Blogs

One Small Step for Gay Science, One Giant Step Back for Gay Rights?

| Tue Dec. 11, 2007 8:27 PM EST

Scientists recently determined how to make gay fruit flies straight, and vice versa. The findings published in Nature Neuroscience this week conjure up disturbing images of big pharma manufacturing drugs that erase homosexual desire while the religious right markets them.

This discovery makes Gary Greenberg's "Gay By Choice?" published in Mother Jones in September/October 2007 all the more relevant. The gay rights movement has been hoping science would vindicate it for far too long. But what if science proves that gayness is not an immutable trait, or worse, finds a way to "cure" it? Isn't it time, as Greenberg argues, "to find reasons other than medical science to insist that people ought to be able to love whom they love"?

—Celia Perry

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China's Bad Air Could Postpone Olympic Events

| Tue Dec. 11, 2007 8:16 PM EST

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The International Olympic Committee is threatening to reschedule parts of the 2008 Beijing Games, set for next August, if China can't prove that its air is safe for athletes, reports the BBC. Affected would be competitions involving endurance, such as foot and bicycle races.

Chinese officials already have been working overtime to reduce air pollution in its capital, especially since the United Nations reported last October that levels were more than three times what's acceptable. The government has dismantled or relocated factories and removed high-polluting taxis and buses from roads. As a last ditch effort, China recently launched a campaign called "guard the blue sky" that involves cracking down on dusty construction sites and even outdoor kebab vendors.

For more on China's pollution disaster, and its efforts to tidy up before the Olympics, check out Jacques Leslie's cover story for our January/February issue, which has been posted here.


Two Inconsistencies from Obama's Past

| Tue Dec. 11, 2007 6:32 PM EST

obama-flag.jpg A survey asking for positions on almost three dozen issues that Barack Obama filled out in 1996 as a state senate candidate shows that Obama has been a strong progressive for his entire (albeit relatively short) political career. On two issues, however, he held bolder and more liberal positions than he does currently. Here's Politico:

"Do you support … capital punishment?" one question asked.
"No," the 1996 Obama campaign typed, without explaining his answer in the space provided.
"Do you support state legislation to … ban the manufacture, sale and possession of handguns?" asked one of the three dozen questions.
"Yes," was Obama's entire answer.

The PDFs of the survey are available on Politico's site. Obama now says that he does support the death penalty, but only in limited circumstances, such as for a particularly awful crime. On handguns, he says he is for "common-sense limits" but not bans.

Is it troubling that Obama switched his position on these issues? Somewhat, yes. Obama is supposed to be the purist candidate in the Democratic race, the one who doesn't change his beliefs based on possible political advantages. But that said, if these two shifts, which are relatively minor, are the biggest inconsistencies his opponents can point to, they probably ought to look elsewhere. Like at the fact that his political career began in just 1996.

Best Albums of 2007: Critical Consensus Emerging?

| Tue Dec. 11, 2007 4:24 PM EST

There's still like 20 days left in 2007, but some journalists have decided to ignore all the potential hot platters that could emerge between now and December 31st and go ahead an issue their Best of 2007 lists. Now we at The Riff are tallying up our opinions and will present the definitive top ten albums of the year next week, but for now, here's a little graph of some of the big albums and where various publications are ranking them. It's decidedly unscientific: I just picked eight magazines whose lists I could find online, and then included albums with at least two mentions, and at least one of those in a top ten, and then ranked the albums by number of mentions. And what have we learned? White people really like white people! Sure, the sample is skewed towards some rockist, British mags, but no Kanye? Jay-Z? Lil Wayne? Come on, critics!

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Nurses on Cheney: "He'd Probably Be Dead by Now"

| Tue Dec. 11, 2007 4:02 PM EST

nurses-cheney.jpg These nurses have sass. The California Nurses Association (CNA)/National Nurses Organizing Committee (NNOC) are running this newspaper advertisement in the top 10 Iowa newspapers, cheering universal health insurance and poking Dick Cheney with a sharp stick. In case you can't read the fine print, I'll type some of it here.

"The patient's history and prognosis were grim: four heart attacks, quadruple bypass surgery, angioplasty, an implanted defibrillator and now an emergency procedure to treat an irregular heartbeat.

"For millions of Americans, this might be a death sentence. For the vice president, it was just another medical treatment. And it cost him very little.

"Unlike the average American, the president, vice president and members of Congress all enjoy government-financed health care with few restrictions or prohibitive fees. They are never turned away for pre-existing conditions or denied care for what an insurance company labels "experimental treatments."

"The rest of us deserve no less."

This Is Your Brain on Music

| Tue Dec. 11, 2007 4:00 PM EST

brain%20200.jpgFor the past few years, I've been posing a question to all my music-enthusiast friends: Why do we like music? And more specifically, why do we like the particular music that we do? "There's no accounting for taste" simply doesn't cut it for me. I'd like someone to explain to me exactly what accounts for musical taste. So far, though, no one's been able to answer my question definitively.

All this has, however, led to some pretty interesting nature-vs.-nurture discussions. Most people I've asked are cheering for nurture. "My older brother was really into hardcore, and I ended up stealing all his mixtapes," they'll say. Or, "I liked this guy in high school who played in a punk band." Even, "I used to dance around my living room to my parents' Paul Simon tapes, so I've always had a soft spot for folk music."

So it's pretty clear that formative musical experiences influence our music preferences at least a little, but there's some scientific evidence that there's an organic component, too. Today, I came across an Innovation Canada interview with Daniel Levitin, a McGill University neuroscience professor who studies music's effect on our brains. Now don't get your hopes up: Levitin says that scientists have a long way to go before they'll be able to answer the taste question. But what's really interesting is Levitin's unique research method:

IC: You emphasize using actual music — not abstract electronic sounds — in your studies. Is rap music by Busta Rhymes better than classical Bach for your research purposes?
DL: Part of the challenge in designing a rigorous experiment is ensuring that each subject has something equivalent. In the old way of thinking, you played everybody the same piece of music, but if you hate classical music and I make you sit for an hour and answer difficult questions about music while listening to Beethoven, I may not be getting meaningful answers out of the experiment. The newer way of thinking is that we need to be flexible about equivalence across subjects. That doesn't mean a loss of rigour, it means that you might have an experiment where everyone brings in their own music and each subject serves as their own control. So, the experiment may steer more to [rapper] Ludacris than [virtuoso pianist/composer] Liszt depending on who your subject is.

So even if he can't explain taste, Levitin is obviously acknowledging that it exists—and that it's important. My challenge to Levitin: Find me a scientific explanation for the fact that anyone was ever into the Doors. Now that would be impressive.

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Study This! Separating Siblings for Science

| Tue Dec. 11, 2007 2:36 PM EST

These two women had always known they were adopted but had no idea that they had a sibling, let alone an identical twin!

At 35, when one started searching for her birth family, they found out that researchers had intentionally separated them, and as many other twins and triplets as they could get their mitts on, specifically so they could study the nature v. nurture thing. To top it all off, these separated siblings have no legal recourse. The study results won't even be available until 2066. Did the birth parents know their kids would be separated?

I guess I'd have made a lousy scientist because there's no way I could ever have devised, or agreed to, something so callous. Here's hoping they don't give up on the legal angle so no one ever comes up with this type of psychological Tuskegee experiment again.

Led Zeppelin & Portishead: Video

| Tue Dec. 11, 2007 2:17 PM EST

You know you want to watch. First up, Zep:

Led Zeppelin - "Whole Lotta Love" (Live at O2 Arena, 12/10/07)

The first thing one notices is: so many dudes, and so much bald. Anyone with a fetish for paunchy bald guys with a lot of money would be in heaven at this show. But then, that riff starts up, sounding even on this cell phone camera like it's being played by the finger of God, and you remember what the fuss is about. Wait, where's my hair going and why am I so flabby around the middle?

Quick, before we get too old, let's watch Portishead:

Portishead - Unknown New Song (Live at ATP 2007, 12/7/07)

Well! Now that's... noisy? Actually, after a minute, the clanking industrial drums become kind of hypnotic, and singer Beth Gibbons' voice is still powerful, both delicate and anguished. It's a catch-22 for bands like this: the reason they gained such enormous adoration was their boundary-pushing innovativeness, but then how do you progress and continue to innovate without losing what made you special? Apparently by out-clamoring Nine Inch Nails. Hmm.

The Candidates Go Negative - All of Them

| Tue Dec. 11, 2007 2:14 PM EST

It's getting dirty out there.

Obama has released an opposition research paper on Edwards, Clinton has released an opposition research paper on Obama, Romney has released an attack ad on Huckabee, McCain has issued a statement slamming Romney for attacking Huckabee, and a Clinton deputy campaign manager has sent out an apparently drunk email requesting dirt on Obama's work as a South Side organizer in Chicago.

If this sort of stuff turns your stomach, go ahead and turn off your television for the next two months. From now until February 6, it's crunch time.

Female Genital Mutilation and Male Circumcision: Both Wrong, Dammit

| Tue Dec. 11, 2007 2:14 PM EST

My post last week on the debate around female circumcision is still on my mind, as well as the world's. Today, a NY Times piece on male circumcision, as well as my original post, has me thinking. OK. Circumcising baby boys is wrong, too. Happy now?

I gave little thought to my own son's future, let alone his rights, when I left that decision up to his father since I knew what he'd decide. Had I been on my own, I'm sure I would have had it done with little thought but at least, that way, I had plausible deniability going for me if Junior came after me in the future. That was 2001 and the backlash against the practice was in its infancy. Now, though, I don't see how you can support the practice for men but not for women. Of course, circumcising anesthetized babies in a hospital is a far cry from doing it to 12 year old in the village square. Still, adding an operating room in the latter instance might be painless but nonetheless wrong. If either a boy or a girl wants to be circumcised once adult, who's to complain (see: breast implants and 're-virgination' procedures)? But until the health claims made for male circumscision are proven (see the above article), it's hard to see how the practice can be justified on grounds of tradition alone.

Man, I hate having to carry my thoughts through to uncomfortable conclusions. I'd rather change a 1,000 mouse traps than my mind.

(Also, see the Huffington Post on a western woman's investigative foray behind the veil since there's a pretty straight line between it and FGM.)