Archives for June 2012


FACT: “By 4300-4200 BCE Old Europe was at its peak. The Varna cemetery in eastern Bulgaria had the most ostentatious funerals in the world, richer than anything of the same age in the Near East. Among the 281 graves at Varna, 61 (22%) contained more than three thousand golden objects together weighing 6 kg (13.2 lb). Two thousand of these were found in just four graves (1, 4, 36, and 43).”

The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World
by David W. Anthony

Roughly half the world’s population speaks languages derived from a shared linguistic source known as Proto-Indo-European. But who were the early speakers of this ancient mother tongue, and how did they manage to spread it around the globe? Until now their identity has remained a tantalizing mystery to linguists, archaeologists, and even Nazis seeking the roots of the Aryan race. The Horse, the Wheel, and Language lifts the veil that has long shrouded these original Indo-European speakers, and reveals how their domestication of horses and use of the wheel spread language and transformed civilization.

Linking prehistoric archaeological remains with the development of language, David Anthony identifies the prehistoric peoples of central Eurasia’s steppe grasslands as the original speakers of Proto-Indo-European, and shows how their innovative use of the ox wagon, horseback riding, and the warrior’s chariot turned the Eurasian steppes into a thriving transcontinental corridor of communication, commerce, and cultural exchange. He explains how they spread their traditions and gave rise to important advances in copper mining, warfare, and patron-client political institutions, thereby ushering in an era of vibrant social change. Anthony also describes his fascinating discovery of how the wear from bits on ancient horse teeth reveals the origins of horseback riding.

The Horse, the Wheel, and Language solves a puzzle that has vexed scholars for two centuries—the source of the Indo-European languages and English—and recovers a magnificent and influential civilization from the past.

“[A]uthoritative . . . “—John Noble Wilford, New York Times

“A thorough look at the cutting edge of anthropology, Anthony’s book is a fascinating look into the origins of modern man.”—Publishers Weekly (Online Reviews Annex)

We invite you to read Chapter 1 here:

Welcoming new regular guest blogger on Technology and the Election, John McGinnis

John McGinnis, author of the forthcoming Accelerating Democracy: Matching Governance to Technological Change will be taking to Election 101 to blog each week about technology and the election.  Anyone with a twitter account and an iPhone knows that technology has advanced at an explosive pace in recent years. We have, after all, elected the first ‘social media’ president, viral marketing has never been bigger, and prediction technology often seems instantaneous.  Yet democratic governance has not yet caught up with all the advancements that have taken place. Technology can, of course, be a boon to democracy in many ways–while social planning was once a top-down enterprise, now we have a stream of information connecting us to the issues everywhere in record time. But technological advancement is not without dangers, and information often moves faster than it can be harnessed to impact public policy. John McGinnis will be dedicating his weekly posts to these issues, and the ways in which the government must keep pace with technological change. Read on for his introductory post:



Predicting the Effects of Policy at Election Time

John McGinnis


In an election season, politicians promise that their policies will deliver wonderful results. But their proposed policies often conflict.  Will more government spending or tax cuts generate economic growth?   Will charter schools improve educational achievement or is it better to spend more on existing schools?  To determine which policies to follow, democracy needs better information about their likely results.

My forthcoming book, Accelerating Democracy: Matching Governance to Technological Change, argues that we can make better policy by bringing democracy within the domain of our digital information revolution.  We are all aware that our lives are being transformed as the devices created by exponential increases in computational power connect us to information and to one another faster than ever before.  But we have not systematically considered how this technological revolution can improve democracy in our day, as the printing press did in its time.

New or improved information technologies, like empiricism, prediction markets, and dispersed media, can refine our evaluation of past policies and sharpen our predictions of future policy results.  But they can do so only if we change laws and political structures to permit the information revolution to wash through our politics.  In this post and those to come, I will use events in our current election to describe in more detail how we can improve democratic outcomes by embracing in contemporary politics our accelerating technological future.

I begin with the question of how we can better predict the consequences of an election.  Experts predict these consequences all the time.  For instance, the economist Joseph Stiglitz stated that Governor Romney’s election would “significantly” raise the risks of a recession.  If this statement were true, it would be a reason to vote for the incumbent.   But Professor Stiglitz is not only a Nobel winning economist, but also inhabits the left side of the political spectrum.  It is not impossible that he is biased against the presumptive Republican standard bearer.

Predictions markets could help us test Professor Stiglitz’s claim.   We could make markets in the likelihood of a recession conditional on victory by Governor Romney and conditional on  victory by President Obama.  One advantage of markets is that they offer powerful incentives against bias. Participants are rewarded for accurate assessments, not ideological frolics. They must put their money where their mouth is.   And, not surprisingly, we have evidence that prediction markets are more accurate at evaluating the future than alternatives.  They have proved better at predicting the winners of elections than polls.

Prediction markets help answer a fundamental question of democracy.  How can America know what Americans know? Prediction markets help pool individual assessments for the collective good. Sadly, United States law greatly impedes the operation of prediction markets because they are seen as internet gambling.  The most important such market, Intrade, is thus run out of Ireland.  By relaxing our legal prohibitions, we could help generate more innovate prediction markets on a wider range of subjects.  Indeed, so important is the information that they can provide, the government should consider subsidizing experiments with these markets rather than banning them.  Information is a great public good and government restricts its effective provision at our peril.

John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor of Constitutional Law at Northwestern University.


Matthew Briones with Cornel West on C-Span

With recent immigration debates and events such as the Trayvon Martin case triggering racial anxieties,  Matthew Briones, author of Jim and Jap Crow: A Cultural History of 1940s Interracial America has been speaking out about the undiscussed and potential alliances between Asian Americans and Latina/os. Recently he spoke at the Hue Man bookstore in Harlem with his friend Cornel West about race relations and the coming election, as well as his book, which follows the life of Charles Kikuchi, a Japanese American who was sent to an internment camp alongside 100,000 other Japanese Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. The event drew a very engaged crowd, and was featured on Book TV this past weekend. Check out their conversation on C-Span’s site here, and their passionate post on this election year in interracial America for our Election 101 blog here.


FACT: “The first New Federalism, with its widely accepted, yet at times bitterly contested, constraints on the national government, fell before the onslaught of the Great Depression and the upending of the settled order of American politics and society. The thirty-six-year reign of McKinley-Hoover Republicanism vanished in the 1932 elections. In its place came a new model of federalism, a more centralized national government led by a strong president, aided by an assertive and active national bureaucracy and a compliant legislature and judiciary.”

Governing the American State:
Congress and the New Federalism, 1877-1929

by Kimberley S. Johnson

The modern, centralized American state was supposedly born in the Great Depression of the 1930s. Kimberley S. Johnson argues that this conventional wisdom is wrong. Cooperative federalism was not born in a Big Bang, but instead emerged out of power struggles within the nation’s major political institutions during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Examining the fifty-two years from the end of Reconstruction to the beginning of the Great Depression, Johnson shows that the “first New Federalism” was created during this era from dozens of policy initiatives enacted by a modernizing Congress. The expansion of national power took the shape of policy instruments that reflected the constraints imposed by the national courts and the Constitution, but that also satisfied emergent policy coalitions of interest groups, local actors, bureaucrats, and members of Congress.

Thus, argues Johnson, the New Deal was not a decisive break with the past, but rather a superstructure built on a foundation that emerged during the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. Her evidence draws on an analysis of 131 national programs enacted between 1877 and 1930, a statistical analysis of these programs, and detailed case studies of three of them: the Federal Highway Act of 1916, the Food and Drug Act of 1906, and the Sheppard-Towner Act of 1921. As this book shows, federalism has played a vital but often underappreciated role in shaping the modern American state.

We invite you to read the Introduction here:

Be sure to check in every Tuesday for a new tidbit from our great selection of politically-minded books.

Gabriella Coleman featured in Fast Company

With the exponentially growing importance of the internet, hacking is quickly becoming a subject worthy of study in an anthropological setting. Gabriella Coleman was interviewed by Adam Bluestein of Fast Company and discussed how exactly she gravitated toward studying hacking and digital activism, her fascination with the hacker collective Anonymous, and the introduction of hacker culture as an acceptable subject for an anthropology major. Gabriella’s forthcoming book is called Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking and addresses some of these topics.

Read the entire interview here!

This Week’s Book Giveaway

Are you following PUP on Google+ yet? If not, today’s the day to add us to your circle—we’re hosting another giveaway this week! Follow us by Friday to win!

Alan Turing: The Enigma
The Centenary Edition

by Andrew Hodges
With a foreword by Douglas Hofstadter
and a new preface by the author

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the British mathematician Alan Turing (1912-1954) saved the Allies from the Nazis, invented the computer and artificial intelligence, and anticipated gay liberation by decades—all before his suicide at age forty-one. This classic biography of the founder of computer science, reissued on the centenary of his birth with a substantial new preface by the author, is the definitive account of an extraordinary mind and life. A gripping story of mathematics, computers, cryptography, and homosexual persecution, Andrew Hodges’s acclaimed book captures both the inner and outer drama of Turing’s life.

Hodges tells how Turing’s revolutionary idea of 1936—the concept of a universal machine—laid the foundation for the modern computer and how Turing brought the idea to practical realization in 1945 with his electronic design. The book also tells how this work was directly related to Turing’s leading role in breaking the German Enigma ciphers during World War II, a scientific triumph that was critical to Allied victory in the Atlantic. At the same time, this is the tragic story of a man who, despite his wartime service, was eventually arrested, stripped of his security clearance, and forced to undergo a humiliating treatment program—all for trying to live honestly in a society that defined homosexuality as a crime.

“One of the finest scientific biographies ever written.”—Jim Holt, New Yorker

“A first-class contribution to history and an exemplary work of biography.”—I. J. Good, Nature

The random draw for this book with be Friday 6/29 at 11 am EST. Be sure to check out our Google+ page and add us to your circle to be entered to win!

Reinventing Discovery reviews abound

A video book review of Michael Nielsen’s Reinventing Discovery:

And if you’re more into print, here’s a review in Australia’s Inside Story magazine.

If those pique your interest, try reading this free chapter from Reinventing Discovery.

Amy Gutmann on Charlie Rose

The video above is a short excerpt from a longer interview. To watch the complete segment, please visit the Charlie Rose Show’s site:

Is it fair to judge a book by its cover (or its title, even?)

A tremendous amount of effort goes into picking book titles, designing jackets, and crafting back-cover blurbs, and while we come close, no publisher hits the mark 100% of the time. Here is Andrew Gelman at The Browser on the title of his book, Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State:

I regret the title I gave my book. I was too greedy. I wanted it to be an airport bestseller because I figured there were millions of people who are interested in politics and some subset of them are always looking at the statistics. It’s got a very grabby title and as a result people underestimated the content. They thought it was a popularisation of my work, or, at best, an expansion of an article we’d written. But it had tons of original material. If I’d given it a more serious, political science-y title, then all sorts of people would have wanted to read it, because they would have felt they needed to know all the important secrets in it. Instead, I gave it this accessible title which meant that people felt that they didn’t necessarily have to read it. I also regret not putting more about the process of discovery in that book, how we found out what we found out.

As for what other titles might have worked better in hindsight, Gelman has a few ideas:

Maybe something like Voting by the Numbers or The Hidden Patterns or Secret Life of the American Voter, something like that. Or something very dry, that conveyed it was serious, like Demography, Geography and American Voting.

I happen to love the title and the playful cover of Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State, but perhaps I am biased. I have the luxury of already knowing that the book contains unparalleled data and analysis on voting patterns across socioeconomic class, political party affiliation, demographics, religious attendance, gender, state of residence, and countless other useful tidbits. What do you think? Have you ever had the experience of picking up a book because of the cover only to discover it was completely not what you thought after all?

‘Blind Spots’ author Max Bazerman discusses the Sandusky trial on WNYC’s The Takeaway

Max Bazerman, co-author of Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It (along with Ann Tenbrunsel) appeared on WNYC’s The Takeaway to discuss the trial of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. You can listen to the interview below.

Animal Navigation Fun Facts — Part 2

Think humans are good at navigation? Think again. Compared to some of the mesmerizing navigational abilities of birds and other species, human navigation is actually quite primitive. Here is part two of our facts series about animal navigation from Nature’s Compass: The Mystery of Animal Navigation by James L. Gould and Carol Grant Gould.

Honeybee fact: Bees “dance” to communicate the location of a food source. What are bees actually doing during their dance? Trigonometry of course. They draw accurate maps to food by generating distance and direction components in their dances. When bees waggle while they dance, the direction of their waggling encodes the direction of the food. Pointing up refers to the direction of the sun and then the dancer reveals the relative azimuth of the sun by waggling left or right. Depending on the subspecies of bee, each waggle can correspond to a distance of 5-50 yards.

Bird fact: Many birds travel at night, and while they are unable to see shapes, they use starlight to help them navigate. They memorize star patterns, particularly the poles, and update their celestial snapshot depending on which constellations are visible during the season. When it’s overcast, birds resort to using their secondary magnetic compass and navigate by following magnetic fields.

Bonus fact: Even plankton have navigational abilities. Zooplankton, the organism that nearly all fish feed on, migrate down daily and up at night to follow their prey—phytoplankton.

We’ll be back next Monday for the third and final part to our animal navigation facts series.

Saturday Science comes to Newton’s Birthplace

The Ultimate Book of Saturday Science

Woolsthorpe Manor, home of Sir Isaac Newton, provided the perfect venue for the launch of Neil Downie’s new book ‘The Ultimate Book of Saturday Science: The Very Best Backyard Science Experiments You Can Do Yourself’ last week. We had an audience drawn from the local school science club and Neil and his colleagues demonstrated a range of projects taken from the book to great enthusiasm from all participants.  To see how much fun we had follow this link

Why not join in the fun and send us your own video of your favourite Saturday Science experiments?