Archive for April 14th, 2009

The Monty Python Guide to Colonial Encounters

By Chris Mooney | April 14, 2009 3:25 pm

I’m blogging from the Princeton Firestone Library’s rare books room, with ancient texts open in front of me. How weird is that? And so, live from 1822 (the date of my particular edition), I bring you the following unforgettable passage from Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent:

I beheld a missionary violently agitated in proving, that Infierno, Hell, and invierno, winter, were not the same thing; but that they were as different as heat and cold. The Chaymas are acquainted with no other winter, than the season of rains; and the Hell of the whites appeared to them a place, where the wicked are exposed to frequent showers. The missionary harangued to no purpose: it was impossible to efface the first impressions, produced by the analogy between the two consonants: and he could not separate in the minds of the neophytes the ideas of rain and Hell, invierno, and Inferno.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: History of Science

The Benefits and Costs of a Technology: Sheril’s Very Serious Point About Twitter

By Chris Mooney | April 14, 2009 1:43 pm

Just hours ago, my coblogger did an awesome and spirited post about why she ain’t gonna tweet. Good for Sheril—and she asserts that it’s just a personal decision, which is totally fine. I have made the same personal decision, at least until further notice.

But Sheril also pointed out some “problems” with the technology in her original post—or rather, problems with what it may cause us to become. She linked a hilarious video underscoring a serious point, namely, that a technology like Twitter might, for some people, put their minds on speed…encouraging them to write faster and faster, and think less and less–becoming (drum roll) a distraction.

Inevitably, there were many responses to Sheril’s post saying, well, it’s just a new technology—not good or evil, just tech, so use it or don’t, and let others do as they please. E.g.:

Sean Carroll said: “I don’t see why anyone should complain about a technology that nobody is forcing them to use. If other people like it, what’s the big deal?”

And Thingsbreak said: “It’s what you make of it, like all new tech. You’d think someone who gave a talk entitled “I am new media (And so can you!)” would be a little less quick to tell Twitter to get off her lawn.”

Off her lawn? I can assure you, Sheril is no fogey.

And hold on a minute: It’s certainly an individual choice, but that’s not all it is. If everyone starts using a technology that changes his or her behavior, then society also changes. This change may be good, and it may be bad. But don’t tell me a cascade of individual choices doesn’t have bigger consequences.

I’m no Luddite, and neither is Sheril. I don’t think that the verdict on Twitter is yet in. But at the same time, I don’t think I’m the only one out there lately who sense that just maybe, not every aspect of how the Internet affects the media–or our thinking–is an improvement. In fact, there’s actually science on this: See “Rapid-fire media may confuse your moral compass,” EurekaAlert’s breakdown of a recent study from USC neuroscientist Antonio Damasio.

I can attest to one thing–I personally sense that my attention span today is not what it once was before blogs, Twitter, constant Google chats, my Iphone, etc. Does that mean I have stopped doing these things? Have I gone and pulled a Thoreau? No. But I’m pretty sure technologies have changed me significantly over the past decade. And with the benefits, there have perhaps also come some costs…and this is the deep point of Sheril’s post.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Education, Media and Science

Twitter Nation

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | April 14, 2009 9:28 am

There’s a little known–but not so private–tidbit about my arrival to the blogosphere that often raises eyebrows when I give talks.  I started because I lost a bet.  Really.  You see, when I left grad school for DC, some of the undergrads I worked with implored me to blog.  We regularly discussed science and politics in our seminar and they were eager to continue the conversation online.

‘Me blog?! No way!’

Admittedly, I didn’t quite understand what a blog was back then.  It seemed like the kind of activity for people with too much time on their hands… a hobby for those with the strange desire to report the hum-drum nuances of their day. Most of which involved complaining.  ‘This morning I brushed my teeth,’ and that sort of thing. I was not about to foray into the blogosphere, but I finally agreed to ‘when the Dems take back the House and Senate.’  Because that was never going to happen!

And so true to word, a week after November 7, 2006 I started a private blogspot to exchange ideas with the group.  Go figure a few months later, Randy Olson would introduced me and Chris. The rest is history.  And would you know it, blogging isn’t all that bad.  I’ve learned it can foster a very constructive dialog (or not) and serve as a bridge to communicate interesting subjects between fields and people.  On the whole, for me it’s also been cathartic.  So many crazy ideas swirl around my head and getting them down for discussion online–especially turning them over with readers–has been a lot of fun.  We’ve seen the rise of ScienceDebate.org and I’ve learned a good deal about writing and journalism over the years.  By now I’ve come full circle.  I’m converted.  I blog, therefore I am.  But.  It turns out that what made me squeamish about the blogosphere actually does exist by way of another inexplicably popular medium.

It’s called TWITTER.

antitwitter1.pngCan someone kindly explain to me why this strange breed of shadowing has any merit?  I don’t want to report where I am and what I’m doing every five minutes.  Tweeters tell me it’s all about sharing the news when they’re doing really exciting stuff.  Well, if I’m ever that excited–say, hanging with Billie Joe–I’m not going to be focused typing about it into my cell phone. And why do we assume that everyone ‘following‘ tweets, chirps, or yelps cares to know exactly what we’re up to?  Furthermore, isn’t it a little on the creepy side to allow people to ‘follow‘ you?  There’s another term for that.  Stalking.  Authors and other writers tell me it’s good to build a following.  But Kurt Vonnegut didn’t twitter.  Neither will Captain Kirk.

We live in strange times.  No one has really come to terms with social networking.  A wireless internet connection affords every kind of media not just streamed into your living room, but directly to your palm… 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Craving extreme trucking from the Czech republic at 4 am? You got it!  Welcome to generation ADD.  We like our vodka sped up with Red Bull and expect reality TV stars to fall in love multiple times per season.  We’ve surpassed sampling music and transitioned to remixing youtube.  We’ve evolved into a culture that practices Guitar Hero while keeping virtual companions close at hand (literally).  We marvel at the obesity epidemic as our children rush home from school to hang out with friends in cyberland.  Even our Wii had to remind us to exercise.  And we want to share.  Every emotion complete with our most intimate footage to boot. It’s a circus and everybody wants to be a rockstar.  We can advertise our assets (and love of Star Trek) through online dating while Facebook lets us make and break relationships before the other party consents to a ‘status’ change.  Privacy is so last millenium.

Well call me old fashioned, but I draw the line at Twitter.  Yes folks, the rumors are true. Physioprof and I have made a pact.  We will never ever Twitter.  It’s time to slow things down a notch.  We want to enjoy a few moments disconnected.  No electricity required, batteries not included.

And we’re not alone.  The movement is growing.  James joined in on the pact with ‘Why Twitter Is Evil.’ And you won’t be receiving ‘tweets’ from my co-blogger anytime soon.  Of course, many will disagree–we’ve got Twitter happy colleagues across the Hive and over at ScienceBlogs–but those stalwart among us have yet to be seduced into joining the dark side.  Rather than documenting each experience as it happens in 140 characters or less–we prefer to live in the moment.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Media and Science

Is EPA Action on CO2 Coming?

By Chris Mooney | April 14, 2009 8:28 am

Fully two years ago, in Mass. v. EPA, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the Bush administration’s EPA to determine whether vehicular carbon dioxide emissions endanger public health and welfare under the Clean Air Act.

The Bush administration essentially ignored this direct order.

Now, FT reports that the Obama EPA is on the verge of doing the opposite–which is an extremely big deal. The EPA already submitted its endangerment finding to the Office of Management and Budget; the next step, as I understand it, would be full administration approval.

Basically, if the EPA starts moving towards global warming regulations, then Congress had better put its weight on the scales quick, or else “unelected bureaucrats” (to anticipate the negative spin) will be determining how we deal with carbon dioxide emissions, a decision with dramatic implications for the economy and the future.

Everybody agrees that it’s better for Congress to pass a new law on global warming than to have regulations go through the administrative process at EPA. And yet if Congress fails to lead–and so far, it’s hard to tell whether there will really be 60 Senate votes–then there’s every reason to expect the Obama EPA will just keep on moving, doing what the Supreme Court said to do.

Members of Congress who oppose global warming legislation this year really ought to keep that in mind. The reality is that global warming regulation is going to happen, one way or another. Any responsible leader in this context would try to get us the best, democratically enacted policy–not to block progress.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Energy, Global Warming, Politics
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