Wednesday, March 28, 2012

An Optimist Looks at His Future

            The other day I was coming home from having my taxes done.  It was way past noon, and I was starting to get a little hungry, so I thought I might just have a sandwich in town.   I decided on The Village Inn.  They have decent sandwiches, they aren’t too expensive, and on Wednesday, you get a free slice of pie with any lunch.    Since I was by myself, I agreed to sit at a small table, rather than take up a whole booth. I was escorted to a table next to the kitchen, and this table was just slightly blocking the aisle used by tray-wielding wait staff.   I chose to sit in the chair opposite the kitchen, so that as I looked across the table I would be staring into the kitchen, except that they had deliberately placed a blank wall there to prevent customers from staring into the kitchen.  This meant that the wait staff, as they exit the kitchen, must make a sharp turn around a blind corner and then head straight into the path of where my chair would be setting if I pulled it out far enough from the table to actually sit on that side of the table. This would be an accident waiting to happen. My chair would be a titanic looking for an iceberg. 
            The young waitress asked, “Wouldn’t you rather sit facing the dining room?  Since you are by yourself, you don’t have to sit facing that kitchen wall. Are you sure you don’t want to move?”   I replied:
“Young woman, I hadn’t intended to unburden myself to this degree, but this is the problem: I know what will happen if I sit there. Waitresses will bump into my chair.  In fact, there will be a very tall waitress, and she will have just rinsed her contact lenses and put them back in, and her eyes will still be watering so that she is nearly blind.  And because she is very tall, she will be carrying a tray slightly above the level of my head—and she will trip on my chair and spill things on me.  And the tray will be carrying a double order of Spaghetti Alfredo, with a bowl of New England clam chowder, and hot coffee. And it will all be spilled on me--all over the front of my newly cleaned sport coat, and all down my neck.  But the impact will cause the waitress to lose her contact lenses, which will end up somewhere in the Alfredo sauce.  Then she will have to ask me to remain very still while she attempts to recover them, which will take a long time, because she is nearly blind without them.  But the sustained contact with this hot sauce on my skin will cause an allergic reaction, (possibly from the shellfish in the clam chowder) and I will go into anaphylactic shock.  They will call an ambulance, and as they haul me to the emergency room, the waitress will want to ride along because she is still trying to get her contacts back.  As the ambulance swerves to turn into the emergency entrance, it will probably narrowly miss a semi-truck, which will careen into the path of another semi and force the ambulance off the road so that it overturns, along with both semi-trailers.  One of the semis will be hauling live hogs, and as they wander about the road, they will surely cause other accidents, so that when other ambulances arrive, they will be used to evacuate the other casualties—not me. My ambulance will be on its side and I’ll be lying there with the waitress on top of me, still picking through the Alfredo sauce, hoping to find her contacts. But the pigs, being attracted to the scent of the Alfredo sauce, will come around and start licking me. The waitress will try to shove them away but will be bitten, and I know she will have to have rabies shots, which will ruin her life and cost $4,000, for which I will be billed. But then things start to go wrong. 
             As I lie there, half dazed, I will look into the lens-free, pure blue eyes of this young woman who is still lying on top of me, and I will decide that I am in love with her—that she is the one true love of my life---and I will tell her so.  This, of course, will ruin my marriage.   It is quite out of character for me to behave that way---I’ve been married for forty years and I’ve never seriously looked at another woman.  But until now, I’ve never had a comely young woman lying on top of me, squirming about with both of us covered with warm Alfredo sauce, and two pigs licking my earlobes with their warm, wet tongues.  You see, a guy never really knows how he would act in such a situation until he actually finds himself there.  And of course, in some cultures, this would be considered a highly erotic kind of encounter.  Which cultures?   Well, in Wisconsin.  They do a lot of that in Wisconsin. It’s the cheese—there’s a lot of cheese in Alfredo sauce.  But as I lie there, seeing how my life has become a complete shambles, I would naturally have to ask, “How could I let this happen?  Why couldn’t I see it coming? Wouldn’t anyone see that this is exactly what would happen if I let that young woman put me in that chair?””
            “So you see, lady,” I explained, “I can’t sit on that side. It’s just too high a price to pay.”   The waitress just stood there a moment, with her teeth clenched tightly.  (I’ve never understood what it means when people clench their teeth like that.)    Speaking through her clenched teeth, she said, “You may sit where you choose,” and she disappeared into the kitchen. There were some loud sounds coming from the kitchen, but I couldn’t tell what was going on. Was it cursing--or laughing--or perhaps one of those mysterious vocalizations that we males don’t quite understand.  I reflected a moment, and then concluded that what I heard was some kind of exclamation of the pure joy that comes whenever people realize that someone has taken the time to explain to them how all our futures are revealed, if we would but take the time to look.


Friday, March 23, 2012

Are Bar Flies Just Sex Starved Males?

     They very well could be, if these bar flies are also fruit flies.   An article in the March 18 issue of the Des Moines Register, (I'd provide a link but you'd just hit a pay wall)   entitled  Sex Starved Fruit Flies Turn to Alcohol,  describes an interesting study.  Male fruit flies were put into cages with females who had already mated, and would therefore have no interest in sex.   The males attempted to approach the females but were driven away,  even kicked or bitten.  They were very definitely rejected.  The males kept trying, but eventually gave up. Then these males were placed in separate cages, and offered a choice of two kinds of food, one of which contained alcohol.  They preferred the alcoholic stuff, and ate a lot of it. They got very drunk.   Other males, the ones who had actually mated, were offered the same choice.  They tasted the alcohol, but didn't care for it.
       The authors said that there is a brain chemical in fruit flies which is affected by sex, but if sex is lacking, the same effect can be achieved with alcohol.   But guess what?   This same brain chemical is present in humans.  The author suggests that there may be lessons for humans here.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Origin of Apocalyptic Religion

            We are seeing, at least in the United States, an increase in the fervor of “end times” preaching.   A large and increasing number of otherwise sane citizens accept as an objective fact that the world will end in their lifetimes.  Popular novels about “The Rapture” sell millions of copies. And the segments of our population who believe these things are not always confined to institutions.  They roam freely among us.  We allow them to own guns, drive cars, have children, and teach at our universities.  And the increase in the intensity of belief and practice of extremist, “end times” religion is not confined to Christianity—it is occurring in all of the world’s major religions.  But I do not find that surprising.  Rather, I am surprised that we are not also seeing the rise of a host of entirely new prophets within these established religions.  With world conditions as they are today, we should have apocalyptic prophets and self proclaimed messiahs stacked up like cordwood.
            Apocalyptic philosophy is nothing new, and certainly not new within Christianity.  Jesus of Nazareth himself was an “end times,” preacher, as was John the Baptist.  Jesus continually spoke of the “coming of the kingdom of God,” and his followers expected it to occur in their lifetimes.  These disciples lived out their lives waiting for the “second coming,” and Evangelical Christians are still waiting for it today.  Every few years, some evangelical preacher proclaims that he has calculated the precise moment of doomsday, and gathers his followers on some mountaintop to await their transportation into paradise.  The appointed hour passes without any noticeable event, and I would imagine that they all feel a bit chagrined the next day. Yet in Palestine alone, in Jesus’ generation, there were dozens of apocalyptic preachers, because it was the right time and place for “end times” stories to find a receptive audience.
            Throughout all history, people everywhere have been aware of some kind of ongoing struggle between good and evil.   You don’t have to be a Manichean to accept this. Evil and evildoers are a persistent reality.  But there is at least one time in every generation when evil seems to rear its ugly head more prominently than usual-- when the promoters of various evil agendas admit to those agendas openly—even proudly.  Yet as the agents of evil begin to shove their heels into the face of humanity, well intentioned people always respond to these assaults---they are willing to stand up and be counted.   For instance, in our own time, we have just seen our Supreme Court, in the Citizens United case, rule that corporations are people, and as such have an unlimited constitutional right to spend corporate funds to buy elections, and to do so anonymously.  One can scarcely conceive of a more corrupt or more corrupting act of a government against its people.   Yet people are fighting back.  We will probably see a constitutional amendment fight on this issue, and it will probably win.   We have seen the billionaires, through their puppet regime under Scott Walker, wage war in Wisconsin against public employees and workers in general.   But this too was met with spirited resistance, and may have been the beginning of the Occupy movement.  And this resistance to being enslaved by elite plutocrats is worldwide.  We’ve seen the Arab Spring, the Pro-Democracy protesters in Russia, and uncounted others. 
            The point is this:    When the struggle reaches a fevered pitch and appears to be headed to some final climax, people who believe in a God tend to assume that God is somehow involved in their struggle, and will take a prominent role in that climax.  They assume that if there is a God, and if He is good, then He could not be neutral in any moral struggle.  And since   they are on the side of good, they are on the side of God.  (Of course, no matter where you are in the struggle between good and evil, you probably assume that you are on the side of good—and God is on your side.  No evil doer, no matter how inhuman or depraved, ever failed to believe that he was acting for the greater good, nor that God was on his side.  Even Hitler believed this.)  But if God is on our side, and if God is infinitely powerful, then why does He not just swoop down with a host of angels and smash our enemies?   Why does He allow us to suffer indignities at the hands of our enemies, especially when these enemies are also God’s enemies?  This is a rational question.  In fact, it’s a very, very rational question.  And that explains why believers in “end times” religion are not necessarily irrational. 
            Sooner or later, some “end times” prophet walks onto the stage.  He says, essentially, “Yes, God is aware of your struggle—it is all part of His grand plan.  And He will indeed intervene with all His divine might to resolve this and all other earthly struggles.”    And those who hear this message ask, “But when will He do this? We have been waiting so long.”   The prophet answers:  “Soon; very, very soon.”
            For those who are weary and discouraged, this is a message of hope, and it can be extremely seductive.  And it is not all that irrational.  If you really believe in a God that cares about you and about people like you, then why would He not intervene directly on your behalf?  While such “end times” beliefs may seem strange, for many believers it may be the simplest way to reconcile the existence of evil in the world with belief in an all-good and all-powerful god.  So with the fertile soil we now have for such beliefs, why aren’t we seeing hundreds of new prophets?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Hokey-Pokey, Shakespearian Style

O proud left foot, that ventures quick within,
Then soon upon a backward journey lithe.
Anon,  once more the gesture, then begin:
Command sinestral pedestal to writhe.
Commence thou then the fervid Hokey-Poke,
A mad gyration, hips in wanton swirl.
To spin! A wilde release from heaven’s yoke.
O blessed dervish! Surely, go thou, girl.
The Hoke, the Poke, and banish now thy doubt.
Forsooth, I say,  ‘tis what it’s all about!

I found this on Facebook.  I have no idea who wrote it, but I'm a sucker for this sort of thing.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Is a Cat Microbe Changing Your Behavior?

      In the March issue of the online edition of Atlantic Magazine is an article by Kathleen Mcauliffe entitled How Your Cat is Making You Crazy. It's about the work of Czech researcher Jaroslav Flegr, and his work with Toxoplasma gondii, the parasite associated with handling cat liter.

        Since the 1920s, doctors have warned pregnant women to avoid cat litter, since this protozoon, if transmitted to the fetus, can cause severe brain damage or death.  This microbe can also have severe effects on those with compromised immune systems.  But for healthy children and adults, the result of infection is a brief flu-like disease, and then the microbe becomes dormant inside our brain cells, and has no further effect. 
            But Flegr has begun to doubt whether it is completely dormant.   He believes that it continues to tweak our neural connections in ways that cause subtle behavioral changes. Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky believes he may be right.  Sapolsky points out that when this parasite infects a rat, it turns the rat’s natural fear of cats into an attraction to cats, which lures the rat into the jaws of its main predator, which puts the parasite inside the body of a cat, which is where it needs to be to complete its life cycle.
            And the rabies virus kills its victims, but just before it does so, it changes the victim’s brain circuits in such a way as to throw the victim into a rage, where it attacks and bites anything that moves.   By then, the virus has migrated into the saliva, so that whatever is bitten becomes the next host.   In the case of both microbes, the behavior patterns produced are quite complex—so complex that it is amazing that a microbe could evolve to accomplish this. 
            We humans are not part of the cat/rat/T. gondii cycle--we are accidental victims.  So if T. gondii causes any behavioral changes in humans at all, they would not be changes that would enhance the reproductive odds for the protozoa.  But though accidental, they may still be there.   About 20% of Americans carry the T. gondii protozoa, and according to Flegr, for their entire lives, these carriers (he happens to be one) will have their brains subtly changed. They will be changed by the accidental activity of protozoa doing what they evolved to do to make a rat’s brain force the rat to seek out cats.
            In humans, the changes which Flegr believes are wrought by this microbe are subtle, but still consistent for all carriers.  Except that in humans, the behavioral changes in human females are exactly opposite as the changes in human males.  Men who are infected tend to be more introverted, suspicious, anti-social, and oblivious to other people’s opinions of them. They are happy wearing rumpled old clothes, would prefer to work by themselves, and generally have fewer friends. Infected women tend to be outgoing, trusting, and image-conscious.  They are rule-abiding, meticulously dressed, and have a vast network of social connections.  At first, researchers could find no explanation why the behaviors of infected men and infected women seemed to be the exact opposite.   But they have concluded that there is a common denominator---emotional strain.  Women respond to insecurity by increased social bonding, and increased nurturing.   Men simply withdraw, and become more anti-social.   So we are simply seeing two sides of the same coin.
            Flegr’s data have shown (and this has been replicated) that infected individuals are much more likely to have traffic accidents.  When one considers the vast number of infected individuals worldwide (in France it’s nearly 55%) and also the number of traffic deaths, it’s possible that T.gondii is killing more people than malaria.  Flegr also has data showing that T.gondii may trigger schizophrenia in certain genetically susceptible individuals.
Check out this article: (Click on the highlighted words [Atlantic  Magazine]  above.)