Archive for October 23rd, 2007

In Dreams

There were a pair of fascinating articles about dreams in today’s NYT Science News – one about regular dreams, and one about nightmares.

The common theme is that dreams are our brains’ way of Working Through Stuff. And between the two articles, it appears that that’s happening in two different ways. Part of it is simply processing the events of the day, a kind of triage process that sorts through the experiences and thoughts of the day and moves the relevant stuff from the sphere of immediate experience and short-term memory into the sphere of long-term memory, knowledge, and skills. Kind of like transferring photos from your digital camera to your hard drive, or more generically, from a capture device to a storage device. And as all of this material flashes through your sleeping brain, some of it bleeds through and turns into dreams.

The other part of it, which is more prone to generating nightmares, is the unconscious brain’s attempt to grapple with unresolved issues. My gut feeling on this is that it’s a mechanism that we’ve outgrown. I think we’re supposed to somehow work through and resolve these issues in our sleep so we can focus on what we need to do during the day (look for the passage about “fear extinction memories” in the nightmares article), but our lives have simply become too complex to be sorted out while we sleep. But the brain thrashes through it all the same, and it probably even gets mixed together with the stream of data getting copied into main memory, recombining in new and different ways.

I also really liked this description of what happens physiologically when we’re in REM sleep, and how it affects the nightmare experience:

When slipping into REM sleep, Dr. Levin said, “the whole brain changes.” “Neurochemically, it’s like the Fourth of July,” as cortical precincts shift colors in scanning images to indicate arousal or quiescence, he said, adding, “The limbic system becomes incredibly active, much more so than when you’re awake, which is why you’re emotionally on edge in dreams.”

Blazing with particularly patriotic fervor in the limbic system are the amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex, constituting what Steven H. Woodward, a psychologist at the V.A. hospital in Menlo Park, Calif., terms the brain’s “axis of fear.” At the same time, the prefrontal cortex, seat of rational thought and critical reasoning, is on lunch break, Dr. Levin said, “which is why you can have a dream where something has 4 heads and 12 legs, and you think, ‘No problem, what’s next?’”

Also relatively tranquilized is the primary visual cortex, recipient of visual signals from the outside world. The secondary visual cortex, however, which helps process and interpret those signals, remains alert. It is here that the fabulous imagery of dreams probably arises, said Tore Nielsen of the University of Montreal, as the secondary visual cortex strives to decipher the signals ricocheting through it, many of them internally generated, and to splice them into some approximation of a coherent whole.

Other sensory and motor systems remain active in REM, including those that would normally control the arms and legs, which is why motion figures prominently in many dreams. But if you often feel frustrated, as though you can never get to where you’re going, well, you can’t.

As it happens, one vigilant player in dreaming is a small region of the brainstem that paralyzes most of the body, preventing you from physically acting out your dream. People with neurogenerative diseases that disable this brainstem disabler can end up injuring themselves during extreme dream-driven actions. Most cases of sleepwalking occur in non-REM sleep, when the body is not paralyzed.

Fascinating stuff.

October 23rd, 2007 at 11:50pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Coolness,Science

Third Rail

Rahm Emanuel, Political Genius, wants the Democratic Party to get tough on immigrants:

“This issue has real implications for the country. It captures all the American people’s anger and frustration not only with immigration, but with the economy,” said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and an architect of the Democratic congressional victories of 2006. “It’s self-evident. This is a big problem.”

(…)

House Democrats are so concerned that they have resumed talks on a new legislative push, even though the collapse of an immigration deal in the Senate this spring has left virtually no chance that a final bill can be passed in this Congress.

But even in the early stages of this renewed effort, negotiations have only underscored the party’s problems. Some Democratic leaders want what they call a “mini bill,” emphasizing border control, penalties on firms that employ illegal immigrants and stronger efforts to deny illegal immigrants government benefits. But Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), the point man on the bill, said he will never accept a measure that does not include a pathway to citizenship for the 12 million undocumented workers in the country.

(…)

“For the American people, and therefore all of us, it’s emerged as the third rail of American politics,” Emanuel said. “And anyone who doesn’t realize that isn’t with the American people.”

It’s only a matter of time before someone decides to combine third rails and start drafting immigrants.

Seriously, this may be a new low in stupidity for the Democrats. Why would they want to piss away the advantage with Hispanic voters that the GOP just handed them? I mean, it’s not like Dubya and his Intimidating 24% Approval Rating is bullying them into it this time.

4 comments October 23rd, 2007 at 09:12pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Democrats,Immigration

Sculpture Surgery Photoblogging

Some photos from Grandma’s operating theatre:

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One of the sculptures was in need of some minor surgery.

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Just think positive thoughts.

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The procedure has a very high rate of success, as you can see.

October 23rd, 2007 at 11:14am Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: La Jolla/San Diego,Photoblogging

Good News/Bad News On FISA

The good news is, Jay Rockefeller is totally incorruptible:

Executives at the two biggest phone companies contributed more than $42,000 in political donations to Senator John D. Rockefeller IV this year while seeking his support for legal immunity for businesses participating in National Security Agency eavesdropping.

The surge in contributions came from a Who’s Who of executives at the companies, AT&T and Verizon, starting with the chief executives and including at least 50 executives and lawyers at the two utilities, according to campaign finance reports.

The money came primarily from a fund-raiser that Verizon held for Mr. Rockefeller in March in New York and another that AT&T sponsored for him in May in San Antonio.

Mr. Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, emerged last week as the most important supporter of immunity in devising a compromise plan with Senate Republicans and the Bush administration.

(…)

Mr. Rockefeller’s office said Monday that the sharp increases in contributions from the telecommunications executives had no influence on his support for the immunity provision.

“Any suggestion that Senator Rockefeller would make policy decisions based on campaign contributions is patently false,” Wendy Morigi, a spokeswoman for him, said. “He made his decision to support limited immunity based on the Intelligence Committee’s careful review of the situation and our national security interests.”

Well, that’s a relief! He’s not corrupt, it’s just that one of his core beliefs is that large companies should not be subject to the same laws as everyone else, because that would be a threat to national security. Awesome!

The bad news is, the immunity may extend beyond telecoms:

A few decades ago, the FBI regularly conducted “black-bag jobs” that involved sneaking into homes, hotel rooms and offices with the cooperation of the building’s owner or even a neighbor with a spare key. Locks were picked otherwise.

Because no judge had authorized the FBI’s black-bag job, they were incredibly illegal. In the mid-1970s, the Church Committee famously disclosed the bureau’s clandestine operations.

(…)

The FISA Amendments Act, approved by a Senate committee last week, seems to immunize people who cooperated with the FBI, the CIA, the National Security Agency–and other even more shadowy agencies–that conduct black-bag jobs.

Although most of the attention has focused on how the Senate bill might offer telecommunications service providers retroactive immunity (and derail the lawsuits against AT&T), the actual language appears to cover physical intrusions too:

ASSISTANCE–The term ‘assistance’ means the provision of, or the provision of access to, information… facilities, or another form of assistance

PERSON–The term ‘person’ means…a landlord, custodian, or other person who may be authorized and required to furnish assistance…

IN GENERAL–Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no civil action may lie or be maintained in a Federal or State court against any person for providing assistance to an element of the intelligence community, and shall be promptly dismissed, if the Attorney General certifies to the court that…any assistance by that person was provided pursuant to a directive under sections 102(a)(4), 105B(e)…

Let’s translate that. A hotel manager who lets FBI agents into a guest’s room to copy a laptop’s hard drive in secret would not be liable. An apartment manager who gives Homeland Security the key to a tenant’s unit to place a key logger in a PC would not be liable. A private security firm that divulges a customer’s alarm code would not be liable. A university that agrees to forward a student’s e-mail messages to the Defense Department would not be liable. An antivirus company that helps the NSA implant spyware in an unsuspecting customer’s computer would not be liable.

No court order is required. And if an eventual lawsuit accuses the hotel manager or antivirus firm of unlawful activities, it’ll be thrown out of court as long as the attorney general or the director of national intelligence can provide a “certification.” The “certification” is, of course, secret–all a judge may say publicly is that the rules were followed, and then dismiss the case.

Excellent. The less privacy I have, the safer I feel. Thanks for looking out for me, Senator Rockefeller!

October 23rd, 2007 at 07:14am Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Coolness,Corruption/Cronyism,Democrats,Politics,Terrorism,Wankers


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