Archive for June, 2021

Jun 10 2021

Brain Connections in Aphantasia

There is definitely something to be said for the neurodiversity perspective – when it comes to brain function there is a wide range of what can be considered healthy. Not all differences should be looked at through the lens of pathology or dysfunction. Some brains may be more typical than others, but that does not mean objectively “normal”, better, or healthier. Like any valid concept it can be taken too far. There are conditions that can reasonably considered to be brain disorders causing objective dysfunction. But the scope of healthy variation is likely far broader than many people assume.

Part of this concept is that brain organization and function includes many trade-0ffs. To some extent this is a simple matter of finite brain resources that are allocated to specific abilities, increase one and by necessity another has to diminish. Also different functions can be at cross-purposes. Extraverts may excel in social situations, but introverts are better able to focus their attention inward to accomplish certain tasks.

In light of this, how should we view the phenomenon of aphantasia, a relative inability to summon a mental image? Like most neurological functions, the ability to have an internal mental image varies along a spectrum. At one end of the extreme are those with a hyperability to recall detailed mental images. At the other are those who may completely lack this ability. Most people are lumped somewhere in the middle. The phenomenon of aphantasia was first described in the 1880s, then mostly forgotten for about a century, and now there is renewed interest partly due to our increased ability to image brain function.

A new study does just that, looking at people across that phantasia spectrum to see how their brain’s differ. Using fMRI they scanned the brains of those with aphantasia, hyperphantasia, and average ability. They found that in neurotypical subject there was a robust connection between the visual cortex (which becomes active when imagining an image) and the frontal cortex, involved in attention and decision-making. That makes sense – this connection allows us to direct our attention inwardly to our visual cortex, to activate specific stored images there. Subjects with aphantasia had a relative lack of these connections. While this is a simple model, it makes perfect sense.

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Jun 08 2021

Evolutionary Compromises

Published by under Evolution,Skepticism

Evolution if one of the most fascinating scientific phenomena because it is so complex and operates over such varying and long timescales. It’s a real challenge to wrap one’s head around. There is therefore a tendency to settle on overly¬† simplistic evolutionary narratives. This is not a criticism, we all do this in an attempt to grapple with evolutionary thinking. The challenge is to recognize this fact, and be open to a deeper, more complex and nuanced understanding of evolutionary processes. It’s a great example of what should be a general intellectual posture – recognize the limits of our current understanding (wherever that may be on the spectrum) and not only be open to, but seek out new information and concepts to keep incrementally pushing our understanding forward.

In that spirit, here is a study on the evolution of broad-horned flour-beetles that illustrates some of evolution’s complexity. The male broad-horned has exaggeratedly large mandibles, which is uses to compete with other males for mating access to females. This is an example of sexual selection, when a feature specifically increases mating success but is not necessarily broadly adaptable. The go-to example of this is the peacock’s tail feathers – a garish display meant to attract females, but an evolutionary burden in many other aspects. This sets up an evolutionary tug-of-war, where a feature may be advantageous in one respect but disadvantageous in another. Evolutionary processes are fairly efficient at balancing such conflicting forces.

As an aside, the balances tend to be only metastable. They can alter with changes in the environment or behavior. Even different individuals within a species can adopt different survival strategies that result in a different balance of traits. If a population within a species does this it may even eventually lead to a speciation event. For example, it has been documented that within some primate species dominant males will have access to females due to their alpha status, while others gain access by currying favor with the alpha, and still others gain access by gaining favor with the females and sneaking behind the alpha’s back. Still others may act as a “wing man” to a close kin, promoting their genes into the next generation by proxy. The lesson here is – no one strategy captures the wide diversity of behavior even within a single species.

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Jun 07 2021

Fauci’s E-mails

A few years ago I was sued for libel, in a case I ultimately won in summary judgement where the other side had to pay for some of my legal costs because the judge deemed it unreasonable. But the case did proceed to discovery, which means each side gets to request information from the other. This included me turning over something like 40,000 e-mails. Search tools allow for sifting through these e-mails to find those that may be relevant. And of course, the other side was able to find e-mails that they could twist to create the impression of something sinister. Fortunately, in a court of law, there are rules of evidence and logic, and there was time to dig down to see if the e-mails in fact were evidence of anything. They weren’t.

In the court of public opinion, however, there are no rules. FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) can serve as a mechanism for discovery, and many academics, scientists, and public servants have been on the receiving end of them. Released e-mails can then be picked over with the zeal of a prosecuting attorney, but without ever facing the burden of legal protocol or a trained judge. In fact the purpose of this exercise is not to dig down to the truth but to cherry pick for anything that can be taken out of context to fuel conspiracy theories or to tarnish the other side. The purpose begins and ends with the twisting to create a sinister impression, and the results of any actual investigation are irrelevant (at least to many).

The first high-profile case of such an “e-mail gate” was with hacked e-mails from the Climate Research Unit.¬† Investigations ultimately found no evidence of any deception or anything nefarious going on, but the damage was done. The fact is, in any scientific process scientists will discuss many things with each other. A lot of crap will be thrown against the wall, and it’s very easy to take casual conversations out of context. Anti-science activists saw this as a template, and began using FOIA requests to harass scientists and hunt for similar gotchas.

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Jun 04 2021

How Common Are BS Jobs?

Published by under Neuroscience

Douglas Adams had a talent for irony. In the Hitchhiker’s Guide series he told the tale of a civilization that tried to improve itself by tricking everyone with a useless job into taking a rocket trip to another world (actually to nowhere). For example, one of the discarded people’s jobs was to clean phones. That’s it – they were a phone cleaner. That civilization later collapsed due to a pandemic started by a phone virus.

Part of Adams’ humor was taking reality and then pushing it to the absurd, but that core of reality gave his humor more heft. We may not have phone cleaners, but it does seem that certain jobs are less useful than others. Of course there is a certain amount of subjectivity and value judgements here, but there are some jobs that even the people in them judge to be without purpose. The concept of “bullshit jobs” was proposed by anthropologist David Graeber. In his book Bullshit Jobs, he claims that 20-50% of people are in BS jobs, that this number is increasing over time, that BS jobs are concentrated in certain professions, and that such jobs are psychologically unhealthy. New research finds that he was correct in one out of four of these claims.

While Graeber was bringing attention to a real issue, the psychological effects of being in a job that you yourself feel is of no value, when it came to the magnitude of this issue he did not have hard data. He was largely making inferences. This did lead to mixed reviews of his work at the time, with some reviewers finding his arguments often labored. The new research is an extensive survey of workers in Europe between 2005-2015, with over 30,000 responses. Since by his own definition, a BS job is one that even the person in it feels is worthless, the survey relied upon self-report of whether one’s job had value. Those who responded “rarely or never” to the question, “I have the feeling of doing useful work,” were deemed to have a BS job. The total percentage of people in this category was 4.8%. That’s still about one in 20 people, but a far cry from the as high as 50% Graeber claimed.

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Jun 03 2021

Return of the Bird Flu

Remember the bird flu? Avian influenza (H5N1) was first discovered in birds in 1996, with the first human crossover detected in 1997. Since then it has been discovered in 50 countries and is endemic in six. If you are old enough to remember, there was a bit of a bird flu panic back in the late 90s. Fortunately, so far, those fears have not been realized. But it’s important to remember that the bird flu is still around. Even more important is to remember that there are thousands of potentially pandemic viruses in the world.

Avian influenza adapted to infect birds, and mostly spreads through poultry. Bird to human transmission (zoonotic infection) is rare, and usually occurs in those who work in the poultry industry with long term exposure. The virus is very deadly, with a case fatality rate of about 60%. Worldwide there are 700 reported human cases. However, the virus does not spread easily from human to human. Such transmission is very rare, and is not sustainable. This is why the virus has not caused an outbreak or worse among humans. There are also other strains of flu virus that primarily infect birds, such as H10N5. We now have the first report of an H10N5 infection in a human, in a poultry worker in China. Contact tracing did not reveal any other cases.

For now we have experienced rare bird to human zoonotic transmission of flu strains primarily adapted to birds (colloquially “bird flu”) without any significant or sustainable human to human spread. So what’s the concern? As was originally raised by in the 90s, the concern is that every time a virus jumps from an animal reservoir to a human there is the potential that it will either mutate or will combine with another virus to cause a new strain that is highly contagious to humans. It happens, as we are now experiencing with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. So what do we do about it?

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Jun 01 2021

Graphene aluminum ion batteries

Published by under Technology

Damn, I hope this one is true. Battery technology is absolutely key to our energy strategy going forward. Right now the cutting edge is lithium ion batteries, which are great, and good enough for our current purposes. They allow for cars with a range of about 350 miles, which is more than enough for most purposes. They are barely, however, energy dense and cost-effective enough to use for home backup power. This is still an expensive option, out of reach for most people. They are fine for small technology, like laptops and cellphones.

I have been following battery technology news for years. At first it seems like we are always on the cusp of a major breakthrough. Then you realize that none of these advances are breakthroughs, and the media hype always glosses over or even ignores major limitations. For a useful commercial battery you need to have several features simultaneously, and any one can be a deal-breaker. We need high energy density (energy per volume) and specific energy (energy per mass). It also needs high power density – the ability to absorb and produce energy quickly, enough to run a car. It further needs many charge-discharge cycles, enough for daily charging for years if not decades. It further needs to be stable so that it does not spontaneously catch fire. And finally it needs to be made of reasonably common materials. Not being toxic is a bonus, as is being recyclable.

Lithium-ion batteries fit this fairly well. They do have a tendency to burst into flames if they overheat, but that is improving. They do require some rare-earths and also cobalt in their construction, which will ultimately be limiting.

So far, whenever I read about a leap in battery technology, it turns out that the leap is in only one or a few features, but other features are below the water line. The media report then always says something like – all we have to do is scale up, or figure out this one little problem, and we’re good. But the one little problem is the rub, and most of the time it keeps the breakthrough from being a breakthrough.

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