Fucking Do Something

So, there are many situations in the world that are morally ambiguous. Prior to this week, I would not have assumed that this was one of them:

“Gee, there’s a man raping a child. Should I go over there, beat the shit out of him, rescue the child, and call the police? Or should I go home, call my dad, tell my boss, see that nothing happens, and then, you know, pal around with the child rapist for the next ten years?”

I find it incredibly depressing to learn that there are people out there who would say, well, on the one hand, there’s kids being raped, but on the other hand, FOOTBALL!!!

If you or someone you know is too stupid and/or morally bankrupt to know what the right thing to do is in these situations (or, apparently, is currently a student at Penn State), here is a handy-dandy flow chart to help you out, courtesy of adulting (which details how to be an adult):

UPDATE: Everything on adultingblog.com is awesome, by the way.

"Leaderless" Occupy Denver has elected a leader

So, key to the success of the Occupy protests have been their the decentralized nature and lack of leadership. Why then would Occupy Denver have elected a general leader? According to this report, the move was prompted in part by statements from the Denver police, who have expressed frustration with the lack of a leader with whom they can negotiate. The precipitating event, however, was the blowhard-esque appearance of Michael Moore, who refused to follow the established guidelines for participation in the General Assembly:

“(Moore) walked in with security and made everyone listen to him in the center of the circle with a bullhorn like he was our leader, even though he said out loud it’s a leaderless movement,”

 In a landslide, Occupy Denver elected Shelby, a border collie / cattle dog mix:

Shelby, newly elected leader of Occupy Denver, has been coming down from her home in Boulder every other day to participate in the protests with her “bodyguard,” Al Nesby.

Peter John Jentsch was quoted as saying, “Are you the new leader? Are you, girl? Are you?”

Yelping with Cormac McCarthy

So, here’s something awesome from the tumblr-sphere: Yelping with Cormac. The premise is Yelp reviews written by Cormac McCarthy.

A lot of them are worth reading, but the October 26 review of Taco Bell is maybe the best:

Two stars.

And so the man defied the villagers and ate the taco. In defiance of the will of those people but also in defiance of some order older than he. Older than tortillas. Than the ancient and twisted cedars. How could we know his mind? We are all of us unknowable. Blind strangers passing on a mountain road.

The man laid there in the village square for three days and nights and took no food and spoke to no visitor. The older villagers said that the man should not have eaten the taco and no sane man would do so and the price of such folly was known to all.

On the fourth day an old lady asked the man was he ill and did he need a doctor. The man told her he was indeed ill but that he wished to see a priest. And she crossed herself and left and in the sweltering afternoon sun a priest came down to the square to see the man.

The priest asked the man why he lay there in the square and if perhaps he could be convinced to leave. The man said he had eaten a thing which he should not have and he could not move because the world was revealed to him in its evil and in its beauty. That if he moved he might fall into the sky and never return. The priest assured him that it was not possible to fall into the sky and that an earthly cure of ginger and peppermint would surely calm his digestion. The man asked could God make a taco so terrible even He could not eat it. The priest considered this and said no this was not possible and to think so was a sin. The man was silent for some time. Then he said that he had eaten such a taco and that it tasted of bootblack and horsefeed. That if this taco was under God’s dominion then surely all other great evils must be as well. And then the man took the halfeaten and greaseblackened taco from his coatpocket and thrust it at the priest like a broken sword. Eat it, he said. Eat it or be damned.

Frank O’Hara As Planned

So, here’s a cool video of Frank O’Hara’s poem “As Planned,” set to some Miles Davis.  The text goes by a little quickly, so for maximum effect, watch it again after reading the poem a couple of times.

As Planned

After the first glass of vodka

you can accept just about anything

of life even your own mysteriousness

you think it is nice that a box

of matches is purple and brown and is called

La Petite and comes from Sweden

for they are words that you know and that

is all you know words not their feelings

or what they mean and you write because

you know them not because you understand them

because you don’t you are stupid and lazy

and will never be great but you do

what you know because what else is there?

Oakland PD will shoot you if you film them

So, here is yet more incredibly disturbing footage from Occupy Oakland. The video is footage someone was shooting late Wednesday night / early Thursday morning. It seems to be a line of riot police. Then, for no apparent reason, one of the police casually raises his gun and shoots the cameraman. Fortunately, it was just a rubber bullet.

This, along with reports (and more footage) of arrests of reporters and legal observers. Seriously, what the hell is wrong with the Oakland PD? Do they have an arrest quotient? Do they just have complete disdain for the people of Oakland? Do they have such an overwhelming sense of entitlement that they feel completely justified in arresting or shooting anyone who dares to observe them? Or are they secretly trying to drum up sympathy for the occupiers?

In related news, here’s the most recent Darwin Eats Cake:

Best URL for sharing: http://www.darwineatscake.com/?id=69
Permanent image URL for hotlinking or embedding: http://www.darwineatscake.com/img/comic/69.jpg

Occupy Shelley

So, a week ago we had a snowstorm here, which knocked out our power for more than five days. Nearly a week without electricity taught me two important lessons:

  1. Sitting around a roaring fire with family, huddled under blankets and reading books is really nice. 
  2. Sitting around a roaring fire with family, huddled under blankets and reading books would be even better if you could see your damn book. 
It also struck me just how hard the winter is going to be on the various occupiers. For a while, it was feeling to me like the fate of the whole occupy movement was dependent on the ability of New York group to withstand the weather and the Mayor. Recently, though, Oakland has been stealing the spotlight.  
Something finally occurred to me, although I think it was probably already obvious to a lot of other people: Individual protest camps don’t matter. That’s the beauty and power of a decentralized, leaderless protest movement. What matters are the ideas, which are already so much larger than any single protest. What started in Tunisia and Egypt spread its seeds to New York and Oakland and Damascus and Manama and London and hundreds of other cities around the globe. 
It reminded me of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.” You probably read it in high school. The poem is about how the autumn wind and the coming of winter mean death, but those winds are also the source of life and energy. Then it takes the turn that was fairly common in the Romantic era: Shelley has a crisis about his own mortality, decides that his words (i.e., this poem — see what he did there?) will be his immortality, and urges the West Wind to take those words and carry them into the future like seeds. 
Anyway, I think you see where I’m going with this: actual winter is like, I don’t know, political winter maybe? And seeds are like poems are like ideas of economic justice. 
Or something like that. 
It actually works better if you don’t spell it out.
I won’t belabor the connection further here, other than to say to all the chilly occupados out there: If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind? 


WILD West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,

Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead

Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,

Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,

Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The wingèd seeds, where they lie cold and low,

Each like a corpse within its grave, until

Thine azure sister of the spring shall blow

Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill

(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)

With living hues and odors plain and hill:

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;

Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh, hear!


Thou on whose stream, ‘mid the steep sky’s commotion,

Loose clouds like earth’s decaying leaves are shed,

Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,

Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread

On the blue surface of thine airy surge,

Like the bright hair uplifted from the head

Of some fierce Mænad, even from the dim verge

Of the horizon to the zenith’s height,

The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge

Of the dying year, to which this closing night

Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,

Vaulted with all thy congregated might

Of vapors, from whose solid atmosphere

Black rain, and fire, and hail, will burst: oh hear!


Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams

The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,

Lulled by the coil of his crystalline streams,

Beside a pumice isle in Baiæ’s bay,

And saw in sleep old palaces and towers

Quivering within the wave’s intenser day,

All overgrown with azure moss and flowers

So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou

For whose path the Atlantic’s level powers

Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below

The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear

The sapless foliage of the ocean, know

Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,

And tremble and despoil themselves: oh, hear!


If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;

If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;

A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share

The impulse of thy strength, only less free

Than thou, O uncontrollable! if even

I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over heaven,

As then, when to outstrip thy skyey speed

Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne’er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.

Oh! lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!

I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed

One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.


Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is;

What if my leaves are falling like its own!

The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,

Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,

My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe

Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!

And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an extinguished hearth

Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

Be through my lips to unwakened earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Oakland PD hospitalizes another vet, releases man who deliberately ran down protesters

So, you’ll remember Scott Olsen, the Marine who was hospitalized after being hit in the head with a non-lethal police projectile at the Oakland Occupy protests. Well, the Oakland PD has doubled down. According to this report from Reuters, Kayvan Sabeghi is now in the Intensive Care Unit after being severely beaten by the police:

Brian Kelly, who co-owns a brew pub with Sabeghi, said his business partner served as an Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said Sabeghi told him he was arrested and beaten by a group of policemen as he was leaving the protest to go home.

“He told me he was in the hospital with a lacerated spleen and that the cops had jumped him,” Kelly said. “They put him in jail, and he told them he was injured, and they denied him medical treatment for about 18 hours.”

via Boing Boing.

Meanwhile, here’s the video of the couple being deliberately run down at Occupy Oakland by a guy in a Mercedes:

Now, this is a good example of everyone acting like an idiot. What seems to happen is that the march is moving along and holding up traffic. The Mercedes guy gets frustrated. I mean, he seems to be an entitled asshole who thinks that his time is super important. So he starts inching his way through the crowd. One of the marchers gets pissed and stops in front of the car and bangs on the hood. So, he’s being sort of self righteous and stupid. And then Mercedes guy guns it, running marcher guy down, as well as a woman who wasn’t doing anything.

This is one of those situations that could have been avoided at any point if one of the parties had made an effort to be less dickish and entitled. The marchers were being a little bit dickish by not letting the cars through. The driver was being a little bit dickish by forcing his way through anyway. The one guy was being a little bit dickish when he started banging on the car.

But running someone down? That’s totally out of control.

There are two places where the Oakland Police failed here. First of all, managing the relationship between the marchers and the traffic would be a much better way to spend police resources than, say, throwing flash grenades at people who are trying to help an injured protester. From what I have seen, this is one of the things that the NYPD have been doing really well.

Second, you know the guy who was driving the car? They happily sent him on his way. Move along. Nothing to see here. Certainly not a two-tiered justice system.

Here are a just a couple of relevant shots from an excellent series of photos at The Frame:

One of the two people who got run down by the Mercedes.

Awww . . . don’t worry, Mister Mercedes Driver! The Oakland PD doesn’t arrest nice, rich, white guys!

Mutational Analysis in Poetry and Biology

So, Robert Pinsky wrote a cool little piece in Slate the other day titled “In Praise of Memorizing Poetry – Badly.” In it he argues for a particular benefit to be gotten from misremembering a poem: that it brings into focus the choices that were made in the poem, the the consequences of using one word rather than another. He illustrates his argument with Yeats’s “On Being Asked for a War Poem,” which he presents like this:

“On Being Asked for a War Poem” 

I think it better that in times like these
A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of [something] who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter’s night.

He talks about misremembering the [something] as “glory” or “indolence” or “striving” before rediscovering Yeats’s original “meddling.”

In the case of “meddling,” the result of the exercise is to highlight the historical context in which Yeats was writing. Yeats was an Irish poet writing about World War I in 1915. At the time, Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom, and was actively involved in the war. However, some Irish nationalists used the war as an opportunity initiate a rebellion against English rule. And, in fact, the Irish War for Independence began pretty much as soon as World War I ended.

During Easter week of 1916, Irish rebels seized control of several key buildings
in Dublin and declared independence from England. Yeats wrote a poem about it.

Yeats’s poem was written in response to a request by Henry James, and was originally titled “To a friend who has asked me to sign his manifesto to the neutral nations.” In all of this context, the choice of “meddling” seems to point to a degree of ambivalence towards the war, even presaging Ireland’s own neutrality in World War II.

Now, of course, all of this information is, in principle, available to anyone who has both the original text and access Wikipedia. However, for Pinsky, it is this forgetting, the substitution of “meddling” with “glory,” that serves as the catalyst for this particular close reading. And I doubt that, in the absence of some similar impetus, very many people would have focused on this particular aspect of the poem.

In biology, similar mistakes, in the form of mutations, provide one of our most important windows into the structure and function of biological systems. These mutations are sometimes the product of targeted mutagenesis, but can also result from naturally occurring mutations.

A lot of our coarse-grained knowledge of many systems comes from loss-of-function, or knockout mutations, where a mutation removes a particular gene, or renders it nonfunctional. For example, in 1976, Sharma and Chopra first described a recessive mutation in the fruitfly Drosophila melanogaster. Flies inheriting two copies of the mutation exhibited various developmental defects, the most obvious of which involved wing formation. So, the mutation, and later the gene, became known as “wingless.”

This is typical in genetics, where a gene will be given a name based on the phenotypic consequences of losing that gene. So, a gene required for wings becomes “wingless,” a gene required for heart formation might be called “heartless,” and so on.

Kim Jong Il relaxes with some brews.
Due to the nature of the discovery process in biology, many genes wind up with names that are more like the opposite of what the gene actually does. This is sort of like how the least democratic countries always wind up with the word “Democratic” in their names, or how Citizens United succeeded in dramatically curtailing most citizens’ abilities to control their own government.

More subtle mutations, which alter the behavior of a gene or its gene product without completely eliminating it function, are more closely analogous to the misremembering that Pinsky is talking about, however. In a way, a knockout mutation of an important gene is more like just removing one whole line from Yeats’s poem, without regard for grammar, rhyme scheme, coherence, etc. What you would wind up with is a mess that fails in many ways, and is probably not terribly instructive – just like in biology.

Point mutations, which might alter a single amino acid in a protein, provide a more targeted and interpretable set of changes. Such a mutation might cause a small shift in the binding behavior of the protein, or might cause a slight change in the timing of the gene’s expression.

Like in the poetry case, these mutations are more likely to be revealing of the fine tuning part of the creative process, where mutations of small effect arise and are subjected to natural selection. In some populations – things like certain viruses, which have a very large population size and strong selective constraints – it might even be reasonable to think that these alternate, mutant forms have been explored and rejected by past natural selection. In other cases (e.g., large mammals, with relatively small effective population sizes), the most common form we find in nature might not represent some finely tuned optimum, but may simply be a form that works well enough.

Similarly, when we read a Yeats poem, we are inclined to assume that every single word has been chosen with extreme care, that a host of plausible alternatives were considered and rejected by the poet before he settled on just exactly the right word, in this case, “meddled.” I think we are inclined to agree with Pinsky’s final assessment, that “by memorizing his poem imperfectly, I had received a creative writing lesson from a great poet.”

However, a lot of poems in the world, even very good ones, are probably more like large mammals, with many of the word choices working well enough, but not necessarily representing some optimum, even a local one. (There is of course, the question, in biology and in poetry, of to what extent one can talk coherently about optima, but that’s a post for another day.) But this process, deliberate or accidental tinkering, is critical both to the creation of great things, and to understanding how greatness is created.

Sharma RP, & Chopra VL (1976). Effect of the Wingless (wg1) mutation on wing and haltere development in Drosophila melanogaster. Developmental biology, 48 (2), 461-5 PMID: 815114