Track the Fall Migration With Birding Ace Bryan Pfeiffer

A merlin on Monhegan Island, by Bryan Pfeiffer. All rights reserved.

Bryan Pfeiffer, one of Vermont’s sharpest birders, most engaging and informative bird and dragonfly guides, and funniest people, is on Monhegan Island, Maine, scouting for a guiding trip he’s leading next week. Here’s a bit of his first report, describing some raptors hunting a bunch of blue jays.

A young Cooper’s Hawk joined the fracas. No, it’s a Sharp-shinned Hawk. Wait, it’s a Cooper’s. Well, actually, it’s one of each. Two hawks, three falcons, and a half-dozen Blue Jays somehow managing to elude raptorial determination and deadly talons. That … and 14 warbler species in 24 hours.

ryan travels all over North America watching birds, showing them to others, and taking amazing photographs. Follow him as he tracks the fall migration. You can also track him at Twitter or Facebook

Monhegan Report No. 1 | Bryan Pfeiffer.

A-glitter in the Net – Best reads and links Sept 13 2013

Paperscape interactive map of scientific research papers
Interactive map of scientific research papers published at arXiv, a pre-print publication site heavy on physics, math, and computer science. Click pic to go to the Guardian story.


Don’t miss David Quammen’s gorgeous, moving review of George Johnson’s beautiful masterwork, Cancer Chronicles. I read some great stuff this week, but nothing that moved me more than this.

Brendan Borrell with an incredible story about a frog taxonomist who hops back in time to refresh the work of another, quite strange frog taxonomist who was also a spy. I’m not making this up, and neither did Borrell; he dug it up.

This Insect Has Gears In Its Legs by Ed Yong

Obviously. WAIT – whu? Some female squid can paint fake testes on themselves

“You touch the fecal bacteria of strangers ALL THE TIME.” Yes, you do. So does @verogreenwood, who’s big enough to admit it. Get the full scoop here.

How Chris McCandless Died.  John Krakauer on new evidence supporting his 20-year-old hypothesis of what killed the young (un?)hero of Krakauer’s bestseller Into the Wild.

Are your 9/11 memories really your own?  Quite possibly not.

‘Boys Have Deep Emotional Lives’  When we let them.

Looking Beyond the ‘Neuro’ Revolution in Psychological Science  Liz Phelps of NYU, a leader in neuropsych, weighs in.

Long Lives Made Humans Human

Attenborough’s Muddled Thinking Can’t Stop Human Evolution, by Barbara J. King, and another take, The Surprising Ways Humans Continue to Evolve, by Brandon Keim.

Paperscape maps the dazzling universe of scientific research. The source of the lovely graphic at top of this post.

Grass-roots push to expand use of rapid-acting antidepressant.  Paul Raeburn on the push to make ketamine more widely available to fight depression.



U.S. measles cases in 2013 may be most in 17 years –

American Schools Are Failing Nonconformist Kids. Here’s How  A good rowdy rant from Liz Weil.

This is a complete list of Wall Street CEOs prosecuted for their role in the financial crisis. It’s short.



One of the most chilling reads I’ve ever heard: F. Scott Fitzgerald reads John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” H/t to David Grann

Oh christ these are fun. Twain on Austen? OMG. RT @mental_floss: 9 Famous Writers Ripping Other Famous Writers —

Why a recent journalism school graduate spent her money on a drone  To do good work.

The fabricator who tarnished the reputation of This American Life apparently pays no price for his crime….



Horrifying facial morph of George W. Bush and Barack Obama on Twitpic


For yet more amazing good links, don’t miss Ed Yong’s reliably fantastic “missing link” fest every Saturday at Not Exactly Rocket Science.

A’glitter in the Net: Recent readings, Sept 6 2013

Some of the more intriguing posts and links from my recent internet fishing trips. Apologies for all the great stuff I’ve missed. Been busy, plus doubtless forgot a few.


How City Living Is Reshaping the Brains and Behavior of Urban Animals Brill piece by Brandon Keim — a model of science reporting: clear exposition, splendid contextualizing

Speaking of urban animals, Farewell to Gus, Whose Issues Made Him a Star

How do expert cricketers keep their eye on the ball? | Pete Etchells  Baseball and tennis fans will also like.

Consciousness is a Process, from Virginia Hughes at NatGeo

The Upside of Trauma, on how trauma can (and usually does) do good things for you. By Ethan Watters

‘The Cancer Chronicles’ Wanders Through the Disease’s World – NYTimes review of George Johnson’s new book. And here’s a lovely piece drawn from it: Cancer’s Primeval Power and Murderous Purpose .

Wiring the Brain: The Trouble with Epigenetics (Part 2) Kevin Mitchell, one of the best writing on neurodevelopment these days, on the baggyness and limits of that word (and field).

Mitchell is also sharp on Why optogenetics deserves the hype.

Three takes on how poverty is a brain drain. The Poor’s Poor Mental Power and  Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function, both from Science, and  Poverty saps mental capacity to deal with complex tasks, say scientists, Alok Jha’s wonderful report at The Guardian

Related: The appalling war on food stamps On the Edge of Poverty, at the Center of a Debate on Food Stamps

Barry Yeoman’s Journey to Turkey | Audubon Magazine is a good trip.

If A Parent Murders An Autistic Child, Who Is To Blame? Not such a good trip. But another great column from the smart and fearless Emily Willingham.

One year at Haldane’s Sieve | Haldane’s Sieve  A barebones blog experiment in pre-print peer review turns one. Congratulations to Graham Coop, Joe Pickrell, and Bryan Howie.

Yes, I really want to know | Prion Alliance Some people don’t want to know if they carry a nasty fatal gene. Some do. This remarkable post is by one of the latter.

Butterfly On A Bullet   Lee Hotz tells how to write a 6-part newspaper series on a shuttle disaster that’s already had over 50,000 stories written about it. Short and brilliant.

Medicine good and bad

Why aren’t you dead yet? Laura Helmuth can tell you. If she can’t, you tell her: Life expectancy history: Public health and medical advances that lead to long lives. An ode to modern medicine.

From here it goes downhill:

How to Charge $546 for Six Liters of Saltwater  Another in the NY Times invaluable series on the outrageous profiteering bazaar that is the American healthcare system. That anyone defends this system any longer is an outrage.

13 patients possibly exposed to rare and fatal brain disease from N.H. hospital – NBC  Looks quite bad.

M.D. Anderson’s top national cancer center rating aided by huge error in data. Looks even worse. Paul Raeburn with yet more horrific behavior from M.D. Anderson. I grew up near that hospital, and its reputation as a great cancer center made the sight of it a thing of pride. Now it stands tall for shameless profiteering — a transition emblematic of U.S. medicine.

Coroner “listed the cause of death as “therapeutic misadventure.” Texas Observer on failure to stop v v bad doc.

Finally, I’m grateful for a couple smart posts on my Pacific Standard feature, “The Social Life Of Genes,” that raised angles I hadn’t thought of myself: David Dobbs on Genes, Environment, and the Power of Social Environment, by Deb Blum at KSJ Tracker, and Genetic evidence that humans’ “default state” is not solitude, by Annalee Newitz at io9.

On the NSA scandal:

Explaining the latest NSA revelations – Q&A with internet privacy experts | Comment is free |

15 things journalists (and everyone) need to know about digital security | Poynter.

The US government has betrayed the internet. We need to take it back | Bruce Schneier at The Guardian

Science reporters play the access game too: What embargoes have to do with Greenwald, Snowden, and Assange | Embargo Watch

Other views of the world:

Strange histories of bookshelf use, with gorgeous pics: Paris Review – Shelf-Conscious, Francesca Mari and When Books Were Shelved Backwards | ephemeris

In Praise of Asparagus by Marcel Proust | Jenny McPhee

On Vreeland’s lunch instructions. Don’t you wish.

New Hendrix Documentary to Be Released in November Can’t wait.

quentin compson on Tumblr  I hung out with him there quite a while. At least I think it was — time around quentin behaves strangely.

At first, even Michael Lewis sucked. Here’s how he got better. by me, stolen from Brain Pickings

How did you catch that?

How Your Friends Get Into Your Genes And Save Your Life – “The Sociable Genome”

Zebra finches tweaking each others’ genes., Zebra finches, like other social species, respond to social interaction with amazingly fast changes in gene expression in the brain and elsewhere. It appears we humans do as well. Photo by Jon Bendon; some rights reserved

I’ve a new feature, “The Social Life of Genes,” in Pacific Standard. It involves bees, birds, monkeys, and how our social life and our genes constantly converse, reshaping us (and our social life) as they go.

One of the main characters is a young UCLA psychoneuroimmunologist named Steve Cole, who in the 1990s, reviewing the  health records and interviews of 80 gay men who’d had HIV for 9 years, confronted a mortal puzzle: the closeted men among these 80 were getting sick and dying faster than were the openly gay. Being discrete about one’s sexuality would seem to be a strictly social issue — a decision about privacy and politics presumed to lack medical implications. Yet in a sense it could kill you.

Cole, perusing other records, then found that closeting aside, HIV-positive men who simply felt lonely also got sicker faster. He showed that even among gay men who didn’t have HIV, the closeted got and fell to various diseases, including cancer, at higher rates than did the out. Meanwhile, psychologists at Carnegie Mellon finished a well-controlled study showing that people with richer social ties got fewer common colds. Something about feeling stressed or alone, it seemed, was gumming up the immune system—sometimes fatally.

“Now what is that?” Cole said to me not long ago. “You’re besieged by a virus that’s going to kill you, but the fact that you’re socially stressed and isolated seems to shut down your viral defenses. What’s going on there?”

What’s going on, Cole and others would discover over the intervening years, is that our genomes seem to be engaged in a constant conversation with the social environment that is almost as fast, fluid, and vital as the conversation it has with the pathogen environment, and for the same reason — because responding quickly and well to our social environment can keep us alive.

Illustration by Jeremy Dimmock, courtesy Pacific Standard

“A cell,” as Cole put it to me, “is a machine for translating experience into biology.” And down at the level of the DNA in their nuclei, our cells appear to pay particularly keen attention to our social lives.

PacStandardCoverSept2013In “The Social Life of Genes,” the cover story in the September/October 2013 Pacific Standard, published today online, I look at this line of work and what it suggests about us, about evolution, about the nature and meaning of gene expression, and about the primacy of social experience. I hope you enjoy the story. It has not just the juicy stuff above but killer bees, finches fliring and fighting, and a wee dull fish smaller than your hand who can be convinced in very short order that he’s a total stud.

“The Social Life of Genes,” Pacific Standard, Sept/Oct 2013.

You’ll find a list of selected reference here.


Finches image by Jim Bendonrights reserved.


At first, even Michael Lewis sucked. Here’s how he got better.

He just refused to do the rational thing and quit. In a longer piece, well worth reading in toto, Brain Pickings describes how best-selling author Michael Lewis (barely) got his start in writing:

Even though his thesis adviser at Princeton praised the intellectual angle of his senior thesis but admonished him to never attempt making a living with that kind of writing, Lewis was drawn to the writing life. He wrote a piece on the homeless and pitched it to various magazines. It was rejected, with one magazine editor noting that “pieces on the life of the underclass in America” were unsuitable for publication.… Still, he “kept plugging away” and, in 1983, applied for an internship as a science writer at the Economist. He recalls:

I didn’t get the job – the other two applicants were doing their PhDs in physics and biology, and I’d flunked the one science class I took in college – but the editor who interviewed me said, “You’re a fraud, but you’re a very good fraud. Go write anything you want for the magazine, except science.” They published the first words I ever got into print. They paid ninety bucks per piece. It cost money to write for the Economist. I didn’t know how I was ever going to make a living at writing, but I felt encouraged. Luckily, I was delusional. I didn’t know that I didn’t have much of an audience, so I kept doing it.

Lewis’s first few years went much like most freelancers:

Before I wrote my first book in 1989, the sum total of my earnings as a writer, over four years of freelancing, was about three thousand bucks. So it did appear to be financial suicide when I quit my job at Salomon Brothers – where I’d been working for a couple of years, and where I’d just gotten a bonus of $225,000, which they promised they’d double the following year—to take a $40,000 book advance for a book that took a year and a half to write.

My father thought I was crazy. I was twenty-seven years old, and they were throwing all this money at me, and it was going to be an easy career. He said, “Do it another ten years, then you can be a writer.” But I looked around at the people on Wall Street who were ten years older than me, and I didn’t see anyone who could have left. You get trapped by the money. Something dies inside. It’s very hard to preserve the quality in a kid that makes him jump out of a high-paying job to go write a book.

Which shows yet again that quite often, successful writers are the ones who don’t give up — and that preserve that kid-like quality of persisting at something that is pretty much hopeless.

Get the rest at The four stages of creativity, Michael Lewis on writing, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Neil Gaiman on the secret of genius, Thoreau illustrated & more, at Brain Pickings

When The Rope Breaks at a Hanging

Noose in the Old Austin County Jail, Bellville, Texas 0130101348BW

In 1876, the courts of Dayton, Ohio, ordered the execution of a 19-year-old who had murdered an admired citizen. Things went well enough, for such an affair, until the rope broke.

The poor young criminal had fallen on his back, apparently unconscious, with the broken rope around his neck, and the black cap vailing his eyes. The reporter knelt beside him and felt his pulse. It was beating slowly and regularly. Probably the miserable boy thought then, if he could think at all, that he was really dead—dead in darkness, for his eyes were vailed—dead and blind to this world, but about to open his eyes upon another. The awful hush immediately following his fall might have strengthened this dim idea. But then came gasps, and choked sobs from the spectators; the hurrying of feet, and the horrified voice of Deputy Freeman calling, “For God’s sake, get me that other rope, quick!” Then a pitiful groan came from beneath the black cap.

“My God! Oh, my God!”

“Why, I ain’t dead—I ain’t dead!”

“Are you hurt, my child?” inquired Father Murphy.

“No, father, I’m not dead; I’m not hurt. What are they going to do with me?”

No one had the heart to tell him, lying there blind and helpless and ignorant even of what had occurred. The reporter, who still kept his hand on the boy’s wrist, suddenly felt the pulsation quicken horribly, the rapid beating of intense fear; the youth’s whole body trembled violently.

“His pulse is one hundred and twenty,” whispered a physician.

From there it actually gets worse.

Full story, from 1876: GIBBETED – EXECUTION OF A YOUTHFUL MURDERER. Via @longform

My Problem With John Horgan’s Problem With Optogenetics

There’s been a fair flap lately about John Horgan’s argument that optogenetics and its potential have been overhyped by both scientists and some journalists (including myself, I think, from my inclusion in one paragraph listing “glowing coverage”). I like it that Horgan is pushing back a bit, because I think the field stands in danger of being overhyped (and almost surely is, since it’s about the brain!). I’m not sure he’s picked out the right examples or made his point very well; I’ll leave that back-and-forth to the scrum.
But I do want to correct one part of his argument that seems fairly crucial — crucial enough that he made it his nut graph:

So what’s my problem with optogenetics? Actually, I have several problems. First is the gross oversell. For optogenetics to become an effective method for treating mental illnesses, you need specific knowledge about the illnesses’ neural underpinnings. You must know which neurons or neural circuits are overactive or underactive or otherwise abnormal.

But we lack such knowledge about depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or any other major mental illness. As the director of the National Institute of Mental Health recently acknowledged, decades of research have not turned up any clear-cut physiological—that is, neural, genetic or chemical–correlates of the major mental illnesses. How can a brain-manipulation technique alleviate mental illness if we don’t know what to manipulate?

[from Why “Optogenetic” Methods for Manipulating Brains Don’t Light Me Up* | Cross-Check, Scientific American Blog Network.]

Great, concise phrasing. Unfortunately it overlooks one of the past decade’s most significant  lines of work in depression. This is the work of Helen Mayberg, which I’ve written about in a long feature in the New York Times Magazine 7 years ago; in a follow-up in Scientific American; and a post on optogenetics here. (You’re encouraged to read and judge for yourself whether I overhype  the work.)

Mayberg’s work presents exactly what Horgan says is absent: The identification of a specific target for the use of things like optogenetics. In a line of work 25 years and running now, Mayberg first painstakingly identified a specific brain region, known as Area 25 (labeled ACg in the center figure above), that seems to run amok in depression; and then, by quieting Area 25 in experimental surgeries that implanted deep brain stimulation (DBS) devices in it, achieved two rounds of remarkable results alleviating depression in a majority of horribly depressed patients. She continues to get promising results with this experimental technique, and large double-blind trials are in progress.

Neurologist Helen Mayberg’s hand-drawn diagram (in my notebook one day) of Area 25 connectivity involved in depression. Drawing and labels are Mayberg’s; handwritten notes above and below are mine.

Mayberg is quick to lodge two caveats that I think Horgan would be quick to lodge: First, that before we can consider this a viable treatment, the double-blind trials underway need to replicate her finding. Second, that the intrusiveness and expense of deep brain stimulation surgery, and perhaps of optogenetics, make those approaches to this area less than ideal, and we must hope to find another way to quiet this area if indeed the trials prove its viability.

I’m not saying this is a treatment ready for prime time, despite its great promise.  I am saying that given these results, it’s misleading — no, as much as I like Horgan, I must say it’s just wrong to declare that no one has yet identified any neurological correlates or targets for tools such as optogenetics or DBS. If Horgan wants to argue that by “clear-cut” he means “absolutely proven,” then  …  he needs to change “clear-cut” to “absolutely proven.”

But if we’re with Webster in defining “clear-cut” as “sharply outlined” or “distinct,” then I hope Horgan will agree that we can meet that definition by offering a sharply outlined and distinct pea-sized brain area whose targeting relieves crippling depression in half to two-thirds of catastrophically, otherwise incurably depressed patients.

Please proceed.

Note on top image: For some reason it wouldn’t let me add a caption, so here it is: Brain areas affected by four historical psychosurgical depression treatments. Area 25, aka the anterior cingulate, is identified as ACg in the center figure. 


America is a Sick Country

It is surprising that it was not until 2006 that the first epidemiological study comparing England and the United States found a social health gradient in both. What was unanticipated was that America as a whole was sicker than England (10). Even those at the top of the U.S. social ladder, despite their access to a vast and costly health-care system, fared worse than their British counterparts. An extended analysis (11) compared the United States to 11 European countries. “Americans face a health disadvantage” that “is remarkably pervasive and affects even the wealthy but is largest for the poor”

As this op-ed in Science argues, some of the poor overall health in the U.S. may rise from its sharp economic inequalities.

That said, my own guess, having lived in both countries and seen how good the UK’s National Health Service is at delivering high-quality health care to people because they’re alive  rather than in accordance to their ability to pay (a policy that degrades and shames the U.S.), is that one of the reasons the U.S. has worse overall health than the U.K. does is the abominable level of access to health care in the U.S.  Thus the poor have worse access to health, put off care longer, get worse care even when they desperately need it, and in general face a completely different healthcare system than those with good insurance and enough cash to absorb the deductibles. These differences I suspect, greatly amplify the economic inequality counted in income, along with the psychological effect of such inequality.

As the linked essay notes, to be poor and surrounded by those better off imposes a self-reinforcing strain on mind, body, and prospects. To be poor and denied healthcare because you can’t afford the shameless profiteering and scandalous overpricing in the U.S. healthcare system is to have this sense of exclusion and insult greatly magnified.

This is a sick country.

See Confronting the Sorry State of U.S. Health.

Genes Aren’t Just Architects; They’re Actors


I’ve a feature on “The Social Life of Genes” coming out in Pacific Standard next week Tuesday 3 Sept, which I discussed yesterday on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show. Here, while that feature is in queue, is a look at one aspect of genetics the feature addresses: The need to understand the importance of gene expression, not just gene possession, in creating differences in behavior. 

Last year, a particularly rich genetic study of honeybee behavior came out — and nearly everyone who reported on it, from news sections of top-tier science journals to outlets like Jezebel and Daily Mail, misreported the central nature of the findings. In doing so, these reports kept us mired in a view of genetics that this very study should have helped erode.

The problem: Most of these stories cast a difference in bee behavior as arising from differences in particular genes. But the difference in behavior didn’t rise from differences in what genes the bees carried. The difference rose from differences in the genes they all carried — which is an entirely different matter.

Why does this matter? It’ll come clear if we look at what the story found and how it was reported.

The essential findings of the study, which was led by University of Illinois’s Gene Robinson, were

  1. Some honeybee scouts — the bees that forage for food or new nest sites — scout more adventurously than others.
  2. Study of the bees’ genomes showed “revealed a large neurogenomic signature for scouting behavior in the bee brain.”

The study seemed of a familiar template: It tied a difference in behavior to difference having to do with genes. But what difference in genes? Most studies of genes and behavior try to trace behavioral differences to gene variants — that is, to different forms of particular genes. Thus researchers have found novelty-seeking in people, for instance, to vary according to which variant of certain dopamine-processing genes a person carries — the 7R or 4R form of the DRD4 gene, for example.

From the coverage generated for this study, it appears that most reporters expected that here: A gene variant would explain a difference in behavior. One that got it right — at least partly — was Science:

Individuals differ in their behavior, sometimes in consistent ways. For example, some people may seek out new experiences, while others prefer to stick with what they know. This is true in bees as well, where some workers take on the dangerous, novelty-seeking task of scouting more often than others. Liang et al. (p. 1225) found that bees that display such scouting behavior not only tend to scout in multiple contexts (both foraging and searching for nests) but also show differences in gene expression in their brains. Experimental manipulation of gene expression predictably changed scouting behavior.

This is the crux of the finding, and it’s a beautiful finding. By tweaking not the genetic make-up but the genetic activity of certain genes, the researchers could change the scouting behavior of the bees.

Unfortunately, most coverage missed this key point altogether. Here’s the bulk, for instance, of the Jezebel coverage:

Scientists found that certain bees are really into scouting — they look for food and also seek out new homes for the colony. And it turns out these bees tend to have a specific genetic signature, which is also present in thrill-seeking humans.

This isn’t technically wrong, but “genetic signature” will lead most people to assume there’s a different gene involved — presumably the DRD4-7R variant mentioned above, which is the one most often tied to ‘thrill-seeking” behavior in humans. But there’s no “scouting gene” involved here that makes bees more (or less) adventurous in their scouting. The difference in scouting behavior ” (to repeat something that apparently needs repeating) comes not from what genes the bees have, but from how their shared genes act.

Robinson and others have for years been waving their hands, pointing at results like this, and arguing that the endgame in genetics is not in differences in what genes we carry, but — especially when most of our genes our shared — in differences in how and when the shared genes express themselves. This is important in understanding differences within a species, whether it be honey bees or humans.

This has been accepted for a while now about development — that is, in how we develop from zygotes to infants (and beyond); we share 99% of our genome with chimpanzees, but we are built differently because so many of the shared genes act differently during development. Robinson — and this paper — are saying that the same goes for behavior: Our differences and individuality arise not just partly but mainly  because our shared genes behave differently. Figuring out why they do so is at least as important as figuring out what our genetic differences are.

I explore this in more detail, and as it relates to social life in particular, in a feature in the Sept/Oct 2013 Pacific Standard.

Image by bob in swamp. Some rights reserved.

The Social Life of Genes


Today I was on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show talking about “The Social Life of Genes,” a feature I wrote that will appear appeared in Pacific Standard’s Sept/Oct issue.  

Day by day, week by week, your genes are in a conversation with your social world. Your neighbors, your friends, your family: They don’t just get under your skin, they get into the control rooms of your cells.

It’s in print issues now en route to newsstands and mailboxes, and will be  online on September 3, 2013. It has killer bees, mass kidnappings, a fish that thinks he’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, and yet more evidence that you need to forget about nature-versus-nurture and genes-versus-environment and focus on the conversation between the two. That conversation is happening in you, right now. It’s called gene expression. It’s listening particularly closely to what your social life (and you) say about the world.

You can listen to the segment on the Leonard Lopate show here:

Or link to it here:

Cover story at Pacific Standard :