Commentary

Synthetic: An ethnography of life

June 30, 2017
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Synthetic: An ethnography of life

Reposting this fabulous review and commentary by Christina Agapakis at New Scientist on Sophia Roosh’s Synthetic: How Life Got Made—after the jump. *** What is synthetic biology? This question has vexed synthetic biologists and journalists alike since the discipline was named at MIT more than 15 years ago. Is synthetic biology a technique? A goal? A state of mind? In her ethnography of the field, Synthetic, Sophia Roosth offers a useful answer. “Synthetic biologists, by a pragmatic definition, are people who identify as synthetic biologists… at a methodological level what unites this diverse cast of characters is sociology,” she says. The social life of synthetic biologists is just as important to understanding the field as its technical content; it’s the beliefs, ambitions and relationships of these people that make the field what it is. Roosth dives into the history, anthropology and peculiar society of synthetic biologists – of which I consider myself a member, having been trained in a synthetic biology lab across the river from the labs Roosth describes. Synthetic is a traditional anthropological monograph: there are chapters on religion, kinship, property, labour, the household and origin myths. Roosth grounds each chapter in her long-term engagement with the community, and her historical . . .

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Paying the Price: Should College Be Free?

June 26, 2017
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Paying the Price: Should College Be Free?

Just a soundbite from a recent New York Times Magazine piece on free college, fueled by Sara Goldrick-Rab’s efficacious research in Paying the Price, follows below. *** Sara Goldrick-Rab, a self-described “scholar-activist” who teaches higher education policy at Temple University, has a more expansive idea: Make the first two years free for everyone who attends a community college (all of which are public) or four-year state school. Directing more resources to the first two years of college would help people from lower-income families overcome the biggest barrier to their success, which is the living costs associated with housing, food, transportation and books while they attend school. “When students are able to focus on college, and not work, they graduate,” Goldrick-Rab told me recently. The federal government currently gives tens of billions of dollars in grants and subsidies each year to private colleges and for-profit trade schools in the United States, despite the fact that public colleges educate three-quarters of the students pursuing a postsecondary degree. “I say let the privates and for-profits fend for themselves,” Goldrick-Rab says, and put that money instead toward what she sometimes calls Grades 13 and 14. Finishing high school might once have provided enough education to find employment that pays well. . . .

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Natasha K. Warikoo on college admissions (and its flaws)

June 19, 2017
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Natasha K. Warikoo on college admissions (and its flaws)

Below follows a recent op-ed by Natasha K. Warikoo at Inside Higher Ed on our flawed college admissions process—and how it gets personal—drawn from her work and research for The Diversity Bargain. *** I recently participated in two admissions processes. At Harvard University, I chaired a committee that admitted students to one of our doctoral programs. At home, I prepared an application for my son to attend private school next year. Having just written a book about college admissions, I understood all too well that these processes are inherently flawed. I knew before the processes even started, for example, that students admitted in both instances would be more likely than the average young American to have parents with college degrees. I also knew that there would be a disproportionate number of white admits. And, I knew that participation in the process would confirm for most decision-makers and those admitted that these are fair processes that select the “best” candidates. For my son, I had a wealth of knowledge to craft his application. The writing skills I developed as a student at Brown University, my social network of elite college graduates, and my husband’s training at the University of Oxford, surely helped us craft . . .

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Barbara J. King on the legal status of animals

June 16, 2017
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Barbara J. King on the legal status of animals

From an interview with Barbara J. King at Nonhuman Rights Blog: So far in our litigation, no court has challenged the idea that chimpanzees are self-aware, autonomous beings; a New York appellate court judge even called the NhRP’s affidavits from scientists “very impressive.” And yet, all the same, our chimpanzee clients remain legal “things” with no rights even though science and law suggest they should be recognized as legal “persons” with fundamental rights. How might you account for this gap between the science of animal cognition and emotion and animals’ legal status? Why do you think the law is still lagging behind the science as far as animals are concerned? The idea of animals as property or as things is so deeply entrenched in Western systems of law;  it’s hard to shake that loose from what years of animal-behavior, anthropology, and psychology studies tell us about chimpanzees as able to reason, remember, plan, suffer, and take into account factors that affect their own well-being. In thinking about the “why,” I remember Steve talking so movingly about this: we know about the not-so-distant past in which human beings other than white men were considered as property or less-than-human in our legal systems. As . . .

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Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection

June 14, 2017
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Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection

Elle Hunt at the Guardian takes on Evelleen Richards’s expansive account of Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, perhaps the biologist’s most misunderstood and least explored supposition: Richards argues that, more than natural selection, Darwin’s theory of sexual selection was uniquely his own and, perhaps as a result, often misunderstood. His theorizing drew upon a wide range of influences, many of them deeply personal, including his grandfather Erasmus’s radical writings on evolution and his own relationship with his wife. In, On Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection, published last month by the University of Chicago Press, Richards explores this confluence of connections Darwin had to make and, just as crucially, the challenges he had to overcome in order to reach his conclusion. Given the conventional understandings of beauty, gender and sexuality of the Victorian era, it is difficult to overstate how radical Darwin’s theory was at the time. It was the culmination of a lifetime of intellectual legwork – and yet he was constantly called upon to validate it until his death in April 1882. “The accepted point of view was that all the beauty that we experience on Earth was created by God for his own and human delight,” says Richards. . . .

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Tough Enough?

May 22, 2017
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Tough Enough?

From a recent profile of Deborah Nelson’s latest book Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil, at WBUR: In the book’s introduction, Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Chicago, acknowledges that these women initially “do not constitute a recognizable group.” In fact, each was quite determinedly not part of any organized faction. However, by book’s end Nelson has shown that, for all their differences, their work shares an essential bond: unsentimentality. Or, in Nelson’s expanded phrase: an “aesthetic, political, and moral obligation to face painful reality unsentimentally.” This artistic backbone would be useful in any era, but it was especially so in post-WWII America when the scale of suffering from the war, the Holocaust, the atom bomb, was practically impossible to comprehend. These horrors were followed by the Vietnam War, assassinations and the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Nelson posits that there were two primal, contradictory responses to the events: empathy, “that required the public sharing of feelings,” or irony and coolness. The former could devolve into wallowing and the latter could disintegrate into disregard. Neither one a good jumpstart for external action or internal growth. In their work, the women of “Tough Enough” each . . .

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Colin Dickey on Hilda Kean’s The Great Cat and Dog Massacre

May 12, 2017
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Colin Dickey on Hilda Kean’s The Great Cat and Dog Massacre

After the jump: an excerpt from Colin Dickey’s review of Hilda Kean’s The Great Cat and Dog Massacre, at the Los Angeles Review of Books.  *** Pets were like members of the family, and it is here that the real truth of the matter may emerge. In the run-up to the war, many parents spoke candidly of how they would poison their own children rather than force them to live under German occupation. “I have been collecting poisons for some time with guile and cunning,” one housewife reported to the social research project Mass-Observation. “I have sufficient to give self, husband and all the children a lethal dose. I can remember the last war. I don’t want to live through another, or the children either. I shan’t tell them, I shall just do it.” Her sentiment was echoed by numerous others in Britain that summer before the war. “I’d rather see my two boys dead,” a 45-year-old father said. “I’d poison them if I thought it was coming.” When war came, however, no mass murders of children took place. Instead, it appears, many people sublimated this impulse toward mercy killing by exercising it on their animals instead. The mass poisoning of children, . . .

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Microbes from Hell!

May 1, 2017
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Microbes from Hell!

From “Fungi to be with,” a recent joint review of Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes  and Patrick Forterre’s Microbes from Hell in the TLS: Yong takes his readers to the forefront of microbial science by interviewing the relevant researchers, one of whom could have been Patrick Forterrre of the Institut Pasteur. The fact that Yong didn’t make it to Paris makes Forterre’s memoir, Microbes from Hell, read as a clean take on some of the same material, in particular the micro-organisms that have adapted to live in extreme environments. These “extremophiles” can cope with the high temperatures of hot springs and deep sea thermal vents, which are often also highly acidic or abound with sulphur. Others thrive in intensely salty places, or with amounts of radiation that were long thought to be inimical to life. Their adaptations and coexistence with their own viruses have much to tell us about life on earth and its history. To read more about Microbes from Hell, click here. . . .

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Sara Goldrick-Rab: SXSWedu Keynote Address

April 28, 2017
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Sara Goldrick-Rab, whose Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream, made waves in almost every major venue dedicated to the high-stakes consequences of American higher education—from Inside Higher Ed to The Daily Show with Trevor Noah—recently delivered #PricedOut, her keynote address at the 2017 SXSWedu conference. Here’s the official description: One of the most sustained and vigorous public debates today is about the value and crucially, the price of college. But an unspoken, outdated assumption underlies all side of this debate: If a young person works hard enough, they’ll be able to get a college degree and be on the path to a good life. That’s simply not true says sociologist Goldrick-Rab, one of the leading voices on issues of higher education today. In her book and research, she shows why in damning detail. *** You can watch Goldrick-Rab’s talk in full above, or in the meantime, read more about Paying the Price, here. . . .

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Crime Scenes: Donald Westlake on Screen

April 26, 2017
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Crime Scenes: Donald Westlake on Screen

Great news for fans of Donald E. Westlake—aka Richard Stark; aka Alan Marshall; aka, all the other pseudonyms—this May 12–14, the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, NY, is playing host to Crime Scenes, a 7-film series of the author’s screen adaptations, co-curated by Eric Hynes, David Schwartz, and our own Levi Stahl. Among the highlights are the O.G. Point Blank  (May 12, accompanied by a conversation with Abby Westlake, Donald Westlake’s wife, and historian Luc Sante, moderated by LTS), Godard’s Made in the U.S.A. (May 14), and Anjelica Huston’s star turn in The Grifters (May 13). Here’s a more expansive description from MoMI (visit their site to view the complete schedule, here): Donald E. Westlake (1933–2008) was born in Brooklyn and grew up mostly in Albany. He claimed that the first word he learned to read was “police.” “Sometimes,” he wrote, “life really is banal.” As a young man, he moved to New York and learned how to write in large part by seeing how not to do it, assessing submissions at a literary agency that also encouraged amateurs to send in work to be critiqued for a fee. That led to him writing a few stories to spec for low-end magazines, then a stint churning . . .

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