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Democrats begin wide-open campaign to pick 2020 challenger to Trump

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WASHINGTON—The 2016 Democratic presidential primary: a coronation. The 2020 primary: a battle royale.

Four years after almost every possible candidate conceded the nomination to a dominant Hillary Clinton, the party is about to have an unpredictable everybody-into-the-pool scrap to be chosen as the candidate to challenge Donald Trump.

And it’s starting already.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced this week that she was launching an exploratory committee, which allows her to raise money and hire staff. Former housing secretary Julian Castro has scheduled an announcement for Jan. 12.

Over the next few months, they will be joined by a mix of the party’s who’s-who and who’s-that. The “first debate,” scheduled for June, will almost certainly have to be split into two debates to accommodate the large field.

That field will likely be the most personally diverse ever to seek the presidency, featuring multiple women and people of colour. On policy, the candidates will tend toward the unabashed liberalism now favoured by much of the party’s base — though there will be significant differences in their choices of issue emphasis, in the ways they depart from progressive orthodoxy and in how they approach President Donald Trump.

The best-known hypothetical candidates are former vice-president Joe Biden and Clinton’s main challenger, democratic socialist Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, both of whom have been unsubtly laying groundwork. Beto O’Rourke, the charismatic Texas congressman who gained national attention during his unsuccessful Senate run against Ted Cruz, is also mulling a run.

So are — deep breath now — California Sen. Kamala Harris, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg…

…among others. Former attorney general Eric Holder, wealthy environmentalist Tom Steyer, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley and California Rep. Eric Swalwell have all expressed interest.

After two years of relative party unity in fighting Trump’s initiatives, members of the grassroots “resistance” will have to choose an affirmative party identity. They could go any number of ways. The list of prospects includes people known for fiery oratory and for low-key affability, for ideological rigidity and for shape-shifting, for focusing on economic injustice and on racial injustice. It includes champions and skeptics of free trade, advocates and opponents of free college tuition, billionaires and critics of the billionaire class, Washington veterans and relative newcomers.

The leaders in extremely-early opinion polls — which should be treated mostly as measures of how widely the candidates’ names are currently known — are Biden and Sanders. Both have devout fans. But as white men of age 76 and 77, they will be challenged by what seems to be a desire in much of the party base for fresh faces.

“I think the country is looking for excitement. I think they’re looking for someone who is not a part of the Washington conversation. And I think they’re looking for new ideas,” said Democratic strategist Jennifer Holdsworth. “People that most of the country has never heard of,” she said, “are ultimately going to be much closer to the top than people think.”

In the 2018 midterm elections, Democrats elected a record number of women and people of colour to Congress. “I think that the Democratic electorate is hungry for either a woman or a person of colour,” said Kate Maeder, a party strategist in California.

“I think we just kind of need to clean house with the old white male guard,” said Lori Goldstein, party chair in Adams County, Colorado. “And we need to keep our younger folks invested in all of this, and I think we’ve lost a lot of them because of the old white male guard.”

The first voting is 13 months away. Mayra Rivera-Vazquez, Democratic chair in Beaufort County, South Carolina, said local party members want diverse candidates but will reserve judgment until the candidates make their pitches.

“You hear the common names, but probably there are probably going to be other names too. So we don’t know. We’ll see,” she said. We have a spectrum of all thinkers there. It’s too early to decide what type of presidential candidate the Democrats want. Let’s see when they come here: what are going to be the issues, what are they going to offer, what is the message?”

California’s move of its primary to March, from the traditional June, will require candidates to change the way they approach the early months. The nation’s most populous state has long been an afterthought because of how late it came in the process. Now, its racially diverse Democratic electorate will begin casting ballots in early voting on the same February day as the first caucuses are held in the small, heavily white state of Iowa.

Candidates will have to figure out how to establish national personas in a media environment dominated by Trump. And they will have to decide how to navigate the uncompromising mood of an increasingly left-leaning party base while also retaining their viability among the moderates who may decide the general election — and while convincing the base that they are best positioned to beat Trump.

So far, it has been full-speed ahead to the left. Harris, Booker, Gillibrand, Warren and Sanders have all endorsed the idea of a federal jobs guarantee. In 2016, Sanders’s endorsement of single-payer health care, “Medicare for All,” made him a left-wing novelty. In 2020, that position is expected to be a Democratic standard.

Sanders has already won one early victory. After furious complaints from him and his allies, the party voted this summer to sharply limit the power of “superdelegates,” the party elites who previously got to vote for whichever candidate they wanted no matter what regular voters decided.

10 potential Democratic candidates

  • Joe Biden, former vice-president

Strengths in the primary: Personal fondness of most Democrats, reputation for connecting with white working class, association with Barack Obama.

Weaknesses in the primary: Age, error-prone campaign past, past conservative votes, handling of Anita Hill hearing.

  • Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts senator

Strengths: Anti-Wall St. credibility, reputation for unyielding liberalism.

Weaknesses: Low approval ratings with broader public, decision to take DNA test to prove claim to Native American heritage.

  • Bernie Sanders, independent Vermont senator

Strengths: Perceived authenticity, progressive record, voter loyalty established in 2016.

Weaknesses: Age, unpopularity among some Clinton devotees, weakness with Black voters, distance from the Democratic party.

  • Sherrod Brown, Ohio senator

Strengths: Record of electoral success with white working class.

Weaknesses: Support for Trump’s trade policy, past allegation of 1980s domestic abuse (by ex-wife who now supports him).

  • Kamala Harris, California senator

Strengths: Lawyerly eloquence, varied personal background, popularity in California.

Weaknesses: Centrist decisions as a prosecutor.

  • Cory Booker, New Jersey senator

Strengths: Powerful oratory, focus on racial inequality.

Weaknesses: History of Wall St. ties, mixed results as Newark mayor.

  • Julian Castro, former housing secretary

Strengths: Service in Obama administration, Latino identity.

Weaknesses: Never elected to office higher than mayor, non-fluency in Spanish.

  • Michael Bloomberg, former New York City mayor

Strengths: Wealth, leadership on gun control.

Weaknesses: Wealth, conservative positions.

  • Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota senator

Strengths: “Minnesota nice” likability, broad appeal in Midwestern states.

Weaknesses: Low national profile, relatively conservative voting record.

  • Beto O’Rourke, Texas congressman

Strengths: Charisma, fundraising prowess, youth.

Weaknesses: Never held office higher than the House, relatively conservative voting record.

Daniel Dale is the Star’s Washington bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @ddale8

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Ecology

What if a jolt of electricity could make you happy?

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Scientists found a way to literally spark joy using joly of electricity. (Credit: icon99/shutterstock)

Scientists found a way to literally spark joy using jolts of electricity. (Credit: icon99/shutterstock)

People all around the world (or at least where Netflix is available) have been exhausting themselves of late trying to “spark joy” in their lives. The urge comes from cleaning guru Marie Kondo, whose philosophy rests on the principle that we should rid our homes and minds of things that don’t inspire bursts of pleasure.

The message resonates, in part, because it ties positivity to the world of material things. Happiness is in our minds. So having a tangible mechanism for producing joy is understandably comforting.

But there’s a simpler way to spark joy, if we really want to get literal about it. Any emotion we feel has a physical cause inside our brains. Electrical charges pass from neuron to neuron, spreading ripples of thought and feeling. What we call happiness is just electricity. And now researchers say they’ve found a remarkably specific means of triggering the electrical fireworks that add up to happiness in our brains. By electrically stimulating a brain region known as the cingulum, scientists created spontaneous laughter and a sense of calm and joy in three different patients.

The find could lead to treatments for anxiety and depression, and it hints at insights into the very roots of our emotions themselves.

An artist's illustration shows how an electrode tapped into the cingulum. (Credit: From Bijanki et al, J. Clin. Invest. (2019). Courtesy of American Society for Clinical Investigation)

An artist’s illustration shows how an electrode tapped into the cingulum. (Courtesy of American Society for Clinical Investigation)

Unexpected Bliss

The young woman is clad in hospital garb, sitting upright in a bed. A white hospital cap mushrooms above her head, wires splay from its rear. She’s due for brain surgery in a few days to treat a difficult, disruptive kind of epilepsy. She’s been worried and anxious.

She breaks into a radiant smile, laughter flowing uninhibited.

“I’m kind of like smiling because I can’t help it,” she says. A bit later, “Sorry, that’s just a really good feeling. That’s awesome.”

Neuroscientists just administered a tiny jolt of electricity to wires threaded through her skull and into her brain. The wires are there to guide surgeons to the source of her seizures. But before the procedure, she’s agreed to play guinea pig to a team of Emory University researchers.

Patients like her offer an unprecedented opportunity for researchers to test the workings of various brain regions with unparalleled specificity. By delivering targeted bursts of electricity through the electrodes, they can watch what happens when specific neural circuits are activated.

The team was sending small bursts of electricity to her cingulum, a horseshoe of brain matter that links to regions associated with emotion, self-assessment, social interaction and motivation, among other things. It’s also known to regulate anxiety and depression.

This kind of research, though hardly common, is not new. The patient’s reaction is.

“It was really exciting,” says Kelly Bijanki, a neuroscientist at Emory University who studies behavioral neuromodulation. She was one of the scientists working with the young woman, whose name was not given for privacy reasons, that day. She says the kind of spontaneous joy she saw was unprecedented.

Experiments with brain stimulation have elicited laughter and smiles before. But those responses seemed mechanical. Bijanki says the patients usually described it as a purely motor response. “Their body has laughed, but there’s no content to it.”

This case was different. There was real warmth behind the laughter; true happiness in her voice. At one point, the patient reported she was “so happy she could cry,” the researchers write in their paper.

“The way she was laughing was really infectious,” Bijanki says. “The whole room felt different: she was laughing, she was having a good time, and not afraid. Just that social, emotional contagion took over.”

Further tests confirmed the response. They conducted sham trials, telling the patient that they were providing stimulation when they weren’t. She didn’t react. They tested various levels of stimulation and saw that the more electricity they delivered, the stronger the joyous reaction was. The pattern remained the same: An initial burst of exultation faded into a state of happy relaxation after several seconds.

The researchers found no drawbacks to the treatment, either, they report in a paper in the Journal of Clinical Investigation. Her language skills and memory remained perfectly intact, and they saw no ill aftereffects of the stimulation.

In a screengrab from the scientists' experiment, the patient feels overwhelming joy even while pondering her dog dying. (Credit:)

In a screengrab from the scientists’ experiment, the patient feels overwhelming joy even while pondering her dog dying. (Credit: Bijanki et al, Journal of Clinical Investigation)

Put to the Test

The woman’s impending surgery would require her to remain awake while surgeons probed inside her skull. Their goal was to cut out the tissue responsible for her epilepsy, but it’s a game of millimeters. Doctors must remove enough to ensure that seizures don’t recur, but without causing permanent harm. The patient’s seizures appeared to emanate from a region near to language processing centers. Her job was to stay awake while surgeons worked, reading and talking to ensure they wouldn’t excise anything important.

The brain stimulation turned out to work so well that doctors were able to cut out completely the drugs used to manage anxiety during this type of brain surgery. Those medications can make patients sleepy and unresponsive, so the anesthesiologist decided to stop them midway through. The young woman, her skull opened to surgical tools, breezed through.

“During the surgery … she was telling me jokes about her dad, where prior to turning on the stimulation she had been crying and hyperventilating and right on the edge of panic,” Bijanki says.

To confirm their findings, the researchers performed the same tests with two more epilepsy patients with electrodes similarly implanted in their skulls. They got the same results. Jabs of electricity literally sparking joy inside their heads.

Putting Happiness to Work

It’s too simplistic to say the researchers have stumbled upon the place where joy hides within us. The brain is complex, and emotions well up from more than just a single place. Multiple brain regions are involved, and each contributes a facet to the emotion that we come to know as happiness.

In fact, researchers have found joy in another place in the brain as well. Sameer Sheth, a neurosurgeon at the Baylor College of Medicine, says that he’s had patients report feelings of euphoria during the course of his own work with brain stimulation as well. He was working with the ventral striatum, a region separate from the cingulum, though the two are tightly connected.

Stimulation to the ventral striatum has also produced the same sort of laughter and mood elevation that Bijanki saw, Sheth says.

But just because emotions are neurologically complex doesn’t mean there’s no value to understanding their origins.

“The more we understand this circuitry, the more we can fine tune how to harness that capability within an individual and the better we’ll be able to treat patients with mood disorders,” Sheth says.

Bijanki sees a range of applications for brain stimulation aimed at specific targets, beginning with the kind of surgeries the young epileptic was undergoing. By precluding the use of sedatives, the find might give brain surgeons new options when performing the kind of procedures the young woman went through. Allowing patients to give more feedback could make brain surgeries more targeted. It might also expand the scope of neurosurgery.

“The definition of what is an inoperable tumor is in some circumstances related to what is the surgeon reasonably comfortable with removing that isn’t going to ruin the patients life,” Bijanki says. “If the surgeon could know that in real time, then the surgery could proceed a little bit differently.”

More broadly, it could also find use as a treatment for mental disorders like depression, anxiety and PTSD. Bijanki imagines electrodes powered by a pacemaker battery delivering continuous, low-grade stimulation to patients with depressive disorders.

In the future, we may not even need wires to spark such emotions. Scientists are developing means of activating brain regions with pulses of light, or with ultrasound. Flashes and vibrations could one day deliver ease to the afflicted.

There are drugs that accomplish similar things today, of course, but those often have side effects, and the treatment isn’t always as direct. Brain stimulation could offer a better path.

Banish the Sadness

Bijanki was also struck by an odd side-effect of the stimulation. Though patients had no trouble recalling sad memories during treatment, the recollections were wholly powerless to make them feel unhappy.

“I remember my dog dying, and I remember that it was a sad memory, but I don’t feel sad about it right now,” the young woman said, as reported by the researchers in their paper. Another patient concurred, unable to recollect a tragic memory without smiling. The effect is slightly jarring, but it could provide a shield of sorts to those overcoming trauma.

Those suffering from PTSD often go through what’s called exposure therapy, where they are asked to repeatedly sift through memories of a traumatic event. The goal is to drain those memories of their fearsome power over time, but it is difficult, frightening work.

Paired with temporary brain stimulation that elides sadness, Bijanki thinks PTSD patients might be far better equipped to tread through painful memories.

Finding Balance

Ultimately, however, the goal of therapies involving brain stimulation isn’t to wipe out negative emotions.

Anger, sadness and fear are not without their merits, and banishing them could have unintended consequences. Sadness sits at the other end of the spectrum from happiness, for example. Taking away any of our emotions would be removing an aspect of our humanity. What’s more, we have emotions for a reason.

“Our emotions exist for a very specific purpose, to help us understand our world, and they’ve evolved to help us have a cognitive shortcut for what’s good for us and what’s bad for us,” Bijanki says.

That’s not the goal here, of course, though discussions about the ethical use of such technologies in the future is certainly warranted. Bijanki says that we’d need to be careful about applying things like brain stimulation that could be abused.

But, she’s not very worried about electrodes and electric shocks becoming the next designer drug. It’s just too technically demanding, she says. And the potential benefits for those with depression and other conditions are great.

Sometimes the bad can outweigh the good. In those cases, sparking a little joy might be what we need.

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NASA Picks Science Experiments to Send to the Moon This Year

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Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Just Made its Second Trip to Space

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SpaceShipTwo under rocket power

SpaceShipTwo is carried into the air on the back of a plane, but then takes off into space under its own power. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

On Friday, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo flew in space for the second time, taking off from Mojave, California after days of weather delay. SpaceShipTwo took off at 8:07 a.m. PST carrying two pilots, a crewmember, and a nearly full weight of science projects from NASA.

Unlike most spaceflights that fire rockets from the ground, SpaceShipTwo is carried on the belly of a plane named WhiteKnightTwo before being released to propel itself into the upper atmosphere. After being carried 45,000 feet into the air, SpaceShipTwo successfully fired its rocket engine and reached suborbital space at approximately 8:55 a.m. PST. It coasted there for only a few minutes before heading back toward the ground, where it landed much like any other plane, roughly an hour after takeoff. Like all of SpaceShipTwo’s planned flights, this one was suborbital, meaning it does not reach orbit, and attains weightlessness for only a few minutes during its trip.

SpaceShipTwo made its maiden space voyage in December 2018, and today was its fifth powered flight in total. Unlike other private spaceflight companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic has made their main goal ferrying private citizens into space, and have been taking reservations for years.

The third crewmember today was Virgin Galactic’s Chief Astronaut Instructor and cabin evaluation lead. Her job today was to see how SpaceShipTwo feels from the cabin. Eventually, Virgin Galactic hopes to seat six passengers in place of the science payloads – or alongside them.

The spacecraft today also carried research projects from NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, which pairs research institutions with private companies who can fly their projects into space. The combined weight of the payloads put SpaceShipTwo at close to, but just under, the requirements for the commercial launch weight that NASA has specified. One of Virgin Galactic’s goals during this flight was testing how the vehicle flies with a greater weight distribution. Details will likely come later, but the flight was successful, which bodes well for the craft’s future in ferrying cargo as well as passengers.

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