R.I.P. Paul Kantner, Founding Member Of Jefferson Airplane

‘Paul Kantner, one of the founding members of 1960s San Francisco psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane, died on Thursday aged 74, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Kantner died from multiple organ failure and septic shock after suffering a heart attack earlier this week, the newspaper said, citing the band’s publicist, Cynthia Bowman.’

Source: Huffington Post

I am heartbroken. The Airplane and its spinoff groups (before Jefferson Starship descended into kitsch in the following decade) were the pinnacle of the best decade’s music for me. At least Paul will be joining Jerry, Janis, Jim and Jimi in the heavenly choir. Going home to put Blows Against the Empire on loud!


Absurd Creature of the Week

The Voracious Fish That Looks Like a Pug and Stings Like a Bee:

‘…The bulging eyes and frowny mouth that make [the stargazer] look like an aquatic pug are brilliant adaptations for an ambush predator. And even beyond its … singular looks, this is one of the sea’s most remarkable fishes—it’s venomous and it shocks like an electric eel…’

Source: WIRED


Donald Trump: I could shoot somebody and not lose any voters

‘Donald Trump has led polls for the Republican presidential contest for over six months now. Nothing, it appears, can dislodge him from that top position — not his many offensive comments, not his lackluster debate performances, not his seeming lack of knowledge on basic public policy issues. His seemingly endless poll dominance is a truly bizarre phenomenon — one that Trump himself acknowledged at a campaign stop in Sioux Center, Iowa on Saturday. “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay?” Trump bragged. “It’s, like, incredible.” …’

Source: Vox


Terror Cells

‘At around the turn of the millennium, some disturbing findings surfaced in the biomedical literature. Macrophages—immune cells whose function is to attack and kill microbes and other threats to the body—do not gather at tumor sites to destroy cancer cells, as had been optimistically imagined. Instead, they encourage the cancer cells to continue their mad reproductive rampage. Frances Balkwill, the British cell biologist who performed some of the key studies of treasonous immune cell behavior, described her colleagues in the field as being “horrified.” …’

Source: Barbara Ehrenreich, The Baffler


How the Koch Bros. Bought the American Political System

1980, the year of Ronald Reagan’s election, was probably more significant for

‘…an utterly private event whose significance would not be noticed for years. Charles and David Koch, the enormously rich proprietors of an oil company based in Kansas, decided that they would spend huge amounts of money to elect conservatives at all levels of American government. David Koch ran for vice president on the Libertarian ticket in 1980, but when the campaign was over, he resolved never to seek public office again. That wouldn’t be necessary, he and his brother concluded; they could invest in the campaigns of others, and essentially buy their way to political power.

Thirty years later, the midterm elections of 2010 ushered in the political system that the Kochs had spent so many years plotting to bring about. After the voting that year, Republicans dominated state legislatures; they controlled a clear majority of the governorships; they had taken one chamber of Congress and were on their way to winning the other. Perhaps most important, a good many of the Republicans who had won these offices were not middle-of-the-road pragmatists. They were antigovernment libertarians of the Kochs’ own political stripe. The brothers had spent or raised hundreds of millions of dollars to create majorities in their image. They had succeeded. And not merely at the polls: They had helped to finance and organize an interlocking network of think tanks, academic programs and news media outlets that far exceeded anything the liberal opposition could put together…’

Source: Jane Mayer – The New York Times


Why Pray?

‘Prayer occurs in many faiths. It stays recognisable despite its varied forms. It must be good for something – but what?’

Source: Benjamin Dueholm, Aeon


All your germaphobic habits are pretty much useless

‘Don’t want to get sick this season?Sure, you’ve heard the basics: Carry hand sanitizer everywhere. Grab public-bathroom door handles with paper towels. Hold your breath when your unwell-looking subway seat partner starts coughing.Bad news, germaphobe — your meticulous habits likely aren’t doing much to protect you.Here’s a look at all the weird germ-avoidance behaviors that are probably useless…’

Source: Business Insider



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How to See Five Planets Align in the Morning Sky

‘Over the next two weeks, five planets will line up for a cosmic dance that will dazzle skywatchers all over the world.Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn are aligning for the first time in over a decade, and there’s no need for telescopes or binoculars to see the event, since all five planets will look like bright stars in the morning twilight.’

Source: National Geographic


“Cat-gras Delusion”

The Man Who Saw His Cat As An Impostor: ‘Capgras syndrome is a strange disorder in which the sufferer becomes convinced that someone close to them has been replaced by an impostor. Yet now, a new and even stranger variant of the syndrome has been reported – “Cat-gras”. This is the name coined by Harvard neurologists R. Ryan Darby and David Caplan in a new paper in the journal Neurocase. The authors describe the case of a man who believed that his cat was in fact a different cat…’

Source: Neuroskeptic


A new hideaway for the Loch Ness monster?

Retired fisherman uses sonar equipment to uncover new crevice nine miles east of Inverness, big enough to fit the phantom beast:

‘It has evaded capture for years, with dozens of alleged sightings and endless speculation about its whereabouts.But the hunt for the Loch Ness monster has just become even more arduous, after a retired fisherman used sonar equipment to show that it could be hiding at previously undiscovered depths.Tourist sightseeing boat skipper Keith Stewart, 43, claims to have found a crevice large enough for the phantom beast to be hiding in, about nine miles east of Inverness.

Britain’s deepest loch is Loch Morar, allegedly home to another elusive “water kelpie” Morag at 1017 feet.Loch Ness is the UK’s second largest, with an official maximum depth previously recorded at 754 feet.However, Mr Stewart says that his newly discovered crevice measures 889 feet deep, according to his state of the art sonar equipment…’

Source: Telegraph.UK


Why do people keep coming to this couple’s home looking for lost phones?

‘It started the first month that Christina Lee and Michael Saba started living together. An angry family came knocking at their door demanding the return of a stolen phone. Two months later, a group of friends came with the same request. One month, it happened four times. The visitors, who show up in the morning, afternoon, and in the middle of the night, sometimes accompanied by police officers, always say the same thing: their phone-tracking apps are telling them that their smartphones are in this house in a suburb of Atlanta.

But the phones aren’t there, Lee and Saba always protest, mystified at being fingered by these apps more than a dozen times since February 2015. “I’m sorry you came all this way. This happens a lot,” they’d explain. Most of the people believe them, but about a quarter of them remain suspicious, convinced that the technology is reliable and that Lee and Saba are lying.

“My biggest fear is that someone dangerous or violent is going to visit our house because of this,” said Saba by email. (Like this guy.) “If or when that happens, I doubt our polite explanations are gonna go very far.” ‘

Source: Fusion


Scientists Claim to Perform Head Transplant on Monkey

Experts Say Prove It

‘An international team of neuroscientists claims to have successfully carried out a head transplant on a monkey, along with other related experiments. But because the details haven’t been published, experts remain skeptical.

As New Scientist reports, the procedure was led by Sergio Canavero, a neuroscientist who works for the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Italy. Canavero made headlines last year by suggesting that head transplants are about to become a reality, and that the medical technology required to perform such a seemingly radical procedure already exists. At the time, Canavero said the first human head transplant would happen in about two years. If this latest development is true, his team appears to be right on track…’

Source: Gizmodo


Physicists Successfully Tie the Very First Quantum Knots

‘Theoretical physicists have been predicting that it should be possible for knots to form in quantum fields for decades, but nobody could figure out how to accomplish this feat experimentally. Now an international team has managed to do just that, tying knots in a superfluid for the very first time by manipulating magnetic fields.

… It’s tough to visualize these exotic objects, but they are essentially particle-like rings or loops in a quantum field connected to each other exactly once. A mathematician might not consider these structures to be true knots; typically a knot is defined as a knotted circle, like a pretzel, while a rubber band would be considered an “un-knot.” Hall and Möttönen prefer to think of their structures as knotty solitons….’

Source: Gizmodo


New Solution to Fermi Paradox Suggests Alien Life Goes Extinct Early

‘We have yet to discover a single trace of alien life, despite the extremely high probability that it exists somewhere. This contradiction is popularly known as the Fermi Paradox. A new theory attempts to solve this conundrum by suggesting that habitable planets are quite common in our galaxy, but nascent life gets snuffed out very quickly.

An oft-cited solution to the Fermi Paradox—that is, the lack of observational evidence that our galaxy has been colonized by an extraterrestrial civilization—is the Great Filter hypothesis. Devised by Robin Hanson of George Mason University, this theory suggests that some kind of cosmic-wide obstacle is preventing life from developing beyond a certain stage. Trouble is, we’re not entirely sure if this Great Filter actually exists, or what it looks like.

Some astrobiologists look to our planet’s ancient past and point to the presence of three possible filter points: the emergence of reproductive molecules, simple single-celled life, or complex single-celled life. If we could prove that any one of these critical evolutionary steps are true, that would be exceptionally good news—it would imply that the Great Filter is behind us. On the other hand, some pessimistic futurists fear that the Great Filter looms ahead of us, an event that will likely come in the form of a self-inflicted existential catastrophe…’

Source: Gizmodo


“The Animals are Leaving”

One by one, like guests at a late party
They shake our hands and step into the dark:
Arabian ostrich; Long-eared kit fox; Mysterious starling.

One by one, like sheep counted to close our eyes,
They leap the fence and disappear into the woods:
Atlas bear; Passenger pigeon; North Island laughing owl;
Great auk; Dodo; Eastern wapiti; Badlands bighorn sheep.

One by one, like grade school friends,
They move away and fade out of memory:
Portuguese ibex; Blue buck; Auroch; Oregon bison;
Spanish imperial eagle; Japanese wolf; Hawksbill
Sea turtle; Cape lion; Heath hen; Raiatea thrush.

One by one, like children at a fire drill, they march outside,
And keep marching, though teachers cry, “Come back!”
Waved albatross; White-bearded spider monkey;
Pygmy chimpanzee; Australian night parrot;
Turquoise parakeet; Indian cheetah; Korean tiger;
Eastern harbor seal ; Ceylon elephant ; Great Indian rhinoceros.

One by one, like actors in a play that ran for years
And wowed the world, they link their hands and bow
Before the curtain falls.


— Charles Harper Webb (2006)


Black Hole Sun Could Support Bizarre Life on Orbiting Planets

Via New Scientist:

‘A black hole sun could be friendlier than you might expect. Planets orbiting a black hole – as they do in the film Interstellar – could sustain life, thanks to a bizarre reversal of the thermodynamics experienced by our sun and Earth.

According to the second law of thermodynamics, life requires a temperature difference to provide a source of useable energy. Life on Earth exploits the difference between the sun and the cold vacuum of space, but what if you flip the temperatures around, with a cold sun and a hot sky?’


Let’s Just Say It: the Republicans Are the Problem

Via The Washington Post:

‘Rep. Allen West, a Florida Republican, was recently captured on video asserting that there are “78 to 81” Democrats in Congress who are members of the Communist Party. Of course, it’s not unusual for some renegade lawmaker from either side of the aisle to say something outrageous. What made West’s comment — right out of the McCarthyite playbook of the 1950s — so striking was the almost complete lack of condemnation from Republican congressional leaders or other major party figures, including the remaining presidential candidates…’


Boy’s Response to Blasphemy Charge Unnerves Many in Pakistan

Via The NY Times we learn that a boy accused of blasphemy by the imam of his mosque, on the basis of a misunderstanding, returned to the mosque bearing his self-severed right hand on a tray. Said imam has fled, fearing repercussions for inciting passions to such an extent. Both the boy and his family feel his action was a loving statement of his devotion to the prophet. This is so wrong on so many levels, as abby commented in pointing me to this coverage. We live in such a sick, sick world.


Sense about Science

‘Sense About Science works with scientists and members of the public to change public debates and to equip people to make sense of science and evidence.

Sense About Science responds to hundreds of requests for independent advice and questions on scientific evidence each year. We chase down dodgy science and mobilise networks of scientists and community groups to counter it. We also invite scientists to publish corrections of misreported research in our ‘For the record’ section.

Where we are constantly fire-fighting on a particular issue, we work with scientists and members of the public to draw out the underlying assumptions and to address misconceptions. Examples of this can be seen in the Making Sense of… series and other projects.

Underpinning this, Sense About Science runs programmes to promote general understanding of scientific evidence, such as use of statistics, the process of peer review and how to design a fair test to see whether medicines work.Sense About Science’s campaigns involve wide collaboration across society to make a permanent difference across all areas of our work and to create an environment that supports open public discussion about scientific research, free from intimidation, hysteria and political pressure…’

Source: Sense about Science

Sounds worthwhile. However, while I think that evidence-based conclusions are better than conjecture and assumptions, research findings are only as good as the studies that generated them. In behavioral health, “evidence-based practice” often leads us down the garden path.


A world divided: Elites descend on Swiss Alps amid rising inequality

‘Just 62 people, 53 of them men, own as much wealth as the poorest half of the entire world population and the richest 1 percent own more than the other 99 percent put together, anti-poverty charity Oxfam said on Monday.Significantly, the wealth gap is widening faster than anyone anticipated, with the 1 percent overtaking the rest one year earlier than Oxfam had predicted only a year ago.Rising inequality and a widening trust gap between people and their political leaders are big challenges for the global elite as they converge on Davos for the annual World Economic Forum, which runs from Jan. 20 to 23…’

Source: Reuters (via Boing Boing)


The people of MLK’s sermons, in one graphic

‘Martin Luther King Jr. often used characters in his sermons. Given that he was a Baptist preacher, they were usually biblical figures, like the 12 apostles, Moses, and Lazarus. But he also drew from a wide array of innovative thinkers, both ancient and contemporary…

I looked through 13 well-known King sermons, which admittedly is not comprehensive. But the sermons span from 1953 when he was a guest preacher at his uncle’s Second Baptist Church in Detroit to a handful in 1968, right before his assassination. I think these 82 people give a decent of idea of the people he included as characters in his sermons…’

Source: Vox


The Case of the So-Called Alien Megastructure Just Got Weirder

‘[T]he weird, flickering star known as KIC 8462852 still isn’t sitting right with astronomers. In fact, it just got a lot weirder.Ever since KIC 84628532 was spotted in the Kepler Space Telescope’s dataset, astronomers have puzzled over what the heck could be responsible for the star’s logic-defying light curve. Over four years of observational data, KIC 8462852 flickered erratically, its light output sometimes dropping by as much as 20%. That’s highly unusual stellar behavior, and it can’t be explained by a transiting planet.Some astronomers proposed that KIC 8462852 might be occluded by a swarm of comets. Others suggested aliens…’

Source: Gizmodo


What is 10 miles across, but brighter than the Milky Way?

‘Right now, astronomers are viewing a ball of hot gas billions of light years away that is radiating the energy of hundreds of billions of suns. At its heart is an object a little larger than 10 miles across. And astronomers are not entirely sure what it is. If, as they suspect, the gas ball is the result of a supernova, then it’s the most powerful supernova ever seen…’

Source: ScienceDaily


What the Mast Brothers Scandal Tells Us About Ourselves

tastingbarNot that I have ever or would ever do this, but as a lover of chocolate it concerns me tremendously. (This is part of my “Emperor-has-no-Clothes” occasional feature.) If you have ever shelled out for a $2000-a-pop chocolate tasting (or even, probably, a $10-$15 chocolate bar), you have probably been ripped off. The world of high-end chocolate appears to involve systematic deception about the bean-to-bar myth and, in general,  the sourcing, production value and quality of the product they push. But with recent muckraker revelations, it seems to be all unravelling.

What does it tell us about our captivity to consumer culture? As the saying goes, fool me once, shame on you. But fool me twice…

‘Our delight at their downfall truly reveals how we as a consumer culture lie to ourselves about being consumers of culture.’

Via Eater


Yale Medical School Professors Are Starting a Psychedelic Meetup

‘The Yale School of Medicine announced Monday that it has formed a study group to explore the re-emerging field of psychedelic science, focusing on the clinical applications of psychedelic drugs in treating mental illnesses.

The field of study is currently experiencing a resurgence after decades of stigmatization beginning in the 1970s, when psychedelics were classified as “drugs of abuse.” Recent studies have rehabilitated psychedelics as potentially therapeutic drugs, including clinical trials that utilize psilocybin, the active compound in hallucinogenic mushrooms, as a therapeutic aid in the treatment of anxiety, addiction, and to make you feel really fucking good; MDMA as a useful tool in the treatment of PTSD and social anxiety caused by autism; and LSD for people suffering from anxiety caused by serious illness.

The Yale discussion group, dubbed the Yale Psychiatry and Psychedelics Group or YPPG, hopes to delve into some of the underlying neurological questions that have yet to be fully explored.

“I’m very interested in how you can study these things,” said Peter H. Addy, PhD, one of the group’s organizers. “This early work that’s been done suggests potential for a number of clinical applications, but we need to learn more about how the brain works, and perhaps how consciousness works. There’s some promise, but it’s not really a subject that a lot of people are experts in.” …’

Source: Motherboard


R.I.P. Paul Bley


Via The New York Times:
Adventurous Jazz Pianist Dies at 83: ‘Paul Bley, an obdurate and original pianist who began his career playing bebop and eventually became a major force in experimental jazz, died on Sunday at his home in Stuart, Fla. He was 83…’



Thanks to reader David Anderson, I was pointed to some thoughts about Bley from the mindblowing guitarist Nels Cline:

‘When I was working at the record store back when, there was a painter who came in all the time to buy jazz records, which he listened to while he worked. We would often end up in discussions and gently heated bouts of opinion regarding records, and I was always trying to get him to get into Paul Bley. But he always said the same thing: “His stuff is just too…COOL for me”, by which I think he meant both cool as in hip and cool as in icy.

There is no doubt in my mind that Paul Bley was, musically-speaking, the hip kind of cool. Just take a listen and look at the man circa 1966! But icy?… I think “considered” is what describes what may be mistaken for “icy” – his cogent use of space, dissonance, all with a decidedly bluesy, neo-Ellington inflection – which is just fucking cool, yes. But beyond these coolness considerations, I feel drawn into a very personal world, an intimate state of reverie informed by highly developed musicality and restrained yet palpable emotion. Maybe you can dig what I am saying – if you listen…’

…and if you read the whole thing.


Which U.S. President Would Win In a Mass Knife Fight to the Death?

‘One of my most-visited sites on the web is Reddit.com, and one of my favourite subreddits is HistoricalWhatIf, an online community that debates historical hypotheticals. Earlier today someone asked the question, In a mass knife fight to the death between every American President, who would win and why? Someone beat me to the obvious answer that a final showdown would see Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt doing a dagger-wielding version of a Mexican standoff, so I took it too far and walked through how I thought every president would turn out…’

Source: Face in the Blue


4 New Elements Complete 7th Row of Periodic Table

‘…The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry has verified the discovery of four super-heavy elements, completing the seventh row of the periodic table. It’s an exciting day for chemists.

The new elements were discovered by teams of scientists from Russia, Japan, and America. These will be the first elements added since 114 (Flerovium) and 116 (Livermorium) were added to the table in 2011.The trick to “finding” these elements isn’t so much in searching for them as it is in creating them. The new elements, given the atomic numbers 113, 115, 117, and 118 are synthetic — they do no occur naturally.

…Eventually, the laws of physics may halt the progression of creating new elements. But for now, there are four new elements that need proper names. The IUPAC will formally announce the finalized names this summer….’

Source: Big Think


The science of craving

‘The reward system exists to ensure we seek out what we need. If having sex, eating nutritious food or being smiled at brings us pleasure, we will strive to obtain more of these stimuli and go on to procreate, grow bigger and find strength in numbers. Only it’s not as simple in the modern world, where people can also watch porn, camp out in the street for the latest iPhone or binge on KitKats, and become addicted, indebted or overweight. As Aristotle once wrote: “It is of the nature of desire not to be satisfied, and most men live only for the gratification of it.”

Buddhists, meanwhile, have endeavoured for 2,500 years to overcome the suffering caused by our propensity for longing. Now, it seems, Berridge has found the neuro-anatomical basis for this facet of the human condition – that we are hardwired to be insatiable wanting machines.

If you had opened a textbook on brain rewards in the late 1980s,  it would have told you that the dopamine and opioids that swished and flickered around the reward pathway were the blissful brain chemicals responsible for pleasure. The reward system was about pleasure and somehow learning what yields it, and little more.

So when Berridge, a dedicated young scientist who was more David than Goliath, stumbled upon evidence in 1986 that dopamine did not produce pleasure, but in fact desire, he kept quiet. It wasn’t until the early 1990s, after rigorous research, that he felt bold enough to go public with his new thesis. The reward system, he then asserted, has two distinct elements: wanting and liking (or desire and pleasure). While dopamine makes us want, the liking part comes from opioids and also endocannabinoids (a version of marijuana produced in the brain), which paint a “gloss of pleasure”, as Berridge puts it, on good experiences. For years, his thesis was contested, and only now is it gaining mainstream acceptance.

Meanwhile, Berridge has marched on, unearthing more and more detail about what makes us tick. His most telling discovery was that, whereas the dopamine/wanting system is vast and powerful, the pleasure circuit is anatomically tiny, has a far more fragile structure and is harder to trigger…’

And another little tidbit that illustrates the gist of it:

“One of the key things in pleasure”, says Kringelbach, whose default timbre sits just above whisper level, “is that it comes in cycles.” Wanting and liking wax and wane like candle flames. The hungry, wanting state before a meal could be studded with moments of pleasure from a social encounter, or anticipation of good food.  Then, as we eat, pleasure dominates, but wanting still crops up – more salt, a drink of water, a second helping. Before long, the satiety system steps in to render each mouthful less delicious until we stop. If we switch to another food – dessert, cheese, petits fours – we can prolong the pleasure until we’re stuffed, although we may regret it.

Source: Intelligent Life magazine


10 Maps That Will Change How You View the World

Via IFLScience:

‘Maps are one of those things you can lose yourself in for hours. Since their humble origins as scribbles in the sand thousands of millennia ago, maps have been useful companions during the development of human culture and society. Now, in an age of seemingly endless information, maps are more abundant, advanced and fascinating than ever before.


How Obama Sees Terrorism

Via The Atlantic:

‘Obama is a kind of Fukuyamian. Like Francis Fukuyama, the author of the famed 1989 essay “The End of History,” he believes that powerful, structural forces will lead liberal democracies to triumph over their foes—so long as these democracies don’t do stupid things like persecuting Muslims at home or invading Muslim lands abroad. His Republican opponents, by contrast, believe that powerful and sinister enemies are overwhelming America, either overseas (the Rubio version) or domestically (the Trump version).

For them, the only thing more terrifying than “radical Islam” is the equanimity with which President Obama meets it. And, to their dismay, that equanimity was very much on display on Sunday night…’