Archive for August, 2014

Stockholm Syndrome

August 21, 2014

Many of my ideas may either be decades ahead of their time –or just flat out completely wrong– but at least one of them awaits scientific confirmation by a bold, visionary biologist.  A future Nobel Prize winner, undoubtedly.  I’m referring to the unseen influence wielded over the human species by its bacterial fellow-travelers, our microbiome.  Last week (online) and this (in print), the New York Times published a pop science piece entitled “Our Microbiome May Be Looking Out for Itself.”  The story provided a light gloss on current research:

A team of scientists has raised [the] possibility [that] perhaps our menagerie of germs is influencing our behavior in order to advance its own evolutionary success.  “What are the means, motives and opportunity for the microbes to manipulate us? They have all three,” said Carlo C. Maley, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, San Francisco.

The NYT article concentrates its storyline on gut bacteria:

Our microbiome has the biochemical potential to … [synthesize and] release molecules that can directly or indirectly influence [our] brains.  Intestinal bacteria make [neurotransmitters such as] dopamine and serotonin, which our neurons use to communicate with one another. And the microbes can deliver these neurotransmitters to the dense web of nerve endings that line the gastrointestinal tract.  Some experiments suggest that bacteria also can influence the way their hosts eat. Dr. Maley and his colleagues argue that our eating habits create a strong motive for microbes to manipulate us. “From the microbe’s perspective, what we eat is a matter of life and death,” Dr. Maley said.

That’s all well and good as far as it goes, but I’m convinced there’s much more to this host-manipulation phenomenon than a microbe colony’s free lunch. For example, the first step in a microbe’s long-term survival plan is gaining entry to its host organism in the first place.  You have to get in the door –or the window– before you can make yourself at home.  Apart from the hardy bacteria that survive and thrive on the surface of human skin, millions of virus and microbe species cannot easily reproduce outside our warm, wet interior environment.  Not all of these lil’ critters are benign symbiotic tenants, either: some of them are such zealous procreators that they trigger an immune system reaction, accompanied by wildly diverse symptoms of discomfort and illness.   What’s their secret?  How do they get us to open the door and invite them inside (like vampires and freemasons)?

Well folks, I think I may have one answer to the puzzle of microbial trickster entry.  The secret may lie in the (extremely) low-voltage electrical field that covers each of our bodies like an invisible second skin.  If certain microbe species were able to develop a method of altering that electric field in a way that manifests itself as a nagging itch near an inviting body opening, guess what?  That itch usually gets scratched, and any microbe that has established a tenuous beachhead on the appropriate fingers gets a free ride to the eyes, ears, nose or mouth.  Mission accomplished, let the procreation begin.

I initially generated this tentative hypothesis after many years of inadvertent trial and inevitable error.  Like many people, I’ve caught my fair share of colds and flu-like illnesses as I’ve stumbled through life.  Although I have known for years that paper currency is a well-known vector for the spread of infectious disease, I wasn’t always fastidious about cleaning my hands after handling money.  I made a point of washing before meals, but hadn’t really considered other points of entry.  Then, gradually, I somehow started to notice that shortly after handling money my body began to itch in places that didn’t otherwise usually itch: my eyes.  My nose.  My ears.  I had also started to notice a correlation between scratching those itches and subsequent nagging illness.  That second observation was not particularly surprising: it was easy to believe that my dirty fingers had transmitted disease. But the first part of the equation –the itch itself– seemed too much of a coincidence.  I’m itching after handling money, but not before?  What’s up with that?

...with apologies to Johathon Rosen

…with apologies to Johathon Rosen

I knew about the body’s electrical field because I’ve often used its potential to coax balky fluorescent lights to life: the micro-jolt of voltage from a bare finger applied to the metal casing of a fluorescent fixture is sometimes enough to spark the light into action when the ballast and starter can’t do the job alone.  So I thought of the possibility that disturbances in the field’s uniformity might be perceived by its inhabitant as some kind of uncomfortable sensation.  Like an itch, perhaps.

Correlation, of course, is not causation.  But it’s good enough for government work, as they say at the CDC.  My training as an intell analyst allowed me to use reasonable suspicion as the basis of my tentative judgement; I needn’t strain for proof beyond a shadow of doubt.   Medical research has higher standards (and properly so).  It will take a lot more data beyond an n of 1 to convincingly make the case that microbial manipulation of bioelectric fields is actually occurring, let alone demonstrating the mechanism that’s being used.  So consider this an open call to all aspiring biologists currently entering junior high school:  by the time you graduate with a university degree and begin a career in medical research, this off-the-wall hypothesis will still be awaiting your definitive refutation –or, perhaps, your novel prize-winning proof.

See you in Stockholm!

 

Roamin’ Holiday

August 17, 2014

Pope Francis is wrapping up his visit to Korea.  Here’s a quick recap of his core message to Northeast Asians:

  1. Please stop fighting and killing each other.
  2. Please be (much) less money-hungry and materialistic.
  3. Pseudo-Marxists needn’t fear Christians.  See points 1 & 2 above.
  4. Pray for (rather than prey upon) each other.  See points 1 & 2 above.

And now some thousand-word pictures that can relate volumes more than text alone …

Francis_PGH_20140814

Francis looks at the honor guard’s M-16s with an expression of sadness and distaste.  Park Geun-hye gloats.

 

Francis_PGH_20140813

Notice the kowtowing barbarian emissaries in the Chosun-dynasty screen painting directly above the Pope’s head? Despite his Italian heritage, (or perhaps because of it) he’s considered South American by South Korea’s foreign ministry functionaries.  But remember:  Francis knows that Park Geun-hye was hooking up with her boy toy –for seven hours– while the Sewol ferry capsized and sank.

 

Park Won-soon_Copenhagen_20140812

Why is the mayor of Seoul cycling in Copenhagen while Francis visits Korea?  So that he doesn’t have to be part of Park Geun-hye’s cynical political circus show. And perhaps for ideological reasons.

Flourishing Western Gateway

August 16, 2014

On August 10, way back when, the Roman who became St. Lawrence was martyred by roasting his naked body over an open fire.  Why? Because his refusal to conform to the religious cult practices and cultural norms of Roman society constituted a challenge to the existing Imperial order.  The Christian message asserted that all men –including slaves– were equal in the eyes of God, and that all could attain eternal life in salvation.  But Rome depended on slave labor, and the luxuries its 1% citizens enjoyed had long been furnished by millions of enslaved war captives.  So it shouldn’t be too surprising that the regime preservation functionaries of Imperial Rome feared this new Christian cult as an existential threat to the divinely-ordained Roman way of life.  Patrician and plebian citizens above, slaves below: thus had the hierarchy always been, and thus it must remain forever more.

credit: future Pulitzer Prize winner

credit: future Pulitzer Prize winner

More than a decade ago, I was in a project-planning meeting with a dozen or so members of the Praetorian Guard when a deeply unpopular high-ranking officer entered the room to provide “commander’s intent” for our project.  As part of his pep talk, seeking to create a bond of camaraderie that could overcome the atmosphere of distrust permeating the room, he remarked:

“You know, being a cop is the best job in the world.  There is no other profession in America where you can take another person’s life and not go to jail.”  He went on to say that being entrusted with protecting the lives of people in our community is a tremendous responsibility and something that we should all be proud of.

I heard another message –a subtext– behind his exhortation.  It was not just an admission, but actually a boast, that he had himself taken another person’s life “in the line of duty” and (obviously, given his rank) had suffered no consequences.  In some ways, it was also a threat: letting a roomful of hostile cops know that he had no compunctions about killing another human being.

This man is by no means unique in the profession.  Some people start out that way and others “grow” into the mindset.  Police training in the legal use of physical force emphasizes that deadly force is justified only when the officer is legitimately in fear for his/her life, or when the life of another person is in jeopardy.  When a rookie officer first graduates from the police academy, the mental bar against use of deadly force is relatively high.  But that threshold barrier of mortal fear can gradually begin to sink lower and lower, eroded by the frequent irritants, recurrent tension and repeated confrontation that inexorably accumulate during hours-days-weeks-months-years on patrol.

The fear is reinforced by “officer safety training” that reenacts scenarios from around the country –or around the globe– in which other cops have been attacked and killed.  Information-sharing “fusion centers” routinely disgorge a tainted torrent of effluvial threat warnings blended from unequal portions of fact, speculation, inaccuracies, and exaggeration.  Gradually, the officer forms a mental image –a schema– of his environment, one that is characterized by isolation, personal vulnerability, pervasive threats, and insidiously diverse adversary capability.  R = V + (C + I)

(Mis)Reading Intent

Which brings us to (hostile) intent, the mother of threat and thus the evil stepmother of mortal risk.

To a beleaguered cop who sees himself as just barely afloat in a raging sea of troubles, accurate evaluation of potential hostile intent is the crucial key to personal risk assessment.  The simplest heuristic for performing that evaluation is the “mirror test:”  if someone looks like me and behaves like me, he’s less likely to be hostile.  It’s a subconscious/unconscious cognitive process that most humans routinely employ on a daily basis, even in the least threatening environments.  This primitive IFF subroutine has been in continuous use by our species for a long, long time –and it’s probably not unique to the human race.  So, however much we might deplore its social and cultural consequences, the IFF mirror is often a significant component of many human interactions.

At this point, I could digress into a protracted discussion of the self and “the other” … and/or Foucault’s theory of policing as elaborated by any number of left-leaning French philosophers. Instead, it’s probably best to leave the last word(s) to America’s Finest New Source™, The Onion.  Their “Tips For Being An Unarmed Black Teen” include these gems:

  • Avoid swaggering or any other confident behavior that suggests you are not completely subjugated.
  • Try to see it from a police officer’s point of view: You may be unarmed, but you’re also black.
  • Revel in the fact that by merely existing, you exert a threatening presence [looming] over the nation’s police forces.

 

Southern Buryatia

August 6, 2014

My most recent Russian dream featured a pleasant excursion in the wooded, hilly terrain of southern Buryatia.  Narrow dirt lanes wound along the slopes above remote, shallow valleys covered in scrubby forest that was punctuated by the occasional bog.  At least three other people were in the car with me, but they were people I’ve never (yet) met:  no familiar names or faces.

Buryat_dreamscape

At one point, we got out of the car to explore a marshy pond where huge, iridescent birch logs floated amid lilypads and other aquatic plants.  Or maybe they weren’t exactly birch logs, because the trunks’ bole was at least 3 feet in diameter and there was a somewhat metallic character to the sheen of the birchbark.  We walked on some of the logs, but no one started a birling contest.

And then … in the way that dreams have, things changed.  Small gaps in the surface of the forest floor showed us that beneath our feet there were manmade subterranean chambers hidden in the earth.  A closer look revealed that these underground rooms contained scattered pieces of obsolete machinery and miscellaneous spare parts.  No instruction manuals, no warning signs in Cyrillic characters, just discarded objects.

Back at the side of the road, wondering what we’d actually seen, a stranger materialized from pretty much the middle of nowhere.  He wore nondescript clothing, but had a hairstyle that was unusual –even by Russian (or Buryat) standards– and basically indescribable outside the dreamworld.  It was he who remarked, simply, “southern Buryatia.”

Buryatiya_arms