Dissent among Philippine separatist MILFs

So, here is a story that proves the old adage that everything is funny in translation.

Apparently, the government of the Philippines has entered into talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has been fighting to establish an independent Islamic state for nearly thirty years, since it split from the less-insurgency-minded Moro National Liberation Front. But now, some of the more militant MILFs are splitting from that group.

It’s the same moral that we’ve seen in every other installment of the Real Housewives franchise: some MILFs don’t even want to get along.

Reflected Glory: Agha Shahid Ali

So, I’m a few days late with this post, as I had intended for it to coincide with Agha Shahid Ali’s birthday, but there you have it. Had he not passed away in 2001, he would have turned 61 on February 4.

Although I never had the opportunity to meet him, I feel personally indebted to him, and sad that I did not know him. My poetry book was published last year after it won the 2009 Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize. Since then, I have had a number of conversations with people who did know him, and they invariably go on and on about what a fantastic human being he was. And it’s not at all in the way that people tend to speak well of the dead. In every one of these conversations, people speak in an almost trance-like state. Their voices and eyes soften, as if his immense kindness were channeled through them.

He was born and raised in Kashmir, attended the Universities of Kashmir and Delhi, and then came to the United States, where he earned a PhD from Penn State and an MFA from the University of Arizona. He taught at creative writing programs across the country, leaving behind a trail of devoted students and colleagues.

He wrote several books of poetry, but is perhaps best known for his championing of the ghazal, an ancient Arabic poetic form that dates back to like the 6th century. It long ago spread across southern Asia, and has become a common form in Persian and Urdu poetry. He translated a collection of ghazals by Faiz Ahmed Faiz into English, and his best-known work is probably his posthumously published collection Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals.

The ghazal form consists of a series of couplets, where the second line of each couplet ends with a sort of extended rhyme. What I mean by that is that there are one or a few words at the end of the line that are repeated exactly in each couplet, preceded by a conventional rhyme. It also conventionally contains the poet’s name in the last couplet. Agha Shahid Ali’s most famous ghazal is the title(ish) poem “Tonight” from his posthumous collection. You can find it easily on the internet, and you should.

Here is his poem “Land,” where you can see the ghazal form as well as the soul of the man who was so well loved.


     For Christopher Merrill

Swear by the olive in the God-kissed land –
There is no sugar in the promised land.

Why must the bars turn neon now when, Love,
I’m already drunk in your capitalist land?

If home is found on both sides of the globe,
home is of course here – and always a missed land.

Clearly, these men were here only to destroy,
a mosque now the dust of a prejudiced land.

Will the Doomsayers die, bitten with envy,
when springtime returns to our dismissed land?

The prisons fill with the cries of children.
Then how do you subsist, how do you persist, Land?

“Is my love nothing for I’ve borne no children?”
I’m with you, Sappho, in that anarchist land.

A hurricane is born when the wings flutter …
Where will the butterfly, on by wrist, land?

You made me wait for one who wasn’t even there
though summer had finished in that tourist land.

Do the blind hold temples close to their eyes
when we steal their gods for our atheist land?

Abandoned bride, Night throws down her jewels
so Rome – on our descent – is an amethyst land.

At the moment the heart turns terrorist,
are Shahid’s arms broken, O Promised Land?

Well Thank God for THAT: 24 The Fragrance

So, remember how just the other day you were saying that you wished you could smell like a blend of gunpowder, blood, and moral relativism? Well, you’re in luck! Park Fragrance has introduced a new fragrance just for you: 24.

If you’re a big fan of torture porn, you’ve probably seen the TV show 24. For the rest of you, it’s the one where Kiefer Sutherland assembles an action-packed argument justifying the abandonment of all principles when dealing with one’s enemies.

24™ toilet water.  Not just for waterboarding!

There are two “24” eaux de toilette: Classic and Gold. Classic has a “blend of bergamot, lemon, mandarin, and orange.” It is “masculine and self assured,” just like you were that time you were working over Earl Grey with a pair of pliers in a citrus grove. It is “quickly [sic] underpinned by a spicy oriental core.” Just like a North Korean nuclear facility!

Gold is for both men and women and “opens with emotions of vibrancy created by notes of jasmine, sandalwood, amber, and vanilla.” Gold is “precious and captivating,” recapitulating the show’s characters and most overused plot device, respectively.

Reflected Glory: Picture Songs

So, we all know that you, Cathy, and Garfield all Hate Mondays. But that’s probably just because you haven’t been watching Nice Peter’s Picture Songs. They’re songs. That he writes about pictures. Every monday. I honestly don’t know how he does this every week, especially since he appears to do other things. Here is last week’s:

And links to some previous editions:

Old, Shiny, Awesome

Really Really Bad Day

Nom Nom Nom Nom, Babies!


Egypt Week – Resources

So, this brings us to the end of the Egypt Week posts here at Lost in Transcription. Of course, the protests are still going on in Egypt and elsewhere. Here in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I just drove by a rally down by the State Capitol Building in support of the Egyptian protesters. And, as many people have been pointing out recently, if the protests succeed in removing Mubarak (and it is seeming more likely that they will), this is just the beginning of a very messy process that will likely continue for some time.

At this point, Lost in Transcription is going to be returning to its regularly scheduled mix of science, literature, and snarky pop-culture commentary. But that does indicate any lessening of the desire to support the protests or goodwill towards them. For any readers interested, I have tried to compile a short list of resources for keeping up with what is going on in Egypt.

          Al Jazeera in English – for current information about events on the ground

          Asmaa Mahfouz’s vlog – which helped to trigger the protests

          Virtual March – Facebook online “event” to show solidarity with the protesters

          Wikio Egypt – aggregated recent blog entries on Egypt

          The New Republic – overview of the major players in the current crisis

If there is a site that you have found to be particularly helpful in understanding the current situation in Egypt, please post it in the comments. Or, if you know of things that can be done to more actively support the protesters, please include information on that in the comments as well.

Peace be upon you.

Egypt Week – Oxytocin and Ethnocentrism

So, as we approach the end of Egypt Week, we are going to talk about recent paper in PNAS. The researchers examined the effects of oxytocin on the extent to which people exhibit in-group favoritism. They use ethnic markers to indicate in-group versus out-group membership. In this study, which was performed in the Netherlands, the in-group was Dutch and out-groups were German or Arab.

Here’s the bottom line: subjects who were given oxytocin were more likely to favor in-group members relative to placebo-treated subjects. There was also a hint that oxytocin enhanced negative attitudes towards out-group members, but this second effect was quite weak.

Oxytocin causes people to exhibit greater affection and favoritism towards people with whom they share identifying characteristics.

They examined the effects in the context of three different types of experiment. The first was a set of Implicit Association Tests, which asks subjects to identify in-group members by pressing one key and out-group members by pressing a different key. At the same time, individuals use the same two keys to categorize positive and negative words. The test measures how quickly people are able to perform the task when the positive words and in-group members use the same key, and compares this to their performance when positive words use the same key as out-group members.

People are deemed to exhibit in-group bias if they perform the categorization task more quickly when the “in-group key” is the same as the “positive words key” relative to when positive words use the same key as out-group members. The average extra time it takes in the slower arrangement is a quantitative measure of the degree of in-group bias. It was this measure that was enhanced by treatment with oxytocin.

If you’re interested in this sort of test, researchers at Harvard have an online setup, where you can test your own implicit biases about race, sexuality, and other things, and you can see how you compare to the distribution of other people who have taken the test. Check it out here.

The second test looked at “infrahumanization.” It measured how likely subjects were to associate someone with emotions that are commonly perceived to be “uniquely human,” here embarrassment, contempt, humiliation, admiration, hope, and surprise. (This is not a claim that these emotions are actually limited to humans, just that they are often perceived to be so.) Again, people are more likely to associate these with people of their own ethnicity, and treatment with oxytocin appears to enhance this bias.

The third test was a moral dilemma task of the sort that I have described previously. Subjects had to decide whether to take an action that would kill one person in order to save a group of other people. The ethnicity of the one person whom the subject would have to sacrifice was signaled through middle names that were stereotypically Dutch (e.g. Dirk), German (e.g. Helmut), or Arab (e.g. Ahmed). In this test, treatment with oxytocin made the Dutch subjects less likely to sacrifice someone with a Dutch name, but did not affect their willingness to sacrifice Germans or Arabs.

In a March 2010 Playboy interview, “musician” John Mayer bemoaned the fact that he has “a Benetton heart and a fuckin’ David Duke cock.” This may be a consequence of a currently undescribed genetic disorder that produces a highly non-uniform distribution of oxytocin in the body. If true, this disorder will someday be known as “John Mayer Syndrome.” Alternatively, it is possible that he is just a douche. Image via Jezebel.

A lot of studies have investigated the effects of oxytocin on behavior, and it is has previously been shown to enhance trust, cooperativeness, empathy, and prosociality. The authors of this paper interpret their results as saying that oxytocin should not be viewed as a general-purpose feel-good chemical that makes everyone all happy and want to share things. Rather, they argue that these effects may be limited to those with whom the individual shared a common identity. In more complex social settings, they suggest, the in-group bias that is enhanced by oxytocin can lead to actions that are perceived as unfair by out-group members, and can actually enhance between-group conflicts.

Peace be upon you.

De Dreu CK, Greer LL, Van Kleef GA, Shalvi S, & Handgraaf MJ (2011). Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108 (4), 1262-6 PMID: 21220339

Egypt Week – Genetic Conflict and Social Dominance

So, our next scientific Egypt Week post concerns a paper just published in last week’s issue of Nature, where the authors describe novel behavioral effects of the imprinted gene Grb10 in the mouse.

If you’re not familiar, genomic imprinting is the phenomenon where the expression pattern of a gene depends on its parental origin. So, most of your genes come in two copies, one of which came from your mom, and one of which came from your dad. For most genes, the function of the allele, or gene copy, depends just on its DNA sequence. But something like 1% of our genes are imprinted, meaning that they retain a chemical memory of which parent they came from, so that the two gene copies will function differently, even if the DNA sequences are identical.

The most widely accepted theory for the evolutionary origin of gene expression suggests that it is the result of an intragenomic conflict between maternally and paternally inherited gene copies. That is, from a gene’s-eye point of view, natural selection acts differently on maternally and paternally derived alleles.

Many imprinted genes in mammals have growth effects in early development, and these most of these effects are well described by models where selection favors more growth (and a greater demand on maternal resources) when alleles are paternally derived, and less growth (preserving more maternal resources for the mother’s other offspring) when maternally derived.

There is also evidence for large-scale imprinted gene expression in the brain, and evidence that these imprinted genes may have substantial effects on cognition and behavior. We are still at the early stages of describing these effects, and at even earlier stages of understanding the relevant evolutionary pressures.

Elsewhere on this blog, I have begun writing a series of primers on genomic imprinting, links to which can be found here, if you are interested in more background.

Today’s paper describes the effects of the two parental knockouts of the Grb10 gene. Grb10 is a particularly interesting imprinted gene, because it is maternally expressed in many peripheral tissues, but paternally expressed in the central nervous system. So, when you knock out the maternally inherited copy, you get a complete loss of function in the periphery, but don’t impact Grb10 expression in the brain. Conversely, when you knock out the paternally inherited copy, you lose gene function in the brain, but leave expression in the periphery unaffected.

The phenotype of the maternal knockout is more or less what is expected in terms of growth effects, and is consistent with previous studies of this gene. Theory predicts that if a growth-related imprinted gene is maternally expressed, it likely functions as a suppressor of growth. When the maternal copy of Grb10 was knocked out, the result was overgrowth, due to the loss of this growth-suppressing function.

The knockout of the paternally inherited results in a behavioral phenotype associated with increased social dominance, as indicated by two specific behaviors. The first dominance behavior was observed in a “tube test.” In this test, two mice who don’t know each other are forced to encounter each other in a tube. In this setting, the knockout mice are less likely to back down than the wild-type (normal) mice are.

The second observation was an increase in allogrooming and barbering. Let’s pause for a moment to talk about what that means. Allogrooming is where one individual grooms another individual (in contrast to autogrooming, where you groom yourself). Barbering is where the grooming gets out of hand, and the groomee gets big bald (and sometimes bruised and bloody) patches.

Now, intuitively, you might assume that grooming behavior is submissive, like the handmaid combing out the princess’s hair. In mice, at least, it’s not like that. If you have a pet mouse, and it is grooming you, it is actually being dominant. It’s more like when you sit your little sister down in a chair and put makeup on her – the goal is NOT to make her look good. And, if you are feeling really mean, you give her a haircut, too.

The researchers argue that the behavioral effect is specific to social dominance, as tests designed to look at anxiety, locomotion (moving), olfaction (smelling), and aggression all found no differences between these knockouts and wild-type (normal) mice.
A conflict-based interpretation of these behavioral results would suggest that, for some reason, maternally inherited genes place a greater premium on establishing social dominance than do paternally inherited genes. (In the nervous system, the gene is paternally expressed, and knocking it out increased dominance behaviors. This implies that the gene normally acts to limit dominance behaviors.)

A bemedallioned Hosni Mubarak helps to illustrate the intragenomic conflict over social dominance behaviors. Natural selection favors alleles that enhance socially dominant behaviors when they are maternally derived, but limit socially dominant behaviors when paternally derived. The study was performed in mice, and it is important to note that the patterns of imprinted gene expression can vary among species, so we can not extrapolate from these results to the influence of Grb10 on human cognition and behavior. However, mice and rats are closely related, so we are probably safe extrapolating to Mubarak.

The next question is why would alleles favor more socially dominant behaviors when maternally derived? Fundamentally, at this point we have no idea. This is where the modeling has to come in. In this type of situation it is always possible to come up with a host of possible explanations, all of which sound plausible, and all of which would predict that a paternally expressed gene would limit dominance. The key thing is to model each of those explanations formally, so that we know what key ecological and demographic factors underlie the explanation. Then, we find other species where those factors differ, and examine the imprinting status and phenotypic effect of Grb10 in those species.

For the less politically oriented, the intragenomic conflict over social dominance is like this. Nadya “Octomom” Suleman is like your maternally inherited genome, while the guy with the moustache and the milk bottle is like your paternally inherited genome. Image from the Daily Mail.

Peace be upon you.

Garfield AS, Cowley M, Smith FM, Moorwood K, Stewart-Cox JE, Gilroy K, Baker S, Xia J, Dalley JW, Hurst LD, Wilkinson LS, Isles AR, & Ward A (2011). Distinct physiological and behavioural functions for parental alleles of imprinted Grb10. Nature, 469 (7331), 534-8 PMID: 21270893 [1]


[1] Disclosure: I didn’t really intend for Egypt Week to devolve into blog-posts-about-papers-by-collaborators-of-mine week, but there you have it. I have an ongoing collaboration with Anthony Isles, and know some of the other authors.

Egypt Week – Pro-Mubarak Thugs Damage National Treasure

So, there have been some reports this week of looters damaging some of Egypt’s national treasures, including the decapitation of two mummies (although we should probably not discount the Highlander scenario there). There have also been reports of civilians organizing to protect treasures from looters. Most disturbingly (but, sadly, most plausibly, in my view), there have been reports that much of the looting was actually by Mubarak’s security forces, in an effort to cast the protesters as an unruly mob, thereby justifying a violent crackdown.

So, are Mubarak’s thugs deliberately destroying Egypt’s national treasures? We don’t know right now, and we may never know for sure. What we do know is that they have deliberately damaged one of America’s national treasures, blue-eyed, silver-maned Anderson Cooper.

Somewhere in America, Kathy Griffin is weeping.

Peace be upon you.