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.

Friday, June 27, 2008

America is also addicted to the War on Drugs.

Check out this video here.

I think that our government's standard operating procedure when dealing with a not-directly-political problem (i.e. science, public health, education) should be to go to a group of actual qualified experts and ask them what works. And then do their best to implement this.



Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Don Imus, at it again?

This morning I popped onto my personalized Google homepage and saw this bit about Don Imus, of "nappy-headed hos" disgrace, defending what appears to be another racist comment:
During a conversation about [Dallas Cowboys qb] Jones' run-ins with the law, Imus asked, "What color is he?" Sports announcer Warner Wolf said Jones — formerly known as Pacman — is "African-American." Imus responded: "There you go. Now we know."
Imus' reasoning behind his statement:

Imus resurrected his radio career six months ago with a pledge to mend the wounds caused by a racist and sexist comment he made about a women's basketball team.

On Tuesday he said he was following the spirit of that promise by calling attention to the unfair treatment of blacks — in this case the arrests of suspended Dallas Cowboys cornerback Adam Jones.

"What people should be outraged about is that they arrest blacks for no reason," Imus said Tuesday. "I mean, there's no reason to arrest this kid six times. Maybe he did something once, but everyone does something once."

Feministe responded:
Imus apparently claims that he was trying to “make a sarcastic point,” and says some crap about how he has black people on his show, so the comment could not have been racist. Obviously. With regards to the comment, he also wondered aloud, seemingly without irony, “How insane would I have to be? What would I be thinking?
There's also an online audio clip with full context, if anyone is interested in hearing.

So now that we've all heard pretty much all sides of the issue that could possibly be heard, what do I think? I think Imus wasn't trying to be racist. I really do think that he was trying to say that American blacks, the activities that they engage in, and the places that they go, are all unfairly targeted by law enforcement. Do I think he holds some prejudiced beliefs about black people? Sure I do. Clearly he does. Duh. Do I think you should write to his radio sponsors in rage? Probably not.

Imus has some really outdated and prejudiced ideas about race. He's an old dude. He was alive when the appropriate word for a black American was 'negro'. It seems like he's trying to do something constructive, to say something constructive, about people who he realizes have gotten the short end of the American stick. So you will hear no rage from me about this. Please feel free to disagree with me here.

I'll leave the last word to Mr. Jones himself.
"I'm truly upset about the comments," Jones said. "Obviously Mr. Imus has problems with African-Americans. I'm upset, and I hope the station he works for handles it accordingly. I will pray for him."

Monday, June 23, 2008


I popped in for Pittsburgh's PrideFest, which capped up a full month of LGBTQQ activities. It took up three entire city blocks, which were cordoned off and full of booths. Beside the food, drink, and merchandise booths were many different businesses, religious groups, and nonprofit organizations that came to support/pander to/engage with everyone.

On the fluffy side, I got a shot glass that says I *rainbow heart* *man symbol*. I asked; they did not have any with women on them, but I do <3 men! And I <3 them in an all-sexualities kinda way. Plus I wanted to grab a shot glass for the occasion (as I do collect 'em). I saw a few funny shorts, just clips really, things like "The Gay Breakfast Club" and "Reservoir Dykes".

On the serious side, I got an Obama sticker (on my purse) and an Obama flyer (in my window). I also signed about three petitions, left my contact info with the Obama support people, and got contact info for a local human rights group.

Be yourself, and be proud!

George Carlin, you will be missed.

George Carlin, one of my idols and the funniest comedian to have lived in my lifetime, died yesterday at the age of 71.

His two-CD best-of album was the second (and last, I think) comedy album I had bought. I had lent out my Jerry Seinfeld CD to a friend, who had lost it and eventually just gave me $30 for it, and so I went out and bought George's instead. That CD shaped my sense of humor forever and got me through some pretty rough times (you try finding something to laugh about when you have to share a twin bed with your mother on vacation).

In honor of the great man, I would hereby like to say:

Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits. I'd like to add also fart, turd, and twat, for completeness' sake.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Hotpants? But no, really, she has a very good point.

Health is more important than weight. And yes, that includes mental and emotional health!

I can't help thinking... damn, whoever made this is so frakkin pretty.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

I suppose I'll do this thing, as it's (somewhat) relevant to my aims...

I'm in theory a blogger about science, but as I consider god-claims to be in the realm of the empirical...

(Thanks to ERV for posting this!)

Q1. How would you define "atheism"?
Not holding a god-belief. And beyond that, self-identification as an atheist, since some who lack a god-belief are too chicken to straight up call themselves atheists.

Q2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?
My family was very active in the local United Methodist church, and therefore I was active in the same when I was young. Methodism accommodates pretty much anything you'd like, though, so when I lost my faith I was able to 'cover' fairly well. I only admitted to one person in the church that "I have my doubts" before I went to college and escaped churchgoing forevar.

Q3. How would you describe "Intelligent Design", using only one word?

Q4. What scientific endeavor really excites you?
Neuroscience! If you couldn't tell. 'S why I'm doin it.

Q5. If you could change one thing about the "atheist community", what would it be and why?
I'd get all the Angry Atheists some frakkin pot. Take a deep breath, calm down, and stop telling that nice Christian that his mother sucks cocks in Hell. It just doesn't look good, mkay?

Q6. If your child came up to you and said "I'm joining the clergy", what would be your first response?
Why? How do you know that [insert god here] exists? Are you sure? What's the evidence?

Q7. What's your favourite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?
The Ontological Argument (though it's rarely made): "God is supposed to be the most perfect thing there is. Things that exist are more perfect than those that don't. So therefore God has to exist - or else He's not the most perfect thing!"
Answer: I can imagine the most perfect sandwich ever. And a sandwich that was right here in my hands ready to eat is more perfect than one I have to go out, buy ingredients for, and make. But as it turns out, reality doesn't support my perfect idea. God's supposed to be the most perfect thing there is. Guess you're wrong on that count, too.

Q8. What's your most "controversial" (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?
Let me think about that one.

Q9. Of the "Four Horsemen" (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favourite, and why?
Dawkins, although Dennett is a very close second. Mostly because I have read Dawkins' stuff, and found it absolutely refreshing. Science!

Q10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?
I'll go with ERV's answer on this one: The next president of the US.

Monday, June 16, 2008


Foot-binding freaks me the fuck out.

People would take their four year old daughters, break their foot, and bind it up so that the foot would heal with the toes actually curled under their foot and contorted so profoundly that the ball of the foot would sometimes grow into the heel, so that the girls would have a "beautiful" and "attractive" three-inch long foot.

Look at your foot for a second. Imagine the kind of breaking and re-setting that would be necessary to make the ball of your foot touch the heel.

Yeah. Ouch.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Uh, a minor correction...

Evolution is a belief that the Origin of Man was initiated by genetic copying errors in single-celled creatures. These random events purportedly were mostly harmful, usually killing the hapless recipient. But they occasionally conferred a minor benefit to the offspring. "Mother Nature," red with tooth and claw, aided the "most fit" of each generation to kill off the less fit (or the less fit were simply more likely to perish). This process, long continued, we are confidently assured, resulted in the initial one-celled critters being transformed into creatures that design and build airplanes and computers, of course, requiring millions of years.The story is quite amusing, and many seem to actually believe it.

Genetic copying errors (including but not limited to single-"letter" changes, reversals, and duplications) happen in your cells. They are happening all the time. They happen in pretty much all life that uses DNA - which is all life on earth. I can show you evidence for this.

When these copying errors happen in the cells you use to reproduce (sperms and eggs), it can either have effects or not have effects. Most genetic copying errors kill an embryo before you even know it's there. I can show you evidence for this.

Some copying errors have no effect. This could be because it either affects a stretch of DNA that we don't really use (junk DNA) or it fully duplicates a gene, and having an extra gene for most things isn't anything exceptional. Some copying errors have an effect, but it isn't a big deal at the time. These copying errors sometimes stick around just due to chance. I can show you evidence for this.

Very few copying errors have a beneficial effect, in that particular environment. I can show you evidence for this.

Any one organism (collection of genes that use the same vehicle of reproduction, that is) must survive under a set of conditions imposed by its environment. Organisms that have many healthy offspring (genes that promote the copies of that gene) will increase in relative population. Organisms that have few or ailing offspring will decrease in relative population. I hope I don't need to show you evidence for this, but I can if you need me to.

Evolution is the understanding that
  1. Groups of living things vary in a heritable way.
  2. There are too many living things and not enough resources for all of them to have offspring (or even survive, a lot of the time).
  3. The organisms whose genes equip them with the means to acquire and use resources will have more offspring, and thus their genes will proliferate.
  4. Thus, any change in a living thing's genes that leads to better acquisition or use of resources, or healthier offspring, or more numerous offspring will improve the likelihood of their genes surviving, while any change that hinders such will decrease the same likelihood.
And, yes, I can show you evidence for all that.

Humans are primates. We are animals. We are made of flesh and meat and organs and blood and connective tissue. We think with our brains. We, like many other animals, have learned how to communicate and use tools. We, unlike any other animals, have such a capacity for learning and applying knowledge that we can write sonnets, and yes, build airplanes and computers. And we, like all other forms of life on this planet, exist now due solely because of evolution by natural selection. I can show you evidence for this.

Life has in fact been on the planet Earth for the majority of its history - about 4 billion years, give or take. And yes, I can show you evidence for this, too.

The story you told is indeed amusing, because it's a complete straw man of what evolutionary theory actually involves. I know the things I summarized above are a bit more complicated than the fairy tale you wrote. It takes a little thought to understand. And you also have to respect evidence more than The One True Holy Book Written By God.

Oh, you want to know what the above writer's point was? Well here it is:
We are interested here in two ideas.
1. Would an informed (not necessarily highly credentialed, or even "well read," just modest grammar school education or above), and truly sane person, believe this story?
2. Should a person capable of believing it be adjudged competent to vote?
I'd say that no one would believe the silly little story you concocted, and anyone who believes that it represents evolution shouldn't be adjudged competent for anything. Sheesh.

(BTW, thanks PZ for sharing this... lovely..... thing.)

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Stroke of insight

This is an amazing video of a neuroanatomist who describes her stroke in both personal and clinical terms:

She does take some liberties about the categorization of left vs. right hemisphere tasks. A more accurate generalization (but not too much more accurate) is that the right hemisphere deals with nonverbal, holistic, and context information, and the left hemisphere deals with verbal, detail-oriented, and semantic information.

She does describe, very clearly, a disruption in body schema that would be typical of left-hemisphere damage. In addition, she describes the inability to read (alexia), the inability to speak coherently or understand the content of speech (maybe a variant of Wernicke's aphasia).

She is a little woo-y and full of colorful gestures. But it's understandable. The woman had a stroke, for the love of pete!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

What your right ventromedial prefrontal cortex can do for you!

Scienceblogs were abuzz today about sarcasm and how your brain does it:

The Frontal Cortex explains a recent experiment very nicely. A specific right-hemisphere area in your brain is necessary for controlling sarcasm. For those of you in the know, some may expect that the left hemisphere would be more important for verbal things, 'cuz it's overwhelmingly the hemisphere that processes language. In this case, a right-hemisphere area that is "previously identified as important only to detecting contextual background changes in visual tests" was found using imaging to be damaged in people who cannot detect sarcasm. It makes sense with what I've learned - I must say that in my classes the right hemisphere's capabilities were not under-appreciated.

If reading all them words is hard on your think-bone, you could however just check out this infographic at Of Two Minds.

Monday, June 2, 2008


Encephelon 46 is out - the Neuroscience Blog Carnival!

Some cool things from the carnival (if you're too lazy to click the damn link):

We all know about phantom limbs resulting from amputation. But did you know that a particular kind of right-hemisphere brain damage can result in the full-out perception of extra phantom limbs? I find it particularly interesting that in men, the phantom third leg runs down the midline of the body, while in women it seems that the phantom third leg is superimposed upon one of their other two legs.

Would you vaccinate your kids against drugs? No shit - "Clinical trials are currently underway for vaccines intended to treat cocaine and nicotine addiction, respectively." Personally, I'd prefer to teach my kids about the dangers of drugs first, and then if drug use seemed to be a problem then I'd encourage this as a kind of treatment option.

(A personal story Re: the dangers of drugs. I'm not talking about telling my kids "you'll have no motivation or self-esteem if you smoke pot" or "heroin/crack/meth will ruin your life and you'll be a homeless addict stealing for your next fix." The mainstream media and D.A.R.E will have no trouble telling my kids that. I'm going to tell them what helped me resist drugs. Namely, that a drug is something that changes the way your mind works. The reason that drugs are addictive is that they set off a chemical cascade in your brain that says, "Putting this drug in me is good." Even if the drug is harming you. So if you are inclined to try drugs, what you need to do is to consciously think about whether a drug is doing good things (relaxing you, making you laugh, easing social anxiety, preventing boredom, inducing euphoria, "expanding your mind") or bad things (coughing, shortness of breath, forgetting to eat, panic attacks, social isolation, trouble with school/work/friends/finances, putting you at risk of overdose) regardless of how it immediately feels when you put the drug in you. And then you need to consciously think about whether or not you want to continue putting the drug in you, and on what schedule (daily, weekly, monthly, twice a year) and at what dose if you do choose to indulge. If you are having trouble enforcing this schedule, then we talk about getting outside help, because that's called addiction and is not your fault. This is what my kid will hear, when I have a kid.)

You may have heard that Senator Ed Kennedy has been diagnosed with a glioma - a brain tumor. But what exactly is a glioma, and what are the Senator's options? My deepest sympathies go out to the Senator as well.

The links are good, and the carnival is better.

But don't just take my word for it!