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.

Oh, and X-FILES MOVIE COMES OUT THIS WEEKEND SQUEE!!
(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."
Yeeeeahhhh.

As PZ says: IT'S A GODDAMNED CRACKER.

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!