27 September 2010

A new name for this blog?

It turns out that ZBlog is not a unique name, nor do I think it expresses what this blog is about.  Of course, I haven't even really decided what this blog is about...science mostly, with a sprinkle of education, society, epistemology, and my own opinions.  A while ago, I decided I needed to think of a better name for the blog, but I'm just plain stumped.

This blog, by Chris Garrett, has suggestions for coming up with a good blog name.  He has actually posted on it several times.  One thing to avoid, he says, is using "blog" in the title.  Well, my current title not only has the word "blog," it only adds one extra letter!  His tips are as follows:

A good name is
  1. Readable
  2. Pronounceable
  3. Spellable
  4. Memorable
  5. Concise
  6. Unique

This all sounds good to me, but a bit vague and obvious. What I really need is a burst of creativity.  Any suggestions? I need help here.

21 September 2010

She Blinded Me with Science

I used to love this song, but the video makes me rethink its message. In the end "Mr. Dolby rejects Science and things Scientific." Note the use of capitals, implying that Science itself is some kind whole and separate entity. And not just any entity, but a villain! Mr. Dolby, the science of sexuality is truly incredible. Do not throw the doctor into the river just because you struggle to understand! He doesn't deserve it! I think that if you two sang together about science a little more, you might find it a little less blinding and a little more, ummm, sexy.

On another note, the women in this video all fit the "sexy scientist" stereotype, while the men are all somewhat "mad." Surprised?

18 September 2010

A closet workspace for the doctoral student?

I have been thinking a lot about workspaces recently, with the imminent arrival of my boyfriend and his computer in my studio.  For while, I was considering investing in a cloffice.  In other words, I was thinking about putting my desk inside my closet.  Just in case you were wondering, cloffice is not a word I made up.  There are entire sections of design blogs dedicated to the cloffice.  The New Yorker even wrote about one.  Here is a great one, from Apartment Therapy.

Check out this cloffice, from two fellow graduate students with a blog about making their lives a little more glam while pursuing a PhD.  The girls at PhDAZZLE make cloffices sound hip, but I think I'll stick with what I've got for now.

Click here to check out PhDAZZLE.

12 September 2010

8 Sites that Would Have Made High School Science Way Cooler

Not listed in order of awesomeness.

1. Astronomy: In-browser interactive planetarium app.   There are a lot of these popping up right now, and they are really cool.  The planetarium program I had in high school was limited, expensive and came on five or six floppies. 

2. Planetary Science: Duh, Google Mars.  Pretty much the best map of another planet I've come across.  I have the iPod app too.  

3. Science and Society: A recreation of the Apollo 11 released for the 40th anniversary last year by the JFK library.  In addition to the top-notch simulations of every stage, they have incredible pictures, audio, and even video.  One of my favorites was someone (I think maybe Aldrin?) playing with a blob of water on the capsule.  Listening to the audio from this incredible mission never fails to bring tears to my eyes, it's kind of pathetic.  

4. Physics: A game from the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.  You help this cute little creature named Twitch collect little parts for a robot using simple machines (incline plane, fulcrum etc).  A super simple way to introduce physical concepts.  I love it!

5. Cellular Biology: Chock full of animations about cell biology.   A little clicking around will eventually get you to some very cool but simple animations of what goes in our bodies on a microscopic level.

6. Zoology: An online, interactive version of Swiss Naturalist Conrad Gesner's famous work, known as the starting point of modern zoology.  My favorite entry is the Unicorn.  Let's just say zoology has moved forward a bit in the past few centuries. 

7. Genetics: An instant eye color calculator.  It turns out the likelihood of my parents having a blue eyed kid was 1.8 percent!  That makes me feel special.  Play around with genotypes and phenotypes to see what color eyes your kids will have.  

8. ChemistryAn interactive periodic table. .  Depending on your choice of source in drop down menu at the top left, clicking on an square in the table will bring up all kinds of information, photos and videos about that element.  One of my favorite features is the temperature scale, which you can move up and down to change the states of all the elements. 

07 September 2010

A Return to Patternicity, and its Mortal Enemy: Stochasticity

In a recent blog post (Emergence, Patternicity and the Wave) I touched briefly on the human tendency to seek out patterns. Like when we imagine feudal ant societies as the basis for ant colony behavior. The ants can be explained by simple rules governing individual ants--which isn't pure randomness--but sometimes we even insist on seeing order and organization where there really is nothing. And it doesn't help that randomness tends to be so organized-looking, following natural statistical laws that produce triple lottery winners, record breaking craps rolls, and identical twins separated at birth who marry women with the same name. But if you do the math, all of these phenomena are well within the boundaries of chance. In fact, with all the random people in the world doing all the random stuff they do every day, the chance of this kind of stuff just happening randomly is downright probable.

Randomness was the subject of a recent episode from WNYC's Radiolab (if you haven't heard a Radiolab episode yet, get on it, it's awesome). Jad and Robert chose to go with the more obscure and fancy sounding word for randomness: stochasticity. Stochasticity is, according to my dictionary, "the quality of lacking any predictable order or plan."  It is what believers in luck and conspiracy and destiny laugh off.  It is governed only by statistics, and has made several Las Vegas entrepreneurs disgustingly wealthy.  You can kiss those dice as many times as you want, but stochasticity is not convinced.

The Radiolab episode had several fascinating stories, but the one that caught my ear (and inspired this post) was about a woman with Parkinson's disease named Ann who was addicted to gambling. And I don't mean that she lost a paycheck or two at online poker, I mean she was crippled by the need to gamble, morning, afternoon, and night. A high school English teacher on a state employee's salary, Ann lost more than $200,000 in a year. That's $200,000 dollars in quarters. Ann was genuinely, hopelessly, physically addicted to playing slots.

Ann describes her mindset as a continual, compulsive search for the secret to winning: she got three lemons in a row before winning last time, so maybe lemons had something to do with it.  "The trick of a one-armed bandit," Read Montague, a professor of neuroscience at Baylor University, told The Boston Globe, "is that it provides us with the illusion of a pattern. We get enough rewards so that we keep on playing. Our cells think they'll figure out the pattern soon. But of course they won't." So Ann's gambling problem boiled down to her compulsion to see patterns where there were none--her natural patternicity. Patternicity is a word I borrowed from Michael Shermer, president of the Skeptic's Society. Allow me to quote from the blog post where I introduced patternicity, to save you clicking time:

Patternicity, argues Shermer, is a reaction that humans evolved in order to protect ourselves. The example he gives is that of a rustle in the grass, which may or may not be a deadly predator. Although it is far more likely that the rustle is just a trick of the wind, assuming the existence of the predator is a safer bet if you don't want to end up as somebody else's dinner.

And this natural, built-in tendency to see patterns around us is of course controlled by a natural, built-in chemical: the neurotransmitter dopamine. High levels of dopamine are associated with schizophrenia and other serious psychological disorders.  Dopamine also just happens to be associated with body movement control, and low levels of it are the primary cause of Parkinson's symptoms. Aha! The pieces are starting to fit together, aren't they…

Ann was on a drug to control her Parkinson's symptoms, and this drug worked by imitating dopamine. No wonder Ann's patternicity was on a rampage! And she wasn't alone; The Boston Globe article cited recent medical studies that found that anywhere from 3 to 13 percent of patients on medication like Ann's develop severe gambling addictions or related compulsions.

This kind of overambitious patternicity is markedly different from the delusions of government conspiracy popularly associated with other dopamine related psychological disorders, but it seems quite possible that they both boil down to chemical imbalances that screw with our pattern recognition software.  Our body is incredibly complicated, and as far as I can tell there is no part of our own anatomy more baffling and full of surprises than the brain.  Tinker with its chemistry just a smidgen, and all kinds of crazy shit happens.  And you thought you were in control...

02 September 2010

More than a McNugget: Chicken Communication

Chickens can talk.  Kind of.  And they're delicious.  What's not to love?

I am a very strange eater. I tell people I'm a vegetarian so as not to bore them, but I'm actually just terribly picky about what animals I will ingest. I believe in transparency of consumption, and in equality of guilt throughout the chain of production (I'll save that for another blog entry). That being said, I like to eat animals. And I don't get to do it very often. So it was a special occasion when Chris bought us a locally farmed, free-range, organic chicken this week and endeavored to roast it in my grandmother's old roasting pan, using the crappiest apartment oven of all time.

The experience got me thinking about chickens. We Americans eat a lot of chicken, and we rarely think twice about it. Most people who decide to cut out only a portion of their meat consumption choose to eliminate pork and beef, often for religious or health reasons. But I think we also feel a stronger connection to the cow and the pig than we do to the lowly broiler chicken.  The former two are mammals, which means we have stronger family ties. Also they are furry, which reminds us of puppies. I could imagine hugging a piglet, a clean one, whereas I can't imagine hugging a chick. Pigs and cows are also a lot larger than chickens, which for some unknown reason seems to mean a lot to us (think of the big fuss over whales). And then of course there is the big I-word: intelligence. Cows and pigs are most certainly more intelligent than chickens.

Carnivores and vegetarians alike love to throw around claims about animal sentience and intelligence as if it is hard core scientific fact. But if I've learned anything studying assessment theory for the past six months, it's that intelligence is not something we can measure accurately even in humans, so what makes us think we can objectify it in animals? Still, there are certain basic mental feats that we consider indications of some amorphous type of animal smarts. One of those is representational communication. In other words, a certain noise or combination of noises that correspond to a certain meaning. The representational nature of human communication is what makes blogging possible; when I type the word chicken, I don't have to show you what I'm talking about, because the combination of the syllables chic- and -ken mean something specific to you already.

As kids, we are taught over and over and over by a myriad of animated movies and TV shows that almost all animals can communicate just as well as we can, and make intelligent decisions based on those communications.  If we are to take these childhood representations as fact, most of this communication is actually inter-species, a kind of encoded English.

Also they tend to wear warm weather accessories but no pants. Oh how those movie producers lie!

There are a lot of animal behaviorists interested in representational communication. Most of this research is on apes, our well known evolutionary cousins. But the creature responsible for the McNugget (or at least a portion of it) turns out to be an interesting research subject as well. Dr. Chris Evans of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia has found that certain rooster calls trigger nearby hens to look for specific information, i.e. food or predators. These calls have "language-like qualities," and indicate a level of social sophistication that has only been shown for a few mammals. This video shows a hen responding to a call indicating the presence of food.  She walks toward the loudspeaker and begins to peck at the ground, looking for the food.

Personally, I'm impressed.  It may not be Chicken Run, but these birds, which we stuff into windowless houses so pungent with ammonia that they develop sores all over their bodies, and breed to grow so quickly that they cannot support their own weight, aren't empty-headed idiots placed on this Earth as yet another commodity. They are the product of millions of years of evolution, including several thousand (at least) of domestication, which has given them a unique language-like ability to communicate, and I think that they deserve some respect.

So I got out the cloth napkins, and lit some candles.  Cheers to the talking chicken!

Pick a little, talk a little, pick a little, talk a little,
Cheep cheep cheep, talk a lot, pick a little more
Pick a little, talk a little, pick a little, talk a little,
Cheep cheep cheep, talk a lot, pick a little more
Pick a little, talk a little, pick a little, talk a little,
Cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep
Cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep
Cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep
Pick a little, talk a little, cheep!