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Human echolocation activates visual parts of the brain [Neurophilosophy]

WE all know that bats and dolphins use echolocation to navigate, by producing high frequency bursts of clicks and interpreting the sound waves that bounce off objects in their surroundings. Less well known is that humans can also learn to echolocate. With enough training, people can use this ability to do extraordinary things. Teenager Ben Underwood, who died of cancer in 2009, was one of a small number of blind people to master it. As the clip below shows, he could use echolocation not only to navigate and avoid obstacles, but also to identify objects, rollerskate and even play video games. 

Very little research has been done on human echolocation, and nothing is known about the underlying brain mechanisms. In the first study of its kind, Canadian researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor the brain activity of two blind echolocation experts. Their findings, published today in the open access journal PLoS ONE, show that echolocation engages regions of the brain that normally process vision.  

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No dice to Medicaid cuts

I have long felt that it was unlikely that the President would allow substantial cuts to health care programs, since it is his signature issue. But since everyone in DC has come down with Deficit Fever, I've become a little bit worried that he might be coerced into cutting Medicaid since it's seen by many people as a "welfare" program and who likes that? (This was why I was always more worried about Social Security --- it's not a health care program and so less likely to be protected by the president in a Grand Bargain.)

If Gene Sperling's words this morning are any indication, the White House is not going to use health care as a bargaining chip:

He said Mr. Ryan has “put himself in a box” with his unwillingness to raise tax revenue. He said this forced Republicans to call for “very severe cuts” that if “explored” by Americans “they would not be proud of.”

Mr. Sperling attacked the House Republican proposals to overhaul Medicare and Medicaid, saying that the $770 billion in savings Republicans wanted from changing Medicaid would be unneccessary if Republicans would agree to roll back certain tax cuts.

“You can’t say to anybody who would be affected by that, that we have to do that, that we have no choice,” he said. “The fact is that all of those savings would be unnecessary if you were not funding the high income tax cuts.”

He also said that Mr. Ryan was wrong when he said that raising taxes as part of a broader package would hurt economic growth.

“Everything he said I heard nine million times in 1993,” said Mr. Sperling, who was NEC deputy director in the Clinton administration and later became Mr. Clinton’s national economic adviser.

This is really important. Sperling has ben one of the foremost proponents of the Grand Bargain and this pretty unequivocally takes Medicaid cuts off the table.

It will always be vulnerable --- whenever the Republicans get the chance they will try to cut Medicaid, especially once it is expanded to cover more people. They will be desperate to call it a welfare program that somehow is keeping people from being productive members of society. But if the Dems can at least protect what exists now and get the expansion enacted it will be harder. Sperling's comments were terribly important in that it positioned it as a safety net program that helps the middle class as much as the poor and I'm not sure most people know that.

Update: Dday has the full transcript of Sperling's remarks:

And I say this to everybody in this room, there is enormous discussion about the revenue side and the Medicare side. But from a policy perspective, from a values perspective, we should be very deeply troubled by the Medicaid cuts in the House Republican plan. I want to make clear what they are. This is not my numbers, this is theirs.

After they completely repeal the Affordable Care act, which would take away coverage for 34 million Americans, according to the Congressional Budget Office. After they’ve completely repealed that, they do a block grant that would cut Medicaid by $770 billion. In 2021, that would cut the program by 35 percent. Under their own numbers, by 2030, it would cut projected spending in Medicaid by half. By 49 percent. So, of course– I don’t think– or imply any negative intentions or– lack of compassion. But there is a tyranny of the numbers that we have to face.

And here’s the tyranny of the numbers. Sixty-four percent of Medicaid spending goes to older people in nursing homes or families who have someone with serious disabilities. Another 22 percent goes to 35 million very poor children. Now I ask you, how could you possibly cut 35 percent of that budget and not hurt hundreds of thousands, if not millions of families who are dealing with a parent or a grandparent in a nursing home, or a child with serious disabilities. How is the math possible.

If you tried to protect them mathematically, you would have to eliminate coverage for all 34 million children. Now I know some people didn’t like when– the President mentioned that this was going to be very negative for families, for those amazingly brave parents. And he may be one of them in our country, who have a child with autism or Down’s and who just are enormously committed and dedicated to doing everything they can to give their child the same chance– every other child has.

But here’s the reality. Medicaid does help so many families in those situations. Over the years, we’ve allowed more middle class families who have a child with autism to get help in Medicaid. There’s a medical needy program that says when you spend down– we’ll– we’ll count the income after you’ve spent down medical costs.

There’s a Katie Beckett (PH) program that was passed by President Reagan that says if you have a child that’s in need of institutional care– you can get help from Medicaid. This is– this is a life support for many of these families. But these are the optional programs in Medicaid. These are the ones that go to more middle class families. If you’re going to cut 49 percent of projected Medicaid spending by 2030, do you really think these programs will not be seriously hurt.

So when we say that there– that the tyranny of the math is that these– these– this Medicaid– program, this Medicaid cut will lead to millions of poor children, children with serious disabilities, children with autism– elderly Americans in nursing homes losing their coverage or being– or– or having it significantly cut, we are not criticizing their plan. We are just simply explaining their plan.

Can any American know that that none of these things will ever happen to them?



Legislative Analyst’s Office Slapped Down by Federal Government

One core piece of the Legislative Analyst's Office's attack on HSR was their suggestion that California follow the lead of Scott Walker and Chris Christie and demand that we be allowed to use federal rail funds for other purposes, including delaying their expenditure. I predicted that the feds would not go along with this, and that the LAO would have known this if anyone on their staff actually had a clue about HSR.

Today we learn that I was right and the LAO was wrong:

Federal officials say that a 2012 deadline to start construction of a multibillion-dollar high-speed rail system in California is firm and can't be postponed.

The U.S. Transportation Department said in a letter Wednesday to the California High-Speed Rail Authority that regulators have no authority to change the deadline. The department also says it won't allow the state to move the first stretch of track from the Central Valley to a coastal city.

The LAO ought to toss out their report and start from scratch, this time with people who actually know a thing or two about HSR, interview people who have worked on HSR, gather stats from other countries (and from the Acela) on HSR, assess the benefits of HSR as well as the costs of not building HSR, and produce a report that actually provides some informed discussion and recommendations that are based in reality and respect what the people of California voted to do.

The report has made the LAO look foolish and uninformed. For the sake of their own credibility, they would be wise to start over. California deserves a well-informed assessment of the HSR project, not an uninformed hit job that is so easily dismissed.


Carnac Speaks

Answer: Chrysler, Medicare, Osama bin Laden.

Question: Name three things Republicans completely failed to kill.


Do more planets, gas and stars mean less dark matter? [Starts With A Bang]

"We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special." -Stephen Hawking
You're probably familiar with the standard picture of our Universe. You've heard it all before: that the Universe we know of -- stars, planets, atoms, etc. -- is less than 5% of the Universe's total energy. That most of the matter is dark matter, and that most of the energy in the Universe isn't matter at all, but dark energy.


But recently, we've started to discover a couple of interesting things about the atoms in the Universe. First off, take a look up at the night sky, and you'll be greeted by a familiar sight.


(Image credit: Chris Hetlage.)

Stars! Our galaxy -- like all galaxies -- is full of them, as you can see by looking at M46 and M47, above. We've known for a long time that there aren't enough stars in the galaxy to explain what we see gravity doing, so we know that most of the mass in the Universe isn't stars.

At least, it isn't conventional stars. But you might start to wonder, what if there are lots of small, low-mass, very dim stars out there? What if, in fact, there are failed stars out there?


(Image credit: European Space Agency.)

Not just dim, red, M-stars, which still fuse hydrogen into helium, as long as they're about 1/12th as massive as the Sun. But even smaller, lower mass ones. Maybe they can fuse deuterium, which makes them brown dwarfs, or maybe they're just big, Jupiter-like blobs on their own. Regardless, this could be considered some type of "dark" matter, because we don't see it with standard telescopes.

However, there is a very clever way to detect such objects.


(Image credit: STScI.)

When one of these "rogue planets" passes in between us and a background star, we'll see that star briefly brighten and then dim again, thanks to a process called gravitational microlensing. While searches such as MACHO and EROS showed that these objects can't be most of the missing matter, they can still be a significant amount.

An artist's impression of how one the rogue planets acts as a lens, bending the light of a distant star .jpeg

(Image credit: Jon Lomberg.)

And recently, a team has found many more of these planets -- freely floating through space and not attached to any star -- than we thought! Again, it isn't enough to be all (or even most) of the dark/missing matter, but it's something!

We can also look at other things that have mass: things that aren't stars, planets, or other collapsed objects. Things like interstellar gas and dust, like Bok Globule B68.


(Image credit: European Southern Observatory.)

After all, if there's plenty of gas and dust, maybe that could be some of the dark matter, too! In fact, it's just been discovered that there's plenty of this, too, in the Universe. It's actually really cool. When we look far out in the Universe, we can map out where the galaxies we can see are.


(Image credit: 2dF galaxy redshift survey.)

You'll notice that the shape of this looks like some type of web, or network. (Someone has even pointed out to me that it looks a lot like a series of neurons in the brain!) If we try to simulate structure in the Universe, we get something that matches observations (and neurons) very well.


(Image credit: Mark Miller, Brandeis Univerity; Virgo Consortium for Cosmological Supercomputer Simulations.)

If you look at the "nodes" above, that's where you're going to find the greatest concentrations of galaxies clustered together. But if you look between the nodes, along the imaginary lines connecting them, you'll find a few, small galaxies, sure. But you'll also find X-rays, which come from the collapsing gas clouds!

Structure Formation animated gif

(Animation courtesy of In The Dark.)

So, if there are more rogue planets than we thought, and more dim stars than we thought, and more intergalactic gas and dust than we thought, is it possible that we don't need dark matter? Or, a little more conservatively, is it possible that we need less dark matter?

There's only one way to decide: let's ask the Universe! We can look at cosmic structure formation, above, as well as...


(Image credit: WMAP Science team and NASA.)

The fluctuations in the Cosmic Microwave Background, and...


(Image credit: MAP990403, taken from UIUC's website.)

The primordial abundances of the light elements: Hydrogen, Helium-3, Helium-4, Deuterium, and Lithium.

These are observations we can make that tell us how much "atomic" matter there is -- stuff made out of protons, neutrons, and electrons -- versus how much is truly some new type of matter that doesn't emit light.

And all of these observations -- these independent observations -- point to the same thing: a Universe that's about 4.5% atoms.


(Image credit: Physics for the 21st Century.)

Not only can we not get rid of dark matter, we can't even make a dent in it!

But then, what do these extra planets, dim stars, or gas mean for our Universe?

The truth of the matter is, they simply tell us how that 4.5% of atoms is divided up.


(Chart courtesy of Fukugita and Peebles, 2004.)

It's important and fun to know how the normal matter in the Universe is divided up, and how much of our Universe is made of stars, planets, gas, dust, or anything else you can think of, but no matter how it's divided, you can't replace dark matter with it.

Too many things would be different. Large-scale structure would be all wrong; you'd see too much Silk damping. Nucleosynthesis would be all wrong; you'd have too much helium and too little deuterium. And the fluctuations in the microwave background would be all wrong; the third peak wouldn't be there.

It's why we do the measurements we do, and this is what we learn from them: physical cosmology requires a Universe with 20-25% dark matter, and with just 4-5% of normal (atomic) matter. And what an interesting thing to learn: no matter how the 4.5% of the Universe that's made out of atoms is split up, we still need just as much dark matter to make the Universe the way it is.

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Delivering on gridlock: good news

When the Republicans go all in, they go all in. Here's Paul Ryan this morning:

Washington has not been honest with you about Medicare. Medicare is a critical program which helps seniors achieve health security. But the truth is it’s headed for a painful collapse. We can save Medicare, but we have to reform it so that it delivers the high quality we expect, at a price we can afford.
[...] The urgent need to reform Medicare, and the President’s misguided approach, have left us with a serious question to ask: Who should be making health-care decisions for you and your family? A government monopoly and a panel of bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.? Or you?

We have to destroy Medicare in order to save it. I think we've been down that bizarroworld wingnut logic road before. It doesn't make any more sense today than it ever has. But they are going there, presumably trying to convince senior citizens that the only people they really want to screw are people under 55. (Apparently, they have zero interest in ever getting the votes of the second wave baby boomers who are now between 47 and 55 --- and just took a major hit in their retirement plans. And why not? They only make up 25% of the voting population. Who needs 'em?)

This is actually good news because it indicates that the Republicans are so delusional that they will never agree to even the kind of fake tax hikes the corporate Dems are more than willing to give them in exchange for the cuts in "entitlements" so they think they need to sell themselves as "fiscally responsible." As I've been harping for months -- with the Republicans having gone completely over the cliff and the Democrats ready to compromise on anything in order that the Villagers finally acknowledge them as "grown-ups" the best thing that could happen is gridlock. Since it's unlikely that the Democrats will ever draw a real line in the sand we have to depend upon Grover Norquist and Paul Ryan to stay crazy. Looks like that's not going to be a problem.



A truly tiny Cretaceous theropod… from England? [Tetrapod Zoology]


Steve Sweetman and I have just published a paper on a new maniraptoran theropod dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous Wealden Supergroup of East Sussex, England (Naish & Sweetman 2011).

As you might know if you're a regular reader, much of my technical work has been devoted to Wealden theropods and I publish papers on them fairly regularly (recent articles: Benson et al. (2009), Naish (2010); see links below). I still have yet to publish one of my most significant contributions - the monographic description of the tyrannosauroid Eotyrannus lengi (the follow-up to the rushed and preliminary Hutt et al. (2001) paper) - but let's not talk about that. A large, state-of-the-art revision of Wealden theropods was submitted earlier this year and has been through review and accepted for publication.

I make no secret of the fact that many of the fossils I publish on are extremely fragmentary, in many cases being single bones. Identifications made on the basis of single bones can very occasionally be horribly, horribly wrong (one personal example: a cervical vertebra that I identified as oviraptorosaurian (Naish & Martill 2002) now seems to be from an abelisauroid), but they can often be made with confidence if the material is good enough, and if it preserves the required informative bits of anatomy.

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Tom Friedman’s snappy slogans

Thomas Friedman proves once again why he isn't looked to for advice by political movements around the world:

May I suggest a Tahrir Square alternative? Announe that every Friday from today forward will be “Peace Day,” and have thousands of West Bank Palestinians march nonviolently to Jerusalem, carrying two things — an olive branch in one hand and a sign in Hebrew and Arabic in the other. The sign should say: “Two states for two peoples. We, the Palestinian people, offer the Jewish people a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders — with mutually agreed adjustments — including Jerusalem, where the Arabs will control their neighborhoods and the Jews theirs.”

Maybe they can write it in really, really small letters.

It's better than "suck on this, Iraq" but I'm afraid it doesn't have quite the same ring to it...



Tristero- Man bites dog

While Digby already noted the potential importance of the special election in New York-26, this article about the contest is still worth reading. Not because it's a well written report - it isn't, it just describes the horserace and gallops over the ideas - but because of the way in which the Democratic challenger, and the race, was described. We have rarely seen either this kind of activity from a Democratic challenger in a difficult race, and even less frequently read this kind of positive coverage. It's almost as if running an exciting campaign that appeals to voters encourages a more positive attitude from the press.

I know: it's more complicated than that. Even so, Kathy Hochul is clearly doing something very right:

Two months ago, the Democrat, Kathy Hochul, was considered an all-but-certain loser in the race against the Republican, Jane Corwin. But Ms. Hochul seized on the Republican’s embrace of the proposal from Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, to overhaul Medicare, and she never let up...

The district, which stretches from Buffalo to Rochester, has been in Republican hands for four decades, producing influential figures like Representative Jack Kemp and siding with Carl P. Paladino, a Republican, over Andrew M. Cuomo in the governor’s race last year…

Ms. Hochul… campaigned energetically and with great focus…

Ms. Hochul maintained a positive image conveying a homespun quality, speaking with a Buffalo accent, connecting naturally with voters…

In her victory speech Tuesday night, she noted that her mother and father, who have retired to Florida, were making phone calls to voters on her behalf for months.

..given the makeup of the district, one of four in the state that John McCain carried in 2008, Republicans said they needed to understand if they had misread the public.

“It’s a Republican district with a solid Republican candidate,” said Representative Peter T. King, a Republican from Long Island.

“What went wrong? We definitely have to determine the extent to which the Medicare issue hurt us…”

The seat became vacant in February when Representative Christopher Lee, a Republican, abruptly resigned after he e-mailed a shirtless photo of himself to a woman and it was published on the Internet…

The race also marked the debut of House Majority PAC, a group recently established by Democratic strategists as a counterbalance to the slew of conservative organizations that helped Republicans make significant gains in the 2010 elections. House Majority PAC spent nearly $400,000 on advertising in the race.


NSLS-II Digs Up History [Brookhaven Bits & Bytes]

Five years before becoming fully operational, Brookhaven's National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II) already is leading to discoveries -- of the historical kind.


Pieces of newspaper dug up at the NSLS-II construction site, which include a story about a boxing match scheduled for October 2, 1917 - Tommy Tuohey versus Ed Wallace

As earthwork takes place on the NSLS-II construction site, which housed part of the U.S. Army's Camp Upton in the World War I and II era, artifacts ranging from rusted horseshoes to nearly 100-year-old pieces of newspaper are being dug up.

One of the most recent finds is a large piece of painted concrete rock thought to have been part of a floor in a warehouse used in the army base in the 1940s. The rock, which has a hand-drawn emblem of a bugle, the notation "Company G," and the words "Baptized by Fire," was linked with the 14th regiment, known as the "Fighting Fourteenth" and the "Red-legged Devils" from Brooklyn. The second wave of American troops sent to France in WWI, including soldiers from Camp Upton, received their last bit of training just behind allied lines and were subject to enemy fire. This may be why the regiment adopted "Baptized by Fire" as their motto.


A slab of concrete found in the NSLS-II excavation site

Construction workers also recently discovered a WWII dog tag that belonged to a soldier who likely passed through Camp Upton on his way to England after his basic training concluded at Fort Oglethorpe, GA, in 1943. By 1945, WWII had ended and Camp Upton was officially declared surplus. Two years later, Brookhaven National Laboratory was born.

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