Dr. Ecstasy

I am glad someone got around to doing a mainstream profile of Sasha Shulgin, not that he is exactly going to be a darlng of the New York Times cognoscenti who will have read about him this weekend in the magazine section. Shulgin is the Johnny Appleseed of psychedelics, having seeded the mental landscape with hundreds of phenethylamines and tryptamines he has known and loved, all with the knowledge and even the esteem of the Food and Drug Authority. He is fond of saying that he has never done anything illegal, since his compounds only find their way to Schedule I long after he has synthesized (and he, his wife and his small study group have dosed themselves with) them. The tide may be turning, however. Schedule I is supposed to be for substances with abuse potential and no redeemable medical value, which is of course in the eye of the beholder. Recently Shulgin’s faith in the value of psychedelics has gotten perhaps its first mainstream chance of vindication, with FDA approval of several research studies into psychedelic-assisted treatments. MDMA, the unique and exciting ’empathogen’ for which he is perhaps the best known, got hijacked as the raver’s choice partying drug, of course, but seems to have particularly important therapeutic uses. Of course, that is what a cadre of dedicated psychonauts originally thought about LSD too — that it was a tool for serious intrapsychic exploration rather than a playtoy.

The article uses a curious incident to describe the origins of Shulgin’s interest in pharmacology, a 1944 incident in which he fell into a stupor after drinking a glass of orange juice the crystals at the bottom of which he was convinced were a sedative, although they turned out to have been undissolved sugar. Curious, because this incident depicts an important aspect of drug study but one for which Shulgin is not particularly known — the effect of expectancy in producing effects. One of my psychiatric mentors, the late Dr. Norman Zinberg, was fond of insisting that the experience of a drug was compounded of Drug, Set and Setting (the name of one of his most famous books) — the pharmacology of the substance, the mental expectations of the user, and the context in which it is taken. Shulgin’s interest has focused almost exclusively on Drug, although as the MDMA detour indicates, the effects one gets when one uses a substance with a thoughtful deliberative exploratory set and setting will probably be quite different from its use as a club drug.

This is an unusually sober appraisal of a controversial figure from the mainstream press. Research on the morbidity and mortality of Shulgin compounds is touched upon soberly, without the histrionics that usually suffuse such discussions. The author is circumspect about what he describes as Shulgin’s “fervent libertarianism with which he has inoculated himself against any sense of personal guilt” for the negative consequences of the use of drugs he has discovered. And, I know, I know, it is only fair to include the obligatory critique from representatives of the mainstream psychiatric establishment. But the comments from emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto Vivian Rakoff are particularly lame. He scoffs at the notion that a drug can create a revelatory moment. “Every few years, something comes along that claims to be what Freud called the ‘royal road to the unconscious’.” Well, correct me if I’m wrong, but I am not aware of that phrase being evoked at any time since Freud used it around a century ago in reference to dreams; it has certainly not been used in reference to psychedelics, as far as I know. And one would be hard-pressed to dismiss out of hand the claims that psychedelic exploration could be revelatory given that the rigorous research has not heretofore been allowed. Still, the classicist got in his Freud reference, even if he misused the allusion prejudicially. Hey, come to think of it, psychoanalytic techniques have not proven themselves the royal road to the unconscious they were supposed to be, when subjected to empirical research.

Those interested in taking this issue further should dip into Shulgin’s two self-published memoirs/manuals, PiHKAL and TiKHAL, or the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics site.

Nutty for Nino

“Antonin Scalia for chief justice. Seriously.” Nicholas Thompson, senior editor of Legal Affairs, argues in Slate that Scalia would not be a bad idea for the next chief justice. He argues that Scalia really isn’t half-bad on some issues; that the elevation to chief justice wouldn’t worsen his impact on the issues where he is a reactionary, e.g. a woman’s right to choose, because the chief justice’s job doesn’t mean that much anyway — while the chief justice has a slightly taller soapbox to preach from, he still only votes once; and because shrewd Democrats could horsetrade for his elevation and get an associate justice who is middle-of-the-road in return. Thompson’s central argument is that Scalia is smart and that his overarching ideology is “legal clarity.” The only attractive component of this argument, for me, is the idea of Democrats leveraging a moderate onto the court in return for Scalia’s promotion. But I have no confidence either in them pulling the weight to be able to pull it off, or in Bush and Co. letting it happen.

Nutty for Nino

“Antonin Scalia for chief justice. Seriously.” Nicholas Thompson, senior editor of Legal Affairs, argues in Slate that Scalia would not be a bad idea for the next chief justice. He argues that Scalia really isn’t half-bad on some issues; that the elevation to chief justice wouldn’t worsen his impact on the issues where he is a reactionary, e.g. a woman’s right to choose, because the chief justice’s job doesn’t mean that much anyway — while the chief justice has a slightly taller soapbox to preach from, he still only votes once; and because shrewd Democrats could horsetrade for his elevation and get an associate justice who is middle-of-the-road in return. Thompson’s central argument is that Scalia is smart and that his overarching ideology is “legal clarity.” The only attractive component of this argument, for me, is the idea of Democrats leveraging a moderate onto the court in return for Scalia’s promotion. But I have no confidence either in them pulling the weight to be able to pull it off, or in Bush and Co. letting it happen.

Cheney Criticized for Attire at Auschwitz Ceremony

Vice President Dick Cheney raised eyebrows on Friday for wearing an olive-drab parka, hiking boots and knit ski cap to represent the United States at a solemn ceremony remembering the liberation of Auschwitz.

Other leaders at the event in Poland on Thursday marking the 60th anniversary of the death camp’s liberation, such as French President Jacques Chirac and Russian President Vladimir Putin (news – web sites), wore dark, formal overcoats and dress shoes or boots. ” (Yahoo! News)

Hero on Your Desktop

“…(T)he invention most deserving of your adoration, the contraption that will one day sit in the pantheon of great American machines alongside the telephone and the transistor radio, is something far more prosaic. It is the inkjet printer, and it is much more than a peripheral. Its core technology may seem simple—an array of nozzles that moves back and forth, depositing tiny droplets of ink on paper—but its breadth of uses has turned out to be nothing short of astonishing, so much so that the humble inkjet is driving innovation in disciplines from aerospace engineering to pharmacology.” (Popular Science)

Save the Fetus

In a world awash in pollutants, what exactly is our obligation to protect the health of the unborn? “When Kim Hooper gives a public talk about his work at the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, he flashes a slide of his baby granddaughter. “We’ve given her the best genes we can, but what about her environment?” he asks the audience. “Already she’s had an early experience far different than my own.” After all, Hooper points out, her life in the womb began with exposure to myriad chemicals that weren’t around sixty-five years ago.” (Science and Spirit)

African herb yields its anti-addiction secret

“The secret of an African herb that helps drug addicts and alcoholics kick the habit has been discovered. The finding could lead to safer and more effective medications for treating addiction.

Since the 1960s, many addicts have reported that even a single dose of ibogaine, a hallucinogenic alkaloid extracted from the root of an African shrub, helps them kick their habit by reducing their cravings for drugs. And there is hard evidence to back these claims, as well. However, troubling side effects – including heart problems and several deaths – have kept ibogaine from being widely accepted as a medical treatment. Instead, a few researchers have begun searching for ways to deliver ibogaine’s benefits without its risks…” (New Scientist)

You Can’t Ignore My Wrath

“You can try, but you can’t ignore that angry voice yelling at you, or anyone else. Whether it’s your dad, your girlfriend, your sister or a stranger, you must pay attention.

Human brains are just wired that way, according to a study published in the Jan. 23 issue of Nature Neuroscience. Wrathful voices trigger a strong response in the brain, even when we are trying not to pay attention or the comments are meaningless, say researchers at the University of Geneva.” (Wired)

Escape from the Universe?

“The universe is destined to end. Before it does, could an advanced civilisation escape via a ‘wormhole’ into a parallel universe? The idea seems like science fiction, but it is consistent with the laws of physics and biology.

Ignore the vanity of the Bushites, America’s might is draining away

What time is it for America? If the Boston Tea Party was first light and the Gettysburg Address dawn, where between the sunrise and sunset of empire is the United States now?

To judge from his inauguration speech on Thursday, President Bush thinks it is about time for morning coffee: much to be proud of but big tasks — maybe the proudest of all — still ahead. To end tyranny on Earth is no small ambition.

Gerard Baker, the US editor of The Times, (“Don’t believe the doubters: America’s decline and fall is a long way off yet”) strikes a slightly more sanguine note. “A presidential inauguration is a chance for America to remind the world who is boss,” he smiles, “to demonstrate that the United States is the inheritor not only of Greece’s glory, but of Rome’s reach” — but Gerard would not himself go so far: he shares American anxieties about the rise of the Asian superpowers. He is confident, though, there are tremendous reserves of energy and potential still bubbling beneath the surface. “I would not bet on America’s eclipse just yet,” he concludes. For his America, I guess, it is around lunch. An afternoon’s work is still ahead.

I think it’s about half past four. For America-2005-Iraq, think of Britain-1899-Boer War. Ever-heavier burdens are being loaded upon a nation whose economic legs are growing shaky, whose hegemony is being taunted and whose sense of world mission may be faltering. “Overcommitted?” is the whisper. ” — Matthew Parris (Times of London)

The Fit Tend to Fidget, and Biology May Be Why, a Study Says

“Overweight people have a tendency to sit, while lean ones have trouble holding still and spend two hours more a day on their feet, pacing around and fidgeting, researchers are reporting in findings published today.

The difference translates into about 350 calories a day, enough to produce a weight loss of 30 to 40 pounds in one year without trips to the gym – if only heavy people could act more restless, like thin ones.” (New York Times )

Defrocked priest’s accuser wraps up testimony

“The man accusing defrocked priest Paul Shanley of sexually abusing him as a child finished his testimony Friday, despite begging the judge a day earlier to spare him from a third day of questioning.” (Boston Globe)

I don’t know how much national attention this case is getting, but we are all over it here in Boston. There has, of course, already been alot of litigation arising from the Church sexual abuse scandal, but this one is a criminal trial, and I am of two minds about it. While sexual abusers should be held responsible and punished for their actions, the prosecution here is basing their case on an unreliable and suspect accuser, several other of Shanley’s alleged victims having withdrawn from the case in the weeks before the trial. While victims of abuse become chronically psychiatrically troubled, so too do suggestible psychiatrically troubled individuals sometimes ‘become’ victims of abuse in their minds and the minds of caregivers, prosecutors and others who have zealous investments in the reality of abuse. While traumatic memories are stored in a dissociated way, protectively inaccessible to the victim until recovered, it is also demonstrable that ‘recovered memories’ can be fictitious after-the-fact creations. Human memory is malleable and, in some instances, how convincing it is is matched by how unreliable it is. I wonder if we are going to see a monumental battle of expert witnesses around the recovered memory issue in the current case. The proponents of the view that these recovered memories are false and the adherents to the trauma model are often zealots who clash as cataclysmically — and unproductively — as any do when they argue about matters of faith. Shanley and his accuser will likely become damaged icons for polemical positions in a prodigious battle played out in the Cambridge courtroom.


People are invited to send in postcards revealing their secrets, usually (but not invariably) shameful ones. A gallery of these postcards is posted here. Some of the secrets people keep are fairly predictable, but in other cases I am amazed about what people torture themselves over. I was intrigued by the Apologies Project of years past, which started before the weblogging phenomenon as a telephone answering system but made the transition to a weblog. People, as in PostSecret, anonymously reported a shameful secret they were harboring about how they had treated another, but the point was to render an apology. This served more of a purpose, IMHO, than simply posting the secret, although it is even more useful, of course, to face the person you have wronged without concealing your identity. I suppose these anonymous modes of expiation take their cue from the Catholic confessional. I am not a Catholic; if you believe in sin and the theological God, can you make amends with God for your sins without making amends with the person you have wronged?

Wild Things on the Beach

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“The Animaris Rhinoceros Transport is a type of animal with a steel skeleton and a polyester skin. It looks as if there is a thick layer of sand coating the animal. It weighes 2. tons, but can be set into motion by one person. It stands 4.70 meters tall. Because of its height it catches enough wind to start moving.

…The Animaris Rhinoceros Transport is a direct descendant of the Animari or Beach Animals. For fourteen years Theo Jansen has been working on creating a new life-form. These creatures consist of walking skeletons made out of yellow electricity tubes. These skeletons are wind powered. Over the years an evolution has occurred, which can be seen in the succeeding generations. Eventually he wants to put these animals on the beach where they will lead their own lives.

The Animaris Rhinoceros Transport is an offshoot of the Beach Animal evolution. It is equipped with passanger seating and can be used for transport. As a car is a transport vehicle to the horse and an airplane is a transport vehicle to the bird, so is the Animaris Rhinoceros Transport a transport vehicle to the Animaris (latin name for Beach Animal, see www.strandbeest.com). It is meant for crossing the tundra. Due to the fact that one must wait until strong wind comes from the right direction, living quarters must be made in the animal to make travel agreeable.”

(Be sure to download the short filmclip of the rhinoceros ambulating to get the full impact.)

And <a href=”http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,66356,00.html

” title=””>here is a Wired article on Theo Jansen’s work. [thanks, abby]

Moving Day

“I have reached a turning point.

I propose that we declare this year’s Summer Solstice, Tuesday June 21, 2005, to be Moving Day. Whereupon longtime Democrats such as myself, on one day and en masse, move to a party that has the set of values and principles that the Democrat party not only used to stand for, but used to successfully fight for, both on the legislative floor AND in the hearts and minds of the American people.

It is time that we joined the Green party, bringing to it the sheer numbers of people it now lacks to wield significant political power, and begin the long journey of creating a world that will be better and sustainable for generations hence.” (J I M W I C h)

Seymour Hersh: "We’ve Been Taken Over by a Cult"

Here is who is doing it:

“…(T)he amazing thing is we are been taken over basically by a cult, eight or nine neo-conservatives have somehow grabbed the government. Just how and why and how they did it so efficiently, will have to wait for much later historians and better documentation than we have now, but they managed to overcome the bureaucracy and the Congress, and the press, with the greatest of ease. It does say something about how fragile our Democracy is. You do have to wonder what a Democracy is when it comes down to a few men in the Pentagon and a few men in the White House having their way. What they have done is neutralize the C.I.A. because there were people there inside — the real goal of what Goss has done was not attack the operational people, but the intelligence people. There were people — serious senior analysts who disagree with the White House, with Cheney, basically, that’s what I mean by White House, and Rumsfeld on a lot of issues, as somebody said, the goal in the last month has been to separate the apostates from the true believers. That’s what’s happening.”

And here is some of what they are doing:

“We can’t win this war. We can do what he’s doing. We can bomb them into the stone ages. Here’s the other horrifying, sort of spectacular fact that we don’t really appreciate. Since we installed our puppet government, this man, Allawi, who was a member of the Mukabarat, the secret police of Saddam, long before he became a critic, and is basically Saddam-lite. Before we installed him, since we have installed him on June 28, July, August, September, October, November, every month, one thing happened: the number of sorties, bombing raids by one plane, and the number of tonnage dropped has grown exponentially each month. We are systematically bombing that country. There are no embedded journalists at Doha, the Air Force base I think we’re operating out of. No embedded journalists at the aircraft carrier, Harry Truman. That’s the aircraft carrier that I think is doing many of the operational fights. There’s no air defense, It’s simply a turkey shoot. They come and hit what they want. We know nothing. We don’t ask. We’re not told. We know nothing about the extent of bombing. So if they’re going to carry out an election and if they’re going to succeed, bombing is going to be key to it, which means that what happened in Fallujah, essentially Iraq — some of you remember Vietnam — Iraq is being turn into a “free-fire zone” right in front of us. Hit everything, kill everything.”

And here is how it may play itself out:

“what’s going to happen, I think, as the casualties mount and these stories get around, and the mothers see the cost and the fathers see the cost, as the kids come home. And the wounded ones come back, and there’s wards that you will never hear about. That’s wards — you know about the terrible catastrophic injuries, but you don’t know about the vegetables. There’s ward after ward of vegetables because the brain injuries are so enormous. As you maybe read last week, there was a new study in one of the medical journals that the number of survivors are greater with catastrophic injuries because of their better medical treatment and the better armor they have. So you get more extreme injuries to extremities. We’re going to learn more and I think you’re going to see, it’s going to — it’s — I’m trying to be optimistic. We’re going to see a bottom swelling from inside the ranks. You’re beginning to see it. What happened with the soldiers asking those questions, you may see more of that. I’m not suggesting we’re going to have mutinies, but I’m going to suggest you’re going to see more dissatisfaction being expressed. Maybe that will do it. Another salvation may be the economy. It’s going to go very bad, folks. You know, if you have not sold your stocks and bought property in Italy, you better do it quick. And the third thing is Europe — Europe is not going to tolerate us much longer. The rage there is enormous. I’m talking about our old-fashioned allies. We could see something there, collective action against us. Certainly, nobody — it’s going to be an awful lot of dancing on our graves as the dollar goes bad and everybody stops buying our bonds, our credit — our — we’re spending $2 billion a day to float the debt, and one of these days, the Japanese and the Russians, everybody is going to start buying oil in Euros instead of dollars. We’re going to see enormous panic here. But he could get through that. That will be another year, and the damage he’s going to do between then and now is enormous. We’re going to have some very bad months ahead.” (Democracy Now!)

Hersh doesn’t make this up, and I’m damned if I know why there has not already been an attempt on his life because of the secret administration hit list I am certain he is on.

What If Iran Has the Bomb?

“Nearly all intelligence sources who’ve gone public think Iran poses no immediate threat of having the bomb, and no possibility of going nuclear for at least three to five years. Even the Israelis now seem to agree. According to the Jerusalem Post, Mossad chief Meir Dagan told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday that Iran could not build nuclear bombs overnight and would need a few years to do so.

The threat, as Dagan sees it, is that by the end of the year Iran could have all the technology it needs to produce military quantities of bomb-grade uranium without any further outside help. Even with monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency, this would be ‘a point of no return,’ he warns. But he sees no imminent military threat.

This is the reality. But, let’s pretend: What if all the spies are wrong? What if the Ayatollahs are only weeks away from getting the bomb? How, then, should Washington and Jerusalem respond?

Middle East mavens, foreign policy experts, and military strategists increasingly offer some surprising advice…” — Steve Weissman (truthout)

Outcry over creation of GM smallpox virus

“Senior scientific advisers to the World Health Organisation (WHO) have recommended the creation of a genetically modified version of the smallpox virus to counter any threat of a bioterrorist attack.

Permitting researchers to engineer the genes of one of the most dangerous infections known to man would make it easier to develop new drugs against smallpox, the scientists said. But the man who led the successful global vaccination campaign to eradicate smallpox from the wild said he opposed the move on the grounds that the scientific benefits were not worth the risks to public health.” (Independent.UK)

This item has a particular puissance for me here in Boston, where there is mounting community concern over Boston University’s plan to build a Biosafety-Level-4 laboratory in a crowded urban neighborhood, especially after the recent news that three BU researchers were infected with a lethal strain of tularemia they mistakenly thought was harmless. And this was reportedly not the first biosafety lapse at the BU lab. Proponents of highly risky science have always argued by cost-benefit ratio, but even if we can be assured that the probability of a risk is vanishingly low, aren’t there cases in which the potential magnitude of a disaster is almost infinitely high? In other words, when does the product of a number whose limit is zero and another whose limit is infinity tend toward zero, and when toward infinity? Moreover, the probability of risk often, to my mind, relies on the hubristic assumption that people and procedures can be infallible, when thre reality is quite the contrary — time and again, it seems, if a mistake can occur, it will.

Police hunt poo protesters

Over the past year or so, German pranksters have placed miniature American flags in 2-3000 piles of dog excrement in public parks in what has been construed as a graphic protest against US policy in Iraq and, more recently, against Bush’s reelection. Police seek to catch the culprits red-handed (or… would it be brown?) even though “legal experts say there is no law against using faeces as a flag stand and the federal constitution is vague on the issue.” (Ananova)

Nine, ten, never sleep again

Boing Boing’s David Pescovitz comments on an Ananova story about a man who has puzzled medical experts by being unable to sleep for the past twenty years. There are a series of follow-up posts listing novels about insomniac characters (many of whom seem to be private eyes). I would love to see some more detailed medical investigation of real-world insomniacs. Although the ultimate necessity of spending an average of a third of our lifespan asleep remains a mystery, we are garnering knowledge about the variety of necessary functions it serves, both in terms of cognitive housekeeping and tissue repair and restoration of physiological equilibrium. How does this guy function, on both interpersonal, psychological, and physiological levels?

I’m not sure, in any case, about the veracity of the Ananova story, given that there’s a machismo about not sleeping (perhaps because sleeplessness turns us into the worst caricature of macho??) and I often run into people who boast that they need less sleep than the rest of us. There is something culturally consonant about sleep deprivation, too, as society is more and more frenetic and productivity-driven. Performance in many fields (especially medicine; more about that below) seems to be measured at least partly by how long and how far and how fast one can go on. People in general sleep less than they used to, and we are intrigued by ‘alertness agents’ like modafinil (about the value of and concerns about which I have written here), which appear to treat fatigue and compensate for sleep deprivation with fewer consequences than stimulants of the amphetamine family.

//www.zyworld.com/vampirelore/Mara1med.jpg' cannot be displayed]There is also a separate but related allure of the wee small hours per se. I guess it is true of many children who are curious about what mysterious and magical things might happen after they are asleep, as I was. There was always a frisson, when I went to the zoo or the natural history museum, at seeing the somehow more eerie nocturnal creatures. And, in the 1931 film, one of my childhood favorites, Dracula’s ecstatic celebration of “the children of the night” as the air was suffused with the distant howls of wolves always sent a delicious chill up my spine. I began trying to stay up late as soon as I could tell time. I would sneak my transistor radio — if any of you know what those were — into bed and put it under my pillow (it was especially exciting when I finally got an earphone for it) and try to stay awake to break the magical barrier of midnight; it was a long time before I succeeded. Since then, I have always been a night owl, as you can tell from the timestamps on many of my posts here at FmH. I have never gotten over the romance of the middle of the night, both the stillness and aloneness, the cold hard clarity of a world reduced by starlight and moonlight to nocturnal hues, and the seedy quality of the covert activities that transpire, in reality or imagination, in the dark, beyond the ring of illumination thrown by our streetlights. Many of the insomniac characters in literature seem to enjoy walking deserted city streets in the middle of the night, and so too did I. There is an element of transgressing boundaries, the thrill of doing something forbidden, in being up when no one else is, when no one is supposed to be. One of the subliminal attractions of being sleeepless may also be that one challenges the Big Sleep, pushing to transgress the ultimate boundary at the end of life. It is a medical truism, by the way, that Death comes for people disproportionately in the wee hours. Perhaps I have always wanted to be staring her in the eye when she arrives. Sensuality, too, if of course intimately associated with the nocturnal.

“I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” Warren Zevon and others have said. One can cheat death too by packing more into life, I have thought, by spending more of one’s living hours as waking hours. For most of my life, I felt that I did not have the time to waste on sleeping, and (here comes that macho boast?) felt that I could get away for many days running with shorting myself on sleep if there was something compelling to read, write or watch instead. There is a sort of machismo associated with being able to function while sleep-deprived during medical training, when the sleep deprivation is, of course, outrageous and, I am convinced, gratuitous. Training directors, or caricatures of them, supposedly reason that decision-making skills are shaped, and character built, by sleep deprivation, and that “if it was good enough for me when I trained, it’s good enough for the new generation of whiners.” When there is an egregious medical error, like that which caused the celebrated death of Libby Zion in New York some years ago, there is anguished handwringing about the liability and morbidity caused by our proclivity for sleep-depriving medical house officers making life-or-death decisions, but it never seems to change anything. The real incentive the system has to make residents do round-the-clock shifts, of course, is not a training need at all; it is the easiest way to use the indentured servitude of medical residency to meet the manpower needs of a modern healthcare facility.

My acceptance of sleep deprivation during my medical school years had an added momentum, though. When I went through medical school, I was hellbent on not ‘becoming’ a doctor, in the sense of that being all there was to my identity forever after. It needed to be just one of the things I did in my life, not my defining attribute. That created an added impetus to stay up late to do other things after keeping up with the literature in my field, writing consultation reports, etc. And after my wife and I started a family, I also took to my parenting responsibilities by carving out the wee small hours for my other pursuits after a full day of being present and active as a father as well as a doctor.

There is an intimate relationship between sleep disruption and depression, as we know in psychiatric practice. Depressions come in sleepless and hypersomnic varieties. Part of the difference is surely biological, but people are also built differently in terms of their characteristic coping strategies. Some people are escapists, and may sleep more in an effort to avoid distress. (They also seem to be the ones, in my experience, who can can entertain thoughts of suicide for the purposes of relief or escapism, among the various purposes that suicide can serve in my patients’ psyches.) But, even for people who try to use sleep as an escape mechanism, I have long suspected that sleep can promote depression, and there is a body of literature supporting me, even speculating that some sort of depressogenic neurochemical is produced during sleep. Depressed patients often feel most depressed upon awakening and their mood improves as the day proceeds (so-called “diurnal mood variation”). If they take a daytime nap, they often face another period of renewed depression after they get up from the nap. Even if it is not biological, you can imagine how difficult it is to face depressing realities immediately upon awakening from a period of blissful ignorance. The possibility that sleep promotes depression has led to speculation that some people may be sleep-depriving themselves as a sort of inadvertent self-medication for depressive tendencies. In other words, is the sleeplessness of some depressions a consequence of, or an attempt at compensation for, the depressed mood? Noting that I tend to push my bedtime further when my mood is bluer, I have wondered as well. It may also be that those are the times it is more urgent to do more for myself.

It took me literally several decades to realize that burning the candle at both ends was making me far more impatient and irritable than I needed or wanted to be, and that sleep-depriving myself was not a free lunch. This dawned on me at approximately the same time as, studying the physiological necessity of sleep and the psychiatric consequences of sleep disruption, I began to take note of medical research showing that sleep deprivation shortened organisms’ lifespans. So, ironically, cheating death by shoe-horning more wakefulness into a fixed lifetime turns out not to be as simple as I had assumed. Of course, it is also well-known that sleep deprivation reduces cognitive efficiency in certain empirically measurable respects. So even if one is up more, one may end up paying for that quantity of waking hours with quality. Moreover, I realized, sleep deprivation is cumulative; the commonsense notion that you can pay back your deficit by ‘sleeping in’ the next weekend doesn’t work. If you are supposed to sleep eight hours a night, let’s say, you can’t go three nights in a row with four hours a night and then erase the damage with a twenty-hour night’s sleep.

One of the other skills I developed as a medical resident on call was the ability to rapidly return to sleep after I had dealt with a challenge in the middle of the night. It was never as extreme for me as for some of my colleagues, however, who could seemingly conduct their on-call duties without waking up fully at all. One of my friends, a surgical resident, eventually learned that she was managing many of her patients’ problems — always clinically appropriately, to hear her tell it — over the phone in the middle of the night without remembering what she had done when her surgical team did morning rounds on the patients the next day. She finally arranged for the hospital operator who paged her to listen in on the calls and take notes about what orders she issued. She would swing by the switchboard in the morning, before rounds, and use the notes as a cribsheet when reporting on the care she had given the night before. (I don’t know if this was a liability or an adaptive strategy to her work as a surgeon; she has since gone into a different field of medicine. Dream on…)

So now I want to sleep more. Now that I realize it is not necessarily desireable to short myself so much on sleep, when I am awakened in the middle of the night by my beeper going off from the hospital, I want to get back to sleep again as soon as I have dealt with the call. But, in middle age, I am finding, ironically, that I can no longer get back to sleep rapidly. If I am awakened, I am typically going to be up for at least a couple of hours. Of course, I could do something boring and soporific with the time, to hasten my return to sleep, but it still sticks in my craw to waste wakefulness. So some of the middle-of-the-night FmH entries you will see these days are, in a sense, under duress. Enjoy them anyway; I do. I still do some of my clearest thinking in the holy stillness, or at least so I imagine.

Atrocities in Plain Sight

Andrew Sullivan on Abu Ghraib:

“I’m not saying that those who unwittingly made this torture possible are as guilty as those who inflicted it. I am saying that when the results are this horrifying, it’s worth a thorough reassessment of rhetoric and war methods. Perhaps the saddest evidence of our communal denial in this respect was the election campaign. The fact that American soldiers were guilty of torturing inmates to death barely came up. It went unmentioned in every one of the three presidential debates. John F. Kerry, the ”heroic” protester of Vietnam, ducked the issue out of what? Fear? Ignorance? Or a belief that the American public ultimately did not care, that the consequences of seeming to criticize the conduct of troops would be more of an electoral liability than holding a president accountable for enabling the torture of innocents? I fear it was the last of these. Worse, I fear he may have been right.”

I had missed this essay, originally published on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. I have long been a proponent of a take similar to Sullivan’s about how the rhetoric about the war and the duplicitous shaping — from the top — of the American attitide about Iraqis, terrorists, and other poorly differentiated spooks created a culture in which these atrocities could happen. I differ with Sullivan on one account, which is his assertion that those who “unwittingly made this torture possible” were not as guilty as those who inflicted it. First of all, it is hard for me to see how it was “unwitting.” And secondly, decisions from the president and the upper echelon of his administration henchmen not only “made the torture possible” but essentially mandated it. Early in the essay, Sullivan is unsure whether to take solace in the fact that the torture occurred in a free society where the chilling evidence of it was able to come to light.

“Whatever happened was exposed in a free society; the military itself began the first inquiries. You can now read, in these pages, previously secret memorandums from sources as high as the attorney general all the way down to prisoner testimony to the International Committee of the Red Cross. I confess to finding this transparency both comforting and chilling, like the photographs that kick-started the public’s awareness of the affair. Comforting because only a country that is still free would allow such airing of blood-soaked laundry. Chilling because the crimes committed strike so deeply at the core of what a free country is supposed to mean. The scandal of Abu Ghraib is therefore a sign of both freedom’s endurance in America and also, in certain dark corners, its demise.”

I am afraid that the pieties about the persistence of freedom in America are gross self-deception. Free expression and inquiry are the merest, illusory, window-dressing on a society that permits such atrocity as a matter of policy, fails to make a meaningful inquiry into or condemnation of the abuses, and reelects those responsible, enabling them to claim a ‘mandate’ for business as usual. What did the American people do other than stand by and shake their heads in the face of the war crimes committed in their name, and allow ourselves to be sated by the punishment of some sacrificial lambs? The failure to make the atrocities, and the similar demonization of those we hold prisoner in Guantanamo, Afghanistan (and God knows what other places around the world we have not even heard of), a core campaign issue was scandalous. The moral failures involved must be kept in the forefront of American consciousness if those who act in our name are to be prevented from permitting and encouraging further atrocities.

Mystery Oil Slick Kills Seabirds Off California

“A phantom oil slick floating somewhere along a 90-mile stretch of Southern California coastline is killing sea life as investigators scramble to find its whereabouts and origins.

…Scientists were unaware that a killer blob was at sea until birds started turning up a week ago on the shoreline from Santa Barbara to Venice Beach. Most of the birds affected have been Western grebes, though a few are rare pelicans.

…Among the possible sources that investigators are looking into are pipes broken during the La Conchita mudslide that killed 10 people last week, leaking oil platforms in the ocean, seepage from the seafloor, abandoned oil wells, runoff from the Los Angeles metropolis, even cars and trucks that slid into the ocean during the torrential rains that recently pummeled California.” (New York Times )

Some now question cost of inauguration

“President Bush’s second inauguration will cost tens of millions of dollars — $40 million alone in private donations for the balls, parade and other invitation-only parties. With that kind of money, what could you buy?

…Weeks ago, the inauguration and its accompanying costs were considered a given, an historic ceremony with all the pomp, pageantry and celebrations that the nation had come to expect every four years.

But a recent confluence of events — the tsunami natural disaster, Bush’s warning about Social Security finances and the $5 billion-a-month price tag for the war in Iraq — have many Americans now wondering why spend the money the second time around.” (Boston Globe)

The Acid Test

Better Thinking Thrugh Chemistry at an Indiana Lab: “‘Tell me how, under what kind of philosophical basis, a hundred micrograms going into someone’s brain could permanently change the way they are,’ he asks. ‘Now it’s not true with everyone, obviously. But some people might have a religious revelation. It may change their life in some fundamental way. Maybe in a few people it precipitates a psychosis. But how could taking this thing make somebody think they had talked to God, or seen the Big Bang and watched the evolution of the cosmos? How can a chemical molecule do that?'” (The Village Voice)

Seymour Hersh: U.S. Conducting Secret Missions Inside Iran

“The United States has been conducting secret reconnaissance missions inside Iran to help identify potential nuclear, chemical and missile targets, The New Yorker magazine reported Sunday.

The article, by award-winning reporter Seymour Hersh, said the secret missions have been going on at least since last summer with the goal of identifying target information for three dozen or more suspected sites.

Hersh quotes one government consultant with close ties to the Pentagon as saying, ‘The civilians in the Pentagon want to go into Iran and destroy as much of the military infrastructure as possible.’

One former high-level intelligence official told The New Yorker, ‘This is a war against terrorism, and Iraq is just one campaign. The Bush administration is looking at this as a huge war zone. Next, we’re going to have the Iranian campaign.'”(Reuters)

Before You Can Say…

Salon‘s reviewer finds Gladwell’s Blink more entertaining than important. I beg to differ; this is sort of like how hypnotism, while elucidating profound and basic principles of human cognition and volition, has often been thought of as a mere parlor game. The extent to which we can stand to learn alot about our implicit assumptions, about how we often make decisions on very different bases than we think we do, and how we can learn to accept and utilize such intuitions, cannot be underestimated. An important segment of the review, for example, is a convincing argument, supported by much social psychological research (perhaps my social psychologist friend Dennis Fox will have some amplifying comments if he reads this on his return from the Middle East), that our racial biases go deeper than we suspect, even if we are convinced we are not racist. (Of course, although it has social psychological implications, at base this is a cognitive-psychological exploration.)

As walker reminded me, there is a website where you can take Implicit Assumption Tests to root our your hidden biases and automatic preferences, but be careful. For those who, unlike mental health professionals, have not embraced the idea of the ubiquity of unconscious influences on our perceptions, appraisals and choices, it can be quite alarming to recognize how far away from the ideal of rationality and control over our thinking we really operate. That is the impact I hope Gladwell’s book may have, now that he is a hip sexy trendsetter author.

Seymour Hersh: U.S. Conducting Secret Missions Inside Iran

“The United States has been conducting secret reconnaissance missions inside Iran to help identify potential nuclear, chemical and missile targets, The New Yorker magazine reported Sunday.

The article, by award-winning reporter Seymour Hersh, said the secret missions have been going on at least since last summer with the goal of identifying target information for three dozen or more suspected sites.

Hersh quotes one government consultant with close ties to the Pentagon as saying, ‘The civilians in the Pentagon want to go into Iran and destroy as much of the military infrastructure as possible.’

One former high-level intelligence official told The New Yorker, ‘This is a war against terrorism, and Iraq is just one campaign. The Bush administration is looking at this as a huge war zone. Next, we’re going to have the Iranian campaign.'”(Reuters)

R.I.P. Spencer Dryden

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Jefferson Airplane drummer dies. (San Francisco Chronicle) Since the ’60’s San Francisco psychedelic era still figures large in my musical tastes, this is probably more of note to me than to nearly any other of my readers. Dryden was the emphatic, fearless and much underrated lynchpin of a monstrous rhythm section with the Airplane during their greatest days (listen to any live bootleg, or “Bear Melt” from Bless Its Pointed Little Head), although he was not even invited back to their 1989 reunion. He also drummed for the New Riders of the Purple Sage and another of my favorites, Dinosaurs, comprised of luminaries from most of the great SF bands. Dryden’s later days were full of misfortune, including a prior bout with cancer, the loss of his home and all his possessions in a house fire in 2003, double hip replacement last year, and the stomach cancer to which he eventually succumbed. Pigpen, Jerry, Keith, Brent, Janis, John Cipollina and Skip Spence are likely welcoming him at a rehearsal of the Heavenly Band even as we speak.

‘This is my tribe’

Anti-Bush Bracelets Say, ‘Count Me Blue’ “After spending 10 days in London with friends who were outspoken about their disdain for President Bush (news – web sites)’s policies, Berns Rothchild came home wishing she had a way to show the world she didn’t vote for him.

“I sort of felt ashamed, and didn’t really want to be associated with being an American,” said Rothchild, who lives in New York City and voted for John Kerry (news – web sites).

Her mother had a suggestion: bracelets, inspired by the Lance Armstrong Foundation’s popular “LIVESTRONG” bands, that would signal opposition to Bush.

Thousands of miles away, two women in Idaho had the same idea. So did a woman in Kansas. The result? At least three separate bracelet ventures targeting left-leaning citizens who want to wear their political affiliation on their wrists — and at least one competitor bearing the opposite message.

Rothchild, 35, is selling blue bracelets that say “COUNT ME BLUE,” while Laura Adams, of Fairway, Kan., offers blue bracelets that say “HOPE.” The McKnight family, of Moscow, Idaho, is even more direct; their black bracelets proclaim: “I DID NOT VOTE 4 BUSH.”(Yahoo News! )

Ethiopia gears up for late Bob Marley’s 60th birthday

“Ethiopia is preparing a massive party next month to mark the 60th birthday of late reggae superstar Bob Marley, the first time the annual event has been held outside the singer’s native Jamaica. Some 200,000 people are expected to attend the giant celebration featuring concerts from scores of African and international musicians that will start five days before Marley’s February 6 birthday, organizers said Friday.” (Agence France Presse)

Where are they now??

“Ever wonder what happened to: Eddie The Eagle? The chick who shot Andy Warhol? That ‘Mikey’ kid from the Life Cereal commercial? Well you’ve come to the right place, this is where we track the has-beens, the flash-in-the-pans and those pseudo-celebrities who were all too annoying during their 15 measly minutes.”

No Surprises for Rice

“Lugar Offers Rice a Head Start: Condoleezza Rice should expect few surprises when she faces the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jan. 18 and 19 for confirmation hearings on her nomination to be secretary of state. Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) and other GOP members have agreed to submit in advance the questions they plan to ask her, a decision some Democrats find surprising.

Lugar will give Rice the questions he plans to ask orally because he feels she should be fully prepared to answer without delay, said Lugar spokesman Andy Fisher said. ‘This is not a pop quiz,’ he said.” (Washington Post)

Our government becomes more and more an outlandish caricature of a ludicrous semblance of a contemptible simulacrum of democratic process. [Sorry, I seem to be compelled to use the same adjectives over and over again. Probably the only one in the previous sentence that doesn’t really apply is ‘democratic’…]

CIA Veteran: Let bin Laden Stay Free

“The world may be better off if Osama Bin Laden remains at large, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s recently departed executive director.

If the world’s most wanted terrorist is captured or killed, a power struggle among his Al-Qaeda subordinates may trigger a wave of terror attacks, said AB “Buzzy” Krongard, who stepped down six weeks ago as the CIA’s third most senior executive.

“You can make the argument that we’re better off with him (at large),” Krongard said. “Because if something happens to Bin Laden, you might find a lot of people vying for his position and demonstrating how macho they are by unleashing a stream of terror.”

Krongard, a former investment banker who joined the CIA in 1998, said Bin Laden’s role among Islamic militants was changing.

“He’s turning into more of a charismatic leader than a terrorist mastermind,” he said. “Some of his lieutenants are the ones to worry about.” (Sunday Times of London)

First direct sighting of an extrasolar planet

“Astronomers have directly observed an extrasolar planet for the first time, but are at a loss to explain what they see.

More than 130 planets have been detected orbiting stars other than our own, the Sun. But because the stars far outshine the planets, all of the planets were detected indirectly – by how much they made their host stars wobble or dim, for example.

Now, astronomers say they are almost certain they have snapped an actual image of an extrasolar planet. It was first seen at infrared wavelengths with the Very Large Telescope in Chile in April 2004, and announced at the American Astronomical Society annual meeting in San Diego, California, US on Monday. It appeared alongside a brown dwarf – an astronomical object with a mass inbetween that of a planet and a star.” (New Scientist)

The New Heart Disease Threat

“The evidence has gotten much stronger that a substance known as C-reactive protein may be every bit as important as cholesterol in the diagnosis and treatment of heart disease. Back in 2002, a thought-provoking study found that a blood test for C-reactive protein, called CRP, was actually better than the standard cholesterol test at predicting the risk of a heart attack or a stroke. Now two studies published in The New England Journal of Medicine have shown that drugs that reduce the levels of that protein in patients with severe heart disease can slow the progression of atherosclerosis and prevent heart attacks and cardiac-related deaths.

Although the studies came laced with caveats, their cumulative impact suggests that cardiology is in the midst of a revolutionary shift in understanding the causes of heart disease. After years of focusing on the role of cholesterol in clogging arteries, researchers now recognize C-reactive protein, a measure of inflammation in artery walls and elsewhere, as a prime risk factor in its own right.” (New York Times )

Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, Amygdala

Word as Earworm: “Can a word be an earworm? An earworm is a tune that lodges itself in the brain and will not be moved. Songs like “It’s a Small World” or “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” can become earworms. In a different class, “Là ci darem la mano,” from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” might insinuate itself into every waking moment, although it seems wrong to compare such a lovely aria to an invertebrate.” (New York Times )

20 Year Archive on Google Groups

“Google has fully integrated the past 20 years of Usenet archives into Google Groups, which now offers access to more than 800 million messages dating back to 1981. This is by far the most complete collection of Usenet articles ever assembled and a fascinating first-hand historical account.”

They have also

“compiled some especially memorable articles and threads in the timeline below. For example, read Tim Berners-Lee’s announcement of what became the World Wide Web or Linus Torvalds’ post about his ‘pet project’. “

20 Year Archive on Google Groups

“Google has fully integrated the past 20 years of Usenet archives into Google Groups, which now offers access to more than 800 million messages dating back to 1981. This is by far the most complete collection of Usenet articles ever assembled and a fascinating first-hand historical account.”

They have also

“compiled some especially memorable articles and threads in the timeline below. For example, read Tim Berners-Lee’s announcement of what became the World Wide Web or Linus Torvalds’ post about his ‘pet project’. “

Pentagon May Use Death Squads in Iraq

The Salvador Option: “Newsweek has learned, the Pentagon is intensively debating an option that dates back to a still-secret strategy in the Reagan administration’s battle against the leftist guerrilla insurgency in El Salvador in the early 1980s. Then, faced with a losing war against Salvadoran rebels, the U.S. government funded or supported ‘nationalist’ forces that allegedly included so-called death squads directed to hunt down and kill rebel leaders and sympathizers. Eventually the insurgency was quelled, and many U.S. conservatives consider the policy to have been a success-despite the deaths of innocent civilians and the subsequent Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal. (Among the current administration officials who dealt with Central America back then is John Negroponte, who is today the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. Under Reagan, he was ambassador to Honduras.)

Following that model, one Pentagon proposal would send Special Forces teams to advise, support and possibly train Iraqi squads, most likely hand-picked Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shiite militiamen, to target Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers, even across the border into Syria, according to military insiders familiar with the discussions. It remains unclear, however, whether this would be a policy of assassination or so-called ‘snatch’ operations, in which the targets are sent to secret facilities for interrogation. The current thinking is that while U.S. Special Forces would lead operations in, say, Syria, activities inside Iraq itself would be carried out by Iraqi paramilitaries, officials tell Newsweek.” (truthout)

"Not One Damn Dime Day"

This is circulating widely via email. I’m reposting it here in FmH’s role as a community bulletin board (or, some might say, a spam amplifier).

Jan 20, 2005 – Inauguration Day — please mark your calendars now…

Since our religious leaders will not speak out against the war in Iraq, since our political leaders don’t have the moral courage to oppose it, Inauguration Day, Thursday, January 20th, 2005 is “Not One Damn Dime Day” in America.

On “Not One Damn Dime Day” those who oppose what is happening in our name in Iraq can speak up with a 24-hour national boycott of all forms of consumer spending.

During “Not One Damn Dime Day” please don’t spend money. Not one damn dime for gasoline. Not one damn dime for necessities or for impulse purchases. Not one damn dime for nothing for 24 hours.

On “Not One Damn Dime Day,” please boycott Wal-Mart, Kmart, Target… Please don’t go to the mall or the local convenience store. Please don’t buy any fast food (or any groceries at all for that matter). For 24 hours, please do what you can to shut the retail economy down.

The object is simple. Remind the people in power that the war in Iraq is immoral and illegal; that they are responsible for starting it and that it is their responsibility to stop it.

“Not One Damn Dime Day” is to remind them, too, that they work for the people of the United States of America, not for the international corporations and K Street lobbyists who represent the corporations and funnel cash into American politics.

“Not One Damn Dime Day” is about supporting the troops. The politicians put the troops in harm’s way. Now over 1,200 brave young Americans and (some estimate) 100,000 Iraqis have died. The politicians owe our troops a plan – a way to come home.

There’s no rally to attend. No marching to do. No petitions to sign. No left or right wing agenda to rant about. On “Not One Damn Dime Day” you take action by doing nothing.

You open your mouth by keeping your wallet closed.

For 24 hours, nothing gets spent, not one damn dime, to remind our religious leaders and our politicians of their moral responsibility to end the war in Iraq and give America back to the people.

Jon Stewart Killed ‘Crossfire’

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Who’s your daddy now, Tucker?
“CNN has ended its relationship with the conservative commentator Tucker Carlson and will shortly cancel its long-running daily political discussion program, ‘Crossfire,’ the new president of CNN, Jonathan Klein, said last night.

…Mr. Klein said he wanted to move CNN away from what he called ‘head-butting debate shows,’ which have become the staple of much of all-news television in the prime-time hours, especially at the top-rated Fox News Channel.

‘CNN is a different animal,’ Mr. Klein said. ‘We report the news. Fox talks about the news. They’re very good at what they do and we’re very good at what we do.’

Mr. Klein specifically cited the criticism that the comedian Jon Stewart leveled at ‘Crossfire’ when he was a guest on the program during the presidential campaign. Mr. Stewart said that ranting partisan political shows on cable were ‘hurting America.’

Mr. Klein said last night, ‘I agree wholeheartedly with Jon Stewart’s overall premise.’ He said he believed that especially after the terror attacks on 9/11, viewers are interested in information, not opinion.” (New York Times ; thanks, andy)

Tsunami Videos

A collection of links to amateur videos of the tsunami, of variable quality. Since I do not watch TV news, I hadn’t experienced the visual impact until I watched some of these. There is a link at the page to donate to Red Cross disaster relief, if you haven’t already given all you can.

Staples Stunner

Staples, Inc. will not renew advertising on local Sinclair Broadcast Group stations: “Media Matters for America today announced that Staples, Inc. will no longer advertise on local news programming on Sinclair Broadcast Group TV stations nationwide. Citing an effort to be responsive to customer concerns about Sinclair’s injection of partisan conservative politics into its nightly newscasts, Staples, Inc. attributed its decision in part to the response the company received from customers visiting the SinclairAction.com website.”

Portable Virtual Privacy machine

“Carry your entire Internet communication system on a tiny USB drive. No installation needed – just plug the drive into any Windows or Linux computer, and click on the Virtual Privacy Machine icon and you’re ready to go. Contains a complete virtual Linux machine with privacy-enabled Open Source Internet applications. Carry your Internet applications, email, bookmarks, history, web cookies, download files in your pocket. Perfect for travellers – nothing to be scanned, started, poked, or prodded at the airport. Get English keyboard support no matter what computer you use. The VPM’s network connection will auto configure and run seamlessly on any machine with a working internet connection. All Internet session data (cookies, history, downloads, etc.) are stored on the VPM, not the host computer. Runs on any rewriteable media (USB drives, Flash Memory cards, Secure Digital devices, iPods, etc.) This PR1 release runs on Windows and Linux – final release version will also run on OS X. Runs in full screen mode (press SHIFT-CTRL-F. SHIFT-CTRL captures and releases focus.) Includes Mozilla Firefox browser, Mozilla Thunderbird News/Email client (with Enigmail plugins for PGP email encryption), persistent Home directory, a demo version of the MetroPipe Tunneler…..(free).”

Supernatural powers become contagious in PC game

“Eerie occurrences in a hugely popular computer game have been traced to rogue computer code accidentally spread between players like an infectious illness.

The Sims 2, released in September 2004, lets players assume godlike powers in a virtual community populated by characters they have created. They can influence the behaviour and fortunes of their characters in a huge variety of ways and sit back to witness the outcome.

The second edition of the game has already proven extremely popular and adds an extra dimension by enabling players to trade items, characters, even whole buildings through an online swap shop called The Sims 2 Exchange.

But in November 2004 several players began complaining that the characters and even some inanimate objects in their lovingly built worlds had begun behaving oddly. Some noticed that characters no longer aged while others found magical items – like an espresso maker that gives its user unlimited happiness – inexplicably installed in their character’s homes.” (New Scientist)

X-Ray Mystery in RCW 38

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Astronomy Picture of the Day: “A mere 6,000 light-years distant and sailing through the constellation Vela, star cluster RCW 38 is full of powerful stars. It’s no surprise that these stars, only a million years young with hot outer atmospheres, appear as point-like x-ray sources dotting this x-ray image from the orbiting Chandra Observatory. But the diffuse cloud of x-rays surrounding them is a bit mysterious… (A) source of energetic electrons, such as shockwaves from exploding stars (supernova remnants), or rotating neutron stars (pulsars), is not apparent in the Chandra data. Whatever their origins, the energetic particles could leave an imprint on planetary systems forming in young star cluster RCW 38, just as nearby energetic events seem to have affected the chemistry and isotopes found in our own solar system.”

Mathematicians crochet chaos

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“Mathematicians have made a crochet model of chaos – and are challenging anyone else to repeat the effort.”

“Imagine a leaf floating in a turbulent river and consider how it passes either to the left or to the right around a rock somewhere downstream.

“Those special leaves that end up clinging to the rock must have followed a very unique path in the water.

“Each stitch in the crochet pattern represents a single point – a leaf – that ends up at the rock.” (BBC via rebecca’s pocket)

Pop Culture Quandary Dept.

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Oh, White Noise is not from the Don DeLillo novel??

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And could this — ‘surreality’; ‘celebreality’ — be the death throes of reality TV? Not to make too much of this over-the-top, unbelievable spectacle, but in a country that can elect George W. Bush president, it is no wonder they think they can get away with exploiting the American public’s credulity to this extent. Nothing can be taken as an insult to our national intelligence any longer…

Sharper minds, but is there a cost?

An array of brain-boosting medications — some available and others in development — promise an era of better thinking through chemistry. New potential mind-enhancing drugs may bring more powerful, more targeted and more lasting improvements in mental acuity than the rudimentary cognition boosters — e.g. amphetamines — with which many are familiar from college all-nighters or long-haul drives.

The last two decades’ neuroscience discoveries about localization of brain functions and delineation of the roles of various neurotransmitters, with the ‘deep pockets’ of the US military’s vested interest in enhancement of pilots’ and soldiers’ combat functions under stress and fatigue, have created an unprecedented climate for the development of these agents. Aging baby boomers are an enormous potential market for the brain enhancing chemicals.

Modafinil, whose approved indication is to treat narcolepsy, may be the first ‘smart drug’. It is not clear by what mechanism it combats fatigue, but it appears to enhance mental functioning even in healthy nonfatigued subjects, with little in the way of complications or side effects. Research subjects who have takenmodafinil pay closer attention and use information more effectively than subjects given a placebo. Faced with conflicting demands, people on modafinil shift from task to task and alter their cognitive strategies more efficiently.

Some speculate that the use of cognition-enhancing drugs will become as commonplace as having a cup of coffee, ushering in an era of ‘cosmetic neurology’. But neuroscientists say two factors could prevent total capitulation to the allure of smart drugs. First, their performance may not live up to expectations. This is a common phenomenon in science — a statistically significant effect is not necessarily significant enough in the real world. And, second, ‘There is no free lunch.’ Again, as is often true in clinical drug development, the extent of complications from the real-world use of these drugs may not be apparent from the outset. A drug that causes users to remember too much detail could clutter the brain with irrelevancies. Sharpening attention might cause excessively intense focus, making it more difficult to shift attention with new demands. In short, someone who notices or remembers everything may end up understanding nothing.

One skeptical psychologist commented:

“The brain was designed by evolution over the millennia to be well-adapted because of the lives we lead. Our lives are better served by being able to focus on the essential information than being able to remember every little detail. We meddle with these designs at our peril.” (LA Times)

Conference: Phantom Limb Phenomena

A Neurobiological Diagnosis With Aesthetic, Cultural and Philosophic Implications (University of London, Saturday 15th, and Sunday 16th, January 2005) :

“Since its original description in 1866 by the Neurologist S. Mitchell, the phantom limb phenomena have attracted many scholars across a broad spectrum of fields. The phenomena describe the condition found in many amputees in which sensation of the removed limb persists. As such, it has served as a metaphor for many ideas in other fields beyond the scope of neurobiology and neuropsychology including philosophy, psychoanalysis, cultural studies, anthropology, literature, film and art. The purpose of this conference is three fold. First, it brings to the public’s attention this fascinating and significant medical problem. Second, it not only looks objectively at the way that these phenomena have stimulated interest across such a wide variety of fields but also shows how successful it is as a inter-disciplinary signifier; an issue important for both art and science initiatives. Last, it hopes to open up possible new links between participating professionals who seldom have the opportunity to meet and discuss ideas at the limits of their own interests.” [via boing boing]

If you have any interest in this, you can scroll down the page and read the abstracts of the conference presentations. Neurologist Peter Brugger, for example, “(tries) to delineate the scope of a proper ‘phantomology’ (Stanislaw Lem) whose aim is to study the virtual reality of bodily awareness – from phantom limb to phantom body.”

Harvard psychoanalyst Arnold Modell finds the creation of the unreal phantom limb intriguingly analogous to the process of the construction of the (equally unreal) self and its agency. And neuropsychologist Chris Frith sees the phenomenon as a paradigm of the brain’s mechanisms for the active construction of reality.

Artist Andrew Patrizio asks, “Am I, like others, (ab)using the phenomenon like many other intellectual and cultural activists? Phantom limbs are typical of many flowing and contested scientific discourses around at the moment, whose very elusiveness and ambiguity seems attractive in a multi-disciplinary kind of way. Rather than studying phantom limbs per se, I am currently asking – Does the exhibition as a format deal well with such subjects of an unsolved nature? Would my interest as a curator diminish if an explanatory model were accepted? How are artists working with the mystery, symbolism and science of phantom limbs, erecting a platform for creativity without dismantling the enigma?” Patrizio propounded an artistic expression of the phantom limb phenomenon by having an exhibition which hung no art (stipulating artists from whom works would not be borrowed).

Artist Nicola Diamond considers bodily expression as a culturally specific form of language and wonders how phantom limb would be experienced cross-culturally; there is little evidence of the phenomena in cross-cultural work. Novelist Stuart Brisley relates phantom limb to body dysmorphic disorder. Photographic artist Janet Sternberg finds phantom limb a potent metaphor as well. “Each of us has the condition, someone or something no longer with us who nonetheless continues — for better and for worse — to feel part of us.”

And UCLA philosopher Eleanor Kaufman explores Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception through the apposition of phantom limb — a sensation that an absent body part is still present — and one of my professional interests, anosognosia — the sensation that a present body part is absent. (I find the neurological phenomenon of anosognosia an analogy for some aspects of my patients’ constricted awarenes of themselves and the world.)

In Past Tsunamis, Tantalizing Clues to Future Ones

From the New York Times science section, this article explained much about which I had been curious. It starts out with the commonplace:

“Major earthquakes occur somewhere in the world every year or two. Catastrophic tsunamis – giant waves generated by undersea earthquakes or landslides – strike less often, and some of the largest of tsunamis originate in places that do not, at first glance, appear particularly treacherous.”

But it rapidly goes to the astounding:

“Tsunamis follow the same laws of physics as ordinary surf waves generated by wind. The difference is size. For wind-driven waves, the distance between wave crests – the wavelength – is at most a few hundred yards. For tsunamis, that wavelength can be a hundred miles or more. Because the wavelength is so much greater than the ocean depth, the speed of the wave depends on that depth. In water 2.5 miles deep, the average depth in the Pacific, a tsunami travels almost as fast as a jetliner, 440 miles an hour.

Ships at sea notice nothing. As a tsunami races past, the ocean surface rises and falls slightly, a few feet at most, over a period of several minutes to a couple of hours. Underwater, the effects are more pronounced. The downward pressure of a surf wave dissipates a few hundred yards below the surface, while the pressure force of a tsunami extends to the ocean bottom. “


“Videos captured of the tsunami seemed to pale next to the cataclysmic imaginings of Hollywood movies, but “looking at the videos, you would be fooled,” said Dr. Synolakis of U.S.C.

For one, those who tried to videotape more imposing waves might not have survived. But also, unlike an ordinary wave, which quickly dissipates and rolls back out, a tsunami is a long sheet of water. “Behind the wave is a change in sea level coming in,” Dr. Synolakis said. “The wave is coming and coming and coming. A three- or four-meter tsunami can be quite devastating.”

One cubic yard of water weighs nearly a ton, and a tsunamis come ashore at speeds of about 30 miles an hour. An oncoming tsunami can hit a building with millions of pounds of force, said Dr. Peter E. Raad, a professor of mechanical engineering at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“And that’s before you put anything in the water,” he said.

Trees, automobiles and pieces of concrete all become lethal projectiles as they are swept along by the rushing water.”

And, although others dispute the science behind this prediction:

“Others, including Dr. Steven N. Ward of the University of California, Santa Cruz, have warned that the volcano Cumbre Vieja in the Canary Islands off northwestern Africa could be nearing one of its periodic collapses. As the volcano grows through eruptions, the sides become unstable and eventually fall into the ocean. During the last eruption in 1949, a two-mile-long crack opened up and one side of the volcano slid 10 feet.

“Geologically, we’re getting close to the end,” Dr. Ward said. “It’s really the cycle of life for these volcanoes. They grow too big, they collapse.”

In Dr. Ward’s computer models, when Cumbre Vieja collapses – and that may not happen for hundreds of thousands of years – about 100 cubic miles of rock will slide into the ocean at speeds greater than 200 miles per hour, and the splash will generate tsunamis 300 feet high crashing into the northwestern coast of Africa. Waves 40 feet high will reach New York.”

Random Acts Of Reality

You know how, once you notice something, all of a sudden you see it everywhere? I just stumbled upon this fascinating weblog written by an EMT working for the London Ambulance Service, and now I notice that numerous and disparate people are linking to it.

Photos Show George W. Bush Seriously Ill Physically : Indymedia Colombia

Remember the analysis of photos showing bulges in his suit suggesting that Bush was being fed his debate lines through a wireless link? This site concludes that Bush’s equipment is actually a ‘Lifevest’ wearable defibrillator. Like his father, Bush may have atrial fibrillation, a cardiac arrhythmia that can cause syncopal episodes (fainting spells; recall the famous Bush ‘pretzel-choking’ episode in January, 2002?) as well as cerebrovascular accidents (strokes or mini-strokes), some of which might account for Bush’s apparent cognitive deficits and psychological instability. One sign of a possible stroke is a facial droop, which Bush appears to demonstrate at times and which may, it is suggested, be the reason we find him sneering. [I think however it is more likely that Bush sneers because he is simply a haughty, inadequate and contemptuous man… — FmH]

For good measure, the post throws in some speculation about hyperthyroidism (Graves’ Disease) — which is the likely cause of his father’s atrial fibrillation — and Wernicke-Korsakoff’s Syndrome — essentially cognitive deterioration from chronic alcohol abuse — that I find less compelling. The piece also invokes the scurrilous ‘psychoanalysis’ of Bush by Washington analyst Dr. Justin Frank, about which I have previously posted. I joined many others in the psychiatric community in condemning Dr Frank’s conclusions about Bush’s psychopathology as irresponsible and unethical but — hear me out here — there is a good rational for raising concerns about behavioral observations, given that the President’s actions are in the public domain. The post makes an interesting case that some of these observations could be accounted for by cerebrovascular cognitive impairments.

As the poster concludes, only Bush’s doctors know for sure. As I have said before, just as the results of the President’s annual physical exam are made public, so too should a comprehensive annual ‘mental status’ evaluation bearing on his emotional and cognitive functioning. Despite doctor-patient privilege, the potential consequences of behavioral or cognitive impairment of the man in the Oval Office demand that the Presidential physicians level with the public about aspects of his health that could affect his public functions. Barring that, their responsibility demands at least that they privately steer him out of office if they find him substantially impaired. Who here has any confidence that the fact that the people around Bush have not done so indicates that he is not in fact impaired and that we can rest easy that his hand is on the trigger?

Novel calendar system creates regular dates

A US physicist fed up with having to revise his course schedule due dates every year proposes a 364-day year, which means every date falls on the same day of the week every year. A ‘leap-week’ unattached to any month is added every five to six years. Many months would have different lengths than they now do. To answer expected criticism from people whose birthdays are ‘stuck’ on an undesireable day of the week, he gives us all permission to celebrate our birthdays on the weekend before or after their actual date. (New Scientist)

Fighting Words

Decoding Iraq War Lingo: “The history of warfare is written in acronyms that cleanse the blood from gory wounds and strip the horror from bombs. The Iraq war has spawned its very own alphabet soup of abbreviations and battlefield buzzwords intelligible only to the military and war correspondents trying to make sense of it all.” (Reuters)

TV when you want it and, now, where you want it

TiVo Untethered and Ready to Go: “The long-awaited service feature called TiVoToGo, set to launch Monday, will give users their first taste of TiVo untethered.

No longer confined to TiVo digital video recorders in the living room or bedroom, subscribers will be able to transfer their recorded shows to PCs or laptops and take them on the road — as long as the shows are not specially tagged with copy restrictions. That’s also the case for pay-per-view or on-demand movies, and some premium paid programming.

Users also will be able to copy shows onto a DVD — soon after but not immediately at the service launch, company officials said.” (Wired News)

Girl saved tourists thanks to school lesson

“A 10-year-old British girl saved 100 other tourists from the Asian tsunami having warned them a giant mass of water was on its way after learning about the phenomenon weeks earlier at school.

‘I was on the beach and the water started to go funny,’ Tilly Smith told the Sun at the weekend from Phuket, Thailand.

‘There were bubbles and the tide went out all of a sudden. I recognised what was happening and had a feeling there was going to be a tsunami. I told mummy.'” (Yahoo! News)

Myths Run Wild in Blog Tsunami Debate

“As the horror of the South Asian tsunami spread and people gathered online to discuss the disaster on sites known as Web logs, or blogs, those of a political bent naturally turned the discussion to their favorite topics. To some in the blogosphere, it simply had to be the government’s fault.” (New York Times )

The article is actually talking about just one crazy idea on one weblog; but, hey, The New York Times knows a trend when they see one, and don’t stand in their way! The article does laud, however, the self-correcting nature of weblogging reality, in which the accumulation of readers’ comments is (usually) precipitated by a crackpot post. Except, of course, on FmH, which operates off in its own little corner of the universe in defiance of consensus reality, unperturbed…

The Christian Right’s compassion deficit

“It took President Bush three days to ready himself to go before the television cameras and make a public statement about Sunday’s devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck southern Asia. Even though he was late, and much more money will be needed, the president pledged at least $35 million in aid to the victims of the disaster. But, as of December 30, some of the president’s major family-values constituents have yet to be heard from: It’s business as usual at the web sites of the American Family Association, the Family Research Council, the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, Concerned Women for America, and the Coral Ridge Ministries.

These powerful and well-funded political Christian fundamentalist organizations appear to be suffering from a compassion deficit. Organizations which are amazingly quick to organize to fight against same-sex marriage, a woman’s right to choose, and embryonic stem cell research are missing in action when it comes to responding to the disaster in southern Asia. None of their web sites are actively soliciting aid for the victims of the earthquake/tsunami.” — Bill Berkowitz (workingforchange)

In Europe, Islam fills Marxism’s old shoes

“When Azzedine Belthoub was growing up in the shantytowns outside of Nanterre, France, 40 years ago, the people who came to take the young North African kids to swim in the community pool, to register them for school and give them candy and comic books, were Marxists. The French Communist Party offered a political voice for the working classes, including the growing number of North African immigrants imported to fill labor shortages after World War II.

Today, Islam plays that role, especially in France, where men like Belthoub, wearing long beards and short djellabas, reach out to the poor and disillusioned in the country’s working-class neighborhoods.

Young Arabs and Africans here have turned to Islam with the same fervor that the idealistic youth of the 1960s turned toward Marxism.

‘Now, religion has become our identity,’ Belthoub said last week, sitting in a friend’s apartment in a largely Muslim suburb north of Paris.

The question is whether Islam in Europe will follow the same path that communism did here, shedding its revolutionary extremism, electing mayors and legislators and assimilating itself into normal democratic political life.” (International Herald Tribune)

The Christian Right’s compassion deficit

“It took President Bush three days to ready himself to go before the television cameras and make a public statement about Sunday’s devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck southern Asia. Even though he was late, and much more money will be needed, the president pledged at least $35 million in aid to the victims of the disaster. But, as of December 30, some of the president’s major family-values constituents have yet to be heard from: It’s business as usual at the web sites of the American Family Association, the Family Research Council, the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, Concerned Women for America, and the Coral Ridge Ministries.

These powerful and well-funded political Christian fundamentalist organizations appear to be suffering from a compassion deficit. Organizations which are amazingly quick to organize to fight against same-sex marriage, a woman’s right to choose, and embryonic stem cell research are missing in action when it comes to responding to the disaster in southern Asia. None of their web sites are actively soliciting aid for the victims of the earthquake/tsunami.” — Bill Berkowitz (workingforchange)