Research shows that a tiny pulse of electricity can improve memory in people who've had a moderate or severe
Nature Communications, Published online: 08 August 2023; doi:10.1038/s41467-023-40478-53D scaffolds can be used to recapitulate key aspects of the microenvironment of primary
Ukraine will soon mark the passing of 18 months since Russian forces launched their invasion in February of 2022. In recent weeks, the frontline battlefields in eastern and southern Ukraine remain punishing arenas of trench warfare, drone attacks, and artillery battles. Heavily mined and fortified Russian positions are slowing Ukraine’s long-anticipated counteroffensive. Russia’s military continues to launch missiles into all parts of Ukraine, attacking infrastructure and other targets, while Western countries continue to supply Ukraine with ammunition, equipment, and training. Gathered below are images from recent weeks, showing a region reshaped by a year and a half of war.
affects as many as 1 in 7 women in
, though there are just two treatments approved for it. Experts say the newest could be a game-changer — depending on its price tag.
(Image credit: Getty Images )
A new site, Prosecraft.io offered to lend a helping hand to struggling writers, using AI algorithims to analyze the text of thousands of books from their favorite authors. On Monday, it was abruptly shutdown by its creator.
It turns out — not surprisingly — that those authors never got a say in letting their copyrighted text get scraped wholesale, just to be graded on meaningless criteria like "vividness" and the use of passive voice.
"I demand you take my book off your site immediately," Rosenberg wrote. "I do not consent to this, and never did. And I know my publisher never would."
The Pen Is Mightier
Hell was soon unleashed on Smith. Authors almost universally lambasted the project, including well-knowns like Jeff Vandermeer (Annihilation), Hari Kunzru (White Tears), and even presidential candidate Marianne Williamson, who called the practice "deeply unethical," and that it "should be illegal."
Smith, writing with something like genuine remorse, quickly responded to the outcry.
"Hey everyone … I'm truly sorry to have hurt you in any way," he replied to Rosenberg's post. In a follow up, Smith promised to remove entries by individual request if the authors emailed him with a link to their book.
No one was buying Smith's olive branch.
"You absolutely do not need a title by title run down," Vandermeer responded. "Just run a search on your own damn site."
Another author summed up the general consensus: "Remove every single person's book unless you have [their] affirmative consent."
Happily Ever After
The proliferation of generative AI has pretty much every creative on edge — and not without good reason. These technologies are overwhelmingly trained on artworks without permission from the original creators. In this case, by Smith's admission, the full text from over 25,000 books was gleaned via web crawlers.
The outrage of the authors here was only deepened by the revelation of Prosecraft's companion project Shaxpir, a word processor made by Smith that harnesses his site's analytics tech to provide statistical insights into writing.
While not a generative AI, it did use AI to power several of its analytics features. For authors wary of the ruthless copycatting of large language models, that distinction was too thin for comfort.
Attempting to visit the site now redirects to a Medium post by Smith, in which he explains how his belief that he was "honoring the spirit of the Fair Use doctrine," since he was only publishing statistics.
On Tuesday, he posted another update, purging all Prosecraft data and removing all features on Shaxpir that relied on it.
The post Revenge of the Writers: AI Fiction Analysis Site Toppled by Revolt appeared first on Futurism.
A newly developed molecule could serve as a potential treatment for the varicella zoster virus, the type of herpes that causes both
According to a new study, published in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, the molecule can effectively treat the uncomfortable lesions that accompany shingles and suggests the molecule may also work against the viruses that cause oral and genital herpes.
“Many viruses are becoming drug-resistant to the current medications on the market,” says lead author Uma Singh, a lecturer in the College of Pharmacy at the University of Georgia. “There is a continuous need for new molecules, and the one we developed, called POM-L-BHDU, shows much more potency against the virus than current ones.”
The researchers also found that the molecule is safe for treating varicella zoster virus in cancer patients. Additionally, the molecule can be applied topically in addition to being taken orally or intravenously, making it a great option for a future cream-based medication for both shingles and other herpes outbreaks.
While several drugs are on the market to treat the viruses caused by the varicella zoster virus, they aren’t particularly effective or can have potentially life-threatening side effects.
For example, cidofovir is an antiviral commonly used for viral eye infections and used off-label to treat warts and herpes. But it can accumulate in the kidneys and potentially cause them to fail in severe cases.
A topical medication using the patented molecule can better target localized outbreaks, preventing the virus from spreading to other areas of the body. Topical medications also limit the amount of a drug that is absorbed into the bloodstream and cut down significantly on side effects.
But the new molecule isn’t just for topical treatments.
“We want to develop this as a broad-spectrum molecule,” Singh says. “It acts against both the varicella zoster virus and herpes simplex 1 and 2 viruses. For patients who want to take it in capsules, they could. Those who want to take it intravenously, they could. And those who want to use it topically, they can easily apply it at home.”
The researchers hope the topical formula will be sold over the counter, enabling patients to easily access treatment in the privacy of their own homes without needing a prescription.
The molecule has already proven effective in vitro and in vivo mouse models.
Topical studies on adult human skin indicate that POM-L-BHDU, 0.2% formulated in cocoa butter is highly effective against both herpes simplex 1 and the varicella zoster viruses. (These results are currently unpublished.)
The next step is to get the molecule into phase 1 clinical trials, something Singh hopes will happen in the next couple of years.
“We want to push this project as soon as possible into large-scale synthesis,” Singh says. “It has the potential to benefit society on a large scale.”
Additional coauthors are from State University of New York Upstate Medical University and the University of Georgia.
Recently, the UGA Research Foundation has licensed this molecule to a company called Anterogen Co.
Source: University of Georgia
The post Molecule could treat herpes that causes chickenpox and shingles appeared first on Futurity.
Late last month, armed troops in Niger overthrew the government, arrested the elected president, and seized power for themselves. Soon after, a small group of Nigeriens who supported the coup in the capital city, Niamey, gathered to show their support for the military government, some waving the Russian flag. They denounced the West in general, and France, the former colonial power, in particular. “Long live Putin!” they chanted. “Down with France!”
The coup has created considerable alarm in Western capitals, and with good reason. Since 2020, there have been coups throughout the Sahel, the strategically important belt of hot, semiarid land stretching across Africa just below the Sahara desert. In 2020, Mali’s government fell. In 2021, the same thing happened in Sudan, Chad, and Guinea. Last year, a coup took place in Burkina Faso. Niger was seen as the Sahel’s final bulwark against chaos and instability, the last regime standing. The United States had a drone base in Niger, and France had stationed troops there, a crucial line of defense against surging West African jihadism. Now all of that is at risk.
Few Americans are in the habit of giving much thought to Niger (“Do you mean Nigeria?”), but this summer’s events seemed to offer a stark takeaway: Pro-Russian soldiers overthrew a pro-Western government. Democracy was uprooted by military dictatorship. To anyone who lived through the Cold War, the story felt familiar. The fact that Niger exports uranium—a crucial resource for nuclear reactors—makes its struggle even easier to understand as a geopolitical chess game. Niger was a pawn, and coups happen when pawns are pulled between geopolitical kings. And so, the coup has quickly become a story about America, Russia, and France—and not about Niger.
When explaining major events in international news, particularly those that take place in unfamiliar locations, we all tend to exhibit geopolitical bias, a mindset that filters every incident through the prism of international grand strategy—and makes the moral of every story about us. Simplistic, familiar narratives trounce nuanced explanations that involve political actors few nonspecialists have heard of, known by obscure acronyms and hard-to-pronounce names.
The military coup in Niger has already become fodder for sensational headlines and political statements linked to grand geopolitical tropes. A senior adviser to Ukraine’s president insisted, without evidence, that Russia instigated the coup. Bloomberg covered the coup as the latest evidence for the “Long Arm of the Kremlin.” Newsweek declared that Niger’s coup means “The Countdown to the Next Great War Has Begun in Africa.”
Russia will likely expand its influence because of the Niger coup (and there have been reports that the junta is requesting help from the Wagner Group mercenaries). But much of the speculation about the extent of Russia’s involvement so far is based on extremely thin evidence—a few hundred people, in one protest, in one city, a handful of them carrying Russian flags, in a country that’s twice the size of France and home to more than 25 million people. Even before the coup, Niger’s capital city was an opposition stronghold, so one should hardly be surprised that some people who live there would demonstrate in support of soldiers who overthrew a president they loathed.
The impetus behind the coup is very likely complex, nuanced, and less about the Kremlin than about domestic dynamics. The possibility of a more banal local cause doesn’t negate the real anger that many Nigeriens feel toward France, or the misguided impulse some have to turn to Russia as an alternative international sponsor that’s explicitly anti-Western. But the simple explanation for why the coup happened, as reported in the local media, is plausibly the right one.
The incumbent president, Mohamed Bazoum, had been planning to fire a general, Abdourahamane Tchiani, who commanded the elite presidential guard. Now that the coup has happened, General Tchiani isn’t going to be fired. Instead, he has proclaimed himself the head of the new military junta, which calls itself the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland.
The Occam’s-razor explanation may just be correct: A general who was going to be fired decided to fire the president instead. Many coups have such simple origin stories, triggered by factional rivalries within the military, and ambitious, self-serving men who would happily swap the barracks for the palace.
Whatever the reason for his gamble, Tchiani likely didn’t anticipate the intense opposition he has faced since seizing power. Most international actors, including Russia, have condemned the coup (though the Kremlin’s statement about respecting the constitution is best consumed with a grain of salt). And perhaps the most surprising threat to Tchiani’s plans has emerged from a major regional power broker, the Economic Community of West African States. The bloc of 15 West African countries, with Nigeria as its most powerful member, has taken a hard-line stance against the coup, even threatening military intervention. As a result, some have painted ECOWAS as a puppet of the West, the sharp end of the European and American spear.
Yet again, a simpler (and less geopolitically exciting) explanation is likely correct. ECOWAS may not be taking a tough stance against this coup because it’s a marionette or because it has an ideological aversion to Vladimir Putin; the governments of its member states may just be concerned about their own self-preservation.
“One reason why regional presidents are interested in military intervention is because they’re increasingly scared of being taken out themselves,” says Professor Nic Cheeseman, an expert on African politics at the University of Birmingham. “It comes after several other coups in the region, and they realized that they could be next if they didn’t draw a line in the sand.”
Niger’s coup may not have originated in great-power competition so much as in politics and other dynamics nearer at hand—but it could still have serious international repercussions. The security situation in the Sahel is deteriorating as jihadism rises. The junta governments that have taken power in the past three years have proved unable to combat it. Moreover, although many of the new military regimes—notably in Mali and Burkina Faso—have allied themselves with Russia, the Russian government and the Wagner Group are not exactly flush with spare cash or bursting with well-trained troops waiting to deploy to Africa, bogged down as they are by their debacle in Ukraine. In the coming months, the postcoup regimes in the Sahel are likely to realize that they’ve swapped Western partners, which had deep pockets and a long-term commitment to supplying foreign aid, for a diminished Kremlin that will inevitably overpromise and under-deliver. The money will eventually run out.
Europe has skin in the game: France, which is mostly powered by nuclear energy, gets roughly 10 to 15 percent of its uranium supplies from Niger. Moreover, in 2015, the European Union paid Niger’s government to effectively create a European “Sahel border,” shutting down pathways of migration through Niger toward the Mediterranean. The coup could reopen that route, reinvigorating the formerly thriving transit hub of Agadez. The United States cares about Agadez too: The American drone base Niger Air Base 201 is just outside the town.
If Niger’s junta manages to stay in power, it will almost certainly align itself with Russia. The interim regime has already announced the cancellation of several military agreements with France. But it’s in for a rude awakening if it cozies up to the Kremlin. Russia, as Mali and Burkina Faso are finding out, is rich enough to pay for small contingents of mercenaries and to line the pockets of greedy soldiers, but it is nowhere near rich enough to help provide for the broader population of one of the world’s poorest countries, where the GDP per capita is less than $600 a year.
As is so often the case in sub-Saharan Africa, the victims will be those who can least endure it. The broader population of Niger will suffer as soldiers turned politicians enrich themselves. And that story, which is not about geopolitics, but rather about the ordinary distress of millions of vulnerable people, will be one that garners substantially less ink.
Two federal agencies are pointing the finger at pharmaceutical companies for massively under-producing Adderall. Along with one brave (and lone) senator, they're imploring them to step up their game.
As Le Grande Observer reports, Washington state senator Ron Wyden, is royally pissed about the (entirely) avoidable shortage after the FDA and DEA jointly condemned Big Pharma for underselling the drug to the tune of one billion doses.
On August 1st, the agencies announced a DEA investigation found manufacturers of the ADHD medication only sold 70 percent of its government-imposed quota in 2022, which meant that "there were approximately 1 billion more doses that they could have produced but did not make or ship," emphasis ours. Yes: A billion.
And the same trend appears to have continued into 2023. The DEA and FDA are urging manufacturers to either increase their production, or give up their spot as makers of the coveted drug.
Following the shocking flash-in-the-pan news, Wyden said that although he's "glad to see [the statement] out and the clarity it provides around the quota allotment issue," the shortage debacle is far from over.
"It’s clear that manufacturers have work to do in easing this crisis," the senator told the Le Grande Observer. "They need to either produce more or let other manufacturers do it, and make sure the DEA and FDA have the information they need."
Besides commentary from junior representative Abigail Spanberger (D-VA), Wyden has been mostly alone in his quest for answers and accountability behind the
In his own letter, the Oregonian Democrat demanded that Adderall manufacturers explain why, exactly, they haven't met their quotas and what they plan to do to fix the problem — a rare show to strength against an industry that has funded candidates across the political spectrum, including, surprisingly, Sens. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) and Bernie Sanders (D-VA).
While we still don't know why manufacturers didn't fill their Adderall quotas, this statement from the DEA and FDA, at the very least, identifies drug manufacturers as the sources of the problem. Having a senator holding Big Pharma's feet to the fire will hopefully help alleviate this drug crisis, too.
The post Shocker: Pharma Companies Are Behind the Adderall Shortage, Feds Say appeared first on Futurism.
- Zach Kirkhorn, longtime Tesla CFO and "Master of Coin," has left Tesla.
Master of Coin
Zach Kirkhorn, longtime
CFO and "Master of Coin," has left Tesla.
Kirkhorn's departure is no small deal for the Elon Musk-helmed EV venture. In his first year as CFO, Kirkhorn soundly guided the carmaker through the absolute dumpster fire of a mess that was Tesla's Model 3 production, and throughout his four-year tenure, oversaw record Tesla profits.
Kirkhorn, will stay on through the end of the year, per CNBC.
In a Monday LinkedIn post thanking Tesla employees, he added: "I also want to thank Elon for his leadership and optimism," he continued, "which has inspired so many people." Including, if anybody, himself.
A Particular Gift of Gab
Kirkhorn's greatest skill was his reported fluency in (and poise in the face of) erratic Muskian behavior.
As The Wall Street Journal reported back in May, Kirkhorn often acted as a middleman between Musk and other employees, with some alleging that the now-former CFO was really the person keeping Telsa afloat.
And now, as the carmaker faces a fresh slew of lawsuits, government inquiries, and miscellanious Musk-induced PR issues, the stability Kirkhorn supposedly provided the firm hangs precariously in the balance as well.
Tea Leaves Abound
To that end: There's certainly speculation around the nature of Kirkhorn's farewell. As noted in The Financial Times, Tesla's most recent earnings call — delivered to investors on Wall Street just three weeks ago — offered no indication that its CFO might be bidding the firm adieu. Maybe they were just keeping things under wraps, but the shift feels sudden nonetheless.
"It's a blow in the near term as Zach was a key part of this historic Tesla turnaround the last five years," Dan Ives, a tech analyst at the investment firm Wedbush Securities, told Fortune. "This is a big surprise to the Street."
To that end, it's not surprising to see folks online quickly draw comparisons to the surprise exit of Tesla's former AI head Andrej Karpathy, who very suddenly abandoned Tesla's embattled Autopilot division last year. And as The Wall Street Journal points out, Tesla actually has a long history of executive departures in the lead-up to a new product launch. With the forever-janky Cybertruck on the horizon (maybe, probably, we don't know), perhaps the Master of Coin finally just had enough.
The post Tesla CFO and Alleged Elon Whisperer Zach Kirkhorn's Watch Is Finished appeared first on Futurism.
Researchers have discovered that old grandfather clocks and human cells have a central thing in common: They move in synchronization.
This strengthens the performance of our cells and makes them better at combating diseases, the researchers report.
The new finding in the journal Cell Systems is an important step towards understanding and preventing diseases such as cancer and diabetes.
In 1655, the Dutch mathematician and inventor of the pendulum clock, Christian Huygens, discovered something strange. If he hung two identical pendulum clocks next to each other, they would always synchronize within 30 minutes.
The new study clarifies how cells synchronize to perform the vital tasks of producing energy, transporting oxygen, or fighting diseases more efficiently.
“We’ve discovered that, in the same way as the pendulum clocks in Huygens’ experiments beat in synchronization, the cells of the body also work in uniform beats. This helps them achieve a higher degree of collaboration, enabling them to perform their tasks better and more efficiently,” says Mathias Heltberg, a postdoc at the University of Copenhagen. Heltberg created the physical and mathematical models behind the experiments with Mogens Høgh Jensen, a professor in the Niels Bohr Institute, and Malthe Skytte Nielsen, a PhD student.
Cells working in tandem
Translated into the world of a cell, the oscillations from the clock correspond to the increase and decrease in the quantity of proteins and other molecules that the cell alternately produces more or less of to perform different tasks in the body.
To examine whether the cells turn their production up and down in step with each other, the researchers created an artificial oscillation using two different transmitters injected into yeast cells. One of the transmitters was alcohol, and the other was a transmitter that imitated an infection and would therefore trigger the immune system of the cell.
Specifically, the researchers examined how the super protein NF-kappa-B fluctuates up and down. This is a protein found in most of the body’s cells and it plays a key role in countless processes. For example, the super protein is responsible for kickstarting the immune system and turning up the production of itself when the body is exposed to an attack from a bacterium.
Here, the study showed that the concentrations of the super protein were higher in the cells when they worked synchronously than if they did not.
“We had two hypotheses in advance. Either the two transmitters that hit the cell at the same time would throw it into complete chaos where it no longer functioned. Or the cell would control itself even better and synchronize its response and work in step with the other cells, which was what happened,” says Jensen.
Cell synchronization signals
The new discovery is particularly interesting because the fluctuations in the cell play a central role in our understanding of how the cell is controlled, the researchers say. A greater understanding of these processes can pave the way for new methods for treating serious diseases in the future.
“If we can understand the fluctuations, we will also know more about what goes wrong when defects in the cells lead to the body’s control systems breaking down and causing cancer or diabetes. Therefore, our results are an important step towards understanding how the body controls its cells, so that we can later develop biochemical tools that can prevent diseases,” says Nielsen.
Even though the researchers have now become a little wiser about the smallest building blocks of the body, there is still much that we do not know about the inner life of the cells. For example, it is still not known exactly how the cells communicate with each other and start working in step.
“It’s my big dream to understand how cells, that is living organisms without a brain, can transmit and translate signals and regulate themselves. This is one of the biggest questions of science, and one that I’ve so far dedicated most of my research career to,” Heltberg says.
Additional coauthors from Peking University conducted experiments on yeast cells based on the mathematical and physical models made by Heltberg, Nielsen, and Jensen.
Source: University of Copenhagen
Having a strong sense of belonging at school could mitigate suicidal tendencies among Black adolescents, a new study finds.
That sense of belonging, the subjective feeling of being accepted, valued, included, and encouraged in the school community, has long been linked to academic performance.
“Having a supportive teacher or other nonparent adult can change a child’s life because they will want to go to school,” says study coauthor Adrian Gale, an assistant professor at the Rutgers School of Social Work. “We wanted to understand the factors that affect kids’ sense of belonging at school, and how these factors might influence rates of suicide.”
For the study, published in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities, the researchers analyzed data from a national sample of adolescents in grades 7-12. The study, which started in the 1994-95 school year, followed the adolescents in waves, with the most recent wave in 2016-2018. They asked participants a series of questions about their emotional ties to school and experiences with teacher-based discrimination and peer-based prejudice.
The researchers found that as Black adolescents’ sense of school belonging decreased, their risk for suicidal ideation and attempts dramatically increased—by as much as 35%.
Of the 4,229 respondents, 8% said they thought about suicide and 4% had attempted it. Less than half said they felt a sense of belonging at their school, and more than half reported feeling that their teachers treated them unfairly. Slightly more than 50% of the participants said students at their school were racially prejudiced.
, Black suicide rates have historically been lower than other racial groups. In 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that non-Hispanic American Indian and Alaska Native people and non-Hispanic whites had the highest rates of suicide, with 28.1 and 17.4 per 100,000, respectively. For non-Hispanic Blacks, the rate was 8.7.
But Gale says recent research indicates a disturbing increase in the rates of suicide among Black boys and girls. With these trends accelerating in the COVID-era, understanding how the sense of belonging at school impacts suicidal thoughts could be useful for mitigation.
“These findings highlight the importance of working to enhance the feeling of belonging among Black teenagers in school,” he says.
To address this challenge, Gale says educators should provide thorough mental health support services that consider the cultural background of Black adolescents. Also, schools should help teachers identify indications of reduced school belonging.
“Most of the elements that influence children’s academic achievement and school life—family socioeconomic status, for instance—take a generation to change,” says Gale. “The relationship a child has with their school is something we can influence now.”
Additional coauthors are from Ohio State University, Washington University in Saint Louis, and the University of Michigan.
Source: Greg Bruno for Rutgers University
The post Can sense of belonging at school reduce Black teen suicide? appeared first on Futurity.
- In this webinar, Noah Allen will explore how spaceflight changes the way organs and systems function, focusing on immune-mediated liver damage.
Updated at 3:52 p.m. ET on August 8, 2023.
Country music, the century-old genre of nostalgia, tradition, and twang, has never been more in style. Last week, for the first time in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, the three most popular songs in America were country songs. One explanation for the milestone is that the genre’s artists and audiences are finally leaning into streaming: This year, country has experienced a 20 percent rise in listenership, a surge outpaced only by those of Latin music and K-pop.
But this is a strange victory to celebrate—and not only because last week’s No. 1 song, Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town,” has proved to be a political flash point. The tracks breaking through right now each sound like something other than country. The genre always conveys some amount of underdog defiance, but lately, the music and the conversation around it have a distinct tinge of resentment.
In “Try That in a Small Town,” Aldean, the 46-year-old Georgia hitmaker, salutes supposedly rural values (honor, neighborliness, gun ownership) by warning the listener that supposedly urban pathologies (robbery, spitting at cops, burning flags) don’t fly in what some would call “Real America.” “Around here, we take care of our own,” he boasts. But the music hardly brings to mind peaceful pastures or sawdust-strewn saloons. As soon as I heard the song’s grumbling guitars, drooping minor chords, and riff ripped from Foo Fighters’ “Everlong,” I felt transported back to my suburban-male adolescence, circa Y2K—a time when I lived in an oversize black hoodie, listening to the groaning of men with soul patches. Aldean’s song is country in name, but its sound is post-grunge alternative rock.
In the early ’90s, Nirvana and its peers opened space for a new strain of mainstream manliness: vulnerable about feelings of failure and alienation, but with a hard, noisy edge that no one could possibly construe as sissy. Soon came a flock of melodically moaning bands, such as Bush, Creed, and Nickelback, that sheared grunge of its punk disposition, creating a broadly appealing template for directionless angst. Now Aldean has updated that template with pedal steel and right-wing talking points.
You’ve probably heard that the song is controversial. Aldean set a perfect discursive trap, taking advantage of America’s current split between two theories of its own history, and the predictability and profitability of backlash-to-backlash cycles. Though the song makes no mention of race, many listeners heard a dog whistle in it: The “good ol’ boy” vigilantism endorsed by Aldean’s lyrics has historically been affiliated with white-supremacist violence. His music video included images of Black Lives Matter protesters (though that footage was later edited out), and was shot in front of a Tennessee courthouse where a Black man was lynched in 1927. (The production company that made the video told The Washington Post that it had chosen a “popular filming location outside of Nashville.”) But critiques of the song have only amplified it: After Country Music Television banned the video, the track’s streams shot up 999 percent.
Aldean professes mystification at the dustup he’s provoked. The song, he has said, simply “refers to the feeling of a community that I had growing up.” (Aldean, for what it’s worth, grew up in the midsize city of Macon, Georgia.) This insistence, more than the southern lilt of Aldean’s voice, makes the track country. Aldean is working in a tradition of music that disses cities while celebrating rural can-do. But he’s not singing with the wry, plucky tone of Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” or even with the gruff confidence of Hank Williams Jr.’s “A Country Boy Can Survive.” Nor is he delivering provocative slogans with the rock-star panache of Toby Keith. Rather, Aldean sounds wallowing and fearful in that distinctly post-grunge way—even as his words profess action.
Perhaps that vibe of sublimated anxiety reflects the tragedy underlying the song: small-town America’s decades-long economic decline. The big-city problems Aldean laments—violent crime, sedition, even fraying communal ties—are, in many cases, worse problems outside the cities than in them. This reality is a major driver of right-wing resentment—and music about it should, by all rights, have a hint of malaise. Aldean was previously known for anthems of carefree country living (although his 2018 single “Rearview Town” did almost seem like a dirge for rural dreams, it was actually a breakup song). A better precedent for “Small Town” is Staind’s 2001 hit, “It’s Been Awhile”: “It’s been a while / Since I could hold my head up high.” Not coincidentally, Staind’s Aaron Lewis is now a popular country musician—and one of the most effective right-wing protest singers in memory.
It’s also not a coincidence that Morgan Wallen—currently the most popular country artist by a wide margin, and the singer of “Last Night,” last week’s No. 2 song on the Hot 100—is a spiritual child of Nickelback. The Canadian rock band, famous for the catchy aughts rumble of “How You Remind Me” and “Photograph,” is often mocked as the ultimate example of musical blandness. But Wallen has unapologetically cited the group as an influence. His go-to producer, Joey Moi, produced many of Nickelback’s early-2000s hits, including “Photograph”—and then co-founded Big Loud, which is now one of the hottest labels in Nashville.
A 30-year-old former contestant on The Voice, Wallen is a serious pop talent, and “Last Night”—a sensation since its release in February—is excellent (which explains why it replaced Aldean’s track at the top of the Hot 100 today). There’s a bit of a Nickelback quality to the laminated nature of the production, and the way that the singer conveys a light hatred of himself, but “Last Night” mostly exemplifies a separate trend in Nashville: so-called hick-hop, modern country influenced by rap. Singing in a sassy twang about drunken fighting and reconciliation, over a brisk guitar loop and handclaps that form a syncopated beat, Wallen emanates the same sleazy charm as Drake. The irony here is obvious: In 2021, Wallen was caught saying the N-word on camera, which resulted in a supposed “cancellation” that, like Aldean’s, only boosted his listenership.
Last week’s No. 3 song in the nation, Luke Combs’s take on Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” has created a little controversy as well. It is basically a note-for-note cover of a 1988 classic, differentiated mostly by the gruff beauty of Combs’s voice. After it began to rise in the charts last month, some commentators pointed out that neither Chapman nor any other Black woman had ever had the kind of success in country music that Combs is enjoying. This observation sparked conservative annoyance louder than the original critique, likely boosting the song’s popularity. As my colleague Conor Friedersdorf argues, the discourse around the song demonstrates how media coverage of race can inspire more confusion than reform.
But is it tenable to ask observers of this authenticity-minded, all-
genre to avoid speaking about conspicuous truths? The reality of country music’s Billboard Hot 100 takeover this past week is glaring. The music is diverse, but the performers aren’t: Between Aldean’s protest rock, Wallen’s laid-back rap flow, and Combs’s soul-folk cover, this boom for mainstream country is rooted not in sound but in white, male, and—at least in Aldean’s case—aggrieved identity. Of course, all genres are defined by demographics. But streaming technology, not to mention social and political media, now rewards the inflaming of passionate pluralities, including by sowing division. Inflaming stan versus stan, or right versus left, can prove profitable—at least for a short while (Aldean’s song today fell from No. 1 to No. 21 on the Hot 100).
Artists in other genres are going to learn lessons from this boomlet. Just a few days ago, Aldean made a surprise appearance at a Nickelback concert in Nashville. Nickelback’s front man, Chad Kroeger, has never been known for his political outspokenness. But that night, he made a speech: For 20 years, he said, “they’ve been trying to cancel us.”
This story originally misstated when Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” came out.
Nature Communications, Published online: 08 August 2023; doi:10.1038/s41467-023-40449-wHere, the authors show that van der Waals isotopic heterostructures based on few-layer h10BN and h11BN can be tuned to modulate the energy-momentum dispersions of hyperbolic phonon polaritons, offering an alternative approach to engineer the nanophotonic properties of 2D materials.
Nature Communications, Published online: 08 August 2023; doi:10.1038/s41467-023-40372-0Here, characterizing a synthetic gut bacterial community, the authors reveal a context dependency of keystone functions and bacterial interaction networks, challenging the concept of universal keystone species in the gastrointestinal ecosystem.
Nature, Published online: 08 August 2023; doi:10.1038/s41586-023-06507-5Bonding wood with uncondensed lignins as adhesives
Nature, Published online: 08 August 2023; doi:10.1038/d41586-023-02510-yResearch challenges the myth that clean energy acts as a brake on global economic development.
Uncertainty over Britain’s post-Brexit version of the CE mark has hampered the development of medical devices, says Roger Bayston. Plus a letter from Ian White
The enormous waste of resources due to red tape described by Polly Toynbee (Business is haunted by Brexit – and this safety mark fiasco is its latest nightmare, 4 August) is not just confined to
business – it has severely affected UK research in the area of medical devices.
Scientists need to partner with manufacturers in order to get these devices out of the lab and into the clinic. But we and others have experienced our industrial partners withdrawing support and pulling out of agreements because it has been simply too costly to embark on double certification of potential products.Continue reading…
Here's an article that chemists in the EU will want to look over carefully: regulatory authorities there have a proposal for the European Parliament that is supposed to address the PFAS-type compounds that are so persistent in the environment and can contaminate water supplies. I have no problem with that (and neither does the author of the article), but a close reading of the text, which has been confirmed by follow-up queries, shows that this rule goes much further.
That's because the proposed rule's definition of a PFAS is "any substance that contains at least one fully fluorinated methyl (CF3) or methylene (CF2) without any H, Cl, Br, or I attached to it." This would cover all fluoropolymers and fluoroelastomers, as well as reagents like trifluoroacetic acid/anhydride, any trifluoromethylaryl reagents, building blocks, or intermediates, triflic acid, and many more. There is an exception for pharmaceutical and agrochemical active ingredients, but it would appear that (as written) these would have to be manufactured (not to mention discovered!) somewhere outside the EU.
Banning PTFE, PFA, and other other fluorinated polymers outright would (as the paper illustrates) cause immediate disruption in all areas of chemical research and manufacture. Consider the effects on stirring bars and blades, stopcocks, O-rings, gaskets, valves, diaphragms, membranes, shaft seals in pumps, the inner cap linings of a huge number of commercial reagents and of many types of sample vials, flow systems of many types (including the solvent lines supplying many HPLCs), sterile filters, Nafion membranes in fuel cells, PTFE-lined pipes in process plants, ball valves in water supplies. . .the list goes on. And we haven't even gotten to the reagents yet!
The authors of this proposal did not really look into the chemical and biopharma industries very closely. In fact, there's a table of uses in the document itself that shows that none of these are in the "Researched in Detail" category. The "laboratory equipment" and "medicinal products" areas are maked as "Researched in General", while the "chemical industry" category is marked as "Not Researched In Detail". It's all very well to talk about how everyone can move to alternatives, but what are those alternatives for many of these applications, anyway? Do they exist, or are we going to have to spend years inventing, testing, and validating them? What happens to research and manufacturing in the interim?
The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) is requesting public comment on this proposal until midnight Helsinki time on September 25. If you, your research group, your department, your university, your workplace, or your company as a whole would be adversely affected by such a ban, now is the time to add your voice.
Nature Communications, Published online: 08 August 2023; doi:10.1038/s41467-023-40559-5Author Correction: Robust and tunable signal processing in mammalian cells via engineered covalent modification cycles
Nature Communications, Published online: 08 August 2023; doi:10.1038/s41467-023-40479-4Chitin, the second most abundant natural polysaccharide in nature, is synthesized by chitin synthases, which are recognized as targets for antifungal and anti-insect drugs. Here the authors determine cryo-EM structures of the chitin synthase, which reveal its activation, catalytic and inhibitory mechanisms
This summer, I, like so many other Americans, have forgotten what it means to be dry. The heat has grown so punishing, and the humidity so intense, that every movement sends my body into revolt. When I stand, I sweat. When I sit, I sweat. When I slice into a particularly dense head of cabbage, I sweat.
The way things are going, infinite moistness may be something many of us will have to get used to. This past July was the world’s hottest month in recorded history; off the coast of Florida, ocean temperatures hit triple digits, while in Arizona, the asphalt caused third-degree burns. As human-driven climate change continues to remodel the globe, heat waves are hitting harder, longer, and more frequently. The consequences of this crisis will, on a macroscopic scale, upend where and how humans can survive. It will also, in an everyday sense, make our lives very, very sweaty.
For most Americans, that’s probably unwelcome news. Our culture doesn’t exactly love sweat. Heavy perspirers are shunned on subways; BO is a hallmark of pubescent shame. History is splattered with examples of people trying to cloak sweat in perfumes, wash it away by bathing, or soak it up with wads of cotton or rubber crammed into their shirts, dresses, and hats. People without medical reason to do so have opted to paralyze their sweat-triggering nerves with Botox. Even Bruce Lee had the sweat glands in his armpits surgically removed, reportedly to avoid on-screen stains, several months before his death, in 1973.
But our scorn of sweat is entirely undeserved. Perspiration is vital to life. It cools our bodies and hydrates our skin; it manages our microbiome and emits chemical cues. Sweat is also a fundamental part of what makes people people. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to run long distances in high heat; we wouldn’t be able to power our big brains and bodies; we wouldn’t have colonized so much of the Earth. We may even have sweat to thank (or blame) for our skin’s nakedness, says Yana Kamberov, a sweat researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. Her team’s recent data, not yet published, suggest that as human skin evolved to produce more and more sweat glands, fur-making hair follicles disappeared to make room. Sweat is one of the “key milestones” in human evolution, argues Andrew Best, a biological anthropologist at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts—on par with big brains, walking upright, and the expression of culture through language and art.
Humans aren’t the only animals that sweat. Many mammals—among them, dogs, cats, and rats—perspire through the footpads on their paws; chimpanzees, macaques, and other primates are covered in sweat glands. Even horses and camels slick their skin in the heat. But only our bodies are studded with this many millions of teeny, tubular sweat glands—about 10 times the number found on other primates’ skin—that funnel water from our blood to pores that can squeeze out upwards of three, four, even five liters of sweat an hour when we need them to.
Our dampness isn’t cost free. Sweat is siphoned from the liquid components of blood—lose too much, and the risks of heat stroke and death shoot way up. Our lack of fur also makes us more vulnerable to bites and burns. That humans sweat anyway, then, Best told me, is a testament to perspiration’s cooling punch—it’s so much more efficient than merely panting or hiding from the heat. “If your objective is to be able to sustain a high metabolic rate in warm conditions, sweating is absolutely the best,” he said.
And yet, in modern times, many of us just can’t seem to accept the realities of sweat. Americans are, for whatever reason, particularly preoccupied with quashing perspiration; in many other countries, “body odor is just normal,” says Angela Lamb, a dermatologist at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine. But the bemoaning of BO has cultural roots that long predate
. “I’ve read discussions well back into antiquity where there are discussions about people whose armpits stink,” says Cari Casteel, a historian at the University of Buffalo. By the start of the 20th century, Americans had been primed by the recent popularization of germ theory to fear dirtiness—the perfect moment for marketers to “put the fear in women, and then men, that sweat was going to kibosh your plans for romance or a job,” says Sarah Everts, the author of The Joy of Sweat. These days, deodorants command an $8 billion market in the United States.
Our aversion to sweat doesn’t make much evolutionary sense. Unlike other excretions that elicit near-universal disgust, sweat doesn’t routinely transmit disease or pose other harm. But it does evoke physical labor and emotional stress—neither of which polite society is typically keen to see. And for some, maybe it signifies “losing control of your body in a particular way,” says Tina Lasisi, a biological anthropologist at the University of Michigan. Unlike urine or tears, sweat is the product of a body function that we can’t train ourselves to suppress or delay.
We also hate sweat because we think it smells bad. But it doesn’t, really. Nearly all of the sweat glands on human bodies are of the so-called eccrine variety, and produce slightly salty water with virtually no scent. A few spots, such as the armpits and groin, are freckled with apocrine glands that produce a waxy, fatty substance laced with pheromones—but even that has no inherent odor. The bacteria on our skin eat it, and their waste generates a stench, leaving sweat as the scapegoat. Our species’ approach to perspiration may even make us “less stinky than we could be,” Best told me. The expansion of eccrine glands across the body might not have only made our skin barer; it’s also thought to have evicted a whole legion of BO-producing apocrine glands.
As global temperatures climb, for many people—especially in parts of the world that lack access to air-conditioning—sweat will be an inevitability. “I suspect everyone is going to be quite drippy,” Kamberov told me. Exactly how slick each of us will be, though, is anyone’s guess. Experts have evidence that men sweat more than women, and that perspiration potential declines with age. But by and large, they can’t say with certainty why some people are inherently sweatier than others, and how much of it is inborn. Decades ago, a Japanese researcher hypothesized that perspiration potential might be calibrated in the first two or three years of life: Kids born into tropical climates, his analyses suggested, might activate more of their sweat glands than children in temperate regions. But Best’s recent attempts to replicate those findings have so far come up empty.
Perspiration does seem to be malleable within a lifetime. A couple of weeks into a new, intense exercise regimen, for instance, people will start to sweat more and earlier. Over longer periods of time, the body can also learn to tolerate high temperatures, and sweat less copiously but more efficiently. We sense these changes subtly as the seasons shift, says Laure Rittié, a physiologist at Glaxo-Smith Kline, who has studied sweat. It’s part of the reason a 75-degree day might feel toastier—and perhaps sweatier—in the spring than in the fall.
But we can’t simply sweat our way out of our climatic bind. There’s a ceiling to the temperatures we can tolerate; the body can leach only so much liquid out at once. Sweat’s cooling power also tends to falter in humid conditions, when liquid can’t evaporate as easily off of skin. Nor can researchers predict whether future generations might evolve to perspire much more than we do now. We no longer live under the intense conditions that pressured our ancestors to sprout more sweat glands—changes that also took place over many millions of years. It’s even possible that we’re fast approaching the maximal moistness a primate body can produce. “We don’t have a great idea about the outer limits of that plasticity,” Jason Kamilar, a biological anthropologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, told me.
For now, people who are already on the sweatier side may find themselves better equipped to deal with a warming world, Rittié told me. At long last: Blessed are the moist, for they shall inherit the Earth.
Institution used concerning approval procedures for hundreds of studies, review says
research centre that produced one of the most widely cited and controversial research papers of the
-19 pandemic has been found by an international research team to have used questionable and concerning ethics approval processes across hundreds of studies.
The Institut Hospitalo-Universitaire Méditerranée
, or IHU, is a large clinical research centre in the south of France. It was founded by Prof Didier Raoult, who was also director of the centre until August 2022, when he stood down ahead of the release of findings from a government audit that found the institute conducted trials “likely to constitute offences or serious breaches of health or research regulations”.Continue reading…
President Biden is declaring a national monument around the Grand Canyon, protecting lands important to a dozen Native
tribes and prohibiting new uranium mining claims in the region
A new artificial intelligence algorithm has detected, for the first time ever, a killer asteroid slated to fly by Earth — and it won't be the last.
Known as HelioLinc3D, the algorithm — created specifically for the still-under-construction Vera Rubin Observatory in Northern Chile — has already identified one "potentially hazardous asteroid" or PHA that human eyes had missed, as the New York Times reports.
Dubbed 2022 SF289, the roughly 600-foot-long PHA is going to approach Earth within 140,000 miles, which is about half the distance to the Moon (i.e. a little too close for comfort). This asteroid's relatively-small stature makes its algorithmic discovery even more unprecedented because (as the report notes) asteroids under 500 feet are both harder to detect and capable of wiping out entire cities or countries if they hit the Earth.
The good news is: This asteroid isn't likely to hit our planet any time soon. But the AI's ability to find it — after the humans who run the NASA-funded Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) system missed it — is absolutely a big deal. Especially given that the Rubin Observatory hasn't even unleashed its full potential yet.
As the Times notes, the observatory's giant mirror and camera will soon be able to capture images of almost the entire night sky, and it'll do so every three nights. That's a massive amount of data to sift through, and without the algorithmic help of programs like HelioLinc3D, it would be, well, impossible for even a massive team of humans to catch everything.
Burden of Proof
Ari Heinze, a University of Washington researcher who was the principal developer of the algorithm, told the Times that the proof of the program's efficacy is in the pudding.
"By demonstrating the real-world effectiveness of the software that Rubin will use to look for thousands of yet-unknown potentially hazardous asteroids," Heinze said in a UW statement, "the discovery of 2022 SF289 makes us all safer."
While conventional telescopes require four images per night to definitively detect asteroids, Rubin and HelioLinc3D only need two, and as the report notes, don't even need those two taken on consecutive nights.
Given how powerful the observatory-algorithm combo already is without even being finished, it's no doubt going to be a game-changer. Take it from Queen’s University Belfast astronomer Meg Schwab, a proponent of the tech who didn't work on it, and who told the Times that the algorithm is not only going to find asteroids but "all moving objects" that fly through our night sky.
"It’s going to rewrite the solar system," Schwab declared — and given this bold first example, she's probably not being hyperbolic.
The post AI Is Now Identifying Killer Asteroids Before They Approach Earth appeared first on Futurism.
Just a coupla dudes, trying to destroy the dollar.
As CNBC reports, the crypto-anarchist movement is alive and well in Prague, where an outfit dubbed Paralelní Polis — which translates to the extremely-crypto-bro-coded "Parallel World" — promises to do away with digital censorship, reclaim and protect personal data from the "State and corporations," and, one day, do away with the American dollar (in favor of crypto). The group even has a designated and aptly named Institute of Cryptoanarchy, where they recruit new anarchists to the cause through the gospel of The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto. We all have our hobbies!
"New technology brings the possibility of choice — we are in a time that is defined by The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto," reads the webpage for the Institute. "With a fast internet connection, reliable anonymity and decentralized currency, you preserve freedom which we have been losing as a society."
And yet: Polis makes some interesting points, particularly when it comes to their hard lines data and privacy. There are legitimate critiques to be had about our global financial system, most notably, the fact that it's reliant on middlemen, and those middlemen — banks, insurers, exchanges — can fail (see: 2008). As the general logic of decentralized finance goes, removing meddling institutional middlemen and government regulation could result in disseminating (to the general population) the power those institutions once held.
In short: Destroy the dollar, and in theory, the people gain more autonomy. In their Manifesto, the anarchists liken this to nothing less than the advent of the printing press.
"Just as the technology of printing altered and reduced the power of medieval guilds and the social power structure," the Manifesto proclaims, "so too will cryptologic methods fundamentally alter the nature of corporations and of government interference in economic transactions."
The group also appears to have some notable allies; ETHPrague, for instance, was held this year at the operation's headquarters. And, per CNBC, Polis franchises have opened in Vienna, Barcelona, and two other Slavik cities.
But democratizing written knowledge and absolutely obliterating global financial systems are, of course, very different things, with very different consequences. Financial regulations — if often flawed and porous — exist for a reason, and if we learned anything from the year 2022, it's that decentralized finance can very easily be taken advantage of; last year's crypto crash caused a trillion dollars to effectively vaporize, and when it did, an incredible amount of harm was done to countless real people's bank accounts. At least for the time being, take crypto-anarchism's promises with a hefty pinch of salt.
More on crypto: The Feds Are Now Using Crypto to Catch Drug Traffickers
The post These Anarchists Want to Destroy the Dollar with Crypto appeared first on Futurism.
Engineers have developed nanoscale tattoos—dots and wires that adhere to live cells—in a breakthrough that puts researchers one step closer to tracking the health of individual cells.
The new technology allows for the first time the placement of optical elements or electronics on live cells with tattoo-like arrays that stick on cells while flexing and conforming to the cells’ wet and fluid outer structure.
“If you imagine where this is all going in the future, we would like to have sensors to remotely monitor and control the state of individual cells and the environment surrounding those cells in real time,” says David Gracias, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Johns Hopkins University who led the development of the technology.
“We’re talking about putting something like an electronic tattoo on a living object tens of times smaller than the head of a pin.”
“If we had technologies to track the health of isolated cells, we could maybe diagnose and treat diseases much earlier and not wait until the entire organ is damaged.”
The study appears in Nano Letters.
Gracias, who works on developing biosensor technologies that are nontoxic and noninvasive for the body, says the nanoscale tattoos bridge the gap between living cells or tissue and conventional sensors and electronic materials. They’re essentially like barcodes or QR codes, he says.
“We’re talking about putting something like an electronic tattoo on a living object tens of times smaller than the head of a pin,” Gracias says. “It’s the first step towards attaching sensors and electronics on live cells.”
The structures were able to stick to soft cells for 16 hours even as the cells moved.
The researchers built the tattoos in the form of arrays with gold, a material known for its ability to prevent signal loss or distortion in electronic wiring. They attached the arrays to cells that make and sustain tissue in the human body, called fibroblasts.
They then treated the arrays with molecular glues and transferred onto the cells using an alginate hydrogel film, a gel-like laminate that can be dissolved after the gold adheres to the cell. The molecular glue on the array bonds to a film secreted by the cells called the extracellular matrix.
Previous research has demonstrated how to use hydrogels to stick nanotechnology onto human skin and internal animal organs. By showing how to adhere nanowires and nanodots onto single cells, Gracias’ team is addressing the long-standing challenge of making optical sensors and electronics compatible with biological matter at the single cell level.
“We’ve shown we can attach complex nanopatterns to living cells, while ensuring that the cell doesn’t die,” Gracias says. “It’s a very important result that the cells can live and move with the tattoos because there’s often a significant incompatibility between living cells and the methods engineers use to fabricate electronics.”
The team’s ability to attach the dots and wires in an array form is also crucial. To use this technology to track bioinformation, researchers must be able to arrange sensors and wiring into specific patterns not unlike how they are arranged in electronic chips.
“This is an array with specific spacing,” Gracias explains, “not a haphazard bunch of dots.”
The team plans to try to attach more complex nanocircuits that can stay in place for longer periods. They also want to experiment with different types of cells.
Source: Johns Hopkins University
The post Nanoscale ‘tattoos’ could track health of single cells appeared first on Futurity.
Researchers have found a link between the FOXP4 gene and the occurrence of what's known as long
. The finding could lead to a better understanding of a condition that affects millions.
(Image credit: Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Chemists have developed a new method for recycling polyester.
A staggering 60 million tons of polyester are produced annually, for things like clothes, couches, and curtains. That polyester production takes a toll on the climate and environment, as only 15% of it gets recycled. The rest ends up in landfills or incinerated, which results in more carbon emissions.
“The textile industry urgently requires a better solution to handle blended fabrics like polyester/cotton. Currently, there are very few practical methods capable of recycling both cotton and plastic—it’s typically an either-or scenario,” explains postdoctoral researcher Yang Yang of the Jiwoong Lee group at the University of Copenhagen’s chemistry department.
“However, with our newly discovered technique, we can depolymerize polyester into its monomers while simultaneously recovering cotton on a scale of hundreds of grams, using an incredibly straightforward and environmentally friendly approach. This traceless catalytic methodology could be the game-changer.”
Yang is lead author of a paper on the method in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering.
The new recycling method based on hartshorn salt (ammonium bicarbonate) works on PET plastic alone, as well as on PET and cotton blended materials.
“If we throw dirty plastic waste in a container, we still get good quality cotton and plastic monomer out of it. This can even be a plastic bottle with juice residue still in it. We just put it in and begin the reaction. It still works,” says Shriaya Sharma, a doctoral student of the Jiwoong Lee group and a coauthor of the study.
“For example, we can take a polyester dress, cut it up into small pieces and place it in a container. Then, add a bit of mild solvent, and thereafter hartshorn salt, which many people know as a leavening agent in baked goods. We then heat it all up to 160 degrees Celsius and leave it for 24 hours. The result is a liquid in which the plastic and cotton fibers settle into distinct layers. It’s a simple and cost-effective process,” says Sharma.
In the process, the hartshorn salt, also called ammonium bicarbonate, is broken down into ammonia, CO2, and water. The combination of ammonia and CO2 acts as a catalyst, triggering a selective depolymerization reaction that breaks down the polyester while preserving the cotton fibers.
Although ammonia is toxic in isolation, when combined with CO2, it becomes both environmentally friendly and safe for use. Due to the mild nature of the chemicals involved, the cotton fibers remain intact and in excellent condition.
Previously, the same research group demonstrated that CO2 could serve as a catalyst for breaking down nylon, among other things, without leaving any trace. This discovery inspired them to explore the use of hartshorn salt. Nevertheless, the researchers were pleasantly surprised when their simple recipe yielded successful results.
“At first, we were excited to see it work so well on the PET bottles alone. Then, when we discovered that it worked on polyester fabric as well, we were just ecstatic. It was indescribable. That it was so simple to perform was nearly too good to be true,” says Carlo Di Bernardo, doctoral student and study coauthor.
While the method has only been tested at the laboratory level thus far, the researchers point to its scalability and are now in contact with companies to test the method on an industrial scale.
“We’re hoping to commercialize this technology that harbors such great potential. Keeping this knowledge behind the walls of the university would be a huge waste,” says Yang.
Source: University of Copenhagen
The post Method separates cotton and polyester for recycling appeared first on Futurity.
Here's how social media can help conspiracy theories spread and even spark violence
The tiny, floating blobs of mini-hearts were straight out of Frankenstein. Made from a mixture of human stem cells and a sprinkle of silicon nanowires, the cyborg heart organoids bizarrely pumped away as they grew inside Petri dishes.
When transplanted into rats with heart injuries they lost their spherical shape, spreading out into damaged regions and connecting with the hosts’ own heart cells. Within a month, the rats regained much of their heart function.
It’s not science fiction. A new study this month linked digital electrical components with biological cells into a cyborg organoid that, when transplanted into animal models of heart failure, melded with and repaired living, beating hearts.
At the heart (cough, pun intended) of the technology are electrically-active biodegradable silicon nanowires. Heart cells synchronize their movement to the beat of electrical activity, producing the standard “ba-bump, ba-bump” rhythm. A dose of nanowires into the organoids acted as a conductor to the symphony, allowing the lab-grown mini-hearts to better synchronize with their hosts.
Compared to standard heart organoids—grown exactly the same way but without the nanowire boost—the cyborg ones could better tolerate the hostile chemical environment inside the heart after a heart attack. They also better connected to their hosts during recovery, fighting off a detrimental side effect often seen after heart injuries.
For now the cyborg heart organoid transplant only works in rats. But it’s just a start.
The heart is a trooper. From birth to death, it diligently contracts and releases to pump out blood full of oxygen to the rest of the body. It’s a biological wonder, faithfully lasting over 100 years in centenarians—far longer than most man-made hardware contraptions.
Yet the heart is also a failure point. Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide. A main reason is that cardiomyocytes—the “muscle cells” of the heart that contract—have very limited ability to regenerate. When damaged from a heart attack, scar tissue gradually grows around the injured areas, eventually limiting the heart’s ability to contract.
Scientists have long sought to treat heart disease with new, healthy cells. One popular idea is to guide human stem cells to develop into replacement cardiomyocytes. The lab-made heart muscle cells are then injected into damaged areas. Scientist have tested the treatment in a range of animal models of heart disease, including rodents, pigs, and nonhuman primates. But the healthy cells, when confronted with a hostile environment, struggled to survive. Those that did couldn’t reliably recover from heart damage, leading to potential problems with arrhythmia—irregular heartbeats that occur when different portions of the heart can’t beat in a synchronized rhythm.
Enter organoids. These structures loosely mimic their original counterparts in both their genes and diverse cell types. Grown inside lab dishes, the 3D blobs of tissue are widely used as surrogate organs to test new drugs or advance theories on how things work inside the body—for example, how to repair damage from a heart attack. But they also hold the potential to replace damaged tissue—something that’s already being explored for brain injuries.
Would it also work for the heart?
Back in 2017, the team envisioned a mini-heart—called a cardiac organoid—that combined a stew of different cell types. When churned inside a nutritious recipe “soup,” the cells organized into mini-heart organoids, such as a network of blood vessels that help carry oxygen. Yet a key component was missing: synchrony. Like a talented orchestra without a conductor, the resulting mini-hearts needed a “pulse” to keep the beat in tune.
Enter nanowires. Imagine them as rough, short hair you shave off. These strands of technological magic are made of silicon that conducts electricity. Compared to previous gold- or carbon-based nanowires, they are far more biocompatible and dissolve inside the body.
Roughly a decade ago, the team surprisingly found that the nanowires (called e-SiNW) can trigger human cardiomyocytes derived from stem cells to incorporate them as the cells develop into tiny blobs. Adding a dose of silicon made the resulting mini-hearts stronger, allowing the engineered organoid cells to pulse to the heart’s electrical tune.
As a first test, the team directly injected the nanowires into the hearts of healthy rats. 28 days later (no it’s not that kind of zombie story), the rats went about their happy ways, meaning that the nanowires were biocompatible and safe.
Next, they made a “meatball” with roughly 1,000 human-derived heart cells and a similar number of nanowires, with a hefty dose of supporting cells added 10 days later. The mini-heart began pulsing inside a Petri dish in just seven days.
When transplanted into healthy rats, the cyborg meatballs slowly shredded their spherical shape, suggesting that they were integrating into the host’s heart environment. In less than a month, the mini-hearts—with their nanowires—formed multiple electrical connections with the host’s natural heart cells.
It shows that the nanowired organoids can hook up with a beating heart using electricity and blood vessels, said the team.
Then came the ultimate test: repairing issues after a heart attack. Here, the heart struggles to recover from a lack of blood and oxygen, often because of a blockage such as a blood clot. Once the blockage is cleared, blood rushes through the veins and often causes even more damage. A major hub is the left ventricle in the heart—the top-left portion of the organ. This is the “engine” of the body, pumping out blood to support the rest of the tissues. It’s also one that’s easily damaged in heart disease and generates a hostile local environment for new transplants. (Imagine trying to plant new trees inside an active volcano that just blew up.)
In one test, the team directly injected cyborg organoids and their purely biological counterparts into rats four days after a heart attack. Both grafts associated with their hosts just a week after transplant. The nanowired organoids meshed with the host hearts at a far higher level even around heavily damaged areas with scar tissue.
It’s a sign of their “capacity to survive in the most hostile regions” of the damaged heart, said the team.
Rats given the cyborg implants restored far more functionality than organoids without the nanowires. The rebuild extended beyond just the heart itself to help control blood pressure. By restoring a smooth flow of blood, the transplant “augments the therapeutic efficacy” of human mini-hearts, said the team.
The nanowires also endeared the mini-hearts to their hosts. 28 days after treatment, the hosts’ hearts had far less scar tissue that’s normally associated with heart failure. The cyborg transplants played nice with the rats’ immune systems, which usually ramp up after a heart attack. The main immune cells involved in the process are macrophages. These cells can be either devils or angels, triggering deadly immune responses or supporting restoration. Compared to unwired organoids, the cyborg ones bumped up the portion of “angel” immune cells in the graft and border zones to help mend the broken heart’s function.
There’s a long road to go before the results translate to humans. However, the results are the latest creative push for using organoids to patch up damaged organs. The “therapeutic synergy” between electrical nanomaterial and human mini-organs isn’t limited to the heart. A similar strategy could be used for other electrically active tissues such as the muscle or the brain, said the authors.
Image Credit: Tan et al/Science Advances
Nature, Published online: 08 August 2023; doi:10.1038/d41586-023-02356-4Snippets from Nature’s past.
A chonker of an ancient whale with a comically small head and fins has emerged as a serious contender for the title of heaviest animal to have ever existed on Earth, according to a team of paleontologists who just published a paper about the truly massive mammal in the science journal Nature.
Weighing anywhere between 187,000 to 705,000 pounds, the only extant fossil of the creature Perucetus colossus existed about 39 million years ago, and is estimated to have a length of 56 to 66 feet, according to the BBC.
That makes it far heftier than the blue whale, the largest animal alive right now, which can weigh in between 200,000 to 300,000 pounds.
To put this in better perspective: "Perucetus could have weighed almost two blue whales, three Argentinosaurs (a giant sauropod dinosaur), over 30 African bush elephants and as many as 5,000 people," said Giovanni Bianucci, study co-author and associate professor of paleontology at the University of Pisa in
, to CNN. In other words: A whole lot of blubber.
Researchers found a partial fossil of the beast actually 13 years ago in a desert in southern Peru and have been studying it closely ever since, according to the BBC.
What's especially interesting about the mammal — a type of ancient whale called a basilosaurid — is its dense, extremely heavy bones.
"Each vertebra weighs over 100kg (220 pounds), which is just completely mind-blowing," said co-author Rebecca Bennion, a researcher from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels, to the BBC.
The researchers surmise that the dense bones are an adaptation to give this massive whale extra bounce while it swam off the coast in relatively shallow waters. Think of it as an extremely oversized manatee.
Another interesting finding is that this ancient whale was THIS LARGE (mimes stretched out hands) at this particular time period — a far earlier sign of gigantism in whales than what scientists have traditionally thought, according to the BBC. Researchers thought gigantism in whales first emerged 4.5 million years ago.
The post Scientists: Massive Ancient Whale With Silly, Tiny Head Was Real appeared first on Futurism.
Research finds that even a slight change in salinity can affect the ability of sea urchins to securely attach their tube feet to their surroundings—like tires gripping the road.
When driving through a rainstorm, traction is key. If your tires lack sufficient tread, your vehicle will slip and slide and you won’t have the grip needed to maneuver safely. When torrential rains hit nearshore, shallow water ecosystems, sea urchins experience a similar challenge.
Heavy precipitation can alter the concentration of salt in the ocean waters causing lower salinity levels. This becomes a matter of life and death for the small spiny creatures, as they rely on their adhesive structures to move in the wave-battered rocky area near the seashore.
The survival of sea urchins is vital for maintaining balance within marine ecosystems. Sea urchins are responsible for grazing around 45% of algae on coral reefs. Without sea urchins, coral reefs can become overgrown with macroalgae, which can limit the growth of corals. With the importance of coral reefs for coastal protection and preservation of biodiversity, it is critical to safeguard the sea urchin population.
As global climate change causes weather extremes ranging from heat waves and droughts to heavy rains and flooding, the large amounts of freshwater pouring into nearshore ecosystems are altering habitats. A team of biologists, led by Austin Garner, assistant professor in Syracuse University’s biology department, studied the effects of low salinity and how it alters sea urchins’ ability to grip and move within their habitat. Garner, who is a member of the university’s BioInspired Institute, studies how animals attach to surfaces in variable environments from the perspective of both the life and physical sciences.
The team’s study, recently published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, sought to understand how sea urchin populations will be affected by future extreme climatic events.
“While many marine animals can regulate the amount of water and salts in their bodies, sea urchins are not as effective at this,” says Garner. “As a result, they tend to be restricted to a narrow range of salinity levels. Torrential precipitation can cause massive amounts of freshwater to be dumped into the ocean along the coastline causing rapid reductions in the concentration of salt in seawater.”
The group’s research took place at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories (FHL). The study’s lead author, Andrew Moura, a graduate student in Garner’s lab at Syracuse, traveled to FHL along with Garner and researchers from Villanova University to conduct experiments with live green sea urchins.
At FHL, the researchers separated sea urchins into 10 groups based on differing salinity levels within each tank, from normal to very low salt content. Among each group, they tested metrics including righting response (the ability for sea urchins to flip themselves over), locomotion (speed from one point to another), and adhesion (force at which their tube feet detach from a surface). In Garner’s lab at Syracuse, he and Moura completed data analysis to compare each metric.
The team found that sea urchin righting response, movement, and adhesive ability were all negatively affected by low salinity conditions. Interestingly, though, sea urchin adhesive ability was not severely affected until very low salinity levels, indicating that sea urchins may be able to remain attached in challenging nearshore environmental conditions even though activities that require greater coordination of tube feet (righting and movement) may not be possible.
“When we see this decrease in performance under very low salinity, we might start seeing shifts in where sea urchins might be living as a consequence of their inability to remain stuck in certain areas that experience low salinity,” explains Moura. “That could change how much sea urchin grazing is happening and could have profound ecosystem effects.”
Their work provides critical data that enhance researchers’ ability to predict how important animals like sea urchins will fare in a changing world. The adhesion principles Garner and his team are exploring could also come in handy for human-designed adhesive materials.
“If we can learn the fundamental principles and molecular mechanisms that allow sea urchins to secrete a permanent adhesive and use it for temporary attachment, we could harness that power into the design challenges or our adhesives today,” says Garner.
“Imagine being able to have an adhesive that is otherwise permanent, but then you add another component, and it breaks it down and you can go stick it again somewhere else. It’s a perfect example of how biology can be used to enhance the everyday products around us.”
Source: Syracuse University
- China has implemented various environmental regulations, including the widespread use of air pollution control devices (APCDs) in CFPPs.
- University-based commercialization took off in 1980, when the Bayh-Dole Act allowed US universities to retain ownership of, and profit from, faculty inventions built using federal research funding.
People who live in less affluent neighborhoods and those from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups are less likely than others to receive specialized care for
, including Alzheimer’s disease, according to a new study.
Further, the study shows that Black people are more likely than white people to be diagnosed with dementia at a later, more advanced stage, which could contribute to inequities in access to new treatments.
New medications to treat early-stage Alzheimer’s have recently emerged. Specifically, aducanumab (trade name Aduhelm) and lecanemab (trade name Leqembi) have been approved for certain patients with early Alzheimer’s disease, which makes the timely diagnosis of Alzheimer’s dementia crucial.
“Dementia care is going through a major transformation right now,” says Suzanne Schindler, an associate professor of neurology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and a coauthor of the study published in the journal Neurology.
“With these new therapeutics, getting evaluated at a specialty clinic early on—when symptoms first develop—is going to be important in a way that it never was before so that eligible patients can have access to these treatments. Our study suggests that we must seek out ways to ensure that the distribution of these new treatments is equitable.”
Barriers to dementia care
The study was focused on the Washington University Memory Diagnostic Center in St. Louis. But identifying a local problem also can shine a light on the national and global problem of socioeconomic and racial disparities in health care and, in particular, Alzheimer’s care. This type of study provides a baseline for measuring the impact of efforts to reduce such disparities in the St. Louis region and more broadly, the researchers say.
Various forms of dementia can be challenging to diagnose, and most primary care doctors don’t have the detailed information necessary to make, for example, a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Many such doctors refer patients who may be having memory problems to memory care clinics, where physicians specialize in the evaluation and management of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of cognitive impairment.
Many barriers can impede anyone with symptoms of Alzheimer’s from seeking care and a diagnosis: the requirements for insurance and a primary care provider’s referral, the necessity of a support person, usually a close family member, to accompany a patient to doctor’s visits and help describe their symptoms, the cultural expectations surrounding what constitutes “normal” memory loss, and the list goes on. Even if patients are able to check these boxes, they are often met with discouragingly long wait times for an appointment.
For many reasons, these barriers disproportionately affect people from underrepresented groups and people of lower socioeconomic status. This disparate access means that Black patients are less likely to receive a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease despite being twice as likely to develop dementia as white
Advanced dementia and race
The study used de-identified electronic health record data to compare the socioeconomic status of various neighborhoods where patients lived. Using a sample of 4,824 Washington University patients from 2008-2018, the researchers evaluated how use of its memory clinic is associated with neighborhood-level measures of socioeconomic factors and race.
The researchers, including first author Abigail Lewis, an informatics doctoral student at Washington University, found that patients at the memory care clinic were more likely to reside in more affluent areas.
Black patients were underrepresented, with 11% of clinic patients self-identifying as Black compared with 16% of residents in the area served by the clinic, according to census data. Further, the study showed that Black patients had more advanced dementia than white patients at their initial evaluations. At their first visits, 40% of Black patients and 31% of white patients met criteria for at least mild dementia, and 16% of Black patients and 10% of white patients had moderate or severe dementia.
“While we examined the situation with our patients here at Washington University, this disparity is likely to exist at other facilities nationwide,” says senior author Albert M. Lai, a professor of medicine in the division of general medical sciences and chief research information officer.
“We are hopeful this study can provide information needed to improve equity at Washington University and can provide a starting point to investigate these issues at other specialty memory care clinics across the country.”
The results were not surprising to Schindler or Lai, given that people with a lower socioeconomic status and from underrepresented groups are less likely than others to have health insurance and access to health care, among other barriers.
Still, Schindler says, “having the data that this study provides is compelling. Showing that you can see these disparities in data then gives you the ability to start working toward fixing it.”
Coauthor Joyce (Joy) Balls-Berry, an associate professor of neurology, concurs with the importance of having these numbers and says they provide a renewed chance to consider health disparities moving forward. Balls-Berry leads the Health Disparities and Equity Core, which was inaugurated by the Charles F. and Joanne Knight Alzheimer Disease Research Center (ADRC) in 2020 to incorporate principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion into all aspects of the Knight ADRC’s work.
Genuine community engagement is integral to these efforts, Balls-Berry says. Community engagement offers a way to develop relationships with and trust within underrepresented and underresourced communities; it allows for a shared vision to be developed, and for communication between partners to be kept open in both directions.
“Moving forward, we have to be more agile,” Balls-Berry says. “We must continue to emphasize community engagement. I would like to find ways to move beyond having patients come to campus for their care. How do we bring clinical skills to spaces that aren’t clinics, and instead reach out to church communities or child-care facilities, for example, to meet people where they are? Toward better equity, I am interested in seeking ways to work with Dr. Lai’s team to build a process in the electronic health record to identify those patients that are in greatest need of receiving a referral and make sure they get it.”
The researchers suggest some possible interventions to investigate to determine if they move measures of equity in the right direction. Telehealth visits may expand access, as may increasing the number of doctors providing memory care. Another priority of the community is to increase the number of Black doctors providing care. Many times, according to Balls-Berry, patients express a desire to see health-care providers who share their life experiences in terms of gender and race.
“The next steps are always to do more research,” Lai says. “Data contained in the electronic health record is a powerful tool for identifying and monitoring disparities. We now have the opportunity to address them and measure our impact.”
Washington University in St. Louis and the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund supported the work.
Source: Marley Wiemers for Washington University in St. Louis
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- In 2021, Asa Hutchinson, then the governor of Arkansas, vetoed a child-gender-care bill, drawing criticism from Tucker Carlson and the state party.
When Keir Starmer wanted to change the Labour Party’s stance on sex and gender, he didn’t give a set-piece speech or hold a press conference. Instead, the leader of
’s main opposition party stayed in the background, leaving Anneliese Dodds, a shadow minister with a low public profile, to announce the shift in a short opinion column in The Guardian. In just over 800 words, she made three big declarations. One was that “sex and gender are different.” Another was that, although Labour continues to believe in the right to change one’s legal gender, safeguards are needed to “protect women and girls from predators who might abuse the system.” Finally, Labour was therefore dropping its commitment to self-ID—the idea that a simple online declaration is enough to change someone’s legal gender for all purposes—and would retain the current requirement of a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria.
Dodds supplemented her article with a few explanatory tweets, but didn’t go on television to reiterate the message. The next day, Labour declined to provide a spokesperson for comment on the BBC’s flagship radio news show. Although Starmer did eventually answer questions on the subject, as part of a wider interview two days later, the overall effect was that of a man who had chucked a hand grenade over his shoulder and walked away, whistling.
To anyone not following the turbulent and sometimes arcane debate that has been raging in Britain, Dodds’s statements might sound uncontroversial, but they are not. Since 2015, when the Conservative politician Maria Miller first proposed self-ID in Britain, the idea that such a system might be abused has been called a transphobic myth by LGBTQ campaigners. Demands for single-sex sports teams, locker rooms, and prisons were thus “exclusionary” and analogous to whites-only buses, schools, and water fountains under apartheid and Jim Crow. Labour, the main party of the British left, has now declared that these arguments are unfair and untrue. The internal dissent has been notably muted.
That shift has broader implications, not least in America, where combatants on both sides of the gender war closely follow the debates in Britain. (Queer activists in the U.S. dismissively call the country “TERF Island.”) Labour’s new stance shows how the left can simultaneously acknowledge the needs of an embattled transgender minority, accept the importance of biological sex to public policy, and look for political and social compromises. Admittedly, huge questions remain about how the party’s proposals will work in practice and whether its Welsh and Scottish branches will fall in line. But Labour has signaled the beginning of a serious democratic conversation, after years of implicitly agreeing with the LGBTQ activists who insisted that no debate was acceptable.
As a leader of a left-wing party, Starmer has sent an important sign by disassociating himself from the radical postmodern idea that the distinction between males and females is a social construct, and that biology has nothing to do with women’s historical oppression. (“Women are not, in fact, subordinated or oppressed by our bodies,” the feminist legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon wrote recently. “We do not need to be liberated from our chromosomes or our ovaries.”)
Labour’s new position represents a big ideological shift, but it wasn’t presented as one. That is typical of Starmer’s personality, which is unshowy but ruthless. Unlike many American politicians on either side of the spectrum, he has tried to find a position that will make the debate less inflammatory, and to appeal to the wider country rather than his activist base.
In the three years since the Conservatives dropped their commitment to self-ID, some of their politicians have gleefully seized on the vote-winning potential of gender as a culture-war issue. By contrast, during that time, Starmer and his ministers have been fumbling over their answer to the question What is a woman?, talking about cervices far more than anyone outside a gynecology department would wish to. A desire to stick to the progressive line has meant that Labour politicians have ended up saying baffling things like “A child is born without sex.” Some have attacked interviewers for even bringing up the subject, which just drew more attention to their tortured answers. Stuck arguing about the exact percentage of women who have a penis, Labour couldn’t talk about Britain’s housing crisis, high energy costs, crumbling infrastructure, poor economic growth, and high inflation.
That era is now over, if rank-and-file Labour politicians want it to be. Two days after the Dodds column appeared, Starmer was asked to define woman. He responded simply, “An adult female.” If that answer is permissible in left-wing circles, interviewers have been deprived of an easy gotcha question, and Labour can go back to talking about economics and trying to win over the median voter.
For fear of harming trans people or aligning with outright bigots, some on the left have avoided voicing misgivings about policies such as self-ID, and over the past decade Labour activists have vilified feminist commentators who did speak up. Starmer has now broadened the limits of the discussion. Across Europe, medical associations are recommending caution over so-called affirmative models of gender care for minors. The possibility that social contagion may affect teenagers’ professed identities is being discussed among doctors, as is the suggestion that, at least in some cases, puberty itself can resolve gender dysphoria. The lack of evidence for the safety or effectiveness of puberty blockers is becoming sayable.
In sports, international bodies are undoing previous policies that put trans women in competition with natal-female athletes. The latest organization to change its rules is British Rowing, which has restricted women’s events to biological females, while also creating categories for transgender participation. Two weeks before that, cycling’s world governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale, restricted the female category to individuals born female who have never taken testosterone, while also creating an “open” competition for anyone who has been through male puberty or has taken male hormones.
, though, political polarization is freezing a highly unproductive discussion in place. One of the most frustrating aspects of writing on this subject is that many liberals don’t know what they don’t know. Punitive red-state bans, coupled with overtly anti-LGBTQ rhetoric by Republicans, have made Democrats instinctively defensive of puberty blockers and gender surgery for minors even as European experts grow warier. A proper, evidence-based debate about child transition in America is inhibited by the fact that medical groups are wedded to the affirmative model, despite their overseas colleagues’ qualms about the evidence base. The board of the American Academy of Pediatrics just voted unanimously to continue backing the affirmative approach for now.
Clearly, a broad middle ground exists. About three-quarters of Americans are opposed to discrimination against transgender people in housing, colleges, the workplace, and obtaining health insurance, according to polling conducted late last year. But more than 60 percent of American adults also believe that trans women and girls should not compete in female sports at any level, and solid majorities also oppose hormone treatments for under-18s. Even among trans adults themselves, the same poll found that three in 10 support sex-based restrictions in sports, and the same number said it was inappropriate for younger children to receive puberty blockers. (The Washington Post, which published the polling, notes that it was conducted before the introduction of hundreds of red-state bills restricting medical care and sports participation.) It seems as though most Americans are happy to support trans people in everyday life, while also believing that trans women are not identical to other women, with all that implies. But this position is rarely articulated among elites on either side. “It’s not just tribalism; it’s extremism,” the writer Lisa Selin Davis told me. “It’s the two-party system, and it’s each party catering to its most radical constituents. And of course, that’s the story of social media too.”
Davis came to the American gender debate as the parent of a masculine daughter. When she wrote about that experience in The New York Times, she received letters urging her to let her “son” transition and warning that “he” might die by suicide otherwise. She still considers herself to be on the left but believes that her natural allies have lost perspective. “When it comes to the Democrats, they have invested so much political capital in supporting things that not only probably don’t matter to most Democratic voters, but I think probably are a bit of a turnoff,” she told me. “Staking your claim on supporting drag-queen story hour, as opposed to a $25 minimum wage, is really silly.”
Davis is particularly dispirited that Democrats do not make life easy for lawmakers who depart from the party’s orthodoxy on gender issues. Shawn Thierry, a Black female Democratic state representative in Texas, faced censure motions and a primary challenge after supporting a Republican bill to limit gender-related hormone therapies to people over 18. Her Democratic colleagues accused her of parroting GOP talking points, but she insisted that she had looked at the evidence and found it wanting. Her detractors were also unhappy that she met with two detransitioners ahead of the vote. Imagine that—a lawmaker being criticized for listening to people with personal experience of the issue under discussion.
Deviations from the Republican Party line also attract ferocious pushback. In 2021, Asa Hutchinson, then the governor of Arkansas, vetoed a child-gender-care bill, drawing criticism from Tucker Carlson and the state party. But Hutchinson gave a compelling rationale: He opposed surgeries on minors but felt the bill was unconstitutional and deprived parents of their rights. (His veto was overturned, but the law has since been struck down by a judge.) Earlier this year, Utah Governor Spencer Cox approved restrictions on transition care in his state only after meeting with families affected by the change, telling reporters: “If you’re not willing to sit down and listen to transgender kids and their families, then you’re probably doing policy the wrong way.” Cox is now using his year as chair of the National Governors Association to promote an initiative called Disagree Better.
Here in Britain, Starmer is betting that most voters will gratefully accept his proposed compromise—one that both assuages their concerns and takes some of the heat out of the debate. Labour has made concessions to trans activists, too, by proposing a system that will allow patients to receive a dysphoria diagnosis from their family doctor, rather than having to apply to an anonymous panel. Starmer has so far declined to apologize on the party’s behalf to feminists who were harassed for views that Labour now officially shares.
Frankly, treating this as a tough but mundane problem to be solved rather than an emotive means of attacking the opposition is what is needed. It’s the only way to make the American conversation around gender more like the British one. Democrats need to meet detransitioners, and Republicans need to meet transgender activists. Both sides need to hear the best version of their opponents’ arguments—and ensure that the debate is being conducted on the basis of the best available evidence. Alongside any evidence reviews, Davis wants a bipartisan commission on child gender care. “The best thing to do would be to stop fighting and get the data,” she said.
Until then, the left must be able to defend trans rights without denying the meaningful differences between males and females. The right must be able to air concerns without demonizing trans people. Both liberals and conservatives should stop throwing around accusations of child abuse toward parents doing their best. The gender war can end—if the broad, tolerant middle asserts itself.
- A new version of the bill was just introduced in the House of Representatives by the Republican Claudia Tenney and the Democrat Suzan DelBene.
- MLK50, a local newsroom in Memphis, teamed up with ProPublica to report that Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare had sued more than 8,300 people, many of them poor, for unpaid hospital bills.
Zak Podmore did not bring down a corrupt mayor. He did not discover secret torture sites or expose abuses by a powerful religious institution. But there was something about this one article he wrote as a reporter for The Salt Lake Tribune in 2019 that changed my conception of the value of local news.
Podmore, then a staff journalist for the Tribune and a corps member of Report for America, a nonprofit I co-founded, published a story revealing that San Juan County, Utah, had paid a single law firm hundreds of thousands of dollars in lobbying fees. Among other things, Podmore found that the firm had overcharged the county, the poorest in the state, by $109,500. Spurred by his story, the firm paid the money back. Perhaps because it didn’t involve billions of dollars, but rather a more imaginable number, it struck me: In one story, Podmore had retrieved for the county a sum that was triple his annual salary.
You’ve probably read about the collapse of local news over the past two decades. On average, two newspapers close each week. Some 1,800 communities that used to have local news now don’t. Many of the papers still hanging on are forced to make do with skeleton staffs as their owners, often private-equity firms, seek to cut costs. The number of newspaper newsroom employees dropped by 57 percent from 2008 to 2020, according to a Pew Research study, leading to thousands of “ghost newspapers” that barely cover their community.
For the past 15 years, I have been part of an effort to reverse this trend. That means I’ve grown used to talking about the threat that news deserts pose to
democracy. After all, the whole concept of democratic self-government depends on the people knowing what public officials are up to. That’s impossible without a watchdog press. Researchers have linked the decline of local news to decreased voter participation and higher rates of corruption, along with increased polarization and more ideologically extreme elected officials. At this point, I can make high-minded speeches about this stuff in my sleep, with Thomas Jefferson quotes and everything. Recently, however, I’ve come to realize that I have been ignoring a less lofty but perhaps more persuasive argument: Funding local news would more than pay for itself.
Unlike other seemingly intractable problems, the demise of local news wouldn’t cost very much money to reverse. Journalists are not particularly well compensated. Assuming an average salary of $60,000 (generous by industry standards), it would cost only about $1.5 billion a year to sustain 25,000 local-reporter positions, a rough estimate of the number that have disappeared nationwide over the past two decades. That’s two-hundredths of a percent of federal spending in 2022. I personally think this would be an amount well worth sacrificing to save American democracy. But the amazing thing is that it wouldn’t really be a sacrifice at all. If more public or philanthropic money were directed toward sustaining local news, it would most likely produce financial benefits many times greater than the cost.
What do government officials do when no one’s watching? Often, they enrich themselves or their allies at the taxpayers’ expense. In the 2000s, some years after its local paper shut down, the city of Bell, California, a low-income, overwhelmingly Latino community, raised the pay of the city manager to $787,637 and that of the police chief to $457,000. The Los Angeles Times eventually exposed the graft, and several city officials ended up in prison. Prosecutors accused them of costing taxpayers at least $5.5 million through their inflated salaries. These salaries were approved at municipal meetings, which is to say that if even one reporter (say, with a salary of $60,000) had been in attendance, the city might have saved millions of dollars.
Sometimes the work of journalists prompts government investigations into the private sector, which, in turn, produce fines that go into the public’s bank account. After the Tampa Bay Times found that a battery recycler was exposing its employees and the surrounding community to high levels of lead and other toxins, regulators fined the company $800,000. A ProPublica investigation into one firm’s questionable mortgage-backed securities prompted investigations by the Security and Exchange Commission, which ultimately assessed $435 million in fines. A review of more than 12,000 entries in the Investigative Reporters and Editors Awards found that about one in 10 triggered fines from the government, and twice as many prompted audits.
In other cases, local-news organizations return money directly to consumers by forcing better behavior from private institutions. MLK50, a local newsroom in Memphis, teamed up with ProPublica to report that Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare had sued more than 8,300 people, many of them poor, for unpaid hospital bills. In response, the faith-based institution erased nearly $12 million in debt.
Of course, most journalism does not convert quite so immediately into cash on hand. The impacts may be enormous but indirect. One study of toxic emissions at 40,000 plants found that when newspapers reported on pollution, emissions declined by 29 percent compared with plants that were not covered. The study did not track the ripple effects, but it stands to reason that residents in the less polluted areas would have fewer health problems, which in turn would translate to lower medical costs and less lost work time. Another study, by the scholars Pengjie Gao, Chang Lee, and Dermot Murphy, looked at bond offerings in communities with and without local news from 1996 to 2015. It concluded that for each bond offering, the borrowing costs were five to 11 basis points higher in the less covered communities. That translated to additional costs of $650,000 an issue, on average.
One academic tried to track the economic effects even further downstream. In his book Democracy’s Detectives: The Economics of Investigative Journalism, the Stanford professor James Hamilton looked at a series by KCBS in Los Angeles that uncovered a flawed restaurant-inspection program. The exposé prompted L.A. County to require restaurants to display their inspection scores, which in turn led to a 13.3 percent drop in L.A. County hospital admissions for food poisoning. Hamilton estimated a savings of about $148,000. In another case study, Hamilton analyzed a series by the Raleigh News & Observer that found that, because the state criminal-justice system didn’t adequately keep track of those under supervision, 580 people on probation in North Carolina killed someone from 2000 to 2008. After the state implemented reforms, murders committed by people on probation declined. Applying the statistical “value of human life” used by the U.S. Department of Transportation, Hamilton concluded that society saved about $62 million in just the first year after the policy changes. The series cost only about $200,000 to produce.
Ideally, investment in local news would come from the federal government, which has more freedom to think long-term than cash-strapped states and municipalities do. The Rebuild Local News coalition, of which I am president, supports legislation that would provide a refundable tax credit for news organizations that employ local reporters, and a tax break for small businesses that advertise in local news. A new version of the bill was just introduced in the House of Representatives by the Republican Claudia Tenney and the Democrat Suzan DelBene. Civic-minded philanthropists focused on high-impact donations should also put money into local news, given the likely societal returns. It’s impossible to quantify exactly how much money would be generated for government and consumers by restoring the health of local news. But it’s nearly as hard to deny that the investment would pay off handsomely. And the saving-democracy part? Well, that’s just gravy.
“It’s almost like the government’s imposing its will on its residents,” Trayon White, the D.C. council member for Ward 8, said at the council’s June 6 legislative meeting. He wasn’t talking about a proposed highway, a subway station, a power plant, or—perish the thought—an apartment building. He was talking about trees: specifically, three linden trees on Xenia Street planted a few years ago by D.C.’s Urban Forestry Division. To my surprise, the legislative body of a major American city experiencing escalating homelessness and a serious spike in violent crime dedicated a quarter of its time that day to discussing three trees.
White said he was concerned about the potential risk to property values and what he sees as a “reasonable fear” that once mature, the trees would “be large enough to make it difficult to see through and around the walkway, which is a public-safety concern.” He asked his colleagues to support an emergency resolution to remove them before this happened.
For a while, the members carried on as though this were a perfectly normal matter for their attention. A few suggested that perhaps expanding the tree canopy was good, actually. But no one really questioned the underlying premise of White’s proposal: that the community had risen up in dendrophobic opposition.
“We want to note that these are homeowners who are worried about the value of their homes,” White said. “I just believe that [the District Department of Transportation, or DDOT] can be more friendly in responding to the needs of the community with their request, and if they’re requesting different trees, I don’t see what the big problem is.”
The council went on to debate the merits of the public-safety question. Councilman Kenyan McDuffie recalled that in his ward the city had planted trees in parking spaces so as not to encroach on the already narrow sidewalks. “I still question whether there is the appropriate level of consultation and engagement in the impacted communities,” he said, backing White.
After more than 20 minutes, the chair of the council noted with surprise that “we spent this much time on the issue of removing three trees.” White, recognizing the lack of sufficient support from his colleagues, withdrew the matter from the agenda, allowing the trees to grow another day.
What initially drew me to this story was the obvious mismatch between the rhetoric at the council meeting and the subject at hand. How could a few trees constitute a threat to public safety or property values? Were these trees particularly ugly? And who was behind White’s push to get them removed? Like many stories about government, this seemingly trivial drama turned out to be about power, and how people justify using it.
Xenia Street is in Ward 8, physically separated from most of D.C. by the Anacostia River. That’s not the only thing that sets it apart. This side of the river is overwhelmingly Black and has a higher unemployment rate, a lower labor-force-participation rate, and a higher poverty rate than the rest of the city. The census tract that contains Xenia Street is one of the most heat sensitive in the city, a metric that reflects the prevalence of asthma, coronary heart disease, and disability, as well as racial demographics and income. D.C.’s Urban Forestry Department, a division of DDOT, planted the trees after a beetle infestation harmed several local ash trees. A senior official told me the department is generally concerned about the unequal distribution of tree canopy across wards: At the end of June, Ward 8 had roughly 500 open requests for new plantings; the higher-income Ward 4 had nearly 6,000.
Tree planting doesn’t meet the bar for more serious types of notification and community-input processes that a new road or train station might. But according to Kay Armstead, a former member of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission—an elected body meant to serve as a hyperlocal voice on zoning, bike lanes, liquor licenses—the city did inform the commission of a plan to bring more trees to the neighborhood. In the fall of 2020, it planted 35 trees, some American linden, some apple, on a publicly owned lot between two condo buildings, 450 Xenia Street and 450 Condon Terrace.
I wanted to see the trees for myself. In the weeks following White’s proposed emergency resolution, I visited the quiet residential street on three separate occasions, asking people if they had any thoughts about the trees. No one I interviewed registered strong opinions, or had even heard of the controversy.
One resident of 450 Condon Terrace immediately redirected my attention to a massive hole in the ground of her parking lot, which she said had been caused by a garbage truck. Another told me he hadn’t heard about the controversy but wanted to talk about trash pickup. “I mean, look at this shit,” he said, pointing to a pile of trash on the sidewalk. Trees? Low on the list of priorities. Another man found my line of questioning confusing, to say the least. “They’re oxygen!” When I said some people worried the trees could encourage crime, he laughed at me. “Now, you know that’s crazy. Who’s going to hide underneath these trees?”
So who forms “the community” so opposed to the trees? His name is Darryl Ross.
Ross has been active in local politics for decades. He is treasurer of the Ward 8 Democrats and of White’s constituent-services fund, a controversial purse that some critics have called a “slush fund.” When White refers to constituent outreach to his office over this issue, he’s talking about Ross. (White and his chief of staff both declined to be interviewed for this story.) Ross doesn’t live at 450 Xenia Street, but he used to. He still owns a unit in the building, which he rents out, and is the president of the Xenia Condominium Owners Association.
Ross has been angry about the trees since the day they were planted. He told me he saw workers digging and began calling around, furious that no one had informed the neighborhood about the project, astounded that the city thought 35 trees (“a forest!”) made sense on the street, and frustrated by hypothetical future private costs that the trees would impose on residents.
His 311 requests to remove the trees went nowhere. So he tried officials at DDOT and the Urban Forestry Department, White and several other members of the city council, the office of the inspector general, and current and former members of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission. He knows he wouldn’t have been able to get so much attention without his connections: “Believe me, I’m using all the leverage I can to get the desired result,” he told me.
After months of effort, in August of 2021, representatives from DDOT, White’s chief of staff, and a senior staffer for at-large Council Member Anita Bonds met with Ross and a couple of area residents on the site to discuss the problem. The officials agreed to remove 14 of the 35 newly planted trees. The agency also promised to complete a lighting survey, which resulted in the installation of three large streetlights, a data-driven approach to reducing crime.
The “desire to compromise for this individual is because we want to make sure we’re doing this for people, not to them,” a senior official in the Urban Forestry department (who requested anonymity to speak freely) told me. “If we can mollify someone, engender a sense of ownership … You take someone and make them more of an ally.”
Ross was not mollified. He continued his crusade to have three more trees removed—the ones closest to his condo building’s walkway. He lodged a complaint with D.C.’s Office of the Inspector General, which led to a formal response from DDOT Director Everett Lott, who argued that the department had broken no laws in planting the trees and had in fact exceeded the mandate for public notification. Undeterred, Ross continued his advocacy, which culminated with White’s proposed emergency resolution at the city-council meeting in June.
Ross put me in touch with a few of his allies, most of whom sounded only slightly more informed about the situation than the residents I randomly encountered on my visits. Some had no idea that many trees had already been removed; others were just vaguely aware that at one point the trees had seemed like a problem. One woman told me she thought children might throw fallen apples at cars or building windows. (The trees at issue in the emergency legislation are linden, not apple.)
According to Ross, the condo association was united in opposition. He called the vice president, Hazel Farmer, on speaker in my presence.
“You remember there were four [trees] that were too close to the walkway?” he asked.
“I thought we had finished that,” she said, sounding confused.
“No, no, we are still battling,” Ross replied quickly.
After Ross refreshed her memory, Farmer said she worried that the trees would one day push up the concrete sidewalk, impeding residents’ ability to walk in and out of the building. Ross later clarified that Farmer had already moved out because the steps on the walkway were too difficult for her to navigate.
In a July legislative meeting, White withdrew the emergency resolution, citing a compromise reached by the chair of the D.C. council and DDOT to apply a growth regulator to the offending saplings. This outcome infuriates Ross, who is seeking a meeting with Mayor Muriel Bowser: “At the end of the day we voted for her, we didn’t vote for [DDOT officials], and we had faith in her to do what’s best for the people.”
Ross still has options. If the worst happens and these trees end up extending over the sidewalk, he can call 311 to request tree pruning. According to the Urban Forestry Department, these requests are resolved, on average, within 20 days.
But the more I talked with Ross and his allies, the more I realized that the trees were also stand-ins for their broader unhappiness with DDOT, which they see as not acting for them but doing things to them: bike racks “just dropped” in front of some businesses, bike lanes constructed over their objections, and traffic-safety infrastructure—in D.C.’s highest traffic-fatality ward—installed without their consent. This is why Ross was able to enlist supporters in the first place—by tapping into existing anger some residents feel toward the city’s transportation agency. Anger that, in a ward of nearly 90,000 people, a few individuals do not have the final say.
This is a classic story of local government and its discontents. Government takes action. Angry, well-connected local fights back, annoyed that they weren’t consulted. But when they fight back, claiming the will of the “people,” how do we know if they’re right? Backing up a bit: How do we even decide who the people are?
In the Xenia Street episode, is it the people who live right next to the trees? How about one street over? Just property owners like Ross? Because the trees are on public land, should all D.C. residents have a say? Is it all
? Addressing the reforestation backlog is a national priority. Or, given that trees help mitigate climate change, should all people have a voice? This is the so-called boundary problem, which the political scientist Robert Dahl once quipped has “no theoretical solution,” only pragmatic ones. Even if surveying all of humanity were theoretically desirable, it’s a practical impossibility. One has to draw the line somewhere and delegate representatives or spokespersons.
Arguably the best delegates in this matter are local elected officials, who get their authority from voters. The problem is that, at the local and especially hyperlocal levels, nobody’s voting. In 2018, two-thirds of Advisory Neighborhood Commission races were uncontested. Even when these contests are competitive, only a handful of people show up to cast a ballot. In the single-member district that includes Xenia Street, Armstead, one of Ross’s allies, lost her election 137–91. Last year, two ANC races were tied following Election Day; in one of them each candidate had garnered 12 votes apiece, while in the other each candidate had claimed just one (presumably their own). Vox populi indeed.
If the ANC can’t quite speak for the people, what about the D.C. council, and specifically Council Member White? Council voting rates are also dismal: About 8,700 people total voted in the 2020 primary contest that secured White’s reelection, out of roughly 57,000 citizens of voting age in Ward 8.
How about DDOT? As an agency housed in the executive branch, DDOT gains its authority from the mayor. In 2022, Mayor Bowser received fewer than 4,000 votes from Ward 8 during the primary (the true election in this heavily Democratic city). Only about 10,000 people in the ward voted at all in that contest.
There’s no magical threshold at which elected officials become democratically legitimate. But more than half of eligible voters routinely show up for federal and state contests while our municipal elections struggle to top 15 percent. What we’re seeing in local governments is a crisis of democracy unparalleled at other levels of government.
“It’s not the trees; it’s the disrespect,” Armstead told me. She called tree removal a top priority because “when you come to a community and you don’t listen, then [we’re] being disrespected and disregarded.” Ross made a similar point: “It makes me angry because, like I said, we’re the stakeholders. We’re the taxpayers. We fund the salaries for the D.C. government employees, council … This is our money!”
When we collectively feel entitled to hold the government accountable, that’s democracy. But when individuals do, that’s something else: institutional capture.
Because so few people vote in local elections, the power of those who speak up and claim to speak for their neighborhoods is hard to challenge. If a homeowner’s association headed by the neighborhood busybody says he speaks for you, are you showing up to contest that claim? What’s obvious about Ross’s perseverance is that its effectiveness is largely due to its singularity. If everyone engaged as he did—called and emailed and attended meeting after meeting, filed complaints with everyone from the office of the inspector general on down—his power would dilute instantly. No one can claim to speak for a community if everyone’s speaking for themselves.
Democracy is about feedback loops. We elect people. If they do poorly, we choose alternatives. But when the election system falters from disuse, other feedback loops take root. Elected officials at the local level become accountable to the unrepresentative handful of voters who do engage; and public servants become preemptively sensitive to well-connected people who have the time and energy to demand disproportionate focus.
People like Ross may not get everything they want, but they know how to command attention. No fewer than four D.C. council members have become personally involved in the matter of the trees on Xenia Street. Meanwhile, that massive hole in the ground? It’s still there.
Near the end of James McBride’s new novel, The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, a character named Miggy makes a proclamation about what truly ails the folks living in the asylum where she works:
The illness is not in their minds, or in the color of their skin, or in the despair in their heart, or even the money they may or may not have. Their illness is honesty, for they live in a world of lies, ruled by those who surrendered all the good things that God gived them for money, living on stolen land.
Miggy is the oracle of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, and a teller of truths that leap off the pages of the novel to describe America’s abiding troubles. Before long, she’s cutting a slice of the town’s best sweet-potato pie into slivers to diagram an escape route for an inmate of the asylum. That’s classic McBride: He doesn’t shy away from bold statements about the national catastrophes of race and xenophobia, and he always gives us a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.
The sugar is McBride’s spitfire dialogue and murder-mystery-worthy plot machinations; his characters’ big personalities and bigger storylines; his wisecracking, fast-talking humor; and prose so agile and exuberant that reading him is like being at a jazz jam session (which is no coincidence; McBride is an accomplished jazz musician). The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store is set in the 1920s in the Chicken Hill neighborhood of Pottstown, an actual place that, as in the novel, was home to Jewish immigrants and to African
who’d migrated from the South. In the prologue, we learn that the last Jewish inhabitant, a mysterious figure named Malachi, has disappeared after cops showed up on his doorstep—and just before Hurricane Agnes sweeps in and destroys the whole area in 1972.
The novel proper then plants us in the thriving Chicken Hill of 47 years earlier. At the center of a large cast of characters is Moshe Ludlow, a Romanian immigrant and music-club manager married to the love of his life, the irreverent and bighearted Chona, who owns and operates the titular Heaven & Earth grocery store. Nate and Addie Timblin, a couple in Moshe and Chona’s employ, are shrewd elders and leaders of Chicken Hill’s Black community.
Moshe’s music club, the All-American Dance Hall and Theater, attracts Jewish musicians and revelers from all over the region. But it’s in the middle of segregated downtown Pottstown, so when Moshe decides to host Black musicians, protest erupts among the white elite. Ultimately, desegregating the club draws the Jewish and Black residents closer together. Moshe, and the reader, discovers abundant cultural parallels between the two communities. A performance at the club’s first “Negro” dance by Chick Webb “and his roaring twelve-piece band was the greatest musical event Moshe had ever witnessed in his life,” McBride writes, “except for the weekend he managed to lure Mickey Katz, the brilliant but temperamental Yiddish genius of klezmer music.”
But McBride doesn’t stage a kumbaya moment just yet. Jews are leaving Chicken Hill. In addressing their flight, he raises one of the novel’s core questions: What is Americanness, and who gets to claim it? A Black juke-joint owner named Fatty says, “The Jews round here now, they wanna be in the big room with the white folks.” He goes on to argue that Black people on the Hill will always be refused their share in the country’s bounties. And indeed, Moshe wants to get while the getting’s good: “Down the hill is America!” he declares. But Chona won’t have it. So Moshe stays, tugged by his desire to become a nightclub impresario and join in American wealth, comfort, and cultural amnesia but bound by Chona’s connection to the store, the neighborhood, and a higher morality based on community involvement and her faith.
McBride introduces a 12-year-old deaf orphan named Dodo into the mix, a plot turn that soon provides a common enemy to consolidate communal ties. Pennsylvania authorities get wind of the boy, who’s been taken in by his aunt and uncle Addie and Nate, and decide to institutionalize him in the Pennhurst asylum—34 ominous buildings, sprawled across 200 acres, from which people, many of them Black, never return. Doc Roberts, the local physician who crusades to put Dodo away, is a leader in the local Ku Klux Klan and revered by white Pottstown, a villain with a worldview straight out of the racist xenophobe’s playbook: White, Christian America is becoming polluted by immigrants and Black people, and order must be restored to keep the nation great.
Though the Dodo storyline risks being a bit on the nose, deft characterization and unexpected tonal variations help complicate the reader’s perspective and add nuance and depth. No villain escapes McBride’s humor, which serves as a reset when the prose might otherwise veer toward the didactic. Even kind Chona gets one in when she says of Roberts, “He’s so fat the back of his head looks like a pack of hot dogs.” More important, McBride’s good guys are far from purely virtuous. Nate Timblin has a violent past and a chilling potential to accelerate from zero to murderous in an instant—yet he is one of the novel’s heroes. And if the nonstop action, a McBride staple, sometimes becomes dizzying, the commotion works against oversimplification. Nearly everyone on Chicken Hill has a role to play in Dodo’s rescue, even those with side hustles who would just as soon stay clear of the whole business. There are no rugged individuals, and no action is without ripple effects, many of them unpredictable. As Miggy says, “Everything got everything to do with everything.”
The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store joins a project that unites McBride’s work—four other novels, one short-story collection, a biography of James Brown, and a memoir, The Color of Water : He is resurrecting lost histories of coexistence. Our current era of wrecking-ball polemics lends his oeuvre an air of wishfulness and, at the same time, makes the work that much more relevant. Reading McBride just feels good—we are comforted and entertained, and braced for the hard lessons he also delivers. Plunged into McBride’s crowds, you can’t help falling a little in love with a character called Monkey Pants (who teaches Dodo how to navigate the perils of Pennhurst), or a whole passel of people with the last name Lowgod (Pottstown’s sage outliers). The style is improvisational, colloquial, and satiric. Listen to one of Chicken Hill’s own warn against doing domestic work in white folk’s houses: “The men grope and the women mope.” It’s funny despite, or perhaps because of, its truth—and conveyed with a wit that exposes the gropers and mopers as the most pitiable and poor of spirit in Pottstown.
Each of these characters has troubles aplenty. In that sense, all of them are alone in a crowd. But it is the crowd that keeps the past, and the difficult present, from overwhelming them. The only way forward is coalition, however messy and painful. The point isn’t just that strength lies in numbers; in McBride’s books, community is a place of recognition, of inventiveness and joy-making, and a hedge against despair and the daily grind of living with limited options.
That despair has deep roots that can be traced back to the nation’s beginnings. We live with the consequences—political, social, and legislative—of foundational segregation and its accompanying isolation. McBride has set two novels, most notably the National Book Award–winning The Good Lord Bird (2013), during the slave past, and seems to echo Alexis de Tocqueville’s antebellum diagnosis of our national character. Americans in their fledgling democracy, Tocqueville observed in his travels,
are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands. Thus, not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants, and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.
In The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, as in nearly all of McBride’s work, almost nothing of significant value is accomplished by people acting alone. When Chicken Hill’s water supply, for example, is threatened by a white landowner with a grudge, Fatty and his best friend, Big Soap, an Italian immigrant, team up with Nate to thwart his plans. In Deacon King Kong (2020), set in a Brooklyn housing project in the 1960s, an old rascal named Sportcoat, the deacon of the title, shoots a local drug dealer point-blank. The young man survives the attack, and what begins as an altercation between two individuals soon becomes a community-wide affair: The Black residents of the Cause Houses—Great Migration immigrants to the North—alongside remnants of the old Italian and Irish populations, are all involved in the events that drive the novel to its conclusion.
A packed stage has been a feature of McBride’s work since his first book, The Color of Water (1996), in which he describes a tumultuous upbringing with his larger-than-life white mother, the daughter of Orthodox Jews who fled pogroms in Poland. Estranged from her family, Ruth McBride Jordan settled in Brooklyn, where McBride grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, one of her 12 children. Their mixed-race heritage made them anomalies in their neighborhood, and their interconnectedness was their source of meaning, pathos, pain, and triumph. It also spurred a search for a larger sense of belonging, which they eventually found, thanks in no small part to their mother’s example. Twice widowed, she was searching for affinity and support herself. Undaunted by raised eyebrows, she discovered community with the Black neighbors among whom she reared her children.
McBride’s integrationist vision isn’t utopian or easy. Nor is it assimilationist. His fiction doesn’t seek to erase differences, or to deny the realities of racism and marginalization. The vision doesn’t go uncontested, either: McBride’s own characters don’t always buy the notion that narratives of shared struggles and spaces build solidarity, and some readers may believe with good reason that white supremacy and its attendant evils are too great to be overcome by racial proximity.
But McBride’s fiction makes a strong argument for revisiting the embattled past in all its confusion. The purpose is to unearth communal stories and unlikely loyalties rather than render tidy verdicts—precisely the imaginative quest that Heaven & Earth’s prologue has laid the groundwork for. Malachi, once a dancer but now so old that a single yellow tooth hangs “like a clump of butter from his top gum,” is suddenly a suspect in a long-forgotten crime in Chicken Hill. But the hurricane arrives, “and from there, every single bit of that who-shot-John-nonsense got throwed into the Schuylkill, and from there, it flowed into the Chesapeake Bay down in Maryland, and from there, out to the Atlantic.” In McBride’s work, digging deep into the tangled roots of complicated communities is the antidote to misplaced blame and false history.
This article appears in the September 2023 print edition with the headline “Lost Histories of Coexistence.”
- This article is a collaboration between The Atlantic and ProPublica.
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One fall evening in 2020, Jarell Jackson and Shahjahan McCaskill were chatting in Jackson’s Hyundai Sonata, still on a postvacation high, when 24 bullets ripped through the car. The two men, both 26, had been close friends since preschool. They’d just returned to West Philadelphia after a few days hang gliding, zip-lining, and hiking in Puerto Rico. Jackson was parked outside his mom’s house when a black SUV pulled up and the people inside started shooting. Both he and McCaskill were pronounced dead at the hospital.
In the aftermath, McCaskill’s mother, Najila Zainab Ali McCaskill, couldn’t fathom why anyone would want to kill her son and his friend. Both had beaten the odds for young Black men in their neighborhood and graduated from college. Jackson had been a mental-health technician in an adolescent psych ward while her son had run a small cleaning business and tended bar. She wondered if they’d been targeted by a disgruntled former employee of the cleaning business. But then the police explained: Her son and his friend had been killed because of a clash on social media among some teenagers they’d never even met.
For months, a battle had been raging on Instagram between crews based on either side of Market Street. Theirs was a long-running rivalry, but a barrage of online taunts and threats had raised tensions in the neighborhood. Police had assigned an officer to monitor the social-media activity of various crews in the city, and the department suspected that the Northsiders in the SUV had mistaken one of the two friends for a rival Southsider and opened fire. An hour after the shooting, a Northsider posted a photo on Instagram with a caption that appeared to mock the victims and encourage the rival crew to collect their bodies: “AHH HAAAA Pussy Pick Em Up!!”
Jackson and McCaskill died in the first year of a nationwide resurgence in violence that has erased more than two decades of gains in public safety. In 2020, homicides spiked by 30 percent and fluctuated around that level for the next two years. There are early signs that the 2023 rate could show a decrease of more than 10 percent from last year, but that would still leave it well above pre-pandemic levels.
Criminologists point to a confluence of factors, including the social disruptions caused by COVID‑19, the rise in gun sales early in the pandemic, and the uproar following the murder of George Floyd, which, in many cities, led to diminished police activity and further erosion of trust in the police. But in my reporting on the surge, I kept hearing about another accelerant: social media.
Violence-prevention workers described feuds that started on Instagram, Snapchat, and other platforms and erupted into real life with terrifying speed. “When I was young and I would get into an argument with somebody at school, the only people who knew about it were me and the people at school,” said James Timpson, a violence-prevention worker in Baltimore. “Not right now. Five hundred people know about it before you even leave school. And then you got this big war going on.”
Smartphones and social platforms existed long before the homicide spike; they are obviously not its singular cause. But considering the recent past, it’s not hard to see why social media might be a newly potent driver of violence. When the pandemic led officials to close civic hubs such as schools, libraries, and rec centers for more than a year, people—especially young people—were pushed even further into virtual space. Much has been said about the possible links between heavy social-media use and mental-health problems and suicide among teenagers. Now Timpson and other violence-prevention workers are carrying that concern to the logical next step. If social media plays a role in the rising tendency of young people to harm themselves, could it also be playing a role when they harm others?
The current spike in violence isn’t a return to ’90s-era murder rates—it’s something else entirely. In many cities, the violence has been especially concentrated among the young. The nationwide homicide rate for 15-to-19-year-olds increased by an astonishing 91 percent from 2014 to 2021. Last year in Washington, D.C., 105 people under 18 were shot—nearly twice as many as in the previous year. In Philadelphia in the first nine months of 2022, the tally of youth shooting victims—181—equaled the tally for all of 2015 and 2016 combined. And in Baltimore, more than 60 children ages 13 to 18 were shot in the first half of this year. That’s double the totals for the first half of each year from 2015 to 2021—and it’s occurred while overall homicides in the city declined. Nationwide, this trend has been racially disproportionate to an extreme degree: In 2021, Black people ages 10 to 24 were almost 14 times more likely to be the victims of a homicide than young white people.
Those confronting this scourge—police, prosecutors, intervention workers—are adamant that social-media instigation helps explain why today’s young people are making up a larger share of the victims. But they’re at a loss as to how to combat this phenomenon. They understand that this new wave of killing demands new solutions—but what are they?
To the extent that online incitement has drawn attention, it’s been focused on rap videos, particularly those featuring drill music, which started in Chicago in the early 2010s and is dominated by explicit baiting of “opps,” or rivals. These videos have been linked to numerous shootings. Often, though, conflict is sparked by more mundane online activity. Teens bait rivals in Instagram posts or are goaded by allies in private chats. On Instagram and Facebook, they livestream incursions into enemy territory and are met by challenges to “drop a pin”—to reveal their location or be deemed a coward. They brandish guns in Snapchat photos or YouTube and TikTok videos, which might provoke an opp to respond—and pressure the person with the gun to actually use it.
In December, I met 21-year-old Brandon Olivieri at the state prison in Houtzdale, Pennsylvania, where he is serving time for murder. In 2017, Olivieri says, he had a run-in with other teens in South Philadelphia after he tried to sell marijuana on their turf. Later, in a private Instagram chat for Olivieri and his friends, someone posted a picture of a silver .45-caliber pistol. Then another member, Nicholas Torelli, posted a picture of cat feces on the sidewalk, with the caption “Brandon took a shit on opp territory.” It was a joke, but the conversation quickly turned aggressive. Later that day, Olivieri asked Torelli to drop an image of their opponents into the chat, so everyone could see what they looked like. Torelli complied, and, according to court records, Olivieri replied that he would “pop all of them.”
When Olivieri, Torelli, and two friends encountered four of their opponents later that month, there were heated words, a struggle, and three gunshots from the silver pistol. One bullet struck Caleer Miller, a member of Olivieri’s group. Another hit Salvatore DiNubile, in the other crew. Both died; they were 16. Olivieri was convicted of first-degree murder in DiNubile’s death and third-degree murder in Miller’s. (Torelli testified against Olivieri and was not charged.) Olivieri was sentenced to 37 years to life.
DiNubile’s father, also named Salvatore, believes the ability to share threats online encouraged Olivieri and his friends to make them; having made them, they felt compelled to follow through. “You said you were gonna do this guy. Here’s your chance,” he told me. “You try to live up to this gangster mentality that he’s self-created.” Olivieri maintains his innocence and says that he wasn’t the one who fired the fatal shots, but he agreed that he and his friends often hyped one another up by making boasts online. “It’s what we call pump-faking,” he explained.
Last year, as the number of juvenile shooting victims in Washington, D.C., climbed toward triple digits, the city’s Peace Academy, which trains community members in violence prevention, held a Zoom session dedicated to social media. Ameen Beale of the D.C. Attorney General’s Office shared his screen to display a sequence typical of online flare-ups culminating in a fatality.
The presentation started with a photo, posted to Instagram in 2019, showing the local rapper AhkDaClicka on the Metro; the caption mocked him for being caught there, without a gun, by adversaries. Then came a screenshot of private messages between AhkDaClicka and a rival rapper named Walkdown Will that the latter posted derisively on Instagram Live. Next, an Instagram Story from AhkDaClicka insulting another rapper who had allegedly been present at the Metro run-in, and a YouTube video of AhkDaClicka rapping about the incident, including the line “Just give me a Glock and point me to the opps.” Soon afterward, in January 2020, AhkDaClicka was fatally shot. He was 18; his real name was Malick Cisse. That May, police arrested Walkdown Will—William Whitaker, also 18. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder last October.
Beale’s presentation left some participants dumbfounded. “I cannot believe the level of immaturity and stupidity that’s become the norm,” one wrote in the chat. Another asked the question looming over the session: Had anyone in the city’s violence-prevention realm asked the social-media companies to limit inflammatory content?
“I don’t think we’ve made much progress,” Beale admitted. When the city had sought to have posts removed, he said, the companies had rebuffed its pleas with vague arguments about free speech. Even if social-media platforms did remove a post, 20 people could already have shared it with hundreds or thousands more. And given the pace of online life, you might spend five years trying to block harmful content on one platform, only for all the activity to migrate to another.
I asked a spokesperson for Google, which owns YouTube, about the AhkDaClicka video with the line about the Glock, as well as another video posted last summer, titled “Pull Da Plug.” It showed a Louisville, Kentucky, rapper and about a dozen other young men apparently celebrating a shooting that had left a man on life support (he later died). The head of the Louisville violence-prevention agency had told me that the victim’s family asked Google to remove the video, but it stayed up, collecting more than 15,000 views. The spokesperson, Jack Malon, told me the company generally had a “pretty high threshold” for determining that music videos were inciting violence, in part because company policy allows exceptions for artistic content.
My conversations with Malon and his counterparts at Snap and Meta (which owns Facebook and Instagram) left me with the impression that social-media platforms have given relatively little thought to their role in fueling routine gun violence, compared with the higher-profile debate over censoring incendiary political speech. Meta pointed me to its “community standards,” which are full of gray-area statements such as “We also try to consider the language and context in order to distinguish casual statements from content that constitutes a credible threat to public or personal safety.” Snap argued that its platform was more benign than others, because posts are designed to disappear and are viewed primarily by one’s friends. I also reached out to TikTok, but the company didn’t respond.
Communities, meanwhile, have been left to fend for themselves. But violence-prevention groups are dominated by middle-aged men who grew up in the pre-smartphone era; they’re more comfortable intervening in person than deciphering threats on TikTok. Before the pandemic, an intern at Pittsburgh’s main anti-violence organization scanned social-media posts by young people considered at risk of becoming involved in conflicts. The Reverend Cornell Jones, the city government’s liaison to violence-prevention groups, told me that the intern had once detected a feud brewing online among teenagers, some of whom had acquired firearms. Jones brought in the participants and their mothers and defused the situation. Then the intern left town for law school and the organization reverted to the ad hoc methods that are more typical for such groups. “If you’re not monitoring social media, you’re wondering why 1,000 people are suddenly downtown fighting,” Jones said ruefully. In early July, a shooting at a block party in Baltimore validated his concern: Though the event had been discussed widely on social media, no police officers were on hand; later, a video circulated of a teenager showing off what appeared to be a gun at the party. The shooting left two dead and 28 others wounded.
A decade ago, Desmond Upton Patton, a professor of social policy, communications, and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, got the first of several grants to study what he called “internet banging.” His research team co-designed algorithms with a team at Columbia University to analyze language, images, and even emoji on Twitter and identify users at risk of harming themselves or others. The algorithms showed promise in identifying escalating online disputes. But he never allowed their use, worried about their resemblance to police surveillance efforts that had enabled profiling more than prevention. “Perhaps there is a smarter person who can figure out how to do it ethically,” he said to me.
For now, the system is failing to anticipate violence—and even, quite often, to convict people whose social-media feeds incriminate them. In May, three teens were tried for the murders of Jarell Jackson and Shahjahan McCaskill in Philadelphia. At the time of the shooting, two were 17 and the third was 16. Social-media activity formed a key part of the prosecutors’ evidence: Instagram posts and video feeds showed the three defendants driving around in a black SUV seemingly identical to the one that had pulled up alongside Jackson’s car. Other posts showed two of them holding a gun that matched the description of one used in the shooting. After a day of deliberations, the jury acquitted them of murder, finding two of the defendants guilty only of weapons charges. The verdict left the victims’ families reeling. “For me and my family, [the trial] was like a seven-day funeral,” Monique Jackson, Jarell’s mother, told me. Afterward, the detective who had investigated the murders speculated to her that jurors on such cases often struggle to grasp the basic mechanics of social media and how essential it is to the interactions of young people. As Patton put it to me, “What we underestimate time and time again is that social media isn’t virtual versus real life. This is life.”
This article has been updated to clarify YouTube’s policy for determining which videos are removed for inciting violence.
This article is a collaboration between The Atlantic and ProPublica. It appears in the September 2023 print edition with the headline “Killer Apps.”
Nature Communications, Published online: 08 August 2023; doi:10.1038/s41467-023-40360-4Metagenomic data and network analyses are often used to predict microbial interactions in complex communities, but these predictions are rarely explored experimentally. Here, Hessler et al. combine experiments with metagenome-informed, microbial consortia-based network analyses to identify interactions in microbial consortia grown under dozens of conditions.
Nature Communications, Published online: 08 August 2023; doi:10.1038/s41467-023-40530-4Rop1 is the single representaive of a subfamily of the membrane-curvature generating REEPs in fission yeast. Wang et al. show that Rop1 is crucial for the macroautophagy of organelles and cytosolic proteins, facilitating autophagosome formation.
Nature Communications, Published online: 08 August 2023; doi:10.1038/s41467-023-40467-8The 2-electron oxygen reduction in acid is highly attractive to produce H2O2, a vital commodity chemical. Here, the authors report CoIn-N-C dual-atom catalyst for effective H2O2 production in acid, and show in-situ hydroxyl adsorption on In atoms is important for the selectivity alteration on nearby Co atoms.
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AI language models are rife with different political biases
The news: AI language models contain different political biases, according to a new study. Researchers conducted tests on 14 large language models and found that OpenAI’s ChatGPT and GPT-4 were the most left-wing libertarian, while Meta’s LLaMA was the most right-wing authoritarian.
How they did it: The team asked language models where they stand on various topics, such as feminism and democracy. They used the answers to plot them on a political compass, then tested whether retraining models on even more politically biased training data changed their behavior and ability to detect hate speech and misinformation (it did).
Why it matters: As AI language models are rolled out into products and services used by millions, understanding their underlying political assumptions could not be more important. That’s because they have the potential to cause real harm. A chatbot offering health-care advice might refuse to offer advice on abortion or contraception, for example. Read the full story.
Read next: AI language models have recently become mixed up in
culture wars, with some calling for developers to create unbiased