Monday, September 24, 2018

Octopuses on Ecstasy

I am way too busy to blog today so I will pass along this article which multiple people passed along to me, haha. We should all be hugging each other more.

On Ecstasy, Octopuses Reached Out for a Hug
By JoAnna Klein, September 20, 2018, The New York Times

Octopuses are smart. They open jars, steal fish and high-five each other.

Though interactive, they’re generally asocial, and temperamental, with unique behavior patterns, like those shown by Otto, who caused blackouts at a German aquarium and Inky, who famously escaped a tank in New Zealand. They learn through experience and observation, forming lasting memories with brain-like bundles of hundreds of millions of neurons in each arm and a centralized bundle in the middle.

A desire to understand the evolutionary underpinnings of this brainpower led scientists to give octopuses ecstasy. Yes, ecstasy — molly, E, MDMA, the party drug, which in humans reduces fear and inhibition, induces feelings of empathy, distorts time and helps people dance to electronic music all night.

And under the influence of MDMA, the researchers report in a paper published Thursday in Current Biology, asocial octopuses seemed to become more social.

“Even though octopuses look like they come from outer space, they’re actually not that different from us,” said Gül Dölen, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who led the study with Eric Edsinger, an octopus researcher at Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole.

They also found that humans and octopuses share parts of an ancient messaging system involved in social behaviors, one enhanced by the presence of MDMA in both animals. These shared lineages may have been conserved to reduce fear and enable social behaviors. And although preliminary, the authors think octopuses present a promising model for studying MDMA’s effects on the human brain, treating PTSD and better understanding how the brain evolved to conjure social behaviors.

MDMA helps release, among other chemicals, serotonin. That ancient molecule is involved in regulating mood and social behaviors in invertebrates like locusts as well as vertebrates, like fish, dogs and humans.

For Dr. Dölen, who is interested in evolution of social behavior, the octopus offered an interesting test of MDMA and serotonin, because it is separated by 500 million years of evolution from humans, but also has complex behavior.

Octopuses suspend their aggression for a few minutes to mate, perhaps accessing an otherwise switched-off neural signaling system — potentially similar to the one that helps humans behave socially, she reasoned. And any similarities in octopus and human genetic code related to this system could help her understand how the brain — down to its tiniest bits — evolved to govern social behaviors.

Like a wedge in Pac-Man’s mouth, MDMA fits inside a protein that moves serotonin in and out of neurons. The drug eventually causes a flood of serotonin between synapses, increasing its signals. When the researchers compared the genome of the California two-spot octopus (Octopus bimaculoides) to those of other animals, they discovered humans and octopuses could both make this protein, and it was nearly 100 percent similar at that special Pac-Man spot.

But would that protein on ecstasy also make octopuses social?

They put the octopuses in the center of a three-chambered tank where they could explore a Star Wars figurine on one side or another octopus on the other (it was contained beneath an overturned orchid pot with holes, in case the MDMA hadn’t worked and violence ensued).

Undosed, octopuses of either sex spent more time with the toy than the other octopus (if it was a male; they seemed less concerned when it was female).

But after soaking in low-dose MDMA-laced baths, the octopuses seemed to relax. They spent more time with the male octopuses on the other side of the tank.

They also hugged the pot with several arms, showing off their ventral ends, or mouths, almost like how the Larger Pacific Striped Octopus, the only known social octopus species, mates beak to beak in an eight-armed hug.

Though they tested only a few octopuses and MDMA likely acts on more molecules than serotonin, Charles Nichols, a pharmacologist at the Louisiana State University School of Medicine, was impressed: “I’ve been giving psychedelics to fruit flies for years in my lab, but had yet to have seen one given to an octopus.”

And David Nichols, his father who pioneered studies of MDMA for therapy, wonders how the drug might help untangle the fear circuitry in octopuses: “Connecting the dots in the octopus may lead to scientists being able to connect the dots, so to speak, in other species, including man,” Dr. David Nichols said.

Though just beginning, Dr. Dölen is hopeful: “We need to be taking full advantage of these compounds to see what they’re doing to the brain,” she said.

She added that when the octopuses came down from their serotonin highs, they acted completely normal — for an octopus.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Things That Made Me Happy

Call Me By Your Name

So most of the time I feel like a do some variation of whining, judging or kvetching about one thing or another on this thing. This week I will give you (and myself) a break from all the gloom-doom, gripe-fest and give a quick jot of things that actually made me (gasp) happy this past week. Life is long/short. May as well smell the roses sometimes!

Finishing a Book – I read a lot but lately I’ve been skipping around, reading multiple things at once and it is driving me nuts. I sometimes attempt to be the type or reader who can juggle multiple titles at once but I can’t. I’m a one book pony and I guess I should just finally embrace it. I finished Michael Pollen’s new book on psychedelics, How to Change Your Mind for my reading group (it’s always best to have peer pressure to make you finish something) and I liked the book well enough but I felt so satisfied when I completed it without much effort and time, proving to myself that yes, I’m literate and yes, I can read voraciously when I focus.

Kids Playing At The Beach – I guess in connection with the book above, this past weekend I was watching this little boy, about 2-3 years old playing at the beach at the water line and it made me think about some of the ideas in the above book (saying young children are basically high in terms of their neural path developments) and how true it is. He was so adorable in the classic little kid way but he had this precociousness and awe of everything, the sand in his fingers, his feet touching water, it was like watching a little guru, alien life totally absorbed yet exhilarated. All kids are like this but trust me, this was like some strange universe he was inhabiting and it was so heart filling to observe it even if it was only from outside in.

Henry Slesar's "The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross" – I listened to this by chance while getting ready to leave the house the other day on WNYC’s Selected Shorts Program. It was apparently a Twilight Zone Episode too. It’s about a guy who can barter something he has for something that he wants. He is doing all this for the affections of his long standing crush, it doesn’t work out of course but the turns of self improvement, the efforts and the strategies to get there are twisted, familiar and in plain language revealed.

Call Me By Your Name – This movie! I can’t believe I only just saw this movie! It’s so lush in cinematic eye (almost too lush) but the tones, the long edits, and the acting, especially by Timothée  Chalamet, is heart rending. For total romantics this movie crushed you in that bitter sweet way that only the want and depth of love can make you feel.

Gallery – I never talk about this but I love running my gallery. I feel so lucky and grateful for all the people I have gotten to know through it.

Instant Noodles – I watched a quick TV episode on Ramen and then I was like ‘I must have ramen,’ for 48 hours after. I didn’t manage to get the real thing but it’s pretty amazing how easy it is to get instant noodles, a few vegetables, one egg and voila, you are a baby chef for under $3. Amazing.

Beach – NYC can be a real god-damn-slog but the fact that you can get to the ocean via train is pretty miraculous. Summer...Don’t go!

Fingers and Toes – Yo, seriously, if you have 10 of each you are pretty freaking lucky. In seriousness though, we, who have so much, often forget all we have and that is something I have been trying to re-align myself with. It’s amazing what we have.

Morning Glories – Seeing those delicate vines climb on fences, gates, gutters, wherever they can and those brilliant, impossibly thin and easily bruised trumpet like flowers just peeping out at you is like seeing constellations in cement.

Cats – Cliché, cliché, I know but having a furry friend(s) is the best type of company sometimes. That thing they do when they can sense when you are sad or crying or feeling blue and they come up to you and nudge you and curl up comfort you by just having their tiny beating heart near yours. It’s a type of companionship that is literally beyond words.

Art Season – I was going to see so much art the past few weekends but life circumstances happened and that’s okay but yeah, I’m very excited to see the shows up and about to be up. It’s funny, you think it would get boring but somehow every fall there is this tingle of newness and possibility. I am thirsty for it and can’t wait to see it all and think about it all and probably complain about it all on this thing.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Art World’s Version of ‘Punch A Nazi’ - Greenspon Edition

So yikes, have you been hearing about the hot mess that is the cancelled Greenspon show? Well if you haven’t read all about it here. So essentially, there was set to be a two-person show, curated by Chis Viaggio, to open on September 6th with Darja Bajagić and Boyd Rice. Greenspon is a hip cool gallery in the West Village that has in the past had hyphenate-partnerships but now is under the purview of Amy Greenspon. The show was closed via an email by the gallerist right before its opening. 

From what the internet’s various outlets have been relaying, Rice is alleged to be a Nazi (which he denies) as there is documented evidence (photos etc.) with him associating with both Nazis and Nazi sympathizers. This news was flash-alert-warned by an artists google group call Invisible Dole (I’m too irrelevant to be on this list so this is all third hand relay…) Anyways, in the group, Rice’s past associations were cast, passed on and forwarded until it created a firestorm of people contacting the gallery and demanding the show to be cancelled. So it was.

So what to make of this whole thing? It’s word against word, Rice says he isn’t a Nazi but yeah, it looks pretty bad when you search his name. It’s basically all Nazi, anti-women, anti-everything type of results. I mean wearing a shirt that says “RAPE” with a swastika charm necklace is pretty f-ed up regardless of how much time ago it was or how much dripping irony you embrace.

BUT. Here’s the thing. I, personally, do not believe in censorship in any form. And this holds especially true for art. Now, this show should have been wayyyy better vetted. I mean google takes you what, all of two seconds? BUT, I can see how this can get muddy too. I don’t think this show should have been cancelled though if it was already set. Shows take a long time to organize and this wasn’t a last minute add on… But it was completely in the rights of the gallerist and those who protested it to bring that pressure and to do what they did.

Someone who I briefly talked to about this mentioned the Dana Schutz incident. Where she painted Emmet Till’s body in his coffin and it was shown at the Whitney Biennial. They were saying that the Greenspon case was different because Schutz is a really good person and felt terrible that it was construed in this manner. I responded that in a way, the Shutz incident was just as sinister because to be so oblivious to the impact of subject matter at hand and also the apologist structure given to those who are ‘allies’ but make a ‘mistake’ is a part of the art machine in another way.

I don’t know Rice’s work. I don't’ really want to, to be honest, but if he is a Nazi or likes to play with the margins of political correctness, he is at least self-exposed. So the question of what is allowed in art and not is back to the brink and its something we have to talk about. As much as the affiliations Rice has been clearly attached to make me want to wretch, the idea of censoring art makes me existentially debilitated.  

What is the takeaway from this? It seems there was a huge lack of attention on Greenspon’s part to let this get as far as it had. But I feel for her. There is a community of trust and perhaps she relied on the vouching of others more then she should have. But in the end, you are the responsible party, either way it lands. The collective voice, which polices is essential but also fraught. There needs to be exposing not for the sake of calling out but for a transparency that is actually generative. For those that make art or live lives in the anti-state, chaos theory, anarchy-against-all modus, don’t play victim yourself when your show gets cancelled. You know this could have happened and part of you relishes it. Rice did say this episode was a “win-win” for him. (Can he be any grosser?)

Regardless, it’s making us think and talk and not necessarily take sides (for some it has) but for all who care about art, freedom of speech and expression this instance belies you to ask, what the terms are for all the above. It’s a nasty, messy conversation but we have to have it. There are so many things hidden in the art world. Everyone who participates in it is guilty of some association or another. Some form of enabling and justifying. It’s necessary to call it out when you see it but also to mine your own relationships and connections. It’s ugly but the truth often is and I’d rather have bitter conversations then none at all.

Monday, September 3, 2018

I Watched Crazy Rich Asians…

Crazy Rich Asians is a new film directed by Jon M. Chu and based off of the book with the same title by Kevin Kwan. On its opening weekend (just a few weekends ago) it grossed $25 million, making it a surprise summer blockbuster. But is it really a surprise? Billed as the first all Asian cast film since Joy Luck Club’s release in 1993, of course lines were forming because for the 4.5 billion Asians around the globe and 17 million in the US, it has been long overdue.

Critics everywhere are gushing over this movie because of this radical concept of an all Asian cast. Groups of friends are going to see it to experience this landmark in Hollywood recognition and representation. I too saw the film because as an Asian American, it would be culturally remiss if I didn’t see it and while yes, of COURSE! It is high time and great to see a film with all Asians (and not through the gaze of white eyes), there are some issues to be addressed.

The film is a rom-com in all of its glory. Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is an economics professor at NYU and she has a boyfriend of about a year plus named Nick Young (Henry Golding). Nick invites her to Singapore, his hometown, to attend his best friend’s wedding. The rest unfolds as you can imagine, she arrives and whoa, he is not just rich but CRAZY RICH, (as the title already establishes) and the frog, princess, Cinderella, evil mother story line unfolds, happy ending and all.

For me, the issues of this movie are the most basic of criticality. First, the acting. Although I get it, this is a summer flick and other race groups have had a plethora of light, easy viewing films of the same ilk, I can never really forgive stilted acting. Although Constance Wu (Rachel) is charming in a girl next-door way, for the first half of the film I felt like I was watching someone read lines off the frame. There is a lack of dimension in her character that was a bit distressing to watch. Other actors in the film had some panache though. Akwafina (Goh Peik Lin) played Rachel’s best friend and she was actually really funny, as well as Ken Jeong (Goh Wye Mun) Peik Lin’s dad which added much needed comic relief and sparkle. It was the comedic moments that made the film have some bubble and entertainment which I felt I was holding onto for dear life in order to enjoy the film.

The other issue is that while I get it, this is a film about the super rich and that’s a totally universally desired and the glam setting of so many films, in this instance it felt somehow stereotyping. Asians have a reputation for brand obsession and the rise of economies in this part of the globe is greatly changing the landscape of consumption and branding. In addition to this, there are other stereotyping/archetyping aspects of this film that I found problematic.

As mentioned, Rachel is an economics professor at NYU and this is even highlighted as a point of exceptionalism by Nick to his disapproving mother. She is also the youngest professor and that idea of having to be hyper exceptional is very much an Asian trope. Also, what the hell does Nick do? Like we never find out what he does in New York, what his interests are, what makes him so fabulous besides being super hot and later finding out he is super rich. What is Rachel thinking?! Also, the whole sub story line (yawn) with Astrid (Gemma Chan), Nick’s sister and her husband Michael (Pierre Png) and how he cheats on her and this shows that rich people also have problems (Just Like Us!). Uggg. Really…

But maybe I am being too harsh. Too snobby in my own right. This movie does do a lot of good things. I mean, yeah, all Asian casted movies are totally viable and blockbuster capable - DUH. Yes, it is about time, necessary and refreshing to see faces like your own on the big screen. Yes, thank god the Asian male is being hubba-hubba-fied because they are super hot and that whole emasculating history needs to be quashed asap.

So yeah, this might be a problematic film like so many other films in their casting, general narrative and editing but I guess that’s the whole point. Everyone, Asians and all, should be allowed to make feel-good-trope laden films as much as they want and yes, people will go and watch the crap out of them.

I’m happy in a way that this film is just light fluffy aspirational and fairytale-esq versus the ‘let’s talk about being Asian’ identity politics. But the point I guess I’m trying to make is that even with the fluff, there is politics and although we should all just sit back and embrace the fun and decadence of it all, there are still faults and room for improvement. But for now, we will take what we can and if anything has been proven, Asian everything is hot-hot-hot and worth every penny.