Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Gleanings from The Economist

I do not read The Economist from cover to cover. I start at the back with the book reviews, perhaps the obituary, proceed into the science and technology section, and maybe catch a political or business piece if I have time.

Here are some gleanings from the most recent issue I opened (May 1, 2010).

The Vatican becoming a bit more open with its "Secret Archives," and is publishing a lavishly illustrated book to publicize their liberality. "Past Papers: The Vatican Turns a Page--Slowly" tells us,

NO UMBERTO ECO fan should go near the Tower of Winds: it could bring on sensory overload. Up a seemingly endless winding staircase is a room whose frescoes are alive with symbolism. The floor is sprinkled with signs of the zodiac and bisected by a line of white marble onto which a sun ray falls each day at noon. The so-called Meridian Hall, created to verify the accuracy of the calendar Pope Gregory XIII promulgated in 1582, is in the Vatican Secret Archives, which hold some 10m documents stored by the papacy over the past 1,200 years. The name is a misleading anachronism that dates from when secret meant private (“secretary” has the same derivation).

From the review of Norman Stone's The Atlantic and Its Enemies: A History of the Cold War:

"The word 'besides' appears with alarming frequency as a way of linking page-long paragraphs." The reviewer has other, more serious criticisms, but that one touched my heart.

From the review of Last Words of the Executed by Robert Elder. The book is a collection of just that.

The last words are remarkable for their remorse, humour, hatred, resignation, fear and bravado. “I wish you’d hurry up. I want to get to hell in time for dinner,” a 19th-century Wyoming murderer told his hangman. Some rambled; others were concise. Several blamed the drink; others reasserted innocence, or (especially in recent years) railed against the death penalty. Some accepted their fate. “If I was y’all, I would have killed me. You know?” said a Texan, who had murdered his son’s former girlfriend and her sister, as he readied himself for lethal injection. America’s diverse heritage is stamped even onto its killers’ final moments.

It seems that the celebrated Harvard biologist and octogenarian, E.O. Wilson, has written his first novel. This line in "It's a Bug's Life" stood out for me.

One part of “Anthill”, by the world’s leading myrmecologist, demonstrates that in Mr Wilson ants have found not only their Darwin but also their Homer.

From the science pages, I learn that the ancient role that men and women have played as hunters and gatherers, respectively, is rooted in our sexually distinct biologies, i.e. our natures and men and as women. This from "Hunters and Shoppers: Men and Women Navigate Differently."

The results, to be published in Evolution and Human Behaviour, show that the men and women collected on average about the same weight of mushrooms. But the men travelled farther, climbed higher and used a lot more energy—70% more than the women. The men did not move any faster, but they searched for spots with lots of mushrooms. The women made many more stops, apparently satisfied with, or perhaps better at finding, patches of fewer mushrooms.

Previous work has shown that men tend to navigate by creating mental maps of a territory and then imagining their position on the maps. Women are more likely to remember their routes using landmarks. The study lends support to the idea that male and female navigational skills were honed differently by evolution for different tasks. Modern-day hunter-gatherers divide labour, so that men tend to do more hunting and women more gathering. It seems likely that early humans did much the same thing.

The theory is that the male strategy is the most useful for hunting prey; chasing an antelope, say, would mean running a long way over a winding route. But having killed his prey, the hunter would want to make a beeline for home rather than retrace his steps exactly. Women, by contrast, would be better off remembering landmarks and retracing the paths to the most productive patches of plants.

And finally, in "The Hormones of Laddishness," I learned that through genetic modification, researchers have found a way of reducing, but not eliminating, aggressive and distinctly male behavior in mice. Of course, you know they're not interested in mice. Be on the lookout for government mandated (what shall we call it?) socialization therapy for in utero little boys. Progress is lovely.

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