Monday, May 26, 2008

Holiday Link Dump - Genes, Smart Drugs, Politics, and More

I have a bad habit of opening up a bazillion tabs in Firefox with articles I might want to blog about, but never getting around to doing it. I need 36 hour days and 10 day weeks or something, and that's just the extra time I want for reading.

Anyway, here are a few tasty links that might interest you, or not.

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What Genes Remember, from Prospect.
In 1942, Conrad Waddington coined the term "epigenetics" to describe this idea that an organism's experience may cause its genes to behave (or "express themselves") differently. Scientists have found striking examples of epigenetic behaviour in the animal kingdom—in the way, for example, honeybee larvae "decide" whether to become queens or workers depending upon their interaction with other larvae and the environment.

Until recently, it was assumed that the impact of epigenetics was confined to individual organisms, and was not passed on to their offspring. Epigenetics was thought of as the cross-talk between genes and environment, giving individuals some adaptive capability in their lifetimes, but not beyond. Recently, though, scientists have become convinced that there is a form of inheritance, called epigenetic inheritance, in which the behaviour of genes in offspring is affected by the life experience of parents. Furthermore, these epigenetic changes can, at least for a small minority of genes, extend beyond immediate offspring to further generations, although the effects do not appear to last indefinitely. This discovery has a number of potential implications, both good and bad. On the one hand, it may give renewed impetus to health authoritarians and revive the discredited theory of Lamarckism (the idea that how we live alters our genes). On the other hand, it could provide scientists with the means to fill in important gaps in the story of evolution.
I personally think this is one of the most important and exciting discoveries in biology in my lifetime. It might suggest that DNA interacts with the environment in ways no one imagined, and in doing so can shape evolution my means other than random mutations and survival of the fittest. I've posited one possible theory for this (here and here).

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All on the mind, from The Economist.

FOR thousands of years, people have sought substances that they hoped would boost their mental powers and their stamina. Leaves, roots and fruit have been chewed, brewed and smoked in a quest to expand the mind. That search continues today, with the difference only that the shamans work in pharmaceutical laboratories rather than forests. If asked why, the shamans reply that they are looking for drugs to treat the effects of Alzheimer's disease, attention-deficit disorder, strokes, and the dementias associated with Parkinson's disease and schizophrenia—and that is the truth. But by creating compounds that benefit the sick, they are offering a mental boost to the healthy, too.

Such drugs are known as cognition enhancers. They work on the neural processes that underlie such mental activities as attention, perception, learning, memory, language, planning and decision-making, usually by altering the balance of the chemical neurotransmitters involved in these processes. This week a report* from the Academy of Medical Sciences, a British learned society, says that a large number of such brain-affecting drugs are likely to emerge over the next few decades. Sir Gabriel Horn, a researcher at Cambridge University who chaired the group that produced the report, reckons that scientists are working on more than 600 drugs for neurological disorders.

Here's another (related) story also from The Economist, Smart Drugs.

The new cognition-enhancing drugs are designed to treat debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer's, attention-deficit disorder and schizophrenia. But because they act deep in neural pathways of the brain, some of them are bound also to enhance people's power to think and learn (see article). Such drugs will inevitably be used by healthy people too. That is the lesson from medicines such as Ritalin (methylphenidate) and Provigil (modafinil), which are now widely used “off label” to boost performance, as Nature has found. When the British journal asked its scientifically aware readers earlier this year, one in five of those who answered said they had used such drugs non-medically, to help them concentrate or learn.

For many, drug is a four-letter word. Unapproved use is at best worrying and unfair, and at worst dangerous and immoral. Such thinking leads to strict controls or even prohibition and criminalisation. In Britain, for instance, Ritalin is a class B drug. Yet strict controls would be both futile and wrong.

Futile, because if people really want medicines, they can easily get hold of them. Nature's drug users procured their stashes from prescriptions from doctors or over the internet. As anyone with an e-mail address knows, the difficulty is not scarcity, but keeping the offers for Viagra, real or fake, at bay.

And wrong because such drugs promise to do a lot of good. Many people already use Provigil to cope with night-shift work, jet lag and lack of sleep, and suffer few side-effects. Others use beta-blockers to overcome the anxiety and stress of performance. Scientists use off-label drugs to increase their focus. If that helps them unravel the mysteries of the universe, so much the better. If chemical assistance can help increase the useful human lifespan, the benefits could be huge.

I have no issues with performance enhancing drugs of any kind. But while we know the side effects of long-term steroid use, we know little about the long-term effects of cognitive enhancers like Provigil or Ritalin. Is anyone monitoring these people's livers or hormone levels, or how about blood pressure and glucose tolerance? You can't mess with one system in the body without indirectly impacting many others.

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The American Left: McGovern, Obama, and ‘transformative’ change, from In These Times.

One of the most common complaints among progressives is that we don’t have a vision of how to actually change the world.

But to paraphrase Marx, it seems to me that our goal shouldn’t be to just change the world (especially given the abuse of the word “change” in the current election cycle). Instead we ought to transform it.

And in fact, in recent months, the word “transformative” has been popping up with some frequency - usually in reference to Barack Obama.

Is there any truth to this claim, or should we just chalk it up to hyperbole? Certainly if Obama is elected, he would steer America in a fundamentally different direction than Bush has taken us these past eight years. And the fact that Obama would be the first black president in American history could result in a transformative shift in the way that our nation deals with racial issues. But if we look at the likely contours of an Obama administration in comparison to, say, Bill Clinton’s eight years in office, can we reasonably expect that Obama might be a “transformative” president?

Apart from Obama’s views on NAFTA and other free-trade agreements – which are more enlightened than President Clinton’s were — the modest nature of his economic program simply doesn’t offer convincing evidence that the Illinois senator would be all that different from Clinton (either Clinton for that matter) when it comes to running the economy or setting the nation’s spending priorities. Similarly, Obama has given little indication that his foreign policy would differ significantly from either Bill Clinton’s or George H.W. Bush’s (whose foreign policy Obama recently praised).

Turns out that Obama's version of "transformation" does not even compare to McGovern's vision back in 1972.

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From The American Prospect, The Appeasement Paradox.

George W. Bush, never one to miss an opportunity for a partisan cheap shot, decided last week that a Knesset speech to mark the 60th anniversary of Israel's independence was an appropriate moment to smack Barack Obama around a bit. Specifically, Bush compared Obama's view that it might make sense to enter into some good-faith negotiations with Iran to the actions of those who appeased Hitler prior to World War II. John McCain couldn't resist chiming in: "There have been appeasers in the past, and the president is exactly right, and one of them is Neville Chamberlain."

Thus we plunge once again into an incoherent line of argument the American right has employed for decades. Of course, back in the 1930s when there was actual appeasement happening in Europe, American conservatives weren’t complaining. But after the war, conservatives started flinging the accusation willy-nilly. Franklin Roosevelt was said to have sold freedom down the river to Stalin at the Yalta conference, General Douglas MacArthur criticized Harry Truman for waging a limited war in Korea and sought to move to all-out battle between the United States and the combined forces of the USSR and China. Barry Goldwater deemed the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis appeasement, and Ronald Reagan termed the SALT II arms-control treaty signed by the Carter administration appeasement. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton was regularly accused of appeasing China.

Nor have Republicans been immune to the charge. When Dwight Eisenhower, having wisely sidelined the far-right elements of the GOP that wanted to "roll back" communism agreed to a meeting with Nikita Khruschev, William F. Buckley Jr. deemed it "an act of diplomatic sentimentality which can only confirm Khruschev in the contempt he feels for the dissipated morale of a nation far gone." Indeed, as Peter Scoblic has noted, even Reagan wasn't immune to the charge, facing allegations from his right flank of appeasing the Soviets after he embraced arms control and negotiated the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Needless to say, none of the oft-forecast dire consequences of appeasement flowed from any of these incidents.

In part, this is all political opportunism, but on other levels it reflects a fundamental conservative misapprehension of how the world works.

This is a good article and an important one. We are well past the time in our history when we could afford to simply not negotiate with rogue nations. The only way we diffuse their power is to bring them into the international community in such a way that they must be responsible citizens.

Take China as an example. It needs foreign trade to fuel its growth. And while it tends to ignore international pressure when possible, it eventually agreed to talk with the Tibetan government in exile. Same thing with Vietnam -- bringing them into WTO changed their policies quite a bit. I think the same thing is possible with Iran.

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From Ovi, Philo of Alexandria on the Soul and Universal Truth.

Philo of Alexandria, also known as Philo Judaeus or Philo Alexandrinus, is perhaps the most intriguing of the classical philosophers, for he is something of a maverick comparable in modern times to Emmanuel Levinas. Like Levinas, he was a Jew by both birth and upbringing and had a thorough knowledge of both Greek culture and Jewish culture which he could masterfully navigate and synthesize. We owe it to the early Christian theologians if some of his works have come down to us. Most of them are philosophical essays dealing with important themes of biblical thought but also describing his views on the subject.

Interesting essay on a man I knew nothing about.

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From Harper's, The Colbertian Guide to Foreign Policy Coverage.
“Here’s how it works,” said Stephen Colbert during his famous appearance at the White House Correspondents Dinner, describing the rules for covering the President. “The President makes decisions. He’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type.” Turns out that’s a pretty good guide to foreign news coverage as well.

One of the most flagrant cases of electoral theft in recent memory is taking place in plain view, and the American media–so righteous in its support for democracy and clean government–can’t be bothered to mention it. Just a few weeks ago, as I reported here, voters went to the polls in Equatorial Guinea, the pro-American, oil-rich nation led for the past 29 years by Brigadier General Teodoro Obiang Nguema.

“Equatorial Guinea’s ruling party has overwhelmingly won parliamentary elections, reducing the opposition presence in the 100-member assembly to just one seat from the previous two, electoral officials said on Tuesday,” according to a Reuters brief. “In the municipal elections also held on May 4, the [ruling party] and its allies obtained 319 councillor seats, while the opposition won 13…Observers say the national assembly is seen as little more than a rubber stamp for presidential decisions, and often as a vehicle for political patronage and personal enrichment.”

My colleague Taimur Khan reviewed major American press coverage of the sham vote in Equatorial Guinea since the balloting was held more than two weeks ago. Here’s the note he sent me yesterday:

I searched LexisNexis for “Equatorial Guinea” and elections, and nothing from the American press was found. The VOA was the only news outlet to feature anything at all. I also searched the websites of the big papers; the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, and the Chicago Tribune and found nothing.

Meanwhile, forests have been clear-cut to provide the newsprint needed by the American media to cover the spring elections in Zimbabwe, where the indisputably awful government of Robert Mugabe worked to steal the recent voting but still lost its parliamentary majority, and where the presidential outcome is still in doubt.

Further proof -- as if we need more -- that the mainstream media in this country just plain sucks.

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Finally, from The Weekly Standard, Agenbites.

Thwart. Yes, thwart is a good word. Thwarted. Athwart. A kind of satisfaction lives in such words--a unity, a completion. Teach them to a child, and you'll see what I mean: skirt, scalp, drab, buckle, sneaker, twist, jumble. Squeamish, for that matter. They taste good in the mouth, and they seem to resound with their own verbal truthfulness.

More like proper nouns than mere words, they match the objects they describe. Pickle, gloomy, portly, curmudgeon--sounds that loop back on themselves to close the circle of meaning. They're perfect, in their way. They're what all language wants to be when it grows up.

Admittedly, some of this comes from onomatopoeia: words that echo the sound of what they name. Hiccup, for instance, and zip. The animal cries of quack and oink and howl. The mechanical noises of click and clack and clank. Chickadees, cuckoos, and whip-poor-wills all get their names this way. Whooping cranes, as well, and when I was little, I pictured them as sickly birds, somehow akin to whooping cough.

And yet, that word akin--that's a good word, too, though it lacks even the near-onomatopoeia of percussion and lullaby, or the ideophonic picture-drawing of clickety-clack and gobble. The words I'm thinking of are, rather, the ones that feel right when we say them: accurate expressions, somehow, for themselves. Apple, for instance, has always seemed to me the perfect name--a crisp and tanged and ruddy word.

If you like words and language at all, be sure to read the whole essay -- it's great.

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