The green ogre

Beware of the sea

Beware of the sea

Last week, in his column, Shlomo Artzi told the painful memory of the loss of a fellow 10 years old friend, to a freak wave on the shore of Tel-Aviv. No doubt, when one becomes a parent, the whole perspective of hazard and threats changes. Our perception of reality turns into one of an endless mine-field.

Enjoy the sea, respect it, and take it for the unpredictable giant it is.

Women (still) don’t win prizes / Tim Harford

Women (still) don’t win prizes

Women (still) don’t win prizes AW no line

Women (still) don’t win prizes

Women (still) don’t win prizes AW+line

‘Something about the culture of UK schools is nudging young women away from economics’

It’s no secret that women have long faced an uphill battle both to achieve success and be recognised for that success. The Nobel Prizes tell the story as well as anything: 860 people have been awarded prizes (including the unofficial Nobel Memorial Prize in economics) but only 5 per cent of them were women. The imbalance is worse still in stereotypically male subjects: only six Nobels for physics or chemistry have been awarded to women, fewer than 2 per cent of the total. Marie Curie won two of them; her daughter Irène won another.

Economics is another subject with a masculine reputation. It does not seem to be a happier hunting ground. The economics prize in memory of Alfred Nobel was launched in 1969 but it wasn’t until 2009 that Elinor Ostrom became the only woman so far to win it. “I won’t be the last,” was her characteristically practical comment.

Ostrom won the Nobel in economics despite not being an economist — her application to study for a PhD was turned away by UCLA’s economics department because she didn’t have the maths. “I had been advised as a girl against taking any courses beyond algebra and geometry in high school,” she commented. This particular piece of sexism ultimately worked in her favour: she became a political scientist instead and ended up approaching economic problems from a fresh perspective.

Curie faced a more immediate form of discrimination: in 1903 the Nobel physics committee planned to award the prize to her husband Pierre and to Henri Becquerel, overlooking Marie’s central role in studying radiation. Pierre insisted that his wife should receive the credit that she deserved. Not every husband of a brilliant wife has been quite so enlightened.

The two stories show the range of possibilities for discrimination to occur. Ostrom’s career path was shaped by negative stereotypes more than 60 years before she eventually won her prize; Curie nearly had the prize snatched away at the moment of triumph.

These are old wounds, and we have made a great deal of progress since then. But gender imbalances remain. In the US, the National Science Foundation’s survey of earned doctorates is not a bad place to look for the state of play. In 2012 women earned 46 per cent of all doctorates, up from 32 per cent three decades earlier. No great cause for alarm there. And women heavily outnumber men in social sciences such as psychology, sociology and anthropology.

Yet economics is a different beast: more than two-thirds of economics doctorates are awarded to men. (There is a similar story to tell in physics, chemistry, computing and engineering.) Since nobody under the age of 50 has won the Nobel Prize in economics, one can expect this imbalance in economics PhDs today to ripple through the upper echelons of the profession for many years to come.

There are also hopeful signs. The proportion of economics doctorates earned by women has been growing. The John Bates Clark medal, a prestigious award for economists under the age of 40, was exclusively male until Susan Athey won in 2007, but two other women have won the award since then. That is a sharp shift.

Is the lesson that all we need to do to attract more women to economics is wait? That is doubtful. In the UK, the proportion of undergraduate economists who are women is 27 per cent and falling. This isn’t a problem that will fix itself. So what can be done? The answer to that question depends on where we think the source of the imbalance lies — are we facing Marie Curie’s problem, or Lin Ostrom’s, or something else?

The school environment seems as significant today as it was for Ostrom. A recent study by Mirco Tonin and Jackie Wahba of the University of Southampton examines enrolment in undergraduate economics degrees in the UK. The gender imbalance in successful applicants is much more pronounced among UK applicants than those applying to UK universities from overseas. That suggests that something about the culture of UK schools is nudging young women away from economics.

. . .

That something may well be mathematics. This subject, a vital foundation for economics, is studied by more boys than girls at A-Level. Such a gender gap in advanced high-school mathematics disappeared in the United States 20 years ago.

As for women who already have their PhDs and are looking for careers in academia, the situation in the US is not entirely encouraging. A recent detailed study by a team of economists and psychologists (Stephen Ceci, Donna Ginther, Shulamit Kahn and Wendy Williams) looked at women in US academic sciences and concluded that while “gender discrimination was an important cause of women’s under-representation in scientific academic careers, this claim has continued to be invoked after it has ceased being a valid cause of women’s under-representation”. The playing field, they suggest, is much more level than it once was; a modern Marie Curie wouldn’t need her husband to fight her corner.

But Ceci and colleagues note an exception — one maths-intensive subject at which well-qualified and productive women somehow find it hard to win academic promotions. It’s economics. For some reason, the dismal science remains heavy with the scent of testosterone.

Written for and first published at


Why kill? rough

Why kill? rough

Why kill? AW

Why kill? AW

 Scientific American Volume 313, Issue 1 » Skeptic

By Michael Shermer | Jun 16, 2015

The ongoing rash of police using deadly force against minority citizens has triggered a search for a universal cause—most commonly identified as racism. Such soul searching is understandable, especially in light of the racist e-mails uncovered in the Ferguson, Mo., police department by the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation into the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

To whatever extent prejudice still percolates in the minds of a few cops in a handful of pockets of American society (nothing like 50 years ago), it does not explain the many interactions between white police and minority citizens that unfold without incident every year or the thousands of cases of assaults on police that do not end in police deaths (49,851 in 2013, according to the FBI). What in the brains of cops or citizens leads either group to erupt in violence?

An answer may be found deep inside the brain, where a neural network stitches together three structures into what neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp calls the rage circuit: (1) the periaqueductal gray (it coordinates incoming stimuli and outgoing motor responses); (2) the hypothalamus (it regulates the release of adrenaline and testosterone as related to motivation and emotion); and (3) the amygdala (associated with automatic emotional responses, especially fear, it lights up in response to an angry face; patients with damage to this area have difficultly assessing emotions in others). When Panksepp electrically stimulated the rage circuit of a cat, it leaped toward his head with claws and fangs bared. Humans similarly stimulated reported feeling uncontrollable anger.

The rage circuit is surrounded and modulated by the cerebral cortex, particularly the orbitofrontal cortex, wherein decisions are made about how you should respond to a particular stimulus—whether to act impulsively or show restraint. In her 1998 bookGuilty by Reason of Insanity, psychiatrist Dorothy Otnow Lewis notes that when a cat’s cortex is surgically detached from the lower areas of its brain, it responds to mildly annoying stimuli with ferocity and violence, not unlike a convicted killer improbably named Lucky, who had lesions between his cortical regions and the rest of his brain. Lewis suspects that Lucky’s lesions were responsible for his savage stabbing of a store clerk.

In healthy brains and under normal circumstances, cortical self-control usually trumps emotional impulses. In certain conditions that call for strong emotions, such as when you feel threatened with bodily injury or death, it is prudent for the rage circuit to override the cortex, as in a case of a woman named Susan described by evolutionary psychologist David M. Buss in his 2005 book The Murderer Next Door. As her cocaine-fueled abusive husband advanced on her with a hunting knife screaming, “Die, bitch!” Susan kneed him in the groin and grabbed the knife. What happened next is what sociologist Randall Collins calls a “forward panic”—an explosion of violence akin to the wartime massacres at Nanking and My Lai and the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers. “I stabbed him in the head and I stabbed him in the neck and I stabbed him in the chest and I stabbed him in the stomach,” Susan testified at her murder trial, explaining the 193 stab wounds resulting from her uncontrollable urge to avenge her abuse. Such emotions evolved as an adaptation to threats, especially when there is not time to compute the odds of an outcome. Fear causes us to pull back and retreat from risks. Anger leads us to strike out and defend ourselves against predators or bullies.

A charitable explanation for why cops kill is that certain actions by suspects (running away, or resisting arrest, or reaching into the squad car to grab a gun) may trigger the rage circuit to fire with such intensity as to override all cortical self-control. This may be especially the case if the officer is modified by training and experience to look for danger or biased by racial profiling leading to negative expectations of certain citizens’ behavior.

Future police training should include putting cops in threatening situations and giving them techniques for diffusing the outcome. In their 2011 book Willpower, Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney describe methods for suppressing such impulses. In turn, citizens should remember that cops are working to protect us from threats to our security.


Michael Shermer is publisher of Skeptic magazine ( His new book is The Moral Arc (Henry Holt, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @michaelshermer

Is Terrorism a Form of Self-Help Justice?

 Scientific American Volume 312, Issue 5 , Skeptic
The moralistic motivations of ISIS
Is Terrorism a Form of Self-Help Justice?

Is Terrorism a Form of Self-Help Justice?

In an unintentionally hilarious video clip, primatologist Frans de Waal narrates an experiment conducted in his laboratory at Emory University involving capuchin monkeys. One monkey exchanges a rock for a cucumber slice, which he gleefully ingests. But after seeing another monkey receive a much tastier grape for a rock, he angrily hurls it back at the experimenter when he is again offered a cucumber slice. He rattles the cage wall, slaps the floor and looks seriously peeved at this blatant injustice. (See the video at

A sense of justice and injustice—right and wrong—is an evolved moral emotion to signal to others that if exchanges are not fair there will be a price to pay. How high a price? In the Ultimatum Game, in which one person is given a sum of money to divide with another person—with the stipulation that if the offer is accepted both keep the money, but if the offer is rejected no one gets any money—offers less than 30 percent of the sum are typically rejected. That is, we are willing to pay 30 percent to punish an offender. This is called moralistic punishment.

In a classic 1983 article entitled “Crime as Social Control,” sociologist Donald Black, now at the University of Virginia, notes that only about 10 percent of homicides are predatory in nature—murders that occur during a burglary or robbery. The other 90 percent are moralistic, a form of capital punishment in which the perpetrators are the judge, jury and executioner of a victim they perceive to have wronged them in some manner deserving of the death penalty. Black’s disturbing examples include a man who “killed his wife after she ‘dared’ him to do so during an argument,” a woman who “killed her husband during a quarrel in which the man struck her daughter,” a man who “killed his brother during a heated discussion about the latter’s sexual advances toward his younger sisters,” a woman who “killed her 21-year-old son because he had been ‘fooling around with homosexuals and drugs,’” and others “during altercations over the parking of an automobile.” Recall the murder of three Muslims in Chapel Hill, N.C., this past February, which at least partly involved a parking spot dispute.

After the Middle Ages, such morally motivated self-help justice was replaced for the most part by rationally motivated criminal justice. Black notes, however, that when people do not trust the state’s justice system or believe it to be biased against them—or when people live in weak states with corrupt governments or in effectively stateless societies—they take the law into their own hands. Terrorism is one such activity, the expression of which, Black argues in a 2004 article in Sociological Theory entitled “The Geometry of Terrorism,” is a form of self-help justice whose motives depend on the particular terrorist group. These have ranged from revolutionary Marxism in the 1970s to apocalyptic Islam today as practiced by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (known as ISIS or ISIL), which is not a state at all but a loose confederation of jihadists.

Many American liberals and media pundits have downplayed their religious motives, but as Black told me in an e-mail, “Muslim terrorists should be taken at their word that their movement is Islamic, anti-Christian, anti-Jewish, etc. We have their word as evidence, and in my view that is the proper basis on which to classify their movement. Would we have said that the violence used by Protestants and Catholics during the Protestant Reformation had nothing to do with religion? That would be absurd.”

No less absurd is the belief that jihadists are secular political agitators in religious cloak. As Graeme Wood writes in “What ISIS Really Wants,” his investigative piece in the March issue of the Atlantic, “much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.” Yes, ISIS has attracted the disaffected from around the world, but “the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam,” Wood concludes, adding that its theology “must be understood to be combatted.”

The biggest risk is not taking any risk

The biggest risk is not taking any risk…

In a world that changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.

Mark Zuckerberg

I have found this quotation after a quick search on the net for the two illustrations attached below which were originally published in 7 Days along side the text of Shlomo Artzi.

The Biggest Risk Is Not Taking One

The Biggest Risk Is Not Taking One