Embryology: The Biology of Development

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Brilliant video from Edge.org.

Lewis Wolpert, Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology of University College, London, gives a brief walk-thru of some of the latest developments in embryology.

Cell biology is among the most mysterious and fascinating areas in science. So how do cells know to grow a hand instead of an elbow? Wolpert suggest a “buffer zone” that directs anatomical construction based on timing. The experiments referenced in the video support the hypothesis – just amazing!

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There is No Shame is Self-Publishing

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A little article today in the New York Times about the still growing business of self-publishing.

It has become increasingly common and is, like online dating, no longer something to be ashamed of. The traditional publishing industry is crumbling in large measure for the same reason that newspapers continue to do so. They are victims of the democratization of media.

You are now the gatekeeper. Writers should utilize all the tools at their disposal to reach their audience without the stifling interference and failing business model of big publishing.

In a tangentially related editorial, David Swensen and Michale Schmidt, write about newspapers seeking endowments and not-for-profit status to survive. A brilliant idea this commentator has been suggesting for a couple of years.


The Writer’s Lament

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Timothy Egan put the lament of all but the most successful writers into his column on Sunday in the New York Times. His complaint?

A plaintive why.

Why do publishers shovel out so much crap (witness Joe the Plumber’s book deal)? Why do people who can barely string together a sentence – like Sarah Palin – get $7 million advances? Why do so many people think they can write? And why does celebrity crowd out real writers in the marketplace?

As someone who has experienced publishing rejection firsthand, I feel his pain. But everything is relative, a matter of degrees. I have been told by my agent that if I was Bob Woodward or Thomas Friedman, my book (which I now intend to self-publish) would have been published. (A palliative explanation perhaps, but not impossible to imagine).

Those two, as examples, are celebrity writers crowding out a young unknown. Why shouldn’t I feel resentment for them? Why shouldn’t I feel resentment for Tim Egan? I wouldn’t mind writing a column for the New York Times.

Furthermore, who is to judge who is a writer? True, writers must demonstrate command of the language, but otherwise the barriers to entry are ridiculously low. A pen and a piece of paper. Who is to judge whether or not someone is a worthy writer?

Right now, it is simply the gatekeepers of America’s literary and journalistic brands. And, in this world, they are increasingly pressured to sell. What sells? Celebrity, name recognition, and really lousy fiction. (And, by-the-way, it doesn’t hurt if you roomed with that future editor back at Vassar.) Once in a while, something new, original, and previously unknown squeaks through by virtue of mere talent alone. But that is indeed rare.

So what is to be done?

Storm the ramparts. Blog, self-publish, start your own journal or imprint. Thousands (if not millions) of writers are already doing these things, and by doing so, they are shaking the foundations of the literary and journalistic establishments. Yes, they’re largely unpaid, and that is painful to writers who seek to make a living from the word. But don’t blame a writer for writing. Real writers are going to write whether they are paid or not.

And don’t blame the business of publishing for shoveling out crap that sells more than the hidden gems. If you want to make a living writing, then you’ve got to respect the marketplace. As a voracious reader of fiction and non-fiction, I can tell you that even among the “respectable” work by “real” writers, there is a hell of a lot of crap.

So do not lament a dying business and standards that protect a lucky few. Sure, Hemingway and Joan Didion deserve(d) their places and fees, and yes, Sarah Palin is an ignorant disgrace, but, ultimately, the market will decide who makes their coin as a writer.

Your best option is to put yourself in the role of gatekeeper. This is a time of empowerment for writers. Seize your moment and reach out to the marketplace directly.

Save your lament for the poor fools who actually put down their hard earned money only to find the Sarah Palin story doesn’t include nude photos.


Race and IQ

Saturday, December 6, 2008

James Flynn (the Flynn effect demonstrates that IQ improves over generations, indicating the influence of environmental factors in forming IQ) wrote in New Scientist a couple of months ago about African-Americans and IQ. The article is only available to subscribers, but the Cambridge University Press blog has the whole piece.

On average over the last 30 years, African-Americans score 15 points lower on IQ tests than whites. Flynn believes, and there is considerable evidence to support this, that the cause of this difference is not related to genetics, but to environment.

His main point?

I believe we must show that the environments in which black children are raised are on average less cognitively demanding than those of most other ethnic groups.

He goes into a long (I believe flawed) analysis of the “black marriage market.” His take:

Government statistics show that at birth there are 104 black boys for every 100 girls. Between ages 25 and 45, six more men than women are dead, leaving 98 men for every 100 women. Of these 98 men, nine are in jail, eight are missing and 21 are employed less than half-time. That leaves 60 “promising” black men – men who are alive, employed and not convicted felons. Also consider that promising black men living with a non-black partner outnumber white men with a black partner by three. That leaves only 57 black men for every 100 women in a position to be a permanent partner.

Out of 100 black women, 43 face the choice of either having a child by a black man who is unlikely to settle down with them or going childless.

This, of course, assumes that of the 100 women he started with all are “promising.” I don’t disagree with his general thrust, but surely the numbers are overly stark. In any case, he points this problem out to make the case that:

There is a strong case that black Americans suffer from a series of disadvantageous environments. Studies show time and again that before they go to school, black children are on average exposed to a smaller vocabulary than white children, in part due to socioeconomic factors.

Obviously, an incredibly sensitive issue, because it’s an indictment. But it also is a cause for some hope, because the problem – a cultural and environmental one – is not fixed and can be changed.

Flynn sums up:

I believe that America, however, has been reluctant to really examine the cause of the racial IQ gap or the factors that create the black marriage market, let alone come up with credible plan to deal with it. Perhaps those who strongly object to my views will show how American society can be affecting black IQ without doing something extremely tough and unpleasant to the immediate environment black children experience.

Shouts about class will not do, nor will claims of test bias or stereotyping. America will have to address all the aspects of black experience that are disadvantageous, beginning with the regeneration of inner city neighbourhoods and their schools. A resident police office and teacher in every apartment block would be a good start. Only heresy can give an environmental explanation of the black IQ deficit. To run away from debate is like unilateral disarmament: it leaves the enemy in possession of the field.


The Historical Bible

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Wonderful Nova episode last night on PBS about trying to connect archaeological findings with the history of the Bible.

This is not an area where I feel well versed, but the show was eye-opening. Among biblical scholars, historians, and archaeologists, there seems to be a general consensus that the Israelites were originally Canaanites (that seems politically expedient, too) and that a small group emerged from Egypt and fused with these Canaanites in the central highlands (what is now the Westbank) to create the Jewish people.

The story of Exodus was likely brought by this small group. There is some evidence that indicates these migrants worshiped a god with the name Yahweh.

This took place between roughly 1300 and 1000 BCE.

Fascinating stuff. And, naturally, subject to some dispute. For my money, this kind of scholarship, divorced from the prerogatives of belief, is essential for human cultural evolution. The Bible is a complex and unmatched tapestry of myth and history. It is not, by any stretch, the word of God. The more we learn, the clearer that becomes.

The episode will be available on the PBS website later today. Here is a supporting interview from the site with Carol Meyers, an archeologist and professor of religion at Duke University.

Worth watching.


Why Francis Fukuyama is Voting Obama

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

From the American Conservative:

I’m voting for Barack Obama this November for a very simple reason. It is hard to imagine a more disastrous presidency than that of George W. Bush. It was bad enough that he launched an unnecessary war and undermined the standing of the United States throughout the world in his first term. But in the waning days of his administration, he is presiding over a collapse of the American financial system and broader economy that will have consequences for years to come. As a general rule, democracies don’t work well if voters do not hold political parties accountable for failure. While John McCain is trying desperately to pretend that he never had anything to do with the Republican Party, I think it would a travesty to reward the Republicans for failure on such a grand scale.

Works for me.


Krugman Win Nobel Prize

Monday, October 13, 2008

I have only one beef with Paul Krugman and that was his principled, though insanely misguided, support for John Edwards(!) in the primaries (because of his health care plan and populist platform).

Otherwise, Krugman rules. I don’t know anything about this economic theory, but his writing on economics is always accessible and clarifying and he has been a beacon throughout this crisis period. He was also, inarguably, the most consistent and convincing New York Times columnist throughout the Bush presidency. I am sure this is well deserved.

Congratulations to Paul Krugman!