A health/blog update, and some thoughts on Israel and Palestine

I had a heart-related health scare today, and spent most of the day in the hospital getting checked out. Some results are pending, but it currently seems that I’m OK. That said, the illusion of imminent mortality was a bit tiring, and also very slightly perspective-shifting. I want to work more on fiction and on some other things in my life, so for the rest of this year, at least, my posts are probably going to be less. I had intended to write a somewhat in-depth post about Israel and Palestine, and I may still do that, but for now I’ll just say this:

Even if we were to assume – which I believe we should not – that “both sides” have an equal right to live on that land, the power dynamic, which has existed for longer than I’ve been alive, makes it clear what’s going on. De-escalation cannot happen without a commitment to it by the more powerful party, and there is zero question that Israel is more powerful. They’ve lowered the life expectancy in Gaza to the point where fully half the population are children, who have only ever known occupation and oppression.

Hamas, as an organization, also do evil things, and their attacks on civilians are inexcusable. That said, Hamas is also Israel’s chosen enemy, and was aided in their rise to power, just as more reasonable governing authorities were undermined. The only way for peace to happen, is for Israel to choose to end the cycle of revenge. The Palestinians cannot end it, just as the people of every other occupied territory cannot.

If Israel wants peace, they must end the ethnic cleansing of the West Bank, and the attacks on mosques and worshippers, and the deliberate killing and maiming of protesters and journalists. They must demonstrate goodwill by providing the resources that they’ve kept from Palestinians for longer than I’ve been alive. They must stop destroying olive groves and wells.

If Israel wants peace.

As it stands, they very clearly do not.

It is heartbreaking to see this brutality and death, and it is horrifying to see people around the world cheering on Israel’s dehumanization of Palestinians, and their escalating campaign of genocide. I desperately want it to end, but that has no bearing on what will happen. The death toll is going to keep climbing, for weeks if not months, and at every step of the way, we will be told that all the Palestinian deaths are justified, including the children, because of Hamas. They will claim that the children are “human shields”, and apparently we’ve come to a point where a lot of the world believes that when someone uses a human shield, you’re supposed to kill the victim, blame the person behind them, and move on.

I want to end on this: However much disinformation you think you have seen about current events, you’ve almost certainly seen more. I have seen old videos of Palestinian children held in cages by the IDF, described as Israeli children being held in cages by Hamas. I have seen videos of munitions in the sky over Ukraine being described as IDF use of white phosphorous on Gaza. The lies are everywhere, and while I believe that the vast majority of them will continue coming from one side, I’ve learned by now that there are people within every movement who are perfectly willing to make shit up in support of their cause. Use caution, and insofar as you are able, use patience. I don’t think there’s ever been a time when so many people have been exposed to so much dishonest propaganda, and I fear it’s only going to get worse.

Be kind, be skeptical, and stand in solidarity with the oppressed.

Rebuilding Damaged Brains with 3D Printing

Brain damage is a scary thing, and there are a lot of ways that it can happen. The brain’s plasticity means that sometimes people can recover lost functionality, but wouldn’t it be nice if we had the ability to actually rebuild damaged brain tissue? Well, thanks to 3D printing and stem cells, that ability may not be far away! I’ve seen articles for a while now about using stem cells to grow replacement organs, but I honestly didn’t expect to see brains on the list.

In this new study, the University of Oxford researchers fabricated a two-layered brain tissue by 3D printing human neural stem cells. When implanted into mouse brain slices, the cells showed convincing structural and functional integration with the host tissue.

The cortical structure was made from human induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs), which have the potential to produce the cell types found in most human tissues. A key advantage of using hiPSCs for tissue repair is that they can be easily derived from cells harvested from patients themselves, and therefore would not trigger an immune response.

The hiPSCs were differentiated into neural progenitor cells for two different layers of the cerebral cortex, by using specific combinations of growth factors and chemicals. The cells were then suspended in solution to generate two ‘bioinks’, which were then printed to produce a two-layered structure. In culture, the printed tissues maintained their layered cellular architecture for weeks, as indicated by the expression of layer-specific biomarkers.

When the printed tissues were implanted into mouse brain slices, they showed strong integration, as demonstrated by the projection of neural processes and the migration of neurons across the implant-host boundary. The implanted cells also showed signalling activity, which correlated with that of the host cells. This indicates that the human and mouse cells were communicating with each other, demonstrating functional as well as structural integration.

The researchers now intend to further refine the droplet printing technique to create complex multi-layered cerebral cortex tissues that more realistically mimic the human brain’s architecture. Besides their potential for repairing brain injuries, these engineered tissues might be used in drug evaluation, studies of brain development, and to improve our understanding of the basis of cognition.

I think it’ll be interesting to see what comes of this, and what a living brain can or can’t do with new tissue. Beyond that, having brain tissue on which to experiment, without having to use a living person, could end up being a huge deal for understanding our brains, and how to fix or adjust them. You can find more, including images and diagrams, at the link above.

And now I’m going to go try to drain all the goo out of my sinuses.

Video: Leeja Miller on the GOP’s Extremist 2025 Project

Every four years, Americans who value human life, and see the ills caused by capitalism, are pushed to vote for the Democratic Party, not necessarily because they like the Democrats, but because the GOP is so evil and destructive, that it makes a great deal of sense to go with the lesser evil. It makes sense, but because political participation in the United States rarely goes beyond voting, it means that the Democrats have spent decades apparently trying to be as much like the Republicans as possible, while still retaining a tiny pile of moral high ground. As I’ve mentioned a couple times now, 2024 looks to be different, in that the Dems have actually been doing some things that are actively good for the people, and for democracy.

Unfortunately, the GOP has been doing bad things. I’ve considered the GOP to be a fascist party for a while now, and while there’s currently some infighting, I think that assessment still holds. While both parties have historically been fine supporting fascists in other countries, the Republicans are actively working to enact fascism in the United States, and I am not exaggerating. Project 2025 is basically the conservative answer to The American Prospect’s Day One Agenda, except that their goal is to dramatically expand presidential power, outlaw pornographic material and criminalize anyone involved in it (and remember, they classify all things sex ed or LGBTQIA as pornographic), and to dramatically scale up fossil fuel extraction and use. This vision of the future was crafted around Trump and his time in office, but the plan is to put it in front of the next GOP president.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that democracy is on the ballot, and unfortunately, that will continue to be the case for as long as our current system exists. That’s why political action needs to go beyond voting, if we want real change. Regardless of how you end up voting, I think it’s good to know what’s at stake, so here’s Leeja Miller breaking down the GOP’s plan for America:


NFTs Were a Wasteful, Destructive Scam

Do you remember NFTs?

Do you remember how they were consistently, credibly called out as an obvious con?

Do you remember the stories about how much energy was going into powering the computers running that con?

Pepperidge farm remembers, and so do I.

An article went around not long ago, about the fact that NFTs are mostly completely worthless now (as though they weren’t worthless from day one), and it got me thinking.

I like the idea of a society in which people can try things just to see if it’ll work, and I think we should be focusing more on increasing carbon-free energy production than on restricting people’s ability to use energy. I also think that that only goes so far. I want more nuclear power, for example, but I’m not on board with people building reactors in their back yards, and I’m not on board with turning an increase in nuclear power plants into a speculative bubble.

And I’m not on board with allowing vast amounts of resources to go into powering something like NFTs, simply because there’s a lot of money involved. The technology involved is interesting, and I’m sure it has great uses, but in my inexpert opinion, the value of crypto-stuff in general has been greatly overblown, and NFTs seemed a thousand times worse. A lot of people with a lot of money pushed really hard to make that bubble happen, and I’m sure they made a lot of money from it. I’m sure a small number of lucky working people also made fortunes, but as is usual in capitalism, I think that was a small minority.

I don’t know how many people lost money from NFTs specifically, or how many were convinced to invest cash they couldn’t afford to lose, but given the state crypto overall, I’m willing to bet it was a lot.

At the start of 2022, the Super  Bowl featured celebrities like Tom Brady, Larry David and Matt Damon in  commercials for crypto companies. Logos for crypto companies like FTX  could be seen plastered on multiple sports arenas and a new wave of  crypto influencers emerged, garnering hundreds of thousands of  followers. Cryptocurrency was everywhere.

It was supposed to be an alternative to traditional finance.

Instead  of exchanging money through a third party, like a bank, cryptocurrency  allows users to transfer digital currency directly. However, unlike  traditional forms of currency such as the U.S. dollar, the government  does not insure deposits and federal agencies have taken limited steps  to regulate the crypto industry.

But  the major crash of the crypto market last year has brought headaches,  fear and anger among the millions of people around the world who  invested their savings and are left wondering whether they’ll ever see  their money again.

Curt Dell, a father of three from California, told ABC News’ Rebecca  Jarvis that he’s lost over $200,000 in Bitcoin after the digital crypto  lending company Celsius went bankrupt last year.

“It robbed [my family] of so much potential,” said Dell, a California resident who works in sales. “It’s such a bad situation.”

Sam Bankman-Fried is currently on trial for his alleged crimes, but I have a sneaking suspicion that as with Madoff before him, his punishment will distract from the vast majority of those whose actions created the bubble.

There are those who argue that bubbles, including the crypto bubble, are actually good things, because they generally follow new technology, which is later adopted. I think there may be a good point in there somewhere, but the people who make such arguments tend to ignore or dismiss the people harmed by those bubbles, and that’s just the surface.

I’ll admit that I find it a little hard to feel too much sympathy for someone who had $200,000 to invest in such an obvious con. If Dell had that money lying around, I think he and his family will be OK for its loss. A lot of other people, who invested far less than that, will probably suffer more for it, but made the investment because they felt it was their one shot to escape poverty in a rigged system.

Maybe, in a world with a solid social safety net, and no climate crisis, it would make sense to allow bubbles like this to just happen, both as a way to test the bounds of a technology or concept, and as a way to root out scammers, and limit their ability to scam people. Unfortunately, we live in a world where losing money to a scam can be devastating, and the bubble in question actively added to the climate crisis.

According to artist Memo Akten, minting an Ethereum-based NFT alone requires 142 kWh of energy. This is the equivalent of about 100,000 Visa transactions,  said Dexter Baño Jr., an advocate for environmental protection and  technological advancements. To further illustrate how huge that figure  is, he noted that in 2019, American households only used an average of 30 kWh of energy per day.

“This means that you can power a house in the United States for 4.7 days with the energy being used to mint an NFT,” he said.

Now, if you’re in the mood for some math:

“Based on data from the Energy Information Administration, there are 0.85 pounds of CO2 (carbon dioxide) released into the air per kWh of electrical energy used. Multiplying this by the amount of energy spent on each mint transaction on Ethereum, that snowballs to 120.7 pounds of CO2 for every NFT creation. This is 6.16 times the CO2 output of burning one gallon of gasoline,” Baño said.

It’s  important to note that this only covers the creation of one NFT. The  process of buying and selling each NFT involves more transactions that  need to be verified—mined—and therefore even more energy that goes into  all that extra computer activity.

“Since  NFTs are getting mainstream, more people are transacting on Ethereum.  As long as proof-of-work still exists in that chain, the environmental  impact is still high,” said Angeline Viray, who trades and invests in  cryptocurrencies and NFTs.

This isn’t good. To me, it feels like the way this bubble played out demonstrates pretty clearly that we are nowhere close to taking global warming seriously, as a society.

We have to use fossil fuels to replace fossil fuels, and using energy for bullshit like this is, in my view, unacceptable. It’s also absolutely going to keep happening, in all sorts of ways, for as long as we are governed by the current system.

I don’t really have a policy prescription here, other than to say that we ought to be making climate action the central focus of our economy, to the same degree that we currently center greed. There’s something broken when waste and fraud at that scale is simply… the way things work.

Video: Olayemi Olurin on the many reasons to hate Eric Adams

There’s a line that I often here from conservatives, about all the crime and poverty in “Democrat-run cities”. Leaving aside the fact that gun deaths are higher, per person, in rural areas than in urban ones, this argument makes rather a lot of assumptions about the Democratic party as a whole, and about the Democrats running cities, in particular. I’ve made my gripes with that party and its leadership known on this blog, but when it comes to mayors, there are all the normal corporate pressures, plus pressure, and even threats, from city police departments. In general, mayors and city counsels are more likely to serve the interests of those with power, than of their constituency.

And then you have people like NYC mayor Eric Adams, who IS a cop, even though it’s been a while since he was actually on the force. There also doesn’t seem to be much reason to believe that he was one of those mythical “good cops” we keep hearing about. As you’ll soon hear, he seems to have been drawn to policing for the power, more than anything else. I’ve talked before about this guy, and his horrific policies, but there is a lot more to cover, and thankfully we have Olayemi Olurin, movement lawyer and news commentator, to break down all the reasons why she hates Eric Adams, and why you should too.

Biden Is Tying Himself to Unions, and That’s a Good Thing

There’s a subset of left-wing people on Twitter, who seem to have fallen for the seductive trap of cynicism. Unless you’re an accelerationist, if you’re on the left and you want to see the world get better, an increase in union strength is a good thing, and actions by people in power that aid that empowerment are also good. I don’t think that Joe Biden is a reliable ally of unions, but it is, without question, a good thing that he showed up at the picket line. Even if you think it’s a cynical ploy, it should be celebrated, because the more Biden and the Democrats see their success as tied to unions, the more likely they are to support them, and maybe even get over the scare that Reagan gave them.

When I wrote about the Cemex decision this time last month, I closed by saying that it’s important to take advantage of the current pro-union climate while it exists. There is zero doubt in my mind that the federal government will turn hostile to unions once again, and the stronger they get now, the better they will be able to fight back against efforts to break them. If we want to the favorable conditions to last as long as possible – which I do – it would be good for Democrats to win in 2024.

It’s nice to be able to say that without much of a caveat. On some issues, it’s more about opposing the GOP agenda of destruction, but at the moment, the Democrats are actually enacting policy that benefits worker power. Standing still is better than going in the wrong direction, but right now, we’re actually making progress. Most of that is due to workers dedicating their limited free time, energy, and money to building a labor movement, but some of it is absolutely due to changes made by the Biden administration, and it’s pretty clear that if Trump gets back into power, he’ll be just as anti-worker as he has always been:

Trump’s appointees were far more pro-business than pro-worker. He named a string of corporate water carriers to the National Labor Relations Board who often seemed to see their role as undermining unions and making it harder for workers to unionize. Trump’s NLRB appointees said, for instance, that gig economy workers like Uber and Lyft drivers should be considered independent contractors, not employees, thus preventing them from unionizing under federal law.

Trump’s appointees to the supreme court have shown scant sympathy toward workers and outright hostility toward unions. Remember that Neil Gorsuch once ruled that a truck driver deserved to be fired for disobeying his boss’s order and leaving his broken-down vehicle in sub-zero weather – a move that probably saved the driver’s life. It was Gorsuch who delivered the deciding vote in the 5-4 Janus v AFSCME case – the most important anti-union decision in decades. In that ruling, the court’s rightwing majority said that teachers, firefighters and other government employees couldn’t be required to pay any dues or fees to the unions that bargained for them and won raises for them.

All this makes clear that Trump’s claim that he “always” has workers’ back is laughable. Labor leaders should issue a warning: workers of the world, unite against Trump’s con.

What else would you expect from a capitalist born into a real estate empire? More than that, the conservative agenda that’s currently making waves, Project 2025, would be an unmitigated disaster for working people, and probably the world:

In truth, the program laid out by Dans and his fellow Trumpers, called Project 2025, is far more ambitious than anything Ronald Reagan dreamed up. Dans, from his seat inside The Heritage Foundation, and scores of conservative groups aligned with his program are seeking to roll back nothing less than 100 years of what they see as liberal encroachment on Washington. They want to overturn what began as Woodrow Wilson’s creation of a federal administrative elite and later grew into a vast, unaccountable and mostly liberal bureaucracy (as conservatives view it) under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, numbering about two and a quarter million federal workers today. They aim to defund the Department of Justice, dismantle the FBI, break up the Department of Homeland Security and eliminate the Departments of Education and Commerce, to name just a few of their larger targets. They want to give the president complete power over quasi-independent agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission, which makes and enforces rules for television and internet companies that have been the bane of Trump’s political existence in the last few years.

And they want to ensure that what remains of this slashed-down bureaucracy is reliably MAGA conservative — not just for the next president but for a long time to come — and that the White House maintains total control of it. In an effort to implement this agenda — which relies on another Reagan-era idea, the controversial “unitary theory” of the Constitution under which Article II gives the president complete power over the federal bureaucracy — Dans has formed a committee to recruit what he calls “conservative warriors” through bar associations and state attorneys general offices and install them in general counsel offices throughout the federal bureaucracy.

They very much intend to end any semblance of democracy in the United States, and I can’t fault people for wanting to vote against that. Fortunately, Biden is also, currently, giving at least some real reason to vote for him. This is not an endorsement, and I don’t think the UAW should endorse him until well after they’ve won their current strike action. Biden’s still bad on a number of issues, from fossil fuel extraction, to water privatization, to debt, but I think it’s important to recognize that Biden has actually been attempting to live up to his boast of being the most pro-union president ever, and that’s turning out to be a good thing for everyone.

His appearance at the UAW picket line was an easy thing to do, but it’s something none of his predecessors have done, and it loaned the “bully pulpit” of the presidency to Shawn Fain and the workers. More than that, his NLRB is actually wielding power on behalf of workers, and his FTC is suing Amazon for building a monopoly. The Democrats will not give us revolutionary change, but it seems indisputable that they are currently making it far easier to do the work of getting it for ourselves.

If you think that I should be paid better, you can help with that at patreon.com/oceanoxia. It’s currently my only source of income, and while I am forever grateful to my patrons, the “crowd” part of my crowdfunding is looking a bit thin. Even a small monthly contribution helps!

Zoe Bee on the Real Meaning of “Parents’ Rights”

My brain has been much more interested in working on the novel recently, so I’m just going to roll with that for a bit, which means a bit less effort put in here. Still, there’s plenty of important stuff to think about, and there are always videos worth watching.

I don’t know if it’s more of a thing than it used to be, but conservative groups these days really seem to love hiding their meaning with euphemisms and vague language. It’s not that they hate trans people, they just have concerns about women’s rights! It’s not that they want to destroy public education, they just want school choice. It’s not that they view children as property, they’re just concerned about parents’ rights.

As Zoe Bee discusses in the video below, the current “parents’ rights” movement revolves around the notion that parents own their children, in a very material sense. This stuff is mostly centered on the effort to erase sexuality, gender, or sex education from school, but it goes a lot farther, with parents believing they have the right to hit their children, or even hire someone to brainwash them, if they start believing the wrong things. This kind of stuff is genuinely chilling, and it really shows the degree to which children are not considered people in their own right. Rather than guardianship and responsibility, these people seem to view parenthood as the opportunity, bought by the money spent raising a child, to create a person in your own image, whether they want that or not.

Central Brain Not Required for Learning

I know that jellyfish have more going on than just drifting around till they run into food, but I think I’m not alone in viewing their intelligence as being roughly nonexistent. It never seemed as though there would be any particular point in a jellyfish being able to learn something. Apparently, however, I was wrong. Jellyfish, at least some kinds, are capable of learning:

Even without a central brain, jellyfish can learn from past experiences like humans, mice, and flies, scientists report for the first time on September 22 in the journal Current Biology. They trained Caribbean box jellyfish (Tripedalia cystophora) to learn to spot and dodge obstacles. The study challenges previous notions that advanced learning requires a centralized brain and sheds light on the evolutionary roots of learning and memory.

No bigger than a fingernail, these seemingly simple jellies have a complex visual system with 24 eyes embedded in their bell-like body. Living in mangrove swamps, the animal uses its vision to steer through murky waters and swerve around underwater tree roots to snare prey. Scientists demonstrated that the jellies could acquire the ability to avoid obstacles through associative learning, a process through which organisms form mental connections between sensory stimulations and behaviors.

“Learning is the pinnacle performance for nervous systems,” says first author Jan Bielecki of Kiel University, Germany. To successfully teach jellyfish a new trick, he says “it’s best to leverage its natural behaviors, something that makes sense to the animal, so it reaches its full potential.”

The team dressed a round tank with gray and white stripes to simulate the jellyfish’s natural habitat, with gray stripes mimicking mangrove roots that would appear distant. They observed the jellyfish in the tank for 7.5 minutes. Initially, the jelly swam close to these seemingly far stripes and bumped into them frequently. But by the end of the experiment, the jelly increased its average distance to the wall by about 50%, quadrupled the number of successful pivots to avoid collision and cut its contact with the wall by half. The findings suggest that jellyfish can learn from experience through visual and mechanical stimuli.

“If you want to understand complex structures, it’s always good to start as simple as you can,” says senior author Anders Garm of the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. “Looking at these relatively simple nervous systems in jellyfish, we have a much higher chance of understanding all the details and how it comes together to perform behaviors.”

I never thought I’d be worried about the mental wellbeing of a jellyfish, but it seems that part of this research did involve “isolating” eyes and connecting them to electrodes to measure their reaction to things. If I’m honest, I would have felt bad for the jellyfish before learning that they can learn from their experiences.

On the brighter side, apparently these people can now add “training jellyfish” to their list of skills and accomplishments. Being able to learn is incredibly useful, so in that sense I’m not surprised that creatures whose intelligence I don’t generally consider are capable of it. Now that I’m, thinking about it, I do actually want to know when learning and memory first arose, and whether anything developed the ability to learn, and then later discarded it as a waste of resources. Is it even possible for pattern-recognition in a nervous system to “evolve away”? It kinda seems like one of those evolutionary pathways that only goes in one direction.

Are jellyfish doomed to develop anxiety someday?

Can they feel anxiety now?

Probably not, but what do I know? Until a couple hours ago, I didn’t know they could learn.

Have Patience: Finding Facts in a Flurry of Fakes

I may have another post up today (people are coming to work on my roof, so we’ll see), but I saw this video from Beau of the Fifth Column, and thought I should share it. The basic overview is that a number of news outlets fell for one or both of a couple fake news stories. One was a photoshopped billboard supposedly saying “Glory to Urine” with the colors of the Ukrainian flag, and the other was an AI-generated video of Rand Paul showing up to work in a bathrobe (on a Saturday) to protest changes to the senate dress code. While the billboard isn’t necessarily new technology, the video is, and fakes of both media, and of audio, are getting better very, very quickly.

This is already a factor in our politics, and you can safely bet that there are organizations generating fake media for the purpose of influencing politics in the US, and around the world. What’s an honest skeptic to do? Well, there’s probably no guaranteed way to see through all of these fakes, but Beau makes the very good point that for anything sensational, someone’s going to dig into it, and if there’s reason to think it’s a fake, that will come out a little while after the media buzz has convinced a bunch of people that it’s real. That means that step one is to wait a day, and see what follows. There’s good reporting out there, but it generally takes time. Patience is a virtue, and when you’re constantly being subjected to misinformation and propaganda, it’s also an essential tool for those trying to figure out what’s going on.