Wednesday, January 30, 2013

From here to Timbuktu

When I was a kid in Waterview (South Grafton), my parents had the habit of using the hackneyed expression "from here to Timbuktu" to designate a distant place. So, I grew up imagining that Timbuktu was a mythical place on the edge of the planet Earth, where the waters of the oceans descended into a terrifying infinite abyss.

From a technocratic viewpoint, it goes without saying that vessels of this kind would be a fabulous place to house religious fanatics.

Today, I'm thrilled to learn that our French forces have chased away Islamic invaders and liberated the town in Mali whose name in French is Tombouctou.

Up until recently, few observers—even among his supporters (such as me)—would have imagined our French president François Hollande as a military chief. Fortunately, in the case of the following encounter, he had noticed that the French soldiers in front of him were wearing unusual uniforms.

As for the rest of military operations in Mali, most observers in France and throughout the world are steadfastly behind the French president.

SAD FOOTNOTE TO HISTORY: In the abominable style of mindless morons with their backs to the wall, the Islamic barbarians flamed priceless ancient documents at the Ahmed Baba Institute on the eve of their withdrawal, leaving only ashes.

— photo 29 January 2013. AFP/Eric Feferberg.

There can be no discussion with such individuals, who deserve to be captured and housed in vessels of the kind seen in my top illustration.

Birth of a beetle at Gamone

Twenty minutes ago, while seated in front of my computer screen and reading the news of momentous events throughout the planet Earth and beyond, I was surprised by the buzzing sound of an insect that hurtled diagonally across my screen and landed on a corner of my desk. Thinking it was an unwelcome blowfly, I was about to squash it with a blow of my fist. Fortunately, miraculously, an angel arrived instantly above my Macintosh and seized my murderous hand.

It wasn't a blowfly. (I'm referring to the insect, not the angel.) I was confronted by a tiny coccinellid (ladybird), which I immediately clasped gently between my fingertips and laid on the outside sill of the bathroom window.

It had probably emerged recently from its pupa in a warm corner of my bedroom, and my intervention amounted to inviting the tiny creature to visit the outside world of Gamone, where my rose bushes will soon be offering a good food supply of tasty aphids. For several years now, whenever I spot ladybirds, I've attempted to nudge them into their optimal setting for proliferation. The survivors (like the little fellow I've just encountered) probably don't realize it, but they should look upon me as a Good Beetle Samaritan. Meanwhile, I admire the simplicity of a Wikipedia rendition of ladybird anatomy.

Ah, if only the totality of the marvelous science of anatomy were to have been reduced to this kind of splendid lucidity, I would have mastered it instantaneously and completely, and I might have become a great doctor, a celebrated surgeon capable of grafting robotic synthetic shells onto the wings of injured beetles, a ladybird Nobel...

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Smartest dogs in the world

I forget how I obtained this information about the top ten smart dogs [access]. Maybe Fitzroy found this interesting article when he was browsing the web with my iPad, then he sent me the link.

Intelligence is one thing, of course. Knowing what to do with your superior intelligence is a quite different affair.

Fitzroy considers that intelligence is best devoted to the constant challenge of donkey control, regardless of whether or not the donkey in question wishes or needs to be controlled.

Installation of my wood stove

I purchased a wood stove in St-Marcellin and accepted the generous assistance of Serge Bellier to bring it back to Gamone in his large utility vehicle. We moved the stove into its intended position, which has made it possible to verify that the smoke pipe—which will emerge vertically from the top of the stove—is perfectly aligned with the hole I made in the ceiling.

This photo shows the neat solution imagined by Serge for holding in place a pair of boards around the future pipe. This will enable me, working from the upper floor, to fill up with plaster the space around the jagged hole in the ceiling.

In the floor beneath and behind the stove, some bare concrete needs to be covered in ceramic tiles. To the left, a final task has to be carried out in the vicinity of the stove, which is too close to the Placoplatre wall. I intend to remove a rectangular piece of this wall and replace it by slabs of the white lightweight material known in English as ACC (autoclaved cellular concrete, béton cellulaire in French, brand name Siporex), which is fire-resistant.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Fitzroy's new cousin in Brittany

Christine went on a car excursion with François to an ancient manor-house at the western tip of Brittany to pick up this magnificent little Border Collie called Noushka.


A few years ago, I used to think of one of these Republican celebrities, George W Bush, as a dumb asshole. Today, I look upon his Texan mate Lance Armstrong as a clever but nasty asshole. I'm thinking above all of the despicable way in which he bullied the Irish girl Emma O'Reilly, his soigneuse (literally carer) in the US Postal team, seen here in Sestrières in 1999.

The Armstrong doping system seems to have hurt a lot of innocent and less innocent people. And it has hurt permanently the wonderful sport of competitive cycling.

POST SCRIPTUM: I'm puzzled by an interesting idea. Is it thinkable that all the chemical shit ingurgitated by Armstrong for a decade might be considered henceforth as a proven cure for testicular cancer? He appears to be in perfect health. Maybe regular dope, like Guinness, is good for you...

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Bad weather for driving

Yesterday afternoon, I had made plans with Serge Bellier to drive to a hardware store in St-Marcellin, today, to pick up an Invicta Bradford cast-iron wood stove:

When I awoke this morning, however, a thin layer of snow covered the ground, and it soon started to fall quite heavily. Within a couple of hours, a thick blanket of snow covered the road up to Gamone. So, we had to postpone our project of picking up the stove. Meanwhile, I was amazed to learn that the Monte-Carlo Rally had been set in action in nearby Valence.

In a press interview, Sébastien Loeb appeared to be a little daunted by the idea of racing along mountainous slopes in such conditions. Friday morning, they'll be leaving St-Jean-en-Royans for the final day of driving that takes them down to Monaco. I would like to go along to watch the departure, but we're all likely to be snowed under.

US champion takes the yellow jersey

Whichever way you look at the situation, and no matter what he actually says in his much-awaited coming-out on doping condemnations (recorded yesterday), there's no way in the world that Lance Armstrong can emerge from this sordid affair, in a few days' time, as a winner. The overall victory will be snatched by a veteran pedaler: Oprah Winfrey.

This all-time champion has already reached the summits of media mountains in first position on countless occasions. But this time, she has no doubt performed in a more spectacular fashion than in any of her long list of previous talk-show achievements and victories. Little Lance will look like a feeble child hiding in the folds of his mother's skirts, ruffled by gusts of icy wind blowing across the treacherous alpine slopes, where the slightest miscalculation of his trajectory could hurtle him down to his death.

French commentators have often borrowed a hackneyed theme: "This stage cannot possibly enable any particular rider to win the Tour de France... but it's a stage that could cause several riders to lose the Tour." Never has this observation been more pertinent, in Armstrong's career, than today. Oprah, encouraged by her hordes of fans, needs only to complete the course with a minimum display of natural aggressiveness in order to score maximum points, and secure the overall victory. Lance, on the other hand, could be smitten by dozens of afflictions, or even totally demolished by a grave accident, and carted away half-dead in an ambulance.

But this encounter will not in fact resemble a sporting competition. It will be more like the austere ritual of a bullfight. And don't expect Oprah Winfrey to be the bull.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Stone Age short story

In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Simon Rich offers us a delightful tale, set in the Stone Age, about love, art and professional activities such as rock throwing. The writing is elementary, because language itself was still in an undeveloped state in those distant days. Even given names were in scarce supply, which explains why several different characters in the story are named Oog.

Click here to access this charming 4-page prehistoric story, whose simple title is I Love Girl.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Happy new year, Fitzroy

I find it perfectly normal to allow my dog Fitzroy to use my iPad whenever he wants to catch up with what's happening in the outside world. So, I wasn't surprised when I noticed that he had received a new year message from the 40-year-old leftist daily Libération.

I can't imagine what might have happened if I had discovered that my dog was a right-wing reactionary. On the other hand, I wouldn't be at all dismayed if ever I were to learn that Fitzroy was gay.

Happily addicted to pumpkin scones

I don't know whether it's grave from a health viewpoint, but I'm forced to admit that I've become totally addicted to my pumpkin scones, which are not only tasty (crammed with sultanas and walnuts) but lovely to look at.

In my deep freezer, there's still a sizeable stock of the essential ingredient: packets of my homemade pumpkin purée, alongside piles of frozen pieces of uncooked pumpkin. Besides, I've even noticed that a French manufacturer of frozen foodstuffs (Picard) proposes cubes of pumpkin purée. So, I should be able to survive up until next autumn's backyard pumpkin harvest.

I've been wondering seriously whether pumpkin molecules might have a direct impact upon the part of my DNA that produces dopamine. Meanwhile, I spoke on the phone with a female geneticist in a big laboratory in Lyon about the possibility of learning whether my COMT gene makes me met/met, val/val or val/met. She was kind enough not to laugh at me... which brought about such a huge and happy surge of dopamine in my body that droplets of the precious pleasure-giving stuff were soon exuded through my skin, and I had to change my damp underclothes.

Incidentally, I've been lucky enough to avoid being infected by the current epidemics of flu and diarrhea that have hit France. Although I would be incapable of justifying my opinions with scientific arguments, I'm convinced that the pumpkin scones have been protecting me in a mysterious way that brings to mind the miracles of homeopathy.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Malte's medical visit

The 26-year-old would-be writer Rainer Maria Rilke arrived in Paris in the summer of 1902. He soon started work on his future great prose poem: The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, which would be completed in 1910. The squalid Left Bank setting in which Malte, the disturbed young Danish hero of the novel, evolved was no doubt familiar to Rilke, although we do not know to what extent Rilke might have been describing, through Malte, his own existence as a destitute poet in turn-of-the-century Paris.

In the life of Malte, afflicted by mental problems, a dramatic event was his visit to a doctor at the famous hospital of the Salpetrière in the 13th arrondissement of Paris, which looks like this today:

The excellent Gallica service of the BNF [Bibliothèque nationale de France] has provided us with a splendid photo of the Salpetrière hospital in 1899 (just before the epoch of Rilke/Malte), by the great photographer of Paris Eugène Atget [1857-1927]. I've therefore inserted this old image into the following excerpt from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge:

My doctor didn't understand me. Not in any way whatsoever. It was indeed difficult finding the right words. They wanted to try electric shock treatment. Fine. I was given a note: I was to be at the Salpetrière at one o'clock. I was there.

I had to go along past various huts and through several yards where here and there beneath the bare trees people with white caps were standing looking like convicts. Finally I entered a long, dark corridor-like room which had four greenish frosted-glass windows on one side each separated from the next by an expanse of black dividing wall. A wooden bench ran along the wall facing and on this bench sat those who knew me and were waiting for me. Yes, they were all there. When I'd got used to the half-light in the room I noticed that among the people who were sitting there shoulder to shoulder in an endless row there could have been a few other people, lower class people: tradespeople, housemaids, waggon drivers . Down at the narrow end of the corridor two fat women had spread themselves out on special chairs and were chatting to each other, concierges presumably. I looked at the clock; it was five minutes to one. In five, let's say ten, minutes from now it would be my turn, so it wasn't so bad. The air was stale, heavy, full of clothing and breath. At one particular spot the strong, smell of ether forced its way through a crack in a door leaving a chill as it rose. I began pacing up and down. It struck me that I had actually been directed here among these people, to this overcrowded public surgery. It was, so to speak, the first official acknowledgement that I belonged to the outcasts. Is that how the doctor had seen me? Yet when I had visited him I had on a reasonably good suit and I had sent in my card. Nevertheless he must have somehow found out. Or perhaps I'd given myself away. That being the case, then, I didn't find it so terrible. People were sitting quietly and paying no attention to me. A few of them were in pain and to make it more bearable would give a little swing sometimes to this leg sometimes to the other. A number of men had lowered their heads onto the palms of their hands, others were fast asleep, their faces weighted down with weariness. A fat man with a red swollen neck sat there bent over staring at the floor, and now and again spat with a sound like a slap at a stain as if it seemed appropriate to him. A child was sobbing in a corner; it had brought its long skinny legs up onto the bench and was now holding them in an embrace, pressing tightly as if it had to say goodbye to them. A pale little woman who wore on her hair a lopsided crepe hat trimmed with round black flowers, had the grimace of a smile about her meagre lips, but her sore eyelids were constantly brimming over. Not far from her they'd placed a girl with a round smooth face and bulging eyes that were devoid of any expression; her mouth hung open and one could see the white slimy gums with their old stunted teeth. And there were bandages everywhere. Bandages wrapped layer upon layer around the whole head until only a single eye was there and it belonged to no one. Bandages that hid and bandages that told you what was underneath. Bandages that had been opened and in which now lay as if in a filthy bed a hand that was no longer a hand; and protruding from the row a leg that had been bound up as big as a whole man. I walked back and forth and made an effort to be calm. I was much occupied by the wall opposite. I noticed it had a number of single doors and that it didn't reach the ceiling, so that this corridor wasn't entirely cut off from the rooms that presumably lead off it. I looked at the clock. I'd been walking up and down for an hour. A while later the doctors arrived. First a couple of young ones with looks of indifference on their faces went by, eventually the doctor whom I'd been to see came along wearing light-coloured gloves, a chapeau à huit reflets [1] and an impeccable greatcoat. When he saw me he tipped his hat and smiled absently. I now hoped I'd be called straight away, but another hour went by. I can't remember how I spent the time. It simply went by. An old man in a soiled apron, some sort of orderly, came in and touched me on the shoulder. I went into one of the siderooms. The doctor and the young men were seated round a table. They looked at me. I was given a chair. Fine. And now I was expected to tell them what exactly was the matter with me. As briefly as possible, s ' il vous plait. Because the gentlemen didn't have much time. I felt odd. The young men sat and looked at me with that superior, professional curiosity that they'd been taught. The doctor I knew stroked his black goatee and smiled absently. I thought I would burst into tears but I heard myself say in French: 'I have already had the honour, monsieur, of giving you all the details that I'm able to give. If you consider it necessary that these gentlemen be fully informed, then you are no doubt able, following our conversation, to do that in a few words, while for me it would be very difficult. ' The doctor stood up with a polite smile, crossed with his assistants to the window and spoke a few words which he accompanied with a horizontal rocking movement of his hand. Three minutes later one of the young men, a short-sighted and nervous fellow, returned to the table and said, trying to look sternly at me: 'You sleep well, sir?' 'No, badly. ' Whereupon he bounded back to the group. They debated there for a time then the doctor turned to me and advised me that I would be called. I reminded him that my appointment had been for one o'clock. He smiled and made a quick fluttering movement with his small white hands to indicate that he was tremendously busy. So I went back into my corridor where the air had become much more oppressive and began again to walk up and down though I felt dead tired. Eventually the accumulated smells of dampness made my head spin, I stood by the entrance door and opened it slightly. I saw that outside it was still afternoon and there was some sun, and that made me unspeakably happy. But I couldn't have been standing there for a minute before I heard my name called. A female who was sitting two steps away at a small table hissed something to me. Who had told me to open the door? I said I couldn't stand the air inside. Well, that was my affair, but the door had to be kept shut. Wouldn't it be possible then to open a window? No, that was forbidden. I decided to start walking up and down again, because it did eventually produce a kind of numbing effect and it harmed no one. But now that too displeased the woman at the table. Didn't I have a seat? No, I hadn't. Wandering about was not permitted. I would have to find myself a seat. There should still be one. The woman was right. Actually there was one free next to the girl with the bulging eyes. I sat there this time with the feeling that the situation I was in must definitely be leading to something dreadful. On my left was the girl with the rotting gums; whatever was on my right took me some time to make out. There was an enormous immovable mass that had a face and a big heavy lifeless hand. This side of the face was empty, completely without features and without memories and what was uncanny was that his suit was the sort they dress corpses in before putting them in a coffin. The narrow black necktie was fastened round the collar in the usual loose impersonal way, and one could tell that the jacket had been put on this limp corpse by somebody else. The hand had been placed on the trousers in the same position as this one here, and even the hair looked as if it had been combed by the women who wash the corpses and had been set stiffly like the hair on a stuffed animal. I oberved all this very carefully and it occurred to me that this seat then was the very one that had been destined for me, because I believed that now at last I had arrived at that point in my life where I would remain. Fate, indeed, moves in mysterious ways.  Suddenly there arose quite near me and in rapid succession the screams of a terrified struggling child followed by a low restrained weeping. While I was making an effort to find out where the screams could have come from, once more there was a small suppressed scream, and I could hear voices asking questions, and one, in an undertone, giving orders, and then, regardlessly, some kind of machine started to hum and continued without a care. It was then that I remembered that half-wall and it was plain to me that it was all coming from the other side of the doors and that people were working there. Indeed every so often the orderly with the soiled apron appeared and beckoned. I no longer gave any thought to it's possibly being me he had in mind. Was it meant for me? No. Two men came along with a wheelchair; they lifted the mass into it and now I saw that it was a lame old man and that the other side of his face was smaller, worn down by life and had one eye open that was dim and sorrowful. They took him into the other room leaving plenty of vacant space near me. And I sat and wondered what they probably intended to do the feeble-minded girl and whether or not she too would scream. The machine behind the wall hummed away so pleasantly in its mass-production kind of way that it wasn't disturbing at all.

But then everything went quiet and in the quietness a superior self-satisfied voice that I thought I knew said: 'Riez! ' A pause. 'Riez. Mais riez, riez. ' [2] I was already laughing. It was inexplicable why the man in there didn't want to laugh. A machine started rattling and immediately fell silent; words were exchanged, then again the same energetic voice made itself heard and commanded: 'Dites-nous le mot: avant.' Spelling it out: ' a-v-a-n-t ' [3] . Silence. 'On n'entend rien. Encore une fois...[4] And then, while the warm and squishy babbling continued on the other side, there, for the first time in many many years it was there again. That: the Big Thing, which had shocked me with my first deep horror when I was a child lying in bed with a fever. Yes, that's what I had always called it whenever they were all standing round my bed, feeling my pulse, and asking me what had scared me: the Big Thing. And whenever they sent for the doctor and he came and persuaded me to tell him, I would simply beg him to do everything he could so that the Big Thing went away, nothing else mattered. But he was like the others. He couldn't take it away, though I was small then and it would have been easy to help me. And now it was here again. Later on it had simply failed to appear, it hadn't come back not even during nights when I'd had fever, but it was here now and I didn't have a fever. Now it was here. Now it was growing out of me like a tumour, like a second head, and was a part of me although it couldn't belong to me since it was so big. It was there like a big dead animal that at one time, when it was still living, had been my my hand or my arm. And my blood flowed through me and through it, as through one and the same body. And my heart must have been under a great strain pumping blood into the Big One; there was hardly enough blood. And the blood, against its own will, entered the Big Thing and came back sick and corrupted. But the Big Thing swelled and grew before my face like a warm bluish boil and grew before my mouth and across my remaining eye ran the edge of its shadow.  I can't remember how I found my way through so many yards. It was evening and I'd become lost in an unfamiliar neighbourhood. I walked in one direction up boulevards that had wall after wall and when I could see no end to them I walked back down in the opposite direction as far as some square or other. There I began to walk along one street and passed other streets that I'd never seen before, and still more of them. Sometimes electric trams with their lights too bright raced up raced past amid a harsh clanging of bells. But their destination signs carried names I didn't know. I didn't know what city I was in or whether I lived hereabouts, or what I had to do so that I wouldn't have to do any more walking.

[1] stylish shiny top-hat 
[2] Laugh! . . . laugh. Come on laugh, laugh.
[3] Say the word 'before' for us.
[4] We can't hear. Say it again.

Holy kitsch

When I was looking around for an image of a bottle of so-called "holy water" for my blog post on placebos, I stumbled upon an awesome French-language Christian website, which sparkles non-stop with the light of God, the burning heart of the Savior, the fiery flame of the Holy Ghost, and the gently-exploding snowflakes of the purity of the Virgin Mary. Click here to judge for yourself. Then get down on your knees and praise the Lord for His gift of web designers of this spiritual caliber.

I shall please

Saint Jerome—one of the four traditional Great Doctors of the Western Church—was born around 347 in the Roman province of Dalmatia, at a place located in present-day Slovenia. He is celebrated for his translation of the Bible into a Latin version referred to as the Vulgate.

Saint Jerome in his study by Antonio da Fabriano II (Italian, 15th century)
In my modern copy of the Bible, which is not based upon Jerome's work, Psalm 116 verse 9 reads as follows:
I shall walk in the presence of the Lord
in the land of the living.
This statement evokes the curious image of the psalmist going for a stroll with God. While it's a fact that the original Hebrew and the Greek version known as the Septuagint does indeed refer literally to walking, Jerome realized that it should be interpreted as a metaphor meaning "I shall be in step with the Lord" or simply "I shall please the Lord in the land of the living".  So, in Latin, he produced a line that starts with the first-person singular form of the future tense of the verb "to please":
Placebo Domino in regione vivorum.
And, many centuries later, Jerome's verb—I shall please—became celebrated in the domain of medicine. There, it was no longer a question of pleasing God, but rather a down-to-earth affair of pleasing a sick person by giving him something—anything at all, if need be—that makes him feel better. The mysterious phenomenon of placebos was born. A placebo is a would-be medicament that contains no proven therapeutic agent whatsoever. So, when an improvement in the patient's health appears to have taken place after his ingestion of the placebo, we are obliged to conclude that the causes of that improvement (if indeed they might be determined objectively) are not of a purely pharmaceutical nature.

The Christian invention of so-called "holy water" remains one of the most ancient kinds of placebo... although most believers would be offended if this substance were to be designated as a product designed to be used in a medical sense. Placebos of a more explicitly therapeutic kind are provided by the everyday pseudo-pharmacological wizardry known as homeopathy, which I evoked in my article of 11 February 2012 entitled Herbal and homeopathic products [display].

At this level, the patient is entitled to declare "I shall please", neither to God nor to himself, but to shareholders of the prosperous companies that make a fortune through the sale of such stuff.

Up until quite recently, I was inclined to assert personally that substances such as holy water, homeopathic preparations and herbal concoctions cannot possibly have any authentic therapeutic effects, for the simple reason that they incorporate no genuine chemical agents capable of influencing objectively the physiology of patients. This was a mistake. Mea culpa. Today, in the purest of homeopathic traditions, I wish to water down my formerly negative remarks. My current opinion is that products such as holy water, homeopathic preparations and herbal concoctions can indeed lead to significant improvements in the health of many patients. But they do so, not because of molecules within the products themselves, but because of a curious set of circumstances, which we are only starting to understand, that can be designated globally (for the moment) as the placebo effect.

The starting point for an understanding of this effect is the famous organic chemical called dopamine, which is synthesized by the human body. As recently as 2000, the Swedish scientist Arvid Carlsson was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery that dopamine acted as a neurotransmitter. That's to say, whenever this substance happens to be synthesized in one region of the human body, it can flow to a neighboring region and act, as it were, as a messenger. Above all, the messages conveyed by dopamine are perceived invariably by their recipients as "good news". In simple terms, when your cerebral factory happens to be churning out a high volume of dopamine, the chances are that certain parts of your brain are going to start convincing you that you're on top of the world. You'll be on a genuine dopamine high! And you'll forget about pain!

In the special case of a patient who has been given a miraculous pill or a drop of a magic elixir, and told that it will make him feel better, the outcome will depend upon whether or not this simple set of events succeeds in turning on the patient's dopamine factory. In the case of some lucky patients, it's as if they start to feel better (thanks to a surge in their dopamine production) as soon as they detect on the horizon the silhouette of a friendly nurse (or exorcist, or maybe Prince Charles). Less fortunate patients might ingurgitate countless spoonfuls of aromatized snake oil without the least change in the level of their dopamine production. Consequently, they'll remain in a dismal state of mind, and will fail to understand why their high-dopamine companions are dancing around on the table tops of the homeopathy ward.

Up until recently, nobody knew why it was that many patients reacted favorably to placebos (even when they were told that their "medication" was nothing more than sweet water), whereas the state of other patients didn't budge until they received their dose of genuine high-powered (maybe expensive) pharmaceutical molecules. A couple of months ago, a fascinating breakthrough was announced in a journal of the US Public Library of Science.

The researchers belonged to two celebrated medical centers: Harvard Medical School and the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

Now, if researchers at these centers have been intrigued for ages by suspected differences in the reactions of patients to placebos, it's not because they're interested in promoting quackery, but for a quite down-to-earth reason that concerns the everyday testing of new medication. In all clinical trials, researchers are always obliged to create a control group of patients whose members receive placebos. Obviously, it's important to realize that findings at the level of such a control group would be biased if some of its members belonged to the category of prolific dopamine producers. So, they were seeking some kind of criterion that would enable them to detect such individuals, and exclude them from clinical trials. And it would appear that they have found a perfect criterion.

All humans possess a gene known as COMT (for catechol-O-methyltransferase) that is associated directly with the phenomenon of dopamine release. As often happens, the exact composition of this COMT gene can vary from one individual to another. And these variations concern particularly two short sections of the DNA double-helix string, which can be coded in three different fashions:

1. In some individuals, their COMT gene contains a pair of molecules of the amino acid called methionine. Such people are designated as met/met.

2. In other individuals, their COMT gene contains a pair of molecules of the amino acid called valine. Such people are designated as val/val.

3. Finally, there are individuals whose COMT gene incorporates both a molecule of methionine and a molecule of valine.

The Boston researchers were somewhat amazed but delighted to observe that all their met/met patients turned out to be big dopamine producers, who reacted strongly to placebos. All their val/val patients, on the other hand, turned out to be low-level dopamine producers, who shunned the placebo effect. And patients with both a med and a val molecule were in a lukewarm middle zone, with no clearcut reaction to placebos.

This is a truly amazing discovery. What it suggests is that people are predetermined genetically to either react positively, or fail to react, to placebos.

Although the research in Boston was limited to a particular medical problem and clinical situation, it is tempting to extrapolate their findings to all kinds of settings in which individuals are expected to either "believe" (in a general sense) or "fail to believe". Kathryn Hall, the study's lead author, put it as follows:
"It's really interesting to now think that there's this potentially fundamental difference between people. And it involves not just the placebo or the physical pill, but also involves this interaction that you have with your caregiver. It's really important to think about the ways in which we're similar and different, and design or develop medicines that are going to help us all heal."
Needless to say, I'm most curious to learn whether I'm personally met/met, val/val or met/val. In fact, in spite of my intellectual aversion to quackery of all kinds, I have every reason to believe that I'm met/met. I have recollections of painful times, back in Paris, when I was suffering from acute otitis. The arrival on the scene of a caregiver, particularly if she was a charming female, would cause my suffering to cease miraculously. And I didn't even need to swallow mysterious pills or pray to the Lord. My personal placebo was the nurse. It was she who pleased me.