Friday, April 20, 2018

The Shock that Still Resonates

It's been nineteen years since the Columbine school mass-shooting, and the pain is still palpable. For nineteen years, there's been a lot of talk, but no action, regarding mass-shootings, and one got the sense that people were feeling helpless in the face of pervasive gun culture and a powerful gun lobby. The pain, the shock, the loss still reverberate, but kids who weren't even born when the massacre took place have decided to push back with a series of school walkouts throughout the country. This walkout has received support from several VIPs.

The student movement against gun violence keeps gaining momentum, these teenagers who have never lived in a world in which mass school shootings were unknown are displaying a wisdom and a courage that previous cohorts of teenagers weren't able to muster on such a scale. Being organized, being righteous, being savvy, these kids are going to accomplish something transformative- I predict some amazing things from this generation and I am profoundly grateful.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Death of a Real News Titan

On Sunday, I wrote a piece about the death of a fake news man, so it's appropriate to write about the death of a real newsman- we lost NPR's Carl Kasell last Tuesday. I have long been a fan of Carl Kasell, the consummate news anchor... the serious, unflappable reporter with the deep, well-modulated voice and the perfect sense of gravitas. The man was also extremely funny, as his tenure on Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me proved- his chemistry with Peter Sagal was genuine.

Carl Kasell was one of the greats- he was level-headed and trustworthy, he never sensationalized the news, he was a steadying force in times of tragedy, who just happened to have comedic flair when it was appropriate. Here's a great interview with Mr Kasell:

It's been a while since I've spent a Saturday morning with Mr Kasell, but he was always good company.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Dowager Dies

The death of Barbara Bush at the age of 92 has dominated the airwaves today, and the hagiography has been nauseating. The coverage of her death is glossing over just how horrible Babs was. Her comment on Good Morning America two days before her son's disastrous attack on the innocent people of Iraq is about as repulsive as a statement can be:

But why should we hear about body bags and deaths, and how many, what day it's gonna happen, and how many this or that or what do you suppose? Or, I mean, it's not relevant. So, why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that, and watch him suffer?

Yeah, why concern yourself with contemplating the hell that your idiot son is going to rain on some poor brown people half a world away? Hell, those benighted barbarians don't count as people, none of them has ever been Junior League material!

Almost as repulsive as that quote was her statement on Marketplace regarding the post Katrina evacuees hunkered down in the Houston Astrodome:

What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.

This statement was completely dehumanizing, characterizing people who had lost loved ones, who had lost family homes which represented their sole intergenerational wealth, who had been forced to flee from their vibrant city, their incredibly rich culture, as a bunch of lucky duckies. I suspect that Babs, in an unguarded moment, would have told anyone near enough to hear that black people don't feel pain like white people do.

I know that the cliche is to not speak ill of the dead, but this is a copout- awful people shouldn't be given a pass just because they croak. Barbara Bush wasn't the saintly matron being portrayed in the media, and being one of those liberals (cursed to remember things), I won't give her a pass. I'm just glad that she stuck around long enough to watch her favorite son get his ass whipped by a vulgar boob, and the political party that she was affiliated with degenerate from a patrician enterprise to a den of cretins and thugs. Of course, being a Bush, she wouldn't have been disturbed by the Nazis in the Republican Party.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Oh, the Lewd Hannity?

Perhaps the greatest source of schadenfreude is the revelation that a moral scold is guilty of behavior that doesn’t jibe with the code of conduct he claims to espouse. That being said, it was a real hoot to learn that Fox’s Sean Hannity is a client of Trump’s incompetent ‘fixer’, Michael Cohen:

Given Cohen’s portfolio as a conduit for hush money payments to porn stars, it would be irresponsible not to speculate why Hannity would need to avail himself of his services. The funniest take on it that I have read was the suggestion that Seannie had a tryst with Milo Yabbadabbadopolous.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Fake News Juggernaut Dies

Fittingly, purveyor of paranormal and paranoiac misinformation Art Bell died on Friday the 13th. Bell was the originator of the syndicated Coast-to-Coast AM radio show, which began in 1992 as yet another right-leaning AM radio talk show, but quickly moved into paranormal subjects, such as Bigfoot, UFOs, psychic ability, and other exemplars of WOO! Until recently, I thought that Bell pioneered the late night weird radio format, but it turns out that he largely took the schtick of John Nebel, a late-night radio host who broadcast tales from crazy people from the 1950s to the 1970s. Bell took the Nebel model and ran with it, far.

As someone who has long worked an unconventional schedule, I have to confess that I have on occasion hate-listened to 'late night Sasquatch radio'- I am a fan of weird pulp fiction, and Bell's guests were spinning yarns that they, unfortunately, tried to pass off as true. Bell played straight man to the various lunatics that he invited to the public airwaves- he maintained a neutral pose: certainly not skeptical, but not particularly credulous. While he took calls from random weirdos with bizarre narratives, many of his guests were well-known weirdos such as UFO encounter auteur Whitley Streiber, reactionary religious crank Malachi Martin, ancient aliens loon Erich von Däniken, and clairvoyant grifter/doomsayer Ed Dames. UFOs, demonic possession, remote viewing, cryptids, hybrids, bottomless pits, solar flare 'killshots', and killer Planet Xes- all sorts of bizarre topics were aired by Bell. Basically, anybody who cheated on their 'psionics roll' in the role-playing game we call life was a prime candidate for guest spot on 'Coast'.

A search of YouTube will uncover a plethora of full 'Coast to Coast AM' episodes, but I wouldn't torture my readers with three hour psychological onslaughts (yeah, do you really want to listen to three hours of a fake psychic trying to spy on Satan with clairvoyance?). There are a couple of shorter clips of Bell doing his thing, such as this clip of him with von Däniken:

Here's another clip of Bell receiving a call from some guy claiming to have worked at Area 51:

If you have a strong stomach for this sort of material, there's a shitton of it out there. Personally, I believe that Art Bell had a pernicious effect on our society, paving the way for such cranks and hucksters as Alex Jones and newcomer Liz Crokin. The garbage 'Ancient Aliens' content on formerly respectable cable TV channels can be laid at his feet to a large extent. He made his living peddling parsnormal pablum and paranoia, preying on the mentally ill, the misinformed, the credulous... kinda like a secular version of a particularly scammy preacher. Sure, in small doses it can be entertaining in the same fashion as the Weekly World News was entertaining, but too many people have been snookered by this sort of crap.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Wuxia Wonderland

Last Tuesday, at bar trivia, I received some fantastic news from one of my teammates- the Yonkers location of the Alamo Drafthouse will be showing one of my all-time favorite films, the 1978 Shaw Brothers classic Five Deadly Venoms. As soon as the trivia competition was over, my friend bought a bunch of tickets so we could see this film on the big screen. Five Deadly Venoms is a classic martial arts film, beginning with the dying master of the Venom Clan tasking his last student, Yang Tieh, with protecting the clan's reputation by investigating five former pupils, ascertaining whether they are using their skills for good or ill. The beginning monologue, accompanying a montage of the five 'venoms' displaying their animal-inspired fighting styles, is a classic moment in the kung fu genre:

Trained in the rudiments of the five venom styles, Yang Tieh is informed that he is no match for any of the 'venoms', so his best course of action is to determine which, if any, of the former pupils has remained righteous, and to team up with them to defeat the malfeasors. Dissembling as a smudge-faced bumpkin, he starts his investigation, which is complicated by the fact that the five deadly venoms wear animal-themed masks while they are practicing their fighting arts.

The great appeal of Five Deadly Venoms is its combination of mystery movie with martial arts action. Yang Tieh has to use his wits to suss out the situation, and risk his safety by placing his trust in one or more of his predecessors. The martial arts in the film are fantastic, with each fighter practicing a highly distinctive, outlandish style of combat, each with its strengths and vulnerabilities (the discovery of the weaknesses of the fighters is a major plot point of the film). The movie has its emotional moments, with the death of one of the 'good guys' being especially tragic and most memorable. It even has a mild political subtext, with corrupt magistrates being just as much of a scourge on society as rogue martial artists.

As often as I've seen the film, I've never seen it on the big screen before, so I am excited for the opportunity to watch it with good friends in a well-appointed theater with a good beer selection.

EDIT: It's funny how the mind works- I remembered seeing the film on the big screen before while the manager of the theater was mentioning other Shaw Brothers films- he mentioned the film Dirty Ho and I immediately recalled going to Lincoln Center in Manhattan to see this remastered version of Five Deadly Venoms. I've seen the film enough to not even recall having seen the clean print projected on a full-sized silver screen.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Secret Science Club Post Lecture Recap: Oxy Addiction, or Love is the Drug

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture featuring neurologist Dr Bianca Jones Marlin of Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute. Dr Jones Marlin was lecturing on the hormone oxytocin and its effects on child-rearing.

Dr Jones Marlin began the lecture by 'setting the mood', playing a bit of Marvin Gaye, and stating that oxytocin changes a subject's internal state, dictating the subject's behavior. Oxytocin sets the mood, effecting how parents and babies interact, how parenthood biologically occurs. Babies have a limited repertoire of responses to stimuli- their laughter or crying elicits responses from adults. To illustrate this, she showed a video of two babies laughing, then showed a video of a crying baby, commenting 'somebody let that baby cry while videotaping it', then admitted that it was her daughter (who was in the audience with the good doctor's husband).

Dr Jones Marlin studies the effects of oxytocin on mice in her laboratory. Baby mice make ultrasonic vocalizations when they are cold, or uncomfortable. These cries alert adult mice- a mother mouse will retrieve a pup and place it in the nest while virgin female mice tend to ignore or even cannibalize crying pups. Motherhood changes the response of a mouse to a pup's vocalizations, and oxytocin is the trigger.

Oxytocin is produced in the paraventricular nucleus of the brain's hypothalamus and is released by the posterior lobe of the pituitary gland. Oxytocin is released during sex (especially during orgasms), birth (uterine contractions cause the release), breast feeding, touch, and eye contact. Among prairie voles, oxytocin plays a role in monogamy- remove oxytocin and the voles sleep around. Oxytocin has also been implicated in human ethnocentrism, leading to newspaper headlines such as 'The Dark Side of Oxytocin' and 'Oxytocin/Schmoxytocin'.

Dr Jones Marlin wanted to study the hard science of oxytocin... Where does it act? When does it act? How does it change behavior? She specifically wanted to study the auditory factors, the sound cues which trigger pup retrieval in mothers and cannibalism in virgin mice. There are receptors in the auditory cortex of a mouse's brain which react to oxytocin. The left-side hearing area (corresponding to Broca's area and Wernicke's area) has double the amount of oxytocin receptors as the right-side does. This finding was an early discovery of lateralization in a non-human brain. Hormones such as oxytocin can play excitatory or inhibitory functions in cells. Dr Jones Marlin made a funny school bus analogy- excitatory hormones are the mischievous kids on the bus, riling things up, while inhibatory hormones are the quiet kids on the bus. Oxytocin is found in inhibitory neurons which regulate maternal roles. Introducing Muscimol to the left auditory cortex prevents pup retrieval by experienced mice- it makes mice into bad moms by interfering with distress messages.

After locating the region of the brain effected by oxytocin, Dr Jones Marlin wanted to find the time scale on which it operated. Oxytocin can be injected into mice, but the production of endogenous oxytocin can be induced through optogenetics- specifically, blue light can activate the release of oxytocin in transgenic mice with added DNA from marine algae. In Dr Jones Marlin's research, she stimulated oxytocin release every three hours for three days straight- she quipped that it was "a long PhD". Inducing oxytocin production in virgin mice can make them into successful 'nannies'- they will retrieve pups which make distress cries and return them to their nest.

The 'language' of the brain is electrical- the neurons speak through spikes of electrical activity. To measure this, a craniotomy is performed on a subject and a glass 'straw' is inserted- a metal probe in the straw can 'listen in' on the spiking electrical output of the neurons. Among subject mice, the neurons of the auditory cortex would spike when a recording of a pup's cries could be heard. Among mother mice, the neurons would fire at the same time when a cry was played, forming a coherent code. A naive virgin mouse has neurons that fire, but there is no encoding of a message. An experienced virgin mouse, exposed to oxytocin, learns the coherent code. Bad nannies can be made into good nannies. Neurons in the hearing area of the brains of transgenic mice can be exposed to blue light, which floods the brain with oxytocin- paired with a pup's cry, a coherent response emerges, and a subject mouse goes from a 'virgin' response to a 'mom' response. The brain knows to release oxytocin during birth- release is triggered by the uterine contractions.

Dr Jones Marlin then went on to discuss her personal reasons for studying oxytocin... In the United States, four to seven children die each day from abuse or neglect. The brains of neglected children have less white matter than the brains of well-treated children, and individuals who suffered child neglect have a life expectancy twenty years shorter than that of their well-treated peers. Dr Jones Marlin took time to thank her great parents, who cared for foster children. She was motivated by the lack of agency that her foster siblings expressed. She wanted to study how parents can be better, by studying transgenerational epigenetic inheritance.

Dr Jones Marlin's lecture was followed by a Q&A session. The first question regarded the role of oxytocin in relationships- it is released through interaction and strengthens bonds. Another question regarded post-partum depression, specifically if oxytocin could help alleviate it- more research is needed in humans. Some bastard in the audience asked if injections of oxytocin could make male mice into good nannies. The gestation period of a mouse is twenty-one days. Males will often eat pups, but twenty-one days after copulation, they will cease this behavior, but pup retrieval is exclusive to female mice. After five days of oxytocin injection with no change in behavior, the injections were stopped. At one point in her talk, Dr Jones Marlin's daughter cried out, and the good doctor joked about leaving the stage to retrieve her, but her husband soon had matters well taken care of.

Another question regarded the interaction between oxytocin and cortisol- oytocin tends to calm individuals, while cortisol is a stress hormone, but their interaction is largely unknown. Yet another question regarded the stimulation of oxytocin production, and Dr Jones Marlin stated that the best answer is "SEX!" She joked that using blue light was impractical, then wondered aloud about why red lights are used to denote the vice district (I would suspect that it's because red light tends to interfere less with night vision). Dr Jones Marlin dismissed the idea of oxytocin supplements: "I would not buy them off of Amazon." She noted that studies on autistic persons suggested that oxytocin improves eye contact, then reiterated that the best way to promote oxytocin production was to make eye contact, to look at people, to kiss, to touch, to have sex. Now, that's not only good advice, but it's good SCIENCE!

Dr Jones Marlin ended the Q&A session by noting that, as a basic biological scientist, she would be at a disadvantage listing the prosocial effects of oxytocin. She studies the biological underpinnings of behavior. She studies the mechanisms so that others can use her research to study the effects of oxytocin in autistic persons or the possible role of oxytocin in countering child abuse.

Here's a 2014 video of Dr Jones Marlin talking about her inspiration for becoming a neuroscientist, and explaining her methodology for measuring neuron activity:

Here's a cute recent video of the good doctor on a local news broadcast taking questions from laypersons on the street:

As you can tell, she is a good sport as well as being a great neuroscientist. Kudos to Dr Jones Marlin for a fantastic lecture. Thanks to Dorian and Margaret and the staff of the beautiful Bell House for presenting another great Secret Science Club event, and high fives to Dr Jones Marlin's nice husband and gorgeous baby girl for their good fortune in having such a wonderful lady in their lives.