Tuesday, December 30, 2008


I really enjoy reading this interpretation of the Biblical stories of people being struck down by God.

Sometimes, people just fall over dead.

Nowadays we have very good explanations for why people fall over dead. Heart attacks, strokes, embolisms, aneurysms, hernia, infection, cancer. Sometimes, shit happens. Bodies are imperfect. Eventually they will all fail.

It wasn't that long ago that we really had no clue why people sometimes just fell down and died. And so I am sure that when someone fell over dead, it sure looked like an act of God. So they combed through the person's recent actions, and whatever "sins" they had committed were assigned as the causes.

How quaint, right?


Saturday, December 27, 2008

Science, and also Industry!

As I'm visiting with my guy's family in Chicago, me and the man went to the Museum of Science and Industry today, and I came back with a pile of pictures, most of which have nothing to do with either science or industry.

Okay, so maybe some of them are rather sciencey. I really enjoyed a lot of the more science-oriented parts of the museum, like the chemistry section from whence the above picture was taken. There were also a lot of fun mechanical gadgets to play with and many halls filled with model ships and historical cars.

A lot of the exhibits were very schtick-y, obviously designed to appeal to kids.

Most of them managed to still communicate something meaningful to either science or industry. Some of the more tangential activities at least had placards posted nearby that explained the science involved. However, a good number did not have either. The worst offender that I've seen in this arena was a bunch of activities in the Petroleum Planet section which were completely unrelated to the science/industry at hand. Like the hydrocarbon mirror maze. And I didn't even bother to look at things like the Harry Potter exhibit - I wanted to see some solid info!

And see it I did! I highly recommend going to this, even as an adult, but especially if you have children. A lot of the exhibits were enough to bring wonder even to my jaded, 20-something self.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I'll lend a shoe to the cause

If you haven't heard about The Shoe Guy yet, go check it out.

I'm considering mailing my old (too-worn-out-to-donate) shoes to Our President, with a note that says "This is a farewell kiss from the American people, you dog."

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Feminist critiques of science journalism actually learns me some science!

There are two studies kicking around the feminist blag-o-web that both tie into the same phenomemon: the idea of trading favors or gifts for sex.

I actually saw the latest study first c/o Razib: Krueger, Daniel J. Male Financial Consumption is Associated with Higher Mating Intentions and Mating Success. Evolutionary Psychology, 2008. 6(4): 603-612.

The results were taken from a public health telephone survey which was set up for a completely different purpose. (This comes with positive and negatives; it effectively acts as an extra layer of blinding, but you also might not get the depth of information that you could otherwise.)

Participants were asked three questions about finances: "I always live within my income range; Each income period, I set aside at least ten percent for savings; I pay off my entire credit card bill each month". They were also asked three questions about sexual habits: "With how many different partners have you had sexual intercourse within the past five years; How many sexual partners would you like to have in the next five years; In the past 12 months, how many different partners have you had sex with on one and only one occasion."

The main result is in the title: male participants who had high levels of "financial consumption" (as assayed by those three questions) also reported high numbers of one-night stands and the like (as assayed by those other three questions).

I looked the entire paper over and to be honest the tables are a little obtuse for me at the moment. As I mentioned on Gene Expression, the biggest issue that stands out at me is that this was a telephone survey, and maybe there was a bias due to self-reporting; maybe high-spending men are just more likely to report high values for one-night stands and higher desire for future sexual partners.

However, as Razib did point out, this fits very well into certain cultural narratives. The blog Yes Means Yes has an awesome feminist analysis of this kind of "gold-throwing" behavior in men.

Then I was skimming The Curvature and noticed this shining beacon of science-journalism criticism. Seriously, the article that Cara cites is just about the most sexist subtext I've seen in text. (I know, shows just how little mainstream news I read, eh?) However, there's no reason to think that the science itself is necessarily bad.

I'll quote the one non-skeezy paragraph from the piece:
A recent study of 475 University of Michigan undergraduates ages 17 to 26 found that 27 percent of the men and 14 percent of the women who weren't in a committed relationship had offered someone favors or gifts -- help prepping for a test, laundry washing, tickets to a college football game -- in exchange for sex. On the flip side, 5 percent of the men surveyed and 9 percent of the women said they'd attempted to trade sex for such freebies.
I like what the commenters had to say about this:

jfpbookworm said:

Okay, the way I understand those statistics:

27% of men offer goods in exchange for sex, and 9% of women take them up on it.

14% of women offer goods in exchange for sex, and 5% of men take them up on it.

Sounds to me like the ratio is about the same (1 in 3, assuming no skew in which people get asked, which there may well be), and the only difference is who’s socialized to be the “buyer.”

Lee said:

If they wanted to write about choosing “a partner who provides more resources — wealth, shelter, home repairs”, how come they didn’t mention McCain?

In other news, have I told you guys how much I appreciate the feminist view of science? (A.k.a: Look for the bias, stupid!)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Time, time, who's got the time?

I have not got much time. However, I do have some fresh science for ya.

Ever wonder how cats are able to be so sneaktastic?

Figure 1: A sneaky cat.

Cats apparently make trade-offs between energy efficiency and sneakiness. Cat's sneaky gaits are less efficient, whereas distance-traveling animals like dogs have a higher efficiency. Bishop, Pai, and Schmidt will tell ya: "Low energy recovery was not associated with decreased vertical oscillations of the center of mass as theoretically predicted, but rather with posture and footfall pattern on the phase relationship between potential and kinetic energy."

As I may have mentioned, I don't have much time so I'm not going into a deep analysis. But... but... but... SNEAKY KITTIES! Go read. :)

Friday, December 5, 2008


Since I joined this community to actually blog (and not just to have another failed webpage out there with my name on it), I'm making the conscious decision to... actually blog.

I'll be trying to keep the posting to a MINIMUM of 2 posts per week, with at least one of those posts being related to some area of science. Preferably neuroscience or cognitive psych, but I'll take whatever comes to me.

If anyone has any ideas for me, leave a suggestion in ze leetle box. (Ze comment box, that is!)

Traumatic Brain Injury, or Why It's A Bad Idea To Headdesk Too Hard

This little number that showed up on Google News reminded me of the conference I went to last year on Traumatic Brain Injury (or TBI if you like three-letter initials).

Traumatic brain injury is rapidly becoming the hallmark injury of soldiers currently serving in the Middle East. This is because our troops are engaging in less traditional shooting-guns-at-each-other warfare and more stumbling-upon-a-roadside-bomb warfare. Thus, soldiers are more likely to get hit by a concussive impact (coming from a shock wave, slamming one's head into the side of an armored vehicle, etc). As Wikipedia says, as many as 15% of U.S. infantry soldiers who return from the Iraq War suffer from this kind of injury.

What a lot of people fail to realize is that the initial injury is often not the worst part of a traumatic brain injury; the most damage typically comes from the brain's response in the hours to days following the actual insult. When you get knocked in the noggin, it sets off a cascade of events that kill even more brain cells, primarily due to excitotoxicity. Yep, when your neurons get excited enough, they can keel over and die. And on top of that, the brain's inflammatory response (when the tissue gets all swelled up) kills even more brain cells.

Oh, and the best part? A concussive head injury can potentiate any additional injuries. Up to months afterwards (depending on the severity of the initial injury), it's possible that even a little tap on the head can cause immediate unconsciousness, coma, and even death. Because of the previous injury, your brain can become super-duper sensitive to even mild impacts.

So, in other words, please don't hit your head too hard. =)

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Absolutely Arbitrary!

Meatspace has been terribly burdensome lately. I know I have the tendency to get all Myspace-y and rant about my personal life, and I'd generally like to avoid that here. (Blogging is Serious Business after all.) So I've been... oh, all right, I'll say it, avoiding the blagoweb somewhat. Lurking a lot.

A five-day weekend and a massive turkey feast do wonders for a lagging spirit.

And it cheered me up immensely to find out that I'd been memed by Greg Laden! To think, li'l ol' me, tagged by one of 'em serious science bloggers! It makes me all tingly inside. (Also, if you click that link, Greg has this link-geneology that will point you to wonderous places. His blag is also terrific and has many worthwhile things for you.) Plus, it's a Six Arbitrary Things meme, so I get to vent some of my personal-babbling energy.

So here's the rules:

1. Link to the person who tagged you.
2. Post the rules on your blog.
3. Write six random arbitrary things about yourself.
4. Tag six people at the end of your post and link to them.
5. Let each person know they've been tagged and leave a comment on their blog.
6. Let the tagger know when your entry is up.

And some arbitrary things:

1) Some summer when I was in elementary school, my two best friends and I found a dead minnow in the crick near where we lived, and so we got some tweezers and an Exacto knife and dissected it.

2) I. Love. Cigarettes. See, no, I don't really love cigarettes, because I know they're bad for me and addictive and probably shouldn't even be legal, and they're marketed dishonestly by what amount to drug pushers in suits, and I should never have even started smoking them. But secretly, in what I've heard called my heart of hearts? I love cigarettes. It feels really, really good when I smoke. And I haven't been smoking too long, and I'm not really naturally athletic, so I haven't noticed too much of the negative effects of smoking.

3) I'm a fairly extreme night owl. I feel my best when waking up at around 11 AM, and it is hard for me to fall asleep before 1 AM. This is particularly difficult since The Guy is a morning person. Not just a morning person. The kind of person who thinks that it would "look bad" to get to work after 9:30 AM. Pfff. Whatever.

4) Vacation Bible School turned me into an atheist. It's not as uncommon an experience as I thoguht it was at the time.

5) Especially since I met The Guy, I've frequently been eating single-dish meals. I'm not talking casseroles; I'm talking... like making a package of a dozen rolls (left over from Turkey Day, natch) and eating them for brunch. Or making a large pouch of Steamfresh corn and eating it for dinner. Those are just examples from today. I could go on.

6) The Office captivates me. In fact it's doing that now, so I need to cut this short.

So... do I even know six people who would respond to this? Let's see.

I'd certainly want Stephanie Zvan to do this; she posted a lot of Animaniacs recently that made me smile and I bet she has interesting things to say (her most recent post also made me happy). I also would bet money that PhysioProf would have some hilarious answers to this. Also, I'd like to tag both the Friendly Atheist and the Friendly Christian, for balance. If ERV isn't too busy with school, it'd be cool if she did it too.

And that's five... but the last person on my mental list no longer has a blog. He was, however, the inspiration for my stabs here on Blogger. He's an incredible game-review writer, and I think he's now doing some work for RandomNPC.com. But since he's rather inaccessable (at least for blag memesl working for a Real Site does have its drawbacks), I'll leave the 6th slot open as a tribute to NerdboyHimself, the inspiration for my little corner of teh interwebs.

Oh, and anyone who wants this meme can take it. Just link me up. You know the dealio. If you've read this far (and aren't already on the list) consider yourself tagged. IT'S TOO LATE, YOU'RE ALREADY TAGGED!!!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

So, about that blogging thing...

Sorry about the severe lack of posting. Between graduate school applications, exams, papers, lab reports, and the upcoming holidays, I've had approximately 0 time for blogging.

Try Digg if you're bored.

Moar content coming... eventually...

... Maybe during Christmas break...

Thank you for sticking around, though!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

N00b Reviews: Fallout 3

I'm only 11 hours in, but I see myself playing Fallout 3 until the actual nuclear apocalypse (which of course in inevitable when Obama's terrorist friends take over Washington, natch).

First thing I noticed was that your in-game dad is voiced by Liam Neeson. I was all like, "Is that Liam Neeson?! IT IS!! It's gotta be. I know that voice." And I looked it up, and lo and behold... Liam FUCKING Neeson! That gives it points in my eyes.

The other thing I noticed straightaway is that this is not a first-person shooter. I mean, of course, you can just aim your gun at something and shoot until it dies, but there is also a separate combat mode that allows you to auto-aim and uses "Action Points". This is awesome for me, because I hate hate hate the 360 controls, and if I could I'd throw all the 360 controllers down a well.

The true glory of this game is the world. It's immersive and spooky. Fallout 3 does an excellent job of turning DC into a '50's dark humor nightmare, and I love every second of it. There are large expanses of what they call the "Capital Wasteland" to wander around, with mutants and raiders and dogs to kill, and ruined houses to raid. One of my favorite pastimes in the game is to wander around the small towns and scope out the abandoned grocery stores and schools.

I also really like the old-school RPG style of it, with attributes and skills, like I was playing Dungeons and Dragons. There's plenty of unique "perks", or special gained abilities, to amuse. One early spoiler, to tease: early on in the game (obviously), I talked a quest-giver into abandoning her aspiration to write a Wasteland Survival Guide, using the Speech ability... and gained the Perk, "Dream Crusher: For some reason, people around you don't feel the need to excel. Critical strikes are 50% less likely to hit you." I Lol'ed my ass off.

I highly recommend this, especially for the non-hardcore gamer. I give it an A+, and hope that many many more games of this stripe are created in the future.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

An historic night.

Barack Obama has been elected our next President of the United States of America!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Circadian rhythm study is awesome.

As I tell my dude all the damn time... IT'S NOT MY FAULT I'M A NIGHT OWL. Damnit.

A Blog Around The Clock summarizes a new bit of evidence for circadian control of things like cardiac rhythm, or otherwise summed as "Heart Attacks more likely when you Spring Forward, but less likely when you Fall Back." Check it.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

I'm doing science and I'm still alive!

Sorry for the extreme lack of posting.

I've been working on a series of experiments that, along with my class work, take up pretty much all of my time.

But PZ posts pretty much every day! And so does Stephanie Zvan, who I've recently been following. So go read them, if you don't already.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

About that whole "suspending campaigning" thing...

You know that whole thing about how McCain said he'll suspend campaigning because of this economic crisis? How he said he's going to "suspend advertising, party fundraising and any campaign appearances"?

Yeah well here in Pittsburgh, I saw two McCain ads just last night.


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Good Math explains the crisis

In case your idea of the mortgage/bank catastrophe is a little fuzzy, Good Math, Bad Math explains it with great clarity and very little jargon. As far as I understand it, his explanation is highly accurate as well.

Monday, September 22, 2008

So it's not the wang, it's what you think. (About the wang.)

Study Ties Wage Disparities To Outlook on Gender Roles.

Iiinteresting. Read the article (in fact, read the study!) yourself.

Point #1: As I told my dude when he showed me this, I wonder if this has anything to do with after- or off-hours work. For example, my significant other spends a non-negligible quantity of time doing work stuff from home. I am also aware that other jobs heavily encourage (ahem) workers to stay after hours, without pay of course, to get shit done on time. I wonder if the men with "traditional" outlooks would feel more obligated or expected to do this sort of work, whereas less "traditional" men and especially "traditional" women feel that they are more expected to take care of householdly things during this time instead. I'm sure that kind of thing affects how "dedicated" you seem and how much you get paid.

Plus, "traditional" men are obviously more likely to have a wifey at home, wiping the dribble away from his bubbling lips and freeing him to concentrate on "more important things" than feeding himself and participating in fulfilling relationships and raising children. (/snark.)

Point #2: I'd like to note some of the angry-making commentary even in the article itself:
"When we think of the gender wage gap, most of our focus goes to the women side of things," said Beth A. Livingston, co-author of the study. "This article says a lot of the difference may be in men's salaries."
"It could be that traditional men are hypercompetitive salary negotiators -- the Donald Trump prototype, perhaps," Judge said. "It could be on the employer side that, subconsciously, the men who are egalitarian are seen as effete."
I just... I dunno, man. I think both of those are vast oversimplifications. (As any study results invariably are.)

Point #3: I'll let Ms. Livingston sum up this -very important- point for me:
"Regardless of the jobs people chose, or how long they worked at them, there was still a significant effect of gender role attitudes on income."
Discussion Point: My boyfriend tells me that he doesn't see why he should be aware of his privilege. Does this serve as a useful example of the effects of privilege? Discuss.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Evolution Facepalm

News dump

Judge says Feds violated 10th Amendment by subverting state marijuana laws. Absolutely.

Wall Street Journal editorial board skewers McCain. A very educational link for me, as I Wikipedia'd all manner of terms like "short selling" and "leverage".

Disney Prepares to Use Its Marketing Magic to Bring Back the Muppets. I'm not entirely sure what I think about this. I loved The Muppet Show, but thought that Muppets Tonight was terrible. And I cringe at the thought of the Muppets hanging out with Hannah Montana. However, the Muppets really have always been a reflection of pop culture.

A federal judge on Saturday ordered Dick Cheney to preserve a wide range of the records from his time as vice president. Thankfully. (Another reason I want Obama elected: he is much more likely to do something with these records than McCain.)

Edited to add this comic. Which is awesome.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Palin interview transcript

I have not seen Charlie Gibson's interview with Sarah Palin, but I am reading some excerpts of the uncut transcript right now.

At times, Palin seems to sound like a typical politician. At least once, she does that thing where she repeats the same non-answer over and over to a series of probing questions.
GIBSON [in a series of questions about potential national security / foreign relations threats]: What if Israel decided it felt threatened and needed to take out the Iranian nuclear facilities?

PALIN: Well, first, we are friends with Israel and I don’t think that we should second guess the measures that Israel has to take to defend themselves and for their security.

GIBSON: So if we wouldn’t second guess it and they decided they needed to do it because Iran was an existential threat, we would cooperative or agree with that.

PALIN: I don’t think we can second guess what Israel has to do to secure its nation.

GIBSON: So if it felt necessary, if it felt the need to defend itself by taking out Iranian nuclear facilities, that would be all right.

PALIN: We cannot second guess the steps that Israel has to take to defend itself.
That sounds awfully familiar to those of us who watch White House press conferences. (Ahem: "I cannot comment on an ongoing investigation.") Let me translate from Politician into English there. What she means is, "I am unwilling to answer that question in a forthright way."

It was a pretty far-out hypothetical, and of course even a President has a whole gaggle of advisors who she could turn to in that situation for help. But a reformer? Not one of "the good old boys"? I've not heard this sort of thing from Obama's camp.

I more agree with these words of Palin's:
[I]t has been overwhelming to me that confirmation of the message that Americans are getting sick and tired of that self-dealing and kind of that closed door, good old boy network that has been the Washington elite.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Science Debate 2008

Since I don't have my student ID on me and thus cannot borrow the Organic Chemistry book that I need to do homework, I will instead take some time and go over the presidential candidates' responses to the Science Debate '08 questions, which all of you should go read now.

The first thing I notice is there is a lot of political fluff in the answers.

For example, Obama's camp states, "Ensuring that the U.S. continues to lead the world in science and technology will be a central priority for my administration."

McCain does it too. For example, "My Administration will promote economic policies that will spur economic growth and a focus on an innovative economy."

Yes, I know that's what you want to do. Now tell me how you're going to do it. Please be specific.

I was pleased to note that once the fluff is stripped away, Obama presents many specific policy points that will accomplish his goals regarding every single question asked. McCain does too, in some instances, but in others? Not so much.

I'll point you to the National Security question. The question: "Science and technology are at the core of national security like never before. What is your view of how science and technology can best be used to ensure national security and where should we put our focus?"


I have been a tireless advocate of our military and ensuring that our forces are properly postured, funded, and ready to meet the nation's obligations both at home and abroad. I have fought to modernize our forces, to ensure that America maintains and expands its technological edge against any potential adversary, and to see that our forces are capable and ready to undertake the variety of missions necessary to meet national security objectives.

As President, I will strengthen the military, shore up our alliances, and ensure that the nation is capable of protecting the homeland, deterring potential military challenges, responding to any crisis that endangers American security, and prevailing in any conflict we are forced to fight.

We are benefiting today from technology that was invented for military use a quarter of a century ago (e.g. the Internet, email, GPS, Teflon). And today, the American military has some of the most advanced technologies in the world to support them as they defend America’s interest. We need to ensure that America retains the edge in the most strategic areas and I will continue to encourage this with advanced R&D research funding.

That was McCain's entire answer. His only real policy suggestion there is in the last sentence: provide advanced R&D funding. Otherwise, it's a lot of blather about "protecting the homeland" and "modernizing our forces". Sure, you'd like to do that. Tell us how you intend to.

Just one paragraph from Obama about the same question, on the other hand:

This year, I was encouraged to see the Department of Defense (DoD) requested a sharp increase in the basic research budget for breakthrough technologies. More is needed. My administration will put basic defense research on a path to double and will assure strong funding for investments in DoD’s applied research programs. We will enhance the connections between defense researchers and their war-fighting counterparts. And, we will strengthen defense research management so that our most innovative minds are working on our most pressing defense problems. A strong research program can also lower procurement costs by reducing technical risks and increasing reliability and performance. Renewing DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) will be a key part of this strategy.
Double basic research. Strengthen research management. Connect researchers with men on the field. Renew DARPA. Those are specific policy implementations that will do exactly what McCain says he intends to do. And that's just one paragraph. Obama continues to talk about revitalizing the Department of Homeland Security, lessening our petroleum dependence by funding alternative energy, and reversing manufacturing sector loss through a number of different -specific- programs.

Some other things I noticed:

  • Both candidates supported a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions.
  • McCain focused on domestic solutions to international problems - for example, tax credits for families who buy zero-emission cars, in response to a question on climate change. Obama's response focused more on working with the UN and other international bodies, which makes more sense considering that climate change is happening on a global scale.
  • When asked about energy sustainability, McCain responded that he wants to build more nuclear reactors, which I do totally agree with. (Nuclear is emissions-free!) But Obama's answer was more well-rounded, addressing nuclear, coal, solar, and wind energy; Obama also supported basic research and higher fuel and home efficiency.
  • McCain was far more likely to plug his own virtues in his answers. He mentions his Navy background twice, talks about his views on water conservation "as a westerner," mentions in passing how his record "speaks for integrity and putting the country first," etc.
  • Obama will require insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions. As someone who has been both on and off different insurances, I can tell you firsthand that this will be AWESOME. On the same question, McCain actually mentions promoting "wellness" as a way to make healthcare more affordable. That's one dog-whistle that makes me cringe.
I know that the large Sciencedebate 2008 page with its giant paragraphs makes for some tough reading, but it's totally worth it. Check it out and let me know what YOU think!

So about that whole 'recession' thing...

Banks are failing.

I'll repeat that. Major financial institutions, some of which have been around for a century and a half, are failing. Being bought out. Losing 90+% of their value and filing for bankruptcy.

Oh, and McCain is up in the polls, too. If you hadn't noticed. (You need no link for that one; just go to any news website.)

I'm scared for the future, I really am.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

N00b Reviews: Spore

Oh, me? What have I been up to lately?

Schoolwork, homework, paperwork, SCIENCE! (With a smattering of political convention watching in there for good measure.)

But that's not why I'm posting tonight. Oh no. Spore came out today, and I IMMEDIATELY grabbed up a copy and played a session. So it's time for...

N00b Reviews!! By the casual* gamer, for the casual gamer.

Spore is everything it was expected to be. The short review: It's the sim game to top all previous sim games. If you even passably enjoyed any previous sim game and don't have problems with game addiction, go buy this.

I played through an "Easy" game in one sitting tonight, and... well, hot damn. It's incredible. Firstly because you can play through an "Easy" game in one sitting, especially someone like me who is slightly less than hardcore. Seriously, this game delivers on all fronts. The creature/house/car/boat/plane/saucer-editors are intuitive and satisfying; the gameplay is enthralling; and I came across a species of animated Cock'n'Balls on my home planet, which I consider a plus. You really end up rooting for your little species, even if they are a pig-snouted, stumpy, googly-eyed, tangerine-colored biped who are collectively known as "MsWiggly".

The city-building aspect is somewhat less than fully absorbing, though, and it took me a while to really get a handle on the custom paint schemes for the non-creature editors. Oh, and if you have anything against competing with a species of animated Cock'n'Balls, maybe because you are a parent of a small child or a religious prude or a super-radical-feminist-lesbian or something, you might see that as a minus.

I'd say it gets top marks** for successfully entertaining me from a single cell all the way into space. It gets even topper marks from me, because I prefer playing games like that in full-on cultural domination mode and it enabled me to completely forego that pesky 'combat' thing - but for the more competitive of you, you can also easily rely on combat as well. I'm absolutely going to try again on a stricter difficulty at some point, but right now I'm enjoying flitting across the galaxy in my flying saucer in easy mode.

Not too much else I have time to say. I must go attempt sleep now, or else risk being very cranky in the morning.

I promise I'll try to make more time for you during this hectic school year, my adoring fans. Or whatever. =P

* By "casual gamer", I mean the kind of person who will not grind whelps for XP or phat lewts. I mean the kind of person who, when confronted with a monotonous or frustrating game, puts it down instead of treats it as a challenge to their testicular fortitude. A.k.a. "us normal people".

** No, I will not give you a numbered score. Those things are lame as hell, and completely arbitrary.

Friday, August 29, 2008


I've been fairly busy since school's started, so I'm very sorry for not updating to the people who may or may not be reading this.

I am, however, doing science! Which is a lot more hectic than I could possibly have imagined. I think it has something to do with schooling full time.

I need to go chill out.

Here's a link dump so you guys have something to read:

The War on Drugs. Or on whatever.

Two different takes on McCain's newly announced running mate:
Obama Plays Good Cop/Bad Cop: Fox News, fer shits n giggles.
McCain picks young, unknown female VP: Sydney Morning Herald's take, including some blatant PUMA-pandering.

Obligatory Pharyngula link: Salem's hypothesis does not always hold! There is hope for you engineers yet!

Oh, and how about a laughing baby?

Even better yet, an embedded laughing baby:

Oh come on, you watch that and tell me it didn't make you laugh.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Your voice could change the world.

It's almost disheartening. Seeing news in my feed that says that McCain is running tightly against Obama, that he has leads in various places or is cutting close in other places.

Notice that I said -almost- disheartening.

Because I want a President like this:

And I think you do too.

If all of us bring our voices to the polls, we will change the nation.

If you wanted to know what's going on with oil...

Stephen Colbert explains (with the help of himself) over at The Intersection.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

One small step for a woman...

I filed my first real scientific paperwork today!

I needed to fill out a form and include a summary letter, a feedback sheet, and a copy of the approval letter from our IRB, and take it to this guy's office.

I have the feeling that this kind of paperwork will continue to be important in my scientific career.

Another inconsequential moment that makes me SQUEE!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Faculty behaving badly.

Shanara Reid-Brinkley, coach of the Pitt debate team, who is mad at...
William Shanahan, coach of the Fort Hays State U (Kansas), for apparently moving to strike her from being a judge of the event, and also apparently shaking his head while a student was speaking.

Watch it all the way to the end if you want to see them make a student cry.

Sometimes I am embarassed of people, in general.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

A sad Caturday for me...

... in that my cat is not here. He's been missing for four days now.

But here are some recent pictures of his cuteness anyway.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Don't blind-drunk men who rape bear ANY responsibility for what happens?

I know, I know. It's the Daily Mail. But still...
After the witness describes her ordeal, defence counsel triumphantly produces CCTV of the victim having a drink - or two or three - with the accused, or being too drunk to remember what happened to them.
I don't see why this is an argument against women drinking as much as it is an argument against men drinking. Basically what this ass is saying is that when men and women get together and drink, well then it's no surprise that the man will overstep his bounds and rape the woman.
Women always retain the right to say no whatever condition they are in.
But if they have been drinking, they may not be able to make that clear to someone stronger than them who doesn't wish to hear it.
Emphasis mine.

I would agree that women always retain the right to say no whatever condition they are in. I would also add that women always have the right to have their 'no' taken seriously whatever condition they are in. And doing otherwise is - hello - rape.

Remember, rape isn't just something that 'happens' to women who drink. Rape is something that men do to women, and I will grant that maybe it's more likely to happen when drinking occurs. If men are more likely to rape women in a situation where drinking occurs, then shouldn't the men stop drinking?

I will say this again, because it bears repeating. Women are not gatekeepers of sex as a resource. Women are participants in what should be a mutual act. Men shouldn't just want their sexual partners to not-say-no. They should want their partners to actively say yes. Anything otherwise is bullshit entitlement, and should rightly be scorned.

Note: Just realized that The Curvature already said exactly what I did, except 10x better.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Denialism? Crankery? Them's fightin' words!

I've been looking over some of the critiques of the fat acceptance movement.

Denialism Blog starts out good: Apparently a post at Junkfood Science quote-mined an article to a certain degree. She had said, and I quote:
The article, “Do current body mass index criteria for obesity surgery reflect cardiovascular risk?” was “work presented at the 2005 American Society for Bariatric Surgery Meeting in poster form.” The authors, led by Edward H. Livingston M.D. at the University of Texas Southwestern School of Medicine, reported that many of the conventional risk factors for cardiovascular disease “decreased with increasing degrees of obesity.”
Emphasis and links all hers.

Denialism Blog went straight to the source and found that it was only partially true.
Of the conventional CVD risk factors, blood pressure, serum glucose, and waist circumference increased linearly with adiposity. The reverse was observed for high-density lipoprotein. Insulin, C-peptide, apolipoprotein B, non-high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein, and serum triglycerides all peaked in the body mass index range of 30-40 kg/m2 and then decreased with increasing degrees of obesity.
Emphasis was added by Denialism Blog, I don't think it was in the original.

So there's three factors that increase as you get fatter, and seven that decrease. Junkfood Science could have let us know about that, and it makes sense for Denialism Blog to point that out.

Denialism Blog goes on to say, basically, that obesity correlates with a handful of things like high blood pressure and high blood sugar, which can contribute to things like heart disease and diabetes. This is undeniable (except to denialists, of course).

Denialism Blog also seems to think that it's a good idea for obese people to treat their high blood pressure and high blood sugar medically, instead of just trying to stop being fatty moo cows. He also seems to think that treating fat people as fatty moo cows is a bad thing. In fact, he agrees that there is no empirically proven long-term weight loss technique.

"If you eat more than your baseline metabolic requirement plus your daily caloric output, you will gain weight. If you eat less than your baseline metabolic requirements plus your daily caloric output, you will lose weight. Anything else, and you're suggesting energy is being created or destroyed, and I just don't have time for such nonsense."
Calories In/Calories Out!

Ok, so I know I'm just a wee kiddo, merely a student. But I remember something in physiology about trying to maintain certain parameters in homeostasis. One of those parameters is (gasp!) energy stores in the body - better known as subcutaneous fat. Your body likes to have a certain amount of fat on it. Each body may have a different preferred level, of course, just like your baseline body temperature might be a little higher than 98 degrees, and mine might be a little lower.

If you take in more calories than you burn, you may gain weight. Or your metabolism might spike, and you'll feel full sooner, and if you follow your body's signals you'll return to your normal caloric intake and your normal weight range.

If you take in fewer calories than you burn, you may lose weight. Or your baseline metabolism may drop, and you may become sluggish, and you'll definitely feel hungry, and if you follow your body's signals you'll return to your normal caloric intake and your normal weight range.

And if you follow your body's signals, you'll probably find that fresh fruit is yummier than gummy fruit snacks, and that you actually crave broccoli when it's cooked right, and that you don't actually want to snarf down six plates at the all-you-can-eat because you're "taking a holiday" from your latest diet and no one's watching you (and eating only grapefruit/lettuce/cheerios/"what you should eat" is killing you).

For those of you who really, really think that if you follow demand-feeding -- that is, eating what you are hungry for and then stopping when you are full -- that means you'll just eat burger after burger, day in and day out, until your fat makes you explode like a bad Monty Python sketch, well then, Kate Harding and I have a message for you:
How about the assumption that without the aid of 100-calorie packs, people will be helpless in the face of the dreaded (but oh-so-desired) Girl Scout Cookie, and just eat BOX AFTER BOX? Children, even. Children with their child-sized stomachs. There’s certainly no way they would naturally figure out when to stop, based on cues like, oh, I don’t know… feeling satisfied? Or, failing that, eventually feeling like they’re gonna barf — which, for the vast majority of kids, will happen well before they get through one box? (And also might just teach them a valuable life lesson like, “Don’t eat so damn many cookies,” without parents, educators, or MeMe Roth ever having to say a word?)

For the gazillionth fucking time, eating “box after box” of cookies is called Binge Eating Disorder, not “What every human being would naturally do if we weren’t all bugfuck crazy about calorie-counting.” But if you don’t have BED, and instead you just have some insane fucking nightmare/fantasy about how you TOTALLY WOULD eat box after box of cookies if you ever stopped rigidly controlling your diet for ten seconds — and accordingly, you assume that that is how all fat people eat, all the time, so not only do you have to rigidly control your own diet, you’re morally obligated to make sure everyone else is equally vigilant? Well, you might have an eating disorder, too, come to think of it. But you also might just be a giant douche. In which case, please eat 10 whole boxes of STFU and call me in the morning.

Friday, August 8, 2008


Starter Kit for the Willfully Ignorant

Ray Comfort (BANANA MAN!) posted this absolutely brilliant "Atheist Starter Kit" on his blog. There's a post about it, and it's also featured on the right sidebar.

If blatant ignorance of logical fallacies and philosophy 101 hurt your mind, I'd skip it if I were you.

In the interests of rational thinking, I'd like to post my own starter kit - for the willfully ignorant Christian! Ten suggestions for the novice trying to convert those ScArY athiests:
  1. Argue that the Bible is true because God says so in the Bible, and then use the Bible to argue that God exists. Argue that, since all atheists believe with absolute certainty that there is no God, they would have to know everything in the universe and thus be God. Quote Darwin when he says that it's difficult to believe the eye could evolve. Refuse to read anything about "logical fallacies".
  2. Argue that things look designed, therefore they must have been designed. Refuse to acknowledge that anyone has said this before. Absolutely refuse to listen to anyone talk about how "evolution" could be a "plausible mechanism" for the "appearance of design".
  3. Argue that the risks of going to Hell, and the possible reward of going to Heaven, makes being a Christian a good bet. Refuse to acknowledge that anyone has said this before. Refuse to acknowledge that other deities might exist. Refuse to acknowledge the idea of "evidence", or that it affects "odds".
  4. Quote the Bible. Often. Especially the parts that you agree with. Refuse to justify it with "evidence" - remember step 1!
  5. Believe the Bible is flawless. Do not actually read it for yourself. If anyone points out a "flaw" in the Bible, just ignore them. The Bible has to be flawless - it was written by God! Like it says in the Bible!
  6. If any atheist tells you that they used to believe in Jesus and God too, don't believe them. If they had really known Jesus Christ, like you do, they never would have changed their mind! (Also, continue refusing to acknowledge any such thing as a "logical fallacy". It's just common sense!)
  7. Reject any "facts" that contradict the Bible, which you already know to be 100% true. No matter how "well-supported" those "facts" seem to be. Expect people to make fun of you for this. No matter, you already know you're right, and they're wrong.
  8. If all of these well-thought-out arguments fail, start threatening people with Hell. Again, disregard "evidence" - Hell is bad! Anyone who ignores this wisdom must be a fool.
  9. Blame atheism for Stalin and Mao and Hitler. Refuse to admit that Christians commit violence - after all, violence is part of the atheist's basic philosophy, while no true Christian could really commit violence. (Oh, and believe that Hitler was an atheist. He had to be - he was violent after all!)
  10. Finally, keep in fellowship with other like-minded Christians who believe as you believe, and encourage each other in your beliefs. Build up your faith. Never doubt for a moment. Remember, the key to willful ignorance is to be unreasonable. Fall back on that when you feel threatened. Think shallow, and keep telling yourself that you are intelligent. Remember, an ignorant person is someone who pretends there is no evidence.
(Note: I would not have been so harsh if he hadn't been just as harsh. Most of the last bullet-point is directly substituted for what he said about atheists. And please do remember, this is about willfully ignorant Christians, not reasonable people of faith. Thank you, come again.)

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

In which I blind you with neuroscience.

Men have 6.5 times more gray matter in their brains than women do. Women have 10 times more white matter. Gray matter creates processing centers in the brain, and white matter creates the connections between them. In other words, men have lots of areas for processing concrete data — like mathematical equations — and women have lots of connections that allow them to see and process patterns.
(Quote from this, found here.)

First, look at the premise. Men have 6.5 TIMES more gray matter in their brains than women do. Women have 10 TIMES more white matter. This is ludicrous at face value. This would indicate that men's brains are just wobbly with gray matter, and women's are bursting with white matter. In reality, we all have about the same amounts of gray:white matter. (If those had been percentage differences, it might be less ridiculous, but I have no idea if it would be at all accurate.)

If you can remember back to high school biology, you learned that neurons have nuclei and cell bodies like any other cell, and they also have long, skinny axons that project to other neurons' cell bodies and their dendrites.

"Gray matter" is just the term for areas in your nervous system that have lots of cell bodies.
"White matter" is just the term for areas in your nervous system that have lots of axons.

If men and women did have inversely differing amounts of gray/white matter, that just means that men have more neurons with fewer connections, while women have fewer neurons with more connections. By some marginal amount.

And to do any kind of processing, your nervous system uses both gray and white matter. Knowing that a person has more of one or the other cannot be used to predict anything about how they'll handle "concrete data" (mathematics = concrete?) or "patterns" (mathematics != patterns?).

I can point out all this, and I'm still an undergrad. N00bs.

Issues, issues, ISSUES!!

For those of you who are tired of horse race politics.

Monday, August 4, 2008

I dig it

This is entirely true of me.


Additional requirements needed to complete your application to the Center for Neuroscience Graduate Training Program are listed below.
  1. You must submit the names of three references with your application. They may submit their recommendations either electronically or by mail. These letters of recommendation must be from professors or research supervisors with whom you have studied or worked, preferably including those who have sponsored independent research in the laboratory.
  2. You must include a 500- to 1,000-word statement of goals concerning your plans for graduate study and a professional career. Indicate the area(s) of neuroscience that most interest you. Include specific training faculty whose research programs are of great interest and indicate at least three faculty members with whom you would like the opportunity to meet should you visit Pittsburgh. You may submit this information in the "additional information" section of the admissions application.
  3. Provide a brief description of your previous research experience. This should include undergraduate and/or graduate research, your research supervisor in each project and the technical skills that you have acquired, and a description of the hypotheses you were examining in your research. You may submit this information electronically in the "additional information" section of the admissions application.
  4. Provide an official transcript from each undergraduate and graduate school that was attended. Official original academic credentials that are issued in a language other than English must be accompanied by a certified English translation.
  5. You must submit official scores on the Graduate Examination Test through the Educational Testing Service. The verbal, quantitative, and analytical writing tests are required, whereas an advanced test is optional. The institutional code number for the University of Pittsburgh is 2927.

Getting started now was a good idea.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Airbrush the soul out of you

I adore Shakesville's Impossibly Beautiful series. Especially this right here.

I could care less about airbrushing flyaway hairs or zits. But when you airbrush out the lines around someone's eyes, you are literally removing part of their facial expression. A part of how we tell real smiles from fake ones is how the muscles around the eyes move.

By airbrushing the expressions off the models' faces, they're kicking the images into the Uncanny Valley. Some of them are actually creepy.

Women Deserve Better

Friday, July 25, 2008

Think of the children!!

Supporters of a California state constitution ban on gay marriage say:
"If the gay marriage ruling is not overturned, teachers will be required to teach young children there is no difference between gay marriage and traditional marriage."
Well, except that gay marriage is between two people of the same gender.

And teaching kids that gay people now have the same marital rights as straight people is such a terrible thing, after all. We wouldn't want them to think those awful gay people are, y'know, people or anything.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

IT IS DONE! (RAmen!)

PZ has finally revealed his master plan of religious desecration! He got a Host, a Qur'an, and a JUST-REVEALED third mystery item! I'm just digging into the comment thread right now and I'm sure it will be a good one.

Just for kicks, here's a few more good links:

Last year I killed a man. People who commit suicide by train don't often stop to think about the effect they'll have on the driver, who is basically forced into involuntary murder.

lol your fat. A thread on a fat acceptance website (wherein the video game Fat Princess is called out for its fat-hating, misogynistic devices - hello, your job is to rescue a fat princess, who is force-fed cake until she's too big to move) was left unmoderated and reserved for troll-bashing. Hilarity ensues as the trolls slowly realize that their Serious Business is being laughed at.

False Rape Investigation Model. My favorite bit? If mugging were treated like rape is all too often: "If this mugger is found with your wallet, the mugger shouldn’t be assumed to have stolen your wallet. The mugger should be approached in a non-judgmental way in case you were stupid and gave this man your wallet of your own free will and called the cops because you later regretted your actions."

Well. I think I've finally put my favorite three blogs together in one post: Pharyngula, Feministe, and Shapely Prose.

(Don't ask; I was The Hugest Fan for about three years.) (In middle school. >_<)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Unmockable Barack

According to the comedians and producers interviewed at the NY times, Barack Obama has "nothing easy to turn to for an easy laugh."

The best Jon Stewart could come up with? "So far, our take is that he’s positioning himself to be on a coin."

After the bumbling ape we had as our last President, I'm looking forward to respecting the office again.

Or you could think like Maureen Dowd in the paper's Op-Ed section: "At first blush, it would seem to be a positive for Obama that he is hard to mock. But on second thought, is it another sign that he’s trying so hard to be perfect that it’s stultifying?"

Because we never make fun of people trying too hard (Kerry's flip-flops, Hillary's... self, Edwards' hair for Chrissake).

Oh, and don't just rely on context cues here. I didn't know what stultifying meant when I read this. It sounds like it means something like "stifling". But it turns out to mean "proving to be of unsound mind, demonstrating incompetence, causing to appear foolish, depriving of strength or efficacy".

Dude, if Barack were trying too hard to be perfect, and ended up demonstrating his incompetence or appearing foolish because of it, Jon Stewart would be all over that. In fact I think that's happened once or twice with the last President. You watch TV lately?

I want to make friends with Jules

Meet Jules. I want one!

When he talks to the toddler, it almost brings me to tears: "By the time you're grown up, I'll be as smart as a real person, and we'll be like brothers. I do not know if you'll remember me then, but I will never forget you. Someday I'll come and find you, and we'll be good friends."

Neuroscience = Pro Wimminz?

I noted this on Feministe today: The 2K8 annual meeting of the Society of Neuroscience features four Presidential Special Lecturers -- all women! In fact, the President of the society itself is a woman.

I have noticed that a solid chunk of my neuroscience professors and other faculty have been women. I'd be very interested in seeing the statistics about women in neuroscience: how many graduates, how much of the faculty, etc.

It might have something to do with the fact that we are explicitly taught the differences between men and women in our classes. And the differences? Minor. Negligible. Almost entirely insignificant on an individual basis.

Monday, July 14, 2008

I wish I could do something like this

See more funny videos at CollegeHumor

I cannot imagine performing for people on such a personal level. This is cooler than cool.

Why is word recognition so frakkin complicated?

There are two neurological 'routes' that you use to identify words.

One of them translates letters into sounds, and then recognizes those sounds as a word. This is called -very creatively - the phonological route. "Sound it out," we were taught as kids. And this is how we read new or nonsense words, like "brillig" and "slithy".

The other route translates the visual input of the word directly into meaning. Called - once again very creatively - the direct route, this is how experienced readers recognize virtually all familiar words. The direct route is also necessary for irregular words like "colonel".

I learned this much in my cognitive neuroscience course this past spring. There is plenty of evidence for these two separate routes - to the point where you can have a dysfunction of one, or the other, but not necessarily both at the same time.

But when I Google "word recognition," I see nothing of this sort, but instead I get results talking about word shape, serial letter recognition, and parallel letter recognition. So what's the deal here?

Turns out that these factors also relate to how we recognize words.

Word Shape:
When you look at a word, you can immediately see its shape. Take the word "look" as an example. Its letters have a particular shape: "o" is called neutral, "l" and "k" both rise above the neutral position. Letters like "p" and "j" dip below it. Words that are spelled in all uppercase lose some of their shape. It turns out that you read lowercase words faster than UPPERCASE WORDS, and you read words in AlTeRnAtInG CaSe slowest of all. This lends some evidence to the idea that your brain uses the shape of the word to help determine what the word is. However, if you take out all the letters and just leave a blob that looks like its shape, (as you'd imagine) it's not very easy to identify words. The letters have something to do with it. So...

Serial Letter Recognition:
In English, words are spelled with letters from left to right. Thus, it makes sense that we would recognize words letter-by-letter, from left to right, one at a time. If this were true, then you'd assume that longer words take more time to recognize than shorter words. And this is the case. So this too has something to do with how we recognize words.

Parallel Letter Recognition:
Any literate adult will notice that she doesn't look at every letter of every word when she reads. A reader's eyes will jump from word to word along a page, skipping past function words like "a" and "to" and "the", taking information in gulps. The best hypothesis about how an experienced reader recognizes words involves processing all of the letters in view at the same time and converging upon a word using the total information.
To understand this, visualize a network of words, all connected by the letter positions they share. When you look at the word "humble", all of the word-nodes that begin with "h" followed by "u" become active, and at the same time all of the word-nodes with "m" and "b" in the middle become active, and at the same time all of the word-nodes ending in "e", with an "l" right before it become active. So "humbug" and "bumble" and "tumble" and "humbly" all become active. But the most active word-node will be the one containing all of these letters in this order, and thus you recognize the word as "humble". This in itself may relate to "word shape" in that you identify patterns of adjacent letters and their placement within the word as a way to identify the word.

So now we have two systems of thought as to how we recognize words: the phonological/direct routes, and also the serial/parallel recognition models. How on earth is a neuroscience undergrad supposed to figure out how these work together.

What follows is pure speculation.

Phonology is temporal. What I mean to say is when you hear a word, or sound out a word, you do it in order from beginning to end. So it would make sense (from my limited knowledge) that the phonological route relies more on serial letter processing than parallel letter processing or word shape.

The direct route is not temporal. By that I mean that relating a visual input directly to its meaning doesn't necessarily mean you look at things from "beginning" to "end". So the direct route is free to rely more on the faster and more efficient method of parallel letter processing or word shape instead of being constrained to serial letter processing.

And of course, now that I've posited that wild speculation, I'm thinking of a million ways to verify that experimentally. (Where I'm going to get a population of people with phonological and surface alexia to experiment on - as an undergrad - I have no idea.)

Friday, July 11, 2008

I am fucking sick of the Male Gaze.

This makes me want to slap people. When I look at it, my internal monologue fades into hysterical screaming, and then into an incoherent buzz of wrath.

NOTICE THAT THE AUTHOR IS FEMALE. And not once is the Male Gaze mentioned. No, of course, weighing 95 lbs (45 in the breasts alone!) is merely Dawrinian.

The stupid. It burns.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

I cannot believe that people think such things.

Magic biscuits aside... Ray Comfort really gives me the squicks.

This is the most horrifying strawman misunderstanding that I've ever. Seen. In. My. Life.
[To a supporter of evolution:] [Y]ou are forgetting that you believe that evolution created gravity (over time). Evolution is the creator, and gravity is part of creation. That's what you believe. Isn't it?
YaRly. Mr. Comfort even has a whole big post about how, if evolution didn't create gravity (and an assortment of other physical laws), then what did?
Of course your "scientific" answer will be, "We don’t yet know where they came from, but one thing we are sure of, God didn’t create them."
Some of these laws we can explain. The laws of heat/thermodynamics happen precisely because there is no God intervening in this world. (Think about it. Heat flows necessarily from hot things to cold things. To do otherwise would take some kind of restraining force, to keep the heat in the hot thing, otherwise it would escape into the cold thing. If there were a God, certainly He could keep heat from flowing down its natural energy gradient. Even one observed instance of this would have grand implications. Alas...)

And even besides all that,
It makes sense to argue that the universe had a cause.
It makes sense to argue that the natural laws had a cause.
It makes perfect sense to want to know what this cause is.

It does not make any sense to assert that The God Your Parents Taught You To Believe must necessarily be this cause.

The real answer is that I don't know, and you don't know, and even the most advanced theoretical physicists don't know how exactly gravity works.

If you have a good reason to think that the cause of the universe is a man named Jesus, who is also God, who sacrificed himself to himself in order for himself to break rules that he created, then please show me your evidence!

There is a difference between certainty and knowledge. If you believe that Jesus/God is the cause of all of the natural laws, then you have certainty. But how are you so sure that you have knowledge?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Wacky cult wants magic biscuit back

A student at UCF wanted to show his interested friend what the Eucharist looked like. So he brings it back to the pew.
A church leader was watching, confronted Cook and tried to recover the sacred bread. Cook said she crossed the line and that's why he brought it home with him."She came up behind me, grabbed my wrist with her right hand, with her left hand grabbed my fingers and was trying to pry them open to get the Eucharist out of my hand," Cook said, adding she wouldn't immediately take her hands off him despite several requests.
Regardless of the reason, the Diocese says its main concern is to get the Eucharist back so it can be taken care of properly and with respect. Cook has been keeping the Eucharist stored in a plastic bag since last Sunday."It is hurtful," said Father Migeul Gonzalez with the Diocese. "Imagine if they kidnapped somebody and you make a plea for that individual to please return that loved one to the family."


I understand what your dogma teaches. (And yes. It's dogma.) But that little dry tasteless biscuit is not Jesus. If the biscuit were Jesus, and some punk ass kid stole him, I'm sure God would've gotten involved by now, right? (I mean He did insta-kill some folks who didn't give their fair share to the church. Stealing Jesus seems to be a little more severe.)

The cracker is just a cracker. Someone should put some damn pepperoni and cheese on it and eat it. Can we move on now?

Probably not... (Sigh.)

What's cool on the interwebs today

Via Scienceblogs: Some spectacular photos of the Hook Island sea monster, with reasonable explanations. Stay tuned to Tetrapod Zoology for sea monster week! I can't wait!

Also via Scienceblogs (I love the Reader's Pick/Most Active widgets!): Ed Brayton lets us know that LA Cops Lied in Drug Case. My favorite comment:
"LA Cops Lie In Drug Case"
"Ratzinger Catholic"
"Bear Eliminates in Forest"
Via Pharyngula: If Scientists Were Tabloid Fodder. Complete with hilarious spreads like "Major Fashion Violations: WORST Of The Week!" Actually the people at my office dress very casual-chic.

Via Feministe: Men Still Trying. Oh How They Try! In which is answered the eternal question, just how skewed is human sexual behavior towards men's pleasure at the expense of women's pleasure? (Answer: Plenty. Dumbass.)

A little more about fMRI (and NO as well)

Dude! People read this blag!

Er... at least two persons read this blag! Awesome!

And on top of that, at least one of them can explain blood oxygen level dependent fMRI signals better than I can:
The BOLD fMRI signal observed in brain activation is from a measurement of the relative quantities of oxy and deoxyhemoglobin. Vasodilation increases blood flow in the activated regions and that changed oxy/deoxy ratio is what is observed.
You can't sum it more simply and accurately than that. I looked at Baylor College's "What is fMRI?" page and found a slightly more detailed summary. It works on the principal of neurovascular coupling - basically, when an area of your brain becomes active, the blood vessels in that area dilate (presumably in order to get more fuel - food and oxygen - to the active cells). When the blood vessels dilate, more oxygenated blood rushes into that area. The relatively higher concentrations of oxygenated blood compared to deoxygenated blood in that area can be detected with a functional magnetic resonance imaging device - an fMRI.

But wait! There's more!
Vasodilation is controlled by NO.

The regions of activation observed in BOLD fMRI are actually regions of NO, where the prompt neurogenic NO release is high enough to cause vasodilation by activating sGC. That NO does things besides vasodilation. Those things are not understood. I think that those things are actually more important than the increased O2 consumption.

It is well established that the O2 delivery by the increased blood flow exceeds the metabolic requirements of the activated region.
NO, or Nitric Oxide, is a gaseous chemical messenger in your body. It is well-known (to dorks like me) as the endothelium-derived relaxing factor. Now if you knew that the endothelium is the technical name for the tissue lining your blood vessels, you could reason that NO is produced by your blood vessels and "relaxes". Which is absolutely spot-on.

Production of NO in this specific context can be set off by a bunch of factors, mainly the ones that would indicate that you needed more blood-flow capacity (strain, certain immune system factors). It seems to act by setting off a G-protein cascade ending with phosphorylating a handful of proteins, with the effect (very generally speaking) of relaxing the smooth muscle around the blood vessel, and thus dilating the vessel.

NO does have differing effects on different tissues (as could be said about pretty much any substance), and it is certainly true that we do not know all of NO's possible effects.

There is apparently an international conference on NO/cGMP interactions, with a lot of stuff posted online if you'd care to slog through it. The takeaway message is: physiology is fuckin' complicated.

While poking around the internet pondering this, I found this paper from the Journal of Neuroscience online. The experiments involved neurovascular coupling, and one focuses on NO specifically as a modulator. The result: when NO is removed (by inhibiting its production), you see only vasodilation in rat retinal neurons. In this case NO acts to cause vasoconstriction in neural blood vessels.

That may sound weird, but the mechanism for how blood vessels dilate in the body may be drastically different from how blood vessels dilate in the brain. Mostly because the brain has special needs. Delicate system of interconnected neurons, and all that. Maybe couldn't handle the strains if the blood vessels just regulated themselves willy-nilly. The paper suggests that glia, the support cells in the brain, have an important role in regulating blood flow.

NO is itself a used as a neurotransmitter both in the brain and in the rest of your body. And it has a buttload of known or hypothesized effects, which you could peruse at your leisure if you're so inclined.

Thank you for the comment, daedalus2u!

Monday, June 30, 2008

Race and genetics

I was stumbling around the internet today and found The Inconvenient Science of Racial DNA Profiling. Apparently some dude is able to figure out, with high accuracy, what race someone is by looking at their DNA. And this has been used at least once to apprehend a black perpetrator - this was the Baton Rouge serial killer, and he was indeed found guilty.

According to Wikipedia, the "major races" (I'm assuming the AABC here, asian/native north or south american/black/caucasian) are genetically different by a great grand total of .08%. If .08% of our genes are different, that's 8 in 10,000 genes. That's a difference of 280 genes, at most (assuming a very high value for the number of human genes, according to Science Daily, and also that every single genetic difference is in a seperate and functional gene).

I'm sure that everyone has noticed by now that it seems like the primary differentiators of the "major races" are extremely superficial. Skin color, hair color, hair texture, areas of hair growth, and facial structure seem to be a few of the notable differences. And going back to wikipedia, even one of those things (hair color) involves at least three separate melanin proteins, which are made by who knows how many genes.

On top of that, there is a mounting pile of evidence for a series of genetic bottlenecks in human evolution. A genetic bottleneck basically means that a significant percentage of the population died off, leaving a much smaller number of people around (with, presumably, a much lower genetic diversity).

You can point to the teensy weensy difference between us and claim that it represents something besides a way to easily categorize the human race if it suits you. The truth is that we are all sisters and brothers on this damn crazy planet.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Dream Interpretation and Penis Envy, or what Freud really did for psychology

When I was in high school psychology class, of course we learned all the fun stuff about what Freud proposed. You may remember his division of the psyche into the id that acted on the 'pleasure principle', the superego as the voice of society/parents, and the ego as the moderator and 'self'.

During a conversation with a friend of mine, he said he particularly remembered what we learned about Freud's psychosexual theory of development. Basically that people are "polymorphously perverse" from birth, and we derive sexual pleasure through a series of phases: the oral phase when breastfeeding, the anal phase when potty training, the 'latent' phase when we suppress all of it, and the 'genital' phase where... well, that should be obvious to anyone over the age of 10. And we learned all of that fun stuff about how dreams are a window into the subconscious mind, where trees represented penises and doorways represented vaginas.

Not until college did anyone bother to tell me Freud's real claim to fame: popularizing the idea of the subconsious throughout the Western world.

Up until that point, most popular discourse about minds and wills and people assumed that we were basically rational beings, our decisions made consciously and with premeditation. Hell, a lot of economics today still holds on to those assumptions (with some good reason, as spending money is something that people usually give more thought to than other decisions).

We know now, partially because of Freud, that this isn't true. People do a lot of things without much thought. A lot.

Talking is one of my favorite examples of this. Neurotypical people do not pause and think and put together a sentence before opening their mouths. We hear or see (or smell or taste or feel) something, and with maybe a second's pause we open our mouths and out come our thoughts! In that second before we open our mouths, we may decide not to share our thoughts and instead 'keep them on the inside'. But we don't usually consciously pick out our thoughts, or the structure of our thoughts. They just happen.

An even better example (and one Freud would approve of) is fear. I am afraid of the dark; I'll admit it. I did not sit back and think, "When it is dark, I am less likely to see things around me and thus more vulnerable to certain harmful things, and so I shall avoid the dark." Instead, I simply get creepy feelings whenever the lights are out. I have seen a lot of crime shows and horror movies that usually take place in the dark, and so I hypothesize that subconsciously, without any intent, I have associated darkness with unpleasant things. (And given my night-owl circadian rhythm, this is a giant pain in my ass sometimes.)

How about food preferences? Besides the things that most every omnivorous creature likes (ice cream on a hot day, greasy fried foods, sweet fruits, savory sauces), I mean. For example, I like broccoli. I did not sit back and say, "Broccoli is a nutritious food, and so I shall incorporate it into my diet." It's just damned tasty to me. Or tomatoes. I freakin' hate tomatoes except in very select circumstances. I can't eat them. I just know it has something to do with being forced to eat a tomato when I was a very young child. Just thinking about it makes me get all squicky inside.

If you mull for a while, you can come up with a whole long list of things we do or feel without conscious thought. But none of this was part of the greater dialogue about How Man Works until Freud came along and suggested that maybe things happen in our minds that "I" isn't aware of, and it's a normal part of human functioning. And now that we know that certain things aren't conscious, we can start learning what does cause and affect these things. And for that Freud should be remembered as long as society lasts.

Of course, the guy also gets mondo cool points for his given first name being Shlomo. Hell yeah. ;)

All about fMRI

I am working in a lab that is using fMRI brain scans, with the intent to figure out how the brain makes decisions. An fMRI machine is typically used to detect changes in blood oxygen. There's some major magnetic difference between oxygenated hemoglobin and deoxygenated hemoglobin, and the scans taken are called BOLD (Blood Oxygen Level Dependant) fMRI scans. The theory goes, we know that firing neurons use up oxygen and glucose. So if a certain brain area is using up more oxygen, it's probably more active. And if we can figure out a well-controlled experiment, and find that a certain brain area uses more oxygen during a specific task, well then that brain area may be used to make the computations for that task.

Pure Pedantry over at Scienceblogs explains why fMRI isn't the Grail of neuroscience. And I have to agree. However, Jake's complaints take on a kind of straw-man-ish feel to them. I mean, he mainly just picks on what he calls (hilariously, might I add) OMGFMRI stories. "My amygdala's lighting up, so I must be afraid!" That kind of thing.

I'd like to point out that the paper that Jake linked to has a lot more high quality nitpicks about the use of fMRI, and I'd highly recommend reading that paper.

For example: fMRI may tell you that neurons in an area are active, but it can't tell you what they're doing. Those active neurons might be excitatory neurons, sure. They might be inhibitory. They might be memory-related. They might just be responding to an itch that the participant had. Or they might be a tangental, modulatory process.

Or: fMRI shows a stronger 'signal' when large numbers of neurons in an area are responding. If a process only uses a small number of neurons in any one area, then the effect of the stimulus might be drowned out by attention, memory, and other related (but not relevant) processes. Making better fMRI scanners won't help this.

Basically, the brain is an eight-pound processor. It's massively complicated. It does a lot of shit. It, in fact, controls everything we do. We don't even know why we do everything we do.

On top of that, fMRI is a very broad tool. It's like trying to figure out what your computer is doing by looking at how much electricity is flowing to each component part. Well, your video card is flipping a lot of bits; maybe you're playing a graphics-intensive game. Your hard drive is grinding like mad; maybe you're installing something. Maybe. It's hard to tell.

Oh, and don't even get me started on the whole astrocytes thing.

So is fMRI useless? I'll quote wikipedia on this one: "Like any other technique, fMRI is as worthwhile as the design of the experiment using it." My lab seems to have gotten some decent results, and the procedure makes sense to me (albeit, I am merely an undergrad).

Now that I've summed that up, my head is spinning. I shall go lie down now. Carry on!

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Happy Caturday!

My cat strikes poses all the damn time. He does it, I think, because he knows that very frequently I look over at him and go "AWWW HOW KYOOOOOT" and give him the attention / treats / playtime that he lusts for.

This is not unusual. The unusual thing is that my cat seems to realize when I'm taking a picture of him. The camera comes out and suddenly he's all wide eyes and pointed stares.

"Why are you pointing that thing at me? You trying to steal my soul or somethin? You know I hate pictures."

I can never get a candid pic of him. Which is strange, for an animal with very little awareness of technology. (Things come in two categories: things I play with, and things I lie on. Sometimes these things overlap.)

Anyway, happy Caturday, from me and Shammy.