Human microbiome transplant

Responses to Josiah Zayner’s attempt to replace his body’s bacteria are almost as interesting as the experiment itself. It seems like most of the medical community believe professional approval of one’s theory and practice is what determines therapeutic success, and not the actual measurement of physical outcomes.

Anyway, as is usual in gut flora replacement therapy, Mr. Zayner has successfully remediated his long standing intestinal problems. Genetic tests show that he is now host to a new, healthier mix of internal bacteria harvested from a friend’s feces. The rest of his homemade treatment was less successful; he was not able to completely eradicate his skin bacteria, nor was he able to prevent re-infection from his surroundings. The article is sort of simultaneously horrifying and illuminating; scientists who self-experiment are strange birds more often than not.

Evolutionary Psychology, Memes and the Origin of War

Somebody (possibly Henson himself) posted Evolutionary Psychology, Memes and the Origin of War over at Kuro5hin in 2006. I had no idea Kuro5hin still existed, and Henson’s paper could use some consideration of group selection, but anyway it’s a worthwhile and controversial read.

It seems to me that if Henson’s basic thesis is right, our current global political situation is not just eerily similar to that of the mid-1930s, it’s actually the same phenomenon – so we better get it under control.

Wrench Wednesday

Once upon a time, tractors and other farm implements came with a wrench that fit all the nuts and bolts on the machinery. Farmers being the clever and parsimonious people they are, they never paid for ten wrenches when just one would do the job! I used to find these things laying all over the place in Uncle Irving’s junkyard; now they are collector’s items.

Page from the 2015 Wrenching News fall auction

Officer Involved

Radio station KPCC has put together an impressive expose of the Los Angeles Police Department. Apparently, if you want to kill unarmed, non-violent people without fear of prosecution, the LAPD has a career option for you!

Maybe that’s why police officers are far more likely to abuse their children and partners than the rest of us – because we’re attracting and selecting the worst possible people to serve as peacekeepers? Or is it even worse than that; does police culture actually create monsters from people who honestly wanted to do good?

“The infliction of physical punishment is not every man’s job, and naturally we were only too glad to recruit men who were prepared to show no squeamishness at their task. Unfortunately, we knew nothing about the Freudian side of the business, and it was only after a number of instances of unnecessary flogging and meaningless cruelty that I tumbled to the fact that my organization had been attracting all the sadists in Germany and Austria without my knowledge for some time past. It had also been attracting unconscious sadists, i.e. men who did not know themselves that they had sadist leanings until they took part in a flogging. And finally it had actually been creating sadists. For it seems that corporal chastisement ultimately arouses sadistic leanings in apparently normal men and women. Freud might explain it.” — Rudolf Diels, as quoted in Larson’s “In the Garden of Beasts”.

Cryptic sword

British Library museum shelfmark 1858,1116.5

13th century double-edged European knightly sword, 2lb 10oz (1.2kg), 38″ (964mm) long and 6½” (165mm) across the quillons. Found in the river Witham, Lincolnshire, in July 1825, and presented to the Royal Archaeological Institute by the registrar to the Bishop of Lincoln. The blade was broken near the tip and mended “in modern times” according to the British Library website.

Said to bear an indecipherable inscription “+NDXOXCHWDRCHWDRCHDXORUN” inlaid in gold wire on one side, but to me it looks more like “+NDXOXCHWDRCHWDRCHDXORVI+”.


Morale is more often than not the difference between winners and losers.

“That’s quite clear,” murmured the O’Keefe in my ear. “Weaken the morale—then smash. I’ve seen it happen a dozen times in Europe. While they’ve got their nerve there’s not a thing you can do; get their nerve—and not a thing can they do. And yet in both cases they’re the same men.”

It seems to me that bad morale has far more effect than good… you can believe in what you’re doing and still fail, but it’s vanishingly rare for someone with low morale to succeed. To do that you have to be a certain kind of bloody-minded, unstoppable curmudgeon, as inexorable as a glacier, which isn’t nearly as easy or as much fun as being a high-spirited and confident person.

Slate shilling for GMOs

William Saletan, author of Bearing Right, has a lengthy column up on Slate explaining how purposely withholding information from common folks like me in order to fatten the coffers of giant agribusinesses is really, really totally morally OK, because Golden Rice. It makes some good points and provides lots of information, but ultimately reads like a catalog of formal logic errors papered over with pseudo-moralistic posturing.

The people who push GMO labels and GMO-free shopping aren’t informing you or protecting you. They’re using you. They tell food manufacturers, grocery stores, and restaurants to segregate GMOs, and ultimately not to sell them, because people like you won’t buy them. They tell politicians and regulators to label and restrict GMOs because people like you don’t trust the technology. They use your anxiety to justify GMO labels, and then they use GMO labels to justify your anxiety. Keeping you scared is the key to their political and business strategy.

Oh, my support for product labeling, including GMO labeling, is me using people. Because I’m the one with a profit motive? Seriously? People are supposed to believe that generic salarymen somehow magically make money by wanting labeling, and that food mega-producers are living in such abject poverty that they simply can’t afford to print meaningful labels? Really?

Wait, didn’t big corporate food producers also oppose the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, and the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act? Despite the history of food and drug regulation in the USA, we are to believe that they oppose labeling because of their inherent saintliness, and it has nothing to do with their profits? We’re supposed to take seriously claims that 21st century science is too backward and primitive to define a labeling regime that would be of any use?

GMO shills commonly ignore all the regular everyday people who just want informative labeling, and characterize their opposition as being solely composed of loony Californian anti-vaccine anti-GMO crystal worshippers. Saletan goes on from there to paint the completely amoral American food industry (despite many examples of what typical behavior is when regulation is lax) as merely timid, brownbeaten victims whose great flaw is unwillingness to force GMOs into every market.

On one side is an army of quacks and pseudo-environmentalists waging a leftist war on science. On the other side are corporate cowards who would rather stick to profitable weed-killing than invest in products that might offend a suspicious public.

After reading the entire article, I was left with the impression that Saletan is saying labels are bad, it’s just too hard to give poor people carrots, never mind that white rice is a cultural shibboleth, Chewbacca is a wookiee, and therefore you don’t need to know anything, and if we label food products so that people can make an informed choice the terrorists win. It’s exactly like global politics… or CRELM toothpaste!

RMS is online

Richard Stallman finally figured out a way to get online that was ideologically acceptable.

…he now connects to websites from his own computer – via Tor and using a free software browser. Previously, he used a complicated workaround to more or less email webpages to himself. The announcement brought a surprised gasp and a round of applause from the 300-plus attendees.

“At one point, I used to believe that the Firefox trademark license was incompatible with free software, I found out I was mistaken – it does allow the redistribution of unmodified copies,” he said.

Group dynamics and prototype theories of cognitive neuroscience

Humans are pack animals. They need to gather according to shared traits and then see an enemy of everyone who does not fit.

— Some geeky guy on Slashdot.

Computer scientists are taught classical categorization, which has little correspondence to how our brains actually categorize. The Aristotelian “necessary and sufficient” check-lists of traits, on which we’ve built giant monoliths of computer code (hello, Active Directory) and theory (hello, cladistic phylogeny) are something like the phlogiston theory; a bluntly workable model, that lets you get things done, but also fundamentally wrong, and thus a limitation on what can be understood and predicted.

Research that’s been ongoing since the 1960s or earlier, by people like Eleanor Rosch and Paul Kay, and later George Lakoff and Ronald Langacker, has provided significant amounts of data showing our brains do not assign people to us/them categories because they have a set of traits that we’ve understood and identified. In neurological reality, we assign people to categories based on how closely we think they resemble one or more prototypes, which might be real people (a group leader, typically) or an idealized belief or perception of how men and women should be. The prototype can be fixed (like, say, Jesus) or constantly changing (like, say, a political candidate).

There will always be someone in the group who least resembles the prototype, so there is always a scapegoat available if there’s not enough food or someone needs to take the blame for some unavoidable accident. There may also be anti-prototypes and whoever most resembles that person is less “in the group” than someone who is otherwise the same but lacks these correspondences with the anti-prototypes.

In a strange way this confirms one of Cipolla’s famous “basic laws of human stupidity“; since we’ve evolved a categorization method that mainly serves to quickly identify who gets thrown off the sled when the wolves are catching up, of course there will always be more than enough people to fill that role. If you need a scapegoat, you’ll always be able to identify someone as the stupid person responsible; our brains are biased to work that way.

The problem with privilege metaphors

It seems to me that we are all the recipients of unearned privilege. You were formed in the womb of your birth mother, to her great discomfort and inconvenience; and obviously nothing you did yourself made you worthy of this privilege – it was a gift, literally the gift of life itself, that you received for free. You had already been a freeloading moocher for nine months before you were even born!

But not every birth is equal. Recent research claims that poverty diminishes mental capacities from birth. It’s fairly clear that the richer your parents and community are, the more unearned privileges you will eventually enjoy – for example, the children of Barack Obama enjoy vastly more privilege than the children of impoverished Arkansas sharecroppers, or the children of impoverished Native Americans on the Res.

Right Wing radio pundits like to split common people along color lines by screaming of “black criminality” and “black on black violence”, but criminality and violence correlate far more with poverty and lack of opportunity than with any skin color. Left Wing bloggers like to split common people on color lines by screeching “white privilege” – as though privilege did not correlate with wealth, and as if there were no privileged people of color.

These talking heads, Right and Left, are of their own free will servile to the ruling class. The .001% of humanity whose titanic wealth makes them immune to law would prefer that the rest of us split on color lines, gender lines, religion, anything that will keep us from uniting. If we could put aside our differences, it might interfere with the continuing concentration of the Earth’s vast resources into fewer and fewer hands – or even reverse that trend.