July 9, 2018 in 2,336 words

Yellowstone Is in Serious Trouble

But how can we adequately respond under the current federal government?


All hrough my childhood, every summer, I attended a day camp called Nature Training School in a wooded expanse of north Worcester county in Massachusetts. My father had a summer job teaching there, so my tuition was free. NTS was born in the postwar, pre-Earth Day enthusiasm for what was then called “ecology” or, occasionally, “conservation.” (There were several copies of Aldo Leopold’s seminal Sand County Almanac in our tiny library. I first read it under a huge grandfather of an oak tree.)

It was a great place to be a kid. We learned about birds and trees. (You can’t fool me with a shagbark hickory or a yellow warbler. Don’t bring that weak-ass shit into my kitchen, Meat.) We caught frogs and turtles and the occasional snake. We learned how to make a fire and pitch a tent. We sang songs and, yes, even pledged allegiance every morning as the hawks cried in harmony above us. It was a great place to be a kid.

What was drilled into us as a fundamental truth of existence was that all life was connected. We instinctively knew about “food chains” before the word had passed into common parlance. We were taught about how every species is connected to every other one. This definitely included our own. Life was a domino theory that actually worked out. That is the lesson as deeply embedded in my basic education as any other.

And it was a lesson that roused itself out of a long slumber when a friend sent me a link to a terrific piece in National Geographic about how all hell is breaking loose in Yellowstone National Park’s ecosystem. The wrong kind of trout have invaded the park’s waterways and they’re killing all the right kind of trout, so the eagles and other raptors have started killing all the other birds.


IN 1905, THE TITANS OF PUBLISHING SAID WHAT THEY REALLY THOUGHT OF WOMEN WRITERS

TEST OF TIME


You’re in my seat.

Has feminism gone too far? Are women taking over in fields where, let’s be honest, men are more naturally suited? A century ago, America’s liberal elite asked the exact same questions as those people today who feel men are under attack, and that diversity measures are just veiled PC police work.

This day in 1905, the New York Times published “The Rivalry of the Sexes in Literature: Is Woman Crowding out Man from the Field of Fiction?” Big American book publishers at the time–and the white men who ran them—gave the Times their answers (pdf).

The responses ranged. Many were benign, even relatable, by today’s standards. They also contained plentiful gentle patronizing toward women, with one overtly sexist response.

“Good literature—who cares whether it comes from men or from women? The more from both the better,” wrote Walter H. Page of then-Doubleday, Page, and Co., which later become Doubleday, today a part of Penguin Random House. “No publisher, to my knowledge, takes the sex question into consideration in weighing the worth of a manuscript,” Robert McClure of McClure, Phillips and Co. wrote, implausibly, “Men and women have equal chances—absolutely equal.”

Two publishers responded that women had had success so far in writing popular fiction—but not yet in literature that would last the ages. A man from the bookseller Brentano’s, presumably then-president Simon Brentano, wrote that a woman was simply incapable of writing great novels. “Can women mentally grasp history complete on all sides, deduct and recast, and transmit the same in an orderly and illuminative manner as has been done by the authorities of the classical, middle, and modern periods?” he said.


The IRS doesn’t know how to get in touch with American expats. But it can revoke their passports.

YOU GOT MAIL


Access denied.

Thousands of Americans could be denied a new or renewed passport if they don’t settle their tax bills soon. But if they live abroad, they may not even know that they owe money to the Internal Revenue Service—the tax agency reportedly struggles to send mail to foreign addresses.

At least 362,000 Americans risk having their requests to renew or get a new passport denied if they’ve failed to settle overdue tax debts, according to a recent report by the Wall Street Journal. According to a new policy, the IRS is sending names of Americans affected by this law to the State Department, which confirms it has already denied passports to some debtors. The State Department also has the power to revoke debtors’ passports, though for now authorities are focusing on denying new passport requests.

But a 2015 report issued by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) point to a particular problem for Americans living abroad: “IRS data systems are not designed to accommodate the different styles of international addresses, which can cause notices to be undeliverable. Other factors complicate the delivery of international mail, making its delivery less certain than domestic correspondence.”


Google’s Duplex AI could kill the call center

CALLED OUT


“Hello, this is a human speaking. No, I swear.”

The robots on the other side of the customer support line could soon start to sound a lot more human.

Google is reportedly shopping its Duplex AI system around as a tool for call centers, according to The Information, including a large insurance company.

Duplex would handle simple calls for the insurance company, and if the customer started asking complex questions the bot can’t handle a human would step in, according to the report. However, it’s unlikely that AI research will cease after mastering simple conversations, meaning call centers could one day be largely automated using this technology.

The AI system was first debuted at Google’s I/O developer conference in May, where it was demonstrated making calls to local businesses to place reservations on behalf of Google Assistant users. After public outcry at the implication of people in the future not knowing whether they were talking to humans or machines, Google adapted the bot’s introduction so it clearly explains it’s not a human.


Great News: Wearing A Tie Might Be Choking Your Brain

During these summer months, office workers will curse the day it was decided they all had to lumber around in hot, restricting suits. But there might be a more valid reason besides sweat to finally do away with the classic suit-and-tie combo.

We’ve talked before how science seems hellbent on proving that workplace environments are just an overly long slog through a morass of incompetence. But this latest finding seems to divert the onus of having mush for brains away from the suits and onto the … suits. Or the neckties, to be specific. As we all know, the neck is the vital yet rickety bridge between your head and the rest of your body, transporting precious blood upwards (and precious nachos downwards). And it turns out that when you tie a tie around all those delicate veins, they get restricted. The clue was in the name, really.

Who needs a functioning brain when you can look professional?

In a study published in Neuroradiology, German doctors conducted a study on the effects of wearing restrictive neckties on the blood flow in the brain. The study recruited 30 healthy young men and put them into two groups. One group had to wear a tightly tied tie, while the other served as a control group chilling in open-collared shirts like a bunch of common drug kingpins. Through MRI scanning, the researchers noticed that, on average, wearing a buttoned-up shirt with a tie reduced the amount of blood going to the brain by a staggering 7.5 percent. Even more jarring, after the subjects got to pop their top buttons and loosen their ties, their blood flow still kept declining by as much as 12.8 percent. So even that cool “I just got off work” look you sport during after-hour drinks isn’t helping you sound any smarter.


A CONGOLESE ARTIST’S FANTASTICAL CITYSCAPES BLEND WAKANDA AND WES ANDERSON

CITY DREAMS


“Kimbembele Ihunga” in detail. (1994)

A new show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City will delight kids, Afrofuturists, and urban planning nerds alike.

“City Dreams,” a retrospective of the Congolese artist Bodys Isek Kingelez, shows his vision of the world: A utopian antidote to corruption and suffering, through whimsical, technicolored, and optimistic architecture. Kingelez, who died in 2015, used paper, tape, and glue, and objects like Coke cans, Christmas ornaments, and hypodermic needles, to create fantastic skyscrapers for existing cities, as well as imagined metropolises in miniature. The show runs until Jan. 1, 2019.

Working predominantly in the 1980s and 1990s, Kingelez created an aesthetic that looks like a mélange of Oz, Candy Land, the Wakanda of the recent Black Panther movie, and Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel.


“Sports Internationaux” (1997)

While walking through “City Dreams,” the viewer might feel out of time. The color-popping skyscrapers look ready to blast off back to the space age, or to a late 19th-century world fair. The label for a 1988 sculpture reads, “Allemagne An 2000”: Germany in 2000. Another work, completed in 2000, imagines the French city Sète in the year 3009.


Why do men want flashy cars and designer clothes? It’s hormonal

STAG PARTY


Men love a Lambo.

Blame it on hormones.

Men’s desire for sports cars, expensive watches, and other luxury items may have deep roots in chemistry. A study of 243 men between the ages of 18 and 55 found that those who got a dose of the male sex hormone testosterone responded with an increased preference for status-signaling goods.

The results, published in Nature Communications, add a biological dimension to the psychology of conspicuous consumption, or using flashy, expensive material goods to broadcast social status. Intriguingly, they also suggest that showing off high-status goods is the human equivalent of the showy evolutionary adaptations seen in certain male animals, such as the peacock’s huge and colorful tail or the incredibly large and heavy antlers of a stag.

Conducted by researchers from University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Western University, INSEAD business school, California Institute of Technology, and ZRT Laboratory, the study gave a random selection of men from among the sample group a dose of testosterone, administered through a topical gel. The other men got a placebo gel. (The researchers used saliva samples to measure the men’s testosterone and other hormones.) The participants then completed tasks to measure their preferences for different types of goods.


The Moon Is a Rorschach Test for Humankind

For millennia, we have stared up at Earth’s glowing companion and found a plethora of shapes and stories in its features.

From our vantage point on Earth, humanity has only ever seen, and will always see, one side of the moon. Our planet’s gray companion rotates on its axis at the same speed that it orbits Earth, a celestial arrangement that keeps the same side perpetually turned toward us.

The landscape has remained largely unchanged for hundreds of millions of years, but we human beings have managed to imagine all kinds of patterns in its craters, where molten lava once flowed, carved into existence by the cosmic collisions that shaped our home in the cosmos. We have turned the moon into a canvas, etching fables and fantasies across its surface in an attempt to make some earthly sense out of its mysticism.

A plethora of interpretations have emerged throughout human history. For some, the lunar features formed the silhouette of a rabbit. For others, the eyes and mouth of a human face. Or a woman and her child. Or an old man lugging firewood, perhaps with a small dog trailing after him. The interpretations arose in a myriad of disparate communities, but they share the same origin: our minds.

The human brain is built to discern familiar images and patterns in places where none exist, a psychological phenomenon known as pareidolia. “It happens because the brain is doing what it’s designed to do, which is to make inferences about what’s in the world based on very limited information,” says Pawan Sinha, a vision and computational-neuroscience professor at MIT. “If I were to see you at a distance of a hundred feet, the image of your face on my retina is going to be very small. But even using just those handful of pixels, the brain has to infer who this person might be.”


FINALLY . . .

The age of heroes is over

MERE MORTALS


We are all flawed.

Oh how the mighty keep falling. It’s been a difficult few years for cultural heroes, as a series of scandals showed that our superstar technologists, movie magnates, writers, and politicians are merely people with serious flaws. Even the memory of celebrity scientist Albert Einstein is losing its shine.

Of late, there’s been nothing but bad news for the once-beloved genius. In May, publication of Einstein’s 1920s travel diaries revealed that the scientist made racist and xenophobic comments about the people he encountered abroad, particularly in China. And in June, a paper in Physics in Perspective (paywall) argued that Einstein wasn’t quite the mythic physicist that pop culture has made him out to be.

University of the Sciences in Philadelphia physics professor and author Paul Halpern writes that the physicist’s early work really did change the world. But even after Einstein stopped meaningfully contributing to the advancement of physics, his later work was sensationalized by a bedazzled press and public on the basis of his celebrity.

“While Einstein became famous because of actual, verifiable achievements, such as the 1919 solar eclipse measurements of his general theory of relativity, the press maintained his fame for many decades thereafter by featuring story after story about his unified field theory attempts,” Halpern tells Quartz. The problem is that these theories couldn’t be proven, and Einstein’s later efforts each ended in failure, says Halpern. Meanwhile, the press ignored other important scientific advances by less famous physicists.

The result was that the public came to understand science as a one-man revolution—not as a cumulative, collective effort.


Ed. More tomorrow? Probably. Possibly. Maybe. Not?