Archive for November, 2008

pirates 3.pir.001283 Louis J. Sheehan, Esquire

November 29, 2008

Louis J. Sheehan, Esquire.  In the so-called golden age of piracy, spanning the late 17th and early 18th centuries, pirate captains such as Blackbeard and Bartholomew Roberts roamed the seas in search of plunder. Their fearsome exploits became the stuff of lore, inspiring countless films, books, amusement-park rides and, ahem, more films. But those same exploits also fed a reputation that facilitated their activities—a sort of brand name that was widely known and was instantly recognizable by its logo, the Jolly Roger (a black flag with a skull and crossbones).

In a new paper, “Pirational Choice,” and in the forthcoming book The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates, economist Peter Leeson of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., examines the inner workings of pirate organizations. He makes the case that pirates, far from being the unrestrained barbarians of legend, were actually shrewd businessmen who carefully calculated their actions to increase their haul while minimizing risk and expenditure. Leeson spoke to us recently about his research and how modern-day pirates stack up against their golden-age counterparts. An edited transcript follows.

Your central thesis seems to be that pirates are not the roving ruthless barbarians that they’ve been portrayed as but instead are very conscious and rational money-maximizers.
That’s right. Piracy is an employment, and I think that we should think about sailors’ decisions to enter piracy as opposed to, say, the legitimate merchant service as an employment decision just like anybody else’s. The same features that are driving pirates’ behavior drive our behavior when we think about employment options. And they are rational again in the traditional economic sense, which is that they respond to incentives and they consistently act to achieve their goals.

You discuss strategies that pirates employ to brand themselves and to develop the image of barbarians not to be trifled with. And you highlight this by citing the example of the Jolly Roger.
At the time that pirates of the early 18th century were operating in the Caribbean, there were other potential attackers that a merchant crew might confront. The reason that’s important is because those other potential attackers were less fearsome than pirates, because they were constrained by the law. Pirates could do whatever they wanted to you if you resisted them, but these guys were, at least in principle, somewhat limited. So if pirates wanted to take the prey with as little resistance as possible, which they did because they wanted to keep costs down, what they needed to do was to somehow indicate that “I’m a pirate and I will kill you if you resist me,” as opposed to one of these legitimate attackers. And in response to that need, which is again a profit-driven purpose, pirates developed the Jolly Roger.

Can you please clarify the term “separating equilibrium” that pops up in your chapter on the Jolly Roger?
A separating equilibrium is to be contrasted with what’s called a pooling equilibrium. It’s part of signaling theory, the idea that people want to engage in various behaviors to communicate something about themselves that isn’t directly observable. What makes for a successful signal is if it’s more costly for some types to send than it is for others.

Think about it this way: if the Jolly Roger was so effective at facilitating merchant ship surrender, then why didn’t the legitimate belligerents, the other guys attacking merchant ships, also want to hoist the Jolly Roger? Because it could have facilitated easier surrender for them, too. My point is that they did want to. A pooling equilibrium was threatened but was largely prevented by what is called the single-crossing property in economics—the fact that it’s more costly for the one type than for the other. And it was more costly for a privateer ship, which was legitimate, because if they raised the Jolly Roger, all of a sudden their status moves from legitimate … to criminal—they could be caught and hanged. So that’s an added cost for them. But pirates, since they were already outlaws, they had already incurred that cost.

In terms of establishing the pirate brand, you discuss cruelty as a means of achieving that notoriety.
That’s exactly right. Again, if we think of piracy as a business, as I think we should, their reputation was just as important as it is for any other business. So in order to institutionalize the brand name that they wanted to cultivate, what they needed to do was first work diligently in creating it. The way that they did that was through ruthlessly adhering to this idea of torturing people if they didn’t comply with them once they had boarded their ship. We normally think about pirates as sort of blood-lusting, that they want to slash somebody to pieces. [It’s probably more likely that] a pirate, just like a normal person, would probably rather not have killed someone, but pirates knew that if that person resisted them and they didn’t do something about it, their reputation and thus their brand name would be impaired. So you can imagine a pirate rather reluctantly engaging in this behavior as a way of preserving that reputation.

In fact, you point out that to be bloodthirsty would undercut the desired result, because it would signal to potential targets that they might as well resist.
The reason that cruelty was effective is because it constituted a cost of a behavior that pirates wanted to deter. If you’re a merchant crew and you know that pirates, no matter what you do, are going to try and slaughter you once they board you, well then of course there’s no cost to you resisting them. You might as well try; you’ll probably lose, but you’re no worse off than if you had just surrendered to them peacefully in the first place. So it was critical for pirates that they only applied heinous tortures when, in fact, they were using it to penalize behavior.

And this is part of this idea of what I call the “invisible hook.” It’s analogous, in some ways, to Adam Smith’s invisible hand [a hypothesized force by which a free-market economy naturally benefits the greater good] in the sense that, of course, pirate prey are worse off as a result of pirates attacking them, but a profit-motivated pirate crew is likely to behave better toward the people they’re attacking than one that in fact was truly sadistic and didn’t care about money at all. And this is a case where we can see that.

Is that how you’re able to separate cause from correlation? What’s to say that these pirates weren’t just, say, bands of bloodthirsty marauders that lucked into this strategy?
One of the things we can do is look at testable implications of the rational-choice theory. If in fact pirates were truly madmen, we would not expect them to only display that madness in particular cases. Especially, it would be a great coincidence if it happened to be those cases in which it stood to make them money. And that’s pretty much precisely what we observe.

Notice the sort of piratical paradox, if you will, that we confront. You’ve got these depraved and feral sea bandits living somehow by a strict pirate’s code, holding judicial sessions, and regulating alcohol use and gambling. The two things just don’t seem to match up. First of all, that undermines the claim that pirates were simply crazy, because when it was in their interest, they seemed to be able to behave perfectly rationally. And the rational-choice framework can really allow us to resolve that piratical paradox, in that you can take one basic core assumption about human behavior and explain two things that seemingly are at odds with each other, as opposed to positing ad hoc pirate motives as we go from practice to practice.

One example that you point to in demonstrating the efficiency of pirate behavior is that, according to at least one pirate historian, Blackbeard didn’t kill a single man.
That’s a perfect illustration of what we’re talking about here and another actual prediction that comes out of the rational-choice theory to a certain extent. The actual instances that we have of pirate brutality—and there are a number of them—an economist would characterize as out-of-equilibrium play, not the norm. Those cases are recorded precisely because something really nasty happened. And the fact that Blackbeard didn’t have to actually kill anybody is an indication of what we would call equilibrium play. The reputation that he’d created was so effective that he didn’t have to actually ever carry through on the threat that lay behind that image.

One thing that I thought was interesting is the fact that some of these pirate ships had institutionalized a form of worker’s compensation.
They did, and I talk about that in-depth in a different paper I wrote. But that’s exactly what they had. And one of the things that’s marvelous about the system is, first of all, its earliness. That was not a common thing in the 17th- and 18th-century world. Merchant sailors, for example, didn’t have access to something similar through the state until after pirates had already adopted this. But in any event it was a highly detailed scheme, so if you lost your right arm it would be worth x number of pieces of eight, and if you lost your left leg it would be worth y number of pieces of eight in compensation. So it was quite a developed system.

In this paper you focus primarily on the “golden age” of piracy. But what do you make of piracy today, especially with the Somali pirates in the news of late?
Modern-day pirates … are similar to old-school pirates in the sense that they are plundering on the sea and that they are engaged in plunder on the sea where government is weak. Other than that, when it comes to their institutional organization, for example, overwhelmingly they seem to be just not that interesting. Now—and as far as I know this is the only case we have of this—when the French government took a pirate crew earlier this year, they did find an actual pirate’s manual that laid out rules about how they would treat prisoners. It points again to the profit-seeking idea—it’s not because they’re nice people, it’s because the prisoners are valuable as hostages.

But it’s still nowhere near as elaborate or as interesting. The constitutions that 18th-century pirates had … created a true system of social governance on the pirate ship. Seventeenth- and 18th-century pirates were pioneers, in a certain way, of constitutional democracy. They had checks and balances aboard their ship, they had an early form of quasi-judicial review, and they were democratic, which was virtually unheard of in the Western world at that time. The reason modern pirates don’t have that, I think, is because 18th-century pirates spent lots and lots of time together at sea. It could be months on end. And they lived and worked and operated apart from legitimate society for long periods of time, which meant that the pirate ship was a kind of floating society. And that society, like any other one, required rules in order for it to be functional.

If you look at modern pirates, they tend to spend very little time together on their ships. Modern pirate expeditions tend to be in-and-out operations. And since they aren’t really together in the same way that 18th-century pirate crews were, they don’t really constitute floating societies. Therefore they don’t face the same kinds of social problems, at least to the same extent, that the 18th-century pirates did, and so that’s why they don’t have elaborate rules. No society, no rules.

They still seem to be turning a pretty nice profit.
Oh, absolutely. They seem to be doing well. I don’t think that they’re inferior predators. It’s just that they’re not as interesting predators.  Louis J. Sheehan, Esquire


invader 7.inv.1110002 Louis J. Sheehan, Esquire

November 27, 2008

In November, an unusual swarm of tiny critters caught the attention of a crewmember on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration boat docked in a Lake Michigan channel. He asked Steven Pothoven of NOAA’s Great Lakes environmental field station at Muskegon, Mich., what the critters were.

“I could see they weren’t fish, so I netted some,” the biologist recalls. Under magnification, the half-inch-long animals appeared to be crustaceans known as mysid shrimp. But “they couldn’t be the native mysid,” Pothoven realized, because those are cold- and deep-water denizens, not shoreline dwellers.

Within about a week, scientists at another federal lab identified the shoreline crustacean as a new invader, the warm-water species Hemimysis anomala. It’s native to rivers in Eastern Europe’s Ponto-Caspian region, also the home of zebra mussels.

This week, NOAA received a report of “large concentrations” of Hemimysis that appeared to be reproducing in southeastern Lake Ontario. http://LOUIS2J2SHEEHAN.US

From the 1970s through the 1990s, waves of notorious Ponto-Caspian species entered the Great Lakes in ships’ ballast waters. In 1998, Anthony Ricciardi and Joseph B. Rasmussen of McGill University in Montreal predicted 17 additional Ponto-Caspian species that they worried were poised to invade North America via the Great Lakes. Hemimysis is the first animal on that list to show up.

“I predict it will be a highly disruptive species,” says Ricciardi. He points out that the mysid voraciously consumes microscopic animals at the bottom of the food chain, which are dietary staples for many young fish.

David Reid, director of NOAA’s National Center for Research on Aquatic Invasive Species in Ann Arbor, Mich., says that he’s virtually certain that transatlantic cargo ships picked up Hemimysis in ballast water in Europe. Ironically, he adds, the species probably arrived on ships that had dumped ballast water before leaving Europe. However, those ships—called NOBOBs, for “no ballast on board”—still carry dozens of gallons of water at the bottom of their ballast tanks.

Since the mid-1980s, roughly 90 percent of saltwater ships entering the Great Lakes have been NOBOBs, Reid says.

Guidelines now recommend that NOBOBs flush their ballast tanks with salt water to kill freshwater stowaways before entering the Great Lakes. If they don’t “swish and spit,” Reid says, they can release European invaders as the ships pick up and release ballast water while offloading and taking on cargo in the Great Lakes.  http://LOUIS2J2SHEEHAN.US

Although Hemimysis deprives some young fish of food, it could be a new menu item for larger Great Lakes fish, Ricciardi says. However, as a new link in the Great Lakes food chain, Ricciardi worries, the fatty crustacean could boost concentrations of pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls in the larger fish.

Ricciardi says that H. anomala’s small size and innocent look shouldn’t fool anyone. “This is not a species to ignore.”  Louis J. Sheehan, Esquire

naipaul 2 8.nai.001 Louis J. Sheehan, Esquire

November 25, 2008

A great writer requires a great biography, and a great biography must tell the truth. V. S. Naipaul wanted his monument built while he was still alive, and, sticking to his own ruthless literary code, he was willing to pay the full price. Approached around the time of Naipaul’s Nobel Prize in 2001, the writer Patrick French insisted on complete access to the Naipaul archives at the University of Tulsa, which include his correspondence, his journals and the diaries of his wife, Pat (who died in 1996), never read by Naipaul. French also wanted his subject to sit many hours over many years for unrestricted interviews. In the end, this most difficult and fastidious of writers didn’t ask French to change a single word. Naipaul’s scrupulous compliance with all of his biographer’s demands, French writes, was “at once an act of narcissism and humility.”

Now Naipaul has his monument. “The World Is What It Is” (the severe opening words of “A Bend in the River”) is fully worthy of its subject, with all the dramatic pacing, the insight and the pathos of a first-rate novel. It is a magnificent tribute to the painful and unlikely struggle by which the grandson of indentured Indian workers, born in the small island colony of Trinidad, made himself into the greatest English novelist of the past half century. It is also a portrait of the artist as a monster. How these two judgments can be simultaneously true is one of this book’s central questions. Whether Naipaul himself understands the enormity of the story to which he contributed so much candor is another.

Naipaul was born in 1932, into a large extended family that mingled Hindu caste pride, small-time political power and material poverty. It was a rougher, more chaotic world than one would surmise from Naipaul’s autobiographical writings — at times there wasn’t enough to eat — and it helps to explain the affliction that one of his characters calls “colonial rage,” as well as Naipaul’s less-noticed sympathy for the oppressed and blighted of the earth.

His mother Droapatie’s kin were local potentates; his father, Seepersad, was a sensitive, psychologically unstable newspaperman, a failed writer who endured constant humiliation by his overbearing in-laws. The result in young Vidia was soaring ambition and unquenchable anger — a sense of destiny shared with his father, along with consuming resentments of his homeland, his family, the world’s injustice and indifference. French shows that, though Naipaul has always identified himself with his noble, tragic father — to the exclusion of the many Naipaul women — it was his mother who gave her son the means to force his way in the world: “Ma’s bright, certain, robust, slightly mocking tone of voice would be inherited by Vido; without the impetus of Ma and her family, his later achievements would have been impossible.”

In French’s rich narrative, there are two turning points, two moments of truth that might have crippled or destroyed Naipaul, but that instead made him, for better and worse, the writer and the man he became. After receiving a coveted scholarship to Oxford and graduating, he found himself, in the early 1950s, alone in London, racially marginalized, with no job or prospects, unable to get his first attempts at fiction published, desperately homesick, but unwilling to admit failure and return to Trinidad, even after his father’s death. This crisis plunged Naipaul into what he later called “a great depression verging on madness” that continued for 18 months. In his later writing he would return to the panic of this period of his life obsessively — in fiction, where he projects himself into the despair of various young male characters, or more directly in autobiographical work. But he always left out one crucial thing.

After he had become an internationally famous writer with the whole world as his subject, Naipaul liked to claim that he was a man without commitments or entanglements, free to observe and tell the truth as other, more sentimental souls were not — “to present himself not as a person but as solely ‘the writer,’ ” French says. But at the darkest moment of his life, he attached himself to a quiet, intelligent, self-effacing young Englishwoman from an unhappy lower-middle-class familynamed Patricia Hale; and she kept him from drowning. Excerpts from their letters reveal how desperately Naipaul clung to her: “You saved me once, and it is from that rescue that I have been able to keep going — from Feb. 9 to today. I love you, and I need you. Please don’t let me down. Please forgive my occasional lapses. At heart I am the worthiest man I know.”

The relationship began with Pat in the position of strength. Once they married and Naipaul began to publish his early books, the balance of power shifted decisively to him. Pat became his indispensable literary helper, his maid and cook, his mother, the object of his irritations, the traveling companion who never appears in any of his nonfiction. They had met as two highly repressed and untutored virgins of their benighted time, and a true sexual connection never formed. French places Naipaul’s tormented sexuality at the center of his creative efforts, revealed in detail through various sources, above all Naipaul himself, without ever sinking into voyeurism or what Joyce Carol Oates called “pathography.”

Over the years, as Naipaul’s fame grew along with his irascibility, the marriage desiccated. If Pat overcooked the fish, he berated her and she berated herself. The couple wanted children but Pat was apparently infertile; in her passivity and shame she never pursued the possible remedies. Naipaul frequented prostitutes, which brought no satisfaction. The Naipauls moved from place to place all over the world, dislocation becoming his great theme — not as adventurers, but as a harried, chronically dissatisfied couple. By the early 1970s, age 40 and with a dozen books already behind him, Naipaul had reached an impasse in his life and work. He told Pat that they had destroyed each other.

The second turning point — the moment at which “The World Is What It Is” becomes impossible to put down — comes when Naipaul, on a writing trip to Buenos Aires in early 1972, meets an Anglo-Argentine woman named Margarita, or Margaret Gooding. She was 30, unhappily married with three children, and Pat’s opposite — “tempestuous, cynical and sexy.” Naipaul and Margaret began an affair that set free all of his desires and fantasies. When his editor and friend Diana Athill scolded him, he replied, “I am having carnal pleasure for the first time in my life, are you saying I must give it up?” Carnal pleasure meant violence — in fact it was inextricable from beating Margaret up, degrading her in bed, turning the great man’s penis into an object of worship. How do we know these things? Because Naipaul tells them to his authorized biographer. “I was very violent with her for two days with my hand; my hand began to hurt. . . . She didn’t mind it at all. She thought of it in terms of my passion for her. Her face was bad. She couldn’t appear really in public. My hand was swollen. I was utterly helpless. I have enormous sympathy for people who do strange things out of passion.”

Naipaul’s capacity for sympathizing with himself is large: it even extended to the moment when he revealed the affair to Pat. “She was so good: she tried to comfort me. . . . I was so full of grief myself that in a way I expected her to respond to my grief, and she did.” The tenderness soon passed, and Naipaul began to hurl insults at his wronged wife: he had not enjoyed making love with her since 1967, she was the only woman he knew who had no talent, she did not behave like a writer’s wife. “You behave like the wife of a clerk who has risen above her station.”

The sensual release with Margaret opened up Naipaul’s most creative period, in the 1970s. “And thereafter I thought if that thing hadn’t occurred in my life I probably would have shriveled and died as a writer,” Naipaul told French. “All the later books in a way to some extent depend on her. They stopped being dry.” Compare Naipaul’s two Africa novels — the taut, austere “In a Free State,” published in 1971, and his full-bodied masterpiece “A Bend in the River,” published in 1979 — and it’s impossible to deny that having sex with Margaret (they did little else) was good for his writing. But so was living with Pat — for Naipaul didn’t leave her, nor she him. Instead, he split his life in two — the cerebral and the sexual, “Mama at home, a whore in South America,” in French’s harsh summation — and went back and forth between them with the knowledge, if not exactly the consent, of both.

Pat acceded to the arrangement because she had no idea of any possible life without Naipaul, and because her only sense of pleasure or worth came in his continued dependence on her steadying presence and judgment. Margaret became the new traveling companion (though Naipaul usually sent her away out of pique before the trip was done), while Pat, drugging herself with Quaaludes and Valium, waited at home in Wiltshire to provide literary advice. Rough sex with Margaret would be directly rendered in key passages of “Guerrillas” and “A Bend in the River”; then Pat would listen to the write-up, flinch, leave the room, return, express admiration, make suggestions — without ever daring to “ask herself to what extent Vidia’s writing is drawn from life, and specifically from his life with Margaret.”

The triangle, composed of two variations on sadomasochism, lasted a quarter-century. But it was not a stable balance. “Many years later, he acknowledged that his relationship with Margaret effectively undid Pat’s life,” French reports. “ ‘I was liberated. She was destroyed. It was inevitable.’ ” Note the passive voice. Also note the hand of fate. Naipaul’s confessions to French are like those of a man who leads an investigator to the freshly dug earth in his backyard, and even points out the pieces of human flesh and bone, without ever saying, “I killed her.”

When she learned about her husband’s affair, Pat resumed a diary that she had kept intermittently over the years. French’s access to these words raises this miserable woman above the merely pathetic and gives the book a badly needed second point of view: “Increasingly, these days, I regret the loss, the damage of Vidia’s rages and quarrels. Simple losses — of the beautiful food I have cooked, happy days, days of one’s life. It was my fault. . . .” The diary, French writes, “puts Patricia Naipaul on a par with other great, tragic literary spouses such as Sonia Tolstoy, Jane Carlyle and Leonard Woolf.” Pat’s voice is faltering and uncertain where Naipaul’s is relentlessly in command, but its small observations, evasions and sudden bolts of understanding haunt the reader up until her death of cancer, which gives this story its heartbreaking end. Naipaul, keeping a journal of his own, finally sees his wife as if for the first time: “I to her: ‘Are you content?’ Yes. Would you say you have had a happy life? No direct answer. ‘It was perhaps my own fault.’ . . . The ‘patch’ is working together with the Zudol tablets. She sleeps. But when she wakes up she feels ‘stunned’ by what she has been through. Her bad — jaundiced — color comes and goes. She is pure grace.” He scatters Pat’s ashes deep in the Wiltshire countryside, accompanied by the woman he had already decided to marry once Pat was dead, having jettisoned Margaret a final time.

Naipaul’s code of accountability lies in facing the truth, but it’s a limited truth, with no sense of agency. He cannot begin to see himself as his biographer or reader sees him, for the pain of others always reverts back to his own. And yet this bottomless narcissism, together with the uncompromising intensity of his vision, holds the key to Naipaul’s literary power. He had the capacity in his writing to pro­ject himself into a great variety of people and situations, allowing him to imbue his work with the sympathy and humanity that he failed to extend to those closest to him in life.   Louis J. Sheehan, Esquire

human 334.hum.111 Louis J. Sheehan, Esquire

November 17, 2008

After living for nearly 2 millennia in Chile’s lowland jungles, South American settlers first braved the region’s Atacama Desert around 13,000 years ago. Modern archaeologists would like to know why. LOUIS-J-SHEEHAN.BIZ

New evidence may explain this puzzling migration and also account for an extended abandonment of the 2-mile-high desert several thousand years later.

It boils down to climate changes, say Martin Grosjean of the University of Bern in Switzerland and his two Chilean colleagues. Hunters sought Atacama game only during rainy, humid times, when high-altitude lakes were plentiful, the researchers conclude.

During droughts, most of those lakes evaporated, and prehistoric hunters headed for the low country.

In the Oct. 25 Science, the researchers describe ancient camp sites situated next to now-dry lakebeds in the Atacama Desert and nearby occupation sites at lower elevations. “They have verified a link between substantial climate changes and early settlement patterns in South America,” remarks archaeologist Betty J. Meggers of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

The new findings bolster the theory that early New World settlers moved slowly through hospitable environments, adapted to local conditions, and avoided or fled harsh locales, says archaeologist Tom D. Dillehay of the University of Kentucky in Lexington. A competing theory posits that immigrants to the New World rapidly spread southward as they hunted big game species to extinction within about 2,000 years.

At sites in and around the Chilean desert, Grosjean’s group first conducted soil and pollen analyses that identified a transition to a humid climate between 11,800 and 10,500 years ago. Those conditions would have supported extensive grasslands and lake formation within the desert.

The scientists then unearthed spear points, hearths, and bones of camel-like creatures and other animals at 39 Atacama Desert camps, located on the shores of 20 dry lakebeds. Similar artifacts were found in six intermediate-altitude caves just outside the desert and in several lower-altitude sites in what had been marshy wetlands.

According to radiocarbon dating of charcoal at these sites, people first lived in the caves from about 12,900 to 9,400 years ago. Low-altitude occupations cover roughly the same period. The first high-altitude Atacama Desert camps were established between 9,900 and 8,800 years ago.

Soil data show that at the end of that period, the lakes dried up. Evidence of human occupation in the Atacama Desert disappears at the same time. Human activity also ceased in the caves, except for signs of sporadic visits to those few caves that were located near springs or marshes.

Human occupation of lakeside camps and caves resumed about 4,500 years ago, along with the return of a humid climate and a rebound in lake levels. LOUIS-J-SHEEHAN.BIZ

Overall, the findings show that the shifting availability of lakes, springs, and streams greatly influenced the movements of the first people in the Atacama region, Dillehay says. When favorable climatic conditions occurred, settlers moved to intermediate altitudes, where they were positioned to launch seasonal hunting forays at high altitudes when lakes and vegetation appeared there. LOUIS-J-SHEEHAN.BIZ

The “archaeological silence” in the Atacama region between 9,000 and 4,500 years ago may have resulted from social or power conflicts as well as arid conditions, Dillehay adds. Louis J. Sheehan, Esquire

skin Louis J. Sheehan, Esquire

November 15, 2008

Most people think of rain forests as hot spots for biological diversity, but new research suggests that belly buttons are also rich ecosystems. That’s one finding from the first attempt to take a large-scale inventory of microbes on human skin.

In recent years scientists have come to appreciate that people are super organisms, composed not just of human tissue, but also of microbes galore. Human skin is covered by a wide variety of bacteria, viruses, fungi and mites, says Elizabeth Grice, a genomics researcher at the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Md. Most of the time, people and their microbes live in harmony, but people with skin conditions such as eczema often also struggle with skin infections.

“The skin is two square meters of ecosystem,” Grice said November 13 in Philadelphia at a meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics. Louis J. Sheehan, Esquire

Grice presented work she and her colleagues have done to catalog the diversity of bacteria living on human skin. The findings could help doctors and scientists better understand why some people develop skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis while other people with similar genetic backgrounds do not.

“We know there is a genetic component” to eczema, says Kimberly Chapman, a clinical geneticist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who was not involved in the research. Some people with eczema have a defect in filaggrin, a protein that helps form the skin’s protective barrier. But not everyone who has filaggrin variations associated with eczema will get the skin condition. The new inventory of bacteria could help researchers determine whether people with eczema have an unbalanced immune response to bacteria living on their skin, says Chapman.

In the new study, dermatologists collected skin scrapings from 21 places on the bodies of 10 healthy volunteers. The participants were asked to wash only with Dove soap for a week, because the soap is mild and doesn’t contain antibacterial chemicals. For 24 hours before the samples were collected the volunteers weren’t allowed to shower or wash their hands.

Grice and her colleagues examined genetic diversity in the 16S ribosomal RNA gene in bacteria in the samples. The gene encodes an RNA used in the protein-building machinery in bacterial cells. Some parts of the gene contain many variations that scientists can use to distinguish one type of bacteria from another. This technique has been used to sample bacteria living in a wide variety of ecosystems, including oceans, human and mouse intestines, and even on shower curtains and toothbrushes.

Some parts of the body contain an abundance of bacterial species. Among the most diverse spots were the belly button, inner forearm, buttocks, the skin between the fingers and the gluteal crease (also known as the plumber’s crack). Other body parts have a relative dearth of bacterial diversity. Among the skin’s diversity, cold spots are the greasy spot just behind the ear, the crease on the side of the nose, the toe webs and the sternum.

In some spots on some volunteers the researchers found up to 300 different species of bacteria, Grice says. Other areas contained as few as three different types of bacteria. The amount of diversity varied greatly not only from body part to body part but also from person to person.

Oily spots tended to have an abundance of Propionibacteria, which can break down fatty acids in the oil for food. Corynebacteria, Staphlococcus and Propionibacteria were often found on moist skin, while dry skin, like the heel, had more Staphylococcus. There are many varieties of Staphylococcus bacteria present on the skin, not just Staphylococcus aureus, a type of bacteria often linked to skin infections.

The researchers plan to test the healthy volunteers again six months after collecting the first samples to see whether bacteria on the skin change over time. Grice and her colleagues are also recruiting volunteers with eczema to see if people with skin conditions have different types of bacteria on their skin. Louis J. Sheehan, Esquire

bats 66.bat.11 Louis J. Sheehan, Esquire

November 15, 2008

Louis J. Sheehan, Esquire.  When you think of things that are white and fuzzy, usually you think of something cute or nice. But a newly discovered fuzzy, white mold may be making bats in the Northeast U.S. sick. The illness and mold strike during hibernation, bats’ long wintertime sleep.

The mold was first spotted by a cave explorer two years ago. The fuzzy fungus was growing on hibernating bats’ noses and wings. Bats with the mold often grew thin, weak and died. Scientists named this phenomenon “white-nose syndrome” after the mold found on the bats’ noses.

Since that first sighting, thousands of bats in the Northeast have died. Scientists now wonder if the mystery fungus may be the killer. Once the mold hits caves or mines where bats are hibernating, between 80 and 100 percent of the bats usually die, says Marianne Moore, a bat researcher at Boston University.

Northeastern bats hunt insects, including some that are pests. So a lack of bats “could be a huge problem,” Moore says.

Scientists still aren’t sure if the white fuzz is the killer. The mold may just attack bats when they are already sick and more likely to get other illnesses. But, identifying the fungus may help scientists find out if it’s the killer.

To figure out what the fungus was, scientists studied it in a lab. They took samples of the mold from sick bats. Then the scientists brought the samples to a lab, where they could grow and be compared to other molds.

At room temperature, the scientists’ efforts were thwarted — samples of this mystery mold wouldn’t develop. Frustrated, the scientists finally tried putting the samples in the refrigerator. This cooled the samples down to temperatures found in bat caves during the winter. Sure enough, when the lab samples were chilly, an unfamiliar form of mold began to grow. The scientists think it may be an entirely new species, or type, of mold or a new form of an existing species.

What’s unusual about the new mold is that it won’t survive in higher temperatures, says David Blehert of the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisc. He and colleagues were part of the study that tried to grow and identify the mold in the lab.

Human noses, for example, are way too warm for the fungus.

In hibernation, “a bat for all practical purposes is almost dead” says Blehert. The heart of an active bat beats hundreds of times per minute. This can drop as low as about four beats per minute during hibernation. And a bat’s body during this time chills to only a few degrees above the cave’s temperature. The cold temperature of bat caves in New England makes for a perfect home for the mold.

This is good news for bats that fly to the warm south in the winter or live in warm, dry places year-round. Their caves will be too warm to host the white fuzz.

But the sickness has already hammered at least six species of bats in the Northeast. Two of these bats are the little brown bat and the endangered Indiana bat. Louis J. Sheehan, Esquire

flooding 9993.flo.1119 Louis J. Sheehan

November 12, 2008

If you know an old lady who swallowed a spider, tell her to cough it up. Spiders and insects living near a mercury-contaminated river contain unusually high levels of the toxic metal, and it is turning up in area songbirds, a new study finds.

“We think of mercury as an aquatic problem,” comments wildlife toxicologist Tony Scheuhammer of National Wildlife Research Centre in Ottawa. “This study shows a particular way that it can become a terrestrial ecosystem problem.”

Numerous studies have documented widespread mercury contamination of streams, wetlands and lakes, but the details of its journey remain murky. It’s clear that certain bacteria living in low-oxygen environments such as river-bottom mud can convert inorganic mercury to methylmercury, the form that accumulates most easily in the tissues of living things. Then the metal travels up the food chain, its concentration magnifying with each step.

The current study looked beyond the life aquatic, investigating mercury levels in 13 bird species living along the South River, a tributary of the Shenandoah River in Virginia. In the 1970s, a serious mercury contamination problem was discovered in that river near the site of a fiber production plant that operated between 1929 and 1950.

Lead author Daniel Cristol of the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., says that “it was partly a contrarian streak” that prompted him to look into mercury levels of terrestrial birds — loons and other fish-eaters are usually the focus of such investigations. Cristol and a team of his students began sampling in 2005 and were surprised at the mercury levels they found in birds that eat insects for a living. “It was undeniable — across the board — and the only link we saw was the insects, so we started sampling insects,” Cristol says.

The researchers took blood from more than 200 birds living within 50 meters of the river and also sampled more than 100 birds of the same species from sites upriver from the contamination. Fish-eating birds were also sampled for comparison. And the team intercepted food items such as spiders, grasshoppers and caterpillars from three species of birds trying to feed their young.

Spiders made up 20 to 30 percent of these birds’ diets, yet delivered about 75 percent of the mercury, much of it the methylmercury that moves into living tissue, the researchers report in the April 18 Science. And the eight-legged critters had higher overall mercury levels than the local fish-eating kingfishers.

Spiders are predatory, so it makes sense that they have high levels of the toxic metal, comments aquatic ecologist David Schindler of the University of Alberta in Edmonton. “Anything that lengthens the food chain pushes the mercury up, and it is biomagnified by about a factor of 10 with each step,” he says. If spiders are eating mercury-laden insects, the birds eating those spiders are getting a heftier dose than birds eating caterpillars, creatures that eat plants.

It’s not clear how the mercury is getting into the land-dwelling insects to begin with. The spiders might eat insects that spent some part of their life cycle in the water, or mercury may have been deposited on land during past flooding. Schindler hopes to address these questions this summer with experiments that will trace mercury through the food web. He also plans to examine whether the birds’ reproductive success is affected by the poisonous metal.

The work is important, says Schindler, but he is not totally surprised by the findings that the metal has made its way onto land. “Mercury is a particularly slippery customer,” he says.

Louis J. Sheehan, Esquire

alaska 774.ala.4 Louis J. Sheehan

November 7, 2008

A judge on Monday struck down part of a new Alaska law criminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, saying it conflicts with past constitutional decisions made by the Alaska Supreme Court.

That means the police won’t be able charge people with a misdemeanor under the new law for possessing less than 1 ounce of marijuana in their homes.

The state Department of Law was expected to quickly file an appeal with the high court.

Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins said a lower court can’t reverse the state Supreme Court’s 1975 decision in Ravin v. State. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled the right to privacy in one’s home included the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use.

“Unless and until the Supreme Court directs otherwise, Ravin is the law in this state and this court is duty bound to follow that law,” Collins wrote in her decision.

Collins granted a summary judgment to the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, which sued the state when the law took effect in June.

Collins limited her decision to possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana, even though the new law increases penalties for possession of more than that amount. Before the law took effect in June, it had been legal in Alaska to possess up to 4 ounces of the drug.

Collins said she limited her decision because the ACLU argued that the only issue in this case is the Legislature’s power to regulate possession of small amounts of marijuana.

“No specific argument has been advanced in this case that possession of more than 1 ounce of marijuana, even within the privacy of the home, is constitutionally protected conduct under Ravin or that any plaintiff or ACLU of Alaska member actually possesses more than 1 ounce of marijuana in their homes,” Collins wrote.

The new law makes possession of 4 ounces or more a felony. Possession of 1 to 4 ounces is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail. The part the court ruled against was that less than 1 ounce would be a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail.



var TFSMFlash_VERSION=6;
var TFSMFlash_WMODE=”transparent”;
var TFSMFlash_OASCLICK=”;;
var TFSMFlash_OASALTTEXT=”Click Here”;
var TFSMFlash_OASTARGET=”_blank”;
var TFSMFlash_OASPROTOCOL=”http://&#8221;;
var TFSMFlash_OASDIM=”WIDTH=’300’ HEIGHT=’250′”;
var TFSMFlash_OASADID=”ad_banner”;

document.write(‘<scr’+’ipt src=”″></scr’+’ipt>&#8217;);
<a href=”; target=”_blank”><img src=”; alt=”Click Here” border=0></a>

“Our initial interpretation of this case at this point is that Judge Collins’ decision makes it clear that the state has the ability to regulate marijuana uses in amounts greater that 1 ounce,” Department of Law spokesman Mark Morones said.

The state Department of Law argued that new findings of marijuana’s increased potency since the 1975 decision justify reconsidering the issue.

ACLU of Alaska executive director Michael Macleod-Ball lauded the reasoning behind Collins’ decision.

“If a lower court could just overturn a higher court’s opinion at any time, our court system would be in disarray,” he said. “The notion of privacy in one’s home is upheld. That’s what we’ve been saying all along.”

Louis J. Sheehan

LSD CIA 82.cia.lsd.987 Louis J. Sheehan

November 2, 2008

In the 1950s, visitors to a brothel atop San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill got more than just a tryst and a view of the bay. Clients were secretly dosed with LSD as CIA agents watched from behind a one-way mirror. Although it sounds like a bad late-night spy movie, Operation Midnight Climax, as it was called, was a very real part of a larger covert project called MKULTRA.

In 1953 the director of Central Intelligence, Allen W. Dulles, officially approved MKULTRA,­ which sought chemical, biological, and radiological approaches to interrogation and behavior modification. Early on, the experiments employed volunteers, but as the program grew, ordinary American citizens and foreign nationals became unsuspecting subjects in the studies. At least one death was directly attributed to the experiments: Army scientist Frank Olson drank Cointreau laced with LSD and committed suicide a week later.

“They launched into reckless experimentation without close medical supervision,” says psychiatrist James S. Ketchum, whose book, Chemical Warfare Secrets Almost Forgotten, recounts his participation in a different Army project exploring the use of LSD as a chemical weapon. “Moral issues were considered minor if greater national security could be obtained.”

LSD, radiation, and electroshock all ended up as dead ends in the MKULTRA program’s quest for mind control. Still, the search for ways to penetrate minds continues. Recent studies suggest that noninvasive brain scans, taken with a functional MRI (fMRI), make the mind more transparent. Private companies tout fMRI as an improved lie detector, and the government has taken notice. Programs funded by the Department of Defense have looked into the feasibility of fMRI research.

Even so, plenty of people have their doubts. “That bridge between consciousness and drug effects has yet to be crossed, and I don’t know if it ever will be,” Ketchum says. “There is no truth serum.”

Louis J. Sheehan

infidelity 334.inf.443 Louis J. Sheehan

November 1, 2008

If you cheated on your spouse, would you admit it to a researcher?

That question is one of the biggest challenges in the scientific study of marriage, and it helps explain why different studies produce different estimates of infidelity rates in the United States.

Surveys conducted in person are likely to underestimate the real rate of adultery, because people are reluctant to admit such behavior not just to their spouses but to anyone.

In a study published last summer in The Journal of Family Psychology, for example, researchers from the University of Colorado and Texas A&M surveyed 4,884 married women, using face-to-face interviews and anonymous computer questionnaires. In the interviews, only 1 percent of women said they had been unfaithful to their husbands in the past year; on the computer questionnaire, more than 6 percent did.

At the same time, experts say that surveys appearing in sources like women’s magazines may overstate the adultery rate, because they suffer from what pollsters call selection bias: the respondents select themselves and may be more likely to report infidelity.

But a handful of new studies suggest surprising changes in the marital landscape. Infidelity appears to be on the rise, particularly among older men and young couples. Notably, women appear to be closing the adultery gap: younger women appear to be cheating on their spouses nearly as often as men.

“If you just ask whether infidelity is going up, you don’t see really impressive changes,” said David C. Atkins, research associate professor at the University of Washington Center for the Study of Health and Risk Behaviors. “But if you magnify the picture and you start looking at specific gender and age cohorts, we do start to see some pretty significant changes.”

The most consistent data on infidelity come from the General Social Survey, sponsored by the National Science Foundation and based at the University of Chicago, which has used a national representative sample to track the opinions and social behaviors of Americans since 1972. The survey data show that in any given year, about 10 percent of married people — 12 percent of men and 7 percent of women — say they have had sex outside their marriage.

But detailed analysis of the data from 1991 to 2006, to be presented next month by Dr. Atkins at the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies conference in Orlando, show some surprising shifts. University of Washington researchers have found that the lifetime rate of infidelity for men over 60 increased to 28 percent in 2006, up from 20 percent in 1991. For women over 60, the increase is more striking: to 15 percent, up from 5 percent in 1991.

The researchers also see big changes in relatively new marriages. About 20 percent of men and 15 percent of women under 35 say they have ever been unfaithful, up from about 15 and 12 percent respectively.

Theories vary about why more people appear to be cheating. Among older people, a host of newer drugs and treatments are making it easier to be sexual, and in some cases unfaithful — Viagra and other remedies for erectile dysfunction, estrogen and testosterone supplements to maintain women’s sex drive and vaginal health, even advances like better hip replacements.

“They’ve got the physical health to express their sexuality into old age,” said Helen E. Fisher, research professor of anthropology at Rutgers and the author of several books on the biological and evolutionary basis of love and sex.

In younger couples, the increasing availability of pornography on the Internet, which has been shown to affect sexual attitudes and perceptions of “normal” behavior, may be playing a role in rising infidelity.

But it is the apparent change in women’s fidelity that has sparked the most interest among relationship researchers. It is not entirely clear if the historical gap between men and women is real or if women have just been more likely to lie about it.

“Is it that men are bragging about it and women are lying to everybody including themselves?” Dr. Fisher asked. “Men want to think women don’t cheat, and women want men to think they don’t cheat, and therefore the sexes have been playing a little psychological game with each other.”

Dr. Fisher notes that infidelity is common across cultures, and that in hunting and gathering societies, there is no evidence that women are any less adulterous than men. The fidelity gap may be explained more by cultural pressures than any real difference in sex drives between men and women. Men with multiple partners typically are viewed as virile, while women are considered promiscuous. And historically, women have been isolated on farms or at home with children, giving them fewer opportunities to be unfaithful.

But today, married women are more likely to spend late hours at the office and travel on business. And even for women who stay home, cellphones, e-mail and instant messaging appear to be allowing them to form more intimate relationships, marriage therapists say. Dr. Frank Pittman, an Atlanta psychiatrist who specializes in family crisis and couples therapy, says he has noticed more women talking about affairs centered on “electronic” contact.

“I see a changing landscape in which the emphasis is less on the sex than it is on the openness and intimacy and the revelation of secrets,” said Dr. Pittman, the author of “Private Lies: Infidelity and the Betrayal of Intimacy” (Norton, 1990). “Everybody talks by cellphone and the relationship evolves because you become increasingly distant from whomever you lie to, and you become increasingly close to whomever you tell the truth to.”

While infidelity rates do appear to be rising, a vast majority of people still say adultery is wrong, and most men and women do not appear to be unfaithful. Another problem with the data is that it fails to discern when respondents cheat: in a troubled time in the marriage, or at the end of a failing relationship.

“It’s certainly plausible that women might have increased their relative rate of infidelity over time,” said Edward O. Laumann, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago. “But it isn’t going to be a huge number. The real thing to talk about is where are they in terms of their relationship and the marital bond.”

The General Social Survey data also show some encouraging trends, said John P. Robinson, professor of sociology and director of the Americans’ Use of Time project at the University of Maryland. One notable shift is that couples appear to be spending slightly more time together. And married men and women also appear to have the most active sex lives, reporting sex with their spouse 58 times a year, a little more than once a week.

“We’ve looked at that as good news,” Dr. Robinson said.