David Dobbs

Getting it backwards: When market value determines art value.

Some critics like Jeff Koons’s work. Others hate it. At The Dish.

[I]t is Koons’s signal achievement to have created a wholly new kind of art, one immune to all forms of judgment save that of the marketplace. Trashy? Sure, but it sells for millions—sometimes tens of millions—and there’s no reason to suppose it won’t continue to do so. That’s all that counts. Koons has succeeded by emptying his images of everything except the cheesy, the easy, the sweetly appealing, and the familiar. His works are big, they’re cute, they’re shiny, and they make no demands. What do they mean? What do you want them to mean? Something for everyone. They aren’t there to be pondered or engaged with in any significant way. They exist solely as emblems of value.


And that’s not even the nastiest.

Ferguson autopsies, dirty debt collection, and the worst video game ever

Figure from autopsy report

Figure from a preliminary autopsy report by forner NYC medical examiner Michael Baden, showing wounds on Michael Brown’s body.

Autopsy Shows Michael Brown Was Struck at Least 6 Times. By Frances Robles and Julie Bosman

Dr. Baden said that while Mr. Brown was shot at least six times, only three bullets were recovered from his body. But he has not yet seen the X-rays showing where the bullets were found, which would clarify the autopsy results. Nor has he had access to witness and police statements.

Jelani Cobb has the best single thing I’ve read about Ferguson.

From the outset, the overlapping bureaucracies in Ferguson handled the case in ways that suggested ineptitude. Yet subsequent developments—the stonewalling followed by contradictory statements, the detention of reporters, the clumsy deployment of sophisticated military equipment—all point not to a department too inept to handle this investigation objectively but one too inept to cloak the fact that they never intended to do so.

Having cops film everything they do is cheap — and it makes both cops and citizens behave better. By Derek Thompson

In 2012, Rialto, a small city in California’s San Bernardino County, outfitted its police officers with small Body Cams to be worn at all times and record all working hours. The $900 cameras weighed 108 grams and were small enough to fit on each officer’s collar or sunglasses. They recorded full-color video for up to 12 hours, which was automatically uploaded at the end of each shift, where it could be held and analyzed in a central database.

When researchers studied the effect of cameras on police behavior, the conclusions were striking. Within a year, the number of complaints filed against police officers in Rialto fell by 88 percent and “use of force” fell by 59 percent. “When you put a camera on a police officer, they tend to behave a little better, follow the rules a little better,” Chief William A. Farrar, the Rialto police chief, told the New York Times. “And if a citizen knows the officer is wearing a camera, chances are the citizen will behave a little better.”

Also at Atlantic, James Fallows put together a reading guide about the militarization of America’s police.

Debt collection is even shadier than you think. By Jake Halpern.

One imperative for Wilson and his collectors was conveying the calm, cool, unshakable understanding that they were, in fact, the rightful owners of these debts and that these debts needed to be paid promptly. It remained unsaid, of course, that this “paper” had often been purchased for as little as one penny on the dollar, and there was no mention of the fact that many of the debts that Wilson specialized in were too old to appear on a credit report or to be sued for in court. Most negative information disappears from credit reports after seven years and, depending on state law, debts may be unrecoverable through a lawsuit after as little as three years.

Yet Wilson’s pitch — you owe the money, and now you need to pay — was both simple and perfectly legal. In most states, you can still try to collect on a debt even after its statute of limitations has expired.

In 1995, Penn and Teller created Desert Bus, the worst video game ever made. Now you can get it for your iPhone. A staff pick at Paris Review.

Desert Bus never reached shelves, but its concept is so staggeringly mundane (“stupefyingly like reality,” as Penn Jillette puts it) that someone eventually saw fit to leak it. Your goal is to drive a bus from Tucson to Las Vegas: an eight-hour journey, conducted in real time. Is there any traffic to negotiate? No. Can you pause the game? No. Are there even passengers on the bus? No. Can you speed, at least? No. You can’t go any faster than forty-five miles an hour, and your bus always lists to the right, so you have to be vigilant in steering—no falling asleep at the wheel. If you veer off course, the bus will stall and you’ll have to wait for a tow truck to bring you back to Tucson, a humiliating defeat that also unfolds in real time. For the successful completion of this arduous journey, the player receives … one point. Then you get to make the return trip, another eight hours, for another point.

Read Two: Data-crunching murderous misogyny, Kasparov loses, Shark Week is shit

Data Scientists Are Uncovering War Crimes in Syria. By Lorenzo-Frencheschi-Biccierai. Although the war in Syria is essentially too dangerous for journalists or international observers to cover in any depth, data scientists are yielding important insights and trends — including the fact that the percentage of those killed who are women has risen from 1% in 2011 to 13% in 2013: a clue to something even more sinister.

Those numbers alone don’t tell the whole story, though. Taking a closer look at how women were killed, the researchers discovered a pattern. Women weren’t random victims of bombings for example. Instead, many were killed by snipers, indicating a deliberate policy to go after female civilians, which would constitute a war crime.

Data on how children were killed suggest a similar conclusions. Of the thousands killed in the conflict, at least 700 have been summarily executed and tortured, and about 200 boys under the age of 13 have been killed by sniper fire, according to the data.

“It’s a systematic way of killing,” says Taha Kass-Hout, one of the founders of Syria Tracker. “The individuals who committed those crimes really knew what they were doing.”

Speaking of data: U.S. mass shootings appear to rise partly from an ugly mashup of gun-nuttery and misogyny. By Rebecca Ruiz.

A recent analysis of media reports and FBI data by Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety found that 51% of the mass shooting victims attacked between January 2009 and July 2014 were women. By contrast, women comprise only 13% of total gun homicide victims in the U.S. In more than half of the instances analyzed by Everytown, the shooter killed a former or current spouse, or intimate partner. In several cases the shooter had been previously charged with domestic violence.…

Former world chess champion Gary Kasparov has lost the presidency of the World Chess Federation because Putin hates him. By Dylan Loeb McClain.

In evident retaliation in the months leading up to the election, Russian embassies in many countries called chess officials in an effort to help the candidacy of Mr. Ilyumzhinov. Among those who said they were contacted were officials in the Czech Republic, Ireland, Jamaica, Kenya, Myanmar, Nigeria, Norway and Singapore.

The election was held during the biennial Chess Olympiad and each of the participating countries had one vote.

Kasparov lost 110–61.

Shark Week is total bullshit and lies to scientists, yet people talk to them anyway. By David Shiffman.

Davis was shocked to find that his interview aired during a 2013 Shark Week special called Voodoo Shark, which was about a mythical monster shark called “Rooken” that lived in the Bayous of Louisiana. The “other filming” his interview was combined with featured a Bayou fishermen, and the clips were edited together to make it seem like a race between his team of researchers and the fishermen to see who could catch the mythical voodoo shark faster. In reality, Davis was barely asked about the voodoo shark at all. His answers from unrelated questions were edited together to make it seem like he believed in its existence and was searching for it.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman says goodbye


Philip Seymour Hoffman in “A Man Most Wanted”

As David Denby notes in a satisfying review, “A Most Wanted Man,” made from the John le Carre film of the same title, makes an apt goodbye from Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The movie, as if in homage to Smiley’s Cold War days, returns to the old-fashioned trappings of espionage: cigarette-pack drop-offs of intelligence, planted bugs and surveillance cameras, meetings in forlorn dives. Corbijn’s previous film, “The American,” which starred George Clooney as a hired assassin, was unconvincing and absurdly chic, but the director has sobered up. He stages several conversations between [Phlip Semour Hoffman’s] Bachmann and Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), a charming C.I.A. official who understands Bachmann’s needs but may be playing him, and Corbijn and the actors skillfully bring out the sinister undertones in these exchanges. They’re the best thing in the movie, but a familiar problem arises: le Carré’s complicated plot and his thrillingly cryptic dialogue can’t be adequately conveyed in two hours. The finest dramatization of le Carré remains the BBC’s 1979 seven-part adaptation of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” directed by John Irvin, in which the elaborate mock-politeness of élite English manners garlands the arcane conspiracies at glorious length.

Bachmann’s nature seems to reflect Hoffman’s unsettled state in his final days. Bachmann smokes constantly and pours himself whiskey neat. Hoffman, his shirt hanging out, tears through rooms, growling at everyone in German-accented English. He almost never smiles, almost never looks at people until he turns threateningly toward them with a bulldog frown. The film gives le Carré’s bitterly intelligent man some streaks of tenderness, which bring him closer to a conventional movie hero. Yet the heroic quality in Hoffman doesn’t need softening. A great actor, he carried his despair and his outsized sense of responsibility with him to the end.

I saw the film last night and find Denby spot on regarding both film and Hoffman. The film’s shortcomings are minor, its strengths immensely rewarding.

I would only add this to amplify Denby’s take. At one point in the film, Hoffman’s character, Gunter Bachmann, who as Denby notes is a sullen dangerous bulldog through most of the film, experiences a brief moment of pleasure. It comes in one of those scenes with Robin Wright (who plays a CIA agent), when Bachmann/Hoffman manages to turn a jingoist phrase that Wright used earlier in the film back against her, winning a small but gratifying victory. (Alas, it will prove temporary.) We see him deliver this “gotcha” from a camera placed at Wright’s point-of-view, so that Hoffman is looking straight at us when he says it. And when he delivers his zinger, he gives her — and thus us — a splendid smile of intelligent joy. Actually he doesn’t give the smile; rather the smile unexpectedly amidst all his troubles, suddenly takes over his face, surprising even him with its unlikely appearance; to direct it at his rival only increases his delight. Next to this grin, the celebrated smiles of Tom Cruise are dun.

It is Bachmann’s only moment of joy. It is easily the film’s happiest moment — and with its reminder of what we lost when we lost Hoffman, the film’s saddest moment as well.

Read Two: Severed heads, runaway PR, math gender, minimalism


How to Take a Picture of a Severed Head Or not. IS is working very hard to manage its media presence, and it’s working. By Sebastian Meyer and Alicia P.Q. Whitmeyer at Foreign Policy. H/t Alex Horton. Photo via Reuters via Foreign Policy.

Mirwan was recruited to document IS’s recent attack on the town of Sinjar, he says – the same takeover whose aftermath has prompted U.S. airstrikes in Iraq. There, he was photographing fighting until a few members of ISIS called him over. Thirty men lay waiting facedown on the ground, hands bound behind their backs. Three or four women were standing by, watching. It was an execution.

Take the pictures, he was told.

Speaking of PR, the pay gap between journalism and public relations is growing. But the scarier part is how badly journalists are outnumbered.

The salary gap between public relations specialists and news reporters has widened over the past decade – to almost $20,000 a year, according to 2013 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data analyzed by the Pew Research Center. At the same time, the public relations field has expanded to a degree that these specialists now outnumber reporters by nearly 5 to 1 (BLS data include part-time and full-time employees, but not self-employed.).

Google’s autofill algorithm seems to think women can’t teach themselves calculus. But this woman wrote the book on it. By Ben Lillie.

Google’s algorithm is based on cues from what other people are searching for and uses context to try to figure out what an user meant. But algorithms, “are never as neutral as they appear.” So while no one thought “only men would teach themselves calculus,” it’s also true that that’s what the culture as a whole has decided, at least in aggregate. Whether we like it or not, we associate something about that phrase with men more than women. This has happened before, and will likely happen many times again. One of the wonderful things about relying on computers to help us is that if we’re not careful they’ll tell us who we really are. In this case that we’re living in a quite deeply sexist culture.

The deep irony, though, is that while people are responding to this quite strongly, Ouellette’s name isn’t in the tweet that’s going viral. The same algorithm that held up this rather unfortunate mirror ensures that neither Jennifer Ouellette’s name nor the name of her book, The Calculus Diaries, is getting attached to that mirror.

Two essays examine how artists — Hemingway and Beethoven — cut things near to the bone:

Hemingway’s Hidden Metafictions in “The Sun Also Rises”. Ian Crouch, at The New Yorker.

All of this was cut at the suggestion of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who, after reading the version that Hemingway had sent to Perkins, wrote a long, dismayed-sounding letter to Hemingway, in which he said, “I think that there are about 24 sneers, superiorities, and nose-thumbings-at-nothing that mar the whole narrative up to P. 29 where (after a false start on the introduction of Cohn) it really gets going.” Though Hemingway would later downplay Fitzgerald’s editorial influence, the published novel begins with the sentence: “Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.”

In the letter, Fitzgerald also criticized Hemingway for injecting his own writerly persona into the text: “That biography from you, who allways believed in the superiority (the preferability) of the imagined to the seen not to say to the merely recounted.” With this fragment of a sentence, Fitzgerald gives Hemingway the familiar writing-class advice—show, don’t tell; less is more; and what is left out can sometimes be more meaningful than what is included. Earlier versions of the novel contained even more of this “biography”; Fitzgerald had caught the remnants of nervous self-consciousness that Hemingway himself had curtailed as he wrote.…

Jeremy Denk, writing on a new Beethoven biography, considers some dangers of minimalism that apply to writing too.

In Mozart and Haydn, these same units, these triads and scales, are lurking behind the surface; but generally there is a film or veil concealing the girders from view. In Mozart, the ends of phraselets are often decorated with little dissonances, elegant deflections; in Haydn, the same role is often played by witty cross-accents, or unusual figurations. But you can notice, more and more, in later Beethoven — for example the slow movement of the last violin sonata, or of the “Archduke” Trio, both of which should be on any essential listening list — the way he purges his music of these artifacts of elegance, and prefers having harmonies on the main beats without decoration or deflection.

There is a danger in relying on rudimentary materials. They can be felt as an emptiness, a skeleton, a mere outline — Beethoven sometimes uses this expressive effect, calling our attention to the flesh that isn’t there. But more often they are felt as a strength, a frame, something to hold on to. By the late years, an uncanny duality develops: On the one hand, the sense that Beethoven might do anything, harmonically, that he would venture to the far ends of the musical earth; on the other, always there, rock-solid, the triads, the tonic and the dominant, the familiar landmarks of classical harmony. The sense of the world dissolving into the modern, the ground disappearing beneath your feet, and yet … the ground reassuringly remains. Beethoven somehow gets to have it both ways — absolute liberty and total control.


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Geneticists blast Nicholas Wade for misrepresenting their papers

Today a group of over 130 prominent geneticists, responding to a review I wrote for The New York Times Sunday Book Review of Nicholas Wade’s book A Troublesome Inheritance, published a letter to the Review taking Wade to task for misrepresenting their workWade cited the work of many of these geneticists in arguing his book’s central contention, which is that humanity’s “major races” have genetic differences that make Caucasians more fit for the modern world. The signers state emphatically that this is not the case.

We reject Wade’s implication that our findings substantiate his guesswork. They do not. We are in full agreement that there is no support from the field of population genetics for Wade’s conjectures.”

According to a report by Michael Balter at Science,

The letter was spearheaded by five population geneticists who had informally discussed the book at conferences, says co-organizer Rasmus Nielsen of the University of California, Berkeley. “There was a feeling that our research had been hijacked by Wade to promote his ideological agenda,” Nielsen says. “The outrage … was palpable.”

Ewen Callaway at Nature, meanwhile, reports Wade responding that

“This letter is driven by politics, not science,” Wade said in a statement. “I am confident that most of the signatories have not read my book and are responding to a slanted summary devised by the organizers.”

The letter was signed directly by Noah Rosenberg, Rasmus Nielsen, Molly Przeworski, Graham Coop, and Michael Eisen. As the Times does not print long lists of letter authors, those five authors linked to a full list of signers elsewhere. The list includes many of the world’s most renowned population geneticists — as well as the lead and other key authors to the very papers Wade cites most heavily in building his genetic argument.

Those signers include

  • Noah Rosenberg, the lead author of a 2002 paper that Wade leans on especially heavily, ”Genetic Structure of Human Populations,“ as well as at least two other authors of the paper.
  • Yale’s Kenneth Kidd, who is one of the world’s most respected population geneticists, a central figure in establishing the field, and another co-author on the 2002 Rosenberg paper.
  • Stanford’s Jonathan Pritchard, another co-author on that paper and the researcher whose lab designed the ”Structure“ genetic analysis software that created the ”clustering“ data Wade says supports his argument.
  • Sarah Tishkoff, lead author of a 2009 paper on ”The Genetic Structure and History of Africans and African-Americans“ that Wade cited extensively as crucial support.
  • Jun Li and Richard Myers, the lead and senior authors of a 2008 paper, ”Worldwide Human Relationships Inferred from Genome-Wide Patterns of Variation,” that, as I noted in my review, Wade misrepresented as supporting his argument.

In the Nature report, some of the quotes hit rather hard:

Sarah Tishkoff of the University of Pennsylvania says she signed the letter because “[m]y own research was used as scientific proof of concepts such as there being between three and five races.” Tishkoff says that her work on the genetics of diverse African populations does not support this claim. Adds David Reich of Harvard University: “Our findings do not even provide a hint of support in favor of Wade’s guesswork.”

The text of the full letter reads:

As scientists dedicated to studying genetic variation, we thank David Dobbs for his review of Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance and for his description of Wade’s misappropriation of research from our field to support arguments about differences among human societies.

As discussed by Dobbs and many others, Wade juxtaposes an incomplete and inaccurate description of our research on human genetic differences with speculation that recent natural selection has led to worldwide differences in IQ test results, political institutions, and economic development. We reject Wade’s implication that our findings substantiate his guesswork. They do not.

We are in full agreement that there is no support from the field of population genetics for Wade’s conjectures.

For more, see

  • The letter to the Times Sunday Book Review
  • The full list of the letter’s authors
  • My review
  • Reports on the letter from Nature and from Science

Open-access pioneer Michael Eisen introduces Kent Anderson, new publisher of (closed) Science

Kent clearly does not like open access. He thinks it is bad for scholarly publishing – that it undercuts publisher’s ability to make money, and, more importantly to him, it erodes the quality of the products they produce (which is why we all find it so ironic that his first job at AAAS is to launch a new open access journal).

Kent clearly does not like open access. He thinks it is bad for scholarly publishing – that it undercuts publisher’s ability to make money, and, more importantly to him, it erodes the quality of the products they produce (which is why we all find it so ironic that his first job at AAAS is to launch a new open access journal).

And yet:

I think we should give him a chance. He knows the industry well, and is undoubtedly qualified for the position. And for all of his bluster about open access, he doesn’t seem to be stuck entirely in the past. I hope that he views his new position not as a bigger and better platform from which to promote his previously expressed views, but as an opportunity to actually represent the scientists of America, and build a publishing system that truly serves their interests, and not those of the AAAS or any other publisher.

Get the rest at Eisen’s blog, it is NOT junk

Daily Reads: Dolphins v sharks, moms v babies, war photos, sex dolls

Screenshot 2014-08-08 08.24.13

War photographer Tyler Hicks on how he gets the goods (but no pictures of Hamas). A Q&A with James Estrin at the NY Times Lens blog.

This is a war fought largely behind the scenes. Hamas fighters are not able to expose themselves. If they were to even step a foot on the street they would be spotted by an Israeli drone and immediately blown up. We don’t see those fighters. They are operating out of buildings and homes and at night. They are moving around very carefully. You don’t see any signs of authority on the streets. If you can imagine every police officer, every person of authority in America gone, this is what that would look like.

If we had access to them, we would be photographing them. I never saw a single device for launching the rockets to Israel. It’s as if they don’t exist.

Pregnancy is a war between mother and child. Suzanne Sadedin at Aeon.

To see this spirit of maternal generosity carried to its logical extreme, consider Diaea ergandros, a species of Australian spider. All summer long, the mother fattens herself on insects so that when winter comes her little ones may suckle the blood from her leg joints. As they drink, she weakens, until the babies swarm over her, inject her with venom and devour her like any other prey. You might suppose such ruthlessness to be unheard-of among mammalian children. You would be wrong.

A (Straight, Male) History of Sex Dolls. Julie Beck at The Atlantic. More than one side to this story. Even two separate clips only begin to get at it.

[1] Sarah Valverde, a researcher and mental health therapist, did her masters thesis in psychology on the demographics and psychological characteristics of sex doll owners. She says that many of the men she surveyed for her research felt shame or embarrassment about owning sex dolls. But contrary to popular stereotypes, they were just as satisfied with their lives, on average, as the general population, and didn’t suffer higher-than-normal rates of depression or other mental illness. Owning a sex doll “is certainly a deviant sexual behavior from our norm,” she says. “But unless it’s all-consuming and it impacts other areas of life, we really can’t define it as a disorder.”

[2] Owning a sex doll is not a violent act. But as these creations come to look more and more realistic, their lifeless, prone silicone bodies are reminders of unequal gender power dynamics that play out in the real world. And as human women become more empowered, sex dolls offer a way for men to retreat into relationships where they are still in control. A doll is a woman-shaped thing that may bring a man comfort, may inspire devotion in him, and may drive away his loneliness. It will never challenge him, and it will certainly never do anything to make him feel ridiculous.

One out of every six dolphins in The Bahamas has been bitten by a shark. Justin Gregg. It seems they especially go after the young.

Unfortunately for the Bimini dolphins, it seems that the younger/smaller dolphins receive a fair amount of unwanted attention from sharks. This study found that of the ten dolphins whose ages were known at the time they were bitten, only one was an adult. The rest were chomped on as young animals, with seven of them being calves. Although this means that smaller dolphins are being targeted by sharks, it’s also a sign that the youngsters are able to hold their own. “The fact that we saw more scars on calves tells us, at the very least, that some calves get away,” says Melillo-Sweeting.

That would be Dr. Walmart to you. Rachel Abrams at The New York Times.

Welcome to Walmart. The nurse will be right with you.

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The Limits of Lawyers, Murderers, Maggots, and Brain Scans

Anne Fausto-Sterling is killing it lately on the brain and gene beat. She does so again here with On Maggots and Brain Scans

What do brain images really tell us? What critical questions can a layperson ask to avoid being sucked into a brain vortex or wowed by new words such as “connectome”? Can we really link specific brain structures to particular behaviors? Or do these fascinating new finds get a critical pass because they feed into ingrained preconceptions about biology as a root cause of all things evil or inevitable?

Oddly, I want to begin answering these questions by considering an important new study of fruit fly larvae.

And then comes much goodness — fruit flies, murderers, lawyers, other strange creatures — before the take-home:

Biologists are great. I love ’em. Some of my best friends are. . . . But we cannot properly use a science of behavior to make critical decisions about justice and human potential without also calling on the wisdom and insights of philosophers, historians, theologians, artists, sociologists, and many others.

Get the rest at Of Maggots and Brain Scans | Boston Review. Save that link for every tine you read anything that tells you brain scans or genetic tests regarding behavior are safe to use in court cases. They too easily convince beyond the evidence they contain.