Patt Morrison for July 19, 2011

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Over the past several weeks, negotiations on a deal that would raise the federal debt ceiling while also making deep cuts in spending, and possible increases in taxes, to close the $14 trillion budget deficit could be described as acrimonious, hostile and a times downright nasty. Perhaps that’s why a slight ray of hope is so welcome for the combatants on Capitol Hill, and that ray of hopeful sunshine did indeed materialize today in the form of an older compromise plan. The “Gang of 6” U.S. Senators, a bipartisan group that had been meeting informally for several months, produced the broad blueprint for a plan that would cut $3.7 trillion from the deficit over 10 years. It had been dismissed as politically untenable but it has new life, and even President Obama is into the idea, calling it “broadly consistent” with his own approach to the debt ceiling crisis. Several dozen Senators are now into the idea of a package of spending cuts and tax code reforms, Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte from Arkansas describing the meeting on the plan as “the vibe in the room was very positive.” The devil will be in the details, as there are a lot of them to work out to get to $3.7 trillion in deficit reductions. The plan will impose immediate spending cuts and caps that would reduce the deficit by $500 billion over 10 years; make changes to Social Security designed to keep the program solvent for 75 years; director congressional committees to find specific levels of deficit reduction within their areas of jurisdiction. There is also the very big question of whether this kind of package can pass the House, where Tea Party-inspired Republicans are still threatening to vote “no” on any increase in the debt ceiling. How long can the “positive vibes” last in Congress?
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Remember the day when the big-red-and-white Borders bookstore popped up on a commercial business corner near you? They had their avid book-loving followers and their loyal independent-bookstore-going boycotters. But a bookstore with music, movies, and a built-in coffee shop was a new concept—Borders has something for everyone. Now, the monster store demonized for crushing independent bookstores has now been crushed itself. By 2000, the rise of online book sellers like Amazon.com and discount retailers like WalMart and Target had caused a dramatic reduction in people visiting Borders. In addition to forces beyond its control, Borders may have accelerated its own demise by moving too slowly into the digital age, with a clunky website to purchase books from and without its own kindle (Amazon) or Nook (Barnes & Noble) equivalent until recently. This week Borders announced the liquidation of its business and the closure of all of its remaining stores. Ironically it’s the small, independent bookstores that might ultimately prevail in this fight. While internet book sales helped to vanquish Borders, your local bookstore will live to fight another day.
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Fears of a link between vaccinations and autism have fueled reluctance among parents over the last decade to vaccinate their children. Though the link was disproven in January, populations across the U.S. and around the world persist in rejecting vaccines on religious or philosophical grounds. The impact of this movement, argues Harvard professor and risk perception consultant David Ropeik in an LA Times op-ed this week, is becoming all too clear: last year, California saw its biggest whooping cough outbreak in a long while, with 9,000 cases; France has documented 7,000 cases of measles so far this year. Ironically, preventable diseases have been on the rise in wealthy, educated areas, and according to a 2008 study from the state of Michigan, the risk of disease in such “exemption clusters” can be three times higher than the average risk in other areas. It’s clear that disease spreads quickly, especially in high density areas such as schools and hospitals, and those epidemics can be costly to contain and clean up. Should it be more difficult for parents to opt-out of vaccination? And could financial disincentives or stricter regulations increase public safety?
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Media tycoons, besides covering the news, often make the news through self-made controversy. Rupert Murdoch, owner and CEO of News Corporation, is currently embroiled in a hacking scandal with tentacles reaching into high levels of British government, Scotland Yard and very possibly the U.S. Italian president Silvio Berlusconi is another media oligarch whose empire kept him in public eye and, and in his case, arguably enabled him to win the presidency. The political influence endowed by large media outlets is unavoidable and has left the world to wonder if the concentration of authority should be more diffuse. The words “monopoly” and “trust” are looked upon with a deserved unease, but should possible news-empires be examined with an especially careful eye?
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Is the internet changing the way our brains remember things? That’s the sneaking suspicion from a new series of studies conducted by a Columbia University psychologist and published this week in the journal Science. One experiment showed people are more likely to remember data they’re typing into a computer if they think it will be erased from the computer’s memory, and more likely to forget it if they think the information will be saved. (Being told to remember the information made no difference in whether people remembered it, suggesting there’s no conscious “deciding” about whether to remember something.) Another experiment found that when presented with information we think will be easily accessible in the future, we’re more likely to remember where to find it rather than the details of the information itself. Similar to the way we rely on friends, family and colleagues to remember things for us, the internet may be training us to unconsciously outsource some memory functions to its collective intelligence. The findings don’t show the internet is causing the brain to lose its ability to remember facts, just that we don’t use it the way we used to. Is that necessarily a bad thing, or could there be any benefits to these changes in our memory function?
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Imagine if we could "free" a chimpanzee’s mind through a communicative vehicle. This is the goal that Columbia university researchers set out to achieve in the mid-1970’s. How? By raising a 2-week-old chimp like a human child, by a human mother, in a house of seven children. Because chimpanzees lack the vocal apparatus to speak, the communicative vehicle was American Sign Language—even though no one in the large family knew sign language. The project was the brain child of behavioral psychologist Herbert Terrace, and the human mother to raise the chimp was one of his graduate students, Stephanie LaFarge. The two back-handedly named the chimp Nim, after Noam Chomsky, the linguist who insisted that language is exclusively a human trait. The story of Nim is the subject of ’s, who won the 2009 Best Documentary Academy Award for Man on Wire, newest documentary. In theatres now, Project Nim has received raving reviews, won the best directing award for world documentary at Sundance, and been heralded already as a likely candidate for an Academy Award. But the story told within the film is a less happy one. LaFarge was not prepared for the “wild animal in Nim;’ and neither was her husband, who quickly realized the chimp’s hard-wired nature to compete with other males. As tension began to arise between Terrace and LaFarge, who had once been lovers, and because Terrace claimed LaFarge’s house lacked order and methodology, Nim was handed off to Laura-Ann Petitto, an attractive 18-year-old student who was highly motivated and organized. What happens next is a shocking and amazing story that involves both tragedy and joy—much as a human life does. The results of this experiment and film reveal as much about human behavior as they do about chimp behavior. Alongside heart-warming and tear-jerking moments of love and long-lasting chimp-human relationships, the film exposes arrogant and self-serving actions that are quite unsettling. At the heart of this film is the question of why humans feel so compelled to bring the “human” out of animals. Is the means of communication the missing link between humans and animals or is there simply not more going on in the minds of animals to be communicated? Was it wrong to bring an animal out of its natural habitat or is it important to test the scientific question that this experiment asked? And ultimately, was the experiment a failure or success?
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