The future of the newsmedia is already on my iPod

An article in Fast Company suggests that, with its booming online presence and willing-to-donate audience, National Public Radio may be the future of news in the U.S. The conflict between local affiliates — who do most of the fundraising, and pay to broadcast NPR content — and the push to make more shows available online is discussed, though it’s not really anything I hadn’t heard before. One thing I hadn’t: from 1998 to 2008, while audiences for newspapers declined 11.4%, and network TV news dropped 28%, NPR’s listenership grew 95.6%.

NPR’s listenership has nearly doubled since 1999, even as newspaper circulation dropped off a cliff. Its programming now reaches 26.4 million listeners weekly — far more than USA Today’s 2.3 million daily circ or Fox News’ 2.8 million prime-time audience. When newspapers were closing bureaus, NPR was opening them, and now runs 38 around the world, better than CNN.

Another point made in the article: isn’t able to provide good local news. This seems like an obvious niche for the local affiliates, many of whom produce their own original journalism (though with variable success). Seems like the ideal would be for my profile on to know my zip code, and mix locally-produced content into my programming stream. When it was time for a new travel mug, the main site could direct my donation to the affiliate, maybe collecting a share for the national programming in the process.

Graduate degrees underwater

Emily Bazelon discusses how freshly-minted PhDs, Masters, and JDs say they’re coping in the Great Downturn.

The studies that show [the economic benefit of an advanced degree] typically crunch broad swaths of data. They look at the census, or other large population samples, and show a positive correlation between income and years of education. This means that college and graduate school are generally a good bet. But it doesn’t tell you that every single degree pays off financially at every single point in time.

And so there are lots of just-graduated grad students, many with debt from student loans, unable to do the work they’re highly qualified to do.

I’m fortunate in multiple regards, here; I’ve probably got another two years to go, thanks to a just-received DDIG, so I’m not hitting the job market until the worst has (hopefully) passed. Because I’ve been lucky enough to be funded as either a teaching assistant or a research assistant (and can expect continued funding as one or the other), I don’t have new debt related to grad school, even if I’m not exactly getting rich doing it. Being in a mostly NSF-funded field has been harrowing in recent years, but under the new administration things are looking better for funding in pure science – NSF did pretty well under the stimulus package, and should see better treatment in the regular budget, too. My only major worry is that when I graduate, I’ll be competing for post-doctoral spots with an extra-large cohort of other folks who waited out the downturn as students.

Crucified agape

Tradition tells us to choose between respect for persons and participation in the movement of history; Jesus refuses because the movement of history is personal. Between the absolute agape which lets itself be crucified, and effectiveness (which it is assumed will usually need to be violent), the resurrection forbids us to choose, for in the light of resurrection crucified agape is not folly (as it seems to the Hellenizers to be) and weakness (as the Judaizers believe) but the wisdom and power of God (I Cor. 1:22-25).

John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972)

Photo by jby.

Evolution-proof insecticide?

ResearchBlogging.orgIn this week’s issue of PLoS Biology, an essay describes the perfect means for controlling malaria-carrying mosquitoes: an “evolution-proof insecticide.” By taking advantage of the life history traits of both mosquitoes and the malaria parasite, Read et al. argue it should be possible to create an insecticide that will cut malaria transmission without selecting for resistance in the mosquitoes.

Malaria remains a major public health problem in much of the world – according the World Health Organization, a child dies of the disease every 30 seconds, and the cost of malaria may cut economic growth by as much as 1.3% in countries with high infection rates. In the absence of a vaccine, the best approach for malaria management is to control the mosquitoes that transmit the malaria parasite. This is usually done with insecticides, but these have a limited useful lifespan, as they create strong selective pressure for mosquito populations to evolve resistance.

Photo by LoreleiRanveig.

As Read et al. point out, it’s not that we need to kill off mosquitoes as such; we just need to stop them from transmitting malaria. If this can be accomplished without strongly reducing the mosquitoes’ fitness, it would reduce or eliminate selection for resistance. Malaria typically needs a long time to incubate inside a mosquito before it becomes transmissible to humans, and, in what Read et al. call “one of the great ironies of malaria,” this incubation time is longer than most mosquitoes live. That is, the mosquitoes who successfully transmit malaria are the small proportion of the population who live long enough to incubate the parasite.

Here’s where evolutionary biology interacts with the life history of malaria parasites in a highly convenient way: an insecticide that selectively targets older mosquitoes will have a smaller impact on the mosquito population’s fitness. This is because most of a female mosquito’s fitness – the total number of offspring she produces – is concentrated in her first one or two egg-laying cycles. Her fitness can increase if she survives to complete more cycles, but it’s pretty rare that she does. From natural selection’s point of view, that first of eggs counts much more than possible future batches, because they’re not very likely.

For that hypothetical female mosquito to transmit malaria, she has to bite an infected human in the course of feeding to fuel one egg-laying cycle, then incubate the malaria parasites for an additional two to six cycles. Therefore, say Read et al., an insecticide that doesn’t harm mosquitoes until they complete their first few egg-laying cycles is the “evolution-proof” solution – the only offspring it “steals” from the affected mosquitoes were pretty improbable anyway, and it prevents the malaria parasites from incubating long enough to successfully infect a new human host.

As it happens, the evolution-proof insecticide might not be a chemical agent, but a biological one. A paper I discussed back in January suggested that infecting malaria-carrying mosquitoes with the parasitic Wolbachia bacterium could control mosquito populations [$-a] by, yes, reducing their total lifespan to something less than the malaria parasite’s incubation time. In short, it looks like the goal of a malaria-free world is not as improbable as it used to be.


McMeniman, C., Lane, R., Cass, B., Fong, A., Sidhu, M., Wang, Y., & O’Neill, S. (2009). Stable introduction of a life-shortening Wolbachia infection into the mosquito Aedes aegypti Science, 323 (5910), 141-144 DOI: 10.1126/science.1165326

Read, A., Lynch, P., & Thomas, M. (2009). How to make evolution-proof insecticides for malaria control PLoS Biology, 7 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1000058

Why Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate”

Larry Hurtado discusses why the Roman government crucified Jesus (politics), as well as what Pilate’s motives and the implications behind his chosen method of execution mean for Christianity.

Crucifixion was commonly regarded as not only frighteningly painful but also the most shameful of deaths. Essentially, it was reserved for those who were perceived as raising their hands against Roman rule or those who in some other way seemed to challenge the social order—for example, slaves who attacked their masters, and insurrectionists, such as the many Jews crucified by Roman Gen. Vespasian in the Jewish rebellion of 66-72.

The easter-egg hunt for scholarly PDFs

The Open Source Paleontologist has few good suggestions on digging up electronic copies of scholarly papers when you’re outside the walled garden of institutional subscriptions. Google Scholar is getting better at identifying online PDF copies related to its results, but given that it doesn’t seem to know about my doctoral advisor’s considerable archive (he posts PDFs of all his pubs, as more and more academics do), I have to wonder what it’s missing. I’ve started going there to check for PDFs before resorting to an [$-a] tag, though.

Vocabulary for the day: “favorable enumeration”

Inspired by recent miseducational shenanigans in Texas, On the Media runs a great piece on the latest Creationist strategies for shoehorning fundamentalism into science class. NCSE‘s Eugenie Scott interviews well, and sparks fly when Bob Garfield talks to Casey Luskin, a “policy analyst” from the anti-science Discovery Institute:

BOB GARFIELD: What are the issues?

CASEY LUSKIN: Well, the issues are that there is a scientific controversy over evolution. And, of course, some scientists will tell you that there is no controversy, but the reality is that during the hearings of the Texas State Board of Education, we saw a number of Ph.D. biologists from top institutions come and testify about their scientific doubts about evolution.

BOB GARFIELD: Are you familiar with the fallacy of favorable enumeration? It says that you find a handful of examples that support your premise and you focus on them to the exclusion of the vast preponderance of circumstances that don’t support your premise.

CASEY LUSKIN: Cherry picking is what you’re saying.

BOB GARFIELD: That’s called cherry picking.

CASEY LUSKIN: Okay, got it.

It’s not the punch line, but you have to love “Well, the issues are that there is a scientific controversy over evolution. And, of course, some scientists will tell you that there is no controversy …” That’s right. You certainly can’t trust us scientists to tell you about science. No sirree. We’re biased.

Replanting the clear-cut

America’s spiritual vocabulary–with its huge defining terms such as “God,” “soul,” “sacrifice,” “mysticism,” “faith,” “salvation,” “grace,” “redemption”–has been enduring a series of abuses so constricting that the damage may last for centuries. Too many of us have tried to sidestep this damage by simply rejecting the terminology. The defamation of a religious vocabulary cannot be undone by turning away: the harm is undone when we work to reopen each word’s true history, nuance, and depth. Holy words need stewardship as surely as do gardens, orchards, or ecosystems. When lovingly tended, such words surround us with spaciousness and mystery the way a sacred grove surrounds us with cathedral light, peace, and oxygenated air. When we merely abandon our holy words, and fail to replace them, we end up living in a spiritual clear-cut.

David James Duncan, “What fundamentalists need for their salvation.” (God Laughs and Plays, Triad Books: 2006)

Photo by jby.
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