Friday, August 29, 2014

Cat parasite reprograms human brains

Ever notice how cat owners seem to be under the spell of some sort of mind control that makes them completely irrational about some things? Some new research has shown how this works:
An unassuming single-celled organism called Toxoplasma gondii is one of the most successful parasites on Earth, infecting an estimated 11 percent of Americans and perhaps half of all people worldwide. It’s just as prevalent in many other species of mammals and birds. In a recent study in Ohio, scientists found the parasite in three-quarters of the white-tailed deer they studied.

One reason for Toxoplasma’s success is its ability to manipulate its hosts. The parasite can influence their behavior, so much so that hosts can put themselves at risk of death. Scientists first discovered this strange mind control in the 1990s, but it’s been hard to figure out how they manage it. Now a new study suggests that Toxoplasma can turn its host’s genes on and off — and it’s possible other parasites use this strategy, too.

Toxoplasma manipulates its hosts to complete its life cycle. Although it can infect any mammal or bird, it can reproduce only inside of a cat. The parasites produce cysts that get passed out of the cat with its feces; once in the soil, the cysts infect new hosts.

Toxoplasma returns to cats via their prey. But a host like a rat has evolved to avoid cats as much as possible, taking evasive action from the very moment it smells feline odor.

Experiments on rats and mice have shown that Toxoplasma alters their response to cat smells. Many infected rodents lose their natural fear of the scent. Some even seem to be attracted to it.
And if your behavior is not driven by cat parasites, then it is probably your genes:
“First Law: All human behavioural traits are heritable.
Second Law: The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of the genes.
Third Law: A substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioural traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families.”

- Turkheimer, E. (2000). Three laws of behavior genetics and what they mean.

“There is now a large body of evidence that supports the conclusion that individual differences in most, if not all, reliably measured psychological traits, normal and abnormal, are substantively influenced by genetic factors. This fact has important implications for research and theory building in psychology, as evidence of genetic influence unleashes a cascade of questions regarding the sources of variance in such traits. A brief list of those questions is provided, and representative findings regarding genetic and environmental influences are presented for the domains of personality, intelligence, psychological interests, psychiatric illnesses, and social attitudes. These findings are consistent with those reported for the traits of other species and for many human physical traits, suggesting that they may represent a general biological phenomenon.”

- Bouchard, T. J. (2004). Genetic Influence on Human Psychological Traits: A Survey

Friday, August 22, 2014

Obama denounces Islamic group

Pres. Barack Obama has been busy stirring up racial animosity in Missouri, and has moved on to religious animosity:
Let’s be clear about ISIL. They have rampaged across cities and villages killing innocent, unarmed civilians in cowardly acts of violence. They abduct women and children and subject them to torture and rape and slavery. They have murdered Muslims, both Sunni and Shia, by the thousands. They target Christians and religious minorities, driving them from their homes, murdering them when they can, for no other reason than they practice a different religion.

They declared their ambition to commit genocide against an ancient people. So ISIL speaks for no religion. Their victims are overwhelmingly Muslim, and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents. No just god would stand for what they did yesterday and what they do every single day. ISIL has no ideology of any value to human beings. Their ideology is bankrupt. ...

From governments and peoples across the Middle East, there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer so that it does not spread. There has to be a clear rejection of this kind of nihilistic ideologies. One thing we can all agree on is that a group like ISIL has no place in the 21st century. ...

And may God bless the United States of America.
The Christians are religious minorities. ISIL is certainly not nihilistic, as nihilism means:
Rejection of all distinctions in moral or religious value and a willingness to repudiate all previous theories of morality or religious belief.
ISIL has an Islamic religious belief, and promotes a traditional Mohammedan ideology. The kill people of other religions. Yes they sometimes murder Muslims, if those Muslims disagree with killing Christians.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Equal access is not possible

The NY Times has a debate on organ selling, and the medical ethics professor says:
If all patients have equal value as humans, then they should have equal access to health care. This stipulation crumbles, however, when organs can be bought and sold.

Values and ethics underpin society and medical practice so health care structures that operate purely on economics are inappropriate.

Payments for organs equates to price tags for them, and who gets to put a price on life?
It is baffling how an expert in the subject could make such a silly argument.

It is simply not possible for everyone to get equal health care. Even if that were desirable, some physicians and medical providers are better than others. People have vastly different needs.

Equal medical care is no more desirable than equal food, housing, transportation, or anything else.

While paying donors for kidneys is illegal outside Iran, patients (or their employers, insurers, welfare benefits, etc) certainly have to pay maybe $100k for a transplant. So they are paying for life. The issue under debate is whether the person making the transplant possible can get some small percentage of the expense.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Future of humanity is African

NPR Radio reports:
"The future of humanity is increasingly African."

That's the prediction in a new UNICEF report, which estimates that by the end of this century, 40 percent of the world's people will be African — up from 15 percent now. The continent's population currently sits at roughly 1.2 billion but will soar to more than 4 billion by 2100. Nearly 1 billion will live in Nigeria alone.

In a released Wednesday, UNICEF projected the growth of Africa's child population within the next century. And the numbers are staggering.

An estimated 1.8 billion births will take place in Africa in the next 35 years, the authors predict. By 2050, Africa will have almost children under 18, making up nearly 40 percent of kids worldwide.
For comparison, this chart says that 500M people lived in Europe or N. America in 1900, and the world population was 1600M. Today, the world population is 60% Asian.

Whites are rapidly becoming a minority in the USA:
For the first time, U.S. public schools are projected this fall to have more minority students than non-Hispanic whites, a shift largely fueled by growth in the number of Hispanic children.
If space aliens have been observing us for the last few centuries, they would report that Europe and N. America invented modern civilization, with the science, technology, agriculture, political organizations, law, etc. to support a multi-billion population. Then they chose to use that know-how to re-populate the planet with other races.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Responsible use of mathematical tools

Forbes reports on mathematicians criticizing the NSA:
Keith Devlin of Stanford University, worked on Defense Department projects after September 11th and takes a far more critical view of the NSA after the Snowden revelations. ...

“I think mathematicians should refuse to work for the NSA until they both follow the US Constitution and demonstrate responsible use of mathematical tools,” says Devlin in an email to me. “The latter is something they clearly failed to do by engineering weaknesses into mathematical crypto systems, which mathematicians know to be a very dangerous thing to do. I think it is very regrettable that the current NSA leadership has broken the immense goodwill that most of us in the mathematical community once had toward them.” ...

When Google, for example, released an “end-to-end” encryption tool for Gmail this week, it placed a smiley face message in its code, an inside joke that was a subtle dig at the NSA, and a celebration of the fact that it will be harder for spying types to get access to messages sent this way by Gmail users.
For articles on the subject in a mathematician publication, see Apr 2000, Jan 2014, Feb 2014, Jun 2014, and Jul 2014 (pdf).

The NSA is a military intelligence agency. It is a little strange for Devlin to lecture us on "responsible use of mathematical tools". It is even stranger to criticize spying and praise Google at the same time. Google makes billions of dollars from spying on users and selling their privacy to advertisers. C-Net reports:
Google sees alleged child porn in man's email, alerts police
A Houston man is charged after police say Google tips them off to alleged child porn in his e-mail.
By contrast, the NSA is accused of recommending a pseudo-random number generator that might have it easier to catch foreign terrorists.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Professors against human evolution book

Leftist-atheist-evolutionist professor Jerry Coyne writes:
Sunday’s New York Times Book Review (already up) features a letter signed by 139 population geneticists, including myself. It is, in essence, a group of scientists objecting en masse to Nicholas Wade’s shoddy treatment of race and evolution in his new book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History. 
I have mentioned controversy about this book, and I have posted both sides. This is a significant development in opposition to the book.

Coyne previously joined a gang against group selection:
The list of authors and their institutions, which occupies two pages of the three-page letter, reads like a Who’s Who of social evolution. It’s telling that nearly every major figure in the field lined up against Nowak et al.
One of his readers commented:
I’m confident that you’re on the right side of this dispute, but still, that argument is uncomfortably reminiscent of an infamous book titled “Hundert Autoren gegen Einstein” (Hundred authors against Einstein) [1931.]
Wade replies:
These attacks have included repeated assertions that the book is scientifically inaccurate, a charge for which I have seen no basis. In the same vein, this letter issues general charges without supporting evidence.

That is no coincidence. The two principal signatories of the letter, Graham Coop and Michael Eisen, have written previously that the book is full of scientific errors. I wrote to both of them asking for a list of errors that I could correct in the next edition. Coop never replied; Eisen said he would get back to me but never did. Neither had the grace to withdraw his original accusations. This is how politicians are expected to behave, not people professionally committed to the truth. Their baseless attacks on my book are a classic smear technique which they have now extended by organizing this letter. I hope that readers will see through the lack of specifics in their charges and judge my book for themselves.

Perhaps I could point out an error in one of the few specific statements in their letter. They charge me with saying that “recent natural selection has led to worldwide differences in I.Q. test results.” I say no such thing.
It is a little strange for 139 professors to agree to an attack letter, but to not be able to cite any specific errors, or even to state accurately what they are attacking. I would have thought that at least one of them would insist that the letter be accurate.

Wade's book does have some speculative comments, so I can understand if some scientists were complaining about exaggeration. But Coyne and his colleagues like to politicize evolution at every opportunity, and they appear to just upset that they are not controlling the message.

Coyne writes:
As far as the science is concerned, all of the signatories, I think, would agree that evolution has indeed played a significant role in human morphology and biochemistry, producing population differences that have adaptive significance. Differences among groups in skin color and lactose tolerance, for instance, are certainly due to natural selection, ...

But what is even more speculative is Wade’s thesis that behavioral differences between groups, and thus the societies they construct, are based on genetic differences produced by natural selection. Perhaps that is true, but we don’t have a scintilla of evidence for it right now. And we know that those societal and cultural differences can change quite rapidly — much faster than can be explained by natural selection. Perhaps we’ve experienced genetic evolution producing inter-group differences in behavior, but we’ve surely had tons of nongenetic cultural evolution. (Take a look at the penchant for “Hello Kitty” in Japan. That is not based on genes.) For Wade to write a whole book resting on this speculative house of cards — the idea that genes and natural selection are everything in explaining culture — is simply bad popular science.
So he is not saying that Wade is wrong. He says that Wade might be right, but we do not yet have the evidence.

There is some evidence. We know that all known measurable human behavioral traits are heritable, and that many (non-behavioral) human traits have been shown to have been evolving in the last few thousand years. What we don't have is linkage between behavioral traits and specific genes.

I wonder how Coyne knows that there is no genetic influence on the Hello Kitty penchant. Has it been shown not to be heritable? Do Japanese girls dislike Hello Kitty if they have been reared outside of Japan? These may seem like dumb questions, but there does not seem to be any science to back up what he says.

Update: Other comments:
Nicholas Wade is hardly an insignificant figure, being a longtime science editor and reporter at The New York Times and perhaps America’s foremost journalist on evolutionary matters, whose previous bestsellers have gathered almost universal praise. Therefore, I find it very odd that his most strident critics apparently have not bothered to carefully read the book they were attacking.
And this:
The 144 letter signatories apparently couldn’t agree on _anything_ beyond ‘speculative Wade is speculative’, and that there’s a lack of good evidence on topics that have been intellectually taboo, career-destroying, and grant-unfundable for decades (surprise!).

Friday, August 08, 2014

Driving a car with earphones

A lot of people seem to think that it is illegal to drive a car while listening to earphones.

Here is the California Vehicle Code:
Wearing of Headsets or Earplugs

27400. A person operating a motor vehicle or bicycle may not wear a headset covering, or earplugs in, both ears. This prohibition does not apply to any of the following:

(a) A person operating authorized emergency vehicles, as defined in Section 165.

(b) A person engaged in the operation of either special construction equipment or equipment for use in the maintenance of any highway.

(c) A person engaged in the operation of refuse collection equipment who is wearing a safety headset or safety earplugs.

(d) A person wearing personal hearing protectors in the form of earplugs or molds that are specifically designed to attenuate injurious noise levels. The plugs or molds shall be designed in a manner so as to not inhibit the wearer's ability to hear a siren or horn from an emergency vehicle or a horn from another motor vehicle.

(e) A person using a prosthetic device that aids the hard of hearing.
So the way I read this, when driving a car:
Earphone in one ear - legal.
Headphones covering both ears - illegal.
In-ear earbuds or earphones - legal if they reduce external noise.

Deaf people are allowed to drive, so you don't have to be able to hear horns. I don't know why a "headset covering" is banned, but cops will give tickets for that. You need to wear the earbuds instead.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Dietary gospel on fat is wrong

NewScientist reports:
After decades of health warnings, the idea that steak, cheese and lard are bad for your heart is melting away. The truth is more complex – and delicious

THERE'S a famous scene in Woody Allen's film Sleeper in which two scientists in the year 2173 are discussing the dietary advice of the late 20th century.

"You mean there was no deep fat, no steak or cream pies or hot fudge?" asks one, incredulous. "Those were thought to be unhealthy," replies the other. "Precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true."

We're not quite in Woody Allen territory yet, but steak and cream pies are starting to look a lot less unhealthy than they once did. After 35 years as dietary gospel, the idea that saturated fat is bad for your heart appears to be melting away like a lump of butter in ...
It explains:
Yet the voices of doubt have been growing for some time. In 2010, scientists pooled the results of 21 studies that had followed 348,000 people for many years. This meta-analysis found "no significant evidence" in support of the idea that saturated fat raises the risk of heart disease (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol 91, p 535).

The doubters were given a further boost by another meta-analysis published in March (Annals of Internal Medicine, vol 160, p 398). It revisited the results of 72 studies involving 640,000 people in 18 countries.

To the surprise of many, it did not find backing for the existing dietary advice. "Current evidence does not clearly support guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats," it concluded. "Nutritional guidelines... may require reappraisal."

In essence, the study found that people at the extreme ends of the spectrum – that is, those who ate the most or least saturated fat – had the same chance of developing heart disease. High consumption of unsaturated fat seemed to offer no protection. ...

Yet the voices of doubt have been growing for some time. In 2010, scientists pooled the results of 21 studies that had followed 348,000 people for many years. This meta-analysis found "no significant evidence" in support of the idea that saturated fat raises the risk of heart disease (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol 91, p 535).

The doubters were given a further boost by another meta-analysis published in March (Annals of Internal Medicine, vol 160, p 398). It revisited the results of 72 studies involving 640,000 people in 18 countries.

To the surprise of many, it did not find backing for the existing dietary advice. "Current evidence does not clearly support guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats," it concluded. "Nutritional guidelines... may require reappraisal."

In essence, the study found that people at the extreme ends of the spectrum – that is, those who ate the most or least saturated fat – had the same chance of developing heart disease. High consumption of unsaturated fat seemed to offer no protection.
Slate argues:

It’s been more than 40 years since Allen’s movie premiered, but his satire of public health research sadly still resonates. A widely circulated New York Times blog post reported this week on a study purporting to show that people who run at least five minutes a day live around three years longer than those who don’t. This finding was determined to be true after “adjusting for” various characteristics of study subjects—their gender, whether they smoked, any family history of heart disease, and so forth.

The problem with this study—and the many related observational studies on what does or doesn’t make us live longer—is that healthy people are different in all sorts of ways from unhealthy ones. Some of the differences between runners and nonrunners can be accounted for, albeit somewhat imperfectly, by considering observable attributes like height, weight, age, etc. But inevitably there are differences that get left out of the analyses: runners might sleep longer; they might eat more almonds or blueberries; maybe they have less stressful work lives, which in turn facilitate a few minutes of exercise each day; maybe they are less depressed because they have shorter commutes; maybe their commutes involve more walking than driving. The list of other attributes and habits, any of which might contribute to a longer observed life span, extends to infinity. Is it running that accounts for the difference in longevity between runners and nonrunners? Or one of these other, unobserved differences? Who knows?
That's right, it is hard to prove that one diet or lifestyle is healthier than another.

Update: NewScientist adds:
ACCORDING to the Oxford English Dictionary, the expression "heart attack on a plate" was first recorded in 1984 in a newspaper interview with actor Michael Caine. He was living in health-conscious Los Angeles at the time and missing his full English breakfast. That rings true, as it was around then that the US public was being urged to reduce its intake of saturated fat to cut the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Thirty years on, the idea that pigging out on bacon, egg and sausages can lead to a heart attack is second nature to most of us; it is probably the single most influential piece of nutritional advice ever dished out.

But in recent weeks and months a steady drumbeat of media coverage has suggested that saturated fat has been unfairly maligned. "Eat Butter", declared the cover of Time magazine. "Everything we thought we knew about dietary fat is wrong," said the blurb on The Big Fat Surprise: Why butter, meat and cheese belong in a healthy diet, an influential book by investigative journalist Nina Teicholz.

Really? Everything? As usual, the truth is less earth-shattering. Yes, two large reviews of the evidence have cast doubt on the supposedly rock-solid link between saturated fat and cardiovascular disease. Scientific understanding of how the human body handles fat has indeed moved on. And the original research that proved the link has been questioned (see "Heart attack on a plate? The truth about saturated fat"). But it is too soon to declare saturated fat innocent of all charges. Much more research is needed before the nutrition rule book can be rewritten. In any case, meat, butter and cheese already belong in a healthy diet, as long as you don't eat too much of them.

If there is an immediate take-away message, it is that singling out one nutrient at the expense of the wider dietary context is a mistake. In our rush to cut down on saturated fat, we may have inadvertently upped our intake of other unhealthy nutrients, especially sugar. In fact, one of the interesting by-products of the saturated fat debate is that it is helping to reinforce the emerging idea that refined sugar is the real demon in our diets.

The case against sugar is getting stronger, as our story earlier this year spelled out (New Scientist, 1 February, p 34). But it would be a mistake to fixate on sugar at the expense of everything else.