Later On

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Archive for January 2019

The Voter Suppression State

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Mimi Swartz, editor of the Texas Monthly, writes in the NY Times:

For those of you keeping track of the “As Texas goes, so goes the nation” notion, I have either very good or very bad news.

The state that gave you two recent mediocre-to-crummy Republican presidents (who are starting to look downright Lincolnesque compared to you-know-who), gerrymandering in the guise of redistricting (thanks a lot, Tom DeLay) and a profound if misguided antipathy to government in general is now surging ahead in a new field: voter suppression. As someone who loves Texas with a triple shot of ambivalence, I take no pleasure in spreading this news. But if it is your goal to keep people of color from the polls — some Republican leaders come to mind — it’s time once again to look to Texas for guidance.

Our state officials in their infinite wisdom last week announced that they hoped to excise 95,000 people from voter rolls because they didn’t seem to be citizens. Our secretary of state, David Whitley, insisted that, with the help of the Department of Public Safety, he had been able to compile a list of those supposedly illegally registered. It was even suggested that 58,000 of those folks had actually already voted, a felony in these parts. This finding was heralded in a tweet by ourattorney general, Ken Paxton, as an all-caps “Voter Fraud Alert.” Paxton, you may or may not know, is himself under indictment for securities fraud.

The state, which as yet cannot take anyone off the voter rolls, turned to county officials, who can. They are supposed to hunt those miscreants down by sending notices demanding they appear at voter registrars’ offices with proof of citizenship (birth certificate, passport, etc.) within 30 days. Otherwise, they would be stricken from the rolls and, presumably, ICE would be pounding on their doors soon after.

Among many who seized on this appalling narrative was President Trump, who tweeted: “These numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. All over the country, especially in California, voter fraud is rampant. Must be stopped!”

Well, yes, someone had to be stopped here in Texas, and the narrative was appalling, but not for the stated reasons. Within 24 hours, various groups devoted to voting rights had put on their thinking caps — they don’t give them out at the Statehouse — and were noting a few problems with the list.

Like, some of this “research” was 25 years old, during which time a lot of people holding driver’s licenses could have become naturalized citizens who, at least so far, are allowed to vote in Texas. In other words, state leaders were not experts in data compilation, a finding that should surprise no one. As our former governor and the current secretary of energy Rick Perry would say, “Whoops.”

Within a few days, Harris County (which includes Houston) had found that 60 percent of the 30,000 people on the DPS’s list should never have been there in the first place, because they had become citizens in the last quarter-century or so. The League of United Latin American Citizens also filed suit against Mr. Whitley and Mr. Paxton, claiming a violation of the voting rights act, and declared the whole mess a “witch hunt” intended to scare Latinos away from the ballot box.

Ignorance or venality? Hard to say. Stupidity is always a good bet, but Texans are already trying to exercise their civic duty with one of the nation’s strictest voter identification laws in effect — regular people already need to show a government-issued ID to vote here. Then, too, the convoluted rules for running third-party voter registration drives here would send Rube Goldberg to bed with a blinding migraine.

There is one simple fact fomenting all this hysteria, of course: According to census estimates, the state’s Hispanic population grew to 11.2 million in 2017, from 9.7 million in 2010. The population of white Texans grew by only about half a million people, to 11.9 million, during the same period. By 2022, the state is guesstimated to be majority Latino. (By 2050 our booming population — with all our Latinos — is supposed to surpass California’s.) This may or may not mean that Texas will turn blue around the same time, though the anti-immigrant/build the wall bias of state and national leaders who know better might be helping that process along. On the other hand, maybe our leadership plans to just deport them all.

Those numbers could certainly explain the weirdness of the last few days. A weak, diminished Republican leadership, not to mention its far-right backers, is more terrifying to our leaders in Austin and their far-right backers than the return of Barack Obama.

But I’m not sure Texas Democrats are exploiting this opportunity to the fullest . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 January 2019 at 6:41 pm

What It’s Like To See 100 Million Colors

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From New York:

Concetta Antico is an artist with a superhuman power: she can see up to 100 million colors, a hundred times more than the average human. She is a tetrachromat: a person with four (instead of three) photoceptors in their retinas, thus possessing hyper-charged color perception.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 January 2019 at 4:23 pm

Posted in Daily life

Is Sugar Toxic?

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This article by Gary Taubes appeared in the NY Times on April 13, 2011—but it’s still of interest:

On May 26, 2009, Robert Lustig gave a lecture called “Sugar: The Bitter Truth,” which was posted on YouTube the following July. Since then, it has been viewed well over 800,000 times, gaining new viewers at a rate of about 50,000 per month, fairly remarkable numbers for a 90-minute discussion of the nuances of fructose biochemistry and human physiology.

Lustig is a specialist on pediatric hormone disorders and the leading expert in childhood obesity at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine, which is one of the best medical schools in the country. He published his first paper on childhood obesity a dozen years ago, and he has been treating patients and doing research on the disorder ever since.

The viral success of his lecture, though, has little to do with Lustig’s impressive credentials and far more with the persuasive case he makes that sugar is a “toxin” or a “poison,” terms he uses together 13 times through the course of the lecture, in addition to the five references to sugar as merely “evil.” And by “sugar,” Lustig means not only the white granulated stuff that we put in coffee and sprinkle on cereal — technically known as sucrose — but also high-fructose corn syrup, which has already become without Lustig’s help what he calls “the most demonized additive known to man.”

It doesn’t hurt Lustig’s cause that he is a compelling public speaker. His critics argue that what makes him compelling is his practice of taking suggestive evidence and insisting that it’s incontrovertible. Lustig certainly doesn’t dabble in shades of gray. Sugar is not just an empty calorie, he says; its effect on us is much more insidious. “It’s not about the calories,” he says. “It has nothing to do with the calories. It’s a poison by itself.”

If Lustig is right, then our excessive consumption of sugar is the primary reason that the numbers of obese and diabetic Americans have skyrocketed in the past 30 years. But his argument implies more than that. If Lustig is right, it would mean that sugar is also the likely dietary cause of several other chronic ailments widely considered to be diseases of Western lifestyles — heart disease, hypertension and many common cancers among them.

The number of viewers Lustig has attracted suggests that people are paying attention to his argument. When I set out to interview public health authorities and researchers for this article, they would often initiate the interview with some variation of the comment “surely you’ve spoken to Robert Lustig,” not because Lustig has done any of the key research on sugar himself, which he hasn’t, but because he’s willing to insist publicly and unambiguously, when most researchers are not, that sugar is a toxic substance that people abuse. In Lustig’s view, sugar should be thought of, like cigarettes and alcohol, as something that’s killing us.

This brings us to the salient question: Can sugar possibly be as bad as Lustig says it is?

It’s one thing to suggest, as most nutritionists will, that a healthful diet includes more fruits and vegetables, and maybe less fat, red meat and salt, or less of everything. It’s entirely different to claim that one particularly cherished aspect of our diet might not just be an unhealthful indulgence but actually be toxic, that when you bake your children a birthday cake or give them lemonade on a hot summer day, you may be doing them more harm than good, despite all the love that goes with it. Suggesting that sugar might kill us is what zealots do. But Lustig, who has genuine expertise, has accumulated and synthesized a mass of evidence, which he finds compelling enough to convict sugar. His critics consider that evidence insufficient, but there’s no way to know who might be right, or what must be done to find out, without discussing it.

If I didn’t buy this argument myself, I wouldn’t be writing about it here. And I also have a disclaimer to acknowledge. I’ve spent much of the last decade doing journalistic research on diet and chronic disease — some of the more contrarian findings, on dietary fat, appeared in this magazine —– and I have come to conclusions similar to Lustig’s.

The history of the debate over the health effects of sugar has gone on far longer than you might imagine. It is littered with erroneous statements and conclusions because even the supposed authorities had no true understanding of what they were talking about. They didn’t know, quite literally, what they meant by the word “sugar” and therefore what the implications were.

So let’s start by clarifying a few issues, beginning with Lustig’s use of the word “sugar” to mean both sucrose — beet and cane sugar, whether white or brown — and high-fructose corn syrup. This is a critical point, particularly because high-fructose corn syrup has indeed become “the flashpoint for everybody’s distrust of processed foods,” says Marion Nestle, a New York University nutritionist and the author of “Food Politics.”

This development is recent and borders on humorous. In the early 1980s, high-fructose corn syrup replaced sugar in sodas and other products in part because refined sugar then had the reputation as a generally noxious nutrient. (“Villain in Disguise?” asked a headline in this paper in 1977, before answering in the affirmative.) High-fructose corn syrup was portrayed by the food industry as a healthful alternative, and that’s how the public perceived it. It was also cheaper than sugar, which didn’t hurt its commercial prospects. Now the tide is rolling the other way, and refined sugar is making a commercial comeback as the supposedly healthful alternative to this noxious corn-syrup stuff. “Industry after industry is replacing their product with sucrose and advertising it as such — ‘No High-Fructose Corn Syrup,’ ” Nestle notes.

But marketing aside, the two sweeteners are effectively identical in their biological effects. “High-fructose corn syrup, sugar — no difference,” is how Lustig put it in a lecture that I attended in San Francisco last December. “The point is they’re each bad — equally bad, equally poisonous.”

Refined sugar (that is, sucrose) is made up of a molecule of the carbohydrate glucose, bonded to a molecule of the carbohydrate fructose — a 50-50 mixture of the two. The fructose, which is almost twice as sweet as glucose, is what distinguishes sugar from other carbohydrate-rich foods like bread or potatoes that break down upon digestion to glucose alone. The more fructose in a substance, the sweeter it will be. High-fructose corn syrup, as it is most commonly consumed, is 55 percent fructose, and the remaining 45 percent is nearly all glucose. It was first marketed in the late 1970s and was created to be indistinguishable from refined sugar when used in soft drinks. Because each of these sugars ends up as glucose and fructose in our guts, our bodies react the same way to both, and the physiological effects are identical. In a 2010 review of the relevant science, Luc Tappy, a researcher at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland who is considered by biochemists who study fructose to be the world’s foremost authority on the subject, said there was “not the single hint” that H.F.C.S. was more deleterious than other sources of sugar.

The question, then, isn’t whether high-fructose corn syrup is worse than sugar; it’s what do they do to us, and how do they do it? The conventional wisdom has long been that the worst that can be said about sugars of any kind is that they cause tooth decay and represent “empty calories” that we eat in excess because they taste so good.

By this logic, sugar-sweetened beverages (or H.F.C.S.-sweetened beverages, as the Sugar Association prefers they are called) are bad for us not because there’s anything particularly toxic about the sugar they contain but just because people consume too many of them.

Those organizations that now advise us to cut down on our sugar consumption — the Department of Agriculture, for instance, in its recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, or the American Heart Association in guidelines released in September 2009 (of which Lustig was a co-author) — do so for this reason. Refined sugar and H.F.C.S. don’t come with any protein, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants or fiber, and so they either displace other more nutritious elements of our diet or are eaten over and above what we need to sustain our weight, and this is why we get fatter.

Whether the empty-calories argument is true, it’s certainly convenient. It allows everyone to assign blame for obesity and, by extension, diabetes — two conditions so intimately linked that some authorities have taken to calling them “diabesity” — to overeating of all foods, or underexercising, because a calorie is a calorie. “This isn’t about demonizing any industry,” as Michelle Obama said about her Let’s Move program to combat the epidemic of childhood obesity. Instead it’s about getting us — or our children — to move more and eat less, reduce our portion sizes, cut back on snacks.

Lustig’s argument, however, is not about the consumption of empty calories — and biochemists have made the same case previously, though not so publicly. It is that sugar has unique characteristics, specifically in the way the human body metabolizes the fructose in it, that may make it singularly harmful, at least if consumed in sufficient quantities.

The phrase Lustig uses when he describes this concept is “isocaloric but not isometabolic.” This means we can eat 100 calories of glucose (from a potato or bread or other starch) or 100 calories of sugar (half glucose and half fructose), and they will be metabolized differently and have a different effect on the body. The calories are the same, but the metabolic consequences are quite different.

The fructose component of sugar and H.F.C.S. is metabolized primarily by the liver, while the glucose from sugar and starches is metabolized by every cell in the body. Consuming sugar (fructose and glucose) means more work for the liver than if you consumed the same number of calories of starch (glucose). And if you take that sugar in liquid form — soda or fruit juices — the fructose and glucose will hit the liver more quickly than if you consume them, say, in an apple (or several apples, to get what researchers would call the equivalent dose of sugar). The speed with which the liver has to do its work will also affect how it metabolizes the fructose and glucose.

In animals, or at least in laboratory rats and mice, it’s clear that if the fructose hits the liver in sufficient quantity and with sufficient speed, the liver will convert much of it to fat. This apparently induces a condition known as insulin resistance, which is now considered the fundamental problem in obesity, and the underlying defect in heart disease and in the type of diabetes, type 2, that is common to obese and overweight individuals. It might also be the underlying defect in many cancers.

If what happens in laboratory rodents also happens in humans, and if we are eating enough sugar to make it happen, then we are in trouble.

The last time an agency of the federal government looked into the question of sugar and health in any detail was in 2005, in a report by the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academies. The authors of the report acknowledged that plenty of evidence suggested that sugar could increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes — even raising LDL cholesterol, known as the “bad cholesterol”—– but did not consider the research to be definitive. There was enough ambiguity, they concluded, that they couldn’t even set an upper limit on how much sugar constitutes too much. Referring back to the 2005 report, an Institute of Medicine report released last fall reiterated, “There is a lack of scientific agreement about the amount of sugars that can be consumed in a healthy diet.” This was the same conclusion that the Food and Drug Administration came to when it last assessed the sugar question, back in 1986. The F.D.A. report was perceived as an exoneration of sugar, and that perception influenced the treatment of sugar in the landmark reports on diet and health that came after.

The Sugar Association and the Corn Refiners Association have also portrayed the 1986 F.D.A. report as clearing sugar of nutritional crimes, but what it concluded was actually something else entirely. To be precise, the F.D.A. reviewers said that other than its contribution to calories, “no conclusive evidence on sugars demonstrates a hazard to the general public when sugars are consumed at the levels that are now current.” This is another way of saying that the evidence by no means refuted the kinds of claims that Lustig is making now and other researchers were making then, just that it wasn’t definitive or unambiguous.

What we have to keep in mind, says Walter Glinsmann, the F.D.A. administrator who was the primary author on the 1986 report and who now is an adviser to the Corn Refiners Association, is that sugar and high-fructose corn syrup might be toxic, as Lustig argues, but so might any substance if it’s consumed in ways or in quantities that are unnatural for humans. The question is always at what dose does a substance go from being harmless to harmful? How much do we have to consume before this happens?

When Glinsmann and his F.D.A. co-authors decided no conclusive evidence demonstrated harm at the levels of sugar then being consumed, they estimated those levels at 40 pounds per person per year beyond what we might get naturally in fruits and vegetables — 40 pounds per person per year of “added sugars” as nutritionists now call them. This is 200 calories per day of sugar, which is less than the amount in a can and a half of Coca-Cola or two cups of apple juice. If that’s indeed all we consume, most nutritionists today would be delighted, including Lustig.

But 40 pounds per year happened to be 35 pounds less than what Department of Agriculture analysts said we were consuming at the time — 75 pounds per person per year — and the U.S.D.A. estimates are typically considered to be the most reliable. By the early 2000s, according to the U.S.D.A., we had increased our consumption to more than 90 pounds per person per year.

That this increase happened to coincide with the current epidemics of obesity and diabetes is one reason that it’s tempting to blame sugars — sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup — for the problem. In 1980, roughly one in seven Americans was obese, and almost six million were diabetic, and the obesity rates, at least, hadn’t changed significantly in the 20 years previously. By the early 2000s, when sugar consumption peaked, one in every three Americans was obese, and 14 million were diabetic.

This correlation between sugar consumption and diabetes is what defense attorneys call circumstantial evidence. It’s more compelling than it otherwise might be, though, because the last time sugar consumption jumped markedly in this country, it was also associated with a diabetes epidemic.

In the early 20th century, many of the leading authorities on diabetes in North America and Europe (including Frederick Banting, who shared the 1923 Nobel Prize for the discovery of insulin) suspected that sugar causes diabetes based on the observation that the disease was rare in populations that didn’t consume refined sugar and widespread in those that did. In 1924, Haven Emerson, director of the institute of public health at Columbia University, reported that diabetes deaths in New York City had increased as much as 15-fold since the Civil War years, and that deaths increased as much as fourfold in some U.S. cities between 1900 and 1920 alone. This coincided, he noted, with an equally significant increase in sugar consumption — almost doubling from 1890 to the early 1920s — with the birth and subsequent growth of the candy and soft-drink industries.

Emerson’s argument was countered by Elliott Joslin, a leading authority on diabetes, and Joslin won out. But his argument was fundamentally flawed. Simply put, it went like this: The Japanese eat lots of rice, and Japanese diabetics are few and far between; rice is mostly carbohydrate, which suggests that sugar, also a carbohydrate, does not cause diabetes. But sugar and rice are not identical merely because they’re both carbohydrates. Joslin could not know at the time that the fructose content of sugar affects how we metabolize it.

Joslin was also unaware that the Japanese ate little sugar.  . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Later in the article:

. . . Until Lustig came along, the last time an academic forcefully put forward the sugar-as-toxin thesis was in the 1970s, when John Yudkin, a leading authority on nutrition in the United Kingdom, published a polemic on sugar called “Sweet and Dangerous.” Through the 1960s Yudkin did a series of experiments feeding sugar and starch to rodents, chickens, rabbits, pigs and college students. He found that the sugar invariably raised blood levels of triglycerides (a technical term for fat), which was then, as now, considered a risk factor for heart disease. Sugar also raised insulin levels in Yudkin’s experiments, which linked sugar directly to type 2 diabetes. Few in the medical community took Yudkin’s ideas seriously, largely because he was also arguing that dietary fat and saturated fat were harmless. This set Yudkin’s sugar hypothesis directly against the growing acceptance of the idea, prominent to this day, that dietary fat was the cause of heart disease, a notion championed by the University of Minnesota nutritionist Ancel Keys.

A common assumption at the time was that if one hypothesis was right, then the other was most likely wrong. Either fat caused heart disease by raising cholesterol, or sugar did by raising triglycerides. “The theory that diets high in sugar are an important cause of atherosclerosis and heart disease does not have wide support among experts in the field, who say that fats and cholesterol are the more likely culprits,” as Jane E. Brody wrote in The Times in 1977.

At the time, many of the key observations cited to argue that dietary fat caused heart disease actually support the sugar theory as well. During the Korean War, pathologists doing autopsies on American soldiers killed in battle noticed that many had significant plaques in their arteries, even those who were still teenagers, while the Koreans killed in battle did not. The atherosclerotic plaques in the Americans were attributed to the fact that they ate high-fat diets and the Koreans ate low-fat. But the Americans were also eating high-sugar diets, while the Koreans, like the Japanese, were not. . .

Written by LeisureGuy

31 January 2019 at 4:07 pm

The Trump-Russia Investigation and the Mafia State

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Masha Gessen writes in the New Yorker:

It’s been a strange two and a half years. From the first allegations, in July, 2016, of Russian meddling in the U.S. election campaign to the arrest of President Donald Trump’s former adviser Roger Stone last week, many of us who write about Russia professionally, or who are Russian, have struggled to square what we know with the emerging narrative. In this story, Russia waged a sophisticated and audacious operation to subvert American elections and install a President of its choice—it pulled off a coup. Tell that to your average American liberal, and you’ll get a nod of recognition. Tell it to your average Russian liberal (admittedly a much smaller category), and you’ll get uproarious laughter. Russians know that their state lacks the competence to mount a sophisticated sabotage effort, that the Kremlin was even more surprised by Trump’s election than was the candidate himself, and that Russian-American relations are at their most dysfunctional since the height of the Cold War. And yet the indictments keep coming.

Reader, I think I’ve finally figured it out. I don’t mean that I’ve figured out whether Russians influenced the outcome of the American election—I doubt even the Robert Mueller investigation will be able to answer that question. I mean that I’ve figured out how to think about what we know and not go crazy. The answer lies in the concept of the Mafia state. (And, no, I’m not invoking the Mob because Stone encouraged an associate to behave like a character from “The Godfather Part II,” as detailed in his indictment.)

As journalists who usually cover American politics have connected the dots of the story of Russian interference, those of us who normally write about Russia have cringed. Early on, it was common to point out that Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, who is now under arrest, worked for Viktor Yanukovych, who is often characterized as the “pro-Russian President of Ukraine.” In fact, there was no love lost between Putin and Yanukovych. After he was run out of town, during the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, Yanukovych did seek refuge in Russia, but during his tenure as President he was an unreliable partner for Putin at best. Perhaps more to the point, he’s a crook and a brute. He served time for robbery and assault before he became a politician, and he is wanted in Ukraine for treason, mass murder, and embezzlement. A visitor to Ukraine can take a tour of Yanukovych’s palace, famous for its marble, crystal, immense scale, and a life-size solid-gold sculpture of a loaf of bread. Manafort made a career of working for the corrupt and the crooked. That in itself tells us little about Russia or its role in the 2016 campaign.

We cringed at headlines that claimed to have established a connection between the Kremlin and Natalia Veselnitskaya, the lawyer who was at the Trump Tower meeting with Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner, and Manafort. Veselnitskaya represents a Russian company, Prevezon Holdings Ltd., which was investigated in New York for money laundering, and Veselnitskaya has been charged with lying to prosecutors about her working relationship with the Russian prosecutor general’s office. Federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York claim that Veselnitskaya collaborated with a lawyer in the Russian prosecutor’s office to draft exculpatory documents for Prevezon. In media coverage, her e-mailing with a lawyer in the Russian prosecutor’s office was portrayed as evidence of a direct line to Putin, suggesting that she met with Trump’s campaign officials as his emissary. To me, it read as a lot of bluster on the part of a minor operator. From all the available evidence, and contrary to her sales pitch, Veselnitskaya did not have any dirt to offer on Hillary Clinton. To the extent that Veselnitskaya had established connections to high-level Russian officials, they were the kind that are necessary for a lawyer to be at all effective in a corrupt system.

We cringed at the characterization of the Russian online influence campaign as “sophisticated” and “vast”: Russian reporting on the matter—the best available—convincingly portrayed the troll operation as small-time and ridiculous. It was, it seems, fraudulent in every way imaginable: it perpetrated fraud on American social networks, creating fake accounts and events and spreading falsehoods, but it was also fraudulent in its relationship to whoever was funding it, because surely crudely designed pictures depicting Hillary Clinton as Satan could not deliver anyone’s money’s worth.

What we are observing is not most accurately described as the subversion of American democracy by a hostile power. Instead, it is an attempt at state capture by an international crime syndicate. What unites Yanukovych, Veselnitskaya, Manafort, Stone, WikiLeaks’s Julian Assange, the Russian troll factory, the Trump campaign staffer George Papadopoulos and his partners in crime, the “Professor” (whose academic credentials are in doubt), and the “Female Russian National” (who appears to have fraudulently presented herself as Putin’s niece) is that they are all crooks and frauds. This is not a moral assessment, or an attempt to downplay their importance. It is an attempt to stop talking in terms of states and geopolitics and begin looking at Mafias and profits.

The Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar, who created the concept of the “post-Communist mafia state,” has just finished editing a new collection of articles called “Stubborn Structures: Reconceptualizing Post-Communist Regimes” (to be published by C.E.U. Press early this year). In one of his own pieces in the collection, using Russia as an example, Magyar describes the Mafia state as one run by a “patron” and his “court”—put another way, the boss and his clan—who appropriate public resources and the institutions of the state for their private use and profit. When I talked to Magyar on the phone on Monday, he told me that Trump is “like a Mafia boss without a Mafia. Trump cannot transform the United States into a Mafia state, of course, but he still acts like a Mafia boss.” Putin, on the other hand, “is a Mafia boss with a real Mafia, which has turned the whole state into a criminal state.” Still, he said, “the behavior at the top is the same.”

The Mafia state is efficient in its own way. It does not take over all state institutions, but absorbs only the ones necessary for extracting profit. Some structures therefore continue to work as though they were part of a normal state. This may explain why . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 January 2019 at 12:56 pm

The Wild Experiment That Showed Evolution in Real Time

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Ed Yong writes in the Atlantic:

In the fall of 2010, Rowan Barrett was stuck. He needed a piece of land, one with plenty of mice, and after days of futile searching, he found himself at a motel bar in Valentine, Nebraska, doing what people do at bars: telling a total stranger about his problems.

A young evolutionary biologist, Barrett had come to Nebraska’s Sand Hills with a grand plan. He would build large outdoor enclosures in areas with light or dark soil, and fill them with captured mice. Over time, he would see how these rodents adapted to the different landscapes—a deliberate, real-world test of natural selection, on a scale that biologists rarely attempt.

But first, he had to find the right spots: flat terrain with the right color soil, an abundance of mice, and a willing owner. The last of these was proving especially elusive, Barrett bemoaned. Local farmers weren’t keen on giving up valuable agricultural land to some random out-of-towner. After knocking on door after door, he had come up empty. Hence: the bar.

Barrett’s drinking companion—Bill Ward, or Wild Bill to his friends—thought the idea was bizarre, but also fun. “He told me, ‘I’ve got this alfalfa field. You’re welcome to come by tomorrow. I’m okay with you building this thing,’” Barrett said to me. “I just about fell out of my chair.”

When researchers study evolution through natural selection, they typically focus on just one part of it. The essence of the process is this: Some genes confer beneficial traits. Those traits make their owners more likely to survive and reproduce in a given environment. Over time, those genes and traits become more common. So researchers might, for example, find genes behind certain traits (such as striped coats). Or they might link certain traits to success in a given environment (such as longer-legged lizards in hurricane-hit islands). Beyond some experiments with lab-grown microbes, they have rarely connected all the dots together.

That’s what Barrett accomplished. With hundreds of mice and years of research, he and his colleagues were able to show and measure, in the real world, “the full process of evolution by natural selection,” says Hopi Hoekstraof Harvard University, who led the study. “It’s all in one.”

It was also a pain in the ass. “Utter ignorance was a good thing,” said Barrett, who had, until this point, only ever worked with small fish. “Anyone who had worked with mice would have never attempted this.”

Once the team had Bill Ward on board, they ended up buying 30,000 pounds of stainless steel plates from a local hardware store, and carting them over to the farm using flatbeds and forklifts. There, they erected the plates in trenches two feet deep, creating square enclosures that were 164 feet across on each side. They built three such pens on light sand, and three on dark soil.

At first, the steel pens seemed to work. Mice could neither dig beneath the plates nor climb over them. They were, however, exceptionally good at sneaking through gaps where adjacent plates didn’t quite meet, so the team had to dig everything back up and pour concrete around the joints.

Nature itself seemed eager to select against the team. On one trip, high winds almost flipped the truck carrying the steel plates. Once, a team member fainted and cut himself on a piece of steel. During winter, ramps of snow would accumulate along the walls, so the team had to add an extra layer of mesh along the plates. They also had to catch all the rattlesnakes in the enclosures and throw them over the walls; Bill helped. “Everything goes wrong in the field,” Hoekstra says. “And we’re used to dealing with pipettes, not backhoes.”

When everything was finally set, the team evicted every mouse already inside the enclosures, and caught around 500 more from the surrounding hills. They photographed each rodent, took a DNA sample, implanted a tiny radio chip between its shoulders, and released it into one of the enclosures.

As time passed, many of the mice fell prey to owls, but after three months, the team returned and recaptured the ones that were left. Sure enough, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 January 2019 at 12:03 pm

America’s Epidemic of Vaccine Exemptions

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Emily Atkin writes in the New Republic:

New York and Washington allow parents to refuse vaccinations for non-medical reasons. Both states are experiencing major measles outbreaks. This is not a coincidence.

To be a parent in the 1950s was to know that your child would at some point contract measles, a highly contagious virus characterized by fever and rash. When it happened, most parents needed only to plan for a few days of care. But about 500 every year planned funerals.

The first measles vaccine in the U.S. was introduced in 1963, and the disease was officially eliminated in 2000. Since 2008, however, it has been creeping back. Nearly 350 measles cases were diagnosed in the country last year, the second-highest number since its eradication. Just one month into 2019, it seems certain that this year will be even worse.

At least 35 people, mostly children, have been diagnosed with measles in Washington state since January 1, prompting the state’s governor, Jay Inslee, to declare a state of emergency. Around 40 more have been diagnosed in New York this month, part of an outbreak there that’s seen at least 186 cases since October. Public health officials expect the outbreaks to spread further, and attribute both of them to the same problem: An increasing number of parents are refusing vaccinations for their kids.

Across the United States, children are required to be immunized from life-threatening diseases before they’re allowed to enter school or daycare. This not only protects the child from disease, but ensures that schools are safe places for immune-compromised kids and adults, as well as kids and adults who are medically unable to get vaccines. Vulnerable groups such as these rely on herd immunity, which is achieved when around 90 to 95 percent of the population is vaccinated.

The majority of parents who reject these requirements today, however, aren’t from vulnerable groups. They’re opting out for their own religious or personal beliefs [or because getting the vaccination seems to them like too much trouble – LG]. Parents aren’t legally allowed to do that in every state, but can in the two states experiencing major measles outbreaks. Religious exemptions are permitted in New York, where the outbreak is primarily affecting the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. Both personal and religious exemptions are allowed in Washington, which according to one infectious disease researcher has become “a major anti-vaccine hot spot due to non-medical vaccine exemptions that have nothing to do with religion.”

Routine childhood vaccination programs have been shown to prevent approximately 42,000 early deaths and 20 million cases of disease per year, saving $13.5 billion in direct costs. That’s why non-medical exemption laws are opposed by the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Infectious Diseases Society of America—basically every reputable medical organization out there. But nearly every state has them in some form. There is also “tremendous variability in the rigor with which such beliefs must be proved or documented,” according to the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society (PIDS). In some states, “parents simply need to state that ‘their religion’ is against vaccination to be granted an exemption, even though no major religions specifically discourage vaccination.”

These problems are being compounded by the growth of the anti-vaccine movement, which argues that vaccines are more dangerous than the government and medical community claim, and thus no vaccines should be mandatory. Neither their facts nor their logic holds up. “Parents cannot be exempted from placing infants in car seats simply because they do not ‘believe’ in them,” argues PIDS. States also don’t allow belief exemptions for laws intended to protect other people, like driving a car without a license. “Whether or not children should be vaccinated before childcare or school entry ought not be a matter of ‘belief,’” the group argues. “Rather, it should be a matter of public policy based on the best available scientific evidence, and in this case the science is definitive: vaccines are safe and they save lives.”

So why doesn’t Congress just pass a vaccination law outlawing non-medical exemptions? “We would love it if they could do something at the federal level,” said Rich Greenaway, the director of operations for the advocacy group Vaccinate Your Family. “We’d be 100 percent behind it.” But it’s not clear that Congress has that legal authority. According to the Congressional Research Service, “the preservation of the public health has been the primary responsibility of state and local governments, and the authority to enact laws relevant to the protection of the public health derives from the state’s general police powers.” Creating a federal vaccination law would turn that historical precedent on its head. . .

Continue reading.

And in the Vancouver [B.C.] Sun, an article by Harrison Mooney:

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control is warning residents about a measles outbreak in the state of Washington.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency Friday after dozens came down with the highly infectious disease in Washington’s southernmost county.

“Clark County is now reporting 30 cases of measles,” Inslee said Friday. “Because measles is contagious before people realize they are sick, those who are not vaccinated may spread the disease without knowing.”

The outbreak appears to have already spread to neighbouring Oregon, with one related case reported.

This year, B.C. has seen just one case of measles, in a traveller returning from the Philippines. No cases related to the Clark County outbreak have been reported in the province, but B.C.’s vaccination rate currently sits below the 95 per cent necessary to achieve herd immunity.

Anti-vaccination propaganda has already led to province-wide measles outbreaks in 2014 and 2010, and the BCCDC is understandably concerned about another as the disease spreads through the neighbouring states.

As a precaution, the BCCDC is advising residents, and border crossers especially, to review and, if necessary, update their vaccines, the best protection against measles. While it is expected most will not be affected by the outbreak, those who have not been vaccinated against the disease, including infants less than a year old, are at risk.

In B.C., children receive two doses of measles-containing vaccine, with the first after 12 months and the second at four years of age. . .

Continue reading.

The US is becoming a disease-ridden country with crumbling infrastructure, a poor educational system (because schools are understaffed and teachers are underpaid), that cannot keep its government in operation. Does anyone notice any hints of decline in that description?

Written by LeisureGuy

31 January 2019 at 11:17 am

Watch a single cell become a complete organism in six pulsing minutes of timelapse

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Fascinating video on Aeon with this text:

Native to central and southern Europe, the amphibious alpine newt breeds in shallow water, where its larvae are born, hatch and feed on plankton, before sprouting legs and moving to land. This timelapse video from the Dutch director Jan van IJken tracks the development of a single-celled zygote into the hatched larva of an alpine newt. Captured in stunning detail at microscopic scales, Becoming is a remarkable look at the process of cell division and differentiation, whence all animals – from newts to humans – come. For more awe-inspiring biology from van IJken, watch The Art of Flying.

Do take a look at the video. Mesmerizing.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 January 2019 at 11:05 am

Posted in Evolution, Science, Video

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