Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Karma Comes on Pigeon Wings But I Still Look Sharp in a Blazer

No one likes being shat on by a bird, but when on a bright sunny day in Union Square a pigeon in a tree above me bespattered my jacket I had a particular sense of injustice. The mess on my sleeve wasn’t just a bit of bad luck, it disturbed my sense of the essential fairness of the universe and upset my faith that good deeds are rewarded. It was only a few days before that I had done what I considered an outsized good deed on behalf of another of the very same species that nailed me, and it didn’t sit right.
My act of kindness took place in October during an eight-day stretch of pouring rain. A squall had moved into New York and stayed on like a bad reputation. Day after day it rained. Streets and subways flooded, commuting times and the price of umbrellas doubled, and New York’s eight million inhabitants didn’t have a dozen pairs of dry socks among them. One afternoon about five days into the deluge I was bringing our tenants their mail when I found a pigeon standing on the pavement in front of their door. It was small, thin and very wet and gazed about it with that uncomplaining acceptance of destiny that sick animals have. It had chosen a spot that gave it a bit of shelter from the rain and wind but was still getting battered a good deal. When I came close it didn’t flee, but took just a few steps away from me. I thought it might have been washed out of a nest and was too young to fly.
Although I yield to no one in my love of nature and have a particular appreciation for birds, I’m no fan of pigeons. I consider them parasites on our urban culture, scavengers with no self-respect, gorgers on the spoils of our greed, rebukers of our waste and sloth. I don’t understand why anyone would feed them or take any interest in them at all. So when I saw this pigeon and its distressed situation my only reaction was to say, “Don’t die on my property.”
I didn’t think much more about it until later that evening when I sat reading in the living room and heard a person outside cooing. I looked out the window and saw my tenant Jonah, a young man who writes music criticism for a magazine too hip to have me as a subscriber, on his hands and knees on the pavement, offering bread to the woebegone bird and trying to speak to it in its own tongue. So it’s still there, I thought, and made a mental note to dispose of its corpse in the morning before my wife, Gail, or Jonah could see it.
To my surprise, however, the bird was still alive in the morning, still standing in the same spot, quietly waiting in wisdom or ignorance for its fate to complete itself. It had also befouled the pavement quite a bit. It remained there in the rain throughout the day, patient and doomed. By about four in the afternoon its plight had reached even my shallow well of sympathy, so I pulled out our late cat’s carrying case and took it outside. On the first try the pigeon evaded the case smartly, but then I got it cornered, angled the case in front of it and moved in close. Its only escape from me was toward the case and in it went like a dust ball up a vacuum hose. I shut the door, took the case to the basement and put bowls of bread and water inside.
I wasn’t sure whether I was going to tell Gail about the pigeon. She doesn’t like them any more than I do, and she’s rather touchy on the subject of introducing germs, with which she is sure pigeons are riddled. But when she got home from work she asked me if I’d been aware that there had been a pigeon out front and I had to confess. She gave me a long, dubious look that precluded comment.
The next morning I went to check on the pigeon and found that it had eaten all the bread I had left for it and was standing in a thick sludge of guano. I’d heard on the radio that the rain would continue for two more days and thought I ought to do something about the bird’s nutritional status, so I went to the grocery store for bird seed. The smallest bag I could find weighed five pounds, but I lugged it back and poured some into the dish. The pigeon regarded me with its usual unjudging, uncomprehending expression. I imagined it thought that as prisons go, this one wasn’t so bad, then chided myself for anthropomorphizing.
Over the next two days I visited the basement twice a day, bringing fresh water and fresh seed, of which it ate prodigious quantities and scattered the rest into the water and onto the floor. The bird now stood ankle-deep in its own waste. It never uttered a sound and never tried to escape when I opened the door, only retreated a step or two away from me.
Finally, on a Tuesday morning, the rain stopped. The clouds were breaking up in the wind like a tattered sail, it was a little warmer, and the air felt dry. I decided that I had done all I could for the luckless fowl and that from here on it was going to have to take its chances. I cleared the water and food dishes from the case and carried it outside to the park. When I opened the door the pigeon didn’t move, but I was out of patience so I jiggled the case and it tumbled onto the sidewalk. For a moment it remained on the ground, looking around it like a drunk on New Year’s Day, and I thought perhaps my first guess had been right and it wasn’t able to fly. But when I took a step toward it, it launched itself like a rocket and flew a block away to a perch on the window ledge of a house, settling among some of its brethren. I looked in the case and saw that it was as good as ruined—only vigorous scrubbing would remove that gloppy green insult and I was not interested in the job. I took the case home and threw it in the trash, following it with the four and three-quarter pounds of uneaten birdseed. As happy as I was to see the last of my unwanted guest and as little pleasure I had taken in caring for it, I felt an acute sense of satisfaction at my good deed. I had probably saved its life—or extended it, anyway—at no benefit to myself. A bit smugly, I added some check marks to the “positive karma” column in my mental spreadsheet and looked forward to a pleasant little reward in cosmic recompense for my trouble.
My expectations were based on my belief in underlying justice. Although I have no opinion regarding the existence of god, I do believe that the universe does not treat us randomly. One’s fate, I hold, results from one’s actions. Do good and good will come to you, or do evil and mourn. Let another driver change lanes in front of you and somewhere down the road you’ll receive the same courtesy. Give generously to charity and look forward to a pretty good bonus. Shovel a neighbor’s sidewalk and your roof won’t leak.
Obviously, this theory is hogwash. I am no more virtuous than the unfortunate street beggars of Calcutta, yet I am well fed and well looked after while they die young of malnutrition-related disease. Even to hold a theory like mine could be construed as an act of moral callousness. But still. One needs something to grasp, and a flawed theory of the universe is better than none. They’re all flawed, after all, so the only real choice is to choose which flawed theory to sign up for.
Thus my sense of injustice when less than a week after nurturing that pigeon I had to go into Starbucks for a bottle of sparkling water and a wad of napkins to remove enough of its cousin’s bowel contents so that I could get on the subway and into a dry cleaner’s without breaking the public hygiene laws. The unfairness of this humiliation after the trouble I’d taken rankled no end. I rely on my theory of moral rewards to keep my world in balance. This situation so neatly trumped my expectations that I was tempted to see it as some sort of message from the engineers of the universe telling me that I shouldn’t presume to know anything at all about underlying principles. It so flew in the face of all that I thought was right that it implied that there truly is no universal moral structure and that try as one might to do good, there is nothing to prevent not just a tablespoon of pigeon shit from befouling one’s sleeve but a giant cosmic cow flop containing the digested indifference of the stars from burying one in its stinking disregard.
Why, after all, do we launch good deeds into the incurious world if not in the hope that they will return to us? Is there anyone so selfless that he upholds moral values and lends a hand to strangers without thinking that he has earned some sort of cosmological credit and thus added to the good fortune he deserves? Can we live with the idea that charity is an arrow, not a boomerang, and that we gain nothing by helping others? Who would remain virtuous in such an unappreciative world? Who could function in such chaos?
But such is the resilience of my sense of self-justification that it wasn’t more than two days later that I had incorporated these new data into my native theory. Perhaps, I reasoned, my efforts on behalf of the pigeon weren’t unrewarded at all. Perhaps, given my peccadilloes and foibles, my obliquity and turpitude, I had been due a glop of pigeon poop not on the sleeve of a gabardine jacket but smack dab in the center of the head or even full in the face while gazing upward mouth agape. But by having added a little touch of rectitude to the moral accounting, I reasoned, I was spared this vicious splarging, the moral forces at work having nudged me or the evacuating pigeon just a little this way or that so as to mitigate the punishment I was otherwise due.
Thus I found that, nonreligious though I am, I cannot accept the idea of a world without a moral core. Even given such evidence that no one is keeping score, that what happens to me is unconnected to my actions, I found a way to reaffirm my belief that what goes around comes around and we all get what we deserve. As I said, it’s a flawed theory. But at least it’s a theory.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Slime Mold: Danger or Threat?

Recently, while circumnavigating Mountain Lake on Orcas Island in Washington, Gail and I came across a mysterious, unfamiliar life form attached to a rotting tree stump, visible in the photo below. Upon seeing it our immediate questions were the same as yours: (1) What the hell is it? And (2) Will it grow to enormous size and devour people, just like in the movie The Blob? The answers, a little research reveals are: (1) A slime mold and (2) Maybe.

Slime molds are unusual organisms formerly considered fungi but which have recently intimidated scientists into classifying them in  a separate kingdom, the Amoebozoa. They share characteristics of plants and animals, much like Marlon Brando in his later years. Unlike Brando, they feed on bacteria, yeasts and fungi. There are more than 900 species occurring in damp, dark environments all over the world. They usually are found on the forest floor or on rotting logs but also inhabit air conditioners, so go check the filter. Now.

This particular slime mold is a member of the species Fuligo septica, whose common names are “dog vomit slime mold,” which is not a nice name, and “scrambled egg slime,” which is only a little better. Like many slime molds, Fuligo regularly transforms itself from a single-celled to a multi-celled organism. When food is abundant, Fuligo exists in a single-celled state, but when food runs short individual cells aggregate to form a large mass called a plasmodium (as in the picture), losing their cell walls in the process and forming what is essentially a bag of cytoplasm with thousands of nuclei. Although the Fuligo plasmodium generally reaches a maximum size of about 8 inches, some species grow to as much as several square meters, plenty big enough to devour a medium-sized human.

You might think you’d be safe from being eaten by a slime mold if you just keep away from it, but in fact the plasmodium is able to move about in search of food. Careful observation of a slime mold’s cytoplasm reveals that it streams steadily back and forth within the plasmodium.  When more cytoplasm flows in one direction than the other, the plasmodium advances. Slime molds are able to sense the presence of food and slither toward it. However, since the cytoplasm flows at a maximum speed of 1.35 mm per second, it’s generally not difficult to outrun a slime mold, even if it’s very hungry.

Nevertheless, slime molds show a devious intelligence that makes it obvious that they plan to take over the world.

As John Tyler Bonner, who has spent his career studying slime molds, put it, “Slime molds are no more than a bag of amoebae encased in a thin slime sheath, yet they manage to have various behaviors that are equal to those of animals who possess muscles and nerves with ganglia—that is, simple brains.”

This has been borne out in experiments conducted primarily in Japan, which as you know has already endured attacks by Godzilla and Mothra.

For example, a team of researchers placed the slime mold species Physarum polycephalum in a maze and demonstrated that it was able to find its way to a strategically-located piece of food using the shortest possible route. This skill will be highly useful when slime molds engage in urban warfare.

Slime molds are also able to form memories and tell time. When another group of researchers subjected a slime mold to cold and dry conditions at 60-minute intervals, it learned to anticipate the unpleasant stimulus and respond before the stimulus was actually applied. When favorable conditions were restored, it continued to retreat every 60 minutes, demonstrating simple memory and the ability to anticipate how an enemy might attack.

In the most chilling experiment of all, researchers arranged oat flakes on a flat surface in such a way that they corresponded to the locations of Tokyo and 36 surrounding towns, then set loose a slime mold on the model metropolis. As it extended filaments to the various food piles the slime mold created a complex, integrated network almost identical to that of the existing train system. The experiment has since been repeated, with similar results, in Britain and Spain. The implication is obvious—slime molds intend to infiltrate our public transportation systems and move at will throughout our cities without paying full fare.

Faced with an implacable enemy, many people turn instinctively to appeasement to try to save themselves. Such must have been the motivations of the scientists at the University of the West of England who measured the electrical signals that a slime mold produced as it moved across an array of microelectrodes. Assigning emotions to each discrete set of signals—e.g., joy when the slime mold was feeding and anger when it was exposed to light—the researchers hooked the electrodes to a human-appearing robot in a bowler hat that made facial expressions corresponding to the slime mold’s emotions. Or tried to. Its face doesn’t really move very much. In any event, they claim that this is the first time a bag of cytoplasm has been able to express its inner feelings using a robot interface and they’re probably right.

Don’t rely on the failed Obama administration to protect you—they don’t even have a slime mold policy. To be safe, stay in dry, well-lit areas and keep away from oat flakes.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Our Friend, the Tardigrade


You know how people like to say that, after a nuclear apocalypse, cockroaches will be the only survivors? Not likely. Cockroaches are tropical insects and in higher latitudes can live only in artificially warm places, like your basement. Shut the heat down, and they’ll die off. No, the smart money for nuclear survivors is on tardigrades, which are microscopic animals that can handle almost anything you throw at them, and are also very cute.

Tardigrade. Don't say it's not cute.
Also known as water bears or moss piglets, tardigrades are about 1 millimeter long and have short, plump, segmented bodies with 8 limbs, each of which has 4 to 8 claws. They have a conventional digestive system, with all the usual parts, but their central body cavity is in contact with all of the 1000 or so cells that make up their bodies, so they don’t need a circulatory or respiratory system. How cool is that?

In contrast to most microscopic creatures, which rush around frantically, tardigrades lumber about with a slow, bear-like gait, feeding on the fluids of plant and animal cells. More than 1100 species have been described. They live everywhere anyone has looked, in both salt and fresh water and on land, where they usually inhabit damp vegetation such as moss or lichens. They’ve been found in tropical forests, in the Arctic Ocean, in the Himalayas at altitudes above 20,000 feet, and in the ocean depths below 13,000 feet.  And boy, are they cute.

Terrestrial tardigrades are famous for their ability to withstand extreme conditions. Despite dwelling on land, these little critters are actually aquatic, living within a thin film of water maintained by the damp pockets and pools in the moss and lichens they call home. When their habitat dries out, tardigrades are able to enter cryptobiosis, a hibernation-like state in which their metabolic rate is lowered to .01% of normal, the water content of their bodies drops below 1%, and they shrivel to about one-third their regular size. When their environment becomes damp again, they rehydrate and come back to life.

In cryptobiosis, tardigrades can survive temperatures, pressure, and radiation that would be lethal to almost any other animal. They have been found in the Antarctic at -80° Celsius. Under experimental conditions they have survived being cooled to -200° C for 20 months and being heated to +151° C. They can go without food or water for ten years. They’ve been subjected to as much as 570,000 roentgens of ionizing radiation (500 roentgens would kill a person), pressure of 5800 pounds per square inch, and extreme levels of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and sulfur dioxide, and have come out of it smiling. In 2007, they became the first multicellular animal to survive in outer space when researchers from the European Space Agency launched them in a vehicle 260 kilometers above the Earth and opened the window, exposing them to direct solar radiation and vacuum conditions. They came back fine. And just as cute as ever.

That’s why tardigrades get my vote for most likely to survive a nuclear war. What other living creature can go without eating for ten years, endure high levels of toxic substances, and survive in outer space? Okay, Keith Richards. But you can’t call him cute.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Battling Butterflies


When you take a walk in the woods this spring, keep an eye peeled in sunny clearings and you’re bound to see viceroys, red admirals, painted ladies, and other vividly colored butterflies fluttering and frolicking in what looks to be a carefree way.

Don’t believe it. Those many-hued insects are actually engaged in a life-and-death struggle for power, bragging rights, and the opportunity for six-legged sex.

Viceroy butterfly: lean and mean
Butterflies aren’t the lightsome gadabouts we imagine: many species are highly territorial. Male butterflies claim a patch of sunlight in an open woodland area that has attractive food sources and wait for females to fly into it, then ask them out on dates. They vigorously defend their turf, patrolling it regularly, aggressively confronting other males and viciously driving them off. Well, not so viciously, really. The resident male flies close to the intruder, who flaps upward in a helical pattern, the resident on its heels, until they reach the treetops and the intruder makes an escape. It is not known why intruders find it so intimidating to have a resident butterfly flying close to them, but cursing may be involved. With the field clear of rivals, the resident male is free to court any females that wander into his space. 

Territoriality in butterflies was first described in 1868 by a naturalist with the delightful name of Cuthbert Collingwood, who wrote that these winged warriors have “frequent battles in which they whirl round each other with the greatest rapidity, and appear to be incited by the greatest ferocity.” Charles Darwin commented that “although butterflies are such weak and fragile creatures, they are pugnacious.”

Male butterflies of pugnacious species generally defend a territory at a specific time of day, typically late afternoon, wandering elsewhere during downtime but often returning to the same spot day after day. Individual males have even been observed defending the same territory from one year to the next. Red admiral butterflies, which have only a 2-inch wingspan, may claim a territory measuring as much as 300 square meters, roughly the size of a 3-bedroom house, and patrol it as many as thirty times an hour. Some species defend their home turf so vigorously that they have been observed going after butterflies of other species, birds, falling leaves, and the occasional lepidopterist. 

Males of non-territorial species search for females by flying from place to place, pausing only to feed and rest.

For several years there was a controversy in entomology circles as to whether butterflies show “true” territoriality or merely behave in a way that looks territorial, which goes to show that, given the chance, people will argue about nearly anything. The debate seems to have been settled by close field observation of butterfly behavior and experiments that included, among other things, determining the sex of captured butterflies by a process you don’t want to know about. 

The great minds in lepidoptery have now turned their attention to the question of what determines the winner of a butterfly battle. At first it was assumed that, as in species such as bighorn sheep and NFL linemen, the bigger, stronger, quicker butterfly would come out on top, but that appears not to be the case. In research published in the journal Behavioral Ecology, an Australian entomologist named Darrell Kemp determined that in the contest for access to females, older butterflies usually beat younger butterflies, but not because they are necessarily larger or stronger. He did this by overhearing female butterflies say, “Really, size doesn’t matter. I mean it. Let’s just cuddle.” Actually no, I made that up. He caught both butterflies and measured them.

Resident butterflies usually best intruders in hand-to-hand combat, and territories generally contain rich food sources, so it would be a good guess that residents win because they’re better nourished, but Tsuyoshi Takeuchi of Kyoto University demonstrated that residents actually have lower lipid stores than intruders, meaning that patrolling and defending their territories incurs costs and in fact they’re in slightly worse physical condition than the intruders.

Spotted wood butterfly, ready to kick ass
Finally, a team of Swedish researchers with too much time on their hands determined in a series of rigorous experiments that the result of a butterfly battle often comes down to something intangible: motivation. They accomplished this by placing two male speckled wood butterflies in a large outdoor cage, just like in “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome,” and letting them duke it out. Next they took the winner (let’s call him the alpha insect) out of the cage and let him chill out—literally, they put him in a cooler. They left the loser—the beta—in the cage, and had him do one of two things: either interact with a female for half an hour, or spend half an hour alone. Then they put the alpha back in the cage and watched what happened. The results were clear: the beta males that had been allowed to interact with females clobbered the alphas. Beta males that had been in the cage alone did no better in the rematch than they did the first time around. In other words, the experience of interacting with females inside the cage led the betas to put a high value on the territory, giving them the motivation to roll up their sleeves and bring home the bacon when the alpha male was reintroduced. Beta males that were quicker to claim the vacated territory also did better in the rematches, suggesting that individual insects vary in their intrinsic motivation. Some butterflies just want it more.

Friday, February 1, 2013

A Gut Feeling


We are not alone. Within us there are unseen, unfelt beings upon which we depend for life itself. Without them we would waste quickly to nothing, yet we have only the faintest awareness that they exist.

I’m talking, of course, about the microorganisms that inhabit your body. 

The moment we’re born, we’re colonized by thousands of species of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that occupy our skin, gastrointestinal tract, nasal passages, lungs, and blood. These invisible hitchhikers have evolved to live and reproduce in the particular conditions of temperature, moisture, acidity, and chemical composition that we provide for them. With some, such as the bacteria in our gut that help digest our food, we have a symbiotic, or mutually beneficial, relationship. Others, such as the yeasts that gather around our hair follicles, are commensal species—they dwell upon us but do us little harm and no apparent good.

But they might be telling us what to do.

Numerous examples of microorganisms influencing their host’s behavior can be found in the scientific literature. One of the best-known is Toxoplasma gondii, a parasitic protozoan whose primary host is cats but which can inhabit a wide range of other mammal species, most frequently rodents but also humans. When T gondii finds itself dwelling in, for example, a mouse, it has a problem—it can’t reproduce until it finds its way back to a cat. To facilitate this transfer, the parasite has evolved the ability to change the behavior of mice, making them less averse to the smell of cat urine and diminishing their fear response, rendering them easy prey for the local felines, which ingest T gondii along with their lunch. Bingo, the bug gets home.

Toxoplasma gondii 
Some humans infected with T gondii also exhibit behavioral changes—they become less sociable, dress in a slovenly fashion, show little regard for social rules, and harbor strange, sometimes paranoid beliefs. Think of the stereotypical cat lady, who keeps to herself, ignores convention, sounds a little crazy, and seems not to be bothered by the smell of cat urine pervading her home.

How would influencing human behavior help T gondii find its way back into a cat? It probably wouldn’t, but that’s because humans have associated with cats for only 10,000 years or so, not enough time for the parasites to evolve a way to travel from us to them. But they’re probably working on it.

Viruses also manipulate human behavior. In the 48 hours after a flu vaccination, people tend to be more sociable than in the 48 hours before. The vaccine contains attenuated virus, which cannot cause disease but retains enough of its original material to trigger an immune response. Apparently, when the wild, intact flu virus infects us, it improves its chances of spreading by making us friendlier during the period after we’ve been infected but before we’ve developed symptoms.

Helicobacter pylori, the bacterium that causes ulcers, has been shown to trigger changes in what people eat, even before ulcers are clinically apparent, perhaps by causing them to develop a taste for foods that it likes.

The spirochete that causes Lyme disease, Borrelia burgdorferi, may invade the brain and spinal cord and trigger memory loss, mood disorders, hallucinations, panic attacks, and paranoid ideation. Here again, there’s probably no advantage for the microorganism, but this is another case of an infection that’s relatively recent in our evolutionary history. A more sophisticated bug might figure out a way to trigger in us a compulsion to keep deer as pets.

These are well-documented examples of microorganisms that can influence behavior, but they came to researchers’ attention because they are pathogenic—they cause disease, and are therefore worth studying. What about all the symbiotic and commensal microorganisms we’re living with, which fly under the scientific radar because they do us no harm? Might they not also have developed the ability to influence our behavior? 

Let’s consider the largest population of microorganisms we carry around with us, the bacteria in our gut. All of us, if we’re healthy, are harboring multiple species of bacteria in the region south of our stomachs. These microorganisms—known collectively to their friends as the intestinal microbiota—process nutrients in food, protect against invasion by unwanted pathogens, and interact with the immune system to keep it functioning properly. Their population is enormous—in fact, you have approximately ten times as many bacteria in your GI tract as there are cells in your body. Collectively, they possess more than 3 million distinct genes, whereas we boast a mere 23,000. We’re seriously outnumbered and out-gunned.

Although the gut is composed primarily of muscle and absorptive cells, it is also home to the enteric nervous system, or ENS, a large neurological structure so complex that it has been termed “the second brain.” It consists of sheaths of neurons embedded in the intestinal walls that direct the movement of the intestinal musculature and send sensations from the gut through the vagus nerve to the brain. There is extensive interaction between brain and ENS, but the ENS is fully capable of acting on its own, even if it can’t think. When you feel “butterflies” or “a knot” in your stomach, that’s the ENS at work, signaling the brain that something is amiss. Like the brain, the ENS relies on neurotransmitters for signal transmission—in fact, more than 90% of the serotonin in the body is found in the gut. (That’s why antidepressants may cause GI upset.) And, like the brain, the ENS is closely involved in our emotional states. People with anxiety or depression often show disordered activity in the ENS, sometimes manifesting as gastrointestinal symptoms.

Evidence is mounting that the intestinal microbiota, which are in close contact with the nerve endings of the ENS, do influence mood and behavior. Treating mice with the probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus has been shown to increase their exploratory behavior—confronted with a maze, they scurry up and down more passages than untreated mice. Cutting the vagus nerve—the one that links the ENS to the brain—extinguishes this behavior and makes these little go-getters just as cautious as the controls.

Gut bacteria may play a role in the regulation of anxiety as well. Anxiety is not entirely a bad thing, because it keeps mice and other mammals from taking foolish risks. Researchers in Canada found that germ-free mice—animals from whom the intestinal microbiota has been removed—are careless about venturing into open spaces, which in general is a bad idea for mice because it makes them easier targets for predators. That would also be a bad idea for their gut bacteria, which would be in danger of losing their host and home. It’s possible that these microorganisms are keeping themselves safe by bumping up their host’s anxiety level. 

Direct evidence of the intestinal microbiota influencing the moods and behaviors of humans is scarce but intriguing. For example, altering the proportions of the bacterial species inhabiting the human GI tract by such interventions as eliminating fructose from the diet or treating with Lactobacillus relieves symptoms of depression in some patients. A subset of autistic people have an excess of clostridial species of bacteria in their GI tracts, and a course of antibiotics temporarily ameliorates their condition. People with hepatic encephalopathy, a syndrome associated with liver cirrhosis that causes forgetfulness, confusion, poor judgment, and inappropriate behavior, sometimes see dramatic improvement after a course of antibiotics and laxatives, suggesting that gut bacteria are part of the disease process. 

Apart from these examples of gut bacteria influencing our minds in the context of disease, any claim that intestinal microorganisms play an important role in human moods and behavior is purely speculative. But how unlikely is it? Given that their bacterial ancestors probably began inhabiting the bodies of our mammalian ancestors around the time we took over from the dinosaurs, that they’ve been with us ever since, and that they depend on us for survival, wouldn’t it be stranger if they hadn’t evolved the ability to influence our behavior than if they had?

Neil Armstrong, carrying some
bacteria to the moon
Think about those mice whose exploratory behavior was increased when their intestinal microbiota was changed. No species is more exploratory than we are. Around 70,000 years ago we burst out of Africa and rushed hellbent for leather until we occupied virtually every corner of the world from the tropics to the Arctic. What drove us then, and drives us still, compelling us to do nonadaptive, crazy-ass things like rappel into volcanoes, hike on the ocean floor, and fly to the moon? Did our brains tell us to pull these stunts? Or somewhere along the line did we acquire a pathologically ambitious bacterium that whipped us into a frenzy of curiosity and aspiration and will never let us rest?

I get a knot in my stomach just thinking about it.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Trust

On www.thenextweb.com Emil Protalinski writes about a company that discovered that its virtual private network was being repeatedly accessed from outside the country, and that the intruders could be traced to China. The company alerted security experts at Verizon, who determined that the outsiders were using the credentials of one of the company's own employees to gain access. Further investigation revealed that the employee had outsourced his work to a Chinese software developer and was spending the day watching cat videos and looking for bargains on ebay. 

Ironically, the employee's code was cited in his manager's reviews as "clean, well-written, and submitted in a timely manner." Quarter after quarter, he was named the best developer on his team. He earned a six-figure salary and paid less than one-fifth of it to the Chinese company that did his job for him. He may have had similar arrangements while working for other employers.

This story is amusing, but it gets to the heart of a serious problem that affects not only business but many of our daily interactions within our communities--the loss of trust. Humans are the most social mammals on the planet, and our evolutionary success--our very survival--depends on our belief that we can rely on and depend on the people around us. It might be said that the employer in this instance benefited from the arrangement, because it was more than satisfied with the work it received. Nevertheless, the employee had broken the agreement he made when he was hired and he undermined the basic trust that is needed to make a business successful in the long term.

I would like to expand further on this topic but I have a deadline on a paying job for one of my clients and don't have time to go into it now. But I do need emphasize that loss of trust very bad thing, when you think that one person do work but really it different person this not fair to anybody. If somebody do this to employer what else he do? Maybe steal co-workers' lunch from refrigerator or take home office supplies he not entitled to, what about that? And now he have no job, he let down family, this not good lesson for children. So each person must always do what he say or she say she will do otherwise society fall apart.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Following Sarah

Recently I read that the Pope, in order to keep up with competitors like the Dalai Lama, has begun to tweet. I've elected not to follow the Pope, because I assume he tweets in Latin, but tuning in on the Dalai Lama sounded like a good idea so every few days now I get a brief message from His Holiness on my cell phone, an arrangement that I'm sure Bodhidarma, the 6th century monk who brought Buddhism from India to China, would think was pretty nifty.  

The first tweet I received from the Dalai Lama read as follows: "We forget that despite the superficial differences between us, people are equal in their basic wish for peace and happiness." That's a noble sentiment but frankly I have trouble buying into it, and here I'm thinking of individuals like Bashar Assad of Syria whose plan to use chemical weapons on his own people was thwarted at the last minute by pressure from outside powers who consider this sort of behavior something of a faux pas. However, most of the Lama's tweets were unobjectionable and even inspiring, emphasizing the benefits that accrue to oneself and others from compassion and service. For example, he pointed out the other day that "The real source of inner strength and self-confidence is warm-heartedness." A lovely thought, although five of his seven previous tweets had said more or less the same thing, so I have to guess that he's running a little short of material.

Not long after I started following HHDL (as he refers to himself) I received an email from the folks at Twitter offering some suggestions for other, similar people to follow, and topping the list was none other than the stand-up comedian Sarah Silverman, known for her biting wit, foul mouth, and unlimited need for attention. Snorting derisively through my nasopharynx I tweeted them this editorial: "I follow Dalai Lama and received email from U suggesting similar including Sarah Silverman. SARAH SILVERMAN?? U R nuts." (Those of us who tweet have a lot to say but only 140 characters to say it with, so we cleverly use single letters for common homonyms. That's a tip.)

After I thought it over it occurred to me that maybe I hadn't given Sarah a fighting chance, so I went out on a limb and actually read her tweets. Much to my surprise I found that there are indeed many similarities between the Buddhist holy man and the Jewish entertainer and that their messages are touchingly harmonious. For example, HHDL has this to say about intention:

A mind wishing to benefit other people and other sentient beings is the very basis of peace and happiness.

Sarah echoes this sentiment with a revelation granted to her at the gym:

Spin class is AMAZING exercise if u love getting punched in the vagina 70ish times per minute.

As you can see, Ms. Silverman encourages her followers to take care of their physical health by getting regular exercise, thereby demonstrating her wish to benefit others.

With regard to each person's place in society and how we can contribute, the Dalai Lama remarks:

A happy society must be created by people themselves, not through prayer alone, but by taking action.

Whereas Sarah Silverman points out:

There are traces of fecal matter everywhere including on your face.

Here Ms. Silverman guides us toward an understanding of the problems confronting us, which is the first step in taking action, just as the Dalai Lama recommends.

Many of the world's problems can be traced to the malignant effects of anger, which the Dalai Lama addresses in this tweet:

When we develop a sense of concern for others' well-being then the very basis of anger is no longer there.

Not to be left behind, Sarah demonstrates how she overcame her anger against historical figures:

Hitler and I are both brunette vegetarians.

Some people might think that the road that the Dalai Lama urges us toward is too difficult, that it demands deep religious commitment, but he reassures us in this tweet:

I always try to share with others the idea that in order to become compassionate it is not necessary to become religious.

Similarly, Sarah Silverman encourages each of us to pursue our own path to enlightenment:

Dear guys who now have tits: Do you play with them all day long like you said you would? Love, Sarah.

Finally, the Dalai Lama offers a simple way to find that which we all desire:

Genuine happiness comes from focusing on the happiness of others.

Unfortunately, Sarah is inclined to focus on the unhappiness of others:

I could die of a broken heart from worrying if someone I pass on the street is lonely.

Meditate, Sarah. Meditate.


Friday, November 16, 2012

Actually, It Was Close

When George W. Bush won the 2000 presidential election even though he lost the popular vote to Al Gore, a cry went up from Democrats that it was time to get rid of the Electoral College. There's no doubt that it's an undemocratic institution, but replacing it with a system based purely on the popular vote would require support from both parties, and whichever one thinks it has the advantage in terms of electoral votes will prefer to stick with what we have, thank you.

Today, it's the Democrats who are pretty comfortable with the way things are working out. Barack Obama's victory in the electoral college was decisive--332 votes to Romney's 206. The national popular vote total was closer--Obama received 51% of total votes cast and Romney 48%--but still an indisputable win. In fact, however, the election result was far closer than that--it was decided by a mere 381,085 votes. Or would have been, if Romney had gotten them in the right places. He would be president today if he had received all of the following:
  • 88,502 more votes in Iowa
  • 73,190 more votes in Florida
  • 103,482 more votes in Ohio
  • 115,911 more votes in Virginia
That would have given him 66 more electoral votes, for a total of 272, and he and Paul Ryan would be president and vice president despite not having won the national popular vote or carried either of their respective home states.

So the Democrats shouldn't imagine that the Electoral College is working safely in their favor. They think they won in a landslide, but actually they just squeaked by.

Before we get rid of the Electoral College we should remember that sometimes it works in history's favor. One presidential candidate who won a majority of the Electoral College vote received only 40% of the popular vote. That was Abe Lincoln.

Monday, July 16, 2012

On the Shooting of Zombies

Recently an acquaintance named Fred, who is a gun enthusiast, told me about an encounter he'd had at his shooting range. He was blasting away at a target when someone interrupted and asked if he knew what is the best ammunition for shooting zombies. Fred assumed the fellow was joking but it seems he was not. While shopping for bullets online the man had visited the web site of a company that offers specially-made, green-tipped ammunition intended for use on zombies, and he wanted to know if Fred thought it would be a wise purchase.


On its web site the maker, Hornady Manufacturing Co., advises its customers to "Be PREPARED--supply yourself for the Zombie Apocalypse with Zombie Max ammunition!" Zombie Max is offered in nine cartridges, including 9mm Luger and 12-gauge shotgun. The order form includes a disclaimer that reads: 


"Hornady Zombie Max ammunition is NOT a toy (IT IS LIVE AMMUNITION), but is intended only to be used on...ZOMBIES, also known as the living dead, undead, etc. No human being, plant, animal, vegetable, or mineral should ever be shot with Hornady Zombie Max ammunition. Again, we repeat, Hornady Zombie Max ammunition is for use on ZOMBIES ONLY, and that's not a nickname, phrase, or cute way of referring to anybody, place or thing. When we say Zombies, we mean...ZOMBIES!"

I'm not sure what the consequences of shooting a plant, vegetable, or mineral with ammunition intended only for zombies would be, but henceforth I will stick to conventional ammunition when plugging a zucchini or gravel bed.

Elsewhere the Hornady Manufacturing Co. explains that this product line was born from its founder's enthusiasm for zombie movies, so we can be reasonably certain that they know what they're up to and are just trying to make a little money while having fun. But what about that guy on the shooting range? Doesn't this raise serious constitutional questions, such as: Why are people dumb enough to believe in zombies allowed to own weapons?

Of even greater concern, however, is that when this idiot asked for advice, he prefaced his question by saying: "Fred, you're a rabbi, maybe you'd know..."

I can't get past that.

Friday, July 6, 2012

We Tour the Highlands

David, our guide
Yearning to see the Scottish Highlands but insufficiently dyslexic to drive on the left side of the road, Gail and I opted for a guided tour from Edinburgh through the southwestern hills and up to Loch Ness, during which we hoped to see the romantic countryside portrayed in the novels of Scott and Stevenson and the haunts of the ancient clans. Such an ambitious plan required that we muster early and we were still groggy and incoherent when we settled into our seats aboard the 52-passenger Mercedes bus that was to convey us. Our driver and guide was a Scotsman named David, an affable but no-nonsense fellow dressed in a really quite smashing kilt of purple and green who promised a delightful excursion to the “real Scotland” we’d heard about. He remarked that the bus was scheduled to return to Edinburgh at 8:00 PM  but assured us that it might not. “The roads where we’re going are very narrow,” he said in his charming burr, “and if there’s a crash in the road and we’re stopped I cannae turn the bus around. If there’s a fatality we might be stuck there for as much as six or seven hours.” The passengers looked at each other with apprehension. “The latest I ever got back from this trip was 3:15 in the morning!” he added cheerfully.
After this happy introduction we set off through the suburbs of Edinburgh and it wasn’t long before David pointed out the first of the many interesting sites he’d promised, a maximum security prison. “Why they’d put such a thing in the middle of a town is beyond me,” he said. “Don’t open the windows and don’t wave to strangers.” He commented irritably that it was a beautiful day, but then remembered that in Scotland the weather can turn bad at any minute, which seemed to console him somewhat.
Traffic was light so we rolled steadily on and it wasn’t long before we’d left the populous areas behind and entered the rolling hills and verdant fields of the Lowlands. Soon after crossing the River Forth—on a bridge that David explained had been declared unsafe years before but never replaced—we came within sight of what he called, with appropriate awe, “Scotland’s oldest and largest petrochemical plant.” Our view was obscured by a yellowish haze but we were appreciative nonetheless. On we drove, and were treated to our first historic site, Loch Levon Castle, where Mary Queen of Scots had been imprisoned for almost nineteen years. David gave us a vivid description of the cold stony chamber in which she’d been confined and suggested that it probably came as a relief when her cousin Elizabeth had her beheaded.
The Antonine Wall, built by the Romans to defend against the Picts, was visible only as a blur as we sped by. It was lambing season and we delighted to see the newborns in their wooly coats gamboling among the wildflowers in the pastures. 
Next we passed the site of the Battle of Bannockburn, where in 1314 Robert the Bruce won Scottish independence from England in what David spoke of fondly as “a long and bloody day.” He seemed about to recite the names of the dead when he was distracted by an emergency. “Oh no!” he cried. “There’s a sheep in the road and I cannae stop in time!” We winced in trepidation until he said with relief, “Och, no problem, someone’s run over it already.” 
Mention of Robert the Bruce reminded David of the Mel Gibson movie “Braveheart,” which he said he’d enjoyed very much despite it being “the biggest load of rubbish I ever saw.” He did acknowledge, somewhat grudgingly, that the scene in which Gibson, portraying William Wallace, was hung by the neck before being disemboweled was historically accurate.
Hamish the friendly bull
Soon it was time for our first rest stop, which David urged us to take advantage of, because if someone needed to answer a call of nature between here and Ft. William he’d have no choice but to pull over to the side of the road “and let you bare your pink bum to the mountains.” Taking his advice we scurried obediently to the bathrooms, pausing only to admire Hamish the pet bull, a friendly fellow with a fondness for chocolate.
Through straths and glens we traveled, arriving at the town of Callendar, the home of Rob Roy MacGregor, whom David assured us was “not the Scottish Robin Hood he’s purported to be” but a notorious cattle thief whose specialty was first to stab a man in the heart then cut his throat for good measure and leave him dead in a ditch. After a lunch featuring the type of food that David bragged gave Scotland “the highest rate of heart disease in the world” we passed through the town of Tyndrum and over what he called “the most dangerous bridge in Scotland.”
The Three Sisters
At last we came to Glencoe and the magnificent Three Sisters, our first taste of the real Highlands. We descended from the bus to admire their barren and rocky beauty, the heather-rich slopes that rose to sheer stony shoulders and windswept peaks. Sensing that we'd begun to lose ourselves in the sublime, David interrupted to explain that, not far from here, there occurred in 1692 the notorious massacre of Clan MacDonald by the Campbells. It seems that, after accepting the MacDonalds’ hospitality, the Campbells rose early in the morning and hunted down and killed all the chief men of the clan and any women and children who didn’t submit. “And there was no reason for it!” David cried, frothing a little at the mouth. “They did it on the orders of the English king, who just wanted to show everyone what he could do if he wanted!” To this day in Glencoe, David said, there are hotels with a sign over the door reading "No drunks, dogs, or Campbells." Thinking I’d heard the date wrong I asked him to repeat it, but indeed he was working himself into a lather over events that took place more than three hundred years ago.
Not long afterward we passed a field laid out with goal posts and white lines which David explained was used for playing shinty, a game he described as “like field hockey but without the rules.” Chuckling in appreciation he assured us that he’d seen “many a man lying on the shinty field, crying in pain with the bone sticking out of his leg.”
Eventually we arrived at Loch Ness, where for a merciful hour we cruised on the water, free from David’s determination to squelch any hint of holiday gaiety with his unrelieved bloody-mindedness.
When we returned to the bus most of the passengers sprawled in their seats like storm victims, whimpering with fatigue. A long drive in the rain got us back to Edinburgh a little after 9:00 PM, about an hour late. “Right on time!” David crowed. Tired and hungry, we stumbled back to our hotel, reminding ourselves that no matter how badly it goes, every day should be enjoyed as much as possible, because life is short and might very well end in murder.