Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Grab Bag Post

I'm not sure what we've been doing, but we always seem to be busy. We did find time to spend the day wandering around Disney World last Thursday after I had a day to recover from jury duty. Normally we pick a park and spend the day there, but the last couple of trips we decided we need to figure out how to use the various Disney transportation methods to park hop. Our last time out we rode the boat from Hollywood Studios to Epcot; this time we ditched the car at Epcot and rode the monorail to Magic Kingdom. The standard line about Epcot is that it is what the future was supposed to look like in 1970, and nowhere does that future look shabbier than on the monorail. Someone needs to tell Disney that a jerky train that tops out at 40mph wouldn't have impressed any railroader from the 1890's when trains routinely hit 100mph while running smooth enough for passengers to have drinks on their table, and did so without breaking down several times a day. Having a recorded voice trying to convince me that I'm riding in the future of transportation while being knocked around in my seat looking at the train car's chipped and dented interior and the stained carpet smelling slightly of piss was just sad. I guess riding the trains in Italy has wrecked the glory of Disney's monorail for me.

But otherwise, it was the perfect Disney day with temps in the high 60's to low 70's and sunny with a slight breeze. We hit our usual favorites and tried out a couple things we hadn't done before, but mostly we just wandered, watched people and eavesdropped on their conversations. We had lunch next to one of my nieces as she was at about age eight. She said something (in that oh-so-serious way that only eight-year-old girls can do) when she was ordering her lunch that had me laughing so hard behind my napkin, I almost had to leave the table. That in itself was worth the drive down Death Highway.

So I was reading one of my regular web pages this morning and someone mentions that Whitney Houston was dead. Wait. When... What? So I head to The Store of All Human Knowledge (you probably know it as Wikipedia) and sure 'nuf: Whitney Houston was found dead Saturday at age 48. I was never that into her music and I'm not sure that I could name one song she sang, although I would probably recognize the ones from that one movie she did with that one guy. I do recall that she had an awesome voice and was one of the last of the truly talented before Auto-Tune destroyed what was left of the music industry.

And you kids get off my lawn!!!

Years ago, I remember reading an article by a biologist about Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that has a weird life cycle that involves living in rats for most of its life, but reproducing in cats. So the parasite essentially tweaks the brains of rats so instead of being terrified by the smell of cat urine (a rat's primary predator) they are attracted to it, thus increasing the chances of a cat eating the infected rat and allowing Toxo to complete its life cycle. It was known then that Toxo infected a significant part of the human population, but was assumed to be harmless other than causing problems in pregnant women.

Well, maybe not:
The subjects who tested positive for the parasite had significantly delayed reaction times. Flegr was especially surprised to learn, though, that the protozoan appeared to cause many sex-specific changes in personality. Compared with uninfected men, males who had the parasite were more introverted, suspicious, oblivious to other people’s opinions of them, and inclined to disregard rules. Infected women, on the other hand, presented in exactly the opposite way: they were more outgoing, trusting, image-conscious, and rule-abiding than uninfected women.

Webster is more circumspect, if not downright troubled. “I don’t want to cause any panic,” she tells me. “In the vast majority of people, there will be no ill effects, and those who are affected will mostly demonstrate subtle shifts of behavior. But in a small number of cases, [Toxo infection] may be linked to schizophrenia and other disturbances associated with altered dopamine levels—for example, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and mood disorders. The rat may live two or three years, while humans can be infected for many decades, which is why we may be seeing these severe side effects in people. We should be cautious of dismissing such a prevalent parasite.”

...Just as worrisome, says Torrey, the parasite may also increase the risk of suicide. In a 2011 study of 20 European countries, the national suicide rate among women increased in direct proportion to the prevalence of the latent Toxo infection in each nation’s female population.

Now before anyone launches a world-wide cat eradication pogrom, there is one important point the article makes:
Indoor cats pose no threat, he says, because they don’t carry the parasite. As for outdoor cats, they shed the parasite for only three weeks of their life, typically when they’re young and have just begun hunting. During that brief period, Flegr simply recommends taking care to keep kitchen counters and tables wiped clean. (He practices what he preaches: he and his wife have two school-age children, and two outdoor cats that have free roam of their home.) Much more important for preventing exposure, he says, is to scrub vegetables thoroughly and avoid drinking water that has not been properly purified, especially in the developing world, where infection rates can reach 95 percent in some places. Also, he advises eating meat on the well-done side—or, if that’s not to your taste, freezing it before cooking, to kill the cysts.

For years, Scott Adams has operated under the assumption that humans are just meat puppets under the control of brain chemistry and free will is just a lie we tell ourselves. Now it turns out our puppet masters are parasites running their own personal agenda instead of our own brains.

[Aside: How long before some lawyer uses "the parasite in my brain made me do it" as their client's defense?]

And I'll leave you with yet-another time lapse video. What can I say? I'm a sucker for these.

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