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Archive for June 13th, 2021

A deep look at a speck of human brain reveals never-before-seen quirks

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Nerve cells that resided in a woman’s brain send out message-sending tendrils called axons (shown). A preliminary analysis has turned up some super-strong connections between cells. – Lichtman Lab/Harvard University, Connectomics Team/Google

Laura Sanders writes in Science News:

A new view of the human brain shows its cellular residents in all their wild and weird glory. The map, drawn from a tiny piece of a woman’s brain, charts the varied shapes of 50,000 cells and 130 million connections between them.

This intricate map, named H01 for “human sample 1,” represents a milestone in scientists’ quest to provide evermore detailed descriptions of a brain (SN: 2/7/14).

“It’s absolutely beautiful,” says neuroscientist Clay Reid at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. “In the best possible way, it’s the beginning of something very exciting.”

Scientists at Harvard University, Google and elsewhere prepared and analyzed the brain tissue sample. Smaller than a sesame seed, the bit of brain was about a millionth of an entire brain’s volume. It came from the cortex — the brain’s outer layer responsible for complex thought — of a 45-year-old woman undergoing surgery for epilepsy. After it was removed, the brain sample was quickly preserved and stained with heavy metals that revealed cellular structures. The sample was then sliced into more than 5,000 wafer-thin pieces and imaged with powerful electron microscopes.

Computational programs stitched the resulting images back together and artificial intelligence programs helped scientists analyze them. A short description of the resulting view was published as a preprint May 30 to bioRxiv.org. The full dataset is freely available online.

For now, researchers are just beginning to see what’s there. “We have really just dipped our toe into this dataset,” says study coauthor Jeff Lichtman, a developmental neurobiologist at Harvard University. Lichtman compares the brain map to Google Earth: “There are gems in there to find, but no one can say they’ve looked at the whole thing.”

But already, some “fantastically interesting” sights have appeared, Lichtman says. “When you have large datasets, suddenly these odd things, these weird things, these rare things start to stand out.”

One such curiosity concerns  . . ..

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

13 June 2021 at 12:12 pm

Posted in Evolution, Science

These ferns may be the first plants known to share work like ants

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Many of this fern colony’s fan-shaped nest fronds (growing closer to the tree trunk) are sterile, while the thinner strap fronds (sticking up and out from between the nest fronds) lift more of the reproductive load for the colony. – Ian Hutton

Jake Buehler writes in Science News:

High in the forest canopy, a mass of strange ferns grips a tree trunk, looking like a giant tangle of floppy, viridescent antlers. Below these fork-leaved fronds and closer into the core of the lush knot are brown, disk-shaped plants. These, too, are ferns of the very same species.

The ferns — and possibly similar plants — may form a type of complex, interdependent society previously considered limited to animals like ants and termites, researchers report online May 14 in Ecology

Kevin Burns, a biologist at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, first became familiar with the ferns while conducting fieldwork on Lord Howe Island, an isolated island between Australia and New Zealand. He happened to take note of the local epiphytes — plants that grow upon other plants — and one species particularly caught his attention: the staghorn fern (Platycerium bifurcatum), also native to parts of mainland Australia and Indonesia.

“I realized, God, you know, they never occur alone,” says Burns, noting that some of the larger clusters of ferns were massive clumps made of hundreds of individuals. 

It was soon clear to Burns that “each one of those individuals was doing a different thing.”

He likens the fern colonies to an upside-down umbrella made of plants. Ferns with long, green, waxy “strap” fronds appeared to deflect water to the center of the aggregation, where disk-shaped, brown, spongey “nest” fronds could soak it up.

The shrubby apparatus reminded Burns of a termite mound, with a communal store of resources and the segregation of different jobs in the colony. Scientists call these types of cooperative groups, where overlapping generations live together and form castes to divide labor and reproductive roles, “eusocial.” The term has been used to describe certain insect and crustacean societies, along with two mole rat species as the only mammalian examples (SN: 10/18/04). Burns wondered if the ferns could also be eusocial.

His team’s analysis of frond fertility revealed 40 percent couldn’t reproduce, and the sterile colony members were predominantly nest fronds. This suggests a reproductive division of labor between the nest and strap frond types. Tests of the fronds’ absorbency confirmed that nest fronds sop up more water than strap fronds do. Previous research by other scientists found networks of roots running throughout the colony, which means that nest fronds have the ability to slake strap fronds’ thirst. The fronds divided labor, much like ants and termites.

The team also analyzed genetic samples from 10 colonies on Lord Howe Island and found that eight were composed of genetically identical individuals, while two contained ferns of differing genetic origins. High degrees of genetic relatedness are also seen in colonies of eusocial insects, where many sisters contribute to the survival of the nest.

Taken together, Burns thinks these traits tick many of the boxes for eusociality. That would be a “big deal,” he says.

An assumed requirement for eusocial colonial living is behavioral coordination, because it allows different individuals to work together. But ferns are plants, not animals, which so often coordinate their behaviors. Seeing eusocial living in plants “seems to indicate to me that this type of transition in the evolution of complexity doesn’t require a brain,” Burns says.

The study opens up the . . .

Continue reading. There’s more. Evolution arrives at amazing solutions.

It occurs to me that some meme clusters show eusociality.

Written by Leisureguy

13 June 2021 at 12:04 pm

What if higher wages drive faster productivity growth?

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Noah Smith has an interesting column at Noahpinion:

The other day I ordered at a restaurant on my smartphone. No waiter came by to ask me if I was ready to order. I scanned a QR code on a piece of paper taped to a wooden post; this brought up the menu on my phone, and I simply indicated what I wanted. As if by magic, a server appeared a few minutes later with the food. During my meal, no one wandered by to ask me if I “was still working on that”; when I wanted more food, I just used my phone again. I’m sure I’m one of many millions of Americans who’s learning to order food this way, as a result of the understaffing and social distancing rules imposed by the Covid pandemic.

While I was ordering this way, I kept thinking over and over that this shift is a real game-changer in terms of productivity. Let people order food on their phones, and the number of wait staff you need to deliver the same service goes way down. It’s barely more onerous for the customer if at all, and it eliminates the need to have human beings constantly sashaying around the establishment, eyeing how much diners have eaten.

So I guess I wasn’t too surprised when I saw, via Erik Brynjolfsson and Georgios Petropoulos, that labor productivity is growing at rates not seen since the previous century:

What IS surprising is that this growth has accelerated in the first quarter of 2021, as Americans have started coming back to work en masse. If productivity gains had been purely a function of service establishments being forced to do stretch and do more with fewer workers because of Covid, we might have expected to see a reversal as workers came back to work en masse; instead, productivity is growing even faster.

Now, it’s important not to put too much weight on one quarter’s worth of data. This is a noisy time series with plenty of mismeasurement, and there are bound to be revisions (in fact, looking at the non-seasonally-adjusted numbers shows a slightly more modest increase in Q1). But coupled with my observations on the ground, the change seems real; we can see the actual labor-saving technologies being implemented right in front of our eyes. Nor am I the only one who sees this. Writing in the WSJ, Greg Ip reports:

Industries accounting for a third of the job loss since the start of the pandemic have increased output, including retailing, information, finance, construction, and professional and business services, said Jason Thomas, head of global research at private-equity manager Carlyle Group.

“This recession took on a life of its own by leading to greater remote work, greater reliance on technology,” Mr. Thomas said. Executives began to ask “hard questions: Why do we have so much floor space? Are we sure our cost base makes so much sense? Why were we taking so many intra-office trips? This experience has just revealed how ignorant you were about the frontiers of technology that you could exploit.”

So if employers really are investing in labor-saving technology, the question is: Why? Part of it is surely that the pandemic simply nudged managers to reconsider how they do things; inertia in the business world is strong. But another possible explanation is that workers are becoming more powerful and demanding higher wages. In the NYT, Neil Irwin notes some evidence that workers are gaining the upper hand in the labor market:

The “reservation wage,” as economists call the minimum compensation workers would require, was 19% higher for those without a college degree in March than in November 2019, a jump of nearly $10,000 a year, according to a survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York…

A survey of human resources executives from large companies conducted in April by The Conference Board, a research group, found that 49% of organizations with a mostly blue-collar workforce found it hard to retain workers, up from 30% before the pandemic.

With workers demanding higher wages, there could be an incentive for companies to invest in technologies that will economize on labor — like QR code ordering at restaurants.

One problem for this narrative is . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

13 June 2021 at 7:40 am

“I took a vote that cost me my seat. I know what Joe Manchin is facing.”

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Impressive column in the Washington Post by Tom Perriello, a former congressman from Virginia’s 5th Congressional District and a former U.S. Special Envoy for the African Great Lakes Region, now serving as the U.S. executive director of the Open Society Foundations. He writes:

“Just promise you will never forget that Judgment Day is more important than Election Day.” That was the advice — directive, really — my father offered when I asked about running for Congress. He was born and raised in Dunbar, W.Va., with the deep faith in the community, the Catholic Church and the New Deal that defined many Italian immigrant families recruited by the coal mines or Union Carbide. My dad died a few months after seeing me sworn in as a member of the 111th Congress in 2009, just three weeks after he retired as a pediatrician. He had cared for so many children of every race, faith and class that more than 1,000 people showed up for his funeral.

When I cast one of the deciding votes to pass the Affordable Care Act that year— a vote many warned might cost me my seat — I wore one of my father’s old wool suits. He had opposed Hillary Clinton’s 1993 health-care plan but watched regretfully as the insurance companies spread like a cancer across his profession, choking out the space between doctor and patient. I felt him nodding with approval from on high.

My dad liked Governor Joe Manchin and would have really loved Sen. Manchin for his decency and determination to fight for forgotten towns and workers. This year, the Democratic senator from West Virginia has shown marked political courage by embracing at least the aspirations of President Biden’s agenda to “build back better,” sending a signal to colleagues on both sides of the aisle that this is a time to unite around solutions rather than hide in the shadow of base politics.

[Yes, the Senate is rigged for small states. But not for Republicans]

As his colleagues fail to answer this call, Manchin is rapidly approaching a test of his convictions on what he must do to protect America’s historic experiment with democracy. West Virginia became a state when its citizens had the honor to break away from Virginia to defend our more perfect union. Now, their senior senator may need to break traditions to defend voting rights and the integrity of our elections. Manchin recently indicated his inability to support the For the People Act unless Republican senators show the courage to put democracy over party. He stated no substantive disagreements with the reforms, which would limit partisan gerrymandering, dark money, foreign election interference, and corporate corruption, while adopting existing voting rights and expanded election protections.

Defending voting rights and election integrity should not and cannot be a partisan issue. As the Pew Research Center found, large majorities of Americans support making it easier to vote and reducing the power of special interests through the kinds of policies enshrined in the For the People Act. It’s just the Republicans in Congress who refuse to support it.

One party is attacking democracy, and that same party is blocking attempts to protect it. Citing that as an excuse to disarm unilaterally is like telling a farmer whose cattle are being stolen that he needs the thief’s permission to put up cameras or hire guards. The bipartisanship Manchin celebrates from the 1980s, at its best, represented genuine compromise. Frankly, in this era, anything the diverse body of 50 Democratic senators can agree on probably would have been seen as “bipartisan” back then. My father’s family swung from JFK Republicans to Reagan Democrats, but they’d be at a loss to understand the Republican caucus of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).

When I came to Congress, I represented a deep red district and dreamed of bipartisanship, and I was proud to retain support from independent and Republican voters and outperform the party brand by double digits. But the one place I found no bipartisanship was on the Hill. A few months after I was sworn in, I knew reelection the following year was a long shot. We Democrats failed to convince Americans that we were focused on the economy, and the quiet recovery was not being felt by fall of 2010.

Biden’s bold approach today reflects an understanding that, had we been able to move bolder and earlier — for instance, passing health-care reform in the summer of 2009 with a Medicare buy-in and cheaper prescription drugs — we would have won over more moderates than by taking the perceived “moderate” path that enabled corporate-captured senators to waste time and water down reforms.

A decade later, I carry three lessons from my 2009 health care vote.

First, no regrets. Why ask the voters for political power if not to use it when it matters most? I still get letters from people thanking me: Parents whose kids are growing up with the security Obamacare provides, or entrepreneurs able to start businesses because they no longer felt tied to their old job for the health insurance. I have also been reminded time and again that there is a job much better than being in Congress, and that’s being a former member of Congress. I have devoted the past decade to issues of justice at home and abroad dear to my heart, with a bigger staff and free from the constant fear that an innocuous remark will be taken out of context to become a viral attack ad.

Second, tough votes are better taken early in the election cycle than late. The months we took debating health care did not make the bill stronger or more popular. It just left more time for it to be demonized and less time for the positive effects to be felt. The reforms in these two new voting rights bills are widely popular — for instance, making Election Day a national holiday and automatically registering eligible voters. They’ll be even more so when voters see how easy and safe it is for them to vote, how much harder it is for politicians to gerrymander districts, and why corporations will have a harder time corrupting our politics.

Manchin has taken a strong stance in favor of protecting voting rights and election integrity. He has said he supports another important voting rights bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, but the voting and election protections in the For the People Act are urgently vital complements to that legislation for addressing 21st century threats to our democracy. Many other reforms Manchin has touted are in the 800 pages of the For the People Act and must find their way into law.

Third, Americans . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

13 June 2021 at 7:27 am

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