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- During the first golden era of space exploration, we went to the moon. Then we sort of dropped the ball for 50 years.
- The problem is space travel is very expensive, especially the way governments do space travel.
- Because it costs $10,000 to put a pound of anything into orbit around the planet, we need to have an infusion of public and private funds. That's where billionaires such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos come into the picture. With their help, we have new energies, new strategies, and new plans to go back into outer space.
- Apple CEO Tim Cook gave a commencement speech at Tulane University on May 18th.
- Cook cautioned the graduates to not get caught up in echo chambers and algorithms.
- He acknowledged the failures of his generation.
Are we so caught up in technology that we don't notice any more the plight of people around us? On May 18th, Apple CEO Tim Cook gave a commencement speech at Tulane University where he addressed modern narcissism and how to combat it.
"In a world where we obsessively document our own lives, most of us don't pay nearly enough attention to what we owe one another," Cook said. "It's about recognizing that human civilization began when we realized that we could do more together."
He also addressed another very specific modern problem where social media sites show you only what you want to see and hear, often creating bubbles or echo chambers. To get beyond your comfort zone and to grow as a person, you need to get to information that you don't already know – information that can change your mind and challenge your beliefs.
"Today, certain algorithms pull you toward the things you already know, believe, or like, and they push away everything else," said Cook. "Push back. It shouldn't be this way. But in 2019 opening your eyes and seeing things in a new way can be a revolutionary act."
Insiders might also interpret the mention of "certain algorithms" as a specific dig at Facebook, which has a friend-centric content selection approach.
Cook urged the students to get beyond paralyzing inaction, especially on big issues like climate change. "In some important ways, my generation has failed you," Cook acknowledged. "We spent too much time debating, too focused on the fight and not enough on progress."
What important, according to Cook, is to not get tied up by the "political noise," adding "after all, we don't build monuments to trolls".
"When we talk about climate change, I challenge you to look for those who have the most to lose and find the real, true empathy that comes from something shared," said Cook. "When you do that, the political noise dies down and you can feel your feet planted on solid ground."
You can check out the full speech here:
We know we should eat less junk food, such as crisps, industrially made pizzas and sugar-sweetened drinks, because of their high calorie content.
These “ultra-processed" foods, as they are now called by nutritionists, are high in sugar and fat, but is that the only reason they cause weight gain? An important new trial from the U.S. National Institute of Health (NIH) shows there's a lot more at work here than calories alone.
Studies have already found an association between junk foods and weight gain, but this link has never been investigated with a randomized controlled trial (RCT), the gold standard of clinical studies.
In the NIH's RCT, 20 adults aged about 30 were randomly assigned to either a diet of ultra-processed foods or a “control" diet of unprocessed foods, both eaten as three meals plus snacks across the day. Participants were allowed to eat as much as they wished.
After two weeks on one of the diets, they were switched to the other for a further two weeks. This type of crossover study improves the reliability of the results since each person takes part in both arms of the study. The study found that, on average, participants ate 500 calories more per day when consuming the ultra-processed diet, compared to when eating the diet of unprocessed foods. And on the ultra-processed diet, they gained weight — almost a kilogram.
Although we know that ultra-processed foods can be quite addictive, the participants reported finding the two diets equally palatable, with no awareness of having a greater appetite for the ultra-processed foods than for the unprocessed foods, despite consuming 500 calories more of them per day.
Unconscious over-consumption of ultra-processed foods is often attributed to snacking. But in this study, most of the excess calories were consumed during breakfast and lunch, not as snacks.
Slow eating, not fast food
A crucial clue as to why the ultra-processed foods caused greater calorie consumption may be that participants ate the ultra-processed meals faster and so consumed more calories per minute. This can cause excess calorie intake before the body's signals for satiety or fullness have time to kick in.
An important satiety factor in unprocessed foods is dietary fibre. Most ultra-processed foods contain little fibre (most or all of it is lost during their manufacture) and so are easier to eat fast.
Anticipating this, the NIH researchers equalized the fiber content of their two diets by adding a fibre supplement to the ultra-processed diet in drinks. But fibre supplements are not the same thing as fibre in unprocessed foods.
Fibre in unprocessed food is an integral part of the food's structure – or the food matrix, as it's called. And an intact food matrix slows down how quickly we consume calories. For instance, it takes us far longer to chew through a whole orange with its intact food matrix than it does to gulp down the equivalent calories as orange juice.
An interesting message emerging from this and other studies seems to be that to regulate calorie intake, we must retain food structure, like the natural food matrix of unprocessed foods. This obliges us to eat more slowly, allowing time for the body's satiety mechanisms to activate before we have eaten too much. This mechanism does not operate with ultra-processed foods since the food matrix is lost during manufacture.
Finding time for a meal of unprocessed foods eaten slowly can be a real challenge for many. But the importance of seated mealtimes is an approach vigorously defended in some countries, such as France, where a succession of small courses ensures a more leisurely — and pleasurable — way of eating. And it may also be an important antidote to the weight gain caused by grabbing a quick meal of ultra-processed foods.
Most people remember the emperor: a vain ruler, swindled into paying for a nonexistent magical garment, parades in public, only to be embarrassed by a little boy. To me, the story is really about the swindling tailors.
Audacious, imaginative, their true product is a persuasive illusion, one keyed to the vulnerabilities of their target audience. In contemporary terms, the story is about marketing; and as such, the tale is tailor-made for an examination of genetic ancestry tests, because these too are sold with expert persuasion, with promises woven from our hopes, our fears, and the golden thread of DNA.
With these new tests, as in Hans Christian Andersen's 19th-century tale, a gap yawns between the promise and the reality – and now and then, as in the story, someone says so in the public square. For example, when Phil Rogers, a reporter in Chicago, tried out home DNA test kits from competing companies last year, he discovered contradictory results. So did the Canadian reporter Charlsie Agro and her twin sister Carly, who mailed spit samples to 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA, AncestryDNA, MyHeritage and LivingDNA. As with Rogers, the companies gave different histories – Balkan ancestry, for example, ranged from 14 to 61 per cent – but 23andMe actually reported different scores for each twin. (According to the company, Charlsie has French and German ancestors, while Carly does not.)
The tests are sold with variations on a single pitch: find your story. The companies don't mention that the story might shade into fiction, or that stories can conflict. The evolutionary geneticist Mark Thomas at University College London has dismissed ancestry testing as 'genetic astrology', but it could be as useful to think of it as genetic gossip: a rumoured past that, like most rumours, is at least partly true. It begins with a test-tube of spit and ends with fractional estimates: a story, whispered by an algorithm, in the language of information.
It is not that ancestry tests tell us nothing: unlike the emperor's new clothes, gene variants are real, and genetic tests can discover them. It is rather that their inherent uncertainties are obscured by expert marketing. The websites show pie charts, percentages and images of scientific equipment, implying a precision the tests do not provide. Human groups are porous, population samples vary in size and quality, current-day populations stand as proxies for past ones, only a small percentage of each person's genome is tested, and each proprietary algorithm differs from the next. So the estimates necessarily vary.
To be sure, many clearly find value and meaning in the tests. The sociologist Alondra Nelson at Columbia University in New York has written brilliantly about the complicated 'social life of DNA', the way that many African Americans, combining molecular data with genealogical research, have forged new self-understandings against the brutal erasures of chattel slavery and the Middle Passage. For others, no doubt, the interest in roots is driven more by curiosity than tragic dislocation; but whatever the reasons, the tests remain extraordinarily popular.
So the companies' websites deserve a closer look. Though the sites associated with 23andMe et al, as at April 2019, are superficially different, they are cut from the same conceptual cloth: a fine weave of images, numbers and catchphrases, a tapestry of technology and fulfilment. The uncluttered design of each site belies the dizzying accumulation of images and messages, as you scroll down. Photographs of sequencers and gene chips. Line drawings of test tubes. A full set of brightly coloured, iconic chromosomes: the human genome laid out in pairs like socks. Buttons and codes for seasonal discounts: like a front-of-supermarket display, the home pages rotate with the calendar. Balloon hearts in February ('Get to the heart of what makes your Valentine unique'), leprechaun hats in March ('Enjoy the luck o' the Irish. Discover your roots'). Testimonials with words such as journey and discovery. The mysteries of life, identity and family history, distilled into friendly slogans such as 'Welcome to you.' All are anchored by images of customers, who are contented, photogenic, diverse. In narrative terms, they represent closure you can buy: the happy end to a story, a new genetic family discovered, a long-lost relative contacted, a new and appealing ethnic past. (Or perhaps, if you're a white supremacist, an inconvenient past to ignore.)
In the fable, the swindlers are storytellers: with the barest of props, they weave imaginary cloth on real looms, targeting the emperor's hopes and wishes, describing the cloth, promising its benefits. But their improvised play depends on audience participation, and Andersen's genius lies in the plot's escalation, in which the emperor, his courtiers and eventually the townspeople become characters in a play scripted by the swindlers, performing the lie they do not believe. When the boy points out that the clothes don't exist, he at once breaks the fourth wall and restores it. Shattering the illusion, he frees the audience, giving them the ability to speak up. The boy is not a storyteller: he is a critic. But he is also a proto-scientist, his criticism grounded in empirical observation.
What makes the story's characters vulnerable to the swindlers' promises? In a word, status. Most will remember the emperor's vanity, his love of clothes. But these clothes are sold with a specific claim: that they are invisible only to 'simpletons' and 'those unfit for their jobs'. So the clothes appeal to the emperor as a means of consolidating his power, expressed as a wish for productive citizens: 'If I had such a suit, I might at once find out what men in my kingdom are unfit for their job. I would be able to tell the wise men from the foolish! This stuff must be woven for me immediately.' His imaginary clothes are functional, at once an aptitude test and an intelligence test. They are sold as instruments of power and control, as a way of sorting the fit citizens from the unfit.
Chasing his dreams of status and power, the emperor misses the swindle: the 'weavers' make off with tangible wealth, while the emperor receives nothing. The entire performance is a masterful misdirection, a distraction from the truth of the exchange. In the same way, the promises of discovering identity and the genealogical past are a misdirection: the real exchange takes place offstage, with drug companies and others paying for access to the data that customers actually pay to give. Once it's given, customers are vulnerable to future data breaches (and you can't, at this date at least, change your genome), and they aren't guaranteed compensation for any profits the data might lead to.
Which returns us to the central pitch of finding your story: that frame obscures the largescale economies of data, and instead highlights individual agency, linking data to self-discovery, implying power and control. Perhaps this is why devices – smartphones, tablets – are ubiquitous in the website imagery. A young, freckled, ginger-haired woman beams, holding up an iPhone, which displays a map of Ireland overlaid with boundary lines of, presumably, genetic populations: in the information age, it's important to keep reinforcing the message that the devices in our hands are Vehicles of Fun and Discovery and not Portable Hand Vampires of the Surveillance Economy. To paraphrase the business scholar Shoshana Zuboff in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019), the genomic data in question might be about us, might on some level be us. But it is not for us. In the shadow economy where our data is traded, we are each as exposed as any emperor.
Fables and Futures: Biotechnology, Disability, and the Stories we Tell Ourselves by George Estreich is published via the MIT Press.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
- A new study in Psychopharmacology shows MDMA has a 50 percent efficacy rate for PTSD victims.
- A series of six controlled, double-blind studies moves research to Phase 3 trials.
- Combined with psychotherapy, MDMA could be a potent force in treating one of the our most challenging problems.
Over 8 percent of Americans will suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some point in their lives, which is double the global average. Considering the current world population, that means roughly 308 million people will experience short-term or chronic PTSD from a variety of triggers: war, sexual assault, bullying — an entire list of invasive assaults. We're simply not equipped to handle such cognitive and emotional overload.
Which is why treatments are so badly needed. Last year, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) published a study in The Lancet Psychiatry showing a 68 percent efficacy rate in PTSD symptom reduction; patients in that trial no longer needed ongoing treatment. It was another step on a decades-long battle to remove MDMA from Schedule 1 by proving its therapeutic value.
Now a new study, this one published in Psychopharmacology on May 7, combines the research of six Phase 2 studies on MDMA in order to move the research onto Phase 3. The tortoise-like approach that MAPS has taken since its 1986 founding has been critically important in opening a dialogue about the value of psychedelics. Of course, governmental oversight of these substances has not exactly been progressive.
But there is forward movement. As Michael Pollan notes in his opus on this topic, How to Change Your Mind, given the lack of continual efficacy and troublesome side effects of current pharmacological treatments, governmental agencies are now taking a hands-off approach to substances like psilocybin and MDMA. In fact, research is being requested.
How MDMA and psychedelic drugs can assist mental health
"I… learned about the unique effects of MDMA and why it was used in couple's therapy prior to being placed on Schedule 1 list. Using a drug only a few times to enhance therapeutic processing to resolve underlying issues that cause PTSD symptoms seemed like an approach worth investigating."
MDMA increases the amount of serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline neurotransmitters in certain regions of the brain. Though ecstasy became victim to a bad public image in the '90s for being associated with kids at raves not drinking enough water while dancing all evening, little attention was paid to dosage and environment. As with many mind-altering substances, fear mongering usurped a levelheaded, rigorous clinical approach to better understanding how these drugs can benefit us.
The six trials included in this study were conducted between 2004–2017. A total of 103 volunteers took part. Participants underwent two or three 90-minute psychotherapy sessions prior to ingesting MDMA to establish a baseline for their conditions. This was followed by two to three supervised MDMA (or placebo) sessions. Volunteers remained overnight; a 90-minute "integration" session followed.
In total, half of the volunteers no longer met the clinical criteria for PTSD after their MDMA sessions. This is compared to 23 percent in the placebo group. This remained true after a year of follow-ups, which is especially important given that many pharmaceutical treatments require daily usage to remain effective.
Researchers are not certain why substances in the serotonin-producing family "reboot" people's psychological condition. One speculative idea is perspective. For example, LSD has shown efficacy in treating addiction issues. While on the psychedelic journey, a new worldview is introduced. When the subjects realize how their addictions destroy their bodies, they vow to change after the journey is over. Something about the realization coupled with neurochemistry makes the changes stick.
Photo by Travis Dove for The Washington Post via Getty Images
A dose of MDMA in the office of Dr. Michael Mithoefer, a psychiatrist, who has studied the use of MDMA as a treatment for PTSD in Mount Pleasant, SC, USA on August 24, 2017.
For some reason, psychedelics offer, at least in parts of the population, a "wake-up" powerful enough to reorient their relationship to reality. MDMA appears to have a similar function: experiencing the "bliss" associated with the substance, volunteers integrate the experience deeply enough to shift their outlook. The trauma of the past no longer holds as much power over them.
How this correlates on a neurochemical level remains to be seen. Yet as the study authors note, the efficacy of these Phase 2 trials is dependent upon MDMA and psychotherapy. Taking the substance but not being offered professional guidance might not prove as effective in long-term integration regardless of chemical interactions. As has long been espoused in the psychedelic community, set and setting are equally important factors in the experience; drugs alone will not do the trick.
Minor side effects were recorded during the sessions, including anxiety, dizziness, jaw clenching, nausea, and lack of appetite. Still, given the overwhelming and profound nature of the experience, the team notes that MDMA has "a low potential for abuse." None of the volunteers reported craving more; a number of respondents said they did not find pleasure, and that it was "rather difficult therapeutic work delving into their traumatic memories."
As Feduccia says of the research, the road ahead is long. But this is an important step in overturning decades of misinformation about substances like MDMA and their therapeutic potential. If Phase 3 trials hold up, an entirely new — and more importantly, sanctioned — line of treatment could open up.
"It has taken many decades to reach this point for MDMA drug development," she says. "We are seeing a shift in public opinion as scientific evidence builds support for use of MDMA and psychedelics for treating mental health conditions. These are exciting times we live in, and could very well likely be on the cusp of a new paradigm for psychiatric medicine."