2011

BOOK REVIEW | Cells, Gels, and the Engines of Life by Gerald H. Pollack Thumbnail

A revised vision of basic cell biology

Science fiction blends science and story, but stories and images are among the building blocks of science itself to a greater extent than most people realize. The most engaging science books tackle the narratives that scientists believe and on which they base study designs and interpretations. Cells, Gels, and the Engines of Life provides a detailed case study of how such scientific stories and simple mental images operate to guide entire fields over decades – and not always along the best available paths.

With everything from bio-engineering to bio-hazards of keen interest in the popular and science-fictional imaginations, it is important to be clear on the fundamentals of how cells work. We might have thought we already knew, but this book questions a whole list of “textbook” fundamentals and offers an alternative, integrated framework for explaining a wide range of cell functions.

Once a misguided view has been established in any field, not only in economics, but apparently also even fields such as cell biology with relatively few obvious sources of political distortion, it can take a rare blend of courage, expertise, and clarity to budge things in a new direction. This can emerge not only in the storied times of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo, but even today. It still takes a heroic protagonist to put it all together and say it out loud against layers of convention. Meet Dr. Gerald H. Pollack,  the author, professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington.

A master class in scientific thinking

Anyone with a firm reading ability can delve into this book and might be surprised, given the school-inflicted association of basic science instruction with soporific textbooks, to be sucked in on the first page. This is much more than a book about how cells work; it is a master class in fresh and precise scientific thinking, an art much in need of renaissance in an age of truth by click-through count, research-grant total, and mere widespread assertion.

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MOVIE REVIEW | J. Edgar: Power, Both Pathetic and Terrifying Thumbnail

J. Edgar, the new film directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, is making the news for dealing frankly with the decades old rumors concerning Hoover’s private life. But that’s not what makes the film immensely valuable. Its finest contributions are its portrait of the psycho-pathologies of the powerful and its chronicle of the step-by-step rise of the American police state from the interwar years through the first Nixon term.

The current generation might imagine that the egregious overreaching of the state in the name of security is something new, perhaps beginning after 9/11. The film shows that the roots stretch back to 1919, with Hoover’s position at the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation under attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer. Here we see the onset of the preconditions that made possible the American leviathan.

Palmer had been personally targeted in a series of bomb attacks launched by communist-anarchists who were pursuing vendettas for the government’s treatment of political dissidents during the first world war. These bombings unleashed the first great “red scare” in American history and furnished the pretext for a gigantic increase in federal power in the name of providing security. In a nationwide sweep, more than 60,000 people were targeted, 10,000 arrested, 3,500 were detained, and 556 people were deported. The Washington Post editorial page approved: “There is no time to waste on hairsplitting over infringement of liberties.”

Here we have the model for how the government grows. The government stirs up some extremists, who then respond, thereby providing the excuse the government needs for more gaining more power over everyone’s lives. The people in power use the language of security but what’s really going on here is all about the power, prestige, and ultimate safety of the governing elite, who rightly assume that they are ones in the cross hairs. Meanwhile, in the culture of fear that grips the country – fear of both public and private violence – official organs of opinion feel compelled to go along, while most everyone else remains quiet and lets it all happen.

The remarkable thing about the life of Hoover is his longevity in power at every step of the way. With every new frenzy, every shift in the political wind, every new high profile case, he was able to use the events of the day to successfully argue for eliminating the traditional limits on federal police power. One by one the limitations fell, allowing him to build his empire of spying, intimidation, and violence, regardless of who happened to be the president at the time.

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Google Currents is a just-released free news reader app for iOS and Android that is intended as a competitor for Flipboard and Yahoo! Livestand.

Once you have installed the app on your phone or tablet, you can add the Currents edition of Prometheus Unbound by navigating to this url in your browser:

http://www.google.com/producer/editions/CAow7P0U/prometheus_unbound.

If you haven’t installed the app already, you will be prompted and given options to do so.

Google already has “more than 150 publishing partners to offer full-length articles from more than 180 editions including CNET, AllThingsD, Forbes, Saveur, PBS, Huffington Post, Fast Company and more. Content is optimized for smartphones and tablets, allowing you to intuitively navigate between words, pictures and video on large and small screens alike, even if you’re offline.”

Find out more from the official announcement on the Google Mobile blog.

Here’s a video introduction:

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Wĭthûr Wē by Matthew Bruce Alexander

Wĭthûr Wē by Matthew Bruce Alexander

Over at Ars Gratia Libertatis (Art for the Sake of Liberty), ADUCKNAMEDJOE has a list of what he considers to be the five best free libertarian novels. The first novel of our very own Matthew Alexander made the list.

  1. Alongside Night by J. Neil Schulman
  2. Wĭthûr Wē by Matthew Alexander (Help out the author and Prometheus Unbound by buying a copy.)
  3. Time Will Run Back by Henry Hazlitt (Help out the Mises Institute by buying a physical or digital copy.)
  4. And Then There Were None by Eric Frank Russel
  5. A Lodging of Wayfaring Men by Paul A. Rosenberg

ADUCKNAMEDJOE also throws in as a bonus a free libertarian short story, “Lippidleggin’ by F. Paul Wilson, about circumventing food prohibition laws. Head on over to Ars Gratia Libertatis to read his descriptions of these stories.

What do you think of the items on the list? Is anything missing?

~*~

Also via Ars Gratia Libertatis, a couple of videos on the importance of art and culture for liberty:

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MOVIE REVIEW | Being There and Limitless: Is Power Stupid or Smart? Thumbnail

If you seek power over others, how much of an advantage does raw intelligence gain you?

If you look at the makeup of the US Congress — which now has a 9% percent approval rating — or if you watch the Republican debates, you are not immediately inclined to label either the smart set.  In fact, you have to be a dim bulb to repeatedly say many of the things that seem necessary for electability. On the other hand, a certain amount of cleverness is obviously necessary to outwit the media and your opponents.

Which is it? Two films that explore the relationship between power and brains are Being There (1979) and Limitless (2011). The films came out thirty years apart but deal with the same issues. Being There suggests that being dumb as a chicken is a huge advantage for those who seek political success. Limitless suggests that politics is the inevitable trajectory of a person who is far more intelligent than everyone else. Which is more realistic?

I’ll state my own view up front: politics is a gigantic waste of brains. If a person really has a gift for high-level thought, almost any profession would be a greater betterment to society and probably more self-fulfilling in the long run. Whereas it was probably once true that the political life attracted some of the best and brightest, it no longer seems true at all today.

Being There is both hilarious and serious, worth sitting down with at least once every few election seasons. Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine star in this adaptation of a novel by Jerzy Kosinski about an illiterate and simple-minded man named Chance who happened to be in the right place at the right time. His utterances are few and most concern what he has done his entire life, which has been to tend one garden on one estate and otherwise watch television.

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Kosmos Online

Kosmos OnlineThe Institute for Humane Studies, through its academic social network Kosmos Online, has an irregular podcast series on science fiction and liberty of the “Themes of Liberty in (insert favorite sci fi tv show/book/game here)” variety.

Here’s a list of the episodes so far:

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The Thing

The ThingThe Thing, a remake of a remake of a solid sci-fi/horror film directed by, despite what the credits may tell you, Howard Hawks, is being projected onto silver screens in dollar theaters across the country right now. While a viewing of the movie does not immediately make clear why theater space would be made available for such a project, I strongly suspect that in the current climate of more-CGI-less-story-less-character, none of the other reels delivered to theaters contained anything more promising. In other words, for about the same reason I occasionally find myself eating broccoli. The best thing I can say for it is that there were a handful of stretches, some of them two or three minutes in duration, in which I forgot how forgettable the movie was.

In this third generation version, a young, good-looking scientist is asked to come to Antarctica and given no clear reason why. She is only told that it is important. When she arrives, she discovers the scientists stationed there are excavating an alien spacecraft buried in the ice a hundred thousand years ago. They have found a creature, also buried in the ice, that they believe came along with the ship. It is nothing more than a blurry form under the translucent surface, and next to nothing about it has been discovered.

They dig out a block of ice containing the extraterrestrial but, because this is sci-fi/horror, it escapes and is so unfriendly that people start dying. The rest of the movie is a desperate fight to survive in the most inhospitable environment offered on this planet that still has breathable air. For those keeping track, yes, there is a black man in this movie. No, he doesn’t make it. And that’s not a spoiler, either. As soon as I reported the monster’s escape from its prison you knew no black man was going to live long enough to read the credits.

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