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Environmental Scientist

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Gotham from Above

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The Strange Inevitability of Evolution


Is the natural world creative? Just take a look around it. Look at the brilliant plumage of tropical birds, the diverse pattern and shape of leaves, the cunning stratagems of microbes, the dazzling profusion of climbing, crawling, flying, swimming things. Look at the “grandeur” of life, the “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful,” as Darwin put it. Isn’t that enough to persuade you?

Ah, but isn’t all this wonder simply the product of the blind fumbling of Darwinian evolution, that mindless machine which takes random variation and sieves it by natural selection? Well, not quite. You don’t have to be a benighted creationist, nor even a believer in divine providence, to argue that Darwin’s astonishing theory doesn’t fully explain why nature is so marvelously, endlessly inventive. “Darwin’s theory surely is the most important intellectual achievement of his time, perhaps of all time,” says evolutionary biologist Andreas Wagner of the University of Zurich. “But the biggest mystery about evolution eluded his theory. And he couldn’t even get close to solving it.”

What Wagner is talking about is how evolution innovates: as he puts it, “how the living world creates.” Natural selection supplies an incredibly powerful way of pruning variation into effective solutions to the challenges of the environment. But it can’t explain where all that variation came from. As the biologist Hugo de Vries wrote in 1905, “natural selection may explain the survival of the fittest, but it cannot explain the arrival of the fittest.” Over the past several years, Wagner and a handful of others have been starting to understand the origins of evolutionary innovation. Thanks to their findings so far, we can now see not only how Darwinian evolution works but why it works: what makes it possible.

A popular misconception is that all it takes for evolution to do something new is a random mutation of a gene—a mistake made as the gene is copied from one generation to the next, say. Most such mutations make things worse—the trait encoded by the gene is less effective for survival—and some are simply fatal. But once in a blue moon (the argument goes) a mutation will enhance the trait, and the greater survival prospects of the lucky recipient will spread that beneficial mutation through the population.



Brain Damage Saved His Music


Five years ago, when neurosurgeon Marcelo Galarza saw images from jazz guitarist Pat Martino’s cerebral MRI, he was astonished. “I couldn’t believe how much of his left temporal lobe had been removed,” he said. Martino had brain surgery in 1980 to remove a tangle of malformed veins and arteries. At the time he was one of the most celebrated guitarists in jazz. Yet few people knew that Martino suffered epileptic seizures, crushing headaches, and depression. Locked in psychiatric wards, he withstood debilitating electroshock therapy.

It wasn’t until 2007 that Martino had an MRI and not until recently that neuroscientists published their analyses of the images. Galarza’s astonishment, like that of medical scientists and music fans, arises from the fact that Martino recovered from surgery with a significant portion of his brain and memory gone, but his guitar skills intact. In a 2014 report in World Neurosurgery, Galarza, of the University Hospital in Murcia, Spain, and colleagues from Europe and the United States, wrote, “To our knowledge, this case study represents the first clinical observation of a patient who exhibited complete recovery from a profound amnesia and regained his previous virtuoso status.”1

Martino is now 70 and has released over 30 albums. He continues to tour around the world and according to many jazz critics and musicians he plays with more felicity and creativity than ever. And in Martino’s case that is really saying something. Since he was a teenager, the guitarist has been known for fleet fingers and surprising improvisations. Grammy Award-winning guitarist George Benson told an interviewer that he saw himself as the young phenom around New York City in the 1960s until he saw Martino play one night in Harlem. “I was flabbergasted, man!” Over the years, Benson said, Martino “stayed on my mind because I knew that there was another standard out there that all guitar players had to recognize, and he was setting it. He showed us that there was much more to the guitar than we were hearing.”

Martino has also put on a show for neuroscientists. His case demonstrates neuroplasticity, the brain’s remarkable ability, during development and learning, to “optimize the functioning of cerebral networks,” wrote Hugues Duffau, a professor and neurosurgeon at Hôpital Gui de Chauliac at Montpellier University Medical Center in France, who studied Martino’s case. The guitarist’s recovery epitomizes the ability of the brain to improvise—to compensate for malformations or injuries by wiring new connections among brain regions that restore motor, intellectual, and emotional functions. For an encore, say neuroscientists, Martino’s story is about music and how it helped shape his brain in ways that revived his life.



Reasonable Reactions To Offensive Cartoons


Paul Krugman- Voodoo Time Machine

Many of us in the econ biz were wondering how the new leaders of Congress would respond to the sharp increase in American economic growth that, we now know, began last spring. After years of insisting that President Obama is responsible for a weak economy, they couldn’t say the truth — that short-run economic performance has very little to do with who holds the White House. So what would they say?

Well, I didn’t see that one coming: They’re claiming credit. Never mind the fact that all of the good data refer to a period before the midterm elections. Mitch McConnell, the new Senate majority leader, says that he did it, that growth reflected “the expectation of a new Republican Congress.”

The response of the Democratic National Committee — “Hahahahahahaha” — seems appropriate. I mean, talk about voodoo economics: Mr. McConnell is claiming not just that he can create prosperity without, you know, actually passing any legislation, but that he can reach back in time and create prosperity before even taking power. But while Mr. McConnell’s self-aggrandizement is funny, it’s also scary, because it’s a symptom of his party’s epistemic closure. Republicans know many things that aren’t so, and no amount of contrary evidence will get them to change their minds.

At least Mr. McConnell didn’t do what many of his colleagues have done when faced with inconvenient facts: resort to conspiracy theories.



Obama to push cyber issues ahead of State of the Union address

President Obama will spend next week laying out new proposals to improve Americans' cybersecurity, broaden access to the Internet and guard against identify theft, the White House said Saturday.

The shift in focus will lay the foundation for Obama's upcoming State of the Union address on Jan. 20, and follows trips around the country this week in which Obama emphasized manufacturing, housing issues and the improving economy.

Obama will spend most of the week in Washington, with events scheduled at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on Monday and the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center on Tuesday.

He is expected to announce new efforts to increase voluntary collaboration between industry and government on cybersecurity. At the FTC, he'll focus on ways to fight identify theft and improve consumer and student privacy, a White House official said on background.



The Warren Commission

In a new focus group, voters agreed about one thing: Elizabeth Warren is one of the most intriguing contenders for 2016.

By John Dickerson

When 12 voters gathered in Aurora, Colorado, for a political focus group on Thursday night, it wasn’t surprising to hear them compete to see who could bash politicians more. “If we got rid of every member of Congress and elected new people tomorrow who had no experience, I don’t think we could do any worse,” said Charlie Loan, who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. When the group was asked to come up with phrases members of Congress should wear on wrist bracelets, they suggested “Don’t trust me, I lie,” “Looking out for me,” and “Two Faced.”

But one politician escaped the voters’ ire: Elizabeth Warren. Six of the 12 said they would like to have Warren over to their house to talk, more than any other possible 2016 presidential contender they were asked about. They said she was “down to earth” and “knowledgeable.” When asked a separate question about which politician they would like to have live next door, they picked Warren over every other contender as well. Jenny Howard, an accountant with student-loan debt who voted for Romney in 2012 and Sen. John McCain in 2008, also liked Warren: “If she ran, she could be the next president because she is personable and knowledgeable and has a good handle on what’s going on in the country.”

Peter Hart organized this Colorado focus group. Hart, a Democratic pollster for more than 40 years, helps conduct the Wall Street Journal/ NBC poll and has been holding these kinds of sessions for the past four presidential elections. The focus group was the first of a series of such two-hour interviews of swing voters that Hart will do leading up to the 2016 presidential election, for the Annenberg Public Policy Center to track how voter sentiment changes.

These people do not represent metaphysical certitude about the country’s political opinion—it’s only 12 people after all—and we are still far from the next election so much can change, but they offer glimpses of the current stirring in the public. Their desire for change, concerns about the economy (despite news that things are better), and interest in a candidate who cares about the middle class have appeared consistently in polls and other voter forums.



SC pays $1M+ to inmate's estate. Inmate died after being kept naked for 11 days in solitary confinement

The state has paid $1.2 million to the estate of an inmate with mental retardation who died in 2008 after being kept naked for 11 days in solitary confinement and developing hypothermia.

Records from the state Insurance Reserve Fund also show the state paid an additional $199,000 to its private lawyers in the case, which was cited last year by former state Circuit Judge Michael Baxley in his landmark, 45-page order finding the state Department of Corrections had violated the rights of inmates with severe mental illness.

The estate of Jerome Laudman sued individual officers in the case in federal court and filed suit against the prison system in state court. Both cases were settled last year, records show, with the federal suit being dismissed and the state agreeing to pay $1.2 million in the state case.

“We settled the case for 1.2 million,” Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said. “Corrections continues to make significant changes and improvements for the safety and security of officers and staff, inmates and the community.”

Read more here: http://www.thestate.com/2015/01/10/3918834/sc-pays-1m-to-inmates-estate-after.html
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