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Cool Sh*t I’ve Read and Seen Lately. Cops Waging War, Masters of Sex, Nabokov and More!

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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I’ve got an especially eclectic bunch of “Cool Sh*t” to nominate this month. Two articles by top-notch science journalists, a tough, timely investigative report by the ACLU, a sexy cable series and a classic short-story collection. (See my previous nominations in columns one, two, three, four and five of this series.)

How to Talk about Climate Change so People Will Listen,” by Charles C. Mann, The Atlantic, September 2014. Veteran science journalist Mann reviews eight books on climate change and finds a reasonable middle ground between those who warn “apocalypse awaits” and others who claim “minimal fixes will get us through.” This is one of the most sensible overviews of global warming—and how we should manage with it—I’ve read in a while.

War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing,” a report by the American Civil Liberties Union, June 2014. This report was released before the recent eruption of unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, but it reveals that the disturbing behavior of police in Ferguson is a symptom of an even broader, more alarming trend in American law enforcement. “American policing,” the ACLU states, “has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized, in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war, with almost no public discussion or oversight.”

Seeds of Doubt,” by Michael Specter, The New Yorker, August 25, 2014. In this in-depth profile, Specter dismantles Vandana Shiva, a charismatic leader of the global movement against genetically modified food. What makes Specter’s critique especially devastating is that he seems to bend over backward to give Shiva the benefit of the doubt.

Masters of Sex, Season 2. The first season of this Showtime series about the pioneering sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson seemed gimmicky–like Mad Men with physicians in St. Louis substituted for advertising execs in New York. But Season 2—and especially episodes 3 and 4, which I just watched–is blowing me away. Each episode is like an extremely entertaining, dramatic, unpredictable Ph.D. thesis about the paradoxical intertwinings (intercourses?) of love, sex, science and (in episode 4) race.

The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, Vintage. I’ve always been ambivalent about Nabokov. Sentence by sentence, no writer delights me more; only John Updike and Nicholson Baker come close. But Nabokov has always seemed a little cold, amoral. He’s an aesthete, obsessed with the gorgeous surfaces of things, including people. He can come across as callous toward—even amused by—the suffering of his fellow mortals. But as I got into this collection of stories—written from the 1920s through 1950s and collected and translated by Nabokov’s son, Dmitri—I gradually discerned a redeeming morality, or ethical stance, or something in Nabokov’s worldview, which reminds me of Buddhism. No matter how bad things are, Nabokov seems to imply, reality—infinitely marvelous, magical, mystical–is right there in front of you waiting for you to notice it. Open your eyes up, pay attention, see and you might find consolation–or at least distraction from your pain.

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Von Stupidtz 7:38 am 08/27/2014

    I am no expert on genetically modified crop but it would be great if we can make crops grow at the speed of bamboo trees (3 feet in 1 day). If we can do bonsai,we should be able to do this.

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  2. 2. rshoff2 12:34 pm 08/28/2014

    Militarization of Police: Wow, this is a cohesive report. I don’t know why it wasn’t more obvious to me that the police were a militia. Although it was clear that things are going wrong and that the police are to be feared by us all. They no longer serve us, they control us.

    Fast growing modified crops: What about nutrition?!

    Sex, is it everywhere? Guess not many people are doing it anymore if they have to talk about it, read about it, watch it, etc. You know the old saying about talkers and doers. If ya have to talk about it then it ain’t happenin’.

    Mysticism: You actually have to close your eyes to see it, it simply doesn’t exist. What eludes the senses seems mystical.

    @Von Stupidtz, I’m not expert on anything yet it doesn’t stop me! ;-)

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  3. 3. Markdnrs 4:50 pm 09/13/2014

    But John Horgan, that’s how you cleverly “dismantle” the person you are attacking. You pretend to give her the “benefit of the doubt” and then use vicious hyperbole to attack the messenger. He dismantled nothing. Vandana Shiva is trying to protect the future of not only humanity but the future of life on earth and makes a very profound case for that. That is guaranteed to create enemies and drive the psychotics crazy (in this case the psychotics are the gang of Monsanto, Dupont, Bayer, Dow, Sygenta and their political and agribusiness followers. If they weren’t shrieking and attacking Mrs. Shiva would not be doing her job.

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  4. 4. Markdnrs 5:02 pm 09/13/2014

    GMO is factually a dangerous poison. Eating genetically modified corn (GM corn) and consuming trace levels of Monsanto’s Roundup chemical fertilizer caused rats to develop horrifying tumors, widespread organ damage, and premature death. rats exposed to even the smallest amounts, “developed mammary tumors and severe liver and kidney damage as early as four months in males, and seven months for females.” The animals on the GM diet suffered mammary tumors, as well as severe liver and kidney damage. Everywhere GMO is being grown, food allergies, disorders such as autism, reproductive disorders, digestive problems, and others have been skyrocketing in the human populations.

    There has been a drastic decline of crop-pollinating insects all over the world, and what this means for the future of the world’s food supply. Wild pollinators like bumblebees, butterflies, and beetles are basically disappearing. GMO industrial agricultural practices are causing this insect genocide. Pollinating insects in general, which include a wide range of insects and other animals, are simply vanishing from their normal habitats and foraging areas. That lower diversity and lower abundance of wild insects means less fruits and destruction of the diversity of plants and their fruits worldwide.

    GMOs cross pollinate and their seeds can travel. It is impossible to fully clean up our contaminated gene pool. Self-propagating GMO pollution will outlast the effects of global warming and nuclear waste. The potential impact is huge, threatening the health of future generations. GMO contamination has also caused economic losses for organic and non-GMO farmers who often struggle to keep their crops pure.

    GMOs increase herbicide use. Most GM crops are engineered to be “herbicide tolerant”―surviving deadly weed killers. Monsanto, for example, sells Roundup Ready crops, designed to survive applications of their Roundup herbicide. Between 1996 and 2008, US farmers sprayed an extra 383 million pounds of herbicide on GMOs. Overuse of Roundup results in “superweeds,” resistant to the herbicide. This is causing farmers to use even more toxic herbicides every year. Not only does this create environmental harm, GM foods contain higher residues of toxic herbicides. Roundup, for example, is linked with sterility, hormone disruption, birth defects, and cancer.

    GM crops and their associated herbicides can harm birds, insects, amphibians, marine ecosystems, and soil organisms. They reduce bio-diversity, pollute water resources, and are unsustainable. For example, GM crops are eliminating habitat for monarch butterflies, whose populations are down 50% in the US. Roundup herbicide has been shown to cause birth defects in amphibians, embryonic deaths and endocrine disruptions, and organ damage in animals even at very low doses. GM canola has been found growing wild in North Dakota and California, threatening to pass on its herbicide tolerant genes on to weeds.

    By mixing genes from totally unrelated species, genetic engineering unleashes a host of unpredictable side effects. Moreover, irrespective of the type of genes that are inserted, the very process of creating a GM plant can result in massive collateral damage that produces new toxins, allergens, carcinogens, and nutritional deficiencies.

    GMOs do not increase yields, and work against feeding a hungry world.

    Whereas sustainable non-GMO agricultural methods used in developing countries have conclusively resulted in yield increases of 79% and higher, GMOs do not, on average, increase yields at all. This was evident in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ 2009 report Failure to Yield―the definitive study to date on GM crops and yield.

    The toxins associated with GMO should never be tolerated. NEONICOTINOID PESTICIDE neurotoxins are absolutely the main factor causing the collapse of bee and pollinator populations along with other lethal chemicals, glysophate, etc. When these poisons are banned as they were in Europe the bee populations start to recover. GMO neonicotinoids, roundup etc. MUST BE BANNED OUTRIGHT and all the farmers along with USDA, Biotech and chemical companies told to cease and desist from what they are doing.

    An even scarier prospect: the “BT” version of GMO soybeans and corn, (basically pesticides engineered directly into the plant )

    The “BT toxin” gene is put into the DNA of the corn in order for it to manufacture its own toxins that kill pests. The BT gene originated from a soil bacteria that also infiltrates the microflora (friendly digestive bacteria) in your gut. The Bt gene converts the microflora in your intestine into toxin-manufacturing machines.

    So, to be clear, eating GMO corn products can cause your gut (which is primarily responsible for keeping you healthy) to turn into a breeding ground for tiny little pesticide factories inside your body, actively creating toxins which are designed to kill living things. These toxins are found in the blood and are readily transferred across the placenta to developing babies in the womb.

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