Billboards for the Democrats

If you live in a state with hotly contested elections, your mail was full of wretchedly negative and misleading flyers last month. But, around here at least, we rarely see political billboards. When I did see one, it was this:

Billboard for conservatives.jpg

and it made me wonder why the Democrats hadn’t used billboards to get out simple positive messages about issues where there was great potential public support.

Here are some I made up, just quick mock-ups of a campaign for single-payer health care, but they give you the idea. If Obama had gotten people thinking along these lines, instead of ceding the issue to the Republicans, we might have a true universal health care system by now.

Health care for all means healthier kids billboard.jpg

“The United States provides health care to all senior citizens although children are the least expensive and most cost-effective group to cover.”

Single-payer health care for all means not losing your home to catastrophic health costs billboard.jpg

“Half of all respondents (49%) indicated that their foreclosure was caused in part by a medical problem, including illness or injuries (32%), unmanageable medical bills (23%), lost work due to a medical problem (27%), or caring for sick family members (14%). We also examined objective indicia of medical disruptions in the previous two years, including those respondents paying more than $2,000 of medical bills out of pocket (37%), those losing two or more weeks of work because of injury or illness (30%), those currently disabled and unable to work (8%), and those who used their home equity to pay medical bills (13%).

Altogether, seven in ten respondents (69%) reported at least one of these factors.” [from abstract of Christopher T. Robertson, Richard Egelhof, & Michael Hoke, “Get Sick, Get Out: The Medical Causes of Home Foreclosures” Health Matrix 18 (2008): 65-105.]

Billboardready to learn.jpg

Growing numbers of uninsured children have made it harder for educators to focus on classroom achievement without first addressing the medical needs of their students who lack health insurance or dental coverage. Instead of notifying parents when their children are ill, school officials increasingly must help find health care, arrange transportation for sick children and often advise beleaguered parents about the health consequences of their inaction. Schools that don’t accept the extra responsibility can lose those students to prolonged absences that jeopardize their academic advancement.“

And children who lack health insurance are unlikely to get help for conditions that interfere with learning, such as learning disabilities or vision and hearing problems.

Billboard “Single-payer health care for all…ask someone who already has it!”.jpg

An article about how people get happier as they get older, says it’s partly due to “resources that contribute to happiness, such as access to health care, Medicare and Medicaid”.

Billboard Single-payer health care for all…a healthier workforce”

Inadequately treated health problems result in lower productivity, greater absenteeism and turnover, and become more severe over time. Concern about losing job-related health insurance causes individuals to stay in jobs for which they are unsuited when they could be more productive and successful at other work (a situation called “job lock”).

Billboard, Universal Health Care means no more bake sales for kids with leukemia.jpg

It’s shameful to see contribution jars and raffles in local stores collecting for sick people who would otherwise be untreated. Mostly these are for kids, since we are all more sympathetic toward sick children, but there are also spaghetti feeds and various benefits put on for adults who have brain tumors or other acute and potentially fatal illnesses. And every year at this time brings those holiday campaigns in the newspaper, raising money for individuals or families, and often there’s a medical need there. One of the ones I remember was a local young man who’d lost a leg to bone cancer when he was 11; now he was working full time at a job (with no insurance) that was mostly standing, and since he was off his mother’s insurance he could not get a replacement for his outgrown prosthetic leg.

“It’s estimated that 9 million children are completely uninsured. But the new study says 11.5 million more kids end up without medical care for part of the year. And another 3 million can’t get a ride to the doctor. That’s more than 23 million children.” (2008 figures)

And finally,

Billboard Universal health care, it just amkes sense, and it’s the right thing to do

I don’t have a picture for this one. What I’d like it to be is not yet invented, some visual-mental device that reflects back to the viewer’s brain an image of him/herself, struck by a wasting disease well before the age of 65 when Medicare begins.

I do have a few more bits of information about the effects of not being insured. “Two large national studies of hospital admissions found that when the uninsured are admitted to a hospital, it is for a more serious mix of diseases and conditions, based on expected mortality, than the privately insured.…A study in California found that uninsured newborns with medical problems had significantly shorter stays (by 1.8-5.9 days) and received significantly less care (measured by total hospital charges) than privately insured newborns for several specific medical diagnoses. Another study found that the uninsured are at much greater risk of substandard hospital care due to negligence or poor quality: 40.3 percent of adverse events among the uninsured were due to negligence, compared to 20.3 percent for the privately insured who experienced adverse events.“ [source]

So the uninsured person, who is likely to be sicker when arriving at the hospital, is twice as likely to be the victim of negligent care during the stay. (Maybe it’s a mercy that the stay itself will be shorter than for the insured patient.) And the uninsured receive less treatment, whether for injury in a car accident, heart attack, or being born prematurely. More of them die, than insured people with the same conditions.

It’s a national disgrace and a drag on the economy; it’s contrary to our ideals and a terrible waste of the possibilities of human lives; it condemns many, from birth or before, to short and painful lives. It’s not open to compromise, Mr. President. You should have stood up for it and the issue should have been fully discussed before the people. If you think our attention spans are too short for extended discourse, you’re welcome to my billboard ideas.

More merry than other Christmas gifts

Each year friends give us a subscription to Funny Times for Christmas, and we get 12 months of laughs from it. And also sanity, I have to say, because when I read it I often think: only here (never in the newspaper) do I regularly find people puncturing the jumbo-sized blimps of jargon and pretense that take up so much space in news and politics. Reading the newspaper, I want to say “Are you all crazy?” Reading the cartoons and columns in Funny Times, I know someone else agrees with that.

But don’t think the humor is all political; the latest issue has a column about the new combo camera/Barbie Doll, by Lenore Skenazy; Dave Barry on severance gifts from Wal-Mart, Garrison Keillor on Christmas; and cartoons that skewer pretensions, make visual puns, and are just plain silly. Sylvia always makes an appearance, so do Tom the Dancing Bug, the always-askew Piraro, Shannon Wheeler (Too Much Coffee Man), the K Chronicles, Lynda Barry, and about 50 others .

As if all that—24 tabloid-size pages full—weren’t enough, there’s a whole page of what we all really want from our newspapers: News of the Weird. You know, the reports of actual events, too stupid or bizarre to believe, in categories such as “Bright Ideas” and “Least Competent Criminals”. If you hold your brain just right while you read these they can make you feel better about the level of idiocy in your own locale, a real morale-builder!

But wait, there’s more! Harper’s Index! Winokur’s Curmudgeon! And if you call now, well, then you won’t procrastinate, what else can I say.

I wanted to include a sample of cartoons but I’m too lazy to scan them from our issue so here are some by the same great cartoonists, that I just got off that internet thing. In Funny Times they are mostly in black and white but just as funny.

Oh, and a full year’s subscription is only $25 at http://www.funnytimes.com/ or 1-888-386-6984.

It’s the perfect gift for friends and family, anyone with a sense of humor. So I guess you just have to shop for your relatives now. Because why would you have friends who don’t have a sense of humor?

Bizarro cartoon, adult spelling bee.jpg

I like this one because whenever I see that a movie contains “adult themes” my mind always has a flicker of literalism, “Oh, a discussion of the limits of rationality, or what it means to lead a good life, or…”.
Dan Piraro, Bizarro.

Sylvia cartoon,  devil.jpg

Thanksgiving, Pilgrims and Santa Claus.jpg

rhymes with orange.jpg

Freeze my head (but not yet)

After reading the latest issue of New Scientist, I think I may leave instructions to freeze my head when I die. It’s not because of any terrific new cryogenics method revealed by the magazine, but because of their series of short articles on extremophile organisms. You know, the thermophiles that can survive boiling temperatures (one microbe lived through a spell of 130° C (266° F), like the North American Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica), Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) hatchlings, and Woolly Bear caterpillars (Pyrrharctia isabella, which turn into the Isabella Tiger Moth) that can be frozen solid or nearly so and come to life again. Then there are the ones that can survive being dried out by “replac[ing] water molecules [in and around the cell] with sugar, turning their cytoplasm into a solid called sugar glass”. (New Scientist, 13 Nov 2010, p. 41). These are mostly small invertebrates. One in particular takes the survival prize: the tardigrade or water bear.

microphotograph of tardigrade or water bear,  phylum Tardigrada, part of the superphylum Ecdysozoa. They are microscopic, water-dwelling, segmented animals with eight legs.jpg

Microphotograph of tardigrade or water bear, in the phylum Tardigrada, part of the superphylum Ecdysozoa. They are microscopic, water-dwelling, segmented animals with eight legs. Unlike lots of microscopic animals, they do not seem to live by choice on or in humans, so you can study the photo without getting itchy. Photo source.

Because it is directly related to why I might want to freeze my head, let me quote from Wikipedia’s article on the tardigrade’s survival feats:

More than 1,000 species of tardigrades have been described. Tardigrades occur over the entire world, from the high Himalayas (above 6,000 metres (20,000 ft), to the deep sea (below 4,000 m) and from the polar regions to the equator.

The most convenient place to find tardigrades is on lichens and mosses. Other environments are dunes, beaches, soil, and marine or freshwater sediments, where they may occur quite frequently (up to 25,000 animals per litre). Tardigrades often can be found by soaking a piece of moss in spring water.

Tardigrades are able to survive in extreme environments that would kill almost any other animal. Some can survive temperatures of −273 °C (−459.400 °F), close to absolute zero, temperatures as high as 151 °C (304 °F), 1,000 times more radiation than other animals, and almost a decade without water. In September 2007, tardigrades were taken into low Earth orbit on the FOTON-M3 mission and for 10 days were exposed to the vacuum of space. After they were returned to Earth, it was discovered that many of them survived and laid eggs that hatched normally.

Below, a tardigrade in cryptobiosis (dried-out state) waiting for wetter conditions. Photo source.

a tardigrade in cryptobiosis (dried-out state) waiting for wetter conditions. The condition is called cryptobiosis.jpg

What the tardigrade means to me

The greater likelihood of…Life on Mars!

Areologists have found evidence to support the presence of surface water on Mars in earlier times (1, 2). On Earth, the one condition life seems to require is water in the environment. It can adapt to other conditions of astonishing harshness, as the extremophiles show. Therefore, if life developed upon Mars during the time of surface water, it is quite possible it has adapted to the new conditions.

One place to look for water and surviving life forms would be in the deep chasms of Mars, including Valles Marineris which is 1,860 miles long and in places reaches five miles in depth (five times the depth of the Grand Canyon). None of our probes has landed near chasms because we haven’t designed ways to explore them robotically. This is a job for human beings, and I am extremely disappointed that it hasn’t been done yet.

When I watched Neil Armstrong step onto the moon in 1969, I felt confident that the US and other nations would build on this accomplishment in what seemed a logical progression: space station, lunar base, a manned mission to Mars. I would not have believed that, 40 years after reaching the moon, only one of these elements would be up and running. That one, the International Space Station is a testament to the dedication of a few, but it’s not the robust establishment I expected; it seems to be on a precarious footing in mechanical reliability, and in international support. The other two are as far from reality as they were in 1969—no, farther, because the momentum of the 1960s has drained away, and the world faces more serious problems than it did then. What was justifiably affordable then, may not be now.

I don’t view space exploration as a luxury, or as an activity that merely satisfies our curiosity. It has much more to offer the species than that. We cannot say what we would have learned, what technologies we would have developed, had we followed the path I expected. Perhaps we would even have reached a slightly greater degree of wisdom about ourselves and or treatment of the planet, or maybe not.

But I do know how badly I want to see some questions answered, including “What life is there on Mars?”

And if looks as if, even if I eat my vegetables and exercise diligently, I may not live long enough in the normal course of events to find this out. So, freezing my head may be the only possibility. How can I let a bunch of tardigrades hear the news about Martian life, and not hear it myself?

Notes

1 Jakosky, Bruce M. et al. Mars’ volatile and climate history. Nature 412, 237-244 (12 July 2001).

2 Bowen, TA and Hynek, BM. Mars’ climate history as inferred from valley networks on volcanoes. Lunar and Planetary Science XXXIX (2008).

Etymological Notes

Rana sylvatica
rana, from Latin rana (frog); sylvatica from Latin sylvaticus (growing in the woods, wild)

Chrysemys picta
chrysemys, from Greek chrysos (gold) and emys (freshwater tortoise”)

Pyrrharctia isabella
Pyrrharctia, from Greek pyr– (fire) and arktos (bear—the animal, also used to refer to the north; here probably alluding to the hairy caterpillar, the “wooly bear”)
isabella, a word used to denote various vague colors: greyish-yellow, sand color, pale fawn, pale cream-brown or parchment; etymology uncertain but see here.

Tardigrada
Tardigrada, from Latin tardigradus (slowly stepping), from tardus (slow) and gradior (step, walk)

Ecdysozoa
Ecdysozoa, from Greek ekdusis (a stripping off) and zoon (a living being, animal; plural zoa)

Bonus for sticking with me to the end…

There’s one caterpillar just about everybody can identify, if only because of its supposed ability to predict the severity of the winter:

Woolly bear caterpillar, which becomes Pyrrharctia_isabella, the Isabella Moth.jpg

The Woolly Bear, of course, and the narrow band of brown on this one indicates a very tough winter to come. Photo by Rhys Alton from flickr.

But who among us knows what the Woolly Bear looks like when he or she grows up? Like this,

Pyrrharctia_isabella, Isabella Tiger Moth, which develops from the Woolly Bear caterpillar.jpg

the Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella), found in much of North America and Central America. The caterpillar overwinters, hence the ability to withstand freezing temperatures. The Woolly Bear has another distinction: the first insect known to self-medicate. It eats leaves from ragworts, groundsels and other plants that are rich in alkaloids, and these help rid it of parasites; infected caterpillars eat more of such leaves than uninfected ones. Yes, everything it seems has parasites; “Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ‘em, And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum”. And I, driven by the desire to know things, doubtless will need to know something else once my thawed-out brain has assimilated knowledge of our first manned mission to Mars.

Comments on some books recently read

A Whole New Mind, why right-brainers will rule the future, by Daniel Pink
Silly, puffy, fuzzy, wrong. Because of Asia, Automation, and Abundance, we are all going to prosper by being artists, designers, musicians, gestalt-masters.

Breaking Clean, by Judy Blunt
A fine book, powerful and honest and sometimes very hard to read. The author comes of generations who survived ranching in what must be one of the toughest spots in the US. She writes of her experiences growing up there, informed by her later insights. The privations, the endless work just to have a chance of doing the same next year, the way human beings grow into strange shapes to fit what is demanded of them.

A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright
Published a year before Jared Diamond’s Collapse, and follows a similar plan: by narrating the decline of earlier cultures due to hubris and systemic faults, the author hopes to convince 21st century homo sap to shape up and avoid disaster. Wright finds errors in Diamond’s earlier book Guns, Germs and Steel, and I found some things in Wright’s book to question. I would suggest that in general it’s very iffy to found a line of reasoning upon a particular cause for the decline of a premodern civilization. Historians of Sumer or Rome cannot agree upon causes; what hope has a non-specialist? Answer: make your case look good by cherry-picking arguments and data from authorities old and new. Give it up. But it does sell books. And yes, our civilization’s got one foot on a banana peel—conveying that message seems to be the raison d’etre for these books—and we love to read about it, witness all the sf dystopias, but I cannot believe that efforts to convince the intellect will help much, since little power is governed by that human faculty.

Slammerkin, by Emma Donoghue
London, c. 1750: barely a teenager, the daughter of a desperately poor family becomes a prostitute. A hundred years earlier, Hobbes famously described the life of humans in a state of nature, without government, as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Such is the life of Mary Saunders, despite the existence of a government, because there were at the time few significant efforts to help the poor or restrain the depredations of the rich, while the legal system severely punished even small criminal acts. Rich in period flavor and well-drawn characters, though I felt that the protagonist was not as full as I’d wish: her behavior at the end seems abruptly imposed. A study in desperation. It is disgraceful to realize that one could write something not too different these days about a runaway on the streets of any large American city.

Hogarth engraving of street life among the poor.jpg

William Hogarth (1697–1764), engraving of street life among the poor.

Darwinia, by Robert Charles Wilson
Science fiction, in that subset of alternative histories where some portion of the earth’s surface is suddenly switched out for the corresponding portion from another history or universe. Same topography, but everything else is different. Interesting, but I think it fell between two stools, to use an antiquated phrase (visualize someone beginning to sit down who can’t decide which of two stools to land on, and falls in the middle, to the bar-room floor). There’s the standard adventure/discovery plotline as characters from the “old world” (ours, interrupted prior to the first World War) explore the strangenesses of the apparently uninhabited “New World”. And then the New World turns out to have a connection to some sort of Lovecraftian Other Reality. Didn’t quite connect up for me, but nonetheless I’m currently reading this author’s Mysterium, which won the Philip K. Dick Award in 1994 and turns out to have a similar plot device. [Later. Yep, about the same. ]

Solar, by Ian McEwan
This guy sure can write, in one sense of the word, but I just could not care about the characters or the plot. Since the plot had to do with developing a revolutionary system of generating electricity from solar power, I should have wanted to see what happened. But the scientist protagonist was so unlikeable. Venal and boring. I was a third of the way through, with nothing much happening on the solar electricity front, and the main character still as clueless and mopey as ever…I gave up. Three demerits to me, but art (and my list of books to read) is long and life is short.

The Mount, by Carol Emshwiller
Recently I posted about how Young Adult books are sometimes well worth adult attention. Here’s one from the adult fiction shelves, that should have had the YA label; as an adult I found it simplistic and disappointing. The author is a Grand Old Lady of science fiction.

Still Alice, by Lisa Genova
A woman discovers, at about age 50, that her increasing mental lapses are early onset Alzheimer’s, which progresses much more quickly than the Alzheimer’s of the elderly. Perhaps for the sake of irony, she’s a professor of psychology, specifically at the intersection of cognition and language. The author is a neuroscientist herself, who works with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. Moving and informative, but maybe you should wait to read it until you are past the age at which early-onset Alzheimer’s begins.

Ship Breaker , by Paolo Bacigalupi
and
The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
See earlier post on YA fiction, the category of the first of these. Two looks into a post-oil, post-Big Crash future. Recommended. I liked Ship Breaker better, myself.

Platinum Pohl, by Frederik Pohl (1919- )
Short fiction by one of the masters at the top of his form. Sf.

Mouse with human brain speaks out

In the previous post, I described the one known mouse with a human brain. He’s named Clyven, and you can talk to him on the website of the hospital where research led to his creation. Or go direct to his page, here.

Well, imagine my surprise when Clyven himself posted a comment on that post. He was, as usual, brief and to the point:

Clyven's comment.jpg

Of course I rang Clyven up, and found him unengaged and ready to talk. He did not seem to remember our previous conversation but when I raised the subject of Christine O’Donnell, he became more animated. Here’s that portion of the brief interview:

ME: Clyven, I’d like to hear what you have to say about Ms. O’Donnell.
CLYVEN: I’m ever so pleased Christine O’Donnell spoke about me on the O’Reilly Factor back in 2007.
ME: What do you think of what she said?
CLYVEN: Aspiring Senator O’Donnell could perhaps learn a thing or two from a mouse with human cognition.
ME: And Christine O’Donnell as a person, how did she strike you?
CLYVEN: She’s funny. I think she is a witch!
ME: What are your political principles, Clyven?
CLYVEN: You should check out the main RYT Hospital web site for that: RYTHospital.com.
ME: A very politic answer, Clyven! Thank you for talking to us.

Clyven is a mouse of few words, which makes those few even more important. His gratitude for Ms. O’Donnell’s mentioning him on O’Reilly’s show may indicate that he would like to play a part on a wider stage himself. He is a native-born American, of American parents, but his crucial role in advanced biomedical research may rule out a run for office. A panel discussion, perhaps, with the two Delaware senatorial candidates? I can only hope that those whose job it is to plan such events and bring new points of view to the public, will be contacting him as soon as they’ve read this post.

O’Reilly, are you listening?

Human germ attacks already declining coral reefs

Plague, rabies, Lyme disease, bird flu and swine flu—people seem much more at risk for diseases from animals than the other way around. But it does go the other way too, and it has been discovered that such a case is responsible for a disease that has devastated coral reefs in the Caribbean.

“White pox disease” in coral is caused by a human strain of the common intestinal bacterium Serratia marcescens, which causes the hospital infection serratiosis. (Hospital infections, or nosocomial infections, happen because individuals already in poor health are exposed to pathogens by poor sanitary practices and invasive procedures such as surgery or catheterization.) [Etymological notes on scientific names are at the end of the post.]

The only coral known to be affected is Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata), a major reef-bulding species in the Caribbean. Healthy Elkhorn coral looks like this.

Healthy Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata).jpg

Here’s an example of Elkhorn coral infected with White pox disease.

White Pox Disease (Serratia marcescens) on Elkhorn Coral.jpg

A research team at the University of Georgia was recently awarded a $5M grant to investigate the disease in coral, which is “the first known case of such a ‘reverse zoonosis’ that involves the transmission of a human pathogen to a marine invertebrate”. Even more remarkable, in the words of James W. Porter, associate dean of the Odum School of Ecology and the team’s leader, “This bacterium has jumped from vertebrate to invertebrate, from terrestrial to marine, and from anaerobic to aerobic environments. Triple jumps like this are rare.”

In addition, according to the report in ProMED (partly drawn from this source),

The scope of the team’s research will extend beyond gaining an
understanding of the impact of white pox disease on elkhorn coral and
how to counter it. The most likely source of the pathogen for coral
reefs is under-treated human sewage, so the study will also explore
the intersection of public health practices and environmental health
outcomes.

“This investigation addresses not only environmental protection, but
also the socio-ecological determinants of coastal zone protection,”
said Porter. “This includes the cost of wastewater treatment
infrastructure. Given a reliance on tourism by most Caribbean
countries, this study addresses a disease system that is of great
economic importance and public health concern to developing nations.”

“This is science in action to save an endangered species and a threatened ecosystem,” said team leader Porter. “We are linking good public health practices to effective environmental protection.”

Elkhorn and Staghorn coral (Acroporis cervicornis) are both on the US Federal list of threatened species, and in 2008 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration extended additional protection rules usually reserved for endangered species. The new rule will “prohibit the importing, exporting and taking of elkhorn and staghorn corals. Additionally, the rule prohibits any activities that result in the corals’ mortality or injury. Anchoring, grounding a vessel or dragging gear on the species is prohibited. Additionally, damaging the species’ habitat and discharging any pollutant or contaminant that harms the species violates NOAA’s new rule. The rule applies to elkhorn and staghorn coral in the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Florida.” Of course the enforcement will be difficult, but it appears that it’s none too soon to reverse the decline of these reef-building species.

A recent analysis of 500 surveys of 200 reefs showed the most complex types of reef had been virtually wiped out across the entire Caribbean. What survives are mostly “flattened” reefs which provide poor habitat for fish including commercial species, and are less “effective in protecting coastal homes and villages from storm swells and tidal surges”.

Healthy reef of staghorn coral in the Caribbean, below.

Healthy Staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis).jpg

Source.

When the branched corals are killed off, low-growing corals may take their place but don’t create the rich three-dimensional habitat that the branched ones do. Algae also may increase and blanket surfaces, preventing coral growth.

Flattened coral reef, degraded by loss of branching coral).jpg

Source. Photo by Jennifer E. Smith.

Other threats to coral reefs

Coral-building animals live symbiotically with algae. Influenced by water that is too warm or cold, the corals will “expel the algae (zooxanthellae) living in their tissues causing the coral to turn completely white. This is called coral bleaching. When a coral bleaches, it is not dead. Corals can survive a bleaching event, but they are under more stress and are subject to mortality.” Rising ocean temperatures have caused wide-spread bleaching events. Warm waters also absorb more CO2, causing the water to become more acidic and that makes it more difficult for reef-building organisms to form the calcium carbon skeletons that serve as their structural basis.

Overfishing, pollution including sewage and agricultural runoff, dredging,hurricanes, and development have all damaged coral reefs. Each new injury reduces the ability of living organisms to reproduce and to withstand further assaults.

Coral reefs are among the world’s richest ecosystems, second only to tropical rain forests in plant and animal diversity. They arfe essential to fisheries, tourism, and protecting beaches from erosion. Yet “nearly two-thirds of the Caribbean’s coral reefs are threatened by human activities. Agricultural runoff, overfishing, dredging, sewage discharge (a factor in White pox disease), and the growing pace of coastal development have already degraded important reef systems, resulting not only in a tremendous loss of biodiversity but also lost revenue from declining tourism and fishing, and increased coastal erosion.” This last statement comes from the World Resources Institute, which is active many environmental fronts and is currently sponsoring a country-by-country survey of the economic values of Caribbean coral reefs and mangroves: “Supporting the sustainable management of coral reefs and mangroves by quantifying their economic value”.

Elkhorn coral & research robot.jpg

Source. Some breakage from hurricanes can be seen. Also shown is Fetch1, an autonomous underwater vehicle for research that was developed by NASA.

More about coral reefs

Global Coral Reef Alliance
EPA, Coral Reefs and your Coastal Watershed
University of Florida, Overview with photos

Etymological notes

Serratia marcescens was discovered in 1819 by Venetian pharmacist Bartolomeo Bizio, as the cause of an episode of blood-red discoloration of polenta in the city of Padua.[7] Bizio named the organism four years later in honor of Serafino Serrati, a physicist who developed an early steamboat; the epithet marcescens (Latin for “decaying”) was chosen because of the pigment’s rapid deterioration. [Wikipedia]

Acropora palmata: Acropora from the Greek, akros (high) and poros (opening, pore); palmata handlike, from Greek palma (a palm, flat hand; palm branch).

Acropora cervicornis: Acropora as above; cervicornis from the Latin cervus (deer) and cornu (horn, antler)

Christine O’Donnell, religion, and the human brain

Poor would-be senator Christine O’Donnell has been ridiculed for her comment about mice with human brains:

O’DONNELL: … these groups admitted that the report that said, “Hey, yay, we cloned a monkey. Now we’re using this to start cloning humans.” We have to keep…

O’REILLY: Let them admit anything they want. But they won’t do that here in the United States unless all craziness is going on.

O’DONNELL: They are — they are doing that here in the United States. American scientific companies are cross-breeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains. So they’re already into this experiment.

From transcript of O’Reilly show, Friday, November 16, 2007.

Why would Ms. O’Donnell (or someone who informed her) believe this?

Reports of mouse-brain research have been greatly exaggerated

It doesn’t take much to find some of the “evidence” that may have convinced her or her informant. As others have noted, there have been experiments in which human cells were injected into embryo mice, and became part of their brains. A bit different than “cross-breeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains”, but all rumors have to start somewhere.

Bad reporting may be to blame: here’s the headline and first line of the 2005 article on the National Geographic site:

NatGeo article on mice.jpg

From nationalgeographic.com.

In case that last line is too small to read, it says “Researchers in California have created living mice with functioning human stem cells in their brains.”

Earlier that same year (2005) another article on the NatGeo site briefly referred to the same research (before it had occurred) this way “And at Stanford University in California an experiment might be done later this year to create mice with human brains.” The title of this misleading article was Animal-Human Hybrids Spark Controversy. Yes, plenty of controversy, but in the article no hybridization is being talked about, only the use of stem cells to demonstrate their potential to be re-purposed. In biology, a hybrid is the offspring of two plants or animals of different species or varieties, such as a mule (a hybrid of a donkey and a horse), and that is the popular understanding as well. Few would consider a mouse with a few cells of human origin, all functioning as mouse cells, to be a hybrid.

mouse with human headSM.jpg

Christine, you need a smart friend; meet Clyven the mouse

But wait, it’s not all down to irresponsible journalism; perhaps Ms. O’Donnell got her information from this page, on the site of the prestigious RYT Hospital, about “Clyven: The World’s First Transgenic Mouse with Human Intelligence” :

Clyven1.jpg

Here’s the explanatory text from that page.

Margaret A. Keyes, M.D., Ph.D., is a researcher in genetic medicine and Professor of Cell Biology and Genetics at RYT Hospital-Dwayne Medical Center. She is exploring the use of embryonic stem cells as a means to cure neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.

By implanting human brain cells (grown from a human embryo’s stem cells) into a mouse engineered to have Alzheimer’s, Dr. Keyes inadvertently made a remarkable and startling discovery: she not only cured the mouse’s Alzheimer’s Disease, but the animal soon developed the relative intelligence of a human being.

After extensive consideration by RYT Hospital’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) and Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), it was decided that this mouse would be placed under a new study led by Dr. Keyes’ lab.

As part of this new facility (pictured to the right), Clyven is placed inside a light-sensitive box with electrodes attached to him. He is able to communicate and interact with people via this neuro interface. He is able to communicate and interact with people via this neuro interface. [sic] To hear a live audio feed of Clyven inside his box, please click here.

© RYT Hospital-Dwayne Medical Center
Source.

Evidently RYT Hospital has a very understanding Ethics Committee; they approve of confining an animal with a human brain in a little box and punching his head full of electrodes. But Clyven is not bored—in fact, you are invited to chat with him or play a game against him.

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Unfortunately, Clyven’s conversation is limited and repetitious—maybe he himself wrote that quoted passage above, that has the repeated sentence. My best conversation with him was this one,

ME: Hi Clyven.
MOUSE: Yo.
ME: Do you know that a tea party candidate is talking about you?
MOUSE: That’s pretty silly.
ME: Yes.
MOUSE: Tell me more.
ME: I don’t want you to know how dumb people can get.
MOUSE: I’m sorry. I hope to get smarter as time goes on. Please be patient with me. I will be receiving additional neurological treatments next week.

On the other hand, don’t let him persuade you to bet money on that CheezeMaze contest, he’ll beat you paws down.

It’s surprising we haven’t heard more about this RYT Hospital, with the amazingly advanced and useful research that is being done there. Elsewhere on the site, you can read about a new drug, Revitalex

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about successful gene therapy for back pain, and about “NanoDocs”, nanobots that circulate throughout the body repairing tissues.

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Okay, so it’s not a real site but the project of an artist named Virgil Wong. He’s a painter, film-maker, and head of web design for two real hospitals.

Still, can’t you see how anybody might be taken in by the slick style, and accept that there really is a mouse with human intelligence, and nanobots that can tidy up your blood vessels?

No? You say anyone beyond the stage of believing in the Tooth Fairy should have seen through this? and through the distorted reports of growing human brains in mice?

I think so too.

Wherever Christine O’Donnell may have gotten her “information” about mice with human brains, the real problem is minds like hers that are unprepared to question things that most of us would find outlandish. They also believe that Obama is Hitler, Stalin, and a Kenyan anti-colonialist, all at the same time! which would explain why, as I have heard on good authority, Obama has three heads, a fact cleverly concealed by camera angles and good tailoring.

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Eastern Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens), Red Eft Stage. Etymological note: Notophthalamus from the Greek noto (a mark) and ophthalmus (eye), presumably in reference to the eye spots on the sides and back; viridescens from the Latin, (slightly green) referring to the greenish color of the adults. Source.

One born every minute? or are they made?

Where do these credulous people come from? I don’t mean people like Newt Gingrich, who will repeat anything—no matter how preposterous—if it seems advantageous. No, demagogues use untruths consciously, with calculated intent. The power of the demagogue depends upon there being enough people who cannot distinguish between the likely, the possible, and the absurd, and therefore won’t laugh him off his soapbox. And where do they come from?

The beginning preparation for most credulous people of otherwise normal intelligence is, I think, being raised with a huge area of life and thought which is categorically excluded from rational examination. Now, every culture and sub-culture has some areas like that, because they are essential as part of the group’s self-definition. In this Land of the Unquestioned reside things like appropriate behavior (manners), kinship rules, dress codes, what we eat and how we cook it, all that sort of thing. That’s why our way of life seems so logical and natural, and other groups’ ways seem bizarre and senseless.

No problem when it’s a question of the relative merits of haggis or corn on the cob, but in the area of exclusion there are more significant topics also, such as attitudes to the “Other” (women, outsiders, those in your own group who don’t conform), and toward violence. That’s the cultural “Don’t think about these things” list. Then there’s religion and its list.

Religion is the really big no-fly zone for human reason. It covers a much wider area of life than ordinary cultural indoctrination, often upon a foundation of dogmatic zeal which asserts sole possession of truth, and enforces details of the dogma with extreme fervor.

Totalitarianism and extremist religions share two fundamental principles: there is only one true way, and everyone must be forced to acknowledge it. It is not enough for the non-believer to refrain from critical expression and deviant action: he or she must be made to believe. Hence the show trials held by the Soviets, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and the Inquisition, in which tortured inmates confess their nonexistent sins; hence the death penalty for apostasy in Islam, and the roasting alive of unrepentant Christians by the Romans and doggedly heathen Native Americans by the Christians. The Other must be brought within the fold or die, and it should be done in a public and painful way to present a compelling example to everyone else.

Children are born enquirers (non-believers), and about the age of three they start to ask “Why?” about everything, with irritating persistence. Give an answer and they ask for more details or ask “Why?” again. (Offer a non-answer like “I don’t know” or “Be quiet” and they repeat the original question or say nothing; curiosity discouraged begins to shut down.) Their brains are making and pruning connexions, they’re constructing an internal model of the world, and they want and need to know more and to discuss their own thoughts. They are also learning how to learn, how to figure things out.

A child who gets yelled at for asking about talking snakes, or smacked for asking why the God of Love is such a bloody-handed war-approving tyrant in the Old Testament (see note 1), will learn to accept what he or she is told and not think about it. The lesson is to avoid questioning—especially the things in life that seem illogical, cruel, unfair, out of sync with reality. And that “respect for authority” (actually, it is only respect for power and avoidance of punishment) carries over into other parts of life. The more intensely the “No Questions Zone” is defended, the more timid the young mind’s reason becomes.

Curiosity is inborn, but logic is learned. When children are exposed to illogical conclusions, such as “You got a cold right after you ate that ice cream, so no more ice cream” or “I know the Bible is the Word of God because the preacher says so and the Bible says to follow what the preacher says” they won’t learn the basic rules of logic that help humans sort true from false, as well as “probably true” from “probably false”. Ignorance of logic is of course a good thing for those enforcing a monolithic belief system.

Our country’s culture has an equivocal position on learning. Along with its tradition of independence and individualism, the US also has a strong anti-intellectual tradition, because of its religious foundations and the pragmatic demands of survival on successive frontiers from New England to the Pacific coast. When book-larnin’ is seen as irrelevant, perhaps un-masculine, some will make a positive virtue of ignorance. Also, study is hard, ignorance is effortless. Entropy prevails.

Logic and critical thinking are not enough. In order to winnow the wheat from the chaff reliably, it’s necessary to have some actual knowledge. When a statement is made, the hearers check it against their relevant knowledge base. This process is usually instant and automatic. The new information may directly conflict with existing knowledge, or it may just appear quite unlikely based on what is already known. A certain stock of knowledge, reliable because it has been tested or was provided by a trusted authority, is needed to get through life. Yet even some of this knowledge may be false—blondes are dumb, bankers are trustworthy, a barking dog never bites—and individuals must also possess the willingness to re-examine beliefs based on new experience. Except in the No Thinking Zone, where the only safe course is to agree with authority and otherwise keep your mouth shut.

When politics is the subject, then history must have special prominence among relevant areas of knowledge. Just like more workaday fields of endeavor, political systems embody responses to real needs and problems. If I were re-designing the internal combustion engine, I would first need to know why each part had been designed as it was; what earlier mechanisms were tried for mixing the fuel or timing the ignition, and what were their flaws?

It is history which answers these questions in politics, and must be consulted before tinkering or throwing away parts. For example, decades of controversy about the constitutional provision in the First Amendment usually referred to as “separation of church and state” have distorted public understanding of the law’s intent by framing it as a dispute between agnostics or atheists, vs. religious people. In fact it was enacted to defend all religions from government, and from a preference being shown for a single church, as well as to protect government (or non-religious persons) from religion. And the history of state-established religions illustrates the many repressions and disenfranchisements which are imposed upon members of the non-official religions, even including banishment and death. Only modern ignorance permits the discussion of this subject to be framed entirely as a conflict between religion and irreligion. [Christine O’Donnell, in a recent debate, was ignorant of the provision entirely. After the phrase “Government shall make no law respecting establishment of religion” was quoted to her, she asked “That is in the First Amendment?” Yes, it is, though the exact words are “Congress shall make no…”.]

Logic, general knowledge, critical thinking, history: how is the American public doing on these?

37% of Americans believe that houses can be haunted, and 25% believe in astrology, i.e. that the position of the stars and planets can affect people’s lives.

Fewer than a third can identify DNA as a key to heredity, only about 10% know what radiation is, and 20% think the Sun revolves around the Earth, an idea science abandoned by the 17th century.

50% of our fellow citizens believe in alien abductions, though happily only 7% say they or someone they know has been abducted.

39% of Americans could not name any of the freedoms in the First Amendment.

14 percent of Americans say President Barack Obama may be the Antichrist (24 percent of Republicans believe this). Almost 20% believe he is a Muslim. Does that add up to 34% or is there some overlap?

Two-thirds of 1,000 American adults polled couldn’t name a single current justice of the Supreme Court. In the same survey, more than a third did not know the century in which the American Revolution took place, and half of respondents believed that either the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation or the War of 1812 occurred before the American Revolution.

And 21% believe in witchcraft, so O’Donnell’s “I’m not a witch” ad did have its audience.

When you look through these and other poll results it seems that at least 10% to 25% of Americans believe in just about any unproven concept you can imagine. A larger percentage is very ignorant of history and public affairs.

If you’re reading this, and have been apathetic about getting to the polls, you better think again.

One final poll result: in 2009, 19% percent of Americans agreed that the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees, and 39% said the press has too much freedom.

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NOTE 1: I cite only two examples, both from the same holy book, for the sake of brevity, but every religion seems to have its own set of magical events and unquestioned cruelties which must be accepted in order to belong. Belong, get along, go along.