September 26, 2014

Things That Terrify Us

Egad! Is your brain being told what to do by microscopic bugs in your GI tract???

In an article published in the September issue of BioEssays, scientists Joe Alcock, Carlo C. Maley, and C. Athena Aktipis reviewed the research on how microbiota affect the brain, and believe there's a strong case that bacteria influence overall eating behavior. It seems that the bacteria in our guts don't simply wait for whatever leftovers we have to offer. They actively seek out their preferred meals through tricksy deception.

“Microbes have the capacity to manipulate behavior and mood through altering the neural signals in the vagus nerve, changing taste receptors, producing toxins to make us feel bad, and releasing chemical rewards to make us feel good,” Aktipis says.

Around 100 million neurons are stationed in the gut, collectively forming the enteric nervous system, also called the "Second Brain." The enteric nervous system is connected to the human brain via the vagus nerve. Thanks to this setup, bacteria are granted streamlined pass to the brain, and they're equipped to take advantage. For example, microbes have genes that allow them to produce hormones like serotonin and dopamine.

Studies in humans have shown that probiotics can improve mood. In mice, the affects are even more pronounced. When a team transplanted the gut bacteria from fearless mice into more anxious mice, the anxious mice began displaying markedly bolder behavior. The behavioral change worked in reverse, too.

"Like microscopic puppetmasters, microbes may control the eating behavior of hosts through a number of potential mechanisms including microbial manipulation of reward pathways, production of toxins that alter mood, changes to receptors including taste receptors, and hijacking of neurotransmission," the researchers write.

Basically, bacteria will send positive signals to the brain when you eat foods that they like, and negative signals when you eat foods they don't like.

They haf vays of makink you pig out on purloined Heath bars.

Posted by Cassandra at 08:15 AM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

July 21, 2014

It Isn't Just Science That Is Ignored

Like so many Bush-era lefty rallying cries, "Listen to the Generals" appears to have fallen by the wayside too:

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., asked Dunford if he, or any other senior military leader, recommended “a policy of everybody out by 2017, no matter what?”

“No sir, not that I know of,” Dunford responded. “We still plan to have, as you know, some presence after 2017, but no one recommended zero.” He acknowledged that setting specific target dates for withdrawal comes with risks. “I think all of us in uniform, including the Afghans, prefer that would have been a bit more ambiguous.”

“In Iraq, we withdrew, with the associated consequences,” Dunford said. “And for me, that’s the most significant change. We knew when we left Iraq that there was work remaining to be done to develop sustainable Iraqi security forces, as well as to ensure that political stability existed in Iraq such that security would continue. In Afghanistan, we’ve got a chance to get that right, and my argument is for us to a responsible transition for Afghanistan, as opposed to withdrawal.”

Posted by Cassandra at 07:17 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

December 09, 2013

The Coming Demographic Tsunami

Demographics is often cited as one of the primary forces behind the liberalization of our electorate. We are told that as more minorities, immigrants (legal and illegal), and women vote, elections will be harder and harder for conservatives to win.

But increasing numbers of women and minorities aren't the only demographic changes likely to influence future elections:

Last week, a federal judge ruled that Detroit qualifies for municipal bankruptcy. This almost certainly means that pensions and health benefits for the city’s retired workers will be trimmed. There’s a basic conflict between paying for all retirement benefits and supporting adequate current services (police, schools, parks, sanitation, roads). The number of Detroit’s retired workers has swelled, benefits were not adequately funded and the city’s economy isn’t strong enough to take care of both without self-defeating tax increases.

The math is unforgiving. Detroit now has two retirees for every active worker, reports the Detroit Free Press; in 2012, that was 10,525 employees and 21,113 retirees. Satisfying retirees inevitably shortchanges their children and grandchildren. Though Detroit’s situation is extreme, it’s not unique. Pension benefits were once thought to be legally and politically impregnable. Pension cuts in Illinois (last week), Rhode Island and elsewhere have shattered this assumption. Chicago is considering reductions for its retirees.

What’s occurring at the state and local levels is an incomplete and imperfect effort to balance the interests of young and old. Conflicts vary depending on benefits’ generosity and the strength — or weakness — of local economies. A study of 173 cities by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College found pension costs averaged 7.9  percent of tax revenues, but those of many cities were much higher: 17 percent in Chicago, 15 percent in Springfield, Mass., and 12.9 percent in New York. Health benefits add to costs.

At the federal level, even this sloppy generational reckoning is missing. The elderly’s interests are running roughshod over other national concerns. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — programs heavily for the retired — dominate the budget, accounting for about 44 percent of spending, and have been largely excluded from deficit-reduction measures.

Almost all the adjustment falls on other programs: defense, courts, research, roads, education. Or higher taxes. The federal government is increasingly a transfer agency: Taxes from the young and middle-aged are spent on the elderly.

The explanation for this is politics. For states and localities, benefit cuts affect government workers — a powerful but small group — while at the federal level, it’s all the elderly, a huge group that includes everyone’s parents and grandparents. As a result, the combat has been lopsided. Political leaders of both parties have avoided distasteful choices. Younger Americans have generally been clueless about how shifting demographics threaten their future government services and taxes.

This may be changing. One reason is the Affordable Care Act. Among other things, Obamacare expands the young’s compulsory subsidization of older Americans (in this case, those not yet 65). Under the law, some of the young will pay artificially high insurance premiums to cover the medical expenses of older and sicker Americans. The young seem to be balking. A poll by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics finds that less than a third of uninsured 18- to 29-year-olds plan to enroll in the program.

Many moons ago, the Editorial Staff opined on the vast difference between supporting redistribution in the abstract and supporting it when the price tag is plainly visible.

The price tag for redistributionist economic policies is about to become painfully obvious. Over the weekend, the spousal unit talked to an old friend whose policy premiums just went way up as a result of the so-called Affordable Care Act. Predictably, he wasn't happy.

It's one thing to answer survey questions about whether you wish everyone was taken care of and no one ever had to struggle in the affirmative. It's quite a different question to ask, "How much more would you personally be willing to pay in taxes or health insurance premiums to ensure that others don't have to struggle?

There's a reason survey questions are never worded that way.

Posted by Cassandra at 06:52 AM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

July 19, 2013

Taxi Rapes

In the UK, a BBC radio host is fired for violating the British media's self imposed blackout on acknowledging - or even mentioning - a wave of rapes committed by Muslim taxi drivers. What's really telling is that the offending mention did not happen on the air, but rather in private:

... a much acclaimed report produced by the London Metropolitan Police Service estimates that on average there are a total of 1,125 sexual assaults, including rapes, each year involving taxi drivers in just London; this works out to approximately 22 sexual assaults against women by taxi drivers each week in England's capital city alone.

... Apart from a few high-profile cases, taxi rapes are rarely reported by national newspapers in Britain, apparently because the politically incorrect crimes are not deemed to be newsworthy.

But a survey of stories buried deep inside local newspapers shows that taxi rapes are occurring in all parts of England, Wales and Scotland on an almost daily basis.

A women-only taxi service has yet to arrive in Bristol, where BBC Radio host Sam Mason was fired after she called a taxi company and requested a "non-Asian" driver to take her 14-year-old daughter to her grandparents' home. Mason, a single mother, told the operator that "a guy with a turban on would freak her daughter out," and insisted they send an English driver -- preferably a female English driver -- instead.

The operator refused to book a car and said: "We would class that as being racist. We can't just penalize the Asian drivers and just send an English one." Mason responded: "It's not your 14-year-old girl, is it?" To which the operator answered: "Yes, but that's racist to say you don't want an Asian driver."

The BBC was alerted to the conversation after it was recorded and sent to The Sun newspaper.

Mason was subsequently suspended and fired 24 hours later. A BBC spokesman said: "Although Sam Mason's remarks were not made on-air, her comments were completely unacceptable and, for that reason, she has been informed that she will no longer be working for the BBC with immediate effect."

Sadly, Mason's employers are likely completely within their legal rights to fire her, but it's hard to think of a more damning indictment of a news organization than firing an employee for the crime of inadvertently drawing attention to a major news story they are determined to sweep under the rug.

It's hard not to note the parallels to the George Zimmerman case, where the American press fulminate 24/7 about what they want us to believe is a terrible threat to young black men: that of being racially profiled and murdered by racist white vigilantes. The real threat to young black men is something we're not supposed to talk about.

The media can't afford to let the truth get out. That would give the game away. And so they keep certain news stories to themselves and turn a blind eye to the horrible cost of their complicit silence.

Posted by Cassandra at 05:41 AM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

February 20, 2013

The Racialization of Morality and Politics

Since 2008, the media have repeatedly flogged the notion that conservative opposition to Obama's policies has nothing to do with the fact that progressive policies like the so-called living wage, the war on income inequality, and the expansion of government are ones conservatives have opposed for decades. What's really causing conservatives to oppose the same policies they have always opposed is "racial attitudes".

But a new study suggests that these disturbing racial attitudes are powerful enough to cause progressives to ignore their decades-long opposition to the aggressive and pre-emptive use of lethal military force and the targeted killings of American citizens with no judicial or legislative oversight:

In a YouGov poll of 1,000 voters last August, Tesler found significantly more support for targeted killing of suspected terrorists among white “racial liberals” (i.e., those liberal on issues of race) and African-Americans when they were told that Obama supported such a policy than when they were not told it was the president’s policy. Only 27 percent of white racial liberals in a control group supported the targeted killing policy, but that jumped to 48 percent among such voters who were told Obama had conducted such targeted killings (which Tesler refers to as the “Obama cue”). He found a similar difference among African-Americans, but cautions that the sample size, of 60 in a control group and another 60 who were given the “Obama cue,” is small. “We can be pretty confident that blacks are more supportive when given the Obama cue, but not at all confident about how precisely large that difference is,” he told me via email.

But is it really race at work here? Or is it something else?

The study provides more evidence for the thesis of another political scientist, Lilliana Mason, which we described last fall. Mason argues that the electorate is becoming increasingly tribal. Our party affiliation is increasingly intertwined with our personal identity, making us more prone than ever to support the policies of “our side,” regardless of their actual content.

Logically speaking, whether one has moral qualms about targeted killings should have nothing to do with who, specifically, is giving the go-ahead on such actions. But this report provides more evidence that when it comes to a wide range of policy issues, our views seem driven more by loyalty than by logic.

The comparison between conservative support of health care reform (hardly a moral bright line in the way targeted assassinations ought to be) and Obama's re-invention of the unitary executive doctrine, which reliably sent progressives into fits of mouth-frothing fury during the Bu$Hitler years seems strained at best.

But I can't find much wrong with the tribalization thesis. In fact, a little digging revealed an article in which our old friend Ta-Nehisi Coates' misrepresentation of the racialization study's results is corrected by the study's author (Tesler):

Coates calls the findings “bracing”—empirical evidence for contemporary, subtle forms of racial animus operating like “quaking ground beneath Obama’s feet”. He cites a host of similar research into the white public’s views on race, as well as instances of undeniable race-baiting rhetoric from Republican leadership in recent years. He concludes:
“What we are now witnessing is not some new and complicated expression of white racism—rather, it’s the dying embers of the same old racism that once rendered the best pickings of America the exclusive province of unblackness.”

But do Tesler’s findings entirely support this thesis? As he states in the paper: “There is simply no way of knowing whether the growing polarization of public opinion by racial attitudes…was caused by the president’s race or another factor like his party affiliation”. Tesler does show that race increased in importance as Obama became the face of health care reform, but only “relative to nonracial considerations”. That is, race was not the most important consideration for respondents, just likely a more important factor than if absent a black president. Also, the level of ‘importance’ of race for respondents didn’t necessarily correspond with diminished support for Obama’s policies, except among a small fraction of respondents who reported the highest levels of resentment.

Overall, Coates’ brief presentation of Tesler’s research implies that race plays a more central, negative role in white Americans’ lack of support for Obama’s policies than what the research supports. More striking in Tesler’s data, white Americans seemed to override their own morally indefensible resentment in gauging the merit of Obama’s policies.

It all sounds so familiar.

Posted by Cassandra at 05:41 AM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

February 16, 2013

Some Good News

Elise is blogging again. Her latest post puts forth an interesting theory:

Perhaps what look like media malpractice and media bias to people on the Right; what look like deliberate decisions to deceptively edit and knowingly omit; what look like actions in service of an ideology and a goal; perhaps all that is simply a result of a mindset that defines certain people as existing outside the realm of decent, serious society and that believes no reason is sufficient to explain their utterly unacceptable ideas and policies.

Elise is onto something here, but I don't think it's the whole story. All writers are selective, but to paraphrase Tolstoy I suspect we are selective for different reasons.

I reject some issues because I'm conflicted about them. If I have a lot going on at work, I may simply lack the mental bandwidth for the discussions that will ensue. Sometimes - rarely - I reject a topic because it is emotionally freighted and I suspect my own position won't stand up well to scrutiny (mine, or that of others). That last one sometimes results in my writing about it anyway, but this doesn't happen as often as it should.

Sometimes I avoid topics because I know my friends disagree vehemently with me. I know I won't change any minds and don't want to distress them for no reason. This is why I don't write about pornography or prostitution. That's not something I'm proud of.

Elise's post reminded me of one of the most thought provoking posts I've ever read on bias. It took me a while to find it:

Suppose we look at writing on issues where people tend to hold strong opinions that fit with their ideology. Such writing can

(a) attempt to open the minds of people on the opposite side as the author

(b) attempt to open minds of people on the same side as the author

(c) attempt to close minds of people on the same side as the author

So, think about it. Wouldn't you classify most op-eds and blog posts as (c)? Isn't that sort of pathetic? Here are some more thoughts:

1. The default is (c). If you are not consciously trying to do (a) or (b), then you will almost surely do (c).

2. Most of us, most of the time, do (c).

3. Doing (c) 100 % of the time can earn you fame and fortune. Yes, you get criticized for it by people on the other side, but the positive reinforcement you get probably more than makes up for it.

4. Try to think of folks who try to have a high proportion of (a) and (b). The first ones that I think of are David Brooks and Tyler Cowen.

This part, in particular, fascinated me:

Tyler is good at paying attention to the strongest arguments of those with whom he disagrees. Focusing on weaker arguments instead is a classic (c) move. I only get annoyed when he gets to be so cagey with his own point of view that people can take him for holding an opinion that in fact he definitely rejects.

I spent a long time thinking about this one.

Posted by Cassandra at 10:55 AM | Comments (31) | TrackBack