Saturday, April 27, 2013

when do babies become conscious?

sciencemag | For everyone who's looked into an infant's sparkling eyes and wondered what goes on in its little fuzzy head, there's now an answer. New research shows that babies display glimmers of consciousness and memory as early as 5 months old.

For decades, neuroscientists have been searching for an unmistakable signal of consciousness in electrical brain activity. Such a sign could determine whether minimally conscious or anesthetized adults are aware—and when consciousness begins in babies.

Studies on adults show a particular pattern of brain activity: When your senses detect something, such as a moving object, the vision center of your brain activates, even if the object goes by too fast for you to notice. But if the object remains in your visual field for long enough, the signal travels from the back of the brain to the prefrontal cortex, which holds the image in your mind long enough for you to notice. Scientists see a spike in brain activity when the senses pick something up, and another signal, the "late slow wave," when the prefrontal cortex gets the message. The whole process takes less than one-third of a second.

Researchers in France wondered if such a two-step pattern might be present in infants. The team monitored infants' brain activity through caps fitted with electrodes. More than 240 babies participated, but two-thirds were too squirmy for the movement-sensitive caps. The remaining 80 (ages 5 months, 12 months, or 15 months) were shown a picture of a face on a screen for a fraction of a second.

Cognitive neuroscientist Sid Kouider of CNRS, the French national research agency, in Paris watched for swings in electrical activity, called event-related potentials (ERPs), in the babies' brains. In babies who were at least 1 year old, Kouider saw an ERP pattern similar to an adult's, but it was about three times slower. The team was surprised to see that the 5-month-olds also showed a late slow wave, although it was weaker and more drawn out than in the older babies. Kouider speculates that the late slow wave may be present in babies as young as 2 months.

This late slow wave may indicate conscious thought, Kouider and colleagues report online today in Science. The wave, feedback from the prefrontal cortex, suggests that the image is stored briefly in the baby's temporary "working memory." And consciousness, Kouider says, is composed of working memory. 

Friday, April 26, 2013

oil men are not in the business of producing oil, they're in the business of producing profits

gregpalast | Like most lefty journalists, I assumed that George Bush and Tony Blair invaded Iraq to buy up its oil fields, cheap and at gun-point, and cart off the oil. We thought we knew the neo-cons true casus belli: Blood for oil.

But the truth in the confidential Options for Iraqi Oil Industry was worse than "Blood for Oil". Much, much worse.

The key was in the flow chart on page 15, Iraq Oil Regime Timeline & Scenario Analysis:

"...A single state-owned company ...enhances a government's relationship with OPEC."

Let me explain why these words rocked my casbah.

I'd already had in my hands a 101-page document, another State Department secret scheme, first uncovered by Wall Street Journal reporter Neil King, that called for the privatization, the complete sell-off of every single government-owned asset and industry. And in case anyone missed the point, the sales would include every derrick, pipe and barrel of oil, or, as the document put it, "especially the oil".

That plan was created by a gaggle of corporate lobbyists and neo-cons working for the Heritage Foundation. In 2004, the plan's authenticity was confirmed by Washington power player Grover Norquist. (It's hard to erase the ill memory of Grover excitedly waving around his soft little hands as he boasted about turning Iraq into a free-market Disneyland, recreating Chile in Mesopotamia, complete with the Pinochet-style dictatorship necessary to lock up the assets – while behind Norquist, Richard Nixon snarled at me from a gargantuan portrait.)

The neo-con idea was to break up and sell off Iraq's oil fields, ramp up production, flood the world oil market – and thereby smash OPEC and with it, the political dominance of Saudi Arabia.

General Jay Garner also confirmed the plan to grab the oil. Indeed, Garner told me that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld fired him, when the General, who had lived in Iraq, complained the neo-con grab would set off a civil war. It did. Nevertheless, Rumsfeld replaced Garner with a new American viceroy, Paul Bremer, a partner in Henry Kissinger's firm, to complete the corporate takeover of Iraq's assets – "especially the oil".

But that was not to be. While Bremer oversaw the wall-to-wall transfer of Iraqi industries to foreign corporations, he was stopped cold at the edge of the oil fields.

How? I knew there was only one man who could swat away the entire neo-con army: James Baker, former Secretary of State, Bush family consiglieri and most important, counsel to Exxon-Mobil Corporation and the House of Saud.

(One unwitting source was industry oil-trading maven Edward Morse of Lehman/Credit Suisse, who threatened to sue Harper's Magazine for my quoting him. Morse denied I ever spoke with him. But when I played the tape from my hidden recorder, his memory cleared and he scampered away.)

Weirdly, I was uncovering that the US oil industry was using its full political mojo to prevent their being handed ownership of Iraq's oil fields. That's right: The oil companies did NOT want to own the oil fields – and they sure as hell did not want the oil. Just the opposite. They wanted to make sure there would be a limit on the amount of oil that would come out of Iraq.

There was no way in hell that Baker's clients, from Exxon to Abdullah, were going to let a gaggle of neo-con freaks smash up Iraq's oil industry, break OPEC production quotas, flood the market with six million barrels of Iraqi oil a day and thereby knock its price back down to $13 a barrel where it was in 1998.

Big Oil simply could not allow Iraq's oil fields to be privatized and taken from state control. That would make it impossible to keep Iraq within OPEC (an avowed goal of the neo-cons) as the state could no longer limit production in accordance with the cartel's quota system..

The problem with Saddam was not the threat that he'd stop the flow of oil – he was trying to sell more. The price of oil had been boosted 300 percent by sanctions and an embargo cutting Iraq's sales to two million barrels a day from four. With Saddam gone, the only way to keep the damn oil in the ground was to leave it locked up inside the busted state oil company which would remain under OPEC (i.e. Saudi) quotas.

The James Baker Institute quickly and secretly started in on drafting the 323-page plan for the State Department. In May 2003, w ith authority granted from the top (i.e. Dick Cheney), ex-Shell Oil USA CEO Phil Carroll was rushed to Baghdad to take charge of Iraq's oil. He told Bremer, "There will be no privatization of oil – END OF STATEMENT." Carroll then passed off control of Iraq's oil to Bob McKee of Halliburton, Cheney's old oil-services company, who implemented the Baker "enhance OPEC" option anchored in state ownership.

Some oil could be released, mainly to China, through limited, but lucrative, "production sharing agreements".

And that's how George Bush won the war in Iraq. The invasion was not about "blood for oil", but something far more sinister: blood for no oil. War to keep supply tight and send prices skyward.

Oil men, whether James Baker or George Bush or Dick Cheney, are not in the business of producing oil. They are in the business of producing profits.

on religion...,

  • Religion is a set of beliefs for which there is no evidence: these beliefs include god, devil, soul, after-life, original sin, heaven, hell, the 5000 year old flat-earth, and also can include denial of evolution, climate change,  and more. Some of it might be allegory, but many think it is literally true.
  • Science is also a set of beliefs for which there IS evidence:  to verify the results there is a peer-review process, continual refinement. Over the centuries we have learned a lot and benefited in many ways: better medicine, smart technology. We are poorer in that there is much more destructive war, and massive pollution including massive additions of greenhouse gas to the atmosphere.
These are not the only basis for beliefs though:

  • There are politicians, academics, and others who will support any set of beliefs for pay. These are people who are responsible for our dysfunctional institutions, including government. For want of a term, we could call them schills. As Lawrence Lessig points out so well in his book Republic Lost, Congress responds to money.
  • There are many people who believe what they hear without verification: they trust what they hear from their neighbors, internet, news groups,  mass media, or even from Fox news.  Payment for belief is the basis for extreme expense in political campaigns. It can create grass-roots activists for the tobacco industry, the NRA, or even climate denialists. It is the reason for the existence of the very profitable advertising industry.
Reality will win. Science is our best view of reality and is usually our best predictor. The climate doesn't care what we think. Because we have burned too much fossil fuel, Earth will warm, the glaciers will melt, the arctic ocean will be ice free, there will no longer be fresh drinking water from the melt, the land will dry, fires will rage, forests will disappear, the waters will become acid, many species will go extinct, food will get too expensive for most.  As a result, the economy will be destroyed. Population will have to shrink to a level the earth can support. This will be accompanied by mass migrations, social unrest, and most likely wars.

Using these definitions: Economics is a religion when there is no attempt to base it on facts. If, however, there are people who carefully study the evidence, and propose policy solutions based on the best available knowledge, I would argue that they aspire to be scientists and should be respected as such. Economics has both kinds of people. Voodoo or supply-side economics has long been discredited, but carries on as religion. Nobel prize winning economists, like Joe Stiglitz or Paul Krugman, deserve respect as scholars and scientists. To say this is also to take sides in the politics. It is usually best to side with people with deep knowledge of their subject, not the ones who can't accept science.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

shamanism is entheogenesis - alkhemia concerns the alkahest...,

realitysandwich |  In Plato, Shamanism, and Ancient Egypt, the writer Jeremy Naydler argues that there is good reason to believe that Plato and other Greek philosophers journeyed to Egypt in order to receive some form of initiation. In Plato's case, according to Naydler, this led to his philosophy -- to which, as Alfred North Whitehead remarked, all subsequent western thought is merely a footnote, which suggests that a book on The Egyptian Roots of Western Philosophy remains to be written. Exactly what Plato and the others received may not be absolutely clear, but Naydler believes that by trying to understand Plato's relationship to Egypt, we can gain a firmer grasp, not only on Plato's ideas, but also on "that deep current of thought and spiritual practice known as the Hermetic tradition."

Naydler argues that some form of shamanism was involved in ancient Egyptian spiritual practice. Naydler points out that the central narrative in Egyptian mythology is the story of Osiris' dismemberment at the hands of his evil brother Set and his resurrection by his consort Isis, and argues that this is paralleled in the dismemberment motifs in shamanic initiation rituals. He also argues that the journey of the soul through the underworld -- what the Egyptians called the Duat -- as described in the Book of the Going Forth By Day, otherwise known as Egyptian Book of the Dead, can be found in shamanic ritual, as can be the idea of a spiritual ascent, which is another Egyptian theme. In both shamanic and Egyptian religious accounts, this ascent to the sky takes place via wings or a kind of ladder, and it should come as no surprise that a parallel idea appears in the Hermetic notion of a journey through the planets to the "Eighth sphere." That Plato described a version of this stellar ascent too, suggests for Naydler that his version and the Hermetic one stem from the same source.

Predictably, for 'official' Egyptology, Naydler's ideas put him the lunatic camp, as most mainstream Egyptologists reject the notion of Egyptian shamanism. They reject it because, Naydler argues, they are fixated on the funerary interpretation of Egyptian religious texts, such as the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Like the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Egyptian Book of the Dead is a collection of hymns, spells, incantations, magical 'power words,' and instructions used to guide the soul of the deceased in the after-world; unlike the Tibetan Book of the Dead, however, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which is much older, is an often wildly heterogeneous assembly of writings, gathered over millennia, and is not really a book at all, at least not in the modern sense. Its earliest 'chapters,' known as the Pyramid Texts, were written on the walls of the tombs of the pharaohs circa 2350-2175 BC, but originated in sources much earlier; the practice of mummification and concern for the afterlife can be dated to at least 3100 BC, and according to the occult scholar Lewis Spence, an inscription on the sarcophagus of Queen Khnem-Nefert, of the 11th Dynasty (circa 2500 BC) states that a chapter of the Book of the Dead was discovered in the reign of Hosep-ti, the fifth king of the 1st Dynasty, "who flourished about 4266 BC."

We may take Spence's remark with a grain of salt, but the fact remains that the material making up the Book of the Dead is at least five thousand years old. Later parts of it, circa 1700 BC, came from what are known as the Coffin Texts, writings found on the sides of wooden coffins, or contained in scrolls placed with the dead. Although originally reserved for the pharaohs, this sort of Rough Guide to the afterlife gradually became available to anyone who could afford a scribe to copy it out. Perhaps the most well known version is the Papyrus of Ani, a copy of the Book of the Dead made for the scribe Ani circa 1240 BC, which contains the famous illustration of the god Anubis weighing Ani's heart on the scale of Ma'at, the goddess of justice. Late versions appeared with blank spaces for the names of individuals not yet dead. Initially the privilege of an elite, the spiritual rebirth associated with the journey through the underworld became over time something more democratic.

Yet while the funerary aspect of the Book of the Dead was certainly made use of, Naydler argues that the text had another, more central use. It was, he believes, a manual on how to "practise dying," a method of learning how to experience the separation of the soul from the body, which normally happens only in physical death, while still alive. Naydler argues that as this was also the aim of Plato's philosophy -- the Phaedo famously argues that philosophy is a "preparation for death" -- there is good reason to believe that rather than merely picking up an idea that was 'in the air,' Plato learned it at first hand from the priests at Heliopolis. The belief that one's nous, or mind, was immortal while one's body was subject to death and decay was, as a central theme of the Hermetic teachings, and this suggests that, rather than repackaging Platonic ideas - as some have argued the Corpus Hermeticum does -- both it and Plato's philosophy originated from the same source.

entropy the root of intelligence?

forbes | We have been taught to think of entropy as a bad thing. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” wrote William Butler Yeats in the aftermath of World War I, in words that still ring true today. Yet Yeats was both a Romantic poet and a Modern one, and he followed up this couplet with a more counterintuitive one, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst /Are full of passionate intensity.”

These lines have always been a kind of zen koan for me. Lack of conviction would seem to lead to “mere anarchy,” but so often we find that it is fervent, fixed beliefs that lead us astray. Throughout history, poets, philosophers and heretics of all kinds have tried to express the kind of openness of mind that leads to reliably good outcomes. In the 70s Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics introduced a generation to the intersection of science and Eastern thought. Now, we can add a computational physicist to that crowd.

Alexander Wissner-Gross, a scientist, inventor, and entrepreneur associated with both the Harvard University Institute for Applied Computational Science and the MIT Media Lab, has proposed a theory of “Causal Entropic Forces,” that seeks to formalize the “deep connection between intelligence and entropy maximization.”

Put on your thinking caps here. Wissner-Gross completed a triple major—in Physics, Electrical Science and Engineering, and Mathematics—and graduated first in his class from the MIT School of Engineering. His idea is really very simple, but he has the mathematics (see link to paper above) and visualizations (see video below) to back it up. In short, everything in nature (our minds included) seeks to keep its options open. Instead of seeing entropy as a form of destruction (things falling apart) Wissner-Gross shows it to be a state of active play.

Wissner-Gross and Cameron Freer, a mathematician at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, “developed an equation that … describes many intelligent or cognitive behaviors, such as upright walking and tool use,” according to an article in Inside Science. They see “intelligence as a fundamentally thermodynamic process,” where any given system engages in a “physical process of trying to capture as many future histories as possible.”

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

the vast active living intelligence system revisited

realitysandwich |  For most people, Philip K. Dick (hereafter known as PKD) is best known through films like Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly, which were all based on his writings. Classic movies like The Matrix and Vanilla Sky also owe a great debt to PKD's work. What is not so well known is that PKD was a bit of a latter-day mystic, a man who spent the last decade or so of his life struggling to come to terms with a series of visionary experiences (not related to psychedelics) that befell him in the early 1970s. In these experiences, PKD felt as if some vast cosmic intelligence was communicating with him, as if a deity was slipping him secret information. Such was the impact of these theophanies that he chose to incorporate their thematic content into a number of novels as well as an eight-thousand-page exegesis. To the consternation of his peers, PKD began to be not a little obsessed with ideas of "divine invasion" and the like, his last books testifying to his escalating interest in theology and theistic philosophy (interestingly, his last novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, partly concerns the search for a sacred mushroom).

Since his death it has been speculated that PKD suffered from what is known as temporal lobe epilepsy -- a brain disorder that can lead to hallucinatory experiences -- and that this explains his mystical encounters. However, leaving aside the contentiousness of this claim, it does not deal with the burning issue of immediate mystical experience. To label an experience in order to explain it away is to avoid the very real nature of the mystical experience, however it should arise. In fact, as Huxley noted in The Doors of Perception, we should not be surprised if there is always unusual neuronal activity concurrent with a mystical experience, for, as we have seen, modified neuronal firing patterns are related to expanded forms of consciousness. Altered forms of awareness demand altered brain processes, and such a change in brain state can be achieved in many different ways, whether through psilocybin mushrooms, endogenous DMT, yoga, meditation, fasting, or spontaneous epileptic disturbances. Mystical experience is therefore not to be conveniently disposed of with a diagnostic label.

Even before his visionary experiences, PKD had long fought to discover the true nature of reality. It was his pet fascination. In a talk he delivered in the late 1970s, he admitted that for all the years he had thought about the question "what is reality?" he had gotten no further than concluding that reality was that which remained even if you stopped believing in it. Admittedly a thin definition, it is nonetheless indicative that the true nature of reality is not so easily pinned down.

PKD juggled with countless explanations for his mystical experiences. Some involved a Judeo-Christian God, others involved the Logos outlined in some of the Gnostic gospels (these are the "alternative" gospels dug up at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945), while others even opted for an advanced extraterrestrial intelligence. Whatever the case, PKD was certain that he had been "contacted" by some form of advanced transcendental intelligence-cum-Other.

One of his more enduring theories concerned VALIS, which is an acronym for "vast active living intelligence system," a notion that accords well with our intelligent Other. In the semiautobiographical novel of the same name, VALIS is a hidden entity of immense power and sentience that is in the process of infiltrating our reality by establishing communication with certain individuals. These disclosures are experienced as theophany. For our purposes, the key point is that VALIS is essentially outside of our dimension, but able to penetrate our world. The question arises as to the feasibility that a superior intelligence exists in another dimension with the capacity to move across into ours. This is one of our fanciful options concerning the Other.

psilocybin and natural intelligence

realitysandwich | Although the concept of natural intelligence is pretty much unknown (a humble attempt by me to put up a definition of natural intelligence on Wikipedia was summarily rejected) and although the notion that evolution is bound up with intelligence might make some people uneasy, there is undoubtedly room for such a new way of thinking in the collective human psyche. After all, despite the passage of one and a half centuries since Charles Darwin first formulated the theory, evolution is still very much a hotly debated topic and of great interest to people from all walks of life. To be sure, the issue over the veracity of evolution as an explanation for the tree of life's existence has become markedly polarised of late. On the one hand you have the religious approach which either flatly denies biological evolution or else sees natural selection as being incapable of explaining certain complex features of bio-logic (the latter sentiments belong to the proponents of Intelligent Design, a growing movement in the USA which is basically Creationist at heart). Either way, supernatural forces are invoked to explain our existence (i.e. forces lying wholly outside of Nature). On the other hand you have the orthodox scientific approach as formidably evinced by people like Richard Dawkins. For Dawkins and his growing army of atheists, evolution and Nature are devoid of intelligence, purpose and design. Evolution just happens. Why Nature should be endowed with the potential to grow a tree of life to the point of conscious minds is not raised.

In light of this vociferous debate, I believe that the paradigm of natural intelligence represents a reconciling point of view. It does not deny what science tells us about living organisms. Rather it reinterprets the data gathered by science and views evolution as a clever and sensible process that weaves together clever and sensible systems of bio-logic. In this light, the biosphere is more than a simple label for all life on Earth. The biosphere can be seen as a global network of interlocking natural intelligence whose collective acumen has been honed over three and a half billion years. DNA can be seen as the means through which natural intelligence, in its bio-logical expression, is recorded, a gene pool being akin to a kind of organic hard-drive of learned information. The virtue of substances like psilocybin is that they allow one to directly perceive natural intelligence. Phenomena like living things that were previously overlooked, suddenly reveal their compliment of natural intelligence. Plants, for instance, come to life more under the spell of psilocybin. They are no longer inert bits of greenery but rather they radiate organic intelligence, organic purpose, organic design, and organic sophistication. The same thing happens with insects. An insect viewed under the influence of psilocybin transforms itself into a kind of futuristic micro-aircraft. In either case, intelligence of some natural yet highly refined kind is readily apparent.

So what happens once you begin to grok life in this way? What happens when you begin, as Aldous Huxley wrote, to perceive the world with non-utilitarian eyes? The answer is that you begin to see the tree of life in more objective terms, its branches and shoots made not simply of genes and cells but of natural intelligence. Just as we can view the human mind's intelligence as a flow of informational objects in mind/brain space, so too can we view natural intelligence as a flow of informational objects in 3D space. In this dazzling psychedelic light, a plant is like a living idea, or theory, underscored by DNA and constantly being tested by the rest of Nature so as to ascertain whether it makes contextual sense or not. A deciduous Oak tree represents a manifest expression of one kind of naturally intelligent theory, an evergreen pine tree represents an alternative theory. Both theories make good sense and both have withstood the test of time. The point is that life is clearly smart. Genes contain hard won wisdom, a genome being a library of such wisdom which is acted out through the medium of bio-logic. Thus, Nature authors life and Nature edits life and by so doing reflects itself, or mirrors itself, or knows itself, in evermore subtle ways. Nature is clearly not dumb and mindless as science might have us believe but rather the epitome of an ever-active intelligence. The trillions of frenetically metabolising cells that make up, say, the body and brain of Richard Dawkins, pay ample testimony to the orchestrational natural intelligence that must perforce be inherent in all living things as well as the natural forces that brought them into being.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

why does america lose its head over terror, but ignore its daily gun deaths?

guardian | So for those of you keeping score at home – locking down an American city: a proper reaction to the threat from one terrorist. A background check to prevent criminals or those with mental illness from purchasing guns: a dastardly attack on civil liberties. All of this would be almost darkly comic if not for the fact that more Americans will die needlessly as a result. Already, more than 30,000 Americans die in gun violence every year (compared to the 17 who died last year in terrorist attacks).

What makes US gun violence so particularly horrifying is how routine and mundane it has become. After the massacre of 20 kindergartners in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, millions of Americans began to take greater notice of the threat from gun violence. Yet since then, the daily carnage that guns produce has continued unabated and often unnoticed.

The same day of the marathon bombing in Boston, 11 Americans were murdered by guns. The pregnant Breshauna Jackson was killed in Dallas, allegedly by her boyfriend. In Richmond, California, James Tucker III was shot and killed while riding his bicycle – assailants unknown. Nigel Hardy, a 13-year-old boy in Palmdale, California, who was being bullied in school, took his own life. He used the gun that his father kept at home. And in Brooklyn, New York, an off-duty police officer used her department-issued Glock 9mm handgun to kill herself, her boyfriend and her one-year old child.

At the same time that investigators were in the midst of a high-profile manhunt for the marathon bombers that ended on Friday evening, 38 more Americans – with little fanfare – died from gun violence. One was a 22-year old resident of Boston. They are a tiny percentage of the 3,531 Americans killed by guns in the past four months – a total that surpasses the number of Americans who died on 9/11 and is one fewer than the number of US soldiers who lost their lives in combat operations in Iraq. Yet, none of this daily violence was considered urgent enough to motivate Congress to impose a mild, commonsense restriction on gun purchasers.

It's not just firearms that produce such legislative inaction. Last week, a fertiliser plant in West, Texas, which hasn't been inspected by federal regulators since 1985, exploded, killing 14 people and injuring countless others. Yet many Republicans want to cut further the funding for the agency (OSHA) that is responsible for such reviews. The vast majority of Americans die from one of four ailments – cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and chronic lung disease – and yet Republicans have held three dozen votes to repeal Obamacare, which expands healthcare coverage to 30 million Americans.

It is a surreal and difficult-to-explain dynamic. Americans seemingly place an inordinate fear on violence that is random and unexplainable and can be blamed on "others" – jihadists, terrorists, evil-doers etc. But the lurking dangers all around us – the guns, our unhealthy diets, the workplaces that kill 14 Americans every single day – these are just accepted as part of life, the price of freedom, if you will. And so the violence goes, with more Americans dying preventable deaths. But hey, look on the bright side – we got those sons of bitches who blew up the marathon.

goldbugs got spanked...,

kunstler | If the FBI can track down two homicidal Chechen nobodies inside of forty-eight hours of their Boston bombing caper, you kind of wonder how come the Bureau can't detect the odor of racketeering, insider trading, and wire fraud in this month's orchestrated smackdown of the gold futures markets, including the parts played by the Federal reserve, one or more too-big-to-fail banks, self-interested big money players such as George Soros, slumbering regulators at the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, and tractable editors at The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

Of course, US Attorney General Eric Holder, who oversees the FBI, has done a fair imitation of a Brooks Brothers store window mannequin for four years, but surely somewhere in the trackless labyrinth of American law enforcement there exists some dogged rogue investigator with a filament of nagging curiosity who might piece together the clunky train of events that may amount to the financial crime of the century. For instance, it can't be so difficult to determine who was behind the several hundred ton mass dump of paper gold contracts a week or so ago. There must be a pretty simple record of the transaction, retrievable with a warrant or a subpoena. Whatever entity did it -- still ostensibly unknown -- knowingly generated losses in the neighborhood of a billion dollars for itself. Was this just the cost of doing business? Or a favor owed, say, from a bank to its godfathers at the Fed, carried out to make the dollar look relatively a lot less unsound than it really is? Or a ruse to allow the custodians of bullion in US depositories re-acquire at bargain prices gold that has been stealthily hypothicated into oblivion? Or just to divert attention from their inability to make good on contracted deliveries of actual physical gold.

No official has yet answered why the Federal Reserve Bank of New York told the German government a couple of months ago that it would take seven years to return that country's gold held in safekeeping (across the ocean from the Russians) since the Cold War. The NY Fed must have a vessel under contract that makes the proverbial slow boat to China look like an ICBM.

Doesn't anybody want some answers to these questions, including how come the two aforementioned major newspapers published front-page stories calculated to justify, if not provoke, the most extreme negative sentiment in the precious metals markets, seemingly coordinated with Goldman Sachs advisories to short those markets? And what about a glance at the trading records to see who executed massive naked shorts? Wouldn't it be interesting if they were the same parties as the dumpers? And why? -- other than a strenuous intervention in the markets to make those markets look unreliable? Does anyone even remember that the purpose of financial exchanges is to verify and authenticate the clearing of trades to provide confidence that markets are honest so that real business can be conducted?

Monday, April 22, 2013

the invention of the jewish people

counterpunch | Perhaps the most persuasive source cited by Sand on the proselyte origins of Ashkenazi Jewry is Tel Aviv University linguist Paul Wexler, author of The Ashkenazic Jews: A Slavo-Turkic People in Search of a Jewish Identity  (and of The Non-Jewish Origins of the Sephardic Jews). Wexler argues that “the language known as Yiddish…developed in the bilingual Germano-Slavic lands in the 9th century as a Judaized form of Sorbian.” Sorbian is a Slavic language spoken today by about 50,000 people in southeast Brandenburg. “Yiddish is not a ‘form of German.’” The “tiny Jewish communities in the monolingual western German lands” cannot have been the basis of the millions of east European Jews. “Judeo-Sorbian underwent ‘re-lexification’…beginning with the 9th-10th centuries, but at the latest by the early 13th century.” “The result was…the grafting of [eastern] High German vocabulary…onto a Judeo-Sorbian syntax, phonology, phonotactics, and to some extent, morphotactics. Thus, despite its ‘German look,’ Yiddish remains a west Slavic language.” Modern Hebrew is also a Slavic language, not a “rebirth” of Old Semitic Hebrew, which is “impossible…because there are no native speakers to provide a native norm.” “Modern Hebrew simply embodies the syntax and sound system of the Eastern Yiddish language spoken by the first Modern Hebrew language planners in Ottoman Palestine, while its lexicon…was systematically replaced by Biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew vocabulary.”

Wexler argues from linguistic and other evidence “that the Ashkenazic Jews must have consisted of a mix of Greek, Balkan Romance and Balkan Slavic, Germano-Slavic and Turkic (Khazar, Avar) converts to Judaism and their descendants and only a minority of ethnic Jews—many of whom in all probability came from other parts of Europe rather than Palestine itself.” Wexler rejects the Khazar mass migration hypothesis on linguistic grounds, arguing that there was more conversion in place than migration. “Hence, contemporary Judaism is best defined not as the continuation of the Judaism which served as an antecedent of Christianity and Islam, but as a newly Judaized variant of European (mainly Slavic) paganism and Christianity…most of the features of Old Palestinian Judaism and Semitic Hebrew to be found in Ashkenazic ‘Judaism’ and Medieval Ashkenazic/Modern Israeli ‘Hebrew’ were latter borrowings rather than original inheritance [original emphasis].” This thesis has been obscured by philo-German and anti-Slavic chauvinism among scholars, Jewish and non-, of Ashkenazi Jewry, by disciplinary blinders, and by inertia.

Sand also considers Zionist racialism, from proto-Zionist Moses Hess, who “needed a good deal of racial theory to dream up the Jewish people,” to kibbutz godfather Arthur Ruppin’s “ideas about the Darwinist struggle of the ‘Jewish race’,” including consultations with “experts” in Nazi Germany, to the discreet attempt of Israeli genetics after 1948 “to discover a biological homogeneity among the Jews in the world” while investigating Jewish diseases, which revealed east European carriers of Tay-Sachs, but also Yemeni and Iraqi carriers of favism.  “Israel’s rule since 1967 over a growing non-Jewish population,” and concomitant need to “find an enclosing ethnobiological boundary” which highlights “the basic genetic similarities…and the small proportion of ‘alien’ genes in the genetic stock characteristic of Jews” led to “new findings” which “corroborated the literature about the dispersal and wanderings of the Jews from ancient times to the present. At last, biology confirmed history,” in the current pseudo-science of “Jewish genetics.”

Israel “became a world leader in the ‘investigation of the origins of populations’” even as “Israeli researchers…regularly blended historical mythologies and sociological assumptions with dubious and scanty genetic findings.” These included mitochondrial DNA purportedly showing that “40 per cent of all Ashkenazis in the world descend from four matriarchs (as in the Bible),” and a haplotype carried by 50 per cent of men named Cohen, which “proved” that “the Jewish priesthood was was indeed founded by a common ancestor thirty-three centuries ago.” This dreck appeared in publications such as Nature and the American Journal of Human Genetics, and was respectfully reported in Haaretz and elsewhere, but rarely skepticism or contrary findings. “Yet so far, no research had found unique and unifying characteristics of Jewish heredity based on a random sampling of genetic material whose ethnic origin is not known in advance…after all the costly ‘scientific’ endeavors, a Jewish individual cannot be defined by any biological criteria whatsoever.”

Sand’s account of Judaism, from exclusive Israelite genealogy, to Hellenic proselytizing, to proselytizing and conversion on the margins of Christianity, in Arabia, North Africa, Spain, and among the Khazars and the Slavs, to defensive introversion amidst the final triumph of Christianity, is the interesting and compelling story of a religious minority subject to normal historical forces.

The contrary view of the unitary Jewish people expelled from its homeland, and wandering aloof in exile for two thousand years, until beginning its return in the late 19th c., is a reactionary myth which Zionism has deployed to conquer Palestine and compel support for it. The myth prevails unchecked today not only in Israel but worldwide. Nothing “has challenged the fundamental concepts that were formed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” Advances in the study of nations and nationalism have not “affected the departments of the ‘History of the People of Israel’ (aka Jewish history) in Israeli universities.

the invention of the land of israel

guardian | In this second volume of his trilogy of Jewish studies, Sand explores how the 'Land of Israel' was invented, and debunks popular nationalist mythology. In 2009, Shlomo Sand published The Invention of the Jewish People, in which he claimed that Jews have little in common with each other. They had no common "ethnic" lineage owing to the high level of conversion in antiquity. They had no common language, since Hebrew was used only for prayer and was not even spoken at the time of Jesus. Yiddish was, at most, the language of Ashkenazi Jews. So what is left to unite them? Religion? But religion does not make a people – think of Muslims and Catholics. And most Jews are not religious. Zionism? But that is a political position: one can be a Scot and not a Scottish nationalist. Besides, the majority of Jews, including many Zionists, have not the slightest intention of going "back" to the Holy Land, much preferring, and who can blame them, to stay put in north London, or Brooklyn or wherever. In other words, "Jewish People" is a political construct, an invention. Now Sand tells us, in this second volume of what will be a trilogy, that even the "Land of Israel" was invented. Guardian readers who happen to be Jewish should brace themselves for the third volume: The Invention of the Secular Jew. All this takes considerable chutzpah.

The "Land of Israel" is barely mentioned in the Old Testament: the more common expression is the Land of Canaan. When it is mentioned, it does not include Jerusalem, Hebron, or Bethlehem. Biblical "Israel" is only northern Israel (Samaria) and there never was a united kingdom including both ancient Judea and Samaria.

Even had such a kingdom ever existed and been promised by God to the Jews, it is hardly a clinching argument for claiming statehood after more than 2,000 years. It is an irony of history that so many past Zionists, most of whom were secular Jews, often socialist, used religious arguments to buttress their case. Besides, the biblical account makes it quite clear (insofar as such accounts are ever clear) that the Jews, led by Moses and then by Joshua, were colonisers themselves and were commanded by God to exterminate "anything that breathes". "Completely destroy them – the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites – as the Lord your God has commanded you." Imagine if the Amorites came back and claimed their ancient land. If they did, this is what Deuteronomy 20 has to say: "Put to the sword all the men ... As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else ... you may take these as plunder for yourselves." Today, such an injunction would take you straight to the international criminal court.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

economics is politics in disguise

jayhanson | The economist's political agenda is pretty simple: establish a global self-regulating economic system.  In order to convert economic students into lifelong politicians, they are programmed via circular argument and "post hoc, ergo propter hoc" (after-the-fact) reasoning to believe the most flagrant violations of reality.  Consider five of the most outrageous.

#1. Economists are trained to believe that people are "rational utility maximizers" (calculate decisions according to "Bayes' Theorem"; i.e., Bentham's old "Felicity Calculus" in a new bottle). Although this belief was common one hundred years ago, only economists are still taught it: "Neoclassical economics is based on the premise that models that characterize rational, optimizing behavior also characterize actual human behavior." (R. Thaler, 1987).  This premise was shown to be false several years ago. [[11]] Thus, the entire modern economic edifice is nothing but junk!

#2. Economists are trained to believe that "money" has nothing to do with politics and is simply a medium of exchange.  But even the casual observer can see that money is social power because it "empowers" people to buy and do the things they want -- including buying and doing other people: politics.  Money is, in a word, "coercion", [[12]] and "economic efficiency" is correctly seen as a political concept designed to conserve social power for those who have it -- to make the rich, richer and the poor, poorer.

#3. Economists are trained to believe that people always "benefit" from free market transactions.  Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman explains: "Adam Smith's key insight was that both parties to an exchange can benefit and that, so long as cooperation is strictly voluntary, no exchange will take place unless both parties do benefit." [[13]]

Since economists do not explicitly define "benefit", one wonders how Friedman could possibly know?  In fact, he doesn't.  Friedman is brainwashing his students to further his own personal political agenda.  Economic professors like Friedman resort to meaningless, circular arguments to turn his students into robotic broadcasting devices.

Economists assume people make "rational" [[14]] decisions but abstain from testing that assumption.  Instead of testing, economists invoke "revealed preferences theory" which states that choices are rational because they are based on preferences that are known through the choices that are made. [[15]]  In other words, meaningless, circular arguments.

#4. Economists are trained to believe there are no "limits to growth".  Because they abstract everything to money, even leading economists like William Nordhaus can't imagine an economy that is physically limited by energy.  The best Nordhaus can do is to model increasing energy prices:

"The estimate is based on an energy model I constructed several years ago.  To estimate the drag on economic growth, I calculated the difference between the economic growth rate with actual energy supplies versus a case in which current (low cost) fuels were available in infinite quantities.  In the first case, energy prices would be rising, while in the second case of superabundence, relative energy prices would be constant.  This study indicated that the resource-limited case would lower net output in the middle of the next century by about 10 percent." [[16]]

Although Nordhaus thinks he is modeling "energy", he is actually modeling "energy prices".  There is a big difference!  What would have happened if he had modeled declining energy inputs instead of rising energy prices?  We already know the answer to that one:

"In late 1973 the first OPEC oil shock struck, as oil prices quadrupled and the general inflation indexes shot up to 11 percent.  More important, gasoline lines appeared.  Waiting in line to buy a basic commodity like gasoline is something that no American had ever experienced.  Shock and irritation were high, but those lines were like the first small heart attack -- an indication of mortality.  Maybe the American economy was growing old and becoming vulnerable.  Maybe the American economic dream of an ever rising standard of living was over.  Small may be beautiful, but if that phrase meant a lower standard of living, then the average American considered it a nightmare.

"The Nixon-Ford Administration responded with oil and gas price controls.  As a vehicle for holding down prices, controls were bound to fail.  For one thing, world prices would have to be paid on that part of consumption imported from abroad; for another, controls make it too easy for oil companies to hold oil in the ground or not to look for new supplies of oil until prices rose.  When controls did fail, the public's feeling that the federal government and its economists were incapable of managing anything efficiently was further reinforced.

"What was worse, economists could pose no solution to the energy problem. Influential professionals, such as Milton Friedman, predicted that the oil cartel would quickly fall apart.  It didn't.  Other economists recommended that prices be allowed to climb to world levels, but that wasn't a solution to the problem faced by the average American.  Higher prices would force him to change his life style.  He might respond to higher prices with smaller cars and colder houses as economists predicted, but he liked doing neither and he could vote.  No one considered a forced change in life style a solution.

"Once again, falling back on the principle that higher unemployment would produce lower inflation, monetary authorities tightened the rate of growth of the money supply in an effort to slow the economy, raise unemployment, and push inflation out of the economy.  This time the policies produced a credit crunch.  For six months in late 1974 and early 1975 the GNP fell at the fastest rate ever recorded.  Even the rates of decline in the Great Depression had been less precipitous -- although of course longer and deeper.  Anxieties quickly shifted from an unacceptable inflation rate to an unacceptable unemployment rate, and the term 'stagflation' was born.

"Stagflation was both a term and an indictment, since economists had taught that the phenomena -- slow growth, rising unemployment, and rising inflation -- could not all exist at the same time.  Yet they did." [[17]]

#5. Economists are trained to believe that we will never "run out" of a commodity.  This is because as prices increase, we will use less-and-less of it, but there will always be some available at some finite price.  Practically every economics textbook teaches this.  But every economics textbook is wrong because "energy" is fundamentally different from every other commodity.  There is no substitute for energy.  Energy is the prerequisite for all other commodities, so if we "run out" of energy, we will "run out" of everything else too.

By definition, energy "sources" must produce more energy than they consume, otherwise they are called "sinks".  By definition, energy sources have "run out" when they consume more energy than they produce.  This universal energy law holds no matter how high the money price of energy goes.  Economists completely overlook this basic energy law and have misled government regulators all over the world.

did you question authority yesterday?

Why is weed part of youth culture?

why are drugs part of common culture?

Kids aren't held down and force fed pot smoke until they are hooked. It's a great deal more than the simplistic label "peer pressure" implies. It is what we do, cultural norms. People want to get high together. If we saw that not as a sin but as a normal desire, why not educate ourselves, and educate our kids in what these chemicals do?

Not the reality-denying "no-no" negative emphasis, but the useful information required so that we could best enjoy the sought for pleasure with the least to no unwanted consequences. Why not be honest about what we want and who we are, rather than playing these horrific games of virtuous denial?

We are safest, sanest, happiest, truly dealing with these realities.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

review: the republican brain - the science of why they deny science and reality

energyskeptic | I doubt many Republicans are going to read this book. They ought to. Mooney is thoughtful and insightful. Compare his evidence-based book with the Republican counterpart, Ann Coulter’s “If Democrats Had Any Brains, They’d be Republican”.  Some chapter titles:
  • Teddy Kennedy: apparently fat, drunk, and stupid is a way to go through life
  • Liberal “argument”: hissing, scratching, and hair-pulling,
  • Liberalism and other psychological disorders
  • Liberal tactics: distortion, dissembling, deception—and the rest is just run-of-the-mill treason
  • Baby-killing: Abort liberals, not children
  • Blacks: the only thing standing between the democrat party and oblivion
  • Christians: must Reproduce More
  • Communism: a new fragrance by Hillary Clinton
  • Environmentalism: Adolf Hitler was the first environmentalist
  • Evolution, Alchemy, and other “settled” scientific theories
Some good news: not everyone is equally biased.  Many of us are capable of listening to others and changing our views.  But this varies a lot from person to person, because people differ in their need to defend their point of view, in their need to have convictions that must not change, in their need to believe their group is right, and in their need for unity with their group.  If you’re wired and strongly motivated to have unwavering convictions, it will be almost impossible to change your mind with any facts, logic, or reason.  Mooney makes the case that this kind of person has a conservative mind, and is therefore likely to be a Republican.
Mooney likens someone with a strongly held opinion that’s being challenged to experiencing a physical attack, because these beliefs are physically embedded in the brain.

Which means you can’t expect to come up with undeniable, irrefutable facts and suddenly change someone’s mind, since their strongly held beliefs are literally wired into their brains.

Linguist George Lakoff, at the University of California, Berkeley, says that to think you can change someone’s beliefs with well-reasoned arguments is not only naïve, it’s also unwise and ineffective.
Reasoning is emotional, what psychologists call hot reasoning. We are not coldly rational.  Not even scientists are immune.  But what makes science the most successful way we have of testing reality is the scientific method, since peer review, experimental replication, and critiques from other scientists mean that eventually the best ideas emerge despite any individual’s biases. Within scientific circles, it’s considered admirable to give up cherished ideas when evidence shows you to be wrong.

Mooney believes this is a key difference between liberals and conservatives.  Scientists are overwhelmingly liberal — they have to be, or they won’t get far in their profession.  Please note this does not mean that their scientific discoveries are liberal or democratic.  Scientific findings aren’t political, they’re reality, and only become “political” when spun that way.  The opposite of a scientist is a religious, authoritarian, political conservative, because they tend to have a strong need to never modify their deeply held beliefs, or to ever appear to be uncertain and indecisive.

Since most of the most important problems that need to be solved require scientific literacy, which less than 10% of Americans have, here’s how Mooney says scientific news is interpreted by the other 90% of the public:

“When it comes to the dissemination of science—or contested facts in general—across a nonscientific populace, a very different process is often occurring than the scientific one.  A vast number of individuals, with widely varying motivations, are responding to the conclusions that science, allegedly, has reached.  Or so they’ve heard.

They’ve heard through a wide variety of information sources—news outlets with differing politics, friends and neighbors, political elites—and are processing the information through different brains, with very different commitments and beliefs, and different psychological needs and cognitive styles. And ironically, the fact that scientists and other experts usually employ so much nuance, and strive to disclose all remaining sources of uncertainty when they communicate their results, makes the evidence they present highly amenable to selective reading and misinterpretation.  Giving ideologues or partisans data that’s relevant to their beliefs is a lot like unleashing them in the motivated reasoning equivalent of a candy store.  In this context, rather than reaching an agreement or a consensus, you can expect different sides to polarize over the evidence and how to interpret it”.

Friday, April 19, 2013

measuring consciousness?

thescientist | General anesthesia has transformed surgery from a ghastly ordeal to a procedure in which the patient feels no pain. Despite its widespread use, however, little is known about how anesthesia produces loss of consciousness—a blind spot brought into sharp focus by the fact that patients still occasionally wake up during surgery. But over the past 5 years, researchers have made significant progress in understanding what happens in the brain as consciousness departs and returns.

Peering into the anesthetized brain with neuroimaging and electroencephalograph (EEG) recordings, scientists have found evidence to support the “integrated-information theory,” which holds that consciousness relies on communication between different brain areas, and fades as that communication breaks down. EEG studies have also revealed distinctive brain wave patterns that signal when consciousness is lost and regained, offering easily identifiable markers for this impairment of communication.

Though many questions remain, advances in brain activity monitoring promise to shed light the neural basis of consciousness, and to eradicate the nightmare of mid-surgery awakenings. What’s more, by combining EEGs with magnetic brain stimulation, researchers may be able to measure consciousness and track recovery in unresponsive patients diagnosed as “vegetative,” who in recent years have been shown to sometimes have higher levels of consciousness than previously realized.

the chosen: competitive advantage of a religion of literacy

pbs | The key message of "The Chosen Few" is that the literacy of the Jewish people, coupled with a set of contract-enforcement institutions developed during the five centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple, gave the Jews a comparative advantage in occupations such as crafts, trade, and moneylending -- occupations that benefited from literacy, contract-enforcement mechanisms, and networking and provided high earnings.

Once the Jews were engaged in these occupations, there was no economic pressure to convert, which is consistent with the fact that the Jewish population, which had shrunk so dramatically in earlier times, grew slightly from the 7th to the 12th centuries.

Moreover, this comparative advantage fostered the voluntary diaspora of the Jews during the early middle ages in search of worldwide opportunities in crafts, trade, commerce, moneylending, banking, finance, and medicine.

This in turn would explain why the Jews, at this point in history, became so successful in occupations related to credit and financial markets. Already during the 12th and 13th centuries, moneylending was the occupation par excellence of the Jews in England, France, and Germany, and one of the main professions of the Jews in the Iberian Peninsula, Italy, and other locations in western Europe.

A popular view contends that both their exclusion from craft and merchant guilds and usury bans on Muslims and Christians segregated European Jews into moneylending during the Middle Ages. But our study shows, with evidence we have come upon during more than a decade of research, that this argument is simply untenable.

Instead, we have been compelled to offer an alternative and new explanation, consistent with the historical record: the Jews in medieval Europe voluntarily entered and later specialized in moneylending and banking because they had the key assets for being successful players in credit markets:
  • capital already accumulated as craftsmen and traders,
  • networking abilities because they lived in many locations, could easily communicate with and alert one another as to the best buying and selling opportunities, and
  • literacy, numeracy, and contract-enforcement institutions -- "gifts" that their religion has given them -- gave them an advantage over competitors.
With these assets, small wonder that a significant number of Jews specialized in the most profitable occupation that depended on literacy and numeracy: finance. In this sector they worked for many centuries. As they specialized, just as Adam Smith would have predicted, they honed their craft, giving them a competitive advantage, right up to the present.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

the terrifying reality of long-term unemployment...,

theatlantic | Close your eyes and picture the scariest thing you can think of. Maybe it's a giant spider or a giant Stay Puft marshmallow man or something that's not even giant at all. Well, whatever it is, I guarantee it's not nearly as scary as the real scariest thing in the world. That's long-term unemployment.

There are two labor markets nowadays. There's the market for people who have been out of work for less than six months, and the market for people who have been out of work longer. The former is working pretty normally, and the latter is horribly dysfunctional. That was the conclusion of recent research I highlighted a few months ago by Rand Ghayad, a visiting scholar at the Boston Fed and a PhD candidate in economics at Northeastern University, and William Dickens, a professor of economics at Northeastern University, that looked at Beveridge curves for different ages, industries, and education levels to see who the recovery is leaving behind.

Okay, so what is a Beveridge curve? Well, it just shows the relationship between job openings and unemployment. There should be a pretty stable relationship between the two, assuming the labor market isn't broken. The more openings there are, the less unemployment there should be. If that isn't true, if the Beveridge curve "shifts up" as more openings don't translate into less unemployment, then it might be a sign of "structural" unemployment. That is, the unemployed just might not have the right skills. Now, what Ghayad and Dickens found is that the Beveridge curves look normal across all ages, industries, and education levels, as long as you haven't been out of work for more than six months. But the curves shift up for everybody if you've been unemployed longer than six months. In other words, it doesn't matter whether you're young or old, a blue-collar or white-collar worker, or a high school or college grad; all that matters is how long you've been out of work.

sprawling and struggling: poverty in the suburbs

nbcnews | Like many Americans who move to the suburbs, Tara Simons came to West Hartford because she wanted her daughter to grow up in a nice, safe place with good schools.

Her fall from a more financially secure suburban life to one among the working poor also happened for the same reason it’s happened to so many others. She had a bout of unemployment and couldn’t find a new job that paid very well.

As a single mother, that’s made it hard to hold on to the suburban life that is, in her mind, key to making sure her daughter gets off to the right start.

“I’m basically paying to say I live in West Hartford,” she said. “It is worth it.”

It’s a struggle that many Americans bruised by the weak economy can relate to.

The number of suburban residents living in poverty rose by nearly 64 percent between 2000 and 2011, to about 16.4 million people, according to a Brookings Institution analysis of 95 of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. That’s more than double the rate of growth for urban poverty in those areas.

“I think we have an outdated perception of where poverty is and who it is affecting,” said Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of the research. “We tend to think of it as a very urban and a very rural phenomenon, but it is increasingly suburban.”

Simons’ situation is complicated by the fact she’s a single mom. Poverty and financial insecurity among single moms is far higher than for households headed by single dads or two parents.

The rate of poverty among single mothers actually improved dramatically through the 1990s, thanks to a strong economy, more favorable tax breaks and the success of so-called welfare-to-work programs. But two recessions and years of high unemployment erased many of those gains.

Moving for a better life
Simons and her daughter Alexis moved from Massachusetts to West Hartford eight years ago because Simons had a job with a local rug retailer.

Alexis, now 14, made friends, became an avid lacrosse player and is now a high school freshman.

Simons expected to work for the rug retailer until retirement, but about a year ago she quit after disputes with one of the two owners. She had never had trouble finding a new job and was unprepared for how hard it would be.

“I know that part of it is my fault and I absolutely take responsibility for that, but I never in a million years thought that I would (be in this position),” she said.

Simons went without work or unemployment benefits for five months before she got her current job about six months ago. The position, as a customer service representative for a local health products company, pays $14 an hour. That leaves her with take-home pay of about $460 to $480 a week, plus about $127 a week in child support. Simons has full custody of her daughter.

She is behind on her electric and gas bills and owes nearly $400 to her daughter’s club lacrosse team, which has her worried that her daughter won’t be able to play this spring.

Like many working poor people, she has fallen into a debt spiral. She took out an $800 payday loan, and she estimates that it will end up costing her $1,600 to pay it back. She also has several hundred dollars in credit card debt and has worked to pay off hundreds of dollars in bank overdraft fees. She’s sold jewelry for cash.

She and Alexis had to leave the house they were renting after she lost her job and a roommate. She got one-time aid from the city’s crisis fund to help with the down payment for her new, cheaper apartment. Still, the $1125 rent eats up more than half of her monthly take-home pay.

She went on Medicaid after being unable to afford health insurance.

Simons said it’s been hard, and sometimes embarrassing, to accept help.

“The thing is, I don’t want it,” she said. “I want to pay my bills.”

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

nutrient-shaped, nutrient-seeking, macro-molecular machines...,

the beer of yesteryear...,
figshare | We now know that new species arise from relatively sudden changes in the supply of nutrients. The problem that remains with the concept of Darwinian Natural selection for phenotype is that statistical arguments first eliminate consideration of genes with large effects (Carter, 1969). That approach has led many evolutionary theorists and philosophers to ignore existing pleiotropy, which is especially evident in microbial species, and to also ignore the epigenetic tweaking of immense gene networks by nutrients in all species. The epigenetic effects of nutrients are clearly required for individual survival, and nutrients metabolize to species-specific pheromones. The problem with mutations theory extends to a denial of species-wide pheromone-controlled reproduction, which is required for epistasis and survival of species.

Simply put, statistical analyses are used to deny nutrient-dependent / pheromone-controlled adaptive evolution (Kohl, 2013). By default, statistical analyses also tend to 1) eliminate climate change, 2) eliminate the thermodynamic complexity of molecular bonds, and 3) eliminate the complex systems biology of thermoregulation and adaptively evolved biodiversity. Because statistical analyses of cause and effect start by eliminating biological facts from calculations and equations, some researchers have viewed adaptive evolution only in the context of a mathematical “garbage-in, garbage out” theory -- with no model of biologically based adaptive evolution.

not only bad statistics, but deeply flawed/erroneous theories, as well...,

wired | The fields of psychology and cognitive neuroscience have had some rough sledding in recent years. The bumps have come from high-profile fraudsters, concerns about  findings that can’t be replicated, and criticism from within the scientific ranks about shoddy statistics. A new study adds to these woes, suggesting that a wide range of neuroscience studies lack the statistical power to back up their findings.

This problem isn’t just academic. The authors argue that there are real-world consequences, from wasting the lives of lab animals and squandering public funding on unreliable studies, to potentially stopping clinical trials with human patients prematurely (or not stopping them soon enough).

“This paper should help by revealing exactly how bad things have gotten,” said Hal Pashler, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego. Pashler was not involved with the new study, but he and colleagues have previously raised concerns about statistical problems with fMRI brain scan studies in human subjects.

The aim of the new study wasn’t to rake neuroscientists over the coals, but to get them talking about how to change the culture and the incentives that promote statistically unreliable studies, says co-author Marcus Munafò, a psychologist at the University of Bristol, United Kingdom. “We’re really trying to be constructive about this.” Fist tap Dale.

classic BD-ism: Since genetics is today's topic - genes for criminality -- Why IQ-75'z are disproportionately in prison...???

theprovince | This is thought to be the first time that scientists have analyzed the genetic blueprint of a “spree killer”, but it’s far from the first attempt to examine a murderer’s biology. In 1931, the brain of the “Vampire of Dusseldorf”, Peter Kurten, a serial killer, was removed from his corpse after his execution for examination, although no useful conclusions were published. Today, it is displayed in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Museum in Wisconsin.

Over the past decade, Dr. Kent Kiehl, a neuroscientist at the University of New Mexico, has visited eight high-security prisons in two US states with a mobile MRI unit, scanning the brains of criminals to see if those defined as psychopaths have different brain structures from “someone who commits a robbery out of poverty”, as Kiehl puts it.

Kiehl’s and others’ research has found that psychopaths’ brains tend to have very low levels of density in the paralimbic system, the area of the brain associated with the processing of emotion, something that may be genetically determined. The result is that psychopaths tend to have impulsive personalities and show little evidence of feeling guilt, remorse or empathy.

In contrast, “spree killers” tend to be extremely depressed, to the point of suffering from a delusional psychosis accompanied by voices or hallucinations, or — as in Lanza’s case — to be young people with physiologically immature brains, who in their state of ultra-sensitivity decide to exact “revenge” on the world for perceived injustices.

Recent years have seen huge advancements in DNA research, with researchers now able to identify specific genes that are linked to anti-social or aggressive behaviour, in particular the MAO-A gene (nicknamed “the warrior gene”), which appears to be hereditary.

A study of Danish twins concluded that a Danish man who has an identical twin with a criminal record is about 50 per cent more likely to have been in prison himself than the average Danish male. Non-identical twins are between 15 and 30 per cent more likely to both have criminal records. Similarly, adoption studies around the world have shown that a child of criminal parents is more likely to become a criminal, even if the adoptive parents are law-abiding.

Irving Gottesman, a psychologist at the University of Virginia who has worked on the Danish twin study, believes the results show that “criminals are not born, but the odds at the moment of birth of becoming one are not even”.

But so controversial are the links between biology and violence that only the bravest scientists have dared tackle it.

“There are many political objections and that means there’s not been enough research into the area,” says Kiehl.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

are genes a "product of nature"?

BusinessInsider | The US Supreme Court heard the most high-profile genetics case in history on Monday, as justices considered whether private firms should be allowed to patent human genes linked to breast cancer.

The court's decision could have broad implications for research, patient health and the pharmaceutical industry, with nearly 20 percent of the approximately 24,000 human genes currently under patent, some linked to cancer and Alzheimer's disease.

At issue are the actions of Myriad Genetics, a Utah-based company which holds patents on genes known as BRCA1 and BRCA2, both associated with hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.

The firm says patents for the two genes, awarded in 1998, have helped it raise the money "necessary to decode the genes, design and deliver the tests, interpret the results, and help patients," to the benefit of a million people.

Critics accuse Myriad of barring research by other institutions on the BRCA genes and making the test too expensive for many patients, with a cost of $3,000 to $4,000.

"Competition is what leads to innovation and improvement," said Harry Ostrer, a medical geneticist and a plaintiff in the case.

"We don't want to tie up the uses of our genes," he told reporters, adding that if Myriad did not own the patents, "I would start offering testing to my poor patients in the Bronx."

Dozens of breast cancer survivors and women's health advocates assembled on the Supreme Court steps as the arguments were heard inside. Some hoisted signs, including one that read: "Corporate Greed is Killing My Friends."

the human genome project 10 years on...,

NYTimes | How hard is it today to sequence a person’s genome? We can sequence a human genome in a couple of days for well under $10,000, probably around $4,000 or $5,000. And we sequence the genome you got from your father and the one you got from your mother. That’s a total of six billion bases. It is already around the cost of an M.R.I., and it will get cheaper yet. The original Human Genome Project sequenced just one representation, three billion bases.

How did it get so cheap? In April 2003, right after the completion of the human genome, our institute put into print a call for technology to deliver a $1,000 human genome sequence. That became the battle cry. I remember thinking someday we would get to a $1,000 genome. I don’t worry about the $1,000 genome anymore. We have had six orders of magnitude improvement in a decade.

What about the naysayers who asked, “Where are the cures for diseases that we were promised?” I became director of this institute three and a half years ago, and I remember when I first started going around and giving talks. Routinely I would hear: “You are seven years into this. Where are the wins? Where are the successes?”

I don’t hear that as much anymore. I think what’s happening, and it has happened in the last three years in particular, is just the sheer aggregate number of the success stories. The drumbeat of these successes is finally winning people over.

We are understanding cancer and rare genetic diseases. There are incredible stories now where we are able to draw blood from a pregnant woman and analyze the DNA of her unborn child.

Increasingly, we have more informed ways of prescribing medicine because we first do a genetic test. We can use microbial DNA to trace disease outbreaks in a matter of hours.

These are just game changers. It’s a wide field of accomplishment, and there is a logical story to be told.