Thursday, March 08, 2018


You've arrived at your current political stance through a thoughtful integration of your family values, personal experience, education, moral development, and social and economic observations, right?

Not very likely, implies new research about the relationship between how people react to body odors and their politics. If you are disgusted by smells such as sweat or urine, you may very well be drawn to authoritarian political leaders like Donald Trump.

 Trump shows his disgust

Remember Trump's reaction to Hillary Clinton's bathroom break during the last Democratic debate?

“I know where she went, it’s disgusting, I don’t want to talk about it. No, it’s too disgusting. Don’t say it, it’s disgusting . . ."

I have no way of knowing if Trump's frequent verbal and facial expressions of disgust--at women, immigrants, minorities, blood, sweat, breastfeeding, people eating, babies, reporters, weakness and who knows what else, are genuine or feigned. But either way, he knows his audience.

Evidence for a link between finding body odors repugnant and authoritarian politics and despotic leadership comes from a series of studies carried out by researchers in Sweden and Greece. They used a carefully designed set of questions to measure the degree to which online participants reported being disgusted by scenarios involving exposure to other people's bad breath, sweat, urine, feces, etc.--their Body Odor Disgust Sensitivity (BODS). 

The researchers also measured participants' authoritarian attitudes on a 15-question Right-Wing Authoritariansm scale (RWA). As the following item from the scale indicates, it taps into desire for a strong leader, support for traditional values, and a punitive attitude towards "others" perceived as a threat:

"Our country desperately needs a mighty leader who will do what has to be done to destroy the radical new ways and sinfulness that are ruining us."

Two separate studies showed a statistically significant link between body odor disgust sensitivity and authoritarianism--desire for a strong leader and traditional values plus a punitive stance towards threatening "others." A third study found a similar link between BODS scores and support for Trump, who was then just a candidate.

Interestingly for those who are still struggling to understand exactly whom Trump appealed to and why, the correlation between BODS and authoritarianism was strong enough to fully explain the link between BODS and support for Trump.

The implication is that, real or feigned, Trump's frequent and emphatic expressions of disgust at a wide variety of targets mirrored, authorized and amplified similar feelings among many Americans--and perhaps got them all the way to the voting booth.

The researchers hypothesize that this link may represent an exaggerated expression of a kind of social immune system--a reflex to avoid potential contamination. They write:

"From a behavioural immune system perspective, prejudice can be seen as a social
discriminatory behaviour partly motivated by the fact that pathogens represent an invisible
threat, and individuals with high levels of disgust sensitivity might be more likely to avoid
foreign people, and to promote policies that avoid the contact with them, because they are
perceived as potentially spreading unfamiliar pathogens, different hygienic or food habits."

They say that forewarned is forearmed. So the next time you see a politician making a disgusted face or voicing his or her disgust towards some other person or group, it might be time to step back, hold your nose, and realize that someone is trying hard to bypass your brain and send a message that goes straight from your nose to your finger pushing a "DONATE" button on your screen or a "VOTE" button in the voting booth.

Politics may stink, but we don't have to let the smells push our buttons, or determine which buttons we push.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018


As followers of know from previous posts, I'm enthralled by the goal of not just treating or curing diseases, but eradicating them entirely.

Among human diseases, smallpox was the first to be wiped away, with the last case of a natural infection by this once devastating scourge occurring in October, 1977.

Polio, a paralyzing and sometimes fatal disease that struck down more than 500,000 people per year, most of them children, as recently as the 1940s and '50s, will hopefully be the next to go. Starting with the development of the Salk inactivated virus vaccine in the early 1950s and the Sabin attenuated virus oral vaccine in the early 1960s, polio has been eradicated in country after country, continent after continent through massive, sustained and often extremely difficult public-health efforts.

 An infant receives the oral polio vaccine at a mobile clinic in Afghanistan, February 15, 2017
Credit: World Health Organization (WHO)/ S.Ramo

So far this year, there have been only three cases of polio diagnosed worldwide, all in war-torn Afghanistan. In other words, the wild polio virus that once circulated freely throughout the world, has now been caged and almost completely destroyed, and now may only hang on in one small corner of one country.

It will still take intense surveillance and continued mass vaccination programs to strike the final blow against this deadly disease and ensure that it does not flare up anywhere every again.

But the world is so very close. What an accomplishment it will be.


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Tuesday, February 27, 2018


I maintain a computer file with hundreds of scientific articles about the effects of toxic substances on children.

Arsenic and lead in drinking water. Pesticides and other Persistent Organic Pollutants in the air we breathe, clothing, furniture, building materials, you name it. Some common drugs taken during pregnancy. Hormones and endocrine disrupting chemicals in food, plastics, toys, just about anything that could go into a child's mouth. Chemicals used in fracking that get into the air and water. Fire retardants, fungicides, and many other classes of chemicals. Not to mention the impact of the cocktail of these chemicals that many people carry in their bodies, in breast milk, in their blood.

 Credit: DES Daughter

These articles detail the impacts of these toxins on developing children still in the womb, on infants, children, teenagers (and adults too). Autism, attention deficits, abnormal brain activity, birth defects, impaired sleep, impaired learning, reduced IQ, disruptions in the reproductive system, infertility, obesity, cancer, breathing problems, kidney and liver damage--all of these and many more impairments and diseases have been linked to various chemicals that find their way into our children's bodies.

Like research on smoking decades ago and on climate change now, much of this research is controversial or marginalized. The suspect chemicals have important uses in agriculture, energy production, medicine, and many other activities, and add billions of dollars to the economy and to the bottom lines of giant corporations. The companies that manufacture and sell these substances are strongly motivated to keep selling them, and are willing to spend huge sums to question, hide or suppress research that threatens their bottom line, carry out or fund research aimed at sowing doubt about such threatening findings; and in many cases demean or threaten researchers who are brave enough to research these links.

Still, this body of research has been used by governments around the world, and by the US, to develop legislation to ban some of the most deadly chemicals, reduce and control the use of many others, and protect the health of children and adults.

In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been one of the major sources of funding for research on the impacts of known or potential toxins, through its National Center for Environmental Research (NCER). The NCER funded millions of dollars of research on the risks to children from potentially dangerous substances. Until now, that is.

Trump's appointee to head the EPA, Scott Pruitt, has decided to kill the NCER, as announced on February 26, 2018. The gutting of the program is couched as an efficiency measure, but is in line with Trump and Pruitt's goals of reducing regulations and risks for corporations, unfortunately at the expense of America's children.

In 1965, comedian Tom Lehrer satirized the extent of pollution that Americans were then being exposed to in the song "Pollution" on his album That Was the Year That Was. The song opens with:

If you visit American cith
You will find it very pretty
Just two things of which you must beware:
Don't drink the water and don't breath the air!

The EPA was created five years later, in December of 1970. Over the years, it did a lot to clean up America's polluted rivers, lakes, industrial sites, cities and skies. However, under Trump and Pruitt, we seem to be turning back the clock to those bad old days, when, as Lehrer concluded:

So go to the city, see the crazy people there
Like lambs to the slaughter
They're drinking the water
And breathing the air

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Advanced Artificial Intelligence--Friend or Foe

When I learned last December that AlphaZero, an artificial intelligence developed by Google subsidiary DeepMind, had soared from a completely "blank slate" to superhuman play in Chess, Go, and Shogi (a Japanese variant of chess) in a matter of hours, just by playing against itself, I realized that artificial intelligence is advancing far faster than most of us realize, and to superhuman, and potentially dangerous levels of capability.

You can read my description of AlphaZero's explosive mastery of Chess, Shogi and Go on OpEdNews or from an earlier post on zerospinzone.

AlphaZero's prowess led me do a lot of reading and research about the pace of AI progress, especially in the rapidly advancing areas of deep learning by deep neural networks.

 Image from the mind of Google's Deep Dream Generator
Credit: Robert Adler and DeepDreamGenerator

What I found out is that it's much worse than I thought.

Multiple groups worldwide are researching and developing increasingly powerful AI agents. These artificial intelligences have already surged past humans in many specific areas--not just games, but face and pattern recognition, medical diagnostics, reading comprehension, drug discovery and many other areas. Looming just ahead are AIs that will be smarter--possibly many times smarter--than any human in every important area. Not to mention super-intelligent AIs that can design and create other AIs that are still smarter, leading to an "intelligence explosion" whose impacts are impossible to predict.

As several of the experts who have looked into this most deeply have pointed out, less intelligent species--think chimpanzees, gorillas or our close cousins the Neanderthals--typically don't fare well once a more intelligent species emerges. Hmmm.

A few farsighted individuals and groups have started to look into "the control problem"--how we might be able to create superhuman-but-friendly AIs, agents that have our best interests at heart even as they grow smarter and smarter. This turns out to be an extremely challenging problem. Meanwhile, hundreds of much better funded research groups are rushing ahead without giving the risks from the AIs they are developing much if any thought.

If you would like to look into this potential existential risk a but further, here are some resources:

Center for the Study of Existential Risk (Cambridge, UK):

Deep dreaming: (site where you can create your own “deep dreams.”


DeepMind Ethics and Society research group:

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky:

     “Artificial Intelligence as a Positive and Negative Factor in Global Risk” (2008)
      Can be downloaded at:

Future of Humanity Institute (Oxford):

Future of Life Institute (Boston/Cambridge):

The 23 Asilomar AI Principles:

James Barrat: Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era (2015)

Machine Intelligence Research Institute, MIRI (Berkeley):

Nick Bostrom:

     Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies (2016)


Pedro Domingos: The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World (2018)

I'd suggest starting with James Barrat's extremely well-researched book, Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era.

And for a super-deep dive into this issue, Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom's Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies


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Friday, January 19, 2018


The debate about guns in the United States is clouded by too much rhetoric and too few facts. Slogans like "Guns don't kill people, people kill people," or More guns, less crime," may sound as though they convey useful information, but in fact they just add further cement to already polarized and fixed positions.

Las Vegas welcome sign adorned with flowers
a week after the October 1, 2017 mass shooting 
Credit: Wikipedia 

Readers may make of them what they will, but here are a few facts about guns and how they are used in the U.S.  They come from a study published in the journal Science on 8 December, 2017.

1. The U.S. is an extreme outlier among developed countries when it comes to guns and violence. The chance of being murdered by someone using a gun is 25 times higher in the U.S. than in other well-off countries, and the rate of suicides by gunshot is 8 times higher. A U.S. male between the ages of 15 and 24 is an astonishing 70 times more likely to die from gun violence than his peer in any of the other highly industrialized countries..

2. Death by gunshot is a major public health threat in the U.S., comparable to the number of deaths caused by motor vehicle accidents. One difference is that taking rational steps to reduce the risk of death or injury from motor vehicles is not highly politicized or controversial. The result is that the number of deaths per miles driven has plummeted by a factor of 25 since the 1920s.

3. You might suppose that the government would be interested in supporting research to understand the causes and possible ways to mitigate this important public-health problem, as it does with many other diseases and conditions. You would be wrong. In 1996, Congress passed the Dickey Amendment, which effectively killed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) research program on gun violence.

4.Still, non-government researchers have continued to study gun violence and its prevention. These include researchers at many universities and in at least one state--California.

5. An intensive recent study by public-health and legal researchers at Stanford University, in California, and Duke University, in North Carolina, has established several factual reference points:

     --Add-on sentences for the use of guns in assaults and robberies cut the rate of those crimes by around 5 percent.

     --Laws preventing perpetrators of domestic violence from buying or possessing guns save lives, potentially thousands of them--reducing the murder rate for female intimate partners by 17 percent.

     --States with strict restrictions on carrying concealed weapons have significantly lower rates of violent crime than states with right-to-carry laws. Conversely, states that switch from restrictive to right-to-carry on average see a 9 percent increase in their homicide rates.

If we have any hope of breaking out of the crippling polarization that prevents rational or even civil discourse on gun control here in the U.S., it must start with facts on which people can agree. Facts do not equal policy. But policy without facts is likely to be bad policy. And when it comes to guns, bad policy can and does cost thousands of lives.


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Friday, January 12, 2018


The three stars of Orion's belt and the four tracing his sword are among the most recognizable signposts in the night sky. Astronomers have know for years that the middle "star" in Orion's sword--the Orion nebula--is actually an extremely dynamic system of young stars and the clouds and cocoons of gas and dust from which new stars are still being born.

The constellation Orion
clearly showing Orion's belt and sword
Credit: Mark Mathosian 

Astronomers and visualization specialists at NASA's Universe of Learning program have now gifted us with a remarkable 3-D fly-through of the Orion nebula based on visual images from the Hubble Space Telescope, infra-red images from the Spitzer Space Telescope and state-of-the-art 3-D modeling and image processing.

You can find four versions of the fly-through at this URL. They include one in visible light, one in infrared light, and shorter and longer versions combining the visible and infrared views.

 The Orion Nebula in visible and infrared light
Credit: StSci

Remember, this is not a Hollywood sci-fi mockup, but an accurate 3-D rendition using astronomy's best images of and data about the Orion Nebula. Given that the nebula is estimated to be 24 light-years across, these  video journeys are something no human could actually make; they provide a unique, almost god-like view. Sit back, turn on your speakers, and enjoy the trip.


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Thursday, January 11, 2018


We've all heard the phrase, "an infectious idea." It turns out that this may not just be a metaphor--new research has revealed that a virus-like protein in all of our brains may be vital for learning and memory.

"If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck," the saying goes, "it probably is a duck." So, no matter how surprising it is, finding a crucial protein in the brain that looks like a virus and acts like a virus raises the intriguing possibility that our ability to learn and remember may stem from a chance infection of some ancestral four-legged creature by a retrovirus 350 to 400 million years ago.

The protein in question is called Arc. It's found in animals as different as flies, mice and humans. It's been known for some time that Arc is important for learning and memory. Mice lacking Arc forget what they've learned within 24 hours, and lack the kind of brain plasticity that lets young animals, most notably human children, soak up new information quickly and easily. Arc continues to be important for learning and memory throughout life, and impaired Arc functioning is associated with autism, amnesia and Alzheimer's disease.

Arc (long purple proteins inside the perimeter of the vesicle) can encapsulate and deliver its own genetic material to brain cells (light green branching blobs) in a manner similar to the way in which viruses infect host cells.  
Credit: Jacobo Lopez, Yi-Chu Su, Hugo Vaca

Jason Shepherd, a neuroscientist at the University of Utah, and his colleagues first suspected that something was different about Arc when they found that the protein self-assembles into structures called capsids that look like a lunar lander or the HIV retrovirus. Intrigued, they found that not only can the Arc capsid jump from cell to cell like a virus, it also transfers its own genetic material in the form of messenger RNA into the new cell.

Learning takes place when interconnected brain cells are activated at the same time. Intriguingly, the researchers found that when neurons "infected" by Arc are activated, they release newly minted Arc capsids. This suggests that the transfer of this virus-lilke protein from cell to cell may be a previously unknown and unsuspected mechanism for learning and memory.

Neuron expressing Arc and transferring it to other neurons
Credit: Elissa Pastuzyn 

“We went into this line of research knowing that Arc was special in many ways," says the study’s lead author, postdoctoral fellow Elissa Pastuzyn. "But when we discovered that Arc was able to mediate cell-to-cell transport of RNA, we were floored. No other non-viral protein that we know of acts in this way.”

Geneticists have been able to trace back the history of the Arc proteins found in all mammals. Sometime between 350 and 400 million years ago, a primitive four-limbed creature, or tetrapod, was infected by a retrovirus that left some of its genetic material in the animal's DNA. That chance addition to the mammalian genetic code has apparently proven extremely useful, perhaps laying the groundwork for the success of our mammalian ancestors, and even for our remarkable capacity for learning and remembering.

You can read more about this research at this URL.

The scientific article describing this research can be found in Cell, January 11, 2018.


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