July 8th, 2010

[LINK] "History runs deep in World Cup final matchup"

At least two people on Facebook mentioned the Eighty Years War--the Dutch Republic's ultimately successful struggle for independence from Catholic Hapsburg Spain--before this article popped up on my RSS feed.

For those who like a little subtext with their soccer, an all-European World Cup final represents a sure thing. No matter what the combination, you know that at some point in history, the two combatants must have had a beef.

And this one comes with its own song – not just any song, but what is recognized as the oldest national anthem on Earth, the tune they’ve been singing in the Netherlands since 1568, and that they will be singing again Sunday at Soccer City.

Het Wilhelmus – The William, as in William of Orange – has 15 verses, but the first reference to the bad guys comes right at the beginning.

“The king of Spain / I have always honoured,” the Dutch sing, knowing the unspoken second half of that sentiment to be “but then he executed a couple of counts, unfairly taxed us and persecuted Calvinists,” thus inspiring the Dutch Revolt, which eventually resulted in them throwing off the shackles of the Spanish empire.

As it says in stanza 10: “Nothing makes me pity so much / in my adversity / then that are seen to be impoverishing / the good lands of the king. / That you are molested by the Spaniards / O noble Netherlands sweet / when I think of that / my noble heart bleeds.”

So why not? If the English and Germans can pull out all of the Second World War clichés every time their teams meet on a soccer pitch, why can’t Holland and Spain refight the Eighty Years’ War in the World Cup final?

[LINK] Two notes on Paul the soccer-better octopus

  • The National Post reports that PETA wants to free Paul the Octopus.

  • With the World Cup final just days away, PETA wants Sea Life to release Paul to protected waters off of the south of France.

    “Octopuses are among the most intelligent of invertebrates. They are capable of complex thought processes, have short and long-term memories, use tools, learn through observation, have different personalities and are particularly sensitive to pain,” PETA said.

    The organization contends that Paul’s high level of cognition renders him able to feel suffering. Hence, they claim, it would be cruel to keep him in permanent confinement.

    A spokeswoman for Sea Life told AFP life in open water would be dangerous for the octopus because he is acclimatized to living in captivity:

    “Animals born in captivity are used to being fed and have no experience finding food by themselves.”

    One might recall other celebrity marine animals who have grown up in captivity and fared poorly on the open seas. PETA wouldn’t want Paul to end up like poor Willy, would they?

    Besides, if our beloved mystical mollusk is so sage, why shouldn’t he be allowed decide for himself what his future should be?

    After all, his prognostication skills could earn him a lot of delectable mussels, not to mention legions of adoring fans.

  • Over at The Search, Douglas Todd explores how the sense of betrayal felt by many German fans at Paul's prediction of German defeat reflects general belief in ESP.

  • The intense interest the media and public have shown in Paul, the octopus that predicted Spain's defeat of Germany in Wednesday's World Cup game, reveals just how much belief people still have in psychic powers and the ability to foretell the future.

    [. . .]

    Millions of people were tuning into newscasts in which Paul, a rather large octopus residing in an aquarium in Oberhausen, would slowly choose to eat a piece of seafood from a container containing the flag of countries competing against each other in the World Cup. Paul's choices had gone well for Germany until this week.

    Even though journalists often talked about Paul's World Cup predictions with big smiles on their faces, many people around the world took Paul's predictions seriously. Google has more than 5,800 articles on him. People were placing bets on his predictions. Argentinians wanted him killed because they thought he had cursed their team. The fact is many people take a lot of other para-psychological events with as much seriousness as Paul the octopus.

    Canada, for instance, is seen as generally a “secular” country. But how does that explain that 57 per cent of Canadians believe in extra-sensory perception and 55 per cent in psychic powers?

    In addition, 52 per cent of Canadians believe they have themselves experienced precognition – an ability to tell the future.

    Me? I don't believe in ESP or PETA, I do believe that cephalopods are relatively smart, and I think that Paul would be quite happy being catered for in his protected marine aquarium, saved from predators (like people). I also don't think soccer would be relevant to water-dwelling intelligences only capable, I suppose, of playing handballs.

    [BRIEF NOTE] Religion, masculinity, crime

    Guest-posting at Towleroad, Matthew Rettenmund linked to B.E. Wilson's analysis of evangelical Christian writer John Eldridge's 2001 Wild at Heart,, a fairly controversial book (even among Christians) about masculinity that has been literally taken up as gospel by Mexico's ultraviolent drug gang, La Familia Michoacana.

    What if your million copy-plus bestselling inspirational book calling on men to act more manly, aggressive, even violent became a key source of inspiration for a ruthless cultic Christian paramilitary fundamentalist crime syndicate that controls most of the Crystal Meth traffic in the US and is fond of tossing severed heads into Mexican discos ? You’d probably feel awful. Or at least a bit embarrassed.

    Wilson links to an interview with the author in which Eldridge says that the Familia managed to miss entirely the fact that his writings on masculinity were thoroughly embedded in Christianity. Wilson's skeptical.

    So why might the leader of La Familia have gotten the idea that Eldredge’s book justifies violence ? Flipping through available pages of Wild At Heart, on page 9 I find a chapter sub-section titled “A BATTLE TO FIGHT” with the following,

    “Capes and swords, camouflage, bandannas and six shooters–these are the uniforms of boyhood. Little boys yearn to know that they are powerful, they are dangerous, they are something to be reckoned with. How many parents have tried to prevent little Timmy from playing with guns ? Give it up. If you do not supply a boy with weapons, he will make them from whatever materials are at hand. My boys chew their graham crackers into the shape of handguns at the breakfast table.”

    His boys chew graham crackers into handguns. OK. Moving along, Eldredge’s passage concludes with,

    Aggression is part of the masculine design, we are hardwired for it. If we believe that man is made in the image of God, we would do well to remember that “the LORD is a warrior, the LORD is his name.” (Ex. 15:3)”

    The next paragraph delves further into the allegedly bloodthirsty, primal nature of little boys with, “Little girls do not invent games where large numbers of people die, where bloodshed is a prerequisite for having fun. Hockey, for example, was a feminine creation.”

    On the next page, the cute little boy-architects of mass-death morph seamlessly into brave soldiers storming the beaches of Normandy and Iwo Jima. It’s in our blood, says Eldredge, we yearn for violence – “Women didn’t make Braveheart one of the best selling films of the decade. Flying Tigers, The Bridge Over The River Kwai, The Magnificent Seven, Shane, High Noon, Saving Private Ryan, Top Gun, The Die Hard films, Gladiator–the movies a man loves reveal what his heart yearns for, what is set inside him from the day of his birth.”

    It’s all very dramatic. Eldredge wraps up with, “Like it or not, there is something fierce in the heart of every man.” But as detailed at Lt. Colonel David Grossman’s Killology Research Institute website, abundant research shows that humans (both sexes) have an instinctive aversion to killing members of our own species. Most soldiers, except for an estimated two percent who are sociopaths, have to go through specific conditioning before they’re willing to fire weapons at other humans in combat. For example in World War Two (prior to the development of such conditioning) according to one study only 15-20% of U.S. riflemen fired their rifles in combat.

    And here I thought that religion was all about civilizing people.

    [LINK] "Souped-up antibody fends off HIV"

    This news item caught my attention. As usual, Nature--specifically, nature.com--had the most comprehensive article.

    Although several antibodies against HIV-1 have previously shown promise, they were often structurally unusual in ways that confound vaccine designers. One region of an antibody might be unusually long, or contain a certain chemical modification — features that researchers do not know how to generate in the body using a vaccine.

    "Antibodies are like people: every single one is unusual in its own specific way," says Peter Kwong, a structural biologist at the Vaccine Research Center, and a co-author on both papers. "These antibodies are freaks of nature."

    In seeking better antibodies against HIV-1, Nabel, Kwong and their colleagues confronted another challenge: antibodies that broadly neutralize against HIV-1 are extremely rare. Kwong compares the search to looking for diamonds in a pile of cubic zirconia: "If you're simply picking up pretty rocks, you'll never find them," he says.

    Instead, the team designed a probe to specifically pick out antibodies that act against the part of the virus's protein envelope that interacts with the cells targeted by HIV, called CD4+ cells. Other regions of the envelope that might stimulate an immune response were masked by replacing them with sequences from other viruses to reduce the odds of fishing out unwanted antibodies1.

    The team screened 25 million antibody-producing white blood cells, called B cells, from 15 people with HIV-1, searching for those that bound to their probe. Only 29 cells fit the bill. From those, the researchers isolated three broadly neutralizing antibodies.

    [. . .]

    A vaccine based on this work would have to stimulate the body to produce antibodies like VRC01. At present, researchers do not fully understand how this maturation process works, making it difficult to design a vaccine that would harness it appropriately. Nabel speculates that such a vaccine may need to be given repeatedly, to foster the production of more mature, heavily mutated antibodies, and could even consist of different components at different stages — one given to stimulate the generation of the basic VRC01 backbone, and another administered later to select a specific 'mature' form of the antibody.