Barry Commoner died on September 30 at the age of 95. The New York Times called him “a founder of modern ecology and one of its most provocative thinkers and mobilizers in making environmentalism a people’s cause.” Among many accomplishments, his pioneering work on the effects of radiation was a major factor in building public support for the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union in the middle of the Cold War. Time Magazine put him on its cover in 1970, the first year of Earth Day.
He also ran for president in 1980 on the ticket of the now defunct Citizens Party, an episode few on the left remember and the obituaries dismissed as a quirky personal misadventure. It was more than that. The Citizens Party was an effort to respond to the early signals that the Democratic Party was on the way to becoming morally and intellectually bankrupt. Three decades later, that ugly process is almost complete.
The scariest piece in the news this week isn’t about the election or the economy or the threat of terrorism—though it touches on all three. It’s about the latest development in humanity’s ceaseless urge to invent things—subcategory, the ceaseless urge to invent things that let people do things more cheaply than before.
David Becker is unusual in national politics. He talks about inaccuracies in voting rolls, dead people still registered, and the like. He says the bad information is a big problem. But he's not on the far right talking about voter fraud or the need for major purges to the states' rolls before an election. Instead, he's the director of election initiatives for the non-partisan Pew Center on the States. And his research tells him that better data would actually help more people vote—and make elections a smoother, more efficient process that shouldplease folks on both sides of the political divide.
As exciting as it is to watch Olympic sprinters tear down the track, the truth is that running fast for short distances is just not really human beings' thing. Usain Bolt, the fastest human ever to walk the planet, has reached a top speed of 27.78 miles per hour, which is an amble to a cheetah or a gazelle. Heck, your dachshund can almost certainly outrun you, even with its stubby little legs. What gave our ancestors an evolutionary advantage was their stamina, the ability to chase down prey by running and running until the poor wildebeest ran out steam and dropped.
The bright side of this story is that in the not-too-distant future, robots will be able to hunt and capture your slowpoke self without too much trouble, should the authorities determine that you have a suspicious bulge in your pocket or you need to be punished for jaywalking. Boston Dynamics, a robotics company that uses your tax dollars (in the form of grants from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) to make crazy advanced robots that mimic animals in all kinds of interesting ways, just announced that their Cheetah robot has reached a speed of 28.3 miles per hour, faster than any human. What's different about it is that it has legs, not wheels, potentially making it (and robots like it) highly maneuverable. Gaze upon it and tremble:
Now try not to overstuff yourself. (Flickr/whologwhy)
Ever since the 1930s, researchers have known that calorie restriction could dramatically extend life in some organisms. Radically reduce the calories an organism gets–say by 40 percent or more–and the organism will often live longer than you would have thought possible. This effect was seen in worms, mice, and some other species, with the attendant hope that it might work in humans as well. While the precise mechanism hasn't been understood completely, essentially it seemed that when it's getting less nutrition, the body goes into some kind of survival mode that allows it to forestall the ravages of age.
The joke about calorie restriction is this: If you eat nothing but lettuce and millet for the rest of your days, you may not live forever, but it'll sure seem like forever. Nevertheless, there are some hardy souls who are trying (see here, for example), subsisting on meager meals and poking new holes in their belts while they contemplate what things will be like when 100 is the new 50. But according to a new study, they may be wasting their time...
Honestly, some days I can’t tell real news from The Onion. Representative Todd Akin’s staggering comment on Sunday about the female body’s amazing ability to reject unwanted sperm actually made my jaw drop. If only it didn’t represent what so many people believe, as Amanda Marcotte explained so clearly here yesterday. The good news is that it flushed those beliefs out into the open. As she said, it’s not a gaffe; it’s an insight into the anti-choice movement’s distrust of women and its ignorance of science.
As someone who has gone on record in support of driverless cars, I simply must raise my voice in objection to this ad targeting Florida state rep. Jeff Brandes, who is running for state senate. An inconsequential local race, you say? Not when this kind of vicious anti-technological filth is sent out to paralyze our nation's seniors with fear of walking the streets! If you think American politics is no fun, just take a gander:
A bit over a week ago, a one-ton spacecraft bearing the poetic name Curiosity touched down on the surface of Mars. The landing was widely celebrated, not just by the scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) who worked for years on the mission, but by the general public—from those following the landing on the Internet to a crowd that gathered in Times Square to watch the event on a giant video screen. In the coming weeks, Curiosity will set out on a multi-year mission to explore its landing site, Gale Crater, and search for evidence of whether Mars was once capable—and possibly still is—of supporting life.
About 15 years ago, the St. Louis-based Monsanto corporation developed "Roundup Ready," genetically modified soybean seeds that are resistant to herbicides also produced by the company. In other words, Monsanto made herbicides to kill weeds, then made soy-bean plants that are resistant to the herbicide. Its competitor, Pioneer Seeds, a Des Moines company owned by DuPont and Company, licensed the Roundup Ready formula but also attempted to create genetically modified seeds that could compete with it. Pioneer developed a seed called "Optimum GAT" that combined the Roundup Ready trait with another trait. Mosanto sued DuPont for violating the licensing agreement and for patent infringement, while DuPont claimed that the patent should be considered unenforceable.
In one of those now-frequent "I can't believe we're actually going to argue about this" moments, conservatives have now decided that the United States government did not actually have any meaningful role in the creation of the Internet, despite what everyone, including all the people who were there at the time, have always known. Why have they suddenly come to this revelation? All you need to know is that Barack Obama has recently been using the Internet as an example of where government can create conditions that allow private enterprise to flourish, and as Simon Malloy says, if Obama says something, "that, ipso facto, makes it false." Part of what's so crazy about this is that the tale of the Internet's creation and development is actually a story of public/private partnership that both liberals and conservatives ought to be able to celebrate.
Sally Ride (Wikimedia Commons/National Archives and Records Administration)
Yesterday, the day before Amelia Earhart’s 115th birthday, Sally Ride joined the skies for a final time. At 61, she died of pancreatic cancer—a horrible disease. Back in 1983, it was thrilling to watch her smash the American gender barrier as she zoomed into space. When she headed off into the final frontier, it was not as it was with the subordinate Lieutenant Uhuru on the Enterprise—the closest analogue there was at the time—but as an equal astronaut. Ride strode up to the Challenger as if she belonged there—which, of course, she did. She had degrees in physics, astrophysics, and English—what an underachiever! When she saw a NASA newspaper ad seeking astronauts, she applied and got the job.
As some of you know, Frank Kameny was the real thing, one of the great trailblazers in the American gay-rights movement. In the 1950s, he worked as an astronomer for U.S. Army map service—until they discovered he was gay, and fired him. He spent his life fighting back, and by the time he died last October, he had been vindicated. He was in the room when President Barack Obama signed the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." He had a Washington, D.C. street named after him. How do you top that?