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Origin-of-Life Study Points to Chemical Chimeras, Not RNA

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The more we learn, the more it seems that under the right conditions, life will inevitably emerge as the path of least resistance. Jordana Cepelewicz writes in Quanta:

Scientists studying how life arose from the primordial soup have been too eager to clean up the clutter.

Four billion years ago, the prebiotic Earth was a messy place, a chaotic mélange of diverse starting materials. Even so, certain key molecules still somehow managed to emerge from that chemical mayhem — RNA, DNA and proteins among them. But in the quest to understand how that happened, according to Ramanarayanan Krishnamurthy, a chemist at the Scripps Research Institute in California, researchers have been so myopic in their focus on reactions that generate molecules relevant to the planet’s current inhabitants that they’ve overlooked other possibilities.

“They are trying to impose biology today on prebiotic chemistry,” he said. “But trying to make the final product right from the raw material — it misleads us.”

“We forget the mixture,” he added — and with it, the more circuitous chemical routes that could have potentially led to the same biological outcome, the intermediate stages on the path to life that have since faded without a trace.

It makes sense that experimentalists preferred to keep things clean and direct — to synthesize important compounds like amino acids or nucleotides in bits and pieces, and to think of life as bubbling out of more pristine beginnings. “The feeling was that if you tried to incorporate too much into your system,” said John Sutherland, a chemist at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in England, “everything would start to degrade and you’d just get a mess.”

But research is beginning to show that starting with the right kind of mess is not only more realistic, but more effective at generating the materials vital to life, while also doing away with problems that have plagued purer systems. “There are times when we have mixtures, rather than just the isolated reactants that people typically use, and we get better results,” said Nicholas Hud, a chemist at the Georgia Institute of Technology. When mixtures are taken into consideration, the emergence of life on Earth in some ways “is not as hard as we might think it is.”

In the most compelling evidence to date, Krishnamurthy and a postdoctoral researcher in his lab, Subhendu Bhowmik, looked at how a system of chimeric RNA-DNA molecules — molecules built from the chemical units of both RNA and DNA — produced pure RNA and pure DNA more easily than systems that started out pure. The work, published today in Nature Chemistry, highlights just how essential a diverse, complex blend of ingredients may have been to life’s earliest evolution.

Bring On the Hybrid Monsters

The narrative that has tantalized origin-of-life researchers for decades is the RNA world scenario: Pure RNA arose within the original prebiotic broth of molecules; the RNA made copies of itself but also later evolved and invented DNA as a more stable partner in replication; peptides joined the dance somewhere along the way. This theory has mainly been bolstered by the discovery that RNA can act both as a genetic material and as a catalyst, meaning it could have performed those roles early in life’s history and handed the baton over to DNA and proteins later on.

But the RNA world isn’t a perfect solution. Perhaps the biggest stumbling block is that there have been serious problems with getting pure RNA to replicate itself sustainably in the laboratory. As a first step toward making a copy of itself, a single strand of RNA can take up complementary nucleotide building blocks from its surroundings and stitch them together. But the paired RNA strands then tend to bind to each other so tightly that they don’t unwind without help, which prevents them from acting as either catalysts or templates for further RNA strands.

“It’s a real challenge,” Sutherland said. “It’s held the field back for a long time.”

But perhaps starting with a jumble of compounds instead of pure RNA alone could fix that, Krishnamurthy thought, after a 2016 experiment involving just such a melting pot yielded unexpected results.

He, Hud and their colleagues had been investigating the properties of a hybrid molecule composed of an assortment of RNA and DNA building blocks, which they dubbed a “chimera” — a nod to the monster from Greek mythology that combined lion, goat and serpent body parts. Such chimeras, they thought, might provide insights into the transition from an RNA world to one that also contained DNA. The researchers found that when the chimeras formed double-stranded complexes, they were less stable than double-stranded complexes of pure RNA or pure DNA. At the time, the team interpreted the surprising finding as an indication of why molecules of pure RNA and pure DNA became nature’s favored medium of genetic inheritance over something more mixed.

But it also got Krishnamurthy thinking: What if the chimeric instability was, instead, secretly beneficial and offered a more natural way to get to a world of pure RNA and pure DNA right out of the gate?

That’s what he and Bhowmik showed in their new study. Because the nucleic acids with mixed backbones formed weaker two-strand systems, they didn’t succumb to the strand separation problem that prevented replication for pure RNA. Moreover, during their replication process, the RNA-DNA chimeras preferentially synthesized strands of pure RNA and pure DNA rather than new chimeric molecules — and they produced more of those pure compounds than pure nucleic acid templates did.

There was no need to cleanly synthesize RNA early on to get the materials that life ended up with. Messy, impure templates didn’t just suffice, they worked better. “If you let the reactions happen in a mixture, they automatically give you the molecules you’re looking for without you actually wanting it,” Krishnamurthy said.

Such RNA-DNA Frankenstein molecules aren’t just convenient inventions pieced together for the sake of the experiment. While no known living microbe or creature has a chimeric genome, one research team has artificially created E. coli that do. And yeast and other microorganisms have been observed to accidentally make such mixtures, though they have enzymatic systems that eliminate such mistakes.

Krishnamurthy and Bhowmik applied their chimeras-first concept to another system, too, with mixtures of RNA and TNA, an artificial nucleotide often used to model what might have come before the RNA world. The results were the same: The more complicated mixture outperformed the systems of pure RNA or pure TNA. “That means the principle of a mixture giving rise to clean [products] is probably very general,” Krishnamurthy said. “It’s not unique to RNA-DNA.”

The findings, according to Antonio Lazcano Araujo, an origin-of-life researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, demonstrate “the chemical wonderland that must have been available prior to the emergence of the first replication systems” — a chemical wonderland that’s now yielding crucial new insights into how life began.

From Dawn to Dusk

In fact, a handful of other studies have already shown . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

16 September 2019 at 3:40 pm

Posted in Evolution, Science

An Epidemic of Disbelief

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Barbara Bradley Haggerty writes in the Atlantic:

Robert Spada walked into the decrepit warehouse in Detroit and surveyed the chaos: Thousands of cardboard boxes and large plastic bags were piled haphazardly throughout the cavernous space. The air inside was hot and musty. Spada, an assistant prosecutor, saw that some of the windows were open, others broken, exposing the room to the summer heat. Above the boxes, birds glided in slow, swooping circles.

It was August 17, 2009, and this brick fortress of a building housed evidence that had been collected by the Detroit Police Department. Spada’s visit had been prompted by a question: Why were police sometimes unable to locate crucial evidence? The answer lay in the disarray before him.

As Spada wandered through the warehouse, he made another discovery, one that would help uncover a decades-long scandal, not just in Detroit but across the country. He noticed rows of steel shelving lined with white cardboard boxes, 10 inches tall and a foot wide, stacked six feet high. What are those? he asked a Detroit police officer who was accompanying him. Rape kits, the officer said.“I’m assuming they’ve been tested?” Spada said.

“Oh, they’ve all been tested.”

Spada pulled out a box and peered inside. The containers were still sealed, indicating that the evidence had never been sent to a lab. He opened four more boxes: the same.

“I tried to do a quick calculation,” he later told me. “I came up with approximately 10,000.”

Spada’s estimate was conservative. Eventually 11,341 untested rape kits were found, some dating back more than 30 years—each one a hermetically sealed testament to the most terrifying minutes of a woman’s life, each one holding evidence that had been swabbed or plucked from the most private parts of her body. And in all likelihood, some microscopic part of her assailant—his DNA, his identity—sat in that kit as well.

Or kits.

Eric Eugene Wilkes was known to Detroit police for robbery and carjacking. Not for rape. Yet Wilkes’s DNA was in boxes scattered throughout the warehouse, even as he walked free. His DNA first arrived there more than 18 years ago, after he raped a woman waiting for a bus on December 26, 2000. It next appeared after another rape four months later. Three days after that, police shelved the untested kit from his third victim.

One can imagine a certain rhythm to the process, as police hoist kit after kit onto the metal shelves, not knowing that they hold in their hands the identity of a serial rapist. Here’s the evidence box from a deaf woman Wilkes assaulted in June 2006. There’s one from a woman he raped in May 2007. The kit from his sixth victim arrived in June 2010. Another a month later. Two more in August 2011. His 10th victim, four months after that. Not until he raped his 11th victim, in January 2012, did the sequence end, because that woman saw Eric Wilkes two days after the assault and called the police, who arrested him. Eleven years, 11 violent rapes—all while Wilkes’s identity was preserved in sealed containers that no one had bothered to open.

The untested rape kits would continue to accumulate for years after Spada’s visit. But that August day became a defining moment for survivors of sexual assault. Spada called Kym Worthy, the county prosecutor, and told her what he’d found. “I was livid,” Worthy recalls. “I wanted to test them all immediately.” She began talking to reporters, and the decrepit warehouse in Detroit with the broken windows became a powerful symbol of police negligence.

Since then, Detroit and other jurisdictions across the country have shipped tens of thousands of kits to labs for testing. The results have upended assumptions about sexual predators—showing, for example, that serial rapists are far more common than many experts had previously believed.

But the rape-kit scandal has turned out to be only a visible symptom, a mole on the skin that hints at a pervasive cancer just below the surface. The deeper problem is a criminal-justice system in which police officers continue to reflexively disbelieve women who say they’ve been raped—even in this age of the #MeToo movement, and even when DNA testing can confirm many allegations. From the moment a woman calls 911 (and it is almost always a woman; male victims rarely report sexual assaults), a rape allegation becomes, at every stage, more likely to slide into an investigatory crevice. Police may try to discourage the victim from filing a report. If she insists on pursuing a case, it may not be assigned to a detective. If her case is assigned to a detective, it will likely close with little investigation and no arrest. If an arrest is made, the prosecutor may decline to bring charges: no trial, no conviction, no punishment.

Each year, roughly 125,000 rapes are reported across the United States. Sometimes the decision to close a case is surely correct; no one wants to smear an innocent man’s reputation or curtail his freedom because of a false report. But in 49 out of every 50 rape cases, the alleged assailant goes free—often, we now know, to assault again. Which means that rape—more than murder, more than robbery or assault—is by far the easiest violent crime to get away with.

“Right there,” liz garcia says, pointing to a second-floor window of a modest white house in Cleveland. “That’s the window of the bedroom that I was raped in.” March 23, 2004, she recalls, was a bright, crisp day. With her twin girls in school and her paramedic training almost complete, she decided it was just the day to wash her Ford Explorer. She ran upstairs to the bathroom for a towel. Looking in the mirror, she saw the door swing open behind her. She turned and saw black shoes. Her gaze traveled upward: black pants, black gloves, black jacket, black ski mask.

Over the next two hours, the man dragged Garcia from room to room. She thought of running or jumping out a window, but he was bigger, muscular; he seemed to anticipate her moves. He raped her three times. He was prepared and meticulous. He wore gloves and a condom. He spread a towel on Garcia’s bed, and took it with him when he left. “He had shaved his legs and chest”—she could feel the stubble—“so he wouldn’t leave hair behind. He knew what he was doing.” He ordered her to wash out her mouth, and made her shower as he watched. Before leaving, he told her to count to 500.

“He closed the shower curtain, and I heard him go down the stairs. I am standing there. Do I get out? Do I count? And all of a sudden”—Garcia yanked her hand from right to left—“he opens up the shower curtain. I didn’t even hear him come back up the stairs. It was terrifying.”

Satisfied that Garcia had not moved, the man fled.

Although the police didn’t yet know it, a serial rapist had been stalking Cleveland since the mid-1990s. He’d begun with vulnerable women: women willing to sell sex for drugs or money, an unlucky woman whose car ran out of gas, one teenager who was skipping school, another with a prosthetic leg. This should have put the police on high alert, Tim McGinty, a former Cuyahoga County prosecutor, told me. Vulnerable people—drug addicts, prostitutes, people living in poor neighborhoods—are the “canaries in the coal mine. If you’ve got a serial rapist out there, who does he hit first? He hits the vulnerable people.”

By 2004, the rapist had graduated to home invasions and more prosperous victims. One week after the attack on Liz Garcia, a 55-year-old schoolteacher was raped in her home. Only then, after attacks on two middle-class women, did the police make a public plea for leads. The department received an anonymous tip: an envelope with a newspaper clipping and an arrest record for a former probation officer named Nathan Ford. The police apprehended Ford and swabbed him. As part of a pilot study, the department had sent some 250 rape kits off for DNA testing—and Ford’s DNA matched eight of them. But not Liz Garcia’s. The police tested her kit but didn’t find her assailant’s DNA. “They told me I would never know who the attacker was,” she says.

At the time, if you were raped in Cleveland and you were poor or otherwise vulnerable, police would likely make a couple of phone calls and move on. You can see this play out in the police files documenting the response to Nathan Ford’s early attacks. All of Ford’s victims who came forward had forensic exams, but detectives were more likely to shelve the kits than send them to a lab. Rarely did a detective visit the victim, witnesses, or the crime scene. If a victim couldn’t come to police headquarters on the detective’s timetable—because she couldn’t find transportation or child care or get time off from work—she was labeled “uncooperative.” The case was closed. In other instances, the detective wrote that he couldn’t locate the victim, and this was enough to end the investigation. Yet when investigators reopened sexual-assault cold cases 20 years later, they almost always found the victim within a few hours.

When the Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s office hired a team of researchers at Case Western Reserve University, in 2015, to pore through police files and other records connected to thousands of untested rape kits in Cleveland, they quickly spotted the same pattern. In a random sample of cases, mainly from the mid-’90s, they found that the notes from many police investigations barely filled a single page. In 40 percent of cases, detectives never contacted the victim. In three out of four, they never interviewed her. Half of the investigations were closed in a week, a quarter in a day. As for rape kits—the one type of evidence that might definitively identify a rapist—police rarely sent them to the lab for testing. Granted, testing a kit could cost more than $5,000 in the late ’90s and 2000s. But during part of that time, the state was paying police departments to send in evidence. And even when the cost of testing a kit dropped to less than $1,000, police still tucked away the evidence in storage. Ultimately, Cleveland would accumulate some 7,000 untested kits.

Nathan ford’s rampage wasn’t enough to persuade the Cleveland police to begin addressing the rape-kit backlog. What did persuade them was a serial killer. In October 2009, the police discovered the bodies of 11 women buried in the home and backyard of Anthony Sowell, a convicted rapist. Over the years, some of Sowell’s intended victims had escaped and reported his attempts to rape them. But the police had never thoroughly investigated their claims. At least one woman had completed a forensic exam. The police had tested the rape kit—but only for drugs in her system, not for the rapist’s DNA.

The Sowell case became a scandal, and it raised larger questions: Why weren’t attacks on women being investigated? How many rape kits did the police department have in storage? How many had been tested?

Under pressure from then–Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, the city’s police department began sending off kits for testing in 2011. Officials called it a “forklift” approach because every box, no matter how old, was shipped to a state lab. At first the progress was slow. But in January 2013, Tim McGinty, who had just been elected Cuyahoga County prosecutor, created a task force devoted to testing the kits and reinvestigating cases. He brought in 25 detectives, mostly out of retirement, and assigned half a dozen assistant prosecutors to the effort. He allowed two reporters from The Plain Dealer to sit in on their weekly meeting.

Within weeks, DNA results started arriving from the lab: More than a third of the rape kits were pinging in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, known as CODIS. Created in the 1990s, the database contains DNA profiles collected at crime scenes across the country, many of them linked to the name of a known criminal. Cleveland investigators were soon identifying rapists who had eluded detection for decades. “It was much more fruitful than we ever in our wildest dreams imagined,” recalls DeWine, now the governor of Ohio. Some weeks, Richard Bell, the prosecutor in charge of the task force, would announce 20 new DNA matches.

Investigators sometimes had only a few days to build a 20-year-old case—to locate victims and witnesses and gather their sworn statements—before the statute of limitations ran out. “There was one hit where we turned it around in two days and brought it into the grand jury at 4:15 p.m., before the 4:30 end of day,” Bell recalls. Cases with fewer than 10 days remaining were labeled, in red ink, all hands on deck.

Since Cuyahoga County began forklifting its kits, prosecutors have indicted nearly 750 rapists in cold cases and convicted more than 400 of them. (Detroit, which got a later start, has convicted some 175 men.) “They would never have resurrected the [closed cases] without this project,” Bell says.

For more than a decade, Liz Garcia had wondered whether her rapist would return to kill her and her daughters, as he’d promised. She suffered panic attacks, sometimes five a day. She avoided answering the door. She showered with the curtain open. She left the light on all night. She slept on the couch, with her back to the wall. “I had knives under my pillows. I hid knives all over the house,” she told me.

Not until she found a detective’s card tucked in her door more than a decade later did she cease to regard the world outside her home like a prey without cover. The lab had retested her rape kit using newer technology; this time it detected male DNA and identified her attacker: Nathan Ford. The police also discovered more victims whose kits had been shelved for years, bringing Ford’s total to 22 rape kits. By then he was already in prison and serving a life sentence. Garcia could put away her knives. She still sleeps with the light on.

When the members of Cleveland’s task force began shipping rape kits to the state lab, they didn’t imagine they’d end up fomenting a small revolution in criminology. Yet those evidence boxes uncovered new clues about the behavior of sexual assailants and overturned some basic assumptions—about how often they offend, whom they attack, and how they might be captured.

Rachel Lovell, the lead researcher at Case Western, reviewed the results of the tests and found herself with a new and superior class of information. In the past, most research on rapists relied on prison records or “self-reports”—that is, surveys of people who answered questions anonymously about their behavior. But here, in her hands, were the biological name tags of thousands of men who had committed a rape and walked away. It was a larger and far more objective sample of sexual offenders. It was the difference between a pencil sketch and a color photograph.

What struck her first was the sheer number of repeat offenders: Of the rape kits containing DNA that generated a CODIS hit, nearly one in five pointed to a serial rapist—giving the Cleveland investigators leads on some 480 serial predators to date. On a practical level, this suggested that every allegation of rape should be investigated as if it might have been committed by a repeat offender. “The way we’ve traditionally thought of sexual assault is this ‘he said, she said’ situation, where they investigate the sexual assault in isolation,” Lovell told me. Instead, detectives should search for other victims or other violent crimes committed nearby, always presuming that a rapist might have attacked before. “We make those assumptions with burglary, with murder, with almost any other crime,” Lovell said, “but not a sexual assault of an adult.”

Another surprise for police and prosecutors involved profiling. All but the most specialized criminologists had assumed that serial rapists have a signature, a certain style and preference. Gun or knife? Alley or car? Were their victims white, black, or Hispanic? Investigators even named them: the ponytail rapist, the early-morning rapist, the preacher rapist.

But Lovell recalled sitting in Cleveland’s weekly task-force meeting, listening to the investigators describe cases. They would say: This guy approached two of his victims on a bicycle, but there was this other attack that didn’t fit the pattern. Or: This guy assaulted his stepdaughter, but he also raped two strangers. “I was always like, ‘This seems so very different,’ ” Lovell said. “This is not what we think about a serial offender. Usually we think of serial offenders as particularly methodical, organized, structured—the ones that make TV.”

Eric Beauregard, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University who has interviewed 1,200 sexual offenders, says profiling may fail because a predator’s reality falls short of his fantasy. Most offenders tell him that they do hunt for a certain type of victim, but “what they had in mind and what they selected did not match at all,” he says. “If they are looking for a tall blonde with big breasts, at the end of the day, it was: She was there, she was available, she was alone. Those were the criteria.” Nathan Ford’s victims, for example, were black, white, Hispanic, and Asian; 13 years old and 55; on the west side of the city and on the east.

“Thank God we have DNA,” Dan Clark, one of the Cleveland investigators, says. “Because trying to put together a pattern where there is no pattern is impossible. It’s no wonder we didn’t catch that many people.”

Most rapes, of course, are not committed by strangers. Eighty percent of the time, the rapist is someone a woman knows—they met at a party or a bar; he’s her colleague, friend, mentor, coach. So police saw little reason to send off those rape kits: The man’s identity was never in doubt. But the Cleveland study illuminated another insight—one that shows the tragic consequences of failing to test “acquaintance rape” kits. Historically, investigators had assumed that someone who assaults a stranger by the railroad tracks is nothing like the man who assaults his co-worker or his girlfriend. But it turns out that the space between acquaintance rape and stranger rape is not a wall, but a plaza. When Cleveland investigators uploaded the DNA from the acquaintance-rape kits, they were surprised by how often the results also matched DNA from unsolved stranger rapes. The task force identified dozens of mystery rapists this way. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 September 2019 at 3:27 pm

Why the patriarchy is killing men

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In the Washington Post Liz Plank has what I take to be an excerpt from her book For the Love of Men: A Vision for Mindful Masculinity:

When I traveled to Iceland in 2018, the World Economic Forum had ranked it No. 1 in gender equality for an entire decade. According to the common way of discussing that honor, the country must be a feminist utopia for women. What goes underreported is how great it is for men, too. In fact, Icelandic men enjoy the highest life expectancy in Europe. They live almost as long as women do. If the number of years spent on Earth is one of the strongest predictors of well-being, Icelandic men are doing pretty well.

Is there some unique magic in the Reykjavik air that makes this possible? Not at all. Iceland offers a model that could be widely adopted elsewhere in the world. It helps show that changing men’s ideas about what it means to be a man, and lifting up women in the process, doesn’t make men worse off — it has far-reaching benefits to their lives.

The health advantages of feminism for men are not evident only in Iceland. In other countries with stronger gender equality, men also tend to fare better. According to research by Norwegian sociologist and men’s studies expert Oystein Gullvag Holter, there is a direct correlation between the state of gender equality in a country and male well-being, as measured by factors such as welfare, mental health, fertility and suicide. Men (and women) in more gender-equal countries in Europe are less likely to get divorced, be depressed or die as a result of violence.

These findings undercut one of the favorite facts of men’s rights activists — that men die younger than women do. They use this data point to argue that feminism is unwarranted because women already live fuller (or at least longer) lives. But a world without feminism would exacerbate this problem, not solve it. Feminism is the antidote to shorter male life expectancy. Saying feminism causes men to decline is like saying firefighters cause fire.

America doesn’t just have a gender pay gap. It has a gender wealth gap.

Women typically live longer than men because of several biological advantages that make them more resilient and give them more stamina (despite the stereotype that women lack it). But that’s only part of the equation. The other component of the life expectancy gap is what scientists literally call man-made diseases. These are cultural: Men are more likely to smoke, abuse alcohol, engage in high-risk behavior and have accidents at work. A report from the World Health Organization points to three reasons men don’t live as long: the way men work (they endure greater “exposure to physical and chemical hazards”), their willingness to take risks (thanks to “male norms of risk-taking and adventure”) and their discomfort with doctors (they’re “less likely to visit a doctor when they are ill and, when they see a doctor, are less likely to report on the symptoms of disease or illness”). When I became a lifeguard, I was shocked to learn that 80 percent of drowning victims are male , even though their aquatic skills are equivalent to those of women, because they’re less likely to wear life jackets, more likely to overestimate their swimming abilities and more likely to take risks.

If men’s rights activists really want to improve men’s lives, then, they should join feminists in dismantling bygone ideals of masculinity. When researchers controlled for unhealthy behaviors such as smoking or drinking, for instance, they found that men who earned less than their wives for an extended period of time still experienced poorer health outcomes, shorter life expectancy and increased chances of cardiovascular problems like diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, hypertension and stroke. Because of the observable increase in men’s anxieties in these familial arrangements (and the lack of measurable change for women), researchers believe that these men lose the only sense of connection to their identity as breadwinners. Violating the code of idealized masculinity can be such a point of stress for men that it strains their overall health.

Men’s reluctance to care for themselves is especially perturbing when it comes to mental health. Unsurprisingly, the more a man associates with traditional and inflexible ideas about masculinity, the less likely he is to seek counseling. For too many men in America who suffer from mental health issues, it’s easier to get a gun than a therapist , especially in rural areas, where 80 percent of counties don’t have a single psychiatrist. No wonder suicide rates are rising in rural states with the highest gun ownership rates and that the vast majority of those deaths are among men. Although women are three times more likely to attempt suicide, the suicide rate for men is four times higher because men tend to use more violent means when choosing to end their lives — the most effective and violent of which is, of course, a firearm. And the connection between gun ownership and traditional masculinity is hard to deny, especially when we see gun manufacturers like Bushmaster instructing men to get their “man card” reissued by buying a gun.

When feminism is met with violence

The mass availability of guns in the United States doesn’t simply affect men; it disproportionately impacts boys. Of all the youth gun deaths between 2012 and 2014, a staggering 82 percent were boys, many of whom had used guns to kill themselves. The more a man identifies with traditional notions of masculinity, the more vulnerable he is. In fact, research on 2,431 young adults 18 to 19 years old by Daniel Coleman of Fordham University found that men who identified with rigid beliefs — that men must provide at any cost, be invulnerable or be self-sufficient — were more likely to have suicidal thoughts and exhibit signs of depression. Coleman concludes that idealizing “high traditional masculinity” is a “risk factor,” especially for men who aren’t able to fulfill that ideal because of life circumstances such as illness, disability or the loss of a job. A more flexible understanding of masculinity wouldn’t prevent men from becoming unemployed, but it could help them cope with it better. They’d have a wider set of roles they could fall back on, like being a caregiver or contributing to their family outside of the narrow scope of material or financial resources. Suicide peaks during financial crises. When Hong Kong experienced economic turmoil in the 1990s, the suicide rate of men ages 30 to 59 almost doubled. After 2007, as recessions took over Europe, male suicide rates also spiked . While rates of suicide for both women and men rise in times of economic downturn, the increase tends to be sharper for men.

But data show that gender equality may dampen rates of male suicide, because women’s empowerment may protect men from economic shocks. If women are educated and can work, it lessens the financial responsibility that rests on men’s shoulders. Research by Holter shows that societies with lower levels of gender equality are the ones with the highest rates of male suicide and that the gender gap in suicide is smaller in nations with higher gender equality. One study by sociologists Aaron Reeves and David Stuckler found that in countries with high levels of gender equality, like Sweden and Austria, “the relationship between rising unemployment rates and suicide in men disappeared altogether.”

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 September 2019 at 2:48 pm

Untreated Hearing Loss Linked To Loneliness And Isolation For Seniors

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Untreated hearing loss also causes cognitive decline. Full disclosure: I have hearing loss, and to treat it I wear hearing aids that I bought from an audiologist and that are programmed to match my particular hearing loss (by frequency range). These are expensive (around US$4000) and they have a limited lifetime because corrosion (from moisture) eventually corrodes them. The behind-the-ear type last much longer than the in-the-ear type, but still their lifespan is around 5 years. I now am on my second pair, and I’m trying to extend their lifespan by using this device in which to store (and dry) them at night. (You can find a variety of models; that’s just the one I picked.) In particular, keeping hearing aids in the bathroom is a very bad idea.

You can also buy “hearing amplifiers” as an over-the-counter purchase, and these are much less costly, around $50-$120 per pair. Unlike a hearing aid, they are not tuned to your individual hearing loss, and they can be iffy (lots of feedback, for example), but my hope is that when my current hearing aids die, hearing amplifier technology will have advanced to the point where those are a good solution.

The Wife noticed that when my hearing loss was becoming noticeable my personality was also changing, with me becoming more withdrawn and less communicative. So a hearing loss is something one should address. Most audiologists will administer a hearing test at low cost (around $30-$40) and if you are getting on in years—or if you find that people seem to mumble a lot—it’s worth getting such a test.

A passage from the Patrick O’Brian Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin series that I like is in The Yellow Admiral when Aubry is talking about a cousin, Harry Turnbull:

“Just as well, thought I, for Harry was in a horrid rage, having lost more money than he cared for to Colonel Waley – was barely civil – would not lend me a shirt – should be damned if he would lend me a shirt – scarcely had a shirt to his name – barely a single shirt to his back. You know how cross Harry Turnbull can be: he must have fought more often than any man in the country – a very dangerous shot and very apt to take offence. So when I walked into the committee-room and saw him still looking furious and contrary and bloody-minded, I felt quite uneasy: and though smiles from Crawshay and two other Blackses [members of Jack Aubrey’s club – LG] comforted me a little I did not really have much hope until the lawyer started proceedings. His low soapy tone did not suit Harry, who kept telling him to speak up, to speak like a Christian for God’s sake, and not mumble. When he was young, people never mumbled, he said: you could hear every word. If anyone had mumbled, he would have been kicked out of the room.”

Rochelle Sharpe reports at NPR:

When Anne Madison could no longer hear her microwave beep, she assumed that her appliance needed repair. In fact, the machine worked well, but her confusion foreshadowed a frustrating struggle: a long and lonely battle with hearing loss.

Madison didn’t bother going to a doctor after the microwave incident. She knew that hearing aids were so expensive that she could never afford them. So she decided to deal with the hassles of hearing impairment on her own and “just kind of pulled up my socks.”

Before long, her world began to shrivel. She stopped going to church, since she could no longer hear the sermons. She abandoned the lectures that she used to frequent, as well as the political rallies that she had always loved. Communicating with her adult sons became an ordeal, filled with endless requests that they repeat themselves, or speak louder.

And when she moved to a Baltimore housing development in 2013, she got a reputation for being standoffish, with neighbors incorrectly assuming that she was ignoring them when she had no idea they even had spoken to her.

“You sit in your apartment and turn up your TV louder and louder,” says Madison, 68, describing hearing loss as having someone suddenly drop a bell over you. “You’re cut off. It’s a horrible way to be.”

There may be no easy fix for the loneliness epidemic plaguing the nation, but helping people cope with hearing loss could be one key to tackling this complex problem. Hearing loss affects 1 of every 5 people and is strongly linked to loneliness: Every decibel drop in perception in people under 70 increases the odds of becoming severely lonely by 7%, one Dutch study showed.

Continue reading. There’s more, and it’s important.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 September 2019 at 8:25 am

A Famous Argument Against Free Will Has Been Debunked

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Bahar Gholipour writes in the Atlantic:

The death of free will began with thousands of finger taps. In 1964, two German scientists monitored the electrical activity of a dozen people’s brains. Each day for several months, volunteers came into the scientists’ lab at the University of Freiburg to get wires fixed to their scalp from a showerhead-like contraption overhead. The participants sat in a chair, tucked neatly in a metal tollbooth, with only one task: to flex a finger on their right hand at whatever irregular intervals pleased them, over and over, up to 500 times a visit.

The purpose of this experiment was to search for signals in the participants’ brains that preceded each finger tap. At the time, researchers knew how to measure brain activity that occurred in response to events out in the world—when a person hears a song, for instance, or looks at a photograph—but no one had figured out how to isolate the signs of someone’s brain actually initiating an action.

The experiment’s results came in squiggly, dotted lines, a representation of changing brain waves. In the milliseconds leading up to the finger taps, the lines showed an almost undetectably faint uptick: a wave that rose for about a second, like a drumroll of firing neurons, then ended in an abrupt crash. This flurry of neuronal activity, which the scientists called the Bereitschaftspotential, or readiness potential, was like a gift of infinitesimal time travel. For the first time, they could see the brain readying itself to create a voluntary movement.

This momentous discovery was the beginning of a lot of trouble in neuroscience. Twenty years later, the American physiologist Benjamin Libet used the Bereitschaftspotential to make the case not only that the brain shows signs of a decision before a person acts, but that, incredibly, the brain’s wheels start turning before the person even consciously intends to do something. Suddenly, people’s choices—even a basic finger tap—appeared to be determined by something outside of their own perceived volition.

As a philosophical question, whether humans have control over their own actions had been fought over for centuries before Libet walked into a lab. But Libet introduced a genuine neurological argument against free will. His finding set off a new surge of debate in science and philosophy circles. And over time, the implications have been spun into cultural lore.

Today, the notion that our brains make choices before we are even aware of them will now pop up in cocktail-party conversation or in a review of Black Mirror. It’s covered by mainstream journalism outlets, including This American Life, Radiolab, and this magazine. Libet’s work is frequently brought up by popular intellectuals such as Sam Harris and Yuval Noah Harari to argue that science has proved humans are not the authors of their actions.

It would be quite an achievement for a brain signal 100 times smaller than major brain waves to solve the problem of free will. But the story of the Bereitschaftspotential has one more twist: It might be something else entirely.

The Bereitschaftspotential was never meant to get entangled in free-will debates. If anything, it was pursued to show that the brain has a will of sorts. The two German scientists who discovered it, a young neurologist named Hans Helmut Kornhuber and his doctoral student Lüder Deecke, had grown frustrated with their era’s scientific approach to the brain as a passive machine that merely produces thoughts and actions in response to the outside world. Over lunch in 1964, the pair decided that they would figure out how the brain works to spontaneously generate an action. “Kornhuber and I believed in free will,” says Deecke, who is now 81 and lives in Vienna.

To pull off their experiment, the duo had to come up with tricks to circumvent limited technology. They had a state-of-the-art computer to measure their participants’ brain waves, but it worked only after it detected a finger tap. So to collect data on what happened in the brain beforehand, the two researchers realized that they could record their participants’ brain activity separately on tape, then play the reels backwards into the computer. This inventive technique, dubbed “reverse-averaging,” revealed the Bereitschaftspotential.

The discovery garnered widespread attention. The Nobel laureate John Eccles and the prominent philosopher of science Karl Popper compared the study’s ingenuity to Galileo’s use of sliding balls for uncovering the laws of motion of the universe. With a handful of electrodes and a tape recorder, Kornhuber and Deecke had begun to do the same for the brain.

What the Bereitschaftspotential actually meant, however, was anyone’s guess. Its rising pattern appeared to reflect the dominoes of neural activity falling one by one on a track toward a person doing something. Scientists explained the Bereitschaftspotential as the electrophysiological sign of planning and initiating an action. Baked into that idea was the implicit assumption that the Bereitschaftspotential causes that action. The assumption was so natural, in fact, no one second-guessed it—or tested it.

Libet, a researcher at the University of California at San Francisco, questioned the Bereitschaftspotential in a different way. Why does it take half a second or so between deciding to tap a finger and actually doing it? He repeated Kornhuber and Deecke’s experiment, but asked his participants to watch a clocklike apparatus so that they could remember the moment they made a decision. The results showed that while the Bereitschaftspotential started to rise about 500 milliseconds before the participants performed an action, they reported their decision to take that action only about 150 milliseconds beforehand. “The brain evidently ‘decides’ to initiate the act” before a person is even aware that decision has taken place, Libet concluded.

To many scientists, it seemed implausible that our conscious awareness of a decision is only an illusory afterthought. Researchers questioned Libet’s experimental design, including the precision of the tools used to measure brain waves and the accuracy with which people could actually recall their decision time. But flaws were hard to pin down. And Libet, who died in 2007, had as many defenders as critics. In the decades since his experiment, study after study has replicated his finding using more modern technology such as fMRI.

But one aspect of Libet’s results sneaked by largely unchallenged: the possibility that what he was seeing was accurate, but that his conclusions were based on an unsound premise. What if the Bereitschaftspotential didn’t cause actions in the first place? A few notable studies did suggest this, but they failed to provide any clue to what the Bereitschaftspotential could be instead. To dismantle such a powerful idea, someone had to offer a real alternative.

In 2010, Aaron Schurger had an epiphany. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 September 2019 at 5:49 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

Obesity map of the US

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From the Sun:


Written by LeisureGuy

14 September 2019 at 3:28 pm

Posted in Daily life, Health

Men who suffer from strong body odor: A possible solution

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Worth a try?

Written by LeisureGuy

14 September 2019 at 8:35 am

Posted in Daily life, Medical, Science

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