Aging stem cells may explain higher prevalence of leukemia, infections among elderly

From PhysOrg:

Stem cellsHuman stem cells aren't immune to the aging process, according to scientists at the Stanford University School of Medicine. The researchers studied hematopoietic stem cells, which create the cells that comprise the blood and immune system. Understanding when and how these stem cells begin to falter as the years pass may explain why some diseases, such as acute myeloid leukemia, increase in prevalence with age, and also why elderly people tend to be more vulnerable to infections such as colds and the flu.

“We know that seems to decline with increasing age,” said Wendy Pang, MD. “This is the first study comparing the function and gene expression profiles of young and old purified, human , and it tells us that these clinical changes can be traced back to stem cell function.” Specifically, the researchers found that hematopoietic from healthy people over age 65 make fewer lymphocytes — cells responsible for mounting an immune response to viruses and bacteria — than stem cells from healthy people between ages 20 and 35. (The cells were isolated from bone marrow samples.) Instead, elderly hematopoietic stem cells, or HSCs, have a tendency to be biased in their production of another type of white blood cell called a myeloid cell. This bias may explain why older people are more likely than younger people to develop myeloid malignancies.

More here.

Human Nature’s Pathologist

Carl Zimmer in The New York Times:

PinkerDr. Pinker has focused much of his research on language on a seemingly innocuous fluke: irregular verbs. While we can generate most verb tenses according to a few rules, we also hold onto a few arbitrary ones. Instead of simply turning “speak” into “speaked,” for example, we say “spoke.” As a young professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he pored over transcripts of children’s speech, looking for telling patterns in the mistakes they made as they mastered verbs. Out of this research, he proposed that our brains contain two separate systems that contribute to language. One combines elements of language to build up meaning; the other is like a mental dictionary we keep in our memory.

This research helped to convince Dr. Pinker that language has deep biological roots. Some linguists argued that language simply emerged as a byproduct of an increasingly sophisticated brain, but he rejected that idea. “Language is so woven into what makes humans human,” he said, “that it struck me as inconceivable that it was just an accident.” Instead, he concluded that language was an adaptation produced by natural selection. Language evolved like the eye or the hand, thanks to the way it improved reproductive success. In 1990 he published a paper called “Natural Language and Natural Selection,” with his student Paul Bloom, now at Yale. The paper was hugely influential. It also became the seed of his breakthrough book, “The Language Instinct,” which quickly became a best seller and later won a place on a list in the journal American Scientist of the top 100 science books of the 20th century.

More here.

More about pluralism and perspectivism

by Dave Maier

PluA couple of weeks back here at 3QD, Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse told us about a certain contentious use of the term “pluralism” in philosophy, which tries to identify a particular conception of philosophical method with the institutional virtues of toleration, openmindedness, and cute little bunnies. In their opinion, however, that doesn't fly: “every conception of the scope of toleration identifies limits to the tolerable. And for every conception of toleration, there is some other conception that charges the first with undue narrowness[…. There] is in the end no way of eschewing the substantive evaluative issues,” i.e., in order to identify the virtue of toleration with a supposedly “pluralistic” method.

Well, yes – no slam dunk for the “pluralistic” side. But just for that very reason, it's worth a look at those substantive issues which we cannot eschew. This will involve making a few distinctions (mmm … distinctions …), so let's get started.

What kinds of “pluralism” are there in philosophy? First, as Aiken and Talisse indicate in referring to “the idea of pluralism as a political movement within Philosophy [my emphasis]”, one could be a “pluralist” by believing that the range of philosophers hired by university philosophy departments should be wide rather than narrow. Is the point of a philosophy department to be a center of research into a particular subdiscipline or issue or method, or rather to provide as broad a selection of courses for students as is practical given the department's resources? Notably, such a “pluralist” might come from anywhere on the philosophical spectrum. One could think of the university's educational mission in this latter way no matter how one pursued one's own philosopical agenda.

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The Kreutzer Sonata in Addis Ababa

by Maniza Naqvi

I stare at the garbled reflection, shifting shape, regiments of memory’s purchase, in full face and profile, read the riot act, novel, in the uneven mirror of an emperor’s palace as I identify myself and try to tear off a niqab.

When Leo Tolstoy heard the Kreutzer Sonata, played for the first time, it moved him to write his controversial novel by the same name. Perhaps the music of the sonata resonated with his already heightened sense of war weary inner turmoil, as though under each peaceful note fevered a conflict between the generosity of intent and the tightness of guilt and complicity. As though, it was a troubling sense of heightened anxiety, a railing against injustice, and the whole sale commoditization of humanity: a typical plea of an intellectual for truthful release from what is morally reprehensible.

Count Leo Tolstoy was a scion of an oppressive system, a vastly wealthy feudal landlord, who owned serfs and whose pedigree was older and more aristocratic then the Czar himself. Yet, he was known as a critic of the system, a social reformer, an ascetic and a moralist. He took a stand on and spoke out against every kind of humanitarian transgression from the mishandling of famines in Russia to the persecutions of dissenters and censorships by an often opaque and cruel regime. He was expected to do so, to be the voice of social conscience, by everyone in Russia: by the Progressives and the public who revered his writings and novels and considered him the counter point on moral authority.

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Monday Poem

So, Socrates to young Plato said,”The things we think we know are like shadows
cast on the walls of a cave by a distant light of unseen things we do not know.”.

A Hole in The Banal
-For L.

You called last night troubled.
Looking for something in particular
(a pink balloon shaped like the heart
of your long dead cousin)
you'd stumbled upon a hole in the banal:
a weakened spot in the thin skin of our conceits
stretched so taut over the otherworld
a hint of it broke through and pierced
your shell of rapt doing
and you glimpsed the truth of shades
that dance upon the walls of caves
to music most often unheard
under the rush of jets,
behind the daily brushing of leaves against sky,
drowned by the litanies of radios,
made almost silent by
the roar of willed tornadoes
blowing through the aisles of malls,
muted by the fierce narcissism of war,
the accumulation of stuff thrown up
as dikes to keep the unspeakable sea at bay
and you wondered if perhaps Socrates was right
So I recalled for you a day driving to Colrain
when a song bled from the dash
so filled with poignancy my heart broke too
and I sobbed from the steel arched bridge
where two rivers meet to the office door
remembering my mother,
my father, and Danny my autistic brother,
hearing them hearing me sob
through a veil of ordinary tears and regret
saltier than the Dead Sea
This is where you and I meet, where we all meet,
on the beach of that sea, catching now and then
between horizon and surf, glimpses of creatures
breaking through, breaching the membrane
between worlds unexpectedly
as we wonder how the dancing shadows
on cave walls can be true

by Jim Culleny

Plato's allegory of the cave

Thing Writing

by James McGirk

Short%20StoryOur brains are filled with the whispering of objects, the shrieking presence of things we lust after or despise or simply want to ignore but can’t for all the noise. It seems impossible to write fiction without addressing it but so little does. Part of this is the nature of the medium. The contemporary novel or short story is a ghostly place, a necropolis where memories are dissected and pinned to the page.

“Anecdotes don't make good stories,” the great Canadian short story writer Alice Munro once told an interviewer, “Generally I dig down underneath them so far that the story that finally comes out is not what people thought their anecdotes were about.”

Writing literary fiction is a bit like tunneling (minus the physical component). You gnaw a room out of the wall of the previous one, scaffold it with description and feed in a few disembodied voices, hoping the histories and hierarchies those voices are quibbling over create enough momentum to propel your reader into the next room. Munro takes this a step further, using the shape of those excavations to back engineer a second, deeper narrative structure from the first.

Hers is a second order of story, ideal for spelunking the complex residue of a lifetime of deep emotion, but one that seems to collapse the realm of the object. Unless an author like Munro is a pure technological determinist, a deep dive into character motivation seems unsuited to describing a world where the collective ache of consumer culture – and being left out of it – might manifest itself in something like the Occupy Wall Street movement. Yet it is not impossible to use intricately rendered characters as a way to roam the realm of material consciousness.

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Gaze at the dripping flags and talk of the parade you have witnessed

Some Notes Made on Evacuation Day 2011

by Jen Paton


One hundred years from this moment, crowds in this same city would stand on the streets, in the rain, under “stars and stripes from every Flag-pole,” to commemorate this day, and to commemorate it for the last time on such a scale: “every tower, every steeple, every rooftop which commanded” river views would be “peopled with human beings,” and thousands would brave torrential rain to catch a glimpse of the festivities. Two hundred and twenty five years later, this would be the subject of a snarky Gawker Post. Two hundred and twenty eight years later, a humorous conversation in The Daily Show. But for now, in 1783, it’s just eight hundred guys waiting at Bowery, waiting for the signal.

Once this road was a footpath for the people who lived here first, a bit later it was a road that led to the Dutch Governor General's farm. At one o'clock, in the distance, they heard the cannon fire, fired from the departing enemy ship, and this meant it was safe to enter New York City. They marched in, a newspaper would say a few weeks later, with “an inviolable regard to order and discipline, as Tyranny could never be enforced.” (qtd in Hood, 2004). Quite.

The occupying British commander, Sir Guy Carleton, now on a ship living the island, had received the orders to evacuate months before. It was a delicate operation: the Americans wanted military control of the city as soon as possible, the better to quell any lingering dissent there, but they also hoped to keep the British army and their own from exchanging fire in the process. Carleton had to pull out not only his troops, but the thousands of refugees loyal to him, who had been streaming into this city since rebel victory became assured, as well as the slaves liberated from the enemy who had sought refuge within its walls. He would leave with thousands of refugees, including 3000 freedmen, whom the British promised to “pay” the Americans for at Washington’s insistence and, apparently, never did. Some would settle in Nova Scotia, of which some would end up in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

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The Witness You Want to Be

by Hasan Altaf

In their outlines, all of Joan Didion's novels seem more or less the same: The protagonist is always a woman, in some way “troubled”; there are always men, usually two, usually powerful in some way; there is sometimes a son but always a daughter, who is generally what the woman is “playing for,” as Maria Wyeth puts it in Play It As It Lays (1970): “What I play for here is Kate.” The stories of the troubled women torn between the two men and trying to save or reconnect with or find their Joan-Didion-001children do not, in general, end happily; the children remain lost, the men too are gone (divorce, death, abandonment, some combination thereof), and at the end the woman we've been following is alone and still in some way “troubled.”

The first time I read Didion's novels, I read them all at once, and the similarities began to annoy me: If they were all going to be the same, what was the point in reading more than one? (There are other writers who do this, who write the same story time and time again, and those in general I abandon after the first; Didion's style is what always kept me coming back.) Recently, however, as a way of preparing for the publication of Blue Nights, I went back and reread the novels, starting with Run, River (1963) and ending with The Last Thing He Wanted (1996). The second read-through answered this question for me. It also answered another, perhaps more important question – what is the point for the writer in telling the same story so many times?

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Pain, Humility, and Thanksgiving

by Kevin S. Baldwin

There is nothing quite like a serious illness or injury to focus one's mind on what is truly important. I recently injured my back (probably from lifting my 6 year old off the floor where he had fallen asleep). I do this about once a year, usually by forgetting to bend at the knees when lifting something. I bent my knees this time, but I guess it wasn't enough. I don't recall a pull or a pop, but over the next few days, things slowly deteriorated. I went from taking 2 Ibuprofen at a time to 4 at a time, and even that didn't help like it usually does. Back

Eventually, while climbing stairs, a turn on a landing threw my back into such spasms that I collapsed. Sweat began pouring off my face and I felt extremely nauseous. This was terra incognita for me. Had I ruptured a disc? (I guess I've been pretty lucky so far. I am pushing 50 yet have suffered no broken bones, major accidents, or diseases. I think I took a single Tylenol after my wisdom teeth were pulled). Suddenly, I was helpless and in agonizing pain.

Pain is one of these enigmatic aspects of existence. It serves a purpose, but there can be too much of a good thing. Pain and swelling keep you from moving or using an injured area so it can heal. Of course, a lot of pain is uncomfortable and has a way of consuming most or all of your mental bandwidth. People who are born without pain receptors tend to live short lives because of all the injuries they suffer without realizing it.

I remained crumpled on the landing while pondering my next move. Not enough room to stretch out: I would have to stand up. After several attempts that ended when my lower back locked-up, I finally convinced myself to work through that pain and made it back to being vertical. Standing was actually fairly comfortable as long as I didn't move. But I couldn't be stranded on the landing for the rest of the day. I ended up sitting down on the stairs and pushing myself up backwards one step at a time. I grabbed the handrails at the top of the stairs and managed to pull myself up and drag myself to the bedroom to lie down.

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Inverting the Turing Test

Stuart Shieber in American Scientist:

Most-human-what-talking-with-computers-teaches-brian-christian-hardcover-cover-artIn his book The Most Human Human, Brian Christian extrapolates from his experiences at the 2009 Loebner Prize competition, a competition among chatbots (computer programs that engage in conversation with people) to see which is “most human.” In doing so, he demonstrates once again that the human being may be the only animal that overinterprets.

You may not have heard of the Loebner competition, and for good reason. The annual event was inspired by the Turing test, proposed by Alan Turing in his seminal 1950 paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” as a method for determining in principle whether a computer possesses thought. Turing meant his test as a thought experiment to address a particular philosophical question, namely, how to define a sufficient condition for properly attributing intelligence, the capacity of thinking, to a computer. He proposed that a blind controlled test of verbal indistinguishability could serve that purpose. If a computer program were indistinguishable from people in a kind of open-ended typewritten back-and-forth, the program would have passed the test and, in Turing’s view, would merit attribution of thinking.

The Loebner competition picks up on this idea; it charges a set of judges to engage in conversation with the chatbot entrants and several human confederates, and to determine which are the humans and which the computers. At the end, a prize is awarded to the “most human” chatbot—that is, the chatbot that is most highly ranked as human in paired tests against the human confederates. “Each year, the artificial intelligence (AI) community convenes for the field’s most anticipated and controversial annual event,” Christian says. Well, not so much. The AI community pretty much ignores this sideshow. It’s the chatbot community that has taken up the Loebner competition.

More here.

Offense, irony, comedy, and who knows what else

Jed Perl in The New Republic:

MaurizioCattelanHimThey are selling postcards of Hitler in the gift shop at the Guggenheim Museum. To be precise, they are selling photographic reproductions of a work entitled Him, a polyester portrayal of the Führer that is one of the works by Maurizio Cattelan in his retrospective at the museum. I can imagine being outraged or at least troubled by the postcards in the gift shop, except that by the time I saw them I had already been bombarded by this exhibition in which nearly all of Cattelan’s oversized neo-Dadaist baubles have been hung from the ceiling of Frank Lloyd Wright’s rotunda. Cattelan’s Hitler doll—like his Picasso doll, his bicycle, his dinosaur, and the rest of the 128 items in this stupefyingly sophomoric show—is engineered for offense, irony, comedy, or who knows what else. Those who are bothered by the Hitler postcards in the gift shop are naturally going to be dismissed as insufficiently hip. The same goes for those who are disturbed by the sight of one of the world’s greatest public spaces once again turned over to an art world charlatan as his personal playpen. My own feeling is that the postcards, however misbegotten, are speech we accept, although not necessarily embrace, in a society we prize for its openness. What is really disquieting is the event that has occasioned these postcards. “Maurizio Cattelan: All”—that’s the title of the show—amounts to hate speech directed at the sponsoring institution.

More here.

Sunday Poem

Mapping the Interior

Imagine that you had a dishcloth
Bigger than the one mothers put on the bread
To slow its cooling, that you could spread
Over the whole kitchen floor to bring up its face
As clearly as the features on the cake.

You’d have a print you could lift up
To the light and examine for individual traces
Of people who came to swap yarns, and sit on
Sugan chairs that bit into the bare floor, leaving
Unique signatures on concrete that creased
Over time into a map you could look at and

Imagine what those amateur cartographers
Were thinking when their eyes fell, in the silence
Between the stories, that was broken only by
The sound of the fire and whatever it was that
Was calling in the night outside.

by Eugene O'Connell
from One Clear Call
Bradshaw Books, Cork, © 2003


Mitch Dobrowner in Lensculture:

Dobrowner_1Landscape photographers count ourselves lucky to be in the right place at the right time if a storm system is moving through — but I wanted to actively pursue these events. Since storms are a process (not a thing) I needed a guide. I soon connected with Roger Hill (regarded as the most experienced storm-chaser in the world); he introduced me to Tornado Alley and the Great Plains of the United States. In July 2009 Roger and I tracked a severe weather system for nine hours — from its formation outside of Sturgis, South Dakota, through Badlands National Park and into Valentine, Nebraska. Eventually we stopped in a field outside of Valentine, and there we stood in awe of the towering supercell (a thunderstorm with a deep rotating updraft) which was building with intake wind gusts of 60mph. It was like standing next to a 65,000-foot-high vacuum cleaner. It was unlike anything I had seen before in my life; the formation of the supercell had an ominous presence and power that I had never witnessed or experienced before. I remember turning to Roger, who was standing next to me, and saying, 'what the ****… you have to be kidding me'. It was only the second day of my “experiment” in shooting storms, but I knew without a doubt that this experiment would become an important project to me.

Words are inadequate to describe the experience of photographing this immense power and beauty. And the most exciting part is with each trip I really don’t know what to expect. But now I see these storms as living, breathing things.

More here. [Editor's note: You'll discover a lot more detail when you look at these images in our high-resolution slide show.]

The Era of Small and Many

Bill McKibben in Orion Magazine:

SmallEarlier this year, my state’s governor asked if I’d give an after-lunch speech to some of his cabinet and other top officials who were in the middle of a retreat. It’s a useful discipline for writers and theorists to have to summarize books in half an hour, and to compete with excellent local ice cream. No use telling these guys how the world should be at some distant future moment when they’ll no longer be in office—instead, can you isolate themes broad enough to be of use to people working on subjects from food to energy to health care to banking to culture, and yet specific enough to help them choose among the options that politics daily throws up? Can you figure out a principle that might undergird a hundred different policies? Or another way to say it: can you figure out which way history wants to head (since no politician can really fight the current) and suggest how we might surf that wave?

Here’s my answer: we’re moving, if we’re lucky, from the world of few and big to the world of small and many. We’ll either head there purposefully or we’ll be dragged kicking, but we’ve reached one of those moments when tides reverse. Take agriculture. For 150 years the number of farms in America has inexorably declined. In my state—the most rural in the nation—the number of dairies fell from 11,000 at the end of World War II to 998 this summer. And of course the farms that remained grew ever larger—factory farms, we called them, growing commodity food. Here in Vermont most of the remaining dairies are big, but not big enough to compete with the behemoths in California or Arizona; they operate so close to the margin that they can’t afford to hire local workers and instead import illegal migrants from Mexico. But last year the USDA reported that the number of farms in America had actually increased for the first time in a century and a half. The most defining American demographic trend—the shift that had taken us from a nation of 50 percent farmers to less than 1 percent—had bottomed out and reversed. Farms are on the increase—small farms, mostly growing food for their neighbors.

More here.

Lynn Margulis 1938-2011

John Brockman in Edge:

LynnBiologist Lynn Margulis died on November 22nd. She stood out from her colleagues in that she would have extended evolutionary studies nearly four billion years back in time. Her major work was in cell evolution, in which the great event was the appearance of the eukaryotic, or nucleated, cell — the cell upon which all larger life-forms are based. Nearly forty-five years ago, she argued for its symbiotic origin: that it arose by associations of different kinds of bacteria. Her ideas were generally either ignored or ridiculed when she first proposed them; symbiosis in cell evolution is now considered one of the great scientific breakthroughs.

Margulis was also a champion of the Gaia hypothesis, an idea developed in the 1970s by the free lance British atmospheric chemist James E. Lovelock. The Gaia hypothesis states that the atmosphere and surface sediments of the planet Earth form a self- regulating physiological system — Earth's surface is alive. The strong version of the hypothesis, which has been widely criticized by the biological establishment, holds that the earth itself is a self-regulating organism; Margulis subscribed to a weaker version, seeing the planet as an integrated self- regulating ecosystem. She was criticized for succumbing to what George Williams called the “God-is good” syndrome, as evidenced by her adoption of metaphors of symbiosis in nature. She was, in turn, an outspoken critic of mainstream evolutionary biologists for what she saw as a failure to adequately consider the importance of chemistry and microbiology in evolution. I first met her in the late 80's and in 1994 interviewed her for my book The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution (1995). Below, in remembrance, please see her chapter, “Gaia is a Tough Bitch”. One of the compelling features of The Third Culture was that I invited each of the participants to comment about the others. In this regard, the end of the following chapter has comments on Margulis and her work by Daniel C. Dennett, the late George C. Williams, W. Daniel Hillis, Lee Smolin, Marvin Minsky, Richard Dawkins, and the late Francisco Varela. Interesting stuff.

More here.

Jeffrey Eugenides talks about ‘The Marriage Plot’ and pokes fun at literary theorists

From The Christian Science Monitor:

JeffJeffrey Eugenides published his first novel at 33 after he was fired from his position as executive secretary at the Academy of American Poets. The reason he lost his job? He was spending too much time at work honing the manuscript of his debut novel “The Virgin Suicides” (1993). “Middlesex,” his second novel, earned Eugenides a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2002. “The Marriage Plot,” just released in October, is Eugenides' third novel which took him nine years to complete. The story centers around three college students – Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell – all of whom graduate from Brown College in 1982. The book is a postmodernist take on the original marriage plot within the Victorian novel. A lot of the time, it is also a novel about other novels, in which the characters spend their time discussing Derrida, Tolstoy, Austen, and Hemingway. The second half of the book moves away from literary theory, and in some colorful scenes set in Paris, Calcutta, and New York, Eugenides explores the difficulties of dealing with mental illness, failed romance, and one man’s battle with his faith in religion. And of course Eugenides also returns to his central source of inspiration: the coming-of-age story. Eugenides recently spoke to the Monitor about the extent of free will, why semiotics is needlessly convoluted, and how reading James Joyce nearly made him choose a career in religion over a career in writing.

Your new novel moves more towards realism than your previous work. Why the change in style?

I’ve always considered myself a realist at heart. I’ve never written a book that violated physicalprinciples. My books often have an atmosphere of the fantastic or
the surreal, but actually nothing happens in them that couldn’t happen in reality, so I don’t know if this book is that much of a departure in terms of realism.

More here.