“When women stop reading the novel will be dead” — McEwan

Slowworm, photo taken in Sweden

‘ “Page Turners“, according to the research, are avid readers – 48% of the women surveyed fell into this category, while only 26% of men showed equal enthusiasm. In contrast, 32% of men were burdened with the “Slow Worm” label accorded to those who read only one or two books a year, while only 18% of women fell into that category. The research further labels some readers (or rather, book buyers) as “Serial Shelvers” – people who buy books because they look fetching in their lounges, not because they have any intention of reading them, and “Double Bookers”, who are either great multi-taskers or in possession of short attention spans, as they always have more than one book on the go at a time (they’re identifiable by the precarious stacks on their bedside tables). Gender didn’t play a significant role in these last two categories – with equal percentages of men and women being Double Bookers, it indicates there is gender equality when it comes to greedy readers, at least.’ via Guardian.UK Books.

The Biggest of Puzzles Brought Down to Size

Fermi's ID badge photo from Los Alamos.
Enrico Fermi

I have always loved back-of-the-envelope calculations, whether I get into the right ballpark or not. I find that this kind of ‘guesstimating’ is an important factor in feeling comfortable knowing how the world works. Difficult to get some people into reasoning this way, though…

‘Here is how it works. You take a monster of a ponder like, What is the total volume of human blood in the world? or, If you put all the miles that Americans drive every year end to end, how far into space could you travel? and you try to estimate what the answer might be. You resist your impulse to run away or imprecate. Instead, you look for a wedge into the problem, and then you calmly, systematically, break it down into edible bits. Importantly, you are not looking for an exact figure but rather a ballpark approximation, something that would be within an order of magnitude, or a factor of 10, of the correct answer. If you got the answer 900, for example, and the real answer is 200, you’re good; if you got 9,000, or 20, you go back and try to find where you went astray.

“It’s really just critical thinking, breaking down seemingly complicated problems into simpler problems,” said John A. Adam, a professor of mathematics at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. “Once you get over the hurdle and realize that, good grief, any question can be answered to this level of precision, to the nearest power of 10, it’s quite exciting, and you start looking for things to apply it to.” ‘ via NYTimes.

Bicycle Built for Two Thousand

Hal 9000 D - Chrome

Bicycle Built For 2,000 is comprised [sic] of 2,088 voice recordings collected via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk web service. Workers were prompted to listen to a short sound clip, then record themselves imitating what they heard.”

They were given no further information about the purpose of their recording, and were paid 0.06 USD each. The voices, originating in 71 countries, were assembled to create a portrait of humanity singing Daisy Bell (“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do…”).

Vast Spy System Loots Computers in 103 Countries

Dalai Lama

Although not conclusive, evidence points to the Chinese government as the culprit in installing spyware on 1300 computers, a number of them considered high-value targets. The existence fo the network came to light after the office of the Dalai Lama asked Canadian cyber-espionage experts to examine its computers for evidence of compromise. ‘GhostNet’ focuses, in addition to the Tibetans, on Southeast Asian governments. There was no evidence that US computers had been compromised although a NATO machine had apparently briefly been monitored and the Indian Embassy in Washington had been penetrated. NYTimes.

What’s So Hot About Chili Peppers?

This picture was taken by Gannon Anjo in Tezpu...

“Bolivia is believed to be the chili’s motherland, home to dozens of wild species that may be the ancestors of all the world’s chili varieties—from the mild bell pepper to the medium jalapeño to the rough-skinned naga jolokia, the hottest pepper ever tested. The heat-generating compound in chilies, capsaicin, has long been known to affect taste buds, nerve cells and nasal membranes (it puts the sting in pepper spray). But its function in wild chili plants has been mysterious.

Which is why Tewksbury and his colleagues have made multiple trips to Bolivia over the past four years. They’re most interested in mild chilies, especially those growing near hot ones of the same species—the idea being that a wild chili lacking capsaicin might serve as a kind of exception that proves the rule, betraying the secret purpose of this curiously beloved spice.” via Smithsonian Magazine.

Disease Mongering or Medicalization

MIAMI - MARCH 22:  Juan Ruiz (L) and Pablo Men...

“The medicalization of many social facets of our lives, multitasking pharmaceuticals and disease mongering are problems we should face head on…” via Sciencebase.


If there is any justice, Bobby Jindal’s national political career is over

{{w|Bobby Jindal}}, member of the United State...

“A month after Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal complained about wasteful spending in President Obama’s economic stimulus package, including money for “something called ‘volcano monitoring,'” Alaska pilots were grateful for such expenditures. The Alaska Volcano Observatory was ready with warnings to flight officials when Alaska’s Mount Redoubt blew five times Sunday night and Monday morning, sending potentially deadly ash clouds north of Anchorage.” via The Associated Press.

Keep the Schoolbus Routes, Lose the Buses

View of Lake Como from Mount San Primo

“Each morning, about 450 students travel along 17 school bus routes to 10 elementary schools in this lakeside city at the southern tip of Lake Como. There are zero school buses.

In 2003, to confront the triple threats of childhood obesity, local traffic jams and — most important — a rise in global greenhouse gases abetted by car emissions, an environmental group here proposed a retro-radical concept: children should walk to school.” via NYTimes.

Mugged by our genes?

Sylvia Plath's grave at Heptonstall church, We...
Grave of Sylvia Plath

“Last Monday, Nicholas Hughes, son of poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, killed himself. His mother was one of the world’s most famous suicides, and news stories have mentioned the tendency of suicide and depression to run in families. But this tragic inheritance is just part of a more complex story in which our lives are shaped by genes, environment — and unexpected connections between the two.” via International Herald Tribune opinion

Levitation Toys Operated Directly by Brainwaves

‘With both Mattel’s “Mind Flex” and Uncle Milton’s “The Force Trainer,” the goal is to focus your thoughts in order to levitate a ball. There are no blinking lights or 3-D graphics -– just a wireless headset, a lightweight ball and a fan.

Both toys use a modified form of electroencephalography — or EEG — technology to measure electrical signals emitted by the brain, says Jim Sullivan of NeuroSky, the company that created the technology that makes the toys work.’ via NPR.


To Congress: Prohibit Selling Patients’ Private Medical Data

Google Health 17 - Import Medical records

“Electronic patient records legislation that will convert our health records from paper to data in electronic systems will put our personal medical records at risk of becoming a commodity that businesses can sell or trade.

Even Microsoft promises they won’t use health information in their database for commercial purposes. The Federal government needs to provide that basic level of protection and more.

Tell Congress we need real patient control of our health data and and that means prohibiting companies from selling or buying medical records or private information mined from records.” via American Civil Liberties Union.

The Null Device

Margaret Thatcher, 1983

Every so often I remember to check in on The Null Device, and I am usually rewarded with a rich harvest of stimulation and idiosyncracy. For instance, right now, you’ll find:

  • a meditation on the reformation of Spandau Ballet and its relationship to Thatcherism;
  • a review of the state of the art in neo-Nazi haute couture;
  • a piece on anti-teenage lighting, the latest in Britain’s war on out-of-control youth;
  • a summary of Lord Whimsy’s essay on bizarre and grotesque fashions throughout history;
  • the revelation of the world’s most alienating airport;
  • how to tell how credit-worthy a person is by looking at their face;

and much more.

Déjà vu again

deja vù

“Surprisingly, not only is déjà vu proving an interesting window on the peculiar ways that our memory works, it is also providing a few clues about how we tell the difference between what is real, imagined, dreamed and remembered – one of the true mysteries of consciousness.” via New Scientist

The takeaway message is that deja vu is composed of distinct but related elements — recognition, the sense of familiarity, the sense of the weirdness or bizarreness of the experience, and the recognition of its impossibility — each of which has its own circuitry and neurocognitive machinery.

Day of the Dolphin

Swim twice as fast as Michael Phelps:

“The human body does many things well, but swimming isn't one of them. We're embarrassingly inefficient in the water, able to convert just 3 or 4 percent of our energy into forward motion. (Even with swim fins, we're only 10 to 15 percent more efficient.) But a new, dolphin-inspired fin promises to fuel the biggest change in human-powered swimming in decades, putting beyond-Olympian speeds within reach of just about anyone.

Culminating decades of research, engineer and inventor Ted Ciamillo, an inventor and engineer in Athens, Ga., who made his name (and fortune) building high-performance bicycle brakes, created what he has dubbed the Lunocet, a 2.5-pound (1.1-kilogram) monofin made of carbon fiber and fiberglass that attaches to an aluminum foot plate at a precise 30-degree angle. With almost three times the surface area of conventional swim fins, the semiflexible Lunocet provides plenty of propulsion. The key to the 42-inch- (one-meter-) wide fin's speed: its shape and angle, both of which are modeled with scientific precision on a dolphin's tail.” via Scientific American.

Ann Bauer: the monster inside my son

“I'm exhausted and hopeless and vaguely hung over because Andrew, who has autism, also has evolved from sweet, dreamy boy to something like a golem: bitter, rampaging, full of rage. It happened no matter how fiercely I loved him or how many therapies I employed.” via Salon.

The nuts and bolts of chess

[Image 'https://i0.wp.com/blog.makezine.com/hardwarestorechessmen.jpg' cannot be displayed]
My friend Julia Suits wrote me that a chess set she and her sons made from hardware has been featured at the Make blog and also Boing Boing’d. As Julia describes,

“Headed toward the light-bulb aisle in my local hardware store a few years ago,I stopped to admire the bins of nuts,bolts and the like. This is not unusual for me who likens this kind of scene to a candy store. I love metal,and have cast and welded all types as a sculpture major in graduate school. When I saw the little bin containing two different types of castle nuts,I immediately thought of rooks. At the time my three sons and I hosted a weekly chess club,so chess was on my mind a lot. With my boys in tow,I returned with graph paper and we computed what sorts of bits we might want (we didn't know for sure) for each type of piece and how many in total. An hour later, after poring over numerous bins and waiting for the clerk to saw the threaded rod into measured lengths (for kings, rooks,and bishops), we went home with about fifteen pounds of loot, including spray paint for the black pieces. We created a set not far different from what is pictured here. Since then we've added washers to some and added a flanged hex nut to each of the bases to make the set uniform and even more stable. The hardware chessmen were a huge hit and the other boys built their own sets.

Make sure you add felt or cork to the bases if you plan on using a board whose finish you wish to protect. If you do this, you will need to glue the flanged hex nut base to the shaft before you glue your padding as the nut and shaft tend to screw up or down with use. Otherwise, note: none of the pieces are glued!! This is so they jingle (yes,they jingle, like cowboy spurs!) and so you can take them apart and rearrange them.” via Make.

Tips for the Sophisticated Fugitive

Why not take the ill-gotten money and run?

A touch of plastic surgery and a discreet payoff might purchase a sun-tanned life on an Indian Ocean archipelago, a number of which have no extradition treaties with the United States. Even a down-market move, manning an outboard motor for a skiff full of Somali pirates, seems preferable to a life term in a maximum-security federal prison.

Yet as more plutocrats face criminal investigations, few seem to view flight as an option. Perhaps it is a failure of nerve. Or perhaps, in this age of Facebook and “America’s Most Wanted,” the globe suffers a shortage of corners where a rogue might comfortably hide.” via NYTimes.

How Do You Amputate A Phantom Limb?

The Sensory Homunculus

Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, of NPR’s Radiolab (addictive podcast, by the way) interview neurologist V.S. Ramachandran about his ingenious and effective solution to the vexing and mysterious phenomenon of phantom limb pain. Via NPR.

The illustration to the left is the famous “sensory homunculus” described by Penrose, the representation of the body mapped onto the sensory cortex. This is, of course, the root of the problem of phantom limbs, because although the limb is gone, the representation persists, maing it hard to convince the sensory cortex otherwise. Thank heaven for Ramachandran’s tricky take on neural plasticity.

What a Ride!

[Image 'http://www.nasa.gov/images/content/319335main_batontank226x.jpg' cannot be displayed]

“A bat that was clinging to space shuttle Discovery’s external fuel tank during the countdown to launch the STS-119 mission remained with the spacecraft as it cleared the tower, analysts at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center concluded.

Based on images and video, a wildlife expert who provides support to the center said the small creature was a free tail bat that likely had a broken left wing and some problem with its right shoulder or wrist. The animal likely perished quickly during Discovery’s climb into orbit.” via NASA.

A Little Stress May Be Good for You

“A lot of stress can turn your hair gray, but a little stress can actually delay aging. A protein tied to protecting cells from stress also helps slow aging, a new study finds. The research, published February 20 in Science, identifies a key regulator of a mechanism cells use to prevent protein damage from stress.

Exposure to heat, cold or heavy metals can damage proteins and unravel them from their usual conformations — trauma that can cause cell death. But cells have a damage-limiting mechanism called the heat shock response to combat these and other stresses. As part of the heat shock response, special protein repair molecules patch up the damaged proteins and refold them correctly, preventing death and extending the life of the cell.” via Science News.

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The Daily Me

“When we go online, each of us is our own editor, our own gatekeeper. We select the kind of news and opinions that we care most about.

Nicholas Negroponte of M.I.T. has called this emerging news product The Daily Me. And if that’s the trend, God save us from ourselves.

That’s because there’s pretty good evidence that we generally don’t truly want good information — but rather information that confirms our prejudices. We may believe intellectually in the clash of opinions, but in practice we like to embed ourselves in the reassuring womb of an echo chamber.” — Nicholas Kristoff via NYTimes op-ed.

Although Kristoff has seemingly only just discovered the ‘echo chamber’ effect, it has been a longstanding preoccupation of thoughtful observers of internet sociology. As newspapers morph into lesser online versions of themselves with less pretense to completeness and objectivity, however, is the situation about to get much worse?

Philosophy’s great experiment

“A dynamic new school of thought is emerging that wants to kick down the walls of recent philosophy and place experimentation back at its centre. It has a name to delight an advertising executive: x-phi. It has blogs and books devoted to it, and boasts an expanding body of researchers in elite universities. It even has an icon: an armchair in flames. If philosophy ever can be, x-phi is trendy. But, increasingly, it is also attracting hostility.” via Prospect.

What is narcissistic personality disorder, and why does everyone seem to have it?

This is the cultural moment of the narcissist. In a New Yorker cartoon, Roz Chast suggests a line of narcissist greeting cards (“Wow! Your Birthday’s Really Close to Mine!”). John Edwards outed himself as one when forced to confess an adulterous affair. (Given his comical vanity, the deceitful way he used his marriage for his advancement, and his self-elevation as an embodiment of the common man while living in a house the size of an arena, it sounds like a pretty good diagnosis.) New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley wrote of journalists who Twitter, “it’s beginning to look more like yet another gateway drug to full-blown media narcissism.” And what other malady could explain the simultaneous phenomena of Blago and the Octomom?” — Emily Yoffe via Slate.

Why Not Boo?

Toneelbeeld Lucia di Lammermoor van Bagnara ui...

“It goes without saying that the frequency of standing ovations devalues their significance. As Gilbert and Sullivan put it in “The Gondoliers,” When everyone is somebodee/Then no one’s anybody! Just as important, it also points to a lack of true engagement on the part of the spectators. At a preview performance of “Blithe Spirit” last week, I sat next to a man who laughed loudly and mechanically at every line in the play. Whenever an actor said something really funny, he raised his hands above his head and clapped. It was as though I were sitting next to a living laugh track — except that the man’s tic-like reaction to the show was anything but alive.

Booing, on the other hand, sends a different message, one that isn’t necessarily all bad. Francesca Zambello‘s deliberately provocative Met production of “Lucia di Lammermoor” was booed when it opened in 1992. “It isn’t fun to be booed,” Ms. Zambello later told me, “but sometimes it’s also a badge of success.” Why? Because the people who booed Ms. Zambello’s “Lucia” and Ms. Zimmerman’s “Sonnambula,” unlike the ones who spring to their feet at the end of a third-rate musical, were making it clear that they’d paid attention to what they saw and heard. No, they didn’t care for it, but at least they were involved with it, and such involvement can be the first step toward a deeper, more thoughtful response. “As soon as I detest something,” the music critic Hans Keller once said, “I ask myself why I like it.” Keller’s words may seem paradoxical, but in fact they’re wise. While anger may turn out to be love in disguise, indifference is rarely anything more than indifference.” — Terry Teachout via WSJ

Could box office bonanza dry up?

Daily Variety's logo

“…[Studio] output has hit a serious speed bump, thanks to a number of factors: The economic crash and retreat of private equity money, a protracted writers walkout, a production slowdown over fear of an actors strike and the dismantling of studio specialty labels.” via Variety.

Does Death Sell?

Philippe de Champaigne (1602-1674): Still-Life...

A recent study by University of Wisconsin and University of Virginia consumer researchers… examined how individuals relate to objects they have purchased when they think about death. The result, strikingly, is that thinking about one’s demise motivates people to form a strong connection to their material possessions, specifically to the brands that they have purchased. In the face of the great unknown, people develop, “strong brand identity,” a melding of their personalities and their possessions.” via Obit Magazine.

This school of research originated with Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death (1974), which argued that the entirety of human culture is an attempt to manage our terror at the prospect of our mortality.

No Speech, Please…We’re British

Ashkar - Hét antwoord op Fitna

Britain’s politicians care so much about constitutional protections for human rights that they have two sets of them–the centuries-old traditions laid out by parliament and precedent and the newfangled European Convention on Human Rights, written into British law in 1998. Neither of these stopped Britain from becoming the first European Union country to bar an elected European legislator from its territory for his political opinions on February 12.

The Dutch MP Geert Wilders heads the Freedom party, which holds 9 of the 150 seats in the Second Chamber in The Hague. He has been preoccupied with militant Islam at least since November 2004, when the filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered by a Muslim fanatic in Amsterdam, and Wilders’s own name turned up on a jihadist hit list. In March 2008, Wilders released Fitna, a 15-minute film, on the Internet. It details contemporary Islamist outrages and locates their inspiration not in any perversion of Islam but in specific suras of the Koran itself, which Wilders likens to Mein Kampf and urges authorities to ban.” via The Weekly Standard.

Why do people cook?

“…[W]ith Homo sapiens, what makes the species unique in Dr Wrangham’s opinion is that its food is so often cooked.

Cooking is a human universal. No society is without it. No one other than a few faddists tries to survive on raw food alone. And the consumption of a cooked meal in the evening, usually in the company of family and friends, is normal in every known society. Moreover, without cooking, the human brain (which consumes 20-25% of the body’s energy) could not keep running. Dr Wrangham thus believes that cooking and humanity are coeval.

In fact, as he outlined to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in Chicago, he thinks that cooking and other forms of preparing food are humanity’s “killer app”: the evolutionary change that underpins all of the other—and subsequent—changes that have made people such unusual animals.” via The Economist.

One more in the myriad attempted definitions of being human that go, “Man is the only animal who…” Here is a Google search on the meme of human uniqueness.


The Roar of the Crowd

football player || larger than life || covers ...

Marx was wrong: The opiate of the masses isn’t religion, but spectator sports. What else explains the astounding fact that millions of seemingly intelligent human beings feel that the athletic exertions of total strangers are somehow consequential for themselves? The real question we should be asking during the madness surrounding this month’s collegiate basketball championship season is not who will win, but why anyone cares.” via TThe Chronicle of Higher Education.

Wikileaks needs your support

Wikileaks is currently overloaded by readers. This is a regular difficulty that can only be resolved by deploying additional resources. If you support our mission, then show it in the way that is most needed. On average, each donation catalyzes the publication of around 150 mainstream press articles, exposing human rights abuses and corrupt government around the world.Wikileaks is overloaded. We need your support for more servers.”

Japan’s ‘suicide forest’

Map of Japan with Tokyo highlighted

“[He]bought a one-way ticket to the forest, west of Tokyo, Japan. When he got there, he slashed his wrists, though the cut wasn’t enough to kill him quickly.

He started to wander, he said. He collapsed after days and lay in the bushes, nearly dead from dehydration, starvation and frostbite. He would lose his toes on his right foot from the frostbite. But he didn’t lose his life, because a hiker stumbled upon his nearly dead body and raised the alarm.

[His] story is just one of hundreds logged at Aokigahara Forest every year, a place known throughout Japan as the “suicide forest.” The area is home to the highest number of suicides in the entire country.” via CNN.

[thanks to Boing Boing]

A Perfect Crime?

Diamond Heist

Twins suspected in a spectacular multimillion-euro jewel heist in Berlin have been released. Despite DNA evidence from the crime scene, their genetic indistinguishability thwarted the requirement of German law that a suspect be linked exclusively. The twins, both of whom have criminal records and who may have committed the crime together, have steadfastly refused to comment, except to send a message that they were “proud of the German constitutional state and gave it their thanks.” via Der Spiegel [thanks to kottke].

One of the perils of modern crimefighting’s reliance on genetic evidence?

Teens capture images of space with £56 camera and balloon

Close up of a hydrogen filled balloon at Cambr...

Proving that you don’t need Google’s billions or the BBC weather centre’s resources, the four Spanish students managed to send a camera-operated weather balloon into the stratosphere.

Taking atmospheric readings and photographs 20 miles above the ground, the Meteotek team of IES La Bisbal school in Catalonia completed their incredible experiment at the end of February this year.

Building the electronic sensor components from scratch, Gerard Marull Paretas, Sergi Saballs Vila, Marta­ Gasull Morcillo and Jaume Puigmiquel Casamort managed to send their heavy duty £43 latex balloon to the edge of space and take readings of its ascent.” via Telegraph UK [thanks, abby].


When It Comes To Shampoo, Less Is More

Private collection.

“Americans love to shampoo. We lather up an average of 4.59 times a week, twice as much as Italians and Spaniards, according to shampoo-maker Procter & Gamble.

But that’s way too often, say hair stylists and dermatologists. Daily washing, they say, strips the hair of beneficial oil (called sebum) and can damage our locks.” via NPR.

Medical Marijuana Back From The Shadows

Medical Cannabis Club

“When Attorney General Eric Holder announced that drug enforcement authorities will end raids on medical marijuana suppliers in California, patients and activists cheered. Thirteen states, including Maine, have adopted medicinal marijuana laws similar to California’s.” via Medical Marijuana Back From The Shadows : NPR.


The human brain is on the edge of chaos

A human brain.

“Cambridge-based researchers provide new evidence that the human brain lives “on the edge of chaos”, at a critical transition point between randomness and order. The study, published March 20 in the open-access journal PLoS Computational Biology, provides experimental data on an idea previously fraught with theoretical speculation.

Self-organized criticality (where systems spontaneously organize themselves to operate at a critical point between order and randomness), can emerge from complex interactions in many different physical systems, including avalanches, forest fires, earthquakes, and heartbeat rhythms.

According to this study, conducted by a team from the University of Cambridge, the Medical Research Council Cognition & Brain Sciences Unit, and the GlaxoSmithKline Clinical Unit Cambridge, the dynamics of human brain networks have something important in common with some superficially very different systems in nature. Computational networks showing these characteristics have also been shown to have optimal memory (data storage) and information-processing capacity. In particular, critical systems are able to respond very rapidly and extensively to minor changes in their inputs.” via PhysOrg.

In One Ear and Out the Other

Cover of "Laughter: A Scientific Investig...

Thank heavens someone is thinking about one of the most troublesome experiences I have — my inability to remember a joke I have heard, no matter how funny and no matter how determined I am to retain it to share with others later.

“Really great jokes… work not by conforming to pattern recognition routines but by subverting them. “Jokes work because they deal with the unexpected, starting in one direction and then veering off into another,” said Robert Provine, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. “What makes a joke successful are the same properties that can make it difficult to remember.”

This may also explain why the jokes we tend to remember are often the most clichéd ones. A mother-in-law joke? Yes, I have the slot ready and labeled.

Memory researchers suggest additional reasons that great jokes may elude common capture. Daniel L. Schacter, a professor of psychology at Harvard and the author of The Seven Sins of Memory, says there is a big difference between verbatim recall of all the details of an event and gist recall of its general meaning.

“We humans are pretty good at gist recall but have difficulty with being exact,” he said. Though anecdotes can be told in broad outline, jokes live or die by nuance, precision and timing. And while emotional arousal normally enhances memory, it ends up further eroding your attention to that one killer frill. “Emotionally arousing material calls your attention to a central object,” Dr. Schacter said, “but it can make it difficult to remember peripheral details.” via NYTimes.

This may be a special case of something over which I have more generally puzzled — what is the difference between those raconteurs, who always seem to have a moving story or stories (funny or dreadful) to tell on any occasion, and others who are at a loss for words in social settings. I’m not talking about people who are shy or painfully inhibited so much as those who seem to have the material and those who don’t.

Is there that much of a difference in the content of people’s lives? Is it something about how observant they are? Or, again, something about memory function? I am fascinated by storytelling (for instance, I love the Moth podcast) and have always been intrigued by advertisements about storytelling workshops promising to develop attendees’ skills.

To some extent, there is a cultural influence as well. I suspect storytelling is a dying art, along with letter-writing and reading fiction, a way we used to interact and divert ourselves which is progressively and inexorably being supplanted in modernity. But there are still enough good conversationalists around to astound me.

Of course, other people may find it far easier than I do to talk about what happened to them during their workday, one of the important sources of our stories. As a therapist, I am privileged to hear in detail about a broad range of the lives of others, but all of what I am told, I am told in confidence. Perhaps I gravitated toward psychotherapy because I sensed myself to be a far better listener to the stories of others than I am a storyteller myself. In fact, some construe the work of psychotherapy as training our clients to become better storytellers about their own lives, as largely a matter of imposing coherence and pattern on their recollections and observations about themselves, making better sense of their lives, consequently appreciating and tolerating the humor and the pathos in their lives better, and developing an empathic connection to the life stories of those around them.


The Loon — James Tate

A loon woke me this morning. It was like waking up

in another world. I had no idea what was expected of me.

I waited for instructions. Someone called and asked me

if I wanted a free trip to Florida. I said, “Sure. Can

I go today?” A man in a uniform picked me up in a limousine,

and the next thing I know I’m being chased by an alligator

across a parking lot. A crowd gathers and cheers me on.

Of course, none of this really happened. I’m still sleeping.

I don’t want to go to work. I want to know what the loon is

saying. It sounds like ecstasy tinged with unfathomable

terror. One thing is certain: at least they are not speaking

of tax shelters. The phone rings. It’s my boss. She says,

“Where are you?” I say, “I don’t know. I don’t recognize

my surroundings. I think I’ve been kidnapped. If they make

demands of you, don’t give in. That’s my professional advice.”

Just then, the loon let out a tremendous looping, soaring,

swirling, quadruple whoop. “My god, are you alright?” my

boss said. “In case we do not meet again, I want you to know

that I’ve always loved you, Agnes,” I said. “What?” she said.

“What are you saying?” “Good-bye, my darling. Try to remember me

as your ever loyal servant,” I said. “Did you say you loved

me?” she said. I said, “Yes,” and hung up. I tried

to go back to sleep, but the idea of being kidnapped had me

quite worked up. I looked in the mirror for signs of torture.

Every time the loon cried, I screamed and contorted my face

in agony. They were going to cut off my head and place it on

a stake. I overheard them talking. They seemed like very

reasonable men, even, one might say, likeable.

“The Loon” by James Tate from Return to the City of White Donkeys. © Ecco Press, 2004. via a blind flaneur.

R.I.P. Sal Salasin

And am pleased to inhabit the earth with this species. Goodbye and God bless you all. More of the evil work of Denise and her evil twin Denise, bleeding through my dreams. Man is the only animal that builds jails. He can also eat peanuts and chew tobacco. Let's go back to the phones where we'll discuss idempotent transactions in just a moment. Well, yes, I'm sorry I did the best I could which was obviously inadequate.

Fate and too many painkillers.

Recently I had the pleasure of driving alone in an American car on American roads listening to American radio from Perth Amboy to Seattle. And this had its rewards although it didn't do the planet any good.

And if it makes you feel any better, I didn't use my tongue. I'm also extremely good at removing the lint after each use and believe I should get some credit for that. “By the light of a thousand suns, I am become death.” I'd sympathize but all in all, I'd rather talk about me. Just get my butt back safe from the K-Mart and I'm yours forever.

via RealPolitik.

Quadruple Saturn Moon Transit

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Face of Saturn transited by four of its moons.

Fantastic Hubble image of the transit of four moons — Enceladus, Dione, the giant orange moon Titan, and Mimas — across Saturn’s face. Icy white Enceladus and Dione are on the left, casting their black shadows on the cloud surface of the planet. Mimas is on the right edge of Saturn’s disc, just above the rings. via HubbleSite.

An Outbreak of Autism, or a Statistical Fluke?

Major brain structures implicated in autism.

Autism is terrifying the community of Somali immigrants in Minneapolis, and some pediatricians and educators have joined parents in raising the alarm. But public health experts say it is hard to tell whether the apparent surge of cases is an actual outbreak, with a cause that can be addressed, or just a statistical fluke.

… A small recent study of refugees in schools in Stockholm found that Somalis were in classes for autistic children at three times the normal rate.

Calls to representatives of Somali groups in Seattle and San Diego found that they were aware of the fear in Minneapolis but unsure about their own rates. Doctors familiar with the Somali communities in Boston and Lewiston, Me., had heard of no surges there.” NYTimes.

Rare Reptile Hatchling Found in New Zealand

A marked tuatara at Karori Wildlife Sanctuary.

A hatchling of a rare reptile with lineage dating back to the dinosaur age has been found in the wild on the New Zealand mainland for the first time in about 200 years, a wildlife official said Thursday.

The baby tuatara was discovered by staff during routine maintenance work at the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary in the capital, Wellington, conservation manager Raewyn Empson said.

”We are all absolutely thrilled with this discovery,” Empson said. ”It means we have successfully re-established a breeding population back on the mainland, which is a massive breakthrough for New Zealand conservation.”

Tuatara, which measure up to 32 inches 80 cm when full grown, are the last descendants of a lizard-like reptile species that walked the Earth with the dinosaurs 225 million years ago, zoologists say.

There are estimated to be about 50,000 of them living in the wild on 32 small offshore islands cleared of predators, but this is the first time a hatchling has been seen on the mainland in about 200 years.”

(New York Times )

Free ‘NPR Music At SXSW’ Sampler

“Download a free 10-song sampler of the artists featured by NPR Music at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, TX this month. Click the link below and the songs will automatically begin downloading into your iTunes account.” via NPR Music.


Stopping the Draft

Secretary of Defense nominee Robert Gates resp...

“Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced today that the Army will virtually eliminate the unpopular practice of “stop loss” — or mandating that soldiers stay in the Army beyond their service obligation — by March 2011 and will offer extra pay to soldiers whose service is extended under the policy.

About 13,000 soldiers are serving in the Army under the stop-loss policy, nearly double the number of two years ago. Gates said the goal is to reduce that number by 50 percent by June 2010 and to bring it down to scores or less by March 2011.” via Salon.


What Doctors (Supposedly) Get Wrong about PTSD

This article in Scientific American by David Dobbs reports on the growing concern that “the concept of post-traumatic stress disorder is itself disordered”. The writer is critical of a culture which “seemed reflexively to view bad memories, nightmares and any other sign of distress as an indicator of PTSD.” To critics like this, the overwhelming incidence of PTSD diagnoses in returning Iraqi veterans is not a reflection of the brutal meaningless horror to which many of the combatants were exposed but of a sissy culture that can no longer suck it up. As usual, the veil of ‘objective’ ‘scientific’ evidence is used to cloak ideological biases.

FmH readers know that I too am critical of the frequency of PTSD diagnosis in modern mental health practice, but I think that is not a problem with the theoretical construct of PTSD but its slapdash application. With respect to domestic PTSD, the problem is one of overzealous and naive clinicians ignoring the diagnostic criteria and, more important, misunderstanding the clinical significance and intent of the diagnosis, labelling with PTSD far too many people who have ever had anything more than a little upsetting or distressing happen to them. Essentially, PTSD is meant to refer to the longterm consequences of either an experience or experiences that are outside the bounds of what the human psyche can endure. Both emotionally and neurobiologically, the capacity of the organism is overwhelmed and the fact of the trauma assumes an overarching and inescapable central role in future information processing, functioning and sense of self. Experience that occurs when the body is flooded with unimaginably high levels of stress hormones, when the nervous system is in the throes of the fight-or-flight response, and when the normal processes for making sense of what we are going through utterly break down are encoded differently in the body and mind, with immeasurable effects. Only someone who did not grasp this at all could misrecognize simple anxiety, depression or adjustment difficulties as PTSD. But it happens all the time, especially in the treatment of depressed women, largely because of do-gooder clinicians’ desires to be politically correct and not be seen as insensitive to their clients’ suffering. Unfortunately, what it mostly does is train these clients to remain lifelong inhabitants of a self-fulfilling inescapable victim role.

The concern, on the other hand, with soldiers returning from the wars in central Asia, is the opposite. All evidence is that PTSD is being underdiagnosed, because of systematic biases within the government and the military to deny the scope of the problem. Articles such as this, and the research that it depicts, should be seen as nothing but a conservative backlash, an effort to blame the victims. If coping with the scope of PTSD is a problem, deny the reality of PTSD. Certainly considerable research suggests that a proportion of soldiers returning from the battle front in bad shape will have shown their resilience, will no longer show a high magnitude of emotional disturbance, and will not warrant a diagnosis of PTSD if reassessed months or years later. Research also suggests that early intervention using a trauma paradigm may do more harm than good, perpetuating the vulnerability of the patient. And most Defense Dept. research on the effects of combat trauma is intended to figure out how to block the stress reaction so that a soldier can remain functional and return to a combat role as soon as possible. But it remains the case that the human nervous system did not evolve to endure the horrors of modern war, and that the indefensibility and anomie of this war in particular, based as it has been entirely on lies, amplifies the intolerability and makes it far less likely that a veteran can find sustaining meaning in the suffering they endured. This will inevitably turn into higher rates of PTSD than among veterans of other wars.

To deny the scale of PTSD in our returning veterans is to be an unquestioning apologist for the untrammelled American imperialist projection of power in lawless aggression. As Dobbs describes it, the PTSD deniers construe us as having a cultural obsession with PTSD which embodies “a prolonged failure to contextualize and accept our own collective aggression.” What horse manure. Our cultural neurosis, rather, lies in the unquestioning acceptance of suggestions like Dobbs’ that we should mindlessly embrace such aggression as natural. This was the neurosis that made it possible to elect Bush and his handlers to enact an administration that set about violating every supposed principle of our democracy and our humanity. I know we are not supposed to draw this particular analogy, but this brand of PTSD denial strikes me as akin to nothing as much as Holocaust denial. Via Scientific American.

GrandCentral relaunch

GrandCentral logo

Years ago when I got my own domain, I solved the problem of ever having to change my email address again. A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to wangle a GrandCentral phone number from Google (“one phone number for all your phones for life”) to secure voice contact in a similar way. Now, as this TechCrunch rave describes, it is out of beta and relaunched as Google Voice, and it is even better. You can text to the GV number; you can individualize the treatment of different groups of callers, e.g. friends vs. business contacts; and there is voicemail transcription. And it is all free. I do want to read more about the privacy concerns, though.


Secret Red Cross review says US practiced torture

The Constitution in Peril

“A secret Red Cross report from 2007 concluded that the treatment of al-Qaeda captives by CIA interrogators “constituted torture,” the Washington Post reported Monday.

The newspaper quotes the International Committee of the Red Cross report as saying the treatment of inmates at secret prisons run by the US Central Intelligence Agency amounted to “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” which is prohibited by the Geneva Conventions.

The findings were based on conclusions by ICRC officials who were granted exclusive access to the CIA’s “high-value” detainees after they had been transferred in 2006 to the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the report said.

The 14 detainees gave uniform accounts of abuse that included beatings, sleep deprivation, extreme temperatures and, in some cases, waterboarding, the paper noted.” via Google-hosted AFP


Suicide notes not messages

Suicide rates by Health Service Area (HSA), 19...

“Out in the culture, suicide notes are often romanticized, quoted as poetry or as laugh lines. But… suicide almost always rises from psychic distress that distorts thinking, distress that might have passed if time allowed. Maybe one day there will be a cryptographer who can decipher the notes left behind and figure out how to stop the next one.” via Chicago Tribune.

A largely incoherent article about an intensely poignant subject. Mental health professionals are all about deciphering messages that arise from distressed distorted thinking, which does not appear to have occurred to the writer of this article. Hard to understand in what possible sense suicide notes are not messages.


The Culture Warriors Get Laid Off

Addams Family Values album cover

Frank Rich thinks the culture wars are over. I think he’s deluding himself.

“…The family-values dinosaurs that once stalked the earth — Falwell, Robertson, Dobson and Reed — are now either dead, retired or disgraced. Their less-famous successors pumped out their pro forma e-mail blasts, but to little avail. The Republican National Committee said nothing whatsoever about Obama’s reversal of Bush stem-cell policy. That’s quite a contrast to 2006, when the party’s wild and crazy (and perhaps transitory) new chairman, Michael Steele, likened embryonic stem-cell research to Nazi medical experiments during his failed Senate campaign.

What has happened between 2001 and 2009 to so radically change the cultural climate? Here, at last, is one piece of good news in our global economic meltdown: Americans have less and less patience for the intrusive and divisive moral scolds who thrived in the bubbles of the Clinton and Bush years. Culture wars are a luxury the country — the G.O.P. included — can no longer afford.” via New York Times op-ed.


Take Action to Save Wolves

“Tell Secretary Salazar you oppose removing federal protections for gray wolves.

Independent scientists say that 2,000 to 3,000 wolves are required to ensure the survival of the species. But this new rule would clear the way for Idaho and Montana to kill hundreds of wolves, reducing the population to a level that is too small to survive.

Speak out today. 10,704 people have already taken action—add your voice today.” via Earthjustice: Environmental Law.


John Dean: Cheney is guilty of ‘murder’ if Hersh claims are true

“Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh’s bombshell earlier this week that Vice President Dick Cheney controlled an “executive assassination ring” [on which I reported here — FmH] continues to reverberate throughout Washington, with Nixon aide John Dean going so far as to accuse the former VP of murder if the charges are true.” via The Raw Story.


Another Reason Not to Fight with Your Adolescent Child

:en:C-reactive protein drawn from {{PDB|1GNH}}...

Teen Conflicts Linked To Potential Risk For Adult Cardiovascular Disease:

‘…[I]n a study of otherwise healthy, normal teens who self-reported various negative interpersonal interactions, researchers found that a greater frequency of such stress was associated with higher levels of an inflammatory marker called C-reactive protein, or CRP. CRP has been identified as an indicator for the later development of cardiovascular disease (CVD).

“Although most research on stress and inflammation has focused upon adulthood, these results show that such links can occur as early as the teenage years, even among a healthy sample of young men and women,” [an investigator] said. “That suggests that alterations in the biological substrates that initiate CVD begin before adulthood.” ‘ via Science Daily.

Second Genesis: Life, but not as we know it

The Miller-Urey experiment attempts to recreat...
The Miller-Urey experiment
attempts to recreate…

“Around the world, several labs are drawing close to the threshold of a second genesis, an achievement that some would call one of the most profound scientific breakthroughs of all time. David Deamer, a biochemist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has been saying that scientists would create synthetic life in “five or 10 years” for three decades, but finally he might actually be right. “The momentum is building,” he says. “We’re knocking at the door.”

Meanwhile, a no-less profound search is on for a “shadow biosphere” – life forms that are unrelated to the life we know because they are descendants of an independent origin of life. We know for sure that life got going on Earth once, so why couldn’t it have happened twice? Many scientists argue that there is no reason why a second genesis might not have taken place, and no reason why its descendants should not still be living among us.” via New Scientist.

Justice Department Ends “Enemy Combatant” Definition For Gitmo Detainees, But….


“The Obama administration said Friday that it is abandoning one of President George W. Bush’s key phrases in the war on terrorism: enemy combatant. But that won’t change much for the detainees at the U.S. naval base in Cuba _ Obama still asserts the military’s authority to hold them. Human rights attorneys said they were disappointed that Obama didn’t take a new stance.

The Justice Department said in legal filings that it will no longer use the term “enemy combatants’ to justify holding prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

“This is really a case of old wine in new bottles,” the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has been fighting the detainees’ detention, said in a statement. “It is still unlawful to hold people indefinitely without charge. The men who have been held for more than seven years by our government must be charged or released.”

In another court filing Thursday criticized by human rights advocates, the Obama administration tried to protect top Bush administration military officials from lawsuits brought by prisoners who say they were tortured while being held at Guantanamo Bay.” via Huffington Post.

Seymour Hersh describes ‘executive assassination ring’ that reported to Cheney

United States Joint Special Operations Command...

“…After 9/11, I haven’t written about this yet, but the Central Intelligence Agency was very deeply involved in domestic activities against people they thought to be enemies of the state. Without any legal authority for it. They haven’t been called on it yet. That does happen.

“Right now, today, there was a story in the New York Times that if you read it carefully mentioned something known as the Joint Special Operations Command — JSOC it’s called. It is a special wing of our special operations community that is set up independently. They do not report to anybody, except in the Bush-Cheney days, they reported directly to the Cheney office. They did not report to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff or to Mr. [Robert] Gates, the secretary of defense. They reported directly to him. …

“Congress has no oversight of it. It’s an executive assassination ring essentially, and it’s been going on and on and on. Just today in the Times there was a story that its leaders, a three star admiral named [William H.] McRaven, ordered a stop to it because there were so many collateral deaths.

“Under President Bush’s authority, they’ve been going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or the CIA station chief, and finding people on a list and executing them and leaving. That’s been going on, in the name of all of us.

“It’s complicated because the guys doing it are not murderers, and yet they are committing what we would normally call murder. It’s a very complicated issue. Because they are young men that went into the Special Forces. The Delta Forces you’ve heard about. Navy Seal teams. Highly specialized.

“In many cases, they were the best and the brightest. Really, no exaggerations. Really fine guys that went in to do the kind of necessary jobs that they think you need to do to protect America. And then they find themselves torturing people.

“I’ve had people say to me — five years ago, I had one say: ‘What do you call it when you interrogate somebody and you leave them bleeding and they don’t get any medical committee and two days later he dies. Is that murder? What happens if I get before a committee?’

“But they’re not gonna get before a committee.” via MinnPost.

Study suggests salt might be ‘nature’s antidepressant’

Halite (sodium chloride) - a single, large crystal

“Most people consume far too much salt, and a University of Iowa researcher has discovered one potential reason we crave it: it might put us in a better mood.

UI psychologist Kim Johnson and colleagues found in their research that when rats are deficient in sodium chloride, common table salt, they shy away from activities they normally enjoy, like drinking a sugary substance or pressing a bar that stimulates a pleasant sensation in their brains.

“Things that normally would be pleasurable for rats didn’t elicit the same degree of relish, which leads us to believe that a salt deficit and the craving associated with it can induce one of the key symptoms associated with depression,” Johnson said.

The UI researchers can’t say it is full-blown depression because several criteria factor into such a diagnosis, but a loss of pleasure in normally pleasing activities is one of the most important features of psychological depression. And, the idea that salt is a natural mood-elevating substance could help explain why we’re so tempted to over-ingest it, even though it’s known to contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease and other health problems.” via physorg.com.

Prions Complicit In Alzheimer’s Disease

Amyloid plaques in Alz-
heimer’s brain tissue

This may be a blockbuster finding:

Prion protein, notorious for causing the brain-wasting mad cow and Creutzfeldt-Jakob diseases, may also be a coconspirator in Alzheimer’s disease, a new study in mice suggests.

In mad cow and Creutzfeldt-Jakob diseases, misshapen prion proteins do the damage. But the new paper, appearing February 26 in Nature, offers evidence that the harmless version of the prion protein assists the amyloid-beta protein responsible for brain cell death in Alzheimer’s disease.”

The prion protein — a role for which in the brain has been a headscratcher for neuroscientists — acts as the middleman in amyloid-beta binding to the cell membrane. This may hint at a new therapeutic strategy for Alzheimer’s prevention.

‘Get rid of the prion protein middleman, or its ability to bind A-beta oligomers, and get rid of the disease. “In many ways it may be better than addressing A-beta levels,” which are difficult to reduce completely, [one of the investigators] says.’ via Science News.


Scientists identify the neural circuitry of first impressions


‘The neuroimaging results showed significant activity in two regions of the brain during the encoding of impression-relevant information. The first, the amygdala, is a small structure in the medial temporal lobe that previously has been linked to emotional learning about inanimate objects, as well as social evaluations based on trust or race group. The second, the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), has been linked to economic decision-making and assigning subjective value to rewards. In the Nature Neuroscience study, these parts of the brain, which are implicated in value processing in a number of domains, showed increased activity when encoding information that was consistent with the impression.

“Even when we only briefly encounter others, brain regions that are important in forming evaluations are engaged, resulting in a quick first impression,” commented NYU’s Phelps.

NYU’s Schiller, the study’s lead author, concluded, “When encoding everyday social information during a social encounter, these regions sort information based on its personal and subjective significance, and summarize it into an ultimate score–a first impression.” ‘ via physorg.com.


Is Rove Wriggling Away Again?

WASHINGTON - MARCH 20:  White House Deputy Chi...

“Yesterday’s announcement that former Bush White House aides Karl Rove and Harriet E. Miers will answer questions from congressional investigators about the U.S. attorney scandal puts an end to the absurd proposition advanced by the previous administration that senior advisers to the president have blanket immunity from any congressional oversight whatsoever, and if subpoenaed don’t even need to show up.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the interviews will be held behind closed doors — and the transcripts will only be released on a delayed basis. That’s bad in part because the public now won’t see Rove and Miers sweating under the hot lights. But the more significant problem is that journalists, bloggers and the greater public won’t be able to immediately pore over their responses in detail.” — Dan Froomkin via White House Watch.

The Wild Bunch

New York bicyclist:

“The nature of the hate has changed. Once, they hated us because we were a rarity, like a rat in the kitchen, a pest. Now, they hate us because we are ubiquitous.” via New York Times Magazine.

The situation once called for civility from outraged nonbikers; now it is the bicyclists who must take the high road, he says.

The Inflection Is Near?

Thomas Friedman, American journalist, columnis...

Thomas Friedman:

What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.” ‘ (New York Times op-ed)


A professor’s ‘bold thinking on terrorism’

“As a professor of government at Harvard, Louise Richardson concentrated for many years on international security, with a special focus on terrorism – a relatively obscure academic field until the day George W. Bush declared war on it. At which point Richardson was pitched from the cloisters into the public arena, giving lectures to a variety of audiences – policymakers, the military, intelligence agencies and business communities – as well as testifying before the US Senate. She also picked up awards both for teaching and for her contribution to international peace, and became executive dean at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard.

Everywhere Richardson went, people seemed to be asking the same question: which single book should we read to get a handle on terrorism? There wasn’t one. And so Richardson wrote What Terrorists Want – a freethinking examination, informed by three decades of research, of this complex subject. It was her counterblast – if it’s possible to have a peaceful, measured counterblast – to what she calls America’s “absolutely catastrophic” response to September 11. Her book became that rare thing in academic publishing – a bestseller with no trade-off between accessibility and scholarly rigour.

Which is not to say it was uncontentious. Richardson holds that despite the dreadfulness of their deeds, most terrorists are neither “crazy” nor even “amoral”. On the contrary, most terrorists see themselves as altruistic and noble – Davids against Goliaths – and their objectives are rationally calculated. “Terrorism is a tactic,” Richardson says, “and terror is an emotion. It makes no sense to declare war on either.” While arguing that terrorism cannot be defeated, Richardson believes passionately that it can be contained. The first step is to understand its appeal to those who practise it, and on the basis of this understanding to devise effective counter-terrorist policies.” via Financial Times.

The Limits of a “3 Minute Rahm”

{{w|Rahm Emanuel}}, U.S. Congressman.

“I asked one of them who I assume can get through to the President or at least to Rahm Emanuel any time he wants why he doesn’t make his case more clearly to the occupants of the White House. The response was, “Yes, I can get through to Rahm Emanuel any time, but I get three minutes with him, and then someone else gets their three minutes, and so on. Rahm is the three minute guy — and he’s great during those three minutes.”

Wealthy donors on the outside of the political process probably should not be able to just call up the President and get their way — but the frustration I’m hearing from a great number of these types of donors — types who are not only wealthy and helped finance much of the Democratic Party’s victory in November but who are also smart and connected — is that they are not getting through where it counts. The policy options they are proposing aren’t getting into the basket of proposals that Obama is considering.

In other words, some feel that Obama is not getting a full range of choices on the economy and is being provided a narrow band of views that fit the preconceived biases of Larry Summers and Tim Geithner.

One of the fatal mistakes of the Bush administration in the build up to the Iraq War was the tight constriction of choices and views that Bush’s advisors allowed him to see.

Let’s hope that the Obama team isn’t making the same mistake on the economy.” via The Washington Note.

‘Grisi Siknis’ outbreak grips indigenous towns in Nicaragua

Hans Baldung Grien: Witches.
Hans Baldung Grien: Witches

A team of traditional indigenous healers and regional health authorities from the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) trekked out to visit three rural Miskito communities along the Río Coco on Tuesday to investigate reports of an outbreak of a mysterious collective hysteria, known as “grisi siknis,” or “crazy sickness.”

Centuriano Knight, the regional health coordinator for the RAAN, told The Nica Tim es yesterday in a phone interview that 34 people have reportedly fallen ill with grisi siknis in the river community of Santa Fe, seven people in the nearby community of Esperanza and two in the neighboring community of San Carlos. The outbreak of grisi siknis, which has no scientific explanation, is the largest case of collective hysteria since a massive outbreak in the RAAN community of Raití in 2003.

Though doctors, anthropologists and sociologists have all studied previous cases, no one has been able to explain the phenomena, Knight said. Traditional healers and witches have explained the mysterious illness with different theories ranging from a curse to incomplete witchcraft.

The strange illness apparently affects young people more than old, putting people in a strange trance and apparently giving them super-human strength, according to Knight and other witnesses.” via The Tico Times.

Perhaps because I was a student of cross-cultural studies before I became a psychiatrist, these reports of indigenous illnesses or culture-bound syndromes have always fascinated me. I used to teach a class on them to medical students, which was pure entertainment as far as I was (and, I hope, many of the students were) concerned. Because psychiatric illnesses are as much social constructs as biological realities, a culture-specific syndrome is in a real sense culture-specific. That is why it makes so much more sense that it be dealt with by indigenous practitioners rather than a WHO swat team. Of course, when I moved into psychiatry, I felt I was still utilizing my skills in cross-cultural communication, as every interpersonal interaction is in a sense cross-cultural, if you take my meaning. Thus, every episode of emotional distress is in a sense a culture-bound syndrome, despite what DSM-IV or functional MRI studies might tell you.

No Legal Shield in Drug Labeling, Justices Rule

:Original raster version: :en::Image:Food and ...

Very disappointing to Big Pharma, which of course only accepts greater regulation in hopes it will protect it.

“The court, by a 6-to-3 vote, upheld a jury verdict of $6.7 million in favor of a musician from Vermont whose arm had to be amputated after she was injected with an antinausea drug. The drug’s manufacturer, Wyeth, had argued that its compliance with the Food and Drug Administration’s labeling requirements should immunize it from lawsuits.” via NYTimes.com.


Voodoo Hullabaloo

Ed Vul’s bombshell of a paper, Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience, is a strong indictment of the spate of studies using fMRI to localize complex brain functions, arguing that the statistical correlations between behaviors and brain activity of many social neuroscientists are spurious. It has provoked a spate of angry responses from other neuroscientists. Jonah Lehrer (Proust Was a Neuroscientist and How We Decide) interviewed Vul at Scientific American and excerpts the interview at his own weblog The Frontal Cortex.


A Girl

The tree has entered my hands,

The sap has ascended my arms,

The tree has grown in my breast-


The branches grow out of me, like arms.

Tree you are,

Moss you are,

You are violets with wind above them.

A child – so high – you are,

And all this is folly to the world.

— Ezra Pound

The Complex Bond Between Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle and His Fans

The Mountain Goats

“Rock-band worship is nothing new, of course, but the relationship between Darnielle and his fans has its own special hue. This is not the mass, global adulation of arena bands like U2. Nor is it fandom as lifestyle as practiced by Dead Heads. It’s the confessional-indie-troubador-and-his-flock-of-disciples model of Nick Drake, the Smiths, and Rufus Wainwright. Like those musicians and their tribes, Darnielle and his acolytes share an unusually intimate, and often pained, bond. Mountain Goats fans tend to have an air of sadness about them, and because Darnielle sings so openly and candidly about his own difficulties, he connects with his audience on a level that few artists are able to reach (the band is called the Mountain Goats, plural, but the group—and the fuss over them—is entirely about Darnielle). Darnielle sings about what his fans feel but can’t articulate. He’s their hero, but he’s also their soulmate, the one person in the world who understands them. That’s why Stephen Wesley and the legions of fans like him can’t get enough of the Mountain Goats. And that burden is crushing Darnielle.” via New York Magazine.