Friday, September 30, 2005

Gay marriage in California

So Schwarzenegger vetoed the California gay marriage bill today, as expected. But I want to point out that the argument that "the voters have spoken in Prop. 22, the legislature shouldn't overturn that" just doesn't work. Public opinion is shifting toward support for gay marriage very quickly.

Two polls by the Public Policy Institute of California:
  • February 2000 (pdf, pg 7): Likely voters are 57% against gay marriage, 38% for gay marriage. Proposition 22 passed the following month with 61.4% of the vote, suggesting either that people underreported anti-gay bias to pollsters or that the undecideds swung decisively for the ban on gay marriage.

  • August 2005 (pdf, pg 17): Likely voters are evenly split 46% to 46% on gay marriage.
That's a lead of almost 20% cut down to zero! Proposition 22 would probably still pass today because of the undecideds or a tendency to underreport anti-gay bias, but the gap is rapidly narrowing. Soon the day will come when California voters decisively approve of gay marriage, either in rejecting a constitutional amendment against gay marriage (Prop. 22 was an initiative, not an amendment) or in overturning Prop. 22.

Know thy neighbor

Last week I mentioned a website,, that will post the names and addresses of people who sign the anti-gay-marriage petition (that would put an initiative to ban gay marriage on the ballot in 2008) in Massachusetts when the Attorney General makes them publicly available. Now they have a blog tracking the progress of the petition. Check it out.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

No discrimination against women in science?

You might have thought that the Summers fiasco about "innate differences" between men and women in scientific talent was long dead and buried, but Andrew Sullivan returns to it with a statement of breathtaking obtuseness:
But Armando's view [Sullivan has been criticizing Armando at Daily Kos for criticizing Summers] that women are somehow being discriminated generally in higher education makes no sense at all. As anyone on any major campus will tell you, and as Glenn Reynolds points out today, women are now outnumbering men on most campuses.
For starters, the issue at stake here is not gender representation in undergraduate colleges in general, but rather gender representation in science, especially at the highest levels (i.e., tenured research professor). Women have approached parity in science bachelor's degrees but are still underrepresented at the doctoral level. The leaky pipeline continues as newly minted PhDs move onto postdoctoral fellowships (where the moment of highest career pressure coincides with the time when many women want to have children), assistant professorship (again, career v. family), and tenure selection. At each of these levels, bias, even unconscious or systemic bias, has a significant effect in weeding out more women than men.

I have no problem with researching whether there are innate differences between men and women in scientific ability, whether in the mean or the standard deviation, but it's just dishonest to pretend that women are not discriminated against in science; or, if one has the shame to avoid that plainly obvious lie, dishonest to distract attention from it with an irrelevant aside about the number of women in higher education in general when the issue at hand is women in science.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Exciting news from Cassini

The spacecraft Cassini has found water vapor on Saturn's moon Enceladus:
From a height of 109 miles, the Cassini spacecraft trained instruments on a cloud of water vapor venting from fissures at the moon's south pole.

From that moment, tiny Enceladus, only 310 miles in diameter, joined Mars and Jupiter's moon Europa as the solar system's leading candidates for having liquid water beneath their chilly surfaces -- a likely precondition for harboring life. But why the south pole? And how does something so small have liquid water? ...

Known before the Cassini mission as the brightest object in the solar system aside from the sun because of its shroud of crystalline ice, Enceladus is now also known as the smallest body to have active volcanism.

"What we think is happening is that jets of gas are escaping at substantial velocity from fissures to form a large column of gas above the south pole," Brown said. Mass spectrographic analysis showed that the gas is composed of water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane and maybe nitrogen, he added, and though temperatures at the vents are well below zero, liquid water will flash into gas when it is flushed into the vacuum of space.

Scientists were also able to confirm from these observations that Saturn's E ring, as suspected, is made of microscopic icy "smoke" from Enceladus's vents. What they have not been able to figure out is how there could be enough heat to make liquid water.

"Deep down, you have a reservoir of stuff -- liquid water mixed with carbon dioxide and light organics that is hot in a relative sense," Brown said. "Why, and why only at the south pole? Those are the big questions, and none of the explanations advanced so far is satisfactory."

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Gay marriage tactics

So I know I've been writing a lot about gay marriage recently, but here's a another article about it in the Boston Globe (happily, with the headline "Gay marriage foes face hurdles as they push new amendment").

Things to chew on:
  • The (publicly available) names and addresses of all the people who sign the petition to put the anti-gay marriage amendment on the ballot will be posted online at, here. I think this is reasonable: signing a petition is more than just voting; it's standing up and saying this is something I'm willing to go on record for. People should know when they sign it that their signatures will be a matter of public record. This could be an effective deterrant against signing if widely publicized - business owners may not want to risk a boycott, for example. Or, you could send letters to people who signed it to try to persuade them to change their minds. That being said, I do hope this doesn't turn into a nasty campaign of intimidation. So far it's been pretty good:
    Westerhoff [one of the organizers of] already introduced himself to one of the first petition signers, Madelyn Shields of Beverly. Shields told the Herald she found the meeting "a bit odd," but described Westerhoff as gracious. She said she hopes other exchanges between gay marriage advocates and petition signers are as gracious.
  • There's still no consensus on whether gay marriage opponents will have enough votes in the legislature in 2006 and 2007. They say they have enough now, but that could change, especially with lobbying persuasion.

  • One line from the Globe article is "Gay rights activists also say that civil rights should never be put to a popular vote." I agree, but would add that, as driftwood pointed out, in practice a defeat for the amendment in a popular vote would be a much greater defeat for the anti-gay marriage activists, politically speaking, than a defeat in legislature. The problem is, of course, that this assumes that the people will vote against it, and you don't want risk losing when civil rights shouldn't be subject to majoritarianism in the first place.

  • The first line of defense against the amendment is to be a court challenge to the effect that the Massachusetts state constitution bars ballot initiatives relating to the "reversal of a judicial decision." You can read the arguments here and here (PDFs) and the Attorney General's argument against them here. Now, I'm all for opposing this amendment on all fronts, but I don't really buy the argument. Although I'm not a lawyer, it seems fairly clear to me that the Goodridge decision was an interpretation of the state constitution, and "reversal of a judicial decision" only refers to the interpretation itself - it doesn't ban amending the constitution that was interpreted. Any lawyers out there who want to comment?

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Sullivan gets letters

Andrew Sullivan today put up an email from a reader with a claim so batty that I can't help but wonder if Andrew put it up in order to discredit the rather frightening personality cult it represents:
You ought to give President Bush some slack. He has had to face more in his presidency than arguably any other in the last 100 years. He inherited a recession, 9/11 happened, the Iraq war and this hurricane. He is only human and I think he is doing better than most.
I don't like the big spending nor the illegal immigration crisis. But I do believe the President is a man of integrity facing outstanding and overwhelming problems in his office.
What? Have we forgotten about FDR, who, let's see, faced the Great Depression (let's compare - 6% unemployment in 2003, 25% unemployment in 1932) and the threat of two fascist powers who, rather than using suicide bombings as a tactic of weakness, actually invaded several countries and were on the verge of developing nuclear weapons? Or Truman, who had to deal with the end of WWII, rebuilding Europe, and the beginning of the Cold War? Or even the much-maligned Nixon, who inherited a war still far deadlier to U.S. soldiers than the current one, went to China, and also had a hurricane of his own (Camille, 1969)? Or.. well, I could go on, but you get the point.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Another step forward in Massachusetts

As predicted, a few hours ago the Massachusetts state legislature voted down the proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. What's remarkable to me is the huge margin by which it failed: 157-39. 55 legislators switched their votes from last year from yes to no.

Alas, we can't get complacent about the next amendment, which could appear on ballots in 2008 if it gets more than 50 votes (out of 200) in two legislative sessions (one in 2006, one in 2007). The current amendment failed to get even 50 votes in its favor, but you have to remember that several legislators voted against this amendment despite opposing gay marriage because this amendment would have created civil unions, which they also oppose (the 2008 amendment doesn't create civil unions)*. On the other hand, some legislators voted for this amendment only because it's a compromise, and might vote against the 2008 amendment. So the vote-counting is quite tricky and it's still plausible that the 2008 amendment will receive the requisite 50 votes. For what it's worth, MassEquality is putting out the word that at least 115 of the "nay" votes were from genuine gay marriage supporters; the big question mark is what "at least" means and how that 35 vote gap will change over the next couple years.

But my previous post still stands, I think: public opinion in Massachusetts is trending toward greater support for gay marriage, so even if the 2008 amendment makes it to the ballot, it will be rejected by the voters.

*It still puzzles me why this is seen as a desirable strategy. Even if the 2008 amendment passes, it doesn't ban civil unions - it just doesn't create them. The legislature will then just turn right around and create civil unions through ordinary legislation, as Connecticut did last year. So the religious right doesn't really gain anything by this strategy, as far as I can tell.

Update, 15 Sept: According to today's Boston Globe story, gay marriage opponents have 60 legislators who are prepared to vote for the 2008 amendment. There's no election between now and May 10, 2006 (which is when the first vote is scheduled for) so we can probably expect it to pass the first vote. (Hopefully some will change their minds, but I have a feeling these 60 are mostly the "hard core.") After that, if the 2006 election follows the pattern of the 2004 election, some anti-gay marriage legislators could be tossed out of office for the 2007 vote, so the amendment might be stopped there. If not, I still think the voters will vote against the amendment in 2008. But we can't rest easy - there's still a long fight ahead.


Amazingly, FEMA's incompetence extended all the way to initially declaring a federal state of emergency in Louisiana in the wrong parishes. Really. Inland parishes were on the list whereas coastal parishes (including Orleans and Jefferson parishes) were not until someone noticed the mistake on the day the hurricane struck.
My best guess of what happened is this: FEMA decided that Gov. Blanco's request, which covered all of Louisiana to some degree, was excessive, and they decided not to give her all of the aid that she had requested. They drew up a list of the counties to include and the counties to exclude and, possibly in a rush to get done for the presidential press event covering the declaration, got the lists crossed. And then nobody noticed the mistake until the storm hit.... The worst part of all of this is that the only way for something like this to happen is if a lot of people didn't care enough about the situation to double check their decisions.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Computational bioinformatics

Continuing on my previous musing about why "neuroscience" sounds so much sexier than "biology" even though both describe what I do, Spitshine offers alternative definitions of two words that at first glance might seem to be synonyms:
  • Bioinformatician - A scientist with a background in biology or biochemistry who stopped generating data himself
  • Computational biologist - A computer scientist or physicist who happens to use biological data
This certainly rings true; I once attempted to take class called "Computational Neuroscience" which turned out to be populated entirely by physics graduate students. Not being a physics graduate student myself, I found the math a bit beyond me. Imagine if the course had been called "Neurobioinformatics."

Gay marriage is here to stay in Massachusetts

A survey by the Associated Press reveals that at least 104 (out of 200) state lawmakers in Massachusetts plan to vote against the proposed constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage but create civil unions. This amendment was passed in the legislature last year, but it needed to be passed in two separate legislative sessions before it could be sent to the voters for a referendum. So it now looks like the amendment will fail in legislature on its second vote on Wednesday.

This was basically the last chance for gay marriage opponents in Massachusetts. Public opinion in Massachusetts has swung within only one year from 53% opposition to gay marriage to 56% support. The next chance for a ban on gay marriage will be another amendment that could go on the ballot in 2008 that would ban gay marriage and not create civil unions. But public support for gay marriage will only increase in the next three years, as more and more people get used to the idea. The amendment won't even give all the couples who will have married over 4 years the consolation prize of civil union - their hard-won rights would stripped away entirely. With 56% approval of gay marriage and more, the 2008 amendment will be defeated. Time is on the side of the angels here.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Three parents?

I've been annoyed with the press coverage of the recent decision by the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to allow scientists to research a technique that treats inherited mitochondrial disorders.

For those who don't know, mitochondria are the organelles that power the cell by burning glucose with oxygen to release energy. They are separate from the nucleus (which contains the vast majority of DNA) and have their own DNA, which codes for various proteins used only in the mitochondria. They're inherited from the mother because the sperm cell's mitochondria are excluded from the fertilized egg.

Sometimes these mitochondria will have defects in their DNA. If that's the case, usually in a fertilized egg you'll have some normal and some defective mitochondria. As the fertilized egg divides and divides again, the mitochondria divide independently and the normal and defective mitochondria end up randomly distributed throughout the embryo. Depending on which organs the defective mitochondria end up in, the mitochondrial disease causes a variety of problems (the problems are more severe if the defective mitochondria are in energy-intensive tissues like muscle, brain, or liver). So it's possible that if you're a woman with a fairly mild mitochondrial disease, your child could have a much more severe form.

The proposed treatment works as follows: a woman with mitochondrial disease and her partner use in vitro fertilization to make a fertilized egg, as normal, but then the nuclei (which contain the vast majority of DNA) are taken out and put into a healthy donor egg whose nucleus has been removed. The resulting zygote has genetic material from two parents plus a contribution of mitochondria from a third person.

Doesn't sound so bad, does it? But everywhere I look on the newsstand, it gets the sensationalistic headline of "Embryos with three parents" and "Embryo with two mothers" and so on, even though the third person contributes only 13-14 protein-coding genes (the rest of the mitochondrial genes are for ribosomal RNA and transfer RNA, which allow the mitochondria's own protein synthesis machinery to function independently of the cell's protein synthesis), compared to the estimated 20,000-25,000 genes that each parent contributes. The headline "three parents" is, I think, deeply misleading because it suggests that the three parents make similar genetic contributions to the child, along the lines of the aliens in the middle section of Asimov's The Gods Themselves.

In fact, I don't see that this is so different from surrogate pregnancy, where a fertilized egg is implanted in another woman's uterus - the womb has a huge influence on the growing embryo, so this "two mothers" idea applies just as much, if not more, to surrogate pregnancy as to this potential (emphasis on potential) treatment for mitochondrial disease. The disproportionate focus on mitochondrial donation seems to me to reflect an unhealthy fixation on genetic determinism and the continuing perception of nature and nurture as opposites.

But the top prize in misleading headlines must go to The Daily Telegraph, with the breathless headline, "Designer babies to wipe out diseases approved" - as if mitochondrial diseases were an infection that can be "wiped out." "Wiped out" also carries the connotation of eugenics, as if these babies were part of a plot to liquidate anyone with a mitochondrial disorder, or to prevent people with mitochondrial disorders from reproducing. Lest one think this was just a fault on the headline writer's part, the term "wipe out" is also used twice in the text.

We have enough trouble having a rational debate about reproductive technologies without misleading press coverage. Let's try to keep the public informed, not misled by scary headlines darkly hinting at eugenics.

PS: Via Flags and Lollipops, a column lambasting UK media's coverage of science in general with the following dead-on quote:
It is my hypothesis that in their choice of stories, and the way they cover them, the media create a parody of science, for their own means. They then attack this parody as if they were critiquing science.
Read the rest for a simultaneously entertaining yet thoroughly depressing analysis of how the press misrepresents science. The irony is that they then wonder why public mistrust of science has increased so much in recent years.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Damning by faint praise

You know those joke recommendation letters where the employer has nothing good to say about the employee and when pressed for praise says things like "His handwriting is excellent," "He is always punctual" or "His wife is very charming"? Here's one previous employer's take on Michael Brown:
"Yes. Mike Brown worked for me. He was my administrative assistant. He was a student at Central State University," recalls former city manager Bill Dashner. "Mike used to handle a lot of details. Every now and again I'd ask him to write me a speech. He was very loyal. He was always on time. He always had on a suit and a starched white shirt."

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Human brain still evolving

Here's some science news that's sure to cause some controversy: a research group led by Bruce Lahn at the University of Chicago is reporting here and here that they've found evidence for strong positive selection in very recent human history for certain genetic variants of two genes involved in determining brain size (one, microcephalin, is said to have been selected for within the last 37,000 years, and the other, ASPM, within the last 5,800). On its own, this is neither surprising nor controversial: natural selection never stops and still acts on human populations today. But here's the kicker:
They report that with microcephalin, a new allele arose about 37,000 years ago, although it could have appeared as early as 60,000 or as late as 14,000 years ago. Some 70 percent or more of people in most European and East Asian populations carry this allele of the gene, as do 100 percent of those in three South American Indian populations, but the allele is much rarer in most sub-Saharan Africans.

With the other gene, ASPM, a new allele emerged some time between 14,100 and 500 years ago, the researchers favoring a mid-way date of 5,800 years. The allele has attained a frequency of about 50 percent in populations of the Middle East and Europe, is less common in East Asia, and found at low frequency in some sub-Saharan Africa peoples.
I'm bracing myself for racist misinterpretation of these results: people will grab on to this to claim that this is scientific proof that black people are genetically determined to be less intelligent than whites, Asians, and others.

The key thing to notice is that these are only two genes out of several that control brain size (and many, many others that control how the brain is wired up and how it changes with learning and memory):
[Lead author] Dr. Lahn said there may be a dozen or so genes that affect the size of the brain, each making a small difference yet one that can be acted on by natural selection. "It's likely that different populations would have a different make-up of these genes, so it may all come out in the wash," he said. In other words, East Asians and Africans probably have other brain enhancing alleles, not yet discovered, that have spread to high frequency in their populations.
And obviously, brain size is not the whole story when it comes to intelligence - so the set of interesting brain genes isn't just the "dozen or so" regulating brain size, but includes those with more subtle effects on the wiring of neural circuits.

What's more, we don't even know if the selected-for allele actually affects brain size compared to the other alleles - it could have some completely different effect that was selected for. (After all, genes don't encode brain size; they encode proteins that regulate, for example, how long neural stem cells keep dividing. These mechanisms happen at the molecular level, and so could have other effects beyond just cell proliferation.) To look at this, you'd have to examine people's actual brain size and compare that to which alleles of ASPM and/or microcephalin they have.

Fortunately, Dr. Lahn appears to be appropriately cautious about interpreting his group's results. Meanwhile, get ready for people to read too much into these results and then start claiming that it's "just political correctness" that makes this controversial and praising Lahn for his "courage in standing up against the liberal academic orthodoxy" or some other such nonsense.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Democracy and the religious right

I noted in my last post that in response to the passage of a bill to allow same-sex marriage by the elected California legislature, the Governator adopts the curious tactic of saying that the matter is for the courts to decide, not the legislature, neatly reversing the usual rhetoric about "activist judges." This isn't completely stupid, in that the constitutionality of Proposition 22 is still working its way through the courts and it's not clear that the legislature can constitutionally overturn a voter-approved proposition.

But this is:
"Engaging in social experimentation with our children is not the role of the legislature," said Assemblyman Ray Haynes, a Republican from Southern California.
It's clear what the religious right is moving toward: one day when gay marriage is approved by a majority of voters in a referendum, they'll have worked through the progressive defenses of "activist judges" and "activist legislators," and will eventually have to denounce the "activist voters." Because what they really mean is that "engaging in social experimentation with our children" is not the role of anyone. This nice little slip into denouncing democratically elected legislatures reveals what the religious right really thinks: that no power on earth has the legitimacy to legalize same-sex marriage, not even "the people." Remember that the next time they say "we should let the voters decide."

Update, 8 September: Scott Lemieux has more, specifically the idea that conservative ressentiment is very flexible and can be targeted at anyone. One more point - if California ever approves gay marriage through a voter-approved proposition, you can also bet the national religious right will blast "the voters of California" for "imposing their radical social agenda on the rest of the country."

I heart California

The California legislature has just passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage, making it the first time an elected body has legalized same-sex marriage (not just civil unions, as in Connecticut) of its own accord in the United States. Go California!!!

Unfortunately, this will probably lead nowhere, as Schwarzenegger is almost certain to veto it (due to pressure from his own party, since he personally almost certainly has no problem with gay marriage). But because the old "activist judge" saw is no longer available - the democratically elected and accountable legislature having passed the bill - he now flips the argument on its head and uses as an excuse - wait for it -
Signaling a likely veto if it does pass, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's spokeswoman said he preferred to let judges sort out the legality of gay marriage; such a case is moving toward the state Supreme Court.

GOP welfare state

While I'm linking to Washington Monthly articles, here's a fascinating one about the use of Alaskan native-owned corporations to funnel federal money to big (white-owned) corporations in non-competitive federal contracts. Read the whole thing to understand how it works, but here's a quote that sums up what it represents:
It is ... an illustration of how government now works under GOP control. Once upon a time, when Democrats ran Washington, federal tax dollars for the poor and other constituencies flowed largely through federal agencies and projects. The system was often inefficient, didn't always do much for its intended beneficiaries, and over the years became unpopular with voters. Now, a new system is arising, one more in tune with the zeitgeist. The new system funnels tax dollars not through wasteful federal bureaucracies but through crony capitalist enterprises. It is as inefficient and ineffective as the old system, maybe more so. But while the old system bolstered Democratic control of Washington, this one supports Republican rule. Welcome, then, to the new conservative welfare state.

...While some in Washington are uneasy about its costs and corrupting effects, many in the GOP leadership view it as a model for the kind of federal government they would like to see more of. It is a privatized system that circumvents the civil service, enriches politically-connected corporations, provides a trickle of money to the poor, and secures Republican power. For some conservatives, in other words, the Eskimo loophole is not a failed experiment in social engineering. It is the future.

Romney's evangelical problem

Last week I wrote about how Mitt Romney's Mormonism will pose problems for his presidential aspirations in 2008. In this month's Washington Monthly, Amy Sullivan agrees, and explores in some detail just how much evangelicals despise Mormonism and how this will play out in a potential 2008 campaign.

Sometimes amid evangelicals' social agenda, I forget that in the end they really are motivated by religion. It's not just the fuzzy "religion" embodied by "family values," but a real theology with very particular doctrines that are taken with a seriousness completely out of proportion to reality.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Bizarre parasite manipulation

Via the NYTimes comes news of a parasitic worm that grows inside grasshoppers and manipulates its host's behavior: when it comes time for the worm to move to fresh water, it actually induces the grasshopper to jump into water (a lethal activity for the grasshopper, which cannot swim). (Paper here.)
Biologists have discovered and hope to decipher a deadly cross talk between the genomes of a grasshopper and a parasitic worm that infects it. The interaction occurs as the worm induces the grasshopper to seek out a large body of water and then leap into it.

The parasite, known as a hairworm, lives and breeds in fresh water. But it spends the early part of its life cycle eating away the innards of the grasshoppers and crickets it infects.

When it is fully grown, it faces a difficult problem, that of returning to water. So it has evolved a clever way of influencing its host to deliver just one further service - the stricken grasshopper looks for water and dives in. ...

"We found the parasite produces and injects proteins into the brain of its host," Dr. Thomas said.

Two of the proteins belonged to a well-known family of signaling agents known as the Wnt family that are deployed in developing the cells of the nervous system.

Though produced by the worm, the two proteins seemed similar to insect-type proteins and perhaps developed so as to mimic them.
Lest you think that only lowly creatures such as grasshoppers are subject to such behavior manipulation, human behavior seems to be manipulated by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, a relative of the malarial parasite Plasmodium. Humans are not the target host of Toxoplasma (it reproduces in cats but infects many other hosts indiscriminately) but it's estimated that up to one billion people are infected. Toxoplasma grows inside cells but usually lies dormant inside cysts, anywhere in the body but most notably in the brain. It usually has no effects unless the immune system is compromised (toxoplasmosis is a common cause of death from AIDS, and is dangerous to unborn fetuses, whose immune systems are not yet active). However, as Chris of Mixing Memory summarizes here (with references), Toxoplasma infection seems to change the personality of the host: "Men become dirty, dogmatic recluses, and women become naive, outgoing, and promiscuous." It also slows reaction times and makes the host 2.65 times more likely to get into car accidents. It may even increase the risk of schizophrenia.

Why would Toxoplasma do this? In its natural life cycle, it reproduces in cats, releases oocysts in the cat's feces, which may be eaten by a prey animal, where it grow; if this prey is then eaten by a cat, it's back to the cat. The behavior manipulation comes in at the stage where the prey is eaten by the cat: rodents infected with Toxoplasma lose their fear of cat odor, have defective learning and memory, and show (like humans) slow reaction times: all things that would help them get eaten by a cat.

Since rodent and human nervous systems have a great deal of homology, it seems likely that the "strategy" that Toxoplasma uses on rodents also goes to work on humans. The going hypothesis is that Toxoplasma infection changes neurotransmitter levels, for example increasing dopamine levels. This could explain the increased risk of schizophrenia (which is thought to be related to increased dopamine levels) and the personality changes (increased background dopamine levels are correlated to reduced novelty seeking in humans). Dopamine is also involved in motor coordination (Parkinson's disease is caused by the degeneration of dopaminergic neurons in the basal ganglia), so slow reaction times could also be related to dopamine levels. It could be that the infection induces an inflammatory response by the immune system (this response is what holds the infection in check in cysts), and some of the inflammatory chemicals (called interleukins) could influence levels of neurotransmitters, including dopamine.

All this just goes to show how effective parasites can be in sneakily manipulating the behavior of their hosts. We saw earlier that malaria parasites make their human hosts smell more attractive to mosquitoes: I honestly wouldn't be surprised if it turns out that malaria also makes people want to spend more time outside or hang around stagnant pools of water.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Random thought

In the course of reading Hartz's The Liberal Tradition in America, I found this interesting quote by Veblen:
It was the fortune of the American people to have taken their point of departure from the European situation when the system of Natural Liberty was still 'obvious and simple,' [while other colonial enterprises] have had their institutional point of departure blurred with a scattering of the holdovers that were brought in again by the return wave of reaction in Europe, as well as by these later-come stirrings of radical discontent that have questioned the eternal fitness of the sytem of Natural Liberty itself.
In other words, that U.S. was settled and founded in a particular historical age when Europeans were naively impressed enough with liberalism to make it the founding principle of a new nation. (Hartz's thesis is that America basically left behind feudalism and thus missed out on conservatism, socialism, fascism, and all the rest of the European nightmare by maintaining the hegemony of is founding liberalism.)

This made me think about the (admittedly fanciful) possibility of the same phenomenon in the science fiction future: if we humans eventually send out colonies into space (whether to other planets or even just orbiting settlements), what founding ideologies will they take with them? A lot of the analysis of why America turned out the way it did centers on its first colonists - settlers of disproportionately middle classes, particular religious beliefs ("city upon a hill," etc.) - who were not representative of the home population. Would the same thing happen in the future? What ideologies will settlers take and leave behind?

Things to consider:
  • The putative "end of history", or nonexistence thereof
  • Will space colonization be dominated by the West?
  • Genetic engineering
  • Expense of space travel (i.e., will emigrants be middle-class or super-rich?)

The complete breakdown of civil society

I just heard someone on the ground in New Orleans on the radio describe the situation there as "the complete breakdown of civil society."

Words fail me.
NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- The mayor of New Orleans issued a "desperate SOS" Thursday as violence disrupted efforts to rescue people still trapped in the flooded city and evacuate thousands of displaced residents living amid corpses and human waste. ...

The evacuation of patients from Charity Hospital was halted after the facility came under sniper fire, while groups of armed men wandered the streets, buildings smoldered and people picked through stores for what they could find. ...

[CNN correspondent Chris Lawrence reports,] "There are multiple people dying at the convention center," Lawrence said. "There was an old woman, dead in a wheelchair with a blanket draped over her, pushed up against a wall. Horrible, horrible conditions.

"We saw a man who went into a seizure, literally dying right in front of us."

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Looting and finding

Several people have noted the racism underlying the Yahoo news captions that describe black looters as "looting" goods but white looters as "finding" goods.

Here's a handy reference in case anyone's confused.

Yahoo's apology: "Yahoo! News regrets that these photos and captions, viewed together, may suggest a racial bias on our part. We remain committed to bringing our readers the full collection of photos as transmitted by our wire service partners." (Apparently the "looting" captions were from AP and "finding" captions from Getty and Yahoo doesn't edit photo captions.)

So maybe it's not a racial bias on Yahoo's part - it's a racial bias that permeates all of society and subtly influences journalists who send wire reports.

I feel much better now.

Recent comments

I've added a "Recent comments" feature on the sidebar, based on this Blogger hack, with a few tweaks (though it only works on the main page, not post pages). So now it's easy to see how people are responding to my posts - check it out!