Saturday, April 28, 2012

The killing of Osama bin Laden

The New York Times says:

President Obama is increasingly taking the unusual route of bragging about how he killed a man.
Well, that's one way to put it!

That's how I might expect a very far-left fringe candidate to describe our successful mission to kill the head of al Qaeda. The fact that this kind of approach is being used by mainstream Republicans like John McCain, as a proxy for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, is surprising.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Abortion, same-sex marriage, and gun control

Here are some interesting poll results on American adults' views on those three social issues:

Abortion — There's no significant gender gap on whether it should be legal. Only 4% more women than men think it should always or usually be legal (55% and 51% respectively). There's essentially no difference based on age. There's a huge education gap: 61% of college graduates generally support legal abortion, whereas the figure is just 46% for those with only high school or less (and 57% for Americans who have been to college but haven't graduated).

Same-sex marriage — Support for it is rising dramatically. Just two presidential elections ago, in 2004, twice as many Americans opposed it as supported it. Now, slightly more Americans are for it than are against it. In 2004, more than three times as many people "strongly" opposed it (36%) than "strongly" supported it (11%). Now, the number's the same — 22% feel "strongly" each way.

Gun control — Opposition to strict gun control laws is skyrocketing among blacks and whites. Blacks have always been much more likely than whites to support gun control. But the percentage of blacks who say gun rights are more important than gun control (35%) is now as high as the percentage of whites who said so 20 years ago (37%). A majority of whites take that view now (57%).

(This is from a Pew Research Center poll where they called landlines and cell phones, and then weighted the results based on how much people actually use landlines vs. cell phones.)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

How did art evolve?

E.O. Wilson explores the question. The article is about visual art, literature, and music; here are some of his thoughts on music:

The utilitarian theory of cave art, that the paintings and scratchings depict ordinary life, is almost certainly partly correct, but not entirely so. Few experts have taken into account that there also occurred, in another wholly different domain, the origin and use of music. This event provides independent evidence that at least some of the paintings and sculptures did have a magical content in the lives of the cave dwellers. A few writers have argued that music had no Darwinian significance, that it sprang from language as a pleasant “auditory cheesecake,” as one author once put it. It is true that scant evidence exists of the content of the music itself—just as, remarkably, we have no score and therefore no record of Greek and Roman music, only the instruments. But musical instruments also existed from an early period of the creative explosion. “Flutes,” technically better classified as pipes, fashioned from bird bones, have been found that date to 30,000 years or more before the present. . . .

Other artifacts have been found that can plausibly be interpreted as musical instruments. They include thin flint blades that, when hung together and struck, produce pleasant sounds like those from wind chimes. Further, although perhaps just a coincidence, the sections of walls on which cave paintings were made tend to emit arresting echoes of sound in their vicinity.

Was music Darwinian? Did it have survival value for the Paleolithic tribes that practiced it? Examining the customs of contemporary hunter-gatherer cultures from around the world, one can hardly come to any other conclusion. . . .

Anthropologists have paid relatively little attention to contemporary hunter-gatherer music, relegating its study to specialists on music, as they are also prone to do for linguistics and ethnobotany (the study of plants used by the tribes). Nonetheless, songs and dances are major elements of all hunter-gatherer societies. Furthermore, they are typically communal, and they address an impressive array of life issues. The songs of the well-studied Inuit, Gabon pygmies, and Arnhem Land aboriginals approach a level of detail and sophistication comparable to those of advanced modern civilizations. The musical compositions of modern hunter-gatherers generally serve basically as tools that invigorate their lives. The subjects within the repertoires include histories and mythologies of the tribe as well as practical knowledge about land, plants, and animals. . . .

It is self-evident that the songs and dances of contemporary hunter-gatherer peoples serve them at both the individual and the group levels. They draw the tribal members together, creating a common knowledge and purpose. They excite passion for action. They are mnemonic, stirring and adding to the memory of information that serves the tribal purpose. Not least, knowledge of the songs and dances gives power to those within the tribe who know them best.

To create and perform music is a human instinct. It is one of the true universals of our species. To take an extreme example, the neuroscientist Aniruddh D. Patel points to the Pirahã, a small tribe in the Brazilian Amazon: “Members of this culture speak a language without numbers or a concept of counting. Their language has no fixed terms for colors. They have no creation myths, and they do not draw, aside from simple stick figures. Yet they have music in abundance, in the form of songs.”

. . . To the same degree as literacy and language itself, [music] has changed the way people see the world. Learning to play a musical instrument even alters the structure of the brain, from subcortical circuits that encode sound patterns to neural fibers that connect the two cerebral hemispheres and patterns of gray matter density in certain regions of the cerebral cortex. Music is powerful in its impact on human feeling and on the interpretation of events. It is extraordinarily complex in the neural circuits it employs, appearing to elicit emotion in at least six different brain mechanisms.

Music is closely linked to language in mental development and in some ways appears to be derived from language. The discrimination patterns of melodic ups and downs are similar. But whereas language acquisition in children is fast and largely autonomous, music is acquired more slowly and depends on substantial teaching and practice. There is, moreover, a distinct critical period for learning language during which skills are picked up swiftly and with ease, whereas no such sensitive period is yet known for music. Still, both language and music are syntactical, being arranged as discrete elements—words, notes, and chords. Among persons with congenital defects in perception of music (composing 2 to 4 percent of the population), some 30 percent also suffer disability in pitch contour, a property shared in parallel manner with speech.

Altogether, there is reason to believe that music is a newcomer in human evolution. It might well have arisen as a spin-off of speech. Yet, to assume that much is not also to conclude that music is merely a cultural elaboration of speech. It has at least one feature not shared with speech—beat, which in addition can be synchronized from song to dance.

It is tempting to think that the neural processing of language served a preadaptation to music, and that once music originated it proved sufficiently advantageous to acquire its own genetic predisposition. This is a subject that will greatly reward deeper additional research, including the synthesis of elements from anthropology, psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

National Review makes the case against amending the First Amendment

In an editorial against the terrible idea of amending the First Amendment, the Editors of National Review write:

The phrase “stunning development” is used far too often in our politics, but here is an item that can be described in no other way: . . . congressional Democrats, frustrated by the fact that the Bill of Rights interferes with their desire to muzzle their political opponents, have proposed to repeal the First Amendment.

That is precisely what the so-called People’s Rights Amendment would do. If this amendment were to be enacted, the cardinal rights protected by the First Amendment — free speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom to petition the government for redress of grievances — would be redefined and reduced to the point of unrecognizability. The amendment would hold that the rights protected by the Constitution are enjoyed only by individuals acting individually; individuals acting in collaboration with others would be stripped of those rights. . . .

The so-called People’s Rights Amendment would have some strange consequences: Newspapers, television networks, magazines, and online journalism operations typically are incorporated. So are political parties and campaign committees, to say nothing of nonprofits, business associations, and the like. Under the People’s Rights Amendment, Thomas Friedman would still enjoy putative First Amendment protection, but it would not do him much good inasmuch as the New York Times Company, being a corporation, would no longer be protected by the First Amendment. . . .

One of the great dangers of such efforts to regulate political speech is that it puts incumbents in charge of setting the rules of the game under which their power and their position may be challenged. That is a recipe for abuse and corruption, and for smothering those critics who would draw attention to abuse and corruption.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Newt Gingrich's Secret Service protection

It's probably costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars a day, even though Gingrich has all but admitted that Mitt Romney is going to be the nominee. This is a particularly clear, though not shocking, example of how politicians put their own egos above their professed concern for reducing government waste.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Teacher fired for getting pregnant without being married

She was engaged, but that wasn't good enough for the private Christian school. She even offered to get married in order to keep her job, but the school explained that this was irrelevant to their decision. The school's objection isn't to raising a child outside of a marriage, but to the very act of getting pregnant.