. More famously, Mao introduced as many as 200 campaigns, from the angry purges that predated the Cultural Revolution era to mass mobilization efforts to exterminate rodents.
Lest we fear a return to the bad old days, here's the farce part of the story:
Bao xian has received the praise one might expect from the state media and was listed as one of the most searched phrases on the Chinese Internet last year. But much of that traffic appears to be driven by cadres downloading essays from the Internet to meet homework obligations.

In a posting last year, a prominent Chinese blogger, Keso, said Web sites and bloggers were using the ideological campaign as a money-making opportunity by offering essays customized to a person's party rank. The head of a street committee, for example, can find a fake self-criticism essay tailored to that job and then tinker with it to make it seem original.

In a posting last year, Keso wrote: "The Web sites cheat party members, the party members cheat their leaders and the leaders cheat their leaders. So in the end we all cheat the party. This is the comedy of our time." Such cynicism underscores why many experts say efforts like bao xian will have little meaningful impact. In fact, some political analysts speculate that Mr. Hu is using the movement partly as a gesture to ingratiate himself to the older generation of former leaders who remain influential behind the scenes.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Natural selection still happening in humans

No big surprise here, but a new paper in PLOS-Biology did a search for signs of positive selection in the human genome and turned up several genes in different populations that have been selected for very recently.
Providing the strongest evidence yet that humans are still evolving, researchers have detected some 700 regions of the human genome where genes appear to have been reshaped by natural selection, a principal force of evolution, within the last 5,000 to 15,000 years.

The genes that show this evolutionary change include some responsible for the senses of taste and smell, digestion, bone structure, skin color and brain function.

Many of these instances of selection may reflect the pressures that came to bear as people abandoned their hunting and gathering way of life for settlement and agriculture, a transition well under way in Europe and East Asia some 5,000 years ago. ...

Three populations were studied, Africans, East Asians and Europeans. In each, a mostly different set of genes had been favored by natural selection. The selected genes, which affect skin color, hair texture and bone structure, may underlie the present-day differences in racial appearance.
Some readers may recall that a few months ago I noted a study showing that certain alleles of two genes involved in determining brain size had undergone strong positive selection in the recent past in Europeans and Asians but not Africans, leading certain people to embrace the finding as suggesting that Africans are genetically determined to have low IQs. I wonder how they will react to the finding in this study that another gene involved in determining brain size, CDK5RAP2, shows signs of selection in the Yoruba of Nigeria, but not Europeans or East Asians? (A different brain size gene, CENPJ, was selected for in Europeans and Asians.)

PS, I was amused by the picture accompanying the NYTimes article - it's as though the photographer was desperate to get the standard picture of the biologist in the white lab coat gazing thoughtfully at a test tube full of purple liquid, but had to settle for equations with a population geneticist.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006


Here's fascinating and enlightening article about the Nacirema, a little-known New World tribe.

[Via Kieran Healy.]

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Dennett on religion

Daniel Dennett, the namesake of this blog, has a new book coming out about the natural history of religion:
For those who do not need to be persuaded, the main draw here is a sharp synthesis of a library of evolutionary, anthropological and psychological research on the origin and spread of religion. Drawing on thinkers such as Pascal Boyer (whose own book is called Religion Explained) and giving their work his own spin, Dennett speculates how a primitive belief in ghosts might have given rise to wind spirits and rain gods, wood nymphs and leprechauns. The world is a scary place. What else to blame for the unexpected than humanlike beings lurking behind the scenes?

The result would be a cacophony of superstitions — memes vying with memes — some more likely to proliferate than others. In a world where agriculture was drawing people to aggregate in larger and larger settlements, it would be beneficial to believe you had been commanded by a stern god to honor and protect your neighbors, those who share your beliefs instead of your DNA. Casting this god as a father figure also seems like a natural. Parents have a genetic stake in giving their children advice that improves their odds for survival. You’d have less reason to put your trust in a Flying Spaghetti Monster. At first this winnowing of ghost stories would be unconscious, but as language and self-awareness developed, some ideas would be groomed and domesticated.
Sounds like a modern, Darwinian twist on Hume...
No wonder, then, that mankind, being placed in such an absolute ignorance of causes, and being at the same time so anxious concerning their future fortune, should immediately acknowledge a dependence on invisible powers, possessed of sentiment and intelligence. ... Nor is it long before we ascribe to them thought and reason and passion, and sometimes even the limbs and figures of men, in order to bring them nearer to a resemblance with ourselves. ...

It may readily happen, in an idolatrous nation, that though men admit the existence of several limited deities, yet is there some one God, whom, in a particular manner, they make the object of their worship and adoration. ... his votaries will endeavour, by every art, to insinuate themselves into his favour; and supposing him to be pleased, like themselves, with praise and flattery, there is no eulogy or exaggeration, which will be spared in their addresses to him. In proportion as men’s fears or distresses become more urgent, they still invent new strains of adulation; and even he who outdoes his predecessor in swelling up the titles of his divinity, is sure to be outdone by his successor in newer and more pompous epithets of praise. Thus they proceed; till at last they arrive at infinity itself, beyond which there is no farther progress.

Brokeback Mountain

I want to pose a question about a scene in Brokeback Mountain, but to avoid spoilers (it's not much of one, actually), I'll pose it in a comment to this post.