Monday, July 31, 2006

Visualizing Plasticity

LifeScience News: MIT Researchers Watch Brain In Action

Thanks to a new imaging system, researchers at MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory have gotten an unprecedented look into how genes shape the brain in response to the environment. Their work is reported in the July 28 issue of Cell.

"This work represents a technological breakthrough," said first author Kuan Hong Wang, a research scientist at the Picower Institute who will launch his own laboratory at the National Institute of Mental Health in the fall. "This is the first study that demonstrates the ability to directly visualize the molecular activity of individual neurons in the brain of live animals at a single-cell resolution, and to observe the changes in the activity in the same neurons in response to the changes of the environment on a daily basis for a week."

Um... Daaaaaaaaamn. Color me impressed.

I'm really not following the description of how they did it, other than that it involves taking transgenic mice with to tagged to Arc (a protein involved in plasticity) and installing "transparent cranial windows" in them. Now, I would certainly be inclined to argue that more brains should be covered by plastic windshields. Unfortunately, Cell's webpage is failing to load at the moment, so I'll have to patiently wait until later to figure this out.

Can you smell something in the air?

I think I can safely assume that most everyone has heard of at one point or another. However, one thing I don't think most people realize is that the evidence for pheromonal activity in humans has been far from conclusive. For one thing, humans not only lack functional genes homologous to most pheromone receptors that have been discovered; we even seem to lack the organ that pheromone receptors are generally found in! Also, there is very little evidence for pheromonal effects: the only article I can recall having heard of before today is Stern & McClintock's Regulation of ovulation by human pheromones.

But all that may be about to change:

On that dream date, something really might be in the air. Results from a mouse study may bolster the evidence for human pheromones, the long-debated chemical signals thought to unconsciously sway our behaviour...

... Finding such receptors in the lining of the nose, rather the vomeronasal organ, is a more direct parallel with humans. Stephen Liberles and Linda Buck report their finding online this week in Nature (S. D. Liberles & L. B. Buck Nature doi:10.1038/nature05066; 2006)1. They isolated a group of receptors that can be triggered by at least one known mouse pheromone.

Genes encoding this family of receptors are also found in humans. "It's probably our best bet yet for functional pheromone genes in humans," says Timothy Holy, a neurobiologist at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri.

For their part, Liberles and Buck are cautious about labelling the mouse proteins as pheromone receptors. They have not yet carried out a key test to show that activating or eliminating the receptors alters a mouse's behaviour. But Buck says that her team is "intrigued by the possibility" of their being pheromone receptors, and is embarking on tests to find out.

Olfactory systems are one of the big areas of research in neuroscience right now. I'm honestly not sure why that is. But if --who won a Nobel Prize for her work on cloning and investigating the molecular mechanisms of olfactory receptors--is able to conclusively confirm the existence of pheromone receptors in humans, I think you're going to see an explosion of research in that area. Of course, I could be talking through my hat here.

Remember: Primary Sources!

I've been encountering short synopses of this article all weekend ("Nicotine Decreases Blood Alcohol Concentrations in Adult Rats"), and have been thoroughly confused. See, I'd been seeing all the chatter about it claiming it keeps you from getting drunk, but that didn't make any sense because just seems to slow gastric emptying, which means that the will all hit you eventually. So finally, I gave in and tracked down the article:

Conclusions: These results suggest that the nicotine-induced decrease in BAC may be related to gastric function. One possible explanation was related to nicotine's action in delaying gastric emptying. The longer the alcohol was retained in the stomach, the more likely that the alcohol would be metabolized by gastric alcohol dehydrogenase before its absorption into the bloodstream by the small intestine (the major site of alcohol absorption).

See? Nice and simple. Remember to check your primary sources, kids. It'll keep you off the streets and out of trouble.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Sunday amusement


FRIDAY, July 28 (HealthDay News) -- Starting in late September, Sudafed and similar cold medications will only be available from behind pharmacy counters because their active ingredient can be used to make the street drug methamphetamine.

So, consumers may be tempted to try a new type of drug that will be easier to buy. But two pharmaceutical researchers contend there's a big problem with the new nasal decongestants: They don't work.

Friday, July 28, 2006


Sorry I haven't been posting at all this past week. It's been a busy, stressful one, what with GREs, bike getting stolen, finding out we didn't get an apartment we'd been waiting on for two weeks, and the cat running away.

The cat came back, though, so it's all working out for now.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

A Sea Change in Favor of the Democratic Party...

...They just got Charles Barkley.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

GRE Results

Verbal: 720
Quantitative: 790

If you think that's impressive, then I have to point out that I was holding back our household average of 1550 cumulative. I guess I learned who wears the GRE pants in the family.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Good to Know

HealthDay: High-Sugar, Low-Caffeine 'Energy' Drinks Don't Work:

"People wishing to alleviate sleepiness through the consumption of a high-sugar, low-caffeine content energy drink -- erroneously believing the 'sugar rush' to be effective -- should avoid drinks that have little or no caffeine," said study co-author Clare Anderson, from the Sleep Research Centre at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom. "It is caffeine that is particularly effective for alleviating sleepiness, not sugar," she added.

Anderson and her colleague Jim Horne found that, one hour after drinking a high-sugar, low-caffeine drink, people had slower reaction times and experienced more lapses in concentration than if they had consumed a caffeine- and sugar-free beverage.

They reported the findings in the July online edition of Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental.

The amusing this is my initial thought as an occasional insomniac: "So I should get some super-sugary drinks to keep around for when I get tired... that way, I can wake up for just a half hour to an hour without being up all night."

Somehow, I'm not sure if that's a viable strategy.

Friday, July 21, 2006


One of my supervisors just told me I had to be enthused because I just got my first significant result: two pairs of 95% confidence intervals don't overlap each other.

I didn't have the heart to tell her we already ran an ANOVA on that data, and they didn't come out as anywhere near significant. Of course, I may have been doing that part wrong before, so I have to double-check anyway.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

You Live To Serve

I demand tribute to demonstrate your obeisance! Buy me stamps.

HOLY S***!!!

As far as I can tell, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer--despite having a name that sounds like the contrary--is a real source of news. So check this out:

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- A state lawmaker was arrested after his pistol fired as he confronted two utility workers checking for storm damage outside his parents' home.

Rep. Wallace Scarborough, 47, was charged with two counts of assault with intent to kill after he pointed a pistol at utility workers and then fired it Saturday night, according to a police report...

...Altman said he wants the charges dismissed and an apology from the electric company. "I don't think it's against the law to fire a pistol into your own back porch. It's absolutely obscene to think that a judge would uphold these charges," he said.

Bush Prepares to Veto Stem Cell Bill

The real stem cell bill passed yesterday, and despite the fact that it only makes embryos available for research--neither funding stem cell research nor even lifting the ban on funding--Bush has unsurprisingly promised a veto.

"The president believes strongly that for the purpose of research, it's inappropriate for the federal government to finance something that many people consider murder. He's one of them," spokesman Tony Snow said.

If he really considers it murder, it's high time he attempted to arrest every employee of every fertility clinic in the nation--and every customer--for the greatest act of genocide ever perpetrated, still ongoing. Or perhaps actually attempt to make it illegal in some fashion to kill these murder victims on a daily basis. In other words: why is it only murder when the embryos are used for research? And if it isn't, why has he made no attempt to prevent these murders that are occurring regardless, but only attempt to ensure that no research can be conducted from them?

Sigh. Hypocrisy.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Q & A with Ben Barre

The New York Times has a Q & A with Ben Barre, the author of the commentary in Nature on the Larry Summers controversy I discussed last week. Money quote:

Q. Why do some people attribute differences in professional achievement to innate ability?

A. One of the reasons is the belief by highly successful people that they are successful because of their own innate abilities. I think as a professor at Stanford I am lucky to be here. But I think Larry Summers thinks he is successful because of his innate inner stuff.

I was going to transpose this with a great quote from an interview they played during the WNBA All-Star game last week. I think it might have been Sheryl Swoops who said it, something along the lines of, "We've won the last five All-Star games due to our hard work and perserverance, but the East may get lucky and win this year." It was intended in jest and discussed a bit more at half-time, but I can't find it online at all.

Suspicious Minds

Does anyone look at this and immediately have a bad techno-disco version of "Hail to the Chief" running through their head? Or do I just have a dirty mind?

Monday, July 17, 2006

Neuroscience is Hope

I know this has been around for a few weeks, but a friend just told me about it the other day and I haven't seen anyone else noting it:

A sensor implanted in a paralysed man's brain has enabled him to control objects by using his thoughts alone...

...A team of scientists inserted the device, called a neuromotor prosthesis (NMP), into an area of the brain known as the motor cortex, which is responsible for voluntary movement.

The NMP comprises an internal sensor that detects brain cell activity, and external processors that convert the activity into signals that can be recognised by a computer...

...Using the device, Mr Nagle was able to move a computer cursor to open an e-mail, play simple computer games, open and close a prosthetic hand, and use a robot limb to grasp and move objects.

Mr Nagle said the sensor had restored some of his independence by allowing him to carry out a number of tasks - such as turning the lights on - that a nurse would normally do for him.

He told the BBC: "I can't put it into words. It's just wild."

As they also point out in the article, the big news from this seems to be that three years out, they could still record activity from the motor cortex with enough fidelity in order to translate signals into action. In the long run, this is very very promising. In the short run? I'm less certain, partially due to my lack of general knowledge about the challenges and pitfalls they're looking at & also due to some lack of into in the BBC article. They seem to be implying at certain points that the chip--despite being surgically implanted--is not long-lasting enough to stay indefinitely, and may have already been removed. If that's the case, then this experiment almost amounts to proof-of-concept in humans. That seems to be the opinion of Duke University's Miguel Nicolelis:

He said: "When you decide, like this company did, to go into clinical trials for an invasive technique the stakes are very high.

"They should have demonstrated something that lasts for a long period of time, that it is reliable and safe, and that it can restore much more elaborate functions. I don't think that this paper shows that.

"I think it was too early to use this kind of technology in this kind of clinical trial."

I think we're seeing two different philosophies at work here: Cyberkinetics--the company developing the chip and running the trial--wants to first demonstrate that they're following an approach that actually works in humans, and then (I suspect), improve and upgrade the product over time. Nicolelis wants to have a product guaranteed to be as safe as possible that already performs the tasks you'd want it to before you start trying it out in humans. And he's no slouch: he's one of the men who gave robot arms to monkeys.

I guess the ultimate question I have--which is hopefully covered in the paper as published in Nature--is what the actual durability of these chips are, and whether or not they can be safely removed and replaced. For Matthew Nagle, is it worth a year of improved function if they have to turn him away when they have a real product five years away due to tissue scarring from the first surgery? Or is this not remotely a concern?

Imminent GREs about to strike

Just a friendly warning: the Girl & I are taking our GREs next week, so although I have a big post or two I hope to set aside time for at some point, posting will probably generally lighten until next Wednesday or so.

I hope this is acceptable to your sensitive sensibilities.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Stabbed in the Back

Stabbed in the Back! is a phenomenal article by Kevin Baker from the most recent issue of Harper's on the War in Iraq and the grand myths underlying the last 60 years of American politics. Must-read. (via Atrios)

Larry Summer Controversy, Year Two (cont.)

I think I've decided to hope that the debate continues indefinitely, with a new salvo fired every 4-6 months provoking discussion and rebuttals. This way we can keep the question and the ideas in everyone's mind for an extended period of time, and maybe actually get somewhere. Anyways, this summer's counter-counter-counter-attack is by Ben Barres, a neuroscientist at Stanford with the best faculty profile photo ever. Ben Barres has a fairly unique perspective on the argument, having spent most of his career as Barbara Barres. He's written a commentary for Nature, titled Does Gender Matter? (subscription, as always, required: email me if you'd like me to send you a pdf). If you just want the interesting anecdotes and money quotes, the Wall Street Journal has a good article on the essay--although you should read the essay itself if you have a chance.

I don't necessarilly agree with how he frames the debate in reference to Summers, Stephen Pinker, and Peter Lawrence--I am, after all, a privileged white male--but I have a fair amount of sympathy for his actual arguments. I find it odd that this is a debate about mathematics and science, and so few of the arguees have bothered to present real data. Barres, on the other hand, even gives us graphs. I'm hoping that this argument is slowly transitioning from discussing the maybe-data (are differences in brain structures significant, are they innate or due to environmental factors, etc.) that we may be able to explain with utility at some point in the future to real-data that uses what we have at our disposal now.

But the best part--totally skipped over by WSJ, of course--is his list of recommendations for fixing the problems in gender and racial imbalance in the sciences:

First, enhance leadership diversity in academic and scientific institutions. Diversity provides a substantially broader point of view, with more sensitivity and respect for different perspectives, which is invaluable to any organization. More female leadership is vital in lessening the hostile working environment that young women scientists often encounter. In addition to women and under-represented minority groups, we must not forget Asians and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered folks. There are enough outstanding scientific leaders in these racial and gender groups that anyone with a will to achieve a diverse leadership in their organization could easily attain it.

Second, the importance of diverse faculty role models cannot be overstated. There is much talk about equal opportunity, but, in practice, serious attention still needs to be directed at how to run fair job searches. Open searches often seem to be bypassed entirely for top leadership positions, just when it matters most — search committees should not always be chaired by men and the committee itself should be highly diverse...

...Third, there should be less silence in the face of discrimination...

...Fourth, enhance fairness in competitive selection processes. Because of evaluation bias, women and minorities are at a profound disadvantage in such competitive selection unless the processes are properly designed. As the revamped NIH Pioneer Award demonstrates, a few small changes can make a significant difference in outcome. By simply changing the procedure so that anyone can self-nominate and by ensuring a highly diverse selection committee, the number of women and minority winners went up to more than 50% from zero...

...Finally, we can teach young scientists how to survive in a prejudiced world. Self-confidence is crucial in advancing and enjoying a research career. From an early age, girls receive messages that they are not good enough to do science subjects or will be less liked if they are good at them. The messages come from many sources, including parents, friends, fellow students and, alas, teachers. When teachers have lower expectations of them, students do less well. But we are all at fault for sending these messages and for remaining silent when we encounter them. Teachers need to provide much more encouragement to young people, regardless of sex, at all stages of training.Occasional words of encouragement can have enormous effects.

But I think it can be easily summed up in another way: we're scientists. We're designing experiments with minimal bias every day of the week. Surely we can devise insitutions and organizations that can operate with minimal bias as well.

(via Washington Monthly)

I think I'm in love

So wait... you're telling me there's a woman who uses photoshop to determine whether people are people or reptilian overlords bent on world domination?!? I swoon!

We totally need to hook up. We could make beautiful music--not to mention lots of beautiful half-reptile/half-conspiracy nut babies--together.

(via Bad Astronomy via Pharyngula)

Thursday, July 13, 2006

A Question of Terminology: How Do We Describe LSD?

When discussing psychoactive substances, terminology can be an occasionally touchy subject. To pull an example out of a hat, although it is useful to describe a class of drugs by their effect--such as the class of 'stimulants'--it lacks utility in other settings. For instance, if we're sitting down and having a conversation about stimulants, it can make a huge difference which chemical class we're talking about: are we talking about alkaloids, such as , , or (my personal favorite) ? Or are we talking about a such as ? Perhaps we wish to limit ourselves to abused stimulants, or to the class of stimulants that act on : but then we still have to distinguish between the amphetamine-like drugs, which releases DA by opening the transporter, and , which simply blocks the transporter and thus inhibits DA reuptake.

Hopefully, you can see how this might make our conversation confusing were we to fail to be quite specific in our statements. However, to the best of my knowledge, there's no ongoing controversy to classification of stimulants (feel free to correct me if I'm wrong). But there is some disagreement over another group, one which seems as though it should be fairly easy to identify.

So, a simple question for the audience: what do , , and all have in common? If you answered that they are chemically similar, you'd be wrong. Psilocybin and LSD are both , whereas peyote is another phenethylamine. The difference between them is clear, hopefully even to the untrained eye:




Fortunately, these drugs all have a common pharmacological target which is believed to be responsible for their common effect: they are all agonists of the 5HT2A/C subtype of receptors. This target is common to most drugs with a similar effect. So we have a class of drugs whose primary effects are decently described in both popular and scientific literature--albeit with an absence of precise characterization of long-term and secondary effects--with a common pharmacological target. So when we want to bring them up in polite conversation, how do we refer to them?

One obvious answer would be to call them "serotonergic agonists of the 2A/C receptor subtype," or something similar. This has many drawbacks, just to name a few: I can't expect anyone who isn't a neuroscientist to remember that for more than five minutes. Of course, it could still be usable in the scientific literature: but believe it or not, even scientists generally prefer to have non-clunky, non-confusing terminology to refer to things by when possible. So that's right out, at least for our general purposes.

Now, this debate's been going on for something like fifty years, and we have four main terms that still get tossed around (each of which seems to still be used right now by at least a few people):
  • Psychotomimetic (a word I am very sad to see does not have a wikipedia entry)

  • Hallucinogen (ditto)

A true psychotomimetic drug would be one which causes a state mimicking psychosis or schizophrenia in an individual. This was one of the first terms applied to LSD when it first appeared, as it was thought that LSD was in fact bringing on a psychosis-like state in the subject. For a short time, researchers attempted to use it as a chemical model until it became apparent that something entirely different was going on. These days, very few people would argue that this term is useful to describe the class of drugs we're talking about; but certainly there are still some out there

Hallucinogen is, at this point, the most commonly used term. But there is a dissatisfaction with it, which seems--at least, to me--to have been growing over the years. The problem is that it, too, seems to be an inaccurate description of the effect of these drugs based on a poor understanding of the effects. Despite the archetype of acidheads tripping out and staring at the pretty colors or interacting with things that aren't there, only a small percentage of users seems to actually report hallucinations. Although many do report some form of altered perception, it is far from universal and generally limited to distortions of actually present objects--and the user can generally recognize both what the object really is and that their senses are altering it. A hallucination, on the other hand, is ideally something which literally isn't there. As such, many have suggested that the term is better used to refer to tropane alkaloids such as or , which can induce visions that seem to be unrelated to one's actual surroundings. As such, those drugs are often referred to as the "true hallucinogens" to distinguish them from the more common and broader use of the term. Another reason why it might be useful to limit the term is demonstrated by this page on eMedicine, the second site to come up after a google search for "hallucinogen"; here, the category is applied so broadly that it might be more simply referred to as "all non-opiate illegal drugs."

Entheogen is a term that was coined in the late 70s specifically to counter the use of hallucinogen--disliked because of its negative connotations with insanity--and psychedelic (which we'll cover next)--disliked because of its association with 1960s drug culture. It translates roughly as "causing the god within." Honestly? As the term's use is currently advocated, it's awful. If reeks of having been developed as an attempt to improve PR for recreational use of a class of drugs (even if that wasn't the intent). The problem is it's a use-based term: any drug someone wishes to take for religious purposes can be viably deemed an entheogen. The problem, of course, is that there are an endless variety of human religious practices: ultimately, in one context or another any drug could be an entheogen. Attend a UDV ceremony, and consume the classic entheogen ayahuasca. Then go over to your local reservation--and depending on where you are, you may be able to sample the entheogen peyote or the entheogen tobacco. Perhaps you feel like starting a new religion dedicated to the Roman gods Pan & Bacchus? If so, then at your bacchanalia you may wish to promote use of your group's own entheogen, Viagra. I hope you can see the dilemma: the term seems to be quite useful in an anthropological or archaeological context, but has little use when trying to refer to a class of drugs based on their pharmacological properties.

And finally, we have the last entry: psychedelic. Although the term is still much less frequently used in the literature than hallucinogen (for instance, I just did a PubMed search and got a single result for "psychedelic LSD 2006" vs. 56 for "hallucinogen LSD 2006"), I've seen a number of people--both in and out of the scientific arena--advocating for its use. Consider, for instance, the existence of MAPS: the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. The Heffter Research Institute also refers to the drugs they study as psychedelics. The only problem with the term that critics usually point to is its negative associations with 1960's & 1970's-era drug culture. To my mind, this isn't a very good argument. Psychedelic also has the advantage of being the most useful description of the state evoked by these drugs: "mind-manifesting."

I admit that this debate is in certain respects almost entirely political. Nonetheless, the terms one chooses to use do have a certain power to them, especially the power to guide how the public thinks about them. In that respect, all of these terms have major drawbacks: but nonetheless, research into many of them is starting to pick up some serious momentum. So the scientific community may either be ultimately forced to recover one of these terms in the public eye, or come up with yet another term to describe them--and hope that it's both accurate and that it doesn't immediately become associated with drug culture.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

I heartily look forward to the day when one must pass an IQ test to get their own "news" show.

(thanks to Atrios)

MN's Simone Augustus wins All-Star Dribble, Dish & Swish Challenge

I totally forget that there was a skills night for the WNBA All-Stars. Color me stupid.

Anyways, thanks to the Sinister Dr. X: Augustus Puts On A Show As She Wins The All-Star Dribble, Dish and Swish Challenge

As the players first started warming up and getting a feel for the course prior to the event, it looked as though the winner was going to be either Sue Bird or Hall-of-Famer Nancy Lieberman, who both got through the course with ease. Yes, that's right, I said Nancy Lieberman. She may not have been in the event or even in the WNBA anymore, but she sure looked like she knew what she was doing as she gave the course a run through. It even looked as though the NBA TV analyst completed the course faster than rookie sensation Seimone Augustus, who would eventually become the champion.

Each contestant began the obstacle course on the baseline. The players start the event with a layup before dribbling down the court around pylons shaped as WNBA players. After they get to the other end of the court, they must throw a straight chest pass through the first cylinder, then grab a second ball and bounce pass it through the second cylinder. When the two passes are complete, they then grab another ball and must hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key. After the three they must pass one more ball through the third cylinder before dribbling through three more pylons and being set home free for another open lay up. The fasted time wins.

Congrats to Simone, and I look forward to watching her help the West demolish the East tonight after work!


Life Science News: PET Imaging Confirms Link Between Receptor Levels And Cocaine Abuse

The research, in animals, shows a significant correlation between the number of receptors in part of the brain for the neurotransmitter dopamine – measured before cocaine use begins – and the rate at which the animal will later self-administer the drug. The research was conducted in rhesus monkeys, which are considered an excellent model of human drug users.

Generally the lower the initial number of dopamine receptors, the higher the rate of cocaine use, the researchers found. The research was led by Michael A. Nader, Ph.D., professor of physiology and pharmacology at Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

It was already known that cocaine abusers had lower levels of a particular dopamine receptor known as D2, in both human and animal subjects, compared to non-users. But it was not known whether that was a pre-existing trait that predisposed individuals to cocaine abuse or was a result of cocaine use.

"Giant Death Mecha" is my second-favorite crossword answer ever.

Via Pharyngula, an interview with Bush's pilot.


Just now finished watching Takeshi Kitano's Dolls.

I'm not sure what there is I can say.

It's one of the most beautiful, deep, and meditative films I've ever seen. I'll enjoy coming back to it over the years, finding what new layers present themselves as time goes by. A cursory overview of reviews around the net immediately demonstrate that the film is layered and reflective: the deeper you dig, the more you can find what you're looking for.

For now? It's a Joycean film about love and solitude. About fate and choice. About one's inability to leave behind the connections to those you love: no matter how hard you may try.

From Roger Ebert's review:

The film is about three people who have unhappiness forced upon them, and three others who choose it.

I understand precisely what he's getting at here, and yet I think it oversimplifies the issue. Right here, right now, to me the movie forces me to think about what choices each of the characters have made. In a universe with agency, all of the characters ultimately chose their fate. In a universe that finds it lacking? They're all ultimately bunraku dolls.

Five stars, easily earned by default in any of several categories.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Some quick linkage

Via Stranger Fruit: Charles M. Grinstead & J. Laurie Snell's textbook, Introduction to Probability is now available as a free pdf, released under the GNU FDL.

Science Blog: Hallucinogen in mushrooms creates universal 'mystical' experience
This one actually intrigued me enough that I just finished printing off the paper in question; hopefully tonight or tomorrow I might have enough time to go through it and give you a quick review. (We can pray, can't we?)

Developing Intelligence on the cognitive prowess of other primates. Read it.

Mixing Memory: The Neuroscience of Playing Chicken. 'Nuff said.


I have no idea where I first got this link from... but I've already seen it three or four times today so I won't feel too guilty about not giving credit where credit is due.

Anyways... I would like to introduce you to the stupidest person on the planet still capable of using a computer. So stupid, in fact, that I highly suspect that we will inevitably discover his persona is a ruse: perhaps a liberal masquerading as a crazed pro-lifer for humor, or a crazed pro-lifer attempting to fulfill some diabolical plan of trolling the entire internet. Regardless, either the word "crazed" or the word "stupid" will definitely apply once the dust settles. Have fun.

Complete and Utter Randomness

There's a guy in one of the Neuro labs over in the Molecular & Cellular Bio Building who doesn't bother with stereotaxic surgery when he needs to inject something into a mouse's brain. He just picks them up, sticks the needle in, and takes care of it. He's apparently done it enough times that he's consistently accurate. I've never seem him do it myself, but that just sounds incredibly awesome.

Further thoughts

See, the thing that really bugs me about the whole "cannibal native savages" thing is that there's always the unspoken corollary that these savage peoples are just waiting to be tamed by a white man. And even when you play it up for humor, there's a pretty clear subtext that makes me squick.

And if you don't think this sort of thinking has any impact in the modern era, I'd like to point this out to you: via TPM, a recent Lawrence Kaplan post that I'm sure everyone else is already talking about.

The shorter Lawrence Kaplan? "We invaded Iraq to bring Civilization and Democracy to these savage peoples, but they appear to be too savage and brutish for even us to tame and civilize."

Am I being rude and crude to Kaplan? Oh, yeah, totally. But just keep in mind: these are the sorts of ideas that shaped the modern era, and continue to shape it today. Even if they're not being spoken out loud, they're still there.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

So last night we went out and caught Pirates of Cthulhu the Caribbean 2: Electric Boogaloo last night with some friends who were in town for the weekend.

First, a couple things:
1. I'm much less obsessed with the movie than most people I know who've enjoyed it. As in, not at all. The presence of an elder god was really what made me care about seeing it in the theater.
2. Things that are technically spoilers will appear. So if you care, stop now. If you don't, they're nothing major (imho).

So off to the good: if you wanted a movie that would deliver everything you liked about the first movie, you will like this film. All of the main characters appear, they all do things that are both similar to and sensible extrapolations of their roles in the first film, and more characters show up and do other stuff and wacky hijinks generally ensue.

The most intriguing thing about watching the movie for me was realizing about halfway through what the appeal is for me. It's a universe composed of straight men, with Jack Sparrow representing a walking punch line. Everyone else is in a perfectly serious pirate movie, and is thus focused on great riches, or honor, or revenge, etc. And Jack Sparrow is in some sort of twisted Buster Keaton film, blundering from scene to scene and locally warping reality around his presence. Which is the great success and the great failure of the first movie for me: on the other hand, it's what makes the movies entertaining. These would be two boring, festering piles of crap if all of the characters and actors approached the material with a straight face. But at the same time, it's difficult for me to take the events seriously when the lead himself can't be bothered to.

Cthulhu does star as the villian--playing Davy Jones of the Monkees--and he does quite a good job, although I'm not sure how much I like the approach of the character. Quite frankly, he's a bit too overtly Christian for my tastes, which is odder and odder the longer you think about it. The idea behind him is interestingly framed in the movie, but is in and of itself a bit of a letdown. He gets two thumbs up for having an organ, though: a must for any truly villianous character, and he plays it so well.

Onto the annoying:

The way the plot eked out in drips and drabs was incredibly annoying. Our first scene on the Black Pearl establishes that the other pirates on the ship don't know what's bothering Jack. A half hour later, they start explaining it all to Will Turner because, you know, somebody has to get the exposition out of the way. A lot of the plot is like that: things of significance suddenly get explained to a character not in any organic fashion, but simply because the plot reaches a point where the audience has to know something of import, and so the movie can't treat it as a mystery anymore. At least they seem to avoid cabbage-heading, for the most part, although it does sometimes appear that Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley are the only two people north of the equator who don't know everything there is to know about Davy Jones.

Finally, the most annoying two things for last:

#1: Oh, hey, it's not a movie. It's the first half of a movie, the second half just re-started filming (after filming some scenes concurrently with the first half). I allow that filmmakers are allowed to end movies in whatever fashion they want: even on a cliffhanger. But at the same time? I paid to watch a movie: I got half a movie instead. Can I pay half price? I could complain about this more, but it would quickly just turn into whining.

#2: You know what? It's the year 2006. I'd really sort of thought that maybe--just maybe--I wouldn't see native cannibal savages who worship white men as gods in a movie ever again. It's ridiculous. Haven't we gotten past this? Seriously? Why not just have Johnny Depp put on black face and sing "Mamie" while you're at it? Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. I could almost let it slip--or at least not be incredibly pissed off about it--by arguing that this isn't intended as a portrayal of the Caribbean of the real world, but rather some abstract fantasy Caribbean, where zombies walk along the sea bottom, Cthulhu captains a ship, and pirates can be heroes because they never actually do anything remotely piratic. But all the same, when your villian is the East Indian Trading Company (which, oddly enough, operated in... um, India), you've made a certain concrete step into the real world. Blech.

So? The movie gets an overall rating of three stars: it gains a bonus star for Cthulhu playing the organ, and loses a penalty star for making me feel filthy all over for a good half hour near the beginning. End result: still three stars.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Yes, I've oft wondered what X looks like...

I really have but two responses to this post from Ms. PhD. And by "responses," I mean, "images immediately brought to mind." My mastery and precision of usage of the English language is, as always, purple.

#1: I have been reminded that I really need to make a T-shirt that reads, "THIS IS WHAT |INSERT LABEL HERE| LOOKS LIKE"

Yeah, I have an abstract sense of humor.

#2: In reference to her quote:

Men: try dressing up in women's clothes, a la Mel Gibson in What Women Want and you'll see what we mean. You'll gain a new appreciation for the unfairness of it all. If someone said you had to do it every day, you wouldn't.

I was immediately reminded of:

(imagery of Louis Koo & Ching Wan Lau brought to you courtesy the greatest romantic comedy of all time).

I suppose I could also pretend to say something serious, too boot.

The question, "What is a feminist?" sort of threw me for a loop. I mean, I realize I was raised by liberals and all, but it still confuses me that so many people have not figured out the simple equation that reads "feminism = the idea that men and women should stand on equal footing." It's really rather simple to explain, at it's most basic. Sure, there are different flavors, but that's true of any type of movement. I also find it odd that there's a presumption that one must be female--and also stereotypically feminine--to be a feminist; because, you know, you have to be black to be opposed to racism, gay to be a proponent of same sex marriage, and a clothing designer to be a fascist.

No New Taxes Information

I can't speak for the paper they're discussing, but does anyone find this Seed article a bit vacuous? As in, it contains no information that I didn't figure out on my own within my first month of using eBay?

Best interview ever

Hot hot Adam Carolla on Ann Coulter action.

Electric Boogaloo

Synapse #2 is up.

Monday's Gratuitous Omega Man reference

Thanks to Mark Cuban, I'm going to spend the rest of the day thinking to myself that analog is part of the dead.

Never mind, you just don't understand.

Young and Dangerous, Part 2

So what is this Young and Dangerous part 2, you ask? Is there somewhere a Young and Dangerous part 1 to be found? The answer to this is Aye, There Is, but it is not to be found here.

Young and Dangerous was a long-running series of Triad films out of Hong Kong. Directed by Wai Keung Lau (better known in the states as Andrew Lau), they seem to tell the story of a group of young punks who join the Triads and work their way to the top. Or so I'm guessing based on how these narratives usually work, since I've only seen the second one in the series. The point is, I'm under the impression that it's the series that was actually huge in Hong Kong right when I was getting into Hong Kong movies, and it also seems to be the series that brought us Jordan Chan, Nicholas Tse, and the ever-lovable Ekin Cheng. So after reading 50 reviews of films with these guys in them, talking about how they're stretching form their iconic roles as gangsters--and realizing I'd never seen a single one of them play a gangster--I decided I needed to watch as much of the series as I could (which is apparently a noncontinuous half of it, unless I decide to buy them).

So anyways, the movie was fun. There was much confusion at first, as half of the movie is a flashback showing what happened to Jordan Chan's character during the first movie (not available in the US), which then catches up to present day and continues from there. We knew none of this, so you can imagine how that went. I would like to say the movie was in fact great, but I can't quite commit to that. The video and sound quality were both subpar, and the subtitles felt even more crap than usual. At the very least, the subtitles were holding us back from following and appreciating the film. So as a package, I've got to give it 3.5 stars. It had some great moments and seemed to be well-written, well-directed and well-acted (Anthony Wong, particularly, chewed scenery like nobody's business while seeming to approach his role as Ron Jeremy playing the Gary Oldman character from True Romance). But the package held me back just enough to keep me from really getting into it.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Trailers to watch

Dragon Tiger Gate, starring Donnie Yen & Nicholas Tse. Looks awesome.

Mercury Man, with stunt choreography from the Ong Bak team. Looks ridiculous. In an awesome sort of way.

Friday, July 07, 2006


And yes, I realize that I've just condemned myself to having ads with you-know-who's names prominently displayed across the top of this blog for the next week. I'll try to post more often to get it out of the way faster.

Ann Coulter

This was going to just be a comment to this Pharyngula post, but I couldn't get TypeKey to work so I gave up. Anyways, PZ notes that:

OK, many people seem to be picking up on Coulter's plagiarism, Karl Mogel picks up on the overt sexism of Coulter's remarks*, but there's far too little discussion of the fact that Coulter's book is a tissue thin collection of lies. Her understanding of science is negligible, and she's simply parroting old creationist nonsense, but almost no one is pointing out that fact. Is science just too hard for the media? Shouldn't the fact that she plagiarizes be a lesser sin than the fact that she is making stuff up?

I suspect that there's a level on which this question is just rhetorical exasperation. But it does bear commenting on: Coulter's dishonesty has been pointed out time and time again, by everyone from tiny blogs to prominent public figures (Al Franken comes to mind). In fact--to be equal parts blunt and crass--Coulter's obvious lack of sanity has been pointed out time and time again. At this point, calling Coulter on her dishonesty is essentially a practice of preaching to the choir. Which is great for, you know, Sunday morning at church, but isn't really a practical behavior.

It's pretty clear at this point that anyone who's still reading Ann Coulter falls into one of the following categories:
  • Reading even though they know she's being dishonest

  • Completely and utterly disconnected from the real world to the extent that they aren't aware of her dishonesty (i.e., not a member of the "Reality-Based Community")

  • Willfully suppressing their better impulses to convince themselves it has any bearing on reality

These are vague categories at best, and I'm sure they and others could be better delineated. But the point is that we have reached our maximum effectiveness by pointing out she's crazy and full of crap. Clearly the media--maintaining the pretense for a moment that such a collective hive-mind as "the media" exists--at this point is unwilling to dwell on this point to any extent. But since this is but one of her many faults, let's focus on another one.

There are clear rhetorical approaches to avoiding claims of dishonesty: some are rooted in the perversion of postmodernism, such as claims that a statement is true within realms of a certain context. One can also embrace ad hominem arguments, or just shout louder than the other guy. But it's a bit more difficult to avoid charges of plagiarism, because it's a relatively subjective crime in the first place. You put two columns of text next to each other: if they consistently look similar, then you're guilty. If they don't, then maybe not so much. Not to mention that plagiarism is a crime that I suspect the media is more sensitive to, since that's exactly the sort of image problem they often worry about the most.

So while I agree that plagiarism is the least of Ann's crimes against humanity (in fact, her tendency toward strained hyperbole probably is ;-P), let's go with this one for now: maybe this time it'll work.

Friday Random 10 - 7 July 2006

1. Ministry - Yellow Cake
2. Anjali - Mistress of Disguise
3. Mylene Pires - Longa Longa Noite
4. RJD2 - The Proxy
5. Brother Ali - Blah Blah Blah
6. Sun Ra - Blue Intensity
7. Jedi Mind Tricks feat. Tragedy Khadafi - Genghis Khan
8. Juno Reactor - Magnetic
9. Non Phixion - Drug Music
10. Sigur Ros - Olsen Olsen

I'm supposed to be working on an experiment today, but none of the people I've contacted to see if they want to participate have gotten back to me with times yet. So I'm going to go outside and read from the Stats textbook I got a couple of weeks ago for a while. We'll see how that goes...

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Ten Second Movie Reviews

The shorter Superman Returns: Superman can do anything, as long as he grunts hard enough. Next time, try a Kryptonite gag. I'd totally watch that movie. Three stars.

The Getaway: It's really unfortunate that the most iconic slap of all time is Steve McQueen's character being a dick. On the plus side, this movie features the most sadistic B-plot ever filmed. Four stars.

The Thirsty Dead. This movie's first key problem is a lack of... um... Dead. Who are thirsty. It's other key problem is that it's awful. But I knew that going in. Anyways, the only reasons to watch this movie are A: it delivers exactly what it promises (women running around in improvised clothing getting chased around caves and a jungle), and B: despite coming out in 1975, it clearly seems to have been made either on a bet or purely as an excuse to put together a cocaine budget after someone won a lot of unwanted Star Trek native garb costumes on eBay. Two stars.

Godzilla: Final Wars. I never thought I would say this about a Godzilla movie, but this was totally awesome. Ryuhei Kitamura totally delivers the madcap action and successfully destroys civilization with giant monsters. I agree with reviews that argue that there's too much hand-to-hand and too little giant monster fighting for a Godzilla movie. But at the same time, this movie so exceeded my expectations that I can't say they should change a thing. Kazuki Kitamura was phenomenal, over-the-hill mixed martial arts star Don Frye was tolerable. I kept screaming at Don, "come on, get knocked over, let somebody sit on your chest and pummel the crap out of you. It'll be just like old times..." Four stars.

Mighty Baby. This movie is a sequal to La Brassiere--the greatest romantic comedy ever made--and is but a pale imitation of its genius. But a pale imitation of La Brassiere is still enough to keep me laughing and screaming nonstop. I was a bit irritated at the number of scenes that were formula sequel scenes: "take scene from first movie, copy it directly into second movie, then turn up to eleven." However, enough of those scenes were zany enough or tongue in cheek enough to keep me entertained. Ultimately, I wanted this movie to be a thematic sequel to La Brassiere: just as the first is a movie about two men learning to understand women and a playboy meeting his match intermingled with a plot about bras; I'd hoped this would similarly take the characters to the next chapter of their lives, growing older in love and moving onto parenthood. And there are a few of those moments in there, but ultimately, they just tried to duplicate the madcap zaniness from the first film, which was their key failure. Still, it was hilarious. Four stars.

Where Eagles Dare. I remembered this movie was all about the scene in front of the fireplace in the castle, identities switching back and forth. I didn't remember that the "all" was literal in that sentence. Although the suitcase of dynamite made me nostalgic for the gym bag of guns in the Killer. Three stars.

Sorry about the dearth of posting yesterday, but blogger was being non-helpful. 'nuff said.

So first off, I'm officially going to SfN 2006. Also, it looks like I'll be rooming alone: I'm the only male in the lab, and the other labs we talked to were either paired up or weren't sending people. So I guess that makes mine the party room. Woo-hoo. I'll throw some selections at you guys of the more interesting events later.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Where was this post when I needed it Friday night?

Retrospectacle: Taking Aspirin After Noise Protects Your Hearing

Good News for a Hungover Day

Happy July 5th:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A gene mutation that shrivels brain cells may be responsible for the mental retardation seen in Down syndrome, U.S. researchers reported on Wednesday.

The finding suggests there may be a way to interfere with or even reverse the mental decline often seen as people with Down syndrome get older. The finding, published in the journal Neuron, also may apply to Alzheimer's disease, the researchers said...

...The researchers worked with genetically engineered mice to find the gene, which is called App -- short for amyloid precursor protein. Mutations are known to cause early-onset Alzheimer's disease in otherwise healthy people.

Like people with Down, the mice had three abnormal copies of the App gene. When the researchers deleted the third copy of App in the mice, the animals became more normal.

"We're now investigating ways in which we might be able to turn down App expression," Mobley said in a statement.

Monday, July 03, 2006

1st Edition of Encephalon

The first edition of the new neuroscience blog, Encephalon, is now up at the blog of its founder, the Neurophilosopher. Go check it out--there's some fun ones up there.

The Value of Scientific Research, Part One Billion and Three

Worth reading. Comments of my own? Perhaps later, but since I'm leaving work early today to help a friend move, the odds are low.

Ten Second Concert Review

If Ministry and RevCo are coming to your town, buy earplugs.

The deafness has mostly gone away, but there's still a bit of weirdness going on around the top of my range.

Other than that? It's awesome. I paid thirty dollars to see Luc Van Acker parade around stage in a giant penis costume because he didn't have anything better to do during "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" My life may be officially complete.

GABA fluid & phosphenes

The scramble suit was an invention of the Bell Laboratories, conjured up by accident by an employee named SA Powers. He had, a few years ago, been experimenting with disinhibiting substances affecting neural tissue, and one night, having administered to himself an IV injection considered safe and mildly euphoric, had experienced a disastrous drop in the GABA fluid of his brain. Subjectively, he had then witnessed lurid phosphene activity projected on the far wall of his bedroom, a frantically progressing montage of what, at the time, he imagined to be modern-day abstract paintings.
from A Scanner Darkly by , p. 22

I freely admit that Dick is on the "doesn't care about science" end of the science fiction author continuum, and further that I have no idea what the level of knowledge was about some of these topics at the time. But nonetheless, I came across this passage and thought it might be fun to dissect it a bit.

stands for Gamma-aminobutyric acid, one of the most common neurotransmitters. GABA is the primary ihibitory neurotransmitter: activation of GABA receptors generally leads to either an influx of chloride ion or an efflux of potassium ion; either of these has the end result of hyperpolarizing the cell and reducing the probablility of neuronal firing. It's important to note that isolated GABA is a powder at room temperature. Although it's fully dissolved in physiological conditions, it's certainly not a "fluid." One could generously allow a reference to it as a "solution", but really you'd be safest sticking with just calling it "GABA."

GABA molecule

are one of the more common types of entopic phenomenon: visual experiences that originate within the eye. Phosphenes, specifically, are defined as perceived light caused by a source other than light. One of the most common sources is mechanical pressure: this can be experienced by closing your eye and looking at the inside of your eyelid while rubbing it with your finger. The colors and shapes you'll see are phosphenes. They are visible in a wide scenario of circumstances: after rubbing your eyes, you may be able to see them with your eyes open; you should also generally be able to see them with your eyes closed, especially in a lit room. If you start paying attention to them, you might start to realize that they--and other entopic phenomena--are present a lot of the time, but the brain is well adapted to ignoring their presence.

Phosphenes are frequently associated with drug-related phenomena, although I'm not sure how many of the connections have been demonstrated by research. For instance, I've seen it often proposed that many drug-induced visual experiences (particularly those associated with the -class , such as ) are caused in part by altered perception of phosphenes and other entoptic phenomena. I've also seen it proposed that some outright hallucinations may involve such altered visualization, such as the classic withdrawal complaint of bugs crawling all over everything (which is also featured in A Scanner Darkly).

Is it possible for fluctuation in GABA levels to cause the effect described in the passage? Well, maybe but probably not.

A "disastrous drop" in GABA levels throughout the brain would really be most likely to cause a seizure. In fact, although there are an army of drugs designed to stimulate GABA receptors or increase GABA levels, I couldn't name a single drug used outside of a lab whose effect involves an inhibition in GABA activity.

On the other hand, there are a veritable army of drugs whose effects involve an increase in GABA activity. For instance, barbiturates and benzodiazepines primarily act through direct stimulation of GABA receptors--as does one of my favorite drugs, ethanol. Although these aren't really drugs known for their visual effects, others--such as thujone, one of the active ingredients in absinthe, or muscimol, found in fly agaric mushrooms--demonstrate that the possibility is certainly there.

And as to a scientist experimenting on himself with his own synthetic drugs: although I'm fairly confident that no Institutional Review Board would ever approve of such a thing, it does place him in fine company. Scientifically speaking.

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