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Archive for January 7th, 2019

The truth about cast-iron cookware

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Let me immediately quote from this post something I added to yesterday’s post about cooking liver & onions:

 Stainless steel has an emissivity of around .07. Even when it’s extremely hot, you can put your hand close to it and not feel a thing. Only the food directly in contact with it is heating up in any way.

Cast iron, on the other hand, has a whopping .64 emissivity rating, which means that when you’re cooking in it, you’re not just cooking the surface in contact with the metal, but you’re cooking a good deal of food above it as well. This makes it ideal for things like making hash or pan roasting chicken and vegetables.

Or, as I point out, it’s great for cooking liver & onions. And a good part of that is its emissivity, which is what it’s good for cooking other things: sautéing onions to the point of their being well caramelized; shrimp; veggies that I want to sort of give a roasted effect on the stove top; chicken hearts; and steak, of course.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 January 2019 at 8:47 pm

Posted in Daily life

Chart of the Day: Never Believe Corporations. Never.

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Very interesting post by Kevin Drum, with a revealing chart.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 January 2019 at 5:41 pm

GM’s decline truly began with its quest to turn people into machines

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Gwynn Guilford writes in Quartz:

When General Motors announced last month that it was shutting down small-car production and mothballing its Lordstown Assembly plant outside of Youngstown, in northeast Ohio, ­the news felt inevitable. While GM once built nine of every 20 new cars sold in America between 1950 and 1980, its market dominance has long since faded. Along with the other two of Detroit’s “Big Three” automakers, GM has been slashing shifts and shuttering factories for decades, gutting cities like Youngstown across America.

But nothing that led to the layoff of Lordstown’s 1,500 workers was inevitable—not GM’s failure, not the triumph of foreign small cars, and not even the withering of Detroit’s industrial might—provided you know where to look. Nearly a half-century ago, as the first gusts of global competition began buffeting the US economy, an iconic strike in Lordstown presented GM with an alternative path—and incited the rest of America to rethink our relationship to work.

In the late winter of 1972, Lordstown workers rebelled against GM’s experiment with a bold new management style that put a premium on automation while treating assemblers as though they were little whirring parts of one giant machine. Their uprising became a national symbol of blue-collar disaffection. “Lordstown syndrome,” as the media dubbed it, was fueled by the idea that, for American society to thrive, people needed work, yes, but more specifically, meaningful work—a purpose that went beyond the simple act of fastening a spring to a Chevrolet’s left rear axle. In the national debate that ensued, America pondered how a society that neglected to treat work holistically would hurt the competitiveness of its workers, and, ultimately, the health of its communities.

That 1972 strike—or, more precisely, GM’s response to it—marked the beginning of the company’s long but uneven descent, which would be characterized by a repeated impulse to bet on fancy, futuristic but unproven technologies while undervaluing its workers. And so, long before GM CEO Mary Barra’s announcement in late November, we’ve known how the story of GM ends. But Lordstown’s strange moment in 1972 teaches us about what could have been written instead.

The factory of the future

The year was 1970. General Motors was the biggest company on the planet, with revenue of $22.8 billion ($152 billion in today’s dollars). It had just dazzled the world with its unveiling of Lordstown Assembly, featuring an intensely mechanized assembly line, computerized quality control, and its pièce de résistance: 26 robots that zipped around chassis like praying mantises on crank, fusing together the steel sheets that became the car’s body. The most automated factory the industry had ever seen, the plant was a revolution in manufacturing efficiency—”an industrial engineer’s dream,” according to John Russo, who worked in the late 1960s at a GM plant in Michigan and went on to become a labor relations scholar and director of Youngstown State University’s Center for Working-Class Studies.

Just as remarkable as the phalanxes of robots was the workforce that GM picked to sweat alongside them. “The labor force—long-haired, pigtailed and bell-bottomed—is the youngest of any GM plant,” a Feb. 1972 Time magazine article (paywall) declared. Indeed, the average age of Lordstown’s 8,000-plus assemblers was 24. They were also the best educated and most ethnically diverse workforce in the industry’s history, says Russo. Many had fought in Vietnam.

Why the radical change? Foreign competition—what had once seemed no more than an irritant to a company of GM’s market dominance—was swiftly solidifying into a small but real threat.

The company that bestrode the world

It was through the Model T that car ownership first came to the American masses, as Henry Ford’s mass production made an otherwise luxury item suddenly affordable. But the company that turned car ownership into a core American cultural institution was his company’s rival, General Motors. While Ford made the same boxy car, in the same drab black, for everyone, GM pioneered the modern concepts of branding and mass marketing. Each of its brands had a distinct look, price, and consumer base—or in the words of Alfred Sloan, Jr., the industry visionary who led GM in the decades before World War II, “a car for every purse and purpose.”

By the 1950s, GM marketing had penetrated the collective American psyche so thoroughly that its five iconic marquees were symbols of the country’s emerging class and cultural affinities. Old money rode in Cadillacs, explains economist Robert Gordon in his book The Rise and Fall of American Growth, while the country’s managerial ranks drove Buicks. “Farther down the perceived chain of status were the Oldsmobile, the Pontiac, and the ubiquitous Chevrolet, America’s best-selling car year after year, eagerly bought by the new unionized working class that, in its transition to solid middle-class status, could afford to equip its suburban subdivision house with at least one car, and often two,” he writes.

The key to the cars’ appeal, and the company’s profitability, was GM’s knack for innovation—its ability to constantly churn out new ways of making its cars flashier, comfier, more fun to drive.

Many of these breakthroughs were practical: self-starting engines (as opposed to manual cranks), in-car air conditioning, automatic transmission, and power steering. But design was critical too. The pace of innovation was such that, by the late 1950s, every new model that GM turned out looked markedly different from its predecessor.

“Having passed Ford in the 1920s by offering cars that were changed every year, GM made sure it remained the styling and technology leader,” wrote Alex Taylor III, a longtime industry reporter for Fortune, in Sixty to Zero: An Inside Look at the Collapse of General Motors—and the Detroit Auto Industry. “Its cars of the 1950s were all new, their styling capturing the pent-up wartime desire for change with an exciting spirit bordering on the flamboyant: two-tone color schemes, outrageous fins, and high-compression V-8 engines.”

The distinctiveness of GM’s brands owed a lot to the fact that they operated as independent divisions. This meant Chevy engineers competed not just against Ford and Chrysler, but also against Pontiac and Oldsmobile to define the cutting edge of power, comfort, and style. What its brands did share, however, was that their cars kept getting longer and more jam-packed with profitable new features—and, therefore, heavier too.

Constant upgrades of style and quality were commercially critical because GM faced a challenge similar to the one Apple confronts today with its iPhone: a well-saturated market. By 1970, 29% of US families owned more than one car, compared with just 7% two decades earlier, according to economic historian Emma Rothschild in Paradise Lost, her 1973 book on Lordstown Assembly. American consumers had enough cars to get around. To keep them buying new ones, they had to be convinced—and with its steady stream of must-have new models, GM had perfected how.

These feats of ingenuity made GM the first company in history to earn more than $1 billion, which it did in 1956. Throughout that decade and the next, it was the planet’s most profitable company. GM’s dominion over the US auto market was unquestionably utter. Every year but two between 1950 and 1970, Americans shelled out more on new GM cars than they did Fords and Chryslers combined.

From this commanding perch, it was easy to dismiss competition. At first, anyway.

Foreign invasion

Germany’s Volkswagen introduced America to the Beetle in 1949. It sold exactly two.

Within a decade, those fortunes had improved considerably. The stubby cars that Volkswagen and other European carmakers specialized in had found a market among Americans who couldn’t afford Detroit’s pricey steel behemoths. Soon Japanese cars—Toyota debuted the Corona in 1965, rolling out the Corolla the next year—began appearing on streets of America’s west coast cities. In addition to sticker price, foreign cars also tended to be cheaper in the long run. Smaller and lighter than US models, they traveled farther per each gallon of gas. Their reliability translated into lower repair costs too. Word of this reputation spread. In 1963, a mere 5% of the cars bought in the US were foreign-made. That share had leapt to 13% by 1967.

GM, evidently, had had enough of the upstarts. “Annoyed by the popularity of the Volkswagen Beetle, GM’s brass decided in the late 1960s that it was time for the General to remind the pipsqueaks who was boss,” writes veteran auto market reporter Paul Ingrassia in his book, Comeback: The Fall & Rise of the American Automobile Industry.

In 1968, GM announced that it was launching its first subcompact car, throwing down the gauntlet.

The “import-killer” from Lordstown

If the company had any doubts it would prevail over the Bugs and Corollas teeming on US highways, it didn’t show it. GM proclaimed that its new car would weigh less than 2,000 pounds and cost $1,800, the same as a Beetle, while featuring GM’s signature innovation.

To produce what the industry expected to be the world’s superior small car, GM picked its crown jewel factory, spending around $100 million to outfit the plant with the cutting-edge robots, automated line, and computerized quality control systems for which it became known. Lordstown Assembly would be the only US plant to make GM’s new “import-killer” subcompact, which it christened the Chevrolet Vega.

The hype was tremendous. In May 1970, GM rolled out ads saying nothing except two words: “You’ll see.” When the Vega finally hit dealerships four months later, GM had once again defied expectations. But for the first time ever, not in a good way.

The Vega looked plenty spiffy—certainly way sleeker than the dwarfish forms favored by foreign carmakers. But it was also was nearly 400 pounds heftier and $300 more expensive than promised. And the disappointments didn’t end there. Features that were supposed to make it lighter, boosting gas mileage, left it prone to oil leaks. “Chevy dealers replaced so many Vega engines that they joked that the engines were ‘disposable,’” notes Ingrassia in Crash Course: The American Automobile Industry’s Road to Bankruptcy and Bailout-and Beyond. Its exterior tended to rust prematurely and buckle under pressure. On top of that, shortly after Vega production began, the labor union United Automobile Workers staged a 67-day national strike against GM, leaving the new car in short supply at dealerships.

The awakening should have been a rude one. It was GM’s first high-profile failure—a result of blundering labor management, sure, but also half-baked engineering and patchy quality control. The company could have regrouped and brought the Vega up to its usual snuff. But firm in its faith that Lordstown Assembly’s state-of-the-art automation ensured quality—and the production volume necessary to make a low-margin subcompact profitable—GM doubled down.

First, it laid off hundreds of Lordstown workers—reports vary, but put the number somewhere between 350 and 700. Then GM sloughed the extra work off on those who remained. Many of those axed worked on quality control. And to compensate for production lost to the 1970 strike, GM cranked up the assembly line’s pace. Those choices would have major repercussions for the way the Lordstown workers felt about their jobs, and ultimately, for the way American consumers felt about GM.

Life on the assembly line

Kenneth Picklesimer, now 72, started working at Lordstown in 1967, shortly after it opened. His first job was affixing carpets to the chassis of Chevy Impalas as their steely skeletons lurched past him down the line. When each new car appeared, the workers would scramble to add parts and adjustments before 60 seconds were up and the line whisked the car to the next station.

In the early 1970s, his job was to install a coiled spring to the rear axle, bolting it in place with a gun, his arms suspended in the same position for most of his 11-hour day. The spring weighed 10 pounds; fumbling it was known to snap fingers and shatter wrists. But that was nothing compared to the job worked by the guy in front of him, who was responsible for bolting the axle to the car’s body with a 40-pound airgun. “When it torqued up,” says Picklesimer, “it had so much kick to it that it’d take you off your feet almost.”

In addition to the physical strain, assembly work was a fraught combination of being agonizingly tedious while also requiring unflagging focus, says Tim O’Hara, 59, who recently retired from Lordstown after having worked there for 41 years. The pressure was immense.

“We had a lot of people that were hired and quit the same day ’cause they couldn’t take the mental impact, like being tied to one spot, you can’t go to bathroom unless someone comes to replace you,” says O’Hara, who is currently vice president of United Auto Workers Local 1112. “Everything’s regimented. You have to be mentally able to take it, and not everyone was.”

When Picklesimer started at Lordstown, he worked for Chevy. But in 1971, that ended, thanks to the creation of a final incendiary element in this already combustible situation: General Motors Assembly Division—or as the workers called it, GMAD.

The gestapo of GM

Up to this point, GM’s five brands—Chevy, Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, and Cadillac—operated distinctly, allowing give-and-take coordination between engineers and plant managers over part design and how to organize assembly, and, via dealerships, a direct feedback channel to loyal customers.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, GM severed those links when it thrust control over its factories under a single centralized authority, GMAD. By 1972, around 93,000 workers all around the country, and about three-quarters of GM’s production, had been absorbed into the division’s control, according to an April 1972 article in the New York Times.

GMAD embodied GM’s new strategy of centralizing and automating in order to up output and slash costs. And its head, Joseph Godfrey, embodied GMAD. The crewcut-sporting son of a former GM president, Godfrey was everything the Lordstown shop floor hippies weren’t. He spent his days poring over computer printout sheets and had a ruthless focus on the big picture.

“We have to compete with the foreigner,” Godfrey told the New York Times. The way to do that, he said, was to cut costs. And the key to that was technology—Lordstown’s robot welders, high-tech assembly line, and a new suite of computer systems that monitored output and quality.

How did workers fit into this vision? To Godfrey, their contribution could be reduced to a simple calculation of how much activity could be wrung from them. “Within reason and without endangering their health,” he said, “if we can occupy a man for 60 minutes [per paid hour], we’ve got that right.”

How? Line speed, for one. At Lordstown’s usual pace of 60 cars an hour, assembly line work was hard, but doable. In fact, GM could quite reasonably have squeezed out a few more cars per hour by upping the line speed to a pace of 65 or even possibly 70. Instead, management cranked up the pace to a dizzying speed of 100 cars an hour. “It deemed these moves to be reasonable because the Lordstown lines had been designed to build up to 140 cars an hour,” writes Ingrassia in Crash Course.

In other words, Godfrey’s plan wasn’t to boost productivity by making it easier for workers to do more, faster. Instead, it was simply to force them to do so. This was unheard of, then and now, says O’Hara. “We’re the only plant in the whole world, in the whole history of auto manufacturing, that ever did 100 an hour.”

The line speed-up meant assemblers had to cram the same work they used to do in 60 seconds into a mere 36 seconds. To keep workers in sync with that frenetic pace, the higher-ups instituted new rigid disciplinary measures, explains Russo, stepping up harassment and threats.

“GMAD was known as a kind of gestapo, no-holds-barred, ‘if you don’t like it get out of here’ approach,” he says. (In addition to studying Lordstown labor history, Russo has some firsthand experience with GMAD’s methods, having worked at a Michigan Oldsmobile plant during the division’s reign of terror. He recalls the foreman telling him, ‘Shut up, college boy and do your job,” when he suggested ways of improving workflow.)

Many of GMAD tactics seemed shortsighted—and sometimes downright petty. Employees who flagged flawed parts got a chewing-out from supervisors, even though cutting corners on quality would wind up raising warranty expenses, eating into profit. Foremen forbade the widespread practice among Lordstown workers of covering for each other on the line so that everyone could take breaks, says Kenneth Picklesimer. “Managers just started being real jerks,” he says. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more. GM killed itself by attacking the people who produced its products.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 January 2019 at 5:09 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life, Unions

Trump Literally Did Not Understand What a Shutdown Would Do

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Jonathan Chait writes in New York:

The Trump administration’s shutdown of the federal government over the last two weeks is a synecdoche for the way it has run the federal government over the last two years. They blundered into it almost by accident, without any understanding of what they are doing nor any plan for success.

Just as Trump did not expect to win the election and neglected to plan for his transition, he shut down the government on a whim, after right-wing media complained about his plan to approve a government funding bill. Nobody in the administration had a clear understanding of just what a shutdown would entail. Two devastating reports in the Washington Post over the weekend detail the horrifying scope of their ignorance. The administration did not realize that 38 million Americans lose their food stamps under a shutdown, nor did it know that thousands of tenants would face eviction without assistance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Administration officials “recognized only this week the breadth of the potential impact,” reports the Post, and was “focused now on understanding the scope of the consequences and determining whether there is anything they can do to intervene.” First Trump shut down the government, and then the Trump administration started looking into what effect this would have.

It’s likely the administration was lulled into complacency by a previous, abbreviated shutdown that took place in early 2018. This interruption in funding lasted only a few days and had barely any effect. Perhaps the administration assumed a longer shutdown would work the same way, but, you know, more of it. The reality is that the effects of a shutdown compound over time. Government agencies can creatively stretch their budgets to mask gaps in funding, but at some point, their capacity to maintain services snaps. The relationship between the length of a shutdown and its impact is not linear. A 30-day shutdown is not ten times as damaging as a three-day shutdown. It is probably 100 times as damaging.

The impending reality of millions of Americans going hungry and homeless is just one aspect of the horrors that await us. At some point, the shutdown will impinge upon Trump’s C-suite constituency. Employees of the Transportation Security Administration have had to work without pay, but that cannot continue indefinitely. Already, employees at some airports have begun staging sick-outs. At some point, air travel will grind to a halt, and with it large segments of the economy. By next month, tax refunds will be in jeopardy.

Facing an economic cataclysm, Trump appears to have no endgame in mind. He told Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer he would “look foolish” if he agreed to reopen the government without extracting concessions. But Democrats have no incentive to give him any. Voters in general tend to blame the president for problems. This holds true even when Congress is responsible for the problems, but it especially holds true when the president personally engineers the calamity and announces beforehand on camera that he won’t blame the other side for it.

One path for the administration to escape the vise it has created for itself is to negotiate an immigration deal. Jared Kushner is reportedly trying to craft a bargain that would swap protection for Dreamers in return for border-security funding. In theory, members of both parties support a deal like this. But this kind of enforcement-plus-amnesty trade formed the basis of immigration reform deals that failed under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama’s presidencies. Immigration reform is really hard to do. The notion that broadening the negotiations to include a divisive social policy that had repeatedly defied compromise would make it easier to reopen the government seems fanciful.

As difficult as immigration reform always is, Trump’s fixation with the wall compounds the difficulty. The wall is not a product of conservative immigration policy, it’s a messaging device devised by Trump’s campaign to get him to discuss immigration and to help him stand out from other anti-immigration conservatives. Immigration restrictionists like Mark Krikorian and Heather MacDonald frankly tell the New York Times they don’t care about the wall. Krikorian frets about the “danger that [Trump] would trade almost anything in order to get the wall.” MacDonald laments that the wall “has sucked political capital from the pursuit of other, and arguably better, means to deter illegal immigrants,” as MacDonald wrote.

The anti-immigration right does not oppose the wall, they simply don’t consider it especially useful as a tool to reduce illegal immigration. (Because it is not.) Therefore, from the restrictionist standpoint, any deal that trades something liberals want for the wall is a net negative.

Just how long will it take for Trump to figure out that he is probably not the president who is going to break America’s long-standing immigration policy deadlock? Probably longer than he can bear the political pain that his shutdown is bringing upon himself and his party. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 January 2019 at 3:29 pm

The Cuban Embassy disease: Mass hysteria

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The thought had in fact occurred to me that the symptoms and obscure causes sounded a lot like mass hysteria—or neurogenic, to be a better face on it. Jack Hitt reports in Vanity Fair:

The most dire diplomatic crisis of the Trump administration, or maybe just the weirdest, began without much notice in November 2016, some three weeks after the new president was elected. An American working at the U.S. Embassy in Havana—some call him Patient Zero—complained that he had heard strange noises outside his home. “It was annoying to the point where you had to go in the house and close all the windows and doors and turn up the TV,” the diplomat told ProPublica. Zero discussed the sound with his next-door neighbor, who also worked at the embassy. The neighbor said, yeah, he too had heard noises, which he described as “mechanical-sounding.”

Several months later, a third staffer at the embassy described suffering from hearing loss he associated with a strange sound. Before long, more and more people at the embassy were talking about it. They, too, started to get sick. The symptoms were as diverse as they were terrifying—memory loss, mental stupor, hearing problems, headaches. In all, some two dozen people were eventually evacuated for testing and treatment.

The outbreak at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba wasn’t the only mysterious illness to pop up in the headlines. Around the same time that embassy officials were preparing to fly home, more than 20 students at an Oklahoma high school suddenly came down with baffling symptoms—uncontrollable muscle spasms, even paralysis. A few years before, a similar incident at a school in upstate New York had caught the attention of the local Fox News affiliate, which sent parents into a panic over the possibility that their children had been stricken by an unidentified immune disorder. But the Cuban mystery, the Trump administration insisted, was different. It was not some environmental mishap, but something far more diabolical.

Encouraged by U.S. officials, the media quickly unfurled a story that the mysterious sound was an “attack”—an act of war. Some kind of “acoustic weapon” had been secretly aimed at the diplomats, in an effort to reduce them to brain-damaged zombies. The story got told with a side helping of Cold War envy. Private contractors and the Pentagon’s own hip military lab, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, had long been working to develop an arsenal of sound weapons. There had been some limited success with cumbersome devices like MEDUSA (Mob Excess Deterrent Using Silent Audio) and LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device), designed to cause excruciating ear pain to disperse mobs on the ground and pirates at sea. The dream, of course, was to get past such giant blunderbusses to something more portable and powerful, like a Flash Gordon ray gun. But the air force, after some experiments, concluded that any such effort using sound waves would be “unlikely” to succeed due to “basic physical principles.” If someone had developed a portable acoustic weapon, they had leapfrogged well beyond the skill set of a Raytheon or Navistar and into the arsenal of Q Branch from the Bond movies.

For the past year, the effort to crack the mystery of which technology could have caused the physical symptoms in Cuba has sparked a ferocious nerd fight—one that has pitted scientist against scientist, discipline against discipline, The New York Times against The Washington Post. New theories have emerged, only to be knocked down or marginalized by the evidence, or put down by the petty sarcasm of rivals and skeptics.

Sift through these scientific feuds and media battles, however, and you will end up at a single unified theory that fully explains the diverse symptoms of the injured diplomats, as well as the seemingly inexplicable circumstances surrounding their ailments. Unlike a futuristic gun, it turns out, the cause of the pain and suffering at the American Embassy in Havana appears to be as old as civilization itself. Over the centuries it has been responsible for some of the most confounding epidemics in human history, from the Middle Ages in Europe to Colonial America. And in Cuba, it appears to have been weaponized for our time, opening up a whole new battlefield in Donald Trump’s war on reality.

From the time it was reopened by Barack Obama in July 2015, after a half-century of Cold War tensions, the American Embassy in Havana felt like a place in the crosshairs. C.I.A. agents returned to Cuba under the same regime that the agency had repeatedly tried and failed to overthrow. During the 2016 campaign, Trump signaled he would “terminate” the new open-door policy, and met publicly with aging veterans of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.

Tensions spiked in September 2017, after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson summoned home some two dozen afflicted diplomats and staffers to undergo medical tests at the University of Pennsylvania. When someone suggested that the diplomats might be allowed to return to Havana once their health improved, Tillerson freaked. “Why in the world would I do that when I have no means whatsoever to protect them?” he huffed to the Associated Press. “I will push back on anybody who wants to force me to do that.” Even before any cause had been discovered, the State Department’s medical director, Charles Rosenfarb, seemed to rule out the usual candidates for any overseas affliction—molds, viruses, ill-advised shellfish. “The patterns of injuries,” he insisted, “were most likely related to trauma from a non-natural source.” The government had already decided that foul play was afoot—and that the primary suspect was a secret weapon.

One of the chief difficulties of using sound that people can hear as a weapon is that it dissipates quickly. That means you have to make the sound really, really loud to start with, so it can still do damage by the time it reaches the target. “To harm someone from outside a room, a sonic weapon would have to emit a sound above 130 decibels,” said Manuel Jorge Villar Kuscevic, a Cuban ear-nose-and-throat specialist who examined the evidence. That’s a roar comparable to “four jet engines on the street outside a house”—a blast that would deafen everyone in the vicinity, not just a single target.

Another bug in the initial sonic-weapon theory was exposed by … a bug. As the diplomats prepared to undergo a battery of tests, the Associated Press leaked a recording made in Cuba by one of the two dozen afflicted staffers and posted it on YouTube. Although the sound had been described in a number of contradictory ways, some of those who heard it experienced something like a high-pitched, high-frequency stridulation. In short, it sounded like chirping. And, in fact, once experts listened to the YouTube recording, there was an almost embarrassing revelation. What did many hear? Crickets.

Literally, crickets. Specifically, Gryllus assimilis, a.k.a. the Jamaican field cricket, also known sarcastically among bug experts as the “silent cricket.” And while Gryllus can get as loud as, say, a vacuum cleaner, it’s not noisy enough to cause deafness. Or, others argued, the sound might be cicadas. ProPublica’s groundbreaking investigation into the embassy mystery last winter quoted a biology professor named Allen Sanborn as saying that the only way a cicada could injure your hearing was if “it was shoved into your ear canal.”

By January 2018, some of the government’s own experts had ruled out a sonic attack. In an interim report, the F.B.I. revealed that it had investigated sound waves below the range of human hearing (infrasound), those we can hear (acoustic), and those above our hearing range (ultrasound). The conclusion: there was no sonic cause to the physical symptoms experienced by the diplomats.

But the Trump administration was not about to let good science stand in the way of politics that satisfies the base. The State Department slashed American staff in Havana by 60 percent and downgraded the posting to a “standard tour of duty”—a designation reserved for the most dangerous embassies, such as those in South Sudan and Iraq. A day after the F.B.I. ruled out a sonic attack, Marco Rubio, who despised Obama’s policy of restoring relations with his family’s homeland, gaveled open a hearing on Cuba before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As far as Rubio was concerned, the “attacks” were a given—as were the weapon and the assailant. “There is no way that someone could carry out these number of attacks, with that kind of technology, without the Cubans knowing about it,” he told Fox News. “They either did it, or they know who did it.”

After the hearing, Senator Jeff Flake, who had been briefed on the evidence, said out loud what the scientists already knew: that there was no proof Cuba had anything to do with the symptoms experienced by embassy staffers. “The Cubans bristle at the word attack,” he told CNN during a visit to Havana. “I think they are justified at doing so. The F.B.I. has said there is no evidence of an attack. We shouldn’t be using that word.”

In reply, Rubio essentially told Flake to shut the fuck up. “It is impossible to conduct 24 separate & sophisticated attacks on U.S. Govt personnel in #Havana without the #CastroRegime knowing about it,” Rubio tweeted. “Any U.S. official briefed on matter knows full well that while method of attack still in question, that attacks & injuries occurred isn’t.” Rubio, like many in the Republican Party, was copying the playbook of the man he had tried so hard to defeat for the presidency: if you repeat misinformation often enough, and angrily enough, it starts to take on the shape of reality.

Cuban officials, still operating under the Enlightenment principles of science, reacted with disbelief, and sometimes snark. “It is evident that to attack #Cuba some people don’t need any evidence,” tweeted José Ramón Cabañas, Cuba’s ambassador to the United States. “Next stop UFOs!!”

Not long after Rubio’s hearings, a new sonic theory emerged from scientists at the University of Michigan and Zhejiang University, in China. After reverse-engineering the sound on the audiotape, they concluded that ultrasound signals from an everyday device—a burglar alarm, say, or a motion detector—crossed with those from a secret surveillance system could produce a sound like the YouTube cricket. But the new theory, known as intermodulation distortion, didn’t catch on, for the same reason the F.B.I. investigation was dismissed: because Rubio and others in the administration continued to insist that there had to be malicious intent involved. Rubio’s paranoia sustained a major blow in March, when the medical team that had been allowed to examine 21 of the patients published its finding in The Journal of the American Medical Association. Given the limited data, the article’s 10 authors couldn’t get very specific. “Because of security and confidentiality considerations,” they wrote, “individual-level demographic data cannot be reported.” But investigating this “novel cluster of findings” and “neurotrauma,” they found that the victims suffered from a wide range of symptoms: balance issues, visual impairments, tinnitus, sleep disorders, dizziness, nausea, headaches, and problems thinking or remembering.

They also concluded that while the patients experienced this assortment of brain-rattling symptoms, they couldn’t find what should have been clear evidence of concussion in the brain scans and other tests. “Most patients had conventional imaging findings, which were within normal limits,” the medical team reported, noting that the few scattered anomalies could “be attributed to other pre-existing disease processes or risk factors.” The scientists wrapped up their report with a sentence that expressed their bafflement: “These individuals appeared to have sustained injury to widespread brain networks without an associated history of head trauma.” According to one author, the team enjoyed referring to this contradiction as the “immaculate concussion.”

With the medical doctors left scratching their heads, and a sonic weapon ruled out by the F.B.I., enterprising scientists continued their search for a sonic explanation. In September, The New York Times published a breathless front-page story that read like a Tom Clancy novel: “Members of Jason, a secretive group of elite scientists that helps the federal government assess new threats to national security, say it has been scrutinizing the diplomatic mystery this summer and weighing possible explanations, including microwaves.”

The article reached back three decades, to the early era of sonic research. Those were the days when spooky words like “neurowarfare” were coined, and scientists dreamed of developing a weapon that could induce “sonic delusions.” The Russians, the Times added suggestively, had also been working on this. Then, carriage return, new paragraph:

“Furtively, globally, the threat grew.”

There was even talk, the Times trembled, of a sonic weapon capable of “beaming spoken words into people’s heads.” And the threat could be coming to fruition, the paper warned, thanks to new research based on an old finding. The potential weapon might rely on a phenomenon known as the Frey effect, in which a tiny pulse of microwaves is aimed at one’s ear, raising the temperature inside the ear by an amount so small it can’t be measured—around a millionth of a degree. That would be enough, though, to ever so slightly rattle the moisture molecules and create an acoustic effect. Sadly, the suspected weapon had been downgraded from a sonic ray gun to a high-tech version of a popcorn-popper.

There were several obvious problems with this theory. An “inside the skull” explanation, for instance, doesn’t account for the sound that the diplomats in Havana recorded. But before anyone could dive into the scientific details, a tiny press skirmish broke out between the Times and The Washington Post,which took a blue pencil to the Clancy plotline. “Microwave weapons is the closest equivalent in science to fake news,” Alberto Espay, a University of Cincinnati neurologist, told the Post. Kenneth Foster, a bioengineer who delineated the Frey effect way back in 1974, called the entire idea “crazy.” The microwaves involved, he told the Post, “would have to be so intense they would actually burn the subject.” Or, as he put it vividly a decade ago, “Any kind of exposure you could give to someone that wouldn’t burn them to a crisp would produce a sound too weak to have any effect.”

If you view what happened to the diplomats in Havana as an “attack,” you must look for something capable of producing such an assault. It would have to emit a sound that varied widely from listener to listener. It would have to strike only people who worked at the embassy. It would have to assail them wherever they happened to be, whether in their homes or staying at a hotel. It would have to produce a wide range of symptoms that seemed to bear no relation to one another. And it would have to start off small, with one or two victims, before spreading rapidly to everyone in the group.

As it happens, there is and always has been one mechanism that produces precisely this effect in humans. Today it’s referred to in the medical literature as conversion disorder—that is, the conversion of stress and fear into actual physical illness. But most people know it by an older, creakier term: mass hysteria. Among scientists, it’s not a popular term these days, probably because “mass hysteria” summons the image of a huge mob, panicked into a stampede (with a whiff of misogyny thrown in). But properly understood, the official definition, when applied to the events in Havana, sounds eerily familiar. Conversion disorder, according to the International Journal of Social Psychiatry, is the “rapid spread of illness signs and symptoms among members of a cohesive social group, for which there is no corresponding organic origin.”

We tend to think of stress as something that afflicts an individual who is enduring heavy psychological pain. But conversion disorder, or mass psychogenic illness, as it is also known, is essentially stress that strikes a close-knit group, like an embassy under siege, and behaves epidemiologically—that is, it spreads like an infection. Because the origins of this affliction are psychological, it’s easy for those on the outside to dismiss it as being “all in the victim’s mind.” But the physical symptoms created by the mind are far from imaginary or faked. They are every bit as real, every bit as painful, and every bit as testable, as those that would be inflicted by, say, a sonic ray gun.

“Think of mass psychogenic illness as the placebo effect in reverse,” says Robert Bartholomew, a professor of medical sociology and one of the leading experts on conversion disorder. “You can often make yourself feel better by taking a sugar pill. You can also make yourself feel sick if you think you are becoming sick. Mass psychogenic illness involves the nervous system, and can mimic a variety of illnesses.”

Scientists in Cuba were among the first to realize that the outbreak at the American Embassy conformed to mass hysteria. Mitchell Valdés-Sosa, director of the Cuban Neuroscience Center, told The Washington Post, “If your government comes and tells you, ‘You’re under attack. We have to rapidly get you out of there,’ and some people start feeling sick … there’s a possibility of psychological contagion.”

Some American experts who were able to review the early evidence concurred. “It could certainly all be psychogenic,” Stanley Fahn, a neurologist at Columbia University, told Science magazine.

If you retrace the key events and anomalies of the outbreak at the embassy in Havana, every step of the way corresponds to those in classic cases of conversion disorder. The first few staffers hit by the symptoms were C.I.A. agents working on hostile soil—one of the most stressful positions imaginable. The initial conversation between Patient Zero and Patient One referenced only the odd sound; neither experienced any symptoms. Then, a few months later, a third embassy official reported that he was losing his hearing due to a “powerful beam of high-pitched sound.” As word spread quickly throughout the small, tight-knit complex of diplomats and other staff, Patient Zero helped sound the alarm. “He was lobbying, if not coercing, people to report symptoms and to connect the dots,” says Fulton Armstrong, a former C.I.A. officer who worked undercover in Cuba.

According to ProPublica, Patient Zero informed Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, in a telling phrase, that “the rumor mill is going mad.” So a meeting was called, which spread the word even further. Over the next weeks and months, more than 80 staffers and their families came forward to complain of a dizzying and seemingly unrelated range of symptoms: deafness, memory loss, mental stupor, head pain. Many reported hearing the strange noise, but they couldn’t seem to agree on what it sounded like. One described it as “grinding metal,” and another called it a “loud ringing.” Yet another compared it to feeling the “air ‘baffling’ inside a moving car with the windows partially rolled down.”

The sound also moved around a lot. The first four complaints all came from C.I.A. agents working undercover in Havana, who reported hearing the noise at their homes. But then others claimed that they had been felled by the mysterious sound while staying temporarily at Havana hotels, specifically the Hotel Capri and the Hotel Nacional.

Within days of the first report, U.S. officials like Rubio tipped the scale of belief toward a super-secret sonic ray gun, issuing press releases that referred to “acoustic attacks.” The State Department’s medical director uttered this exquisite contradiction: “No cause has been ruled out,” he insisted, “but the findings suggest this was not an episode of mass hysteria.” Rather than waiting for actual data and expert analysis, officials immediately leapt to the most exotic possible explanation. The outbreak in Havana certainly could have been caused by a mysterious unheard-of secret weapon. But the story, as it has developed in the media, has always worked backward from the idea of a sonic attack. The cause was a given; the only question was which branch of acoustic science was responsible.

Government secrecy made things worse. “We will not release information,” the State Department declared, “that violates individuals’ privacy or reveals their medical conditions.” The government also ignored data that didn’t fit its preferred theory. Early on, there was an outbreak of symptoms among Canadian officials in Havana, one of whom lived next door to Patient Zero. But Canada and Cuba enjoy good relations, so it made no sense for Cuba to be attacking Canadians. Likewise, an isolated report of a similar “attack” at the U.S. Embassy in China briefly made the news, but was eventually dropped from the narrative. U.S. officials further loaded the dice by selecting the people sent home for testing—presenting an incomplete and misleading set of data for doctors to examine.

When The Journal of the American Medical Association published the report by the initial medical team, it also ran a hand-wringing editorial undermining the very article it was publishing. The “initial clinical evaluations,” the JAMAeditors observed, “were not standardized.” The “examiners were not blinded,” and some of the ailments were based on “patient self-report.” There was a “lack of baseline evaluations and the absence of a control.” Those factors, the editors concluded—along with the fact that many of the reported symptoms “occur in the general population”—meant that the results of the study are “complicated.” The editors added a disclaimer, much like the one in Bush v. Gore (don’t ever cite this case in the future!), urging “caution in interpreting the findings.”

The editors suspected that skeptical scientists would attack the study, which is exactly what happened. The chief editor of Cortex, Sergio Della Sala, ridiculed the authors’ methods, specifically for setting a low bar for reporting embassy staffers as “impaired”—resulting in “numerous false positives.” Take the symptom of tinnitus. Some 50 million Americans—one in six people—experience ringing in the ears. If the JAMA scientists had assessed “any group of normal, healthy people” using the same criteria they applied to the diplomats, Della Sala pointed out, they would have found “several of them performing below the chosen cut-off score in one or another test.”

So, between the shaky medical study and the government secrecy, the description of the patients that emerged has always remained vague.  Bartholomew, the medical sociologist, calls this the data equivalent of “a fuzzy Bigfoot photo.” That is to say, every nonexistent creature captured in an out-of-focus photograph is typically just blurry enough to permit anyone to see whatever they want to see, like Chupacabra, or the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, or Ebu Gogo, or batsquatch, or the Lizard Man of Scape Ore Swamp.

The authors of the JAMA study noted that they briefly considered conversion disorder, but dismissed it after screening for “evidence of malingering.” Malingering means to fake illness, which was a very weird thing for the JAMAauthors to say. “Malingering was in the literature about 60 years ago,” says Bartholomew, somewhat bemused. “So I’m not sure what literature they were looking at.” Conversion disorder isn’t faking illness. Conversion disorder is being panicked into actual illness.

In December, a new study found that 25 embassy staffers tested positive for real, physical symptoms—in this case, impairments to balance and cognitive functions. “What we noticed is universal damage to the gravity organs in the ear,” the study’s lead author told the Times. But a closer look at the study itself, experts say, reveals that it found no such thing. “This paper only reports statement of deficits without giving any evidence, or scores, or methods, or statistics, or procedures,” explains Della Sala, the editor of Cortex. “It is far below par, and would not pass the scrutiny of any respected neuropsychology outlet.” In other words, he says, the symptoms cited in the study may be testable. But that alone “does not necessarily support an organic cause.”

Psychological contagion, it turns out, happens all the time. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Americans seem to be grossly under-educated with respect to science.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 January 2019 at 1:59 pm

Donald Trump’s Failure to Address the Real Crisis at the Border

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Jonathan Blitzer reports in the New Yorker:

On Friday, a few hours after insisting that the government shutdown could last “months or even years” if Democrats in Congress refused to fund a border wall, Donald Trump offered an even more immediate warning. He was willing, he said, to declare a national emergency in order to build it. For the past two weeks, the President and top members of his Administration have been making their case, citing a “border crisis” and threats to American sovereignty and security, while blaming the usual suspects for the incursion, from MS-13 and the migrant caravan to Nancy Pelosi and liberal judges. “The crisis is not going away,” the Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, wrote on Twitter. “It is getting worse.”

The irony, in light of the continuing political deadlock, is that Nielsen and the President are right about the current situation. There is an immigration crisis at the border—it’s just not the one the President keeps talking about. In the last half decade, while immigration at the U.S. border has dropped significantly compared with earlier years, the profile of migrants has changed in ways that the U.S. immigration system has never been designed to address. Instead of young men and seasonal workers, most of whom migrated from Mexico, the majority of people now arriving are asylum-seeking families and children from Central America. In November, more than twenty-five thousand families crossed the U.S. border—the highest such monthly total on record—fleeing violence, poverty, and rampant political corruption that have made parts of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala virtually uninhabitable. “There is a refugee crisis in our hemisphere,” Cecilia Muñoz, who served as the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President Barack Obama, told me recently. “You can’t fix that at our border. The countries in the region—with the U.S. as the leader—need to try to deal with this collectively.”

The rise in asylum seekers poses a complex logistical problem for U.S. authorities. By law, these migrants must be allowed to present their claims to immigration agents. At the same time, children cannot be detained for more than twenty days. When the scope of the present situation first became clear, in the final years of the Obama Administration, the government initially tried to detain families together, but a federal judge blocked the effort. Since then, the Department of Homeland Security has simply extended a practice it employed for migrant families back when their numbers seemed more manageable: it releases them with a future court date to appear before an immigration judge. The Trump Administration has panned this approach as “catch and release,” but, rather than making policy adjustments, it has spent most of the past year punishing asylum seekers and attempting to dismantle the system. These tactics, which were designed to scare families from making the trip north, did nothing to change the immigration flow, and the federal courts have halted each of the President’s signature policies, including, most recently, his proclamation banning asylum at the southern border altogether. “It’s the complete, 100 percent focus on harsher options that will deter the influx,” an official with the Department of Homeland Security told the Times. “We have a lot more families, a lot more unaccompanied children, and the focus has just been on how can we deter, rather than how can we handle.”

On Christmas Eve, two days after the federal government officially shut down, ice dropped off hundreds of families at a bus station in downtown El Paso. Local migrant shelters, which are typically contacted by ice, were not informed ahead of time. During the next four days, some sixteen hundred immigrant families were left at the bus station without food, warm clothes, or money for travel fare. In recent months, the mass releases of families—often without forewarning to local advocates—have become routine in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.

“These families are not trying to evade anyone. They’re presenting themselves to the first Border Patrol agents they can find,” a current Administration official told me. “This is not a border-security crisis. It’s an administrative-processing problem.” Sending more asylum officers to the border and hiring more immigration judges are obvious steps to reduce the growing queue of migrants, the official said, but the real issue is a series of deeper bureaucratic limitations. “ice is trying to get beds freed up faster so it can prepare space for the next family to come through,” the official said. “There’s a limited number of beds to accommodate families. And the agencies involved”—ice, Customs and Border Protection, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services—“have had a hard time coördinating.” By the time Citizenship and Immigration Services is ready to conduct a preliminary asylum screening (known as a credible-fear interview), many of the families have already been released by ice. In 2017, the majority of families seeking asylum at the U.S. border were released into the country without first going through the credible-fear interview. “They weren’t detained long enough for that to happen, and ice had nowhere to put them,” the official said. “None of the solutions involve the resources the President is now talking about.”

Aside from demanding five billion dollars to build a wall, the Administration has also tried to force Mexico to house U.S.-bound asylum seekers indefinitely while their cases move through the backlogged American immigration courts. The plan, known as Remain in Mexico, will likely be challenged in U.S. federal court, but not before it upends the precarious political landscape in Mexico. “The U.S. can’t just dump people into Mexico,” Tonatiuh Guillén López, the head of the country’s immigration authority, said last week. “We’ve asked for more answers, but the U.S. government is shut down, so I guess they’ll answer when they figure that out. It’s all up in the air.”

What would it look like if the Trump Administration were actually trying to solve this problem? For one thing, it would not have rolled back programs implemented at the end of the Obama era that were calibrated to the new reality at the border. In August, 2017, the State Department cancelled the Central American Minors program, which, though relatively small, vetted children for refugee status in their home countries to prevent them from making the overland journey to the U.S. border alone. That same summer, the Department of Homeland Security ended a pilot project called the Family Case Management Program; designed as an alternative to family detention, it allowed a thousand families in five American cities to live temporarily in the U.S. under supervision while awaiting their asylum hearings before an immigration judge. Ninety-nine per cent of the enrollees attended their mandatory check-ins with ice and eventually showed up for their court dates. The population in ice detention has spiked under Trump, and, in response, D.H.S. has redirected funds to ice from other agencies, with massive increases in detention funding in the last two years from the Republican Congress. “The additional detention beds are the result of Trump’s harsh enforcement practices against adults, but family detention hasn’t increased,” Kevin Landy, the director of ice’s Office of Detention Policy and Planning under President Obama, told me. “Additional funding for alternatives to detention—and less detention—would better address the family influx, and it would also be a more humane approach for adults who pose no threat to public safety.”

No one with any immigration-policy experience underestimates the challenges of responding to a regional humanitarian crisis. In the spring of 2014, the Obama Administration was pushing House Republicans to vote on a comprehensive immigration-reform bill that had already passed the Senate when it was blindsided by the arrival of tens of thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children at the border. Their arrival became national news, and Eric Cantor, then the Republican House Majority Leader, lost his primary that year to a Tea Party insurgent who campaigned on a strongly anti-immigrant platform. “That’s really when the bottom started falling out,” Cecilia Muñoz told me.

Immigration policy has always given rise to pitched political battles, on the left and on the right, but this is the first time in modern memory that an American President has openly and deliberately stoked these divisions for the sake of partisan theatre. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 January 2019 at 1:10 pm

Sleeping Enough to Be Truly Awake

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An interview with Matt Walker, Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and Director of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory:

Calling the global sleep-loss epidemic “the greatest public health challenge we now face in the 21st century,” Walker examines the impact of sleep on human brain function in healthy and clinical populations.  Through his work at UC Berkeley, he has been at the forefront of sleep research. He has linked sleep deprivation to psychiatric disorders, obesity, risky behavior, post-traumatic stress disorder, learning, and memory loss in old age.   And recently, his research demonstrates that a poor night’s sleep may also hinder one’s ability to accurately read the emotions of others – an impairment that may have wide-ranging consequences for our social interactions.  “Few things come unhinged as quickly and profoundly as our emotional stability…when we are not getting enough sleep,” What follows is the edited transcript of an Awakin Call interview with Matt Walker, moderated by Aryae Coopersmith.You can read or listen to the full version of the interview here.

Aryae Coopersmith: Would you start off by talking a little bit about what is sleep and the different issues and ways we deal with sleeping?

Matt Walker: “What is sleep?” That is such a critical question. I think many of us believe that we lose consciousness, and our brain is dormant and our body gets a little bit of rest, and gets some recharging, and then we wake up. So what is the harm if we short change our sleep by going to bed late or waking up a little too early with an alarm clock?

Sleep is not a dormant state. It is an incredibly active state in the brain and body. There are some parts of your brain that are up to 30% more active in some stages of sleep relative to when you are awake.

There are two principal stages of sleep that we cycle through when we are asleep that many people might have learned about. One of them is non rapid eye movement sleep or non-REM sleep. The other is rapid eye movement sleep or REM sleep, which is commonly associated with dreaming.

You ebb and flow through a cycle of REM to non-REM sleep every 90 minutes. You will replay that 90 minute cycle every 90 minutes throughout the night. It is an incredible cerebral war that is won and lost between these two stages of sleep.

What is interesting is that although that 90-minute cycle of non-REM to REM is stable across the night, the ratio balances of REM to non-REM sleep changes as you move across the night. So in the first half of the night the majority of those 90-minute cycles is comprised of that deep non-REM sleep.

As you push through the second half of the night, now that seesaw balance actually changes. And instead much more of those 90- minute cycles are composed of rapid eye movement sleep and a lot less deep non-REM sleep.

If you go to bed a little bit too late—perhaps an hour or two hours later than you normally would and you asked, “How much sleep have I lost compared to a normal eight hours?” You might think you have lost 25% of your sleep since you have gone to sleep 2 hours later than normal. I am going to wake up at the same time, so I only got six hours of sleep rather than eight. But that is not true. You didn’t just lose 25% of your sleep. You have probably lost up to 60 to 70% of your deep sleep. And it works the same way on the backend, too. We can’t afford to burn the candle at either one of those ends based on how sleep plays out throughout the night in terms of this canonical structure.

Over the past 10 years, through an explosion of the most wonderful science, we understand that there is no single process within your brain, and there is no single physiological process within the body, that is not powerfully enhanced when you get sleep or demonstrably impaired when you don’t get enough.

So now we’ve been forced to up-end the question in a way. Rather than asking “What is the function of sleep?”, we’ve been forced to ask, “Is there anything that does not benefit from sleep?” And the answer is no.

Aryae: The complexity of this is very interesting. I know that my own habits tend to be I’ve lost an hour or two of sleep tonight, so I’ll sleep an hour or two extra tomorrow night. My understanding of what you’re saying is that this will not catch me up?

Matt: No, this is one of the myths that are so critical for people to recognize and embrace. We’ve found no evidence that you get back all of the sleep that you lose. What I mean is that sleep is not like the bank. You cannot accumulate at debt and hope to pay it off at a later point in time.

Human beings are the only species that deprives themselves of sleep. No other species that we see will do this without biological gain. And what that means is that evolution has never faced the challenge of insufficient sleep since the dawn of time. As a consequence, Mother Nature has never had to solve this problem of insufficient sleep, so there is no safety net.

Aryae: What is the difference between sleep in a younger person and sleep in an older person?

Matt: There are two interesting questions there. When is and how is sleep different across the lifespan? And the second is how do older and younger adults deal with insufficient sleep?

In terms of sleep across the lifespan, there are just dramatic changes. Some of the most dramatic changes happen in the first 18 to 24 months of life. Your sleep structure changes and you begin to stabilize. You start to have longer regular bouts of sleep. And then you start to have different types of sleep. An infant seems to have predominately rapid eye movement sleep and very little deep sleep. That seems to be common across almost every single mammal that we have studied. Then non-REM sleep starts to develop later in life. And we’re not entirely sure why. Why is it that REM sleep dominates early in life? There’s a theory that it’s actually a critical igniter of brain development. That REM sleep or dream sleep sparks all of these neural pathways and makes them flourish. It is like an internet service provider in the brain that populates the brain with all of these high-speed broadband connections.

Then there’s another dramatic change that happens in our sleep. And it happens right around adolescence. What we see is that sleep time preference changes. What I mean by that is that when you are a younger child, you want to stay up late, but it is nearly impossible. You fall asleep early and much to the chagrin of your parents, you wake up early. Once you hit adolescence a dramatic shift happens in what we call the 24-hour biological clock rhythm, or your circadian rhythm. What that means is that you now want to go to bed later and wake up later. And there is nothing you can do about it. No amount of parental ranting and raving is going to make you fall asleep as a teenager at 9 o’clock because you have to wake up at 6 a.m. the next morning to catch the bus. And that is one of the most profound tragedies of society in industrialized nations right now—the brute forcing of adolescent teen sleep against its biological natural tendency. And this is doing our youth a terrible disservice.

Then we maintain this regular sleep pattern in our mid-to-late twenties. But then, sadly, the great sleep depression comes—somewhere between your thirties and forties. If you were to come into my laboratory, we could measure the decline of your deep sleep quality. So even by the fourth or fifth decade of life, sleep starts to deteriorate.

By your seventies/eighties, it’s actually really difficult for us to pick up really deep sleep. We’ve actually done work in the last five years to explore why. And it is even more profound in diseases like dementia, particularly in Alzheimer’s disease. Very recently we’ve discovered that these two things that we very commonly associated with aging—poor memory or poor cognitive function and poor sleep—they aren’t simply coincidental. They are, in fact, significantly interrelated. And the destruction of deep sleep in later life is perhaps one of the most under-appreciated factors that are contributing to what we call cognitive decline, and now it seems Alzheimer’s disease as well.

So it is very difficult with aging. All signs point to the fact that sleep need remains just as high, but sleep-generating capacity is eroded and declines. In other words, the older adult brain cannot produce the sleep that it nevertheless still needs. We are now desperately trying to find innovative new ways to restore sleep in the elderly. It is one of the moonshot goals in my laboratory. Can we give back and boost and amplify deep sleep in older adults? And in doing so can we salvage aspects of learning and memory function? And can we start to fight back against disorders like Alzheimer’s disease? That is the very real hope now.

Aryae: Would you tell us a little bit about the work that you’re currently doing in the lab? And how is it helping you discover some of these new things about sleep?

Matt: The research that I perform in my lab has many different programs. Some of them are clinical. I’m not an M.D. by the way, and I don’t pretend to be one or play one in the public forum. I am a Ph.D. But we do work with clinical populations and psychological populations and patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia. But we also do a lot of basic science research. We’re still trying to uncover all of these nutritional benefits that sleep provides to the brain and body.

The explosion of research and understanding about sleep has been driven by technology. We have these new methods of brain science to explore sleep in ways that we never could before. We can measure patterns of brain wave activity during sleep. And we can also peer deep into the brain with things like MRI scanners as people are sleeping. We can look to see which parts of the brain are switching on and switching off. And we can also sort of decompose these brain wave patterns, and really understand their individual parts, like a prism where you’re beaming white light and you can break it apart into its component shades and hues. By doing this we are able to speak in the currency of the brain which is in oscillations and brain waves and patterns of brain activity and networks of brain activity. And we are able to explore the body and find out more detail than we ever could before. We can look at genetics now through genetic screening—we can do blood draws; we can do measurements of heart rate and cardiac function, and we can start to unite all these things together. We can get a holistic view of the human while they sleep. And then we can see how that predicts the same set of measurements while they are awake. And then pattern match those two and then understand so much more about sleep. So it’s been this revolution of new science and technology that allows us to understand these living organisms and live homosapiens included.

Aryae: Is there a particular focus of your research currently for this year—a particular direction that you are going? . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 January 2019 at 8:52 am

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