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Friday, October 17, 2014

LIMITS TO LOGIC

I am tired of reading about willfully stupid humans, such as the well education and well accomplished drones at the Language Research Center at Georgia State University. For decades the LRC was mired in intellectual orthodoxy and mediocrity, investigating what you would expect and discovering what you would expect.. Then in 1982 a 2 ½ year old bonobo chimpanzee named Kanzi shattered their comfortable ethos. 
 Using American Sign language, which he had picked up from his mother, Kanzi spontaneously signed “marshmallow” and then “fire”. Given matches and marshmallows by the obliging staff, Kanzi gathered twigs, struck a match (above) and set the wood to burning. Next he jammed a stick into a marshmallow (above), which he then toasted and gleefully ate. What the humans finally learned from this “Noah Chimp-anski” was that language is not about syntax, its about communication. The revelation changed their whole scientific process...for a time.
Long after Kanzi had retired to a farm in Iowa, the humans in Atlanta appear to have fallen back into their academic lethargy, as they recently released a study indicating that apes not only think about food, but they also think about thinking about food. To the humans with degrees this is “metacognation”. As one of the two directors of the experiment explained, “There has been an intense debate in the scientific literature in recent years over whether metacognition is unique to humans.” This was the statement which convinced me that homosapians are still in search of a clue. Why didn't they just ask Kanzi? But what I really want to talk to you about is not apes, but Flouride.
 
Flouride is an isotope of the element Flourine. The nine electrons of Flourine are the hormone ravaged teenager of the periodic table, hungry to share its electrons with any other element.  It took 74 years to purify and isolate Flourine because it bonds with whatever container you put it in, corroding right through it. Even when finally isolated the pale yellow gas desperately bonds to itself – which is why it is called a diatomic. This hunger to mate made Flourine an industrial wunderkind, transferring wanted qualities from one compound to others to others. It is essential for the smelting of metals. It is the F, in CFC, once used in cooling systems. And when you hit the button on a spray can, there's still a good chance the effective material that jets out, is being carried on some isotope of Flourine.
Flouride is one of those isotopes, one electron short of its parent Flourine, making it twice as eager to bond with any available electron, even ones already happily married - as when six atoms of Florine mate with two atoms of hydrogen already bonded to a sodium atom or to a single atom of chloride. And those are the two most common chemicals, hexafluorosilicic acid and hexafluorosilicate, used in water fluoridation in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control, also in Atlanta, calls fluoridation "one of the ten great public health achievements of the 20th century.” And yet there are some humans who call it a government intrusion, and even spreading poison. To which I am inclined to respond by screeching and throwing my poo at them.
Yes, Flouride is toxic. And toxic is always bad. But remember that salt, which is vital to your survival, is made up of sodium and chlorine, both of which are extremely toxic. And drinking salt water will quickly kill you. Fresh water, on the other hand, is good for you, unless you are drowning. Sugar gives you energy, but is toxic to a diabetic. And don't even get me started about peanuts. Toxic is a level of consumption, not an absolute. Flouride is toxic in anything over moderate amounts. But at minimal levels, it is a powerful weapon against tooth decay. Areas in Colorado with naturally occurring Flouride in their drinking water had lower rates of tooth decay, which is how it occurred to medical doctors in the late 19th century to suggest adding Floride to water supplies. And stopping tooth decay turns out to also be a defence against heart attacks. It is a public health measure that costs less than a dollar a year for the average family. But try telling any of that to a libertarian, and you are liable to get a riacin tainted post card from hell. And that is what I really want to talk about – the politics of conspiracy.
Any discussion of American conspiracy theories over the last 100 years, must include a mention of Robert Henry Wineborn Welch, Jr., the North Carolina native who invented the “Sugar Daddy”, a 40 gram hunk of Carmel on a stick, 24 grams of which are sugar. The confection made Mr. Welch very rich, which predisposed him to believe anyone suggesting that sugar caused cavities must be a dirty stinking anti-capitalist. So naturally the political organization which Welch founded, “The John Birch Society”, saw fluoridation of the nation's water supply as a communist mind control plot. Lots of people wanted to believe in that conspiracy. But the only one man made millions propagating the myth was Robert Welch.
Among the 12 acolytes at the first meeting of the JBS, on December 8, 1958, was a chemical engineer from Texas named Fred Koch (above). An admirer of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, Fred was described by a family friend as “a monarch, untouchable.” Just out of college in the 1920's, he had invented a better method for cracking gasoline out of oil. But the big four oil companies drove him out of business in the United States. So Koch moved to Russia, where his built a dozen new oil refineries for Uncle Joe Stalin. While the communists made Fred rich, he also found their regulations restricting. When the Second World War forced him home, he felt much the same way about the U.S. government. Anyone who stood between Fred and what he wanted, which was money, was not merely wrong, they were evil. Fred now saw a communist hiding under every bed, and like his friend Welch, believed Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and even Eisenhower were either communist or had been duped by them..
Fred's son David admitted in 2007, “He was constantly speaking to us children about what was wrong with government.… It’s something I grew up with.” Charles Koch was told, “If you don't make it, you'll be worthless..” Says David Koch, “He could do that sort of thing so effectively." And when the old man died in 1967 while shooting ducks, he left behind a quartet of sons who felt entitled, inferior, cheated and arrogant. As a progressive writer described them, “The two middle brothers, Charles and David, are the crazy ones. The other two, Frederick and William, are the loony ones.”
David and Charles (center and right, above) took control of the family fortune, cutting William (above, left) out of the loop after he heavily invested in coal mines, which have never lived up to the Koch profitability standards. So William began decades of litigation against his two brothers. He sued over his share of a trust fund, over the sale of company stock, over a coin collection. At one point he even dragged their 87 year old mother onto the witness stand just months after she had suffered a stroke. Did I mention that William and David are twins?
If Fred is looking on from Valhalla, he must be proud of David and Charles, especially for the political groups they have founded and funded with more than $200 million, such as Americans For Prosperity, and The Tea Party. They even found a way to make William's erratic coal mine profits more dependable, by funding the global warming conspiracy movement. It was the lesson handed down by Robert Welch and his war against sugar. Many climate change critics are honestly driven, or just honestly stupid. Every “green” project stands the same chance of failure and fraud as any “non-green” business. But the only people profiting from climate change denial are Charles and David Koch. And that is not an accident.
Which brings me back to our cousins the bonobos. Another recent research paper out of Yale and Duke University “discovered” that our fellow primates “exhibit emotional responses to outcomes of their decisions by pouting or throwing angry tantrums when a risk-taking strategy fails to pay off” according to the press release. This research may be worthy of a reward for restating the obvious 
We might ask Kanzi (above) about the Koch brothers, and their risk-taking behavior, but the old boy is now retired on a farm in Des Moines, Iowa. Like Charles and David, Kanzi is the alpha male in his troop, but since bonoboos are matriarchal, his is largely a symbolic role. He spends his time constructing complex sentences complaining about his grandchildren and screwing anybody within reach, just like the Koch brothers. But in the Bonoboo world, screwing each other is a way of reducing tension. In the ethos of the Koch brothers,its a form of aggression. And that is the difference between humans and the less evolved apes. They know something we don't.
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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

WHAT'S EATING YOU?

I wonder of Superman ever has a creepy crawly moment, just before he steps into the shower, when out of the corner of his X-Ray Super vision he notices a bunch of little buggies crawling over his skin. Of course his skin is "super" and never wears out, meaning he does not support a menagerie of livestock, grazing on his desiccated flesh, like we do. And I've got to say, that makes Superman a little less Super. Because compared to your personal zoo of Dematophagoisdes pternyssinus, AKA the Mighty Dusts Mite (actually some 15 species) grazing on your body at this very moment like vast microscopic herds of minuscule buffalo, Super Villains are a minor annoyance.
Feel the sudden urge to scratch? Don’t bother; scratching just creates tiny Alps of dead skin for these buggies to feast upon. The truth is we don’t merely live on this planet; this planet also lives on us. Louis Pasture had it right; even fleas have fleas. And so do we, and so do our fleas and so do the fleas starving on the desert that must be the empty plains of Superman's flesh.
Despite their small size (three of them could fit in the period at the end of a sentence and about 42,000 of them live in every once of dust) these driven little arthropods have a massive impact, because the Dust Mite does not eat dust – ah, would that dusting had such a dedicated helpmate. Rather they feast on the 50 million flakes (about 1 ½ grams) of skin we shed each and every day. About 80 % of the “dust” you can see floating in a beam of sunlight is your own dead skin, and fodder for these microscopic herbivores. These are the bugs that give spiders the heeby-jeebies!
Our mighty mite companions also enjoy munching on hair, pollen grains, fungal spores and bacteria, as well as cigarette ash and tobacco, clothing fibers, fingernail clippings and filings, food crumbs, glue, insect parts, paint chips, salt and sugar crystals and even graphite; in short everything and anything we are, use or touch, they eat and regurgitate and re-eat and re-regurgitate, etc., etc. (Dust mites have no digestive tracts).
When you sleep (we spend about 1/3 of our lives in bed) your body and bedding is transformed into an Acaroliocal Park (acarology being the study of dust mites) which makes Michael Crichton’s "Jurassic Park" look like it had been stepped on by an Apatasaurous. As much as half the weight in your ten year old mattress could be the 10 million mites who live there and depend on you for their dinner each time you lay you down and go to sleep. Mites don’t like sunlight and they love high humidity, meaning when you climb into bed tonight they will be there to welcome you, waiting for you to exhale and pull the covers up.
They also love rugs and carpets, dusty bookshelves and dusty books and nooks and crannies on fabric covered furniture. And they are completely harmless – except that their poop and their desiccated corpses are a source of human allergies and likely a cause of asthma. During a mite’s lifetime of 3 to 4 weeks she can produce 200 times her own weight in mighty pop and leave 300 cream colored mighty mite eggs, all capable of taking your breath away. A dehumidifier helps with the allergies (dust mite populations drop at anything below 50% humidity) and regular vacuuming can help keep their populations under control. But there are studies showing that carpet or mattress shampooing or even using a Hepafilter on your vacuum cleaner merely increases the resident population because it moistens it and scatters it. 
These tiny bugs have evolved so closely with us that there are no conditions or chemicals that will kill them without doing the same thing to us. So basically, the best we can hope for in our war with dust mites is a draw, because the world of the dust mite is a familiar yet strange place where air behaves more like water and a each human hair supports an isolated ethos.
And as every Ying has its Yang, and every Superman has his Bizzaro Superman, the herbivore dust mite has engendered the family Cheyletidae, the micro-predatory dust mite, which can be 6 – 8% of the total mighty mite population. These minuscule lions and tigers and bears stalk their prey every night, even migrating with them onto and off your body, unseen and largely un-felt, pouncing with vicious crushing microscopic jaws. They are no less heartless for their lack of a heart. Some digest their food inside its own shell (something to think about the next time you eat crab) by injecting masticating juices, and some of these tiny predators even consume the shell, reducing their meals to a tiny pile of mush before consuming it.
It even seems that our current  mighty mites are the survivors of a once more varied population of “guest workers”, as was attested to by the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket, just before vespers on December 29, 1170. What was amazing was what happened to the Archbishop’s corpse, as described in Hans Zinsser’s 1935 epic book, “Rats, Lice and History”, beginning with Zinsser’s description of the dead Archbishop’s robes of office. 
When he was murdered Becket was wearing, “…a large brown mantle; under it, a white surplice; below that, a lamb’s wool coat; then another woolen coat; and a third woolen coat below this; under this, there was the black, …robe of the Benedictine Order; under this, a shirt; and next to the body, a curious hair-cloth, covered with linen.” 
As Becket’s corpse grew cold the successive layers of robes also cooled, and all the little creatures that had been living within the folds and pleats started looking for a new home. Wave after wave of various fleas, ticks, spiders, pincher bugs, and other creatures flowed out from the corpse, “…like water in a simmering cauldron” producing in the hushed mourners gathered in the dim cathedral, “…alternate weeping and laughter…’”. Those Saxons; they sure knew humor when they saw it, skittering across the blood stained marble floor. And the unseen mites must have been far more numerous and just as desperate to find their meal ticket suddenly giving then the cold shoulder.
 Not only did the dead Becket popularize the hair shirt, but his corpse offered an abject lesson in the realty of life before the invention of the water heater. Without easy access to warm water people tended not to bathe. And that made them much more intimate with their pests and parasites than we of the hygienic era. But despite our best efforts we still live with the mighty Dust Mite. In fact, if you listen very carefully, you can probably hear them marching across your flesh right now, and everything you touch during an average day, looking for a snack.
Sleep tight, and don't let the dust mites bite. And Trick or Treat and bon appetit.
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