January 30, 2007


I am incredibly busy at the moment . . . with school work . . . plus I'm trying to learn html. Apparently my blog isn't html valid or something. I really don't know anything about that, but I think it's why my technorati account is not updating :( Oh well, I'm going to try to figure some of this stuff out, so there may be some formatting issues within the next couple days and I might be slacking on the posts . . . but I expect it all to go back to normal soon.

In the meantime, check out this essay that Steven Pinker wrote in Time. It is about the science of consciousness and about how myths of consciousness (the ghost in the machine, the concept of I, etc.) are being dispelled by researchers in cognitive neuroscience.

smoking addiction

A recent post in the San Francisco Chronicle suggests that there may be a link between smoking addiction and a part of the brain called the insular cortex.

"In the latest study, published in this week's issue of the journal Science, researchers at the University of Southern California and University of Iowa found that longtime smokers who had sustained insula damage had a remarkably easy time giving up cigarettes."
These researchers examined 19 patients who were smokers and had damage to their insular cortex. These patients were compared to 50 other smokers who had brain damage in other areas of the brain.

They found that 13 of the 19 insula-damaged patients quit smoking and from those only 1 had a difficult time quitting. The article did not report the 'quit-smoking' stats for the control group, instead it just read that the other group of brain-damaged smokers had a significantly less number who quit.

January 26, 2007

make yourself known and support like a lake!

If you have been reading this blog, please make yourself known and comment! Also, please subscribe to my feed (by email or a feed reader) . . . and if you really like me . . . spread the word!

It's Friday!

Picture by Sam Brown, Explodingdog.

Freedom of mind? pt. 2

Okay, I just found a link to the National School Boards Association concerning the topic I wrote about a couple of days ago (that is, schools requiring students to take Ritalin in order to attend classes). There it describes the Child Medication Safety Act, which states that all states that receive federal funding must prevent local schools from coercing parents to put their kids on any psychotropic drug. It was passed by the House in 2003. So, in answer to my question, schools are not really permitted to coerce parents to give their children Ritalin. The complete text of the Bill can be seen on that site.

January 25, 2007

An end to peer review?

I just read an interesting article in the csmonitor. It essentially describes avenues by which scientists can publish their findings on the internet (by blogs, e-books, online journals, personal websites) and begs the question, "Is the scholarly journal coming to an end?"

Well, I don't think so . . . not yet anyways. Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of positives for online publishing. For one, you can bypass that pesky peer-reveiw system if you publish your experimental findings on your own blog. Anyone in the world can then search and find it . . . for free, no subscription needed. It will extend the reach of science and help create a genuine informed public. Anyone can read, critique and comment on an entry.

The article describes two such new sources of free science that look quite promising:

"Two new scientific publications, both available only online, may signal what's ahead. The PLoS ONE (plosone.org), a journal begun by the Public Library of Science (PLoS) last month, aims to put as many new scientific articles as possible on the Internet to be read by anyone, free of charge. The Journal of Visualized Experiments, or JoVE (myjove.com), is a kind of YouTube for researchers. It operates on the theory that a short video showing how an experiment is done is better than thousands of words that attempt to describe it."
It makes it easier for researchers to publish. While a peer reviewed journal may only publish 10% of it's submissions, PLoS expects to publish 2/3's of its submissions.
"While articles receive a basic screening, they don't have to attain the standard of representing groundbreaking work in order to be published. An article only has to be based on solid science. The idea is that the more valid research is published, the better, as it contributes to an online database."
(As far as JoVE is concerned, the article didn't really make it clear whether there were any sort of restrictions concerning what can be published.)

I definitely like the concept of a free journal. And I embrace the idea of an informed public, who at least have a general understanding of important and basic scientific principles. Journal subscriptions can often be so pricy that it seems like the information is priveledged knowledge.

Though possible negatives to the movement in online publishing might be:

1. A greater likelihood for crap to get published - Like it or not, the peer-review system is the best thing that science has got. Sure, one might run into some bias at one point or another. A lot of good research has missed out on publication, while, in rare cases, fraudulent work has been passed off as good science. And I do think that it's silly to drop a study, because the findings were statistically nonsignificant. You can often learn a lot from these investigations. But I do feel on the overall, the peer-review system fulfills its purpose. I think that if your research can't hold up to the critique of three experts in your own field, then it doesn't need to be in your flagship journal. Science through peer-review is, at the present time, the best way to distribute good quality work. The system is what keeps science from being persuaded by ideology. So I think that some type of peer-review system is warranted, but this doesn't mean that the information cannot be published in an online format and provided to the public at no charge. For instance, one good online scholarly journal that is both peer-reviewed and free/open to the public is Evolutionary Psychology.

2. Lay-persons might not even understand what they are reading or commenting on - I don't think that this is a major issue, but a lot of research is written with so much technical jargon, that even experts in the field have a hard time reading it. I believe that a lot of patience and willingness to look up/learn terminology will keep this from being a problem for the lay public. And I think that anyone really interested in reading online science journals would not really have a problem with it. But I think that people who don't have the patience, are lazy, or are even hostile towards certain topics are more likely to misunderstand the procedures. They shouldn't necessarily have the power to leave permanent comments on the posts. So maybe some type of safeguard could be used if commenting is going to be allowed. Perhaps they should be screened before posted? I don't know.

3. Really great research might not even get noticed - I know that I am very new to blogging, but from what I do know already . . . promoting your blog is really hard. Especially with school going on (with teaching and taking classes), and doing your research. Blogging feels like it needs to be a full time job. If you don't properly promote your online publishing, then you can't build traffic. If you don't build traffic, people aren't going to be reading your research . . . and you may even give up posting online. I don't really think this is a serious issue. I think you'll eventually learn what works and what doesn't. And I think online journals will have an easier time promoting themselves than a single researcher with a personal website.

Lastly, there's an item that could be a positive or a negative toward online publishing. I'm not really sure what I would label it as of right now:
". . . readers also will be able to rate papers on their quality, such as how surprising or groundbreaking the results were – much in the way Netflix subscribers rate movies they rent using one- to five-star ratings."
Can you imagine what it would be like if papers really were rated by users? What if researchers, themselves, were rated by the public on a 5-star system, as if they were getting Amazon.com customer reviews? It would be interesting, I'm not really sure how to think about it yet. It could potentially serve in place of the traditional peer-review, but on the other hand it could be abused. For example, creationists might search for biology articles and give 1 star to any article that mentions evolution. You know, something like that.

I guess all in all, I think that the online posting of scientific research is the future. There's really just no way around that fact. You can already view many scientfic journals online, some for free, some for the price of a subscription. But as far as the traditional "scholarly journal" disappearing in the future. I think it's a slim chance. I think rather that the internet will help more than hinder academic journals. And I think the peer-review system is here to stay. Besides, so much in hiring and promotions is due to the number of publications in prestigious, peer-reviewed journals that an applicant might have, that a researcher will always be looking for an extra line to put on his or her vita.

January 24, 2007

weird . . .

I just had to post this link about a rare shark caught in Japan and filmed swimming in shallow water. It is called a frilled shark, and I just had to post it because I have never seen anything like that before. It looks like a giant eel! The frilled shark is a creature that has changed little since prehistoric times and lives at least 2,000 feet under the sea. It died shortly after being caught.

A really cool video of the shark can be found on Phranygula.

January 23, 2007

Pinker's next book

Steven Pinker is putting out a new book due out in September called, The Stuff of Thought. The three major concepts in the book appear to be: indirect speech, our use of metaphor and swearing. A quote that sums it up nicely is:

"For Pinker all three categories of language provide windows on human nature, and analyzing them can reveal what people are thinking and feeling. The approach builds upon his earlier thesis that human nature has distinct and universal properties, some of which are innate – determined at birth by genes rather than shaped primarily by environment."
From what I get from the article, Pinker will be analyzing these uses of language across cultures to see what each has in common.

I am very much looking forward to this book. Pinker has an excellent writing style. If it's anything like his other books, it will be entertaining, enlightening, elegant and an easy read!

If you haven't already done so . . . I recommend reading: The Blank Slate, How the Mind Works and The Language Instinct.

The Center of Altruism

Duke researchers have found the part of the brain that is linked to altruism (the tendency of one to help others without expected benefit to oneself). Participants underwent brain scans while playing a computer game designed to measure altruism. The posterior superior temporal sulcus was found to be more active in people with greater altruistic tendencies. The researchers are now investigating the early development of this region. Such work could shed light on how altruism develops in people.

Freedom of Mind?

Time.com has an article about how brain-control tools, such as psychoactive drugs and deep brain stimulation (DBS - treatment where electrodes are implanted deep in a person's brain), are getting better at targeting specific areas in the brain. Of course aspects of these treatments could be used for purposes other than what they were designed for originally, as in one patient with DBS treatment . . .

"according to Martha Farah, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, at least one patient routinely chooses which electrical contact to activate depending on how she wants to feel: calm for every day, more "revved up" for a party."
This opens up new ethical dilemmas about personality changing treatments, unequal access to such treatments and even forced exposure to them. What really surprised me about the article was the following quote:
"Someday we may all feel pressure to take--or give our kids--focus- or memory-sharpening drugs to compete at school or work. In fact, says Richard Glen Boire, senior fellow on law and policy at the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics in Davis, Calif., 'some schools require kids--not diagnosed with ADHD by doctors--to take Ritalin to attend school.'"
Now I know that Ritalin is over-prescribed, but is this true? Do some school systems really require their students to take Ritalin? Are these children evaluated before being prescribed Ritalin. I've never heard of that until reading this article, so it sounds pretty weird to me. I feel like I'm missing something. This is a topic that I'll definitely have to follow up on.

ready to learn?

Well, tomorrow I start my new classes for the spring semester . . . and I'm not sure that I'm ready. Our winter break seemed longer than usual, now it feels weird going back, haha. But on the plus side, I'm taking some really cool classes: Cognition, Behavioral Neuroscience, Advanced Multivariate Analysis, a professional development course and my independent research. So I'm sure that I'll learn plenty of interesting concepts that I can write about on here.

January 22, 2007

Link between Alzheimer's and amyloid protein

The link between Alzheimer's disease and the way amyloid protein is processed in the brain seems to have been confirmed.

January 21, 2007

psychology of color

The Economist has just put out an article about the psychology of color perception. It basically explains that there is a debate going on in the field right now concerning the grouping of hues. Are people genetically predisposed to color categories? If so, is it the same categories for everyone? (For example: I would put the color 'navy' into the category 'blue.' But would everyone recognize navy as a shade of blue?) Can language affect one's experience of color? Essentially, one side of the argument believes that people are able to seperate the main colors and pick them out, no matter what language they speak. Others argue that the language a person was brought up with is the central explanation of how he or she groups the hues of the color spectrum. (I thought we were finished with Nature vs. Nurture debates?). As might be imagined, the answer lies somewhere in the middle and the article describes two recently published papers that help give us a clue to what is really going on.

January 19, 2007

Now this is good news . . .

Robert Trivers has been awarded the prestigious Crafoord Prize in Biosciences for 2007 by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. This is a great honor and is worth $500,000.

Dr. Trivers, along with E.O. Wilson, is one of the intellectual progenitors of contemporary evolutionary psychology and sociobiology. He asked questions about the evolution of social behaviors in animals when it really wasn't cool to do so, in the ealry 1970's. His ideas seem to have built the major theoritical basis, for which much important work now lays upon, especially his ideas concerning the evolution of conflict, cooperation and parental investment. He is being awarded specifically on his hypotheses about social insects:

"He predicted that the workers in an ant community, which are always female, may be expected to invest three times the amount of resources in bringing up their sisters than their brothers. When Trivers later investigated the situation in reality, the results indicated that he had been right, which later research also confirmed."
Last year, I had the fortune of hearing Trivers give a talk. The biology department at my undergraduate institution, Virginia Commonwealth University, has a Darwin Day nearly every year or so, on or near Darwin's birthday. There's usually some good speakers and/or activities, and best of all . . . it's free and open to the public.

I had previously graduated, but wanted to take a year off before going into graduate school, so I worked at the university in a survey research lab. And by chance, I saw in my university email that Robert Trivers would be one of the speakers for the 2006 Darwin Day. Needless to say, I was ecstatic! I mean, to me, he was like . . . somewhere between a god and a celebrity. So there was no way that I would have missed that.

His talk was pretty interesting. It was about the evolution of dance and symmetry in Jamaican students. He had pretty neat videos of dancers, with the actual person replaced by a computerized image. I believe that his basic argument was that symmetry in people (as in arms of the same length, eyes same distance away from nose, etc.) could predict dancing ability, academic acheivement, health outcomes and attractiveness. I think he describes some of this research on his homepage. Pretty interesting stuff.

From what I remember, he had an intriguing personality. He was funny, but also seemed tough. When he came into the room, I saw that he was wearing a cowboy hat, a leather jacket, a white dress shirt, jeans and boots. I thought to myself . . . "man, this guy is cool."

Congratulations on the award Dr. Trivers!

Termites are bioconverters?

There's an interesting article in MIT's Technology Review. It talks about how understanding the microbes living within a termite could help us create better biofuels. The article is short and sweet, so give it a read.

January 18, 2007

it's 5 minutes before midnight?

The Doomsday Clock has moved 2 minutes closer to midnight from 7 to 5 till. And this means . . . well . . . what exactly does this mean?

The Doomsday Clock is basically a symbol, created by a group called The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS), to represent our impending ruin. Midnight essentially represents the end of our civilization. As the hands on the clock approach midnight, humanity is said to approach apocalypse. The clock was originally created in 1947 to symbolize the danger we were headed into with the nuclear arms race between the United States and Soviet Russia. The closest to midnight that the clock has been was in 1953 when the US and the Soviets decided to make hydrogen bombs. The time was 2 minutes until midnight.

Here's a summary of why the BAS decided to once again move the hands:

"The world stands at the brink of a second nuclear age. The United States and Russia remain ready to stage a nuclear attack within minutes, North Korea conducts a nuclear test, and many in the international community worry that Iran plans to acquire the Bomb. Climate change also presents a dire challenge to humanity. Damage to ecosystems is already taking place; flooding, destructive storms, increased drought, and polar ice melt are causing loss of life and property."
But they also give recommendations on how to improve our situation:

"Reduce the launch readiness of U.S. and Russian nuclear forces and completely remove nuclear weapons from the day-to-day operations of their militaries. Reduce the number of nuclear weapons by dismantling, storing, and destroying more than 20,000 warheads over the next 10 years, as well as greatly increasing efforts to locate, store, and secure nuclear materials in Russia and elsewhere. Stop production of nuclear weapons material, including highly enriched uranium and plutonium—w hether in military or civilian facilities. Engage in serious and candid discussion about the potential expansion of nuclear power worldwide. While nuclear energy production does not produce carbon dioxide, it does raise other significant concerns, such as the health and environmental hazards of nuclear waste, the production of nuclear materials that can be diverted to the production of weapons, and the safety and security of the plants themselves."
I'm not sure how much the regular, everyday person can help . . . considering these suggestions anyways. It's not like the average joe has a nuclear warhead laying around, not to mention the ability to dismantle it in his shed. So, I guess, besides voting and/or protesting, it's kind of a wait and see what the governments are going to do. Climate change, on the other hand, I can see regular citizens taking action on. The question is . . . are they being motivated to act?

The decision to move the minute hand on the clock is made by BAS's Board of Directors. Their Board of Directors consult with a Board of Sponsors on the decision. The Board of Sponsors include 18 Nobel Laureates.

For more: http://www.thebulletin.org/weekly-highlight/20070117.html

January 16, 2007

M.I.T. for free?

Well, I read an interesting article in the csmonitor recently. It was about a movement in education that started at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It's called OpenCourseWare (OCW). Apparently, this is a program that provides free online access to course materials (such as syllabi, homework assignments and even audio/visual lectures) from various courses taught among 120 participating universities. At the moment, MIT has published 1550 of it's courses for OCW access. The content is absolutely free, and can be accessed anywhere in the world. And it's not just undergraduate courses. You can look at reading lists for intro. psychology at one moment and listen to audio lectures for graduate physics courses the next. It's really quite fascinating.

I find this receptacle of information very promising . I know that I will be visiting their OCW site for as much psychology, biology and physics that I can handle. I guess the catch is that you have to at least have access to a computer and an internet connection to reap any of the benefits of OCW. Also, OCW courses are not meant to replace a college/university education. You won't find any of the needed communication/collaboration with students and professors that you are usually exposed to in the classroom. Nonetheless, this seems like a really great opportunity for those interested.

January 15, 2007

mean, median & mode

I just read an interesting post at good math, bad math about statistical averages (aka measures of central tendency). Though one with little experience in statistics may think that there is only one concept for average, there are really three: the mean, median and mode. His post is very brief and offers simple, clear explanations for these concepts and shows how they are each computed. But, most importantly, I like his post because he offers examples of how people commonly misuse each type of average with the purpose of deceiving others:

"For example, it's a pretty common trick when talking about incomes to talk about how the mean income of a large group of people has increased - when in fact, the typical member of the group did not get any raise - instead one or two outliers got huge raises, and everyone else got nothing. Suppose that you had ten employees, and you gave them pay-changes of -2%, -2%, 0%, 0%, 0%, 0%, 1%, 1%, 3%, 20%. The mean salary change would be +2%. But half of the employees saw either no change or a decrease; and in fact, almost all of the increase went to just one person. Take that one person out, and the average raise drops by nearly a factor of 20 to 0.11%."

These are basic statistical concepts and it's important for people to understand them, so I recommend this post for those who may need a little brush up.

(On a side note, it would be interesting to see if he will write about measures of variability like the standard deviation and variance in the future, with a discussion of how they are used/misused.)

January 12, 2007

first post . . .

Well, this is my first post. I'm not sure how this blog's going to turn out, but you know . . . just figured I'd try it out.

I hope this blog will be an outlet for me to write about science and education. Of course, I am biased towards psychological science (especially social, evolutionary and mathematical psychology). But I also thoroughly enjoy biology, physics, philosophy, etc. . . . I just don't know how well I can write about them yet. I don't know how productive I will be during classes, since being a graduate student is supposed to be demanding and what not . . . we'll just see how this turns out I guess.