Friday, October 31, 2008

Circadian clock may be critical to learning and memory

Circadian clock may be critical to learning and memory

Working with Siberian hamsters, biologist Norman Ruby has shown that having a functioning circadian system is critical to the hamsters' ability to remember what they have learned. Without it, he said, "They can't remember anything." ...

The change in learning retention appears to hinge on the amount of a neurochemical called GABA, which acts to inhibit brain activity. All mammal brains function according to the balance between neurochemicals that excite the brain and those that calm it. The circadian clock controls the daily cycle of sleep and wakefulness by inhibiting different parts of the brain by releasing GABA.

But if the hippocampus—the part of the brain where memories are stored—is overly inhibited, then the circuits responsible for memory storage don't function properly. "Those circuits need to be excited to strengthen and encode the memories at a molecular level," Ruby said.

"What I thought was happening was that our animals were having chronically high levels of GABA because they had lost their circadian rhythm," Ruby said. "So instead of rhythmic GABA, it is just constant GABA output."

To test that idea, Ruby and his colleagues gave the circadian-deficient hamsters a GABA antagonist called pentylenetetrazole, or PTZ, which blocks GABA from binding to synapses, thereby allowing the synapses to continue firing and keeping the brain in a more excited state. It worked. The learning-impaired hamsters caught up with their intact peers to exhibit the same level of learning retention.

The finding is even more striking when you consider that when a hamster loses its circadian system, it gets even more sleep than usual.

"What our data are showing is that these animals still performed terribly on a simple learning task, even though they're getting loads of sleep," Ruby said. "What this says is that the circadian system really is necessary for something that is deeply important: learning."

Op-Ed Columnist - American Stories -

Op-Ed Columnist - American Stories -

Americans are decent people. They’re not interested in where you came from. They’re interested in who you are. That has not changed.

But much has in the last eight years. This is a moment of anguish. The Bush presidency has engineered the unlikely double whammy of undermining free-market capitalism and essential freedoms, the nation’s twin badges.

American luster is gone. The American idea has, in Joyce Carol Oates’s words, become a “cruel joke.” Americans are worrying and hurting.

So it is important to step back, from the last machinations of this endless campaign, and think again about what America is.

It is renewal, the place where impossible stories get written.

It is the overcoming of history, the leaving behind of war and barriers, in the name of a future freed from the cruel gyre of memory.

It is reinvention, the absorption of one identity in something larger — the notion that “out of many, we are truly one.”

It is a place better than Bush’s land of shadows where a leader entrusted with the hopes of the earth cannot find within himself a solitary phrase to uplift the soul.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Democracy Now! | Kambale Musavuli on the "Forgotten War" in the Congo

Democracy Now! | Kambale Musavuli on the "Forgotten War" in the Congo

AMY GOODMAN: Kambale, we only have about thirty seconds, but you also organized a cell phone protest yesterday. Explain.

KAMBALE MUSAVULI: Yes. What we have asked people to do to show the connection with coltan is to turn off their cell phone last week on Wednesday, October 22nd, and change their voice mail, because we believe that people will call their phones still, and explaining why their phone is off during that day. Our aim, really, during the cell phone boycott, is to raise awareness about what’s happening in the Congo, and using the cell phone as a messaging tool was very, very successful. We had students in New Zealand, a high school in Avonside, that actually did that perfectly, getting the whole high school to participate in that. So, our aim into the cell out, as well as Congo Week, is basically to end the conflict and provide support to the Congolese people in their quest to regain sovereignty of their land.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Democracy Now! | The Fruit Hunters: Author Adam Leith Gollner on the Politics of Fruit and the Secret History of the "Miracle Berry"

Democracy Now! | The Fruit Hunters: Author Adam Leith Gollner on the Politics of Fruit and the Secret History of the "Miracle Berry"

ADAM LEITH GOLLNER: This miracle berry was banned by the FDA in the early 1970s. Some—

AMY GOODMAN: I’m eating something that was banned by the FDA?

ADAM LEITH GOLLNER: Well, you’re about to find out—you’re about to hear the story. In the ’60s and the ’70s, an entrepreneur named Robert Harvey managed to raise tens of millions of dollars to create an all-natural alternative to sugar using the miracle fruit, and he managed to synthesize the active ingredient in this berry, which is a protein called “miraculin.” So, what’s happening to you right now is you have miraculin on your taste buds, and that means that when sour foods come into contact with the sweetness receptors on your taste buds, it sends this very powerful sweetness signal to your brain, even though there’s only sour coming into your mouth. And so—

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s just unbelievable.


AMY GOODMAN: It’s sweeter than an orange.

ADAM LEITH GOLLNER: It’s amazing. And this entrepreneur—

AMY GOODMAN: Did you bring more limes? Because I like it.

ADAM LEITH GOLLNER: Keep on eating them. I know, I know. It’s really delicious.

AMY GOODMAN: Of course, I love limes, too, when they’re sour, but these are very sweet. So, why was it banned?

ADAM LEITH GOLLNER: OK, so here is what happened. He started making miracle fruit tablets, because these fruits don’t have a very long shelf life, and that’s another reason that many of these fruits from the tropics don’t make it here, is that they just have no shelf life whatsoever. But he put them in tablet form. Diabetics were going crazy for them. Kids were choosing miracle fruit popsicles over regular popsicles by this enormous margin. And companies, other corporations started getting interested. And Harvey was turning down offers in the billions for control—billions of dollars were being offered to him for this, because it looked like it was poised to become an all-natural alternative to sugar. And even the artificial sweetening industry was very concerned about this threat of this small red berry.

But what happened was, that just as it was about to launch, Harvey’s company, his office was raided by industrial spies. His files were stolen. He got into high-speed car chases in the middle of the night. People were following him.

AMY GOODMAN: Who is this guy?

ADAM LEITH GOLLNER: He was the entrepreneur that brought miraculin to the market in 1960s and ’70s. And then it got banned just as it was about to launch. And he got a letter in 1974 from the FDA saying the miracle berry—miracle berry products are not allowed into the market in any form whatsoever. And so, he had to shut down the entire operation.


AMY GOODMAN: Is it metabolized as glucose?

ADAM LEITH GOLLNER: No, not at all. Not at all.

AMY GOODMAN: So, for diabetics, it’s fine.

ADAM LEITH GOLLNER: It’s totally good. It’s good for people who are undergoing chemotherapy treatment, because for them, all food tastes metallic and rubbery. But when you take a miracle berry, it actually allows you to taste the foods again. It’s just a wonderful thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how, OK, this miracle berry has not been approved, but aspartame has? Explain the story of aspartame and our former secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld.

ADAM LEITH GOLLNER: Yes, Donald Rumsfeld was the head of a corporation called Searle, and he spent many years approving the—or working on the legalization process for aspartame. And the head of the FDA that came in briefly, just for a moment, just long enough to approve aspartame, immediately left subsequently. He came under fire for accepting corporate donations and corporate gifts. Nobody was surprised, seeing as he immediately went to Searle’s public relations firm as soon as he left the FDA.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Food Issue - New Food Ideas -

The Food Issue - New Food Ideas -

In the last five years, 532 patent requests — two-thirds of them from Monsanto, BASF and Syngenta — have been filed on the genes intended for use in crops designed to withstand environmental stresses. “We're talking about a grab on strategic genes in the world's most important food crops,” says Hope Shand, the research director for the watchdog organization ETC Group. “This simply shouldn't be allowed.” Jonathan Bryant, the director of North American business for BASF, which in 2007 signed a $1.5 billion deal to collaborate with Monsanto on the development of drought-tolerant crops, calls the patents “a very small protection amongst a sea of opportunity.” The continued consolidation of intellectual property combined with the sort of corporate cooperation currently being enjoyed by BASF and Monsanto is considered a recipe for disaster by some. The anti-genetic-modification activist Vandana Shiva, whose New Delhi-based Navdanya group builds seed banks for the sharing of climate-resilient crops,says consolidation isn't just bad economics and bad social policy; it's bad science. “As a physicist,” she says, “I can tell you that it is crazy in times of unpredictability to have centralized uniformity. If you are going to have climate chaos, what you need is lots of diversity, and you want that diversity in lots of places, in a very decentralized way.” — JOCELYN CRAUGH ZUCKERMAN


Two years ago, the New York City chef Christine Carroll was painting a New Orleans high school with a post-Katrina volunteer group when she realized that she was no painter. But she could cook; so could everyone she knew. And New Orleans needed nourishment. Once home, she started organizing CulinaryCorps, a charity that recruits squads of chefs and culinary students for weeklong trips to New Orleans, where they might be asked to cook dinner for a Habitat for Humanity crew one night and the still-stoveless residents of the Lower Ninth Ward the next. Mornings are spent volunteering: teaching elementary-school kids about growing vegetables or helping to recover flood-damaged cookbooks from venerated restaurants. The focus is not just on feeding the hungry but also on keeping the city's food traditions alive. “We give them our version of shrimp and grits, and then when they come back for seconds, they share their secret family recipes,” says Carroll. Of the 75 chefs who have gone through the program, two have moved to New Orleans to make culinary philanthropy — or “culanthropy” — a full-time project. Next year, Carroll says, she hopes to take her Sauciers Sans FrontiËres idea to places like Appalachia and Puerto Rico. — ADAM FISHER


Last April, after winning a competition at the University of Wisconsin School of Business, Keith Agoada, who was then still a student, decided to turn his sustainable-urban-farming plan into a business and created Sky Vegetables. The concept takes advantage of the “fields” of flat rooftops found atop supermarkets by using that space to grow crops. Agoada says Sky Vegetables will have benefits beyond sustainable local produce. The plants and greenhouses will absorb sunlight, making it easier for supermarkets to cool their buildings; in the winter they will add insulation. And an heirloom tomato grown a few feet up from the aisle in which it's sold won't come with any guilt-inducing air miles. The farms will use rainwater for irrigation and solar panels for some of their energy needs. No greenhouses have been installed yet, but Agoada and his partner say they hope to begin construction on a prototype next year; they are currently talking to supermarkets in the Bay Area. — LIA MILLER

The Food Issue - New Food Ideas -

The Food Issue - New Food Ideas -

An initiative in Chad and Darfur is taking the low-tech concept of solar cooking to a higher level. Run by Jewish World Watch, a coalition of Los Angeles-area synagogues founded in 2004 to address modern genocide, the Solar Cooker Project provides refugee-camp residents with the materials — aluminum foil, cardboard and glue — to build cookers.Thirty dollars covers the cost of two cookers, cloth potholders — and training. Harnessing the sun's energy doesn't just mean fewer girls searching for firewood (often putting them at risk of being raped along the way) and fewer people suffering from the injuries associated with live-fire cooking; it also provides relief for the denuded Chadian and Sudanese countryside. The nearly-three-year-old project has supplied and trained more than 10,000 women and girls in the Iridimi and Touloum camps and recently began work with 28,000 residents of the Oure Cassoni camp. In Iridimi, trips to collect firewood have decreased by 86 percent. The program director, Rachel Andres, who was recently awarded the Charles Bronfman Prize for her work, says it's been successful “because it's so simple,” she said. “You realize that, yes, all the other pieces of fighting this genocide are important — it's important to write letters to the head of the U.N. and to President Bush and to members of Congress and to anyone who will listen — but this is one area in which you can do something concrete.” — JOCELYN CRAUGH ZUCKERMAN

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Among Rock-Ribbed Fans of Palin, Dudes Rule -

Among Rock-Ribbed Fans of Palin, Dudes Rule -

sometimes the nyt makes me smile...

She has been widely attacked, even by a growing number of conservatives, as being essentially unserious and uncurious. “She doesn’t think aloud. She just ...says things,” the Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wrote Friday. “She does not speak seriously but attempts to excite sensation.”

All the while, Ms. Palin’s stoutest defenders are often the Joe Sixpacks in her crowds, who shrug off her critics, ridiculers and perceived adversaries in the news media. They say they appreciate Ms. Palin for, above all else, how “real” and “like us” she is.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Believer - Interview with David Foster Wallace

The Believer - Interview with David Foster Wallace

DFW: The reason why doing political writing is so hard right now is probably also the reason why more young (am I included in the range of this predicate anymore?) fiction writers ought to be doing it. As of 2003, the rhetoric of the enterprise is fucked. 95 percent of political commentary, whether spoken or written, is now polluted by the very politics it’s supposed to be about. Meaning it’s become totally ideological and reductive: The writer/speaker has certain political convictions or affiliations, and proceeds to filter all reality and spin all assertion according to those convictions and loyalties. Everybody’s pissed off and exasperated and impervious to argument from any other side. Opposing viewpoints are not just incorrect but contemptible, corrupt, evil. Conservative thinkers are balder about this kind of attitude: Limbaugh, Hannity, that horrific O’Reilly person. Coulter, Kristol, etc. But the Left’s been infected, too. Have you read this new Al Franken book? Parts of it are funny, but it’s totally venomous (like, what possible response can rightist pundits have to Franken’s broadsides but further rage and return-venom?). Or see also e.g. Lapham’s latest Harper’s columns, or most of the stuff in the Nation, or even Rolling Stone. It’s all become like Zinn and Chomsky but without the immense bodies of hard data these older guys use to back up their screeds. There’s no more complex, messy, community-wide argument (or “dialogue”); political discourse is now a formulaic matter of preaching to one’s own choir and demonizing the opposition. Everything’s relentlessly black-and-whitened. Since the truth is way, way more gray and complicated than any one ideology can capture, the whole thing seems to me not just stupid but stupefying. Watching O’Reilly v. Franken is watching bloodsport. How can any of this possibly help me, the average citizen, deliberate about whom to choose to decide my country’s macroeconomic policy, or how even to conceive for myself what that policy’s outlines should be, or how to minimize the chances of North Korea nuking the DMZ and pulling us into a ghastly foreign war, or how to balance domestic security concerns with civil liberties? Questions like these are all massively complicated, and much of the complication is not sexy, and well over 90 percent of political commentary now simply abets the uncomplicatedly sexy delusion that one side is Right and Just and the other Wrong and Dangerous. Which is of course a pleasant delusion, in a way—as is the belief that every last person you’re in conflict with is an asshole—but it’s childish, and totally unconducive to hard thought, give and take, compromise, or the ability of grown-ups to function as any kind of community.


DFW: Probably the quickest, most efficient way to respond is to say that this question leads nicely into the whole reason why pop-tech books might have some kind of special utility in today’s culture. The big difference is that things are vastly more compartmentalized now than they were up through, say, the Renaissance. And more specialized, and more freighted with all kinds of special context. There’s no way we’d expect a world-class, cutting-edge mathematician now also to be doing world-class, cutting-edge philosophy, theology, etc. Not so for the Greeks—if only because math, philosophy, and theology weren’t coherently distinguishable for them. Same for the Neoplatonists and Scholastics, and etc. etc. (This is a very, very simple answer, of course, maybe right on the edge of simplistic.) By the time Cantor weighed in on ∞ in the 1870s, it was part of an extremely specialized technical discipline that took decades to master and be able to do advanced work in. For Cantor and R. Dedekind (and now this is all just condensed way down from the book (sort of the same way the question is)), the math of ∞ is derived as a way to solve certain thorny problems in post-calc analysis (viz., the expansions of trig functions and the rigorous definition of irrational numbers, respectively), which problems themselves derive from K. Weierstrass’s solutions to certain earlier problems, and so on. It’s all so abstract and specialized that large parts of E&M end up getting devoted to unpacking the problems clearly enough so that a general reader can get a halfway realistic idea of where set theory and the topology of the Real Line even come from, mathematically speaking. The real point, I think, has to do with something else that ends up mentioned only quickly in the book’s final draft. We live today in a world where most of the really important developments in everything from math and physics and astronomy to public policy and psychology and classical music are so extremely abstract and technically complex and context-dependent that it’s next to impossible for the ordinary citizen to feel that they (the developments) have much relevance to her actual life. Where even people in two closely related sub-sub-specialties have a hard time communicating with each other because their respective s-s-s’s require so much special training and knowledge. And so on. Which is one reason why pop-technical writing might have value (beyond just a regular book-market $-value), as part of the larger frontier of clear, lucid, unpatronizing technical communication. It might be that one of the really significant problems of today’s culture involves finding ways for educated people to talk meaningfully with one another across the divides of radical specialization. That sounds a bit gooey, but I think there’s some truth to it. And it’s not just the polymer chemist talking to the semiotician, but people with special expertise acquiring the ability to talk meaningfully to us, meaning ordinary schmoes. Practical examples: Think of the thrill of finding a smart, competent IT technician who can also explain what she’s doing in such a way that you feel like you understand what went wrong with your computer and how you might even fix the problem yourself if it comes up again. Or an oncologist who can communicate clearly and humanly with you and your wife about what the available treatments for her stage-two neoplasm are, and about how the different treatments actually work, and exactly what the plusses and minuses of each one are. If you’re like me, you practically drop and hug the ankles of technical specialists like this, when you find them. As of now, of course, they’re rare. What they have is a particular kind of genius that’s not really part of their specific area of expertise as such areas are usually defined and taught. There’s not really even a good univocal word for this kind of genius—which might be significant. Maybe there should be a word; maybe being able to communicate with people outside one’s area of expertise should be taught, and talked about, and considered as a requirement for genuine expertise.… Anyway, that’s the sort of stuff I think your question is nibbling at the edges of, and it’s interesting as hell.