Thursday, October 30, 2008

Taking Place Science Quickies

Okay, so, getting back to some of the original intent of this blog, I'm going to toss you guys some quick science abstracts below the fold. Give me some feedback here, if you want, on what kind of stuff you want to hear about. If it were up to me, I'd mostly be posting neuroscience or cognitive psychology, as that's my field of interest.

Anyway, see you after the jump (quantum jump, that is...)

First of all, we have an abstract for a study that shows that development puts constraints on variety in evolution. Now, this article is interesting for several reasons. First of all, it is an interesting question: nature certainly seems to have an abundance of strange creatures...but the extent of this strangeness is nowhere near as large as it could be. For example, look through the creature creations of Spore players. Why aren't there things like that walking around? Also keep in mind, Spore creatures are bilateral and have a single spinal cord. So, basically, Spore players are exploring the design space of vertebrate, bilateral creatures...a much smaller subset of the total possible space. Why is it that creatures occupy only a small subset of possible design space?

This article suggests that developmental factors (basically gene regulation, all sorts of fun epigenetic factors, etc) allow for great variance between taxonomic groups, but less variance within a group - groups begin to occupy more diverse body types, but within a group, they tend to cluster. An interesting finding, overall. I'd like to know what level of taxonomic group they're talking about, so I'll probably be getting the actual paper. I suggest you do the same.

A good abstract on why some people are better at learning languages. Basically, it boils down to a correlation of being able to better discriminate sound differences. Impersonators, vocalists, etc, should be better at learning second languages, at least statistically. Of course, this is not a causal argument - some people may simply have an altered brain structure that would make them good at both. I do wonder how plastic that area of the brain is, however, and if you could train it...something to look into.

Next, we have the hypnotic induction of synaesthesia. Now, i know, I know. "Hypnosis" should set off all sorts of skeptical alarms in your head. I'd be interested to read the entire paper, though, and I'd like to see some confirmation from other lines of evidence - basically, that there is wide-range enervation between sensory modalities and that normal people merely have strong inhibition of these connections. That's about the only model I can think of that this would work for. We'll see. It's an interesting first find, and if it's confirmed by converging evidence, all the better. It actually tells us something about how the brain is hooked up.

Here's an interesting study on individual differences in memory damage as result of damage to the hippocampus. Now, in the literature, the hippocampus is thought to be key to memory formation. Damage that, and you get amnesia. For example, H.M., a famous case, had his hippocampus and adjacent parahippocampal gyrus removed to treat epileptic seizures. Well, his seizures stopped, but he also developed severe anterograde amnesia and retrograde amnesia for events about 11 years prior to the surgery. This study shows, however, that damage to the hippocampus does not necessarily lead to memory deficits. The authors admit it may be specific location and pathology - we just don't have technology sensitive enough for this, but it does put up a challenge to current neuroscience models of memory that involve the hippocampus. Look for more research in this area soon.

Finally, my favorite, the selective and safe erasure of memories in mice. Now, I read this article early this year for a class, and the abstract's just popped up on Science Daily. I find this one incredibly impressive. One of the basic take away messages is that recalling something is not like playing back a video tape - a steady-state relic of the event. Instead, recall is actually "reconsolidation" - you reconstruct an event when you remember it. This is one of the basic reasons why eye-witness testimony and memory in general is so dubious.

So, the basic paradigm is, you get a creature to "recall" an event, and then you suppress it's ability to form a memory. In this case, by the over-expression of a particular protein in the NMDA pathway. This thereby erases that memory. Now, hopefully this is memory-specific, and it seems to be, at least as far as we can tell with mice and the experiments that have been run so far.

Some people get a little antsy when you start talking about things like this..."The gub'ment's gonna come in an' take my mem'ries!" and such. Well, no...first of all, these mice were genetically engineered to be able to over-express this protein. We aren't. A drug could be developed that mimics the effects, maybe. But that's a long way down the line. Secondly, while there is certainly a potential danger in this technique, it could also be a powerful therapy tool. In fact, the "reconsolidation" idea can powerfully inform cognitive therapy already. On the other hand, the ability to erase particular memories, say, for war veterans, could be a useful tool if the patient so desires it.

Anyway, that's some of the science news that's caught my eyes in the last week or so. I'm going to try to get back on a more regular posting schedule. We'll see if it lasts.



Yeah, I'm late. I know. Here it is:

Tip O' the Blogging Hat for Secretary of the Internet to ERV for this one.

And I do find some irony in the YouTube link, considering Jason's last post. However, this is more of a hosting of a broadcast than your average Joe's opinion on the intarwebs.


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Hearing from the Average Joe

Now, YouTube is an excellent case study in the malformation of public knowledge on the issues of the day. As a modern political candidate, you have to understand the risks of sending the untrained, uneducated in front of the camera to talk for your campaign. Unfortunately, McCain has now done this twice. First it was Sarah Palin. Now, it's "Joe the Plumber." The result:

Audience Question: "I've heard that if Obama became president, that would be the end of Israel"
Joe: "I would have to agree" (unqualified)

Later on Fox News:
Shep: "Obama has said that Israel will always be a friend to the United States"
Joe: (paraphrased) "Yeah, I'm hoping your viewers can understand what I was trying to say"

Later still on Fox: Tito the Builder on Hugo Chavez

Now, I'm not saying that people are stupid, that someone like Joe the Plumber doesn't have anything of great import to say, or that in another world, someone like Joe the Plumber shouldn't be center stage in political struggle. What I do believe is that the discursive life of the United States is in such a sorry state that it feels like any attempt at substantive, public dialogue among regular people (Joe the Plumbers) with differing opinions on crucial issues would be at minimum, two ships passing in the night; at worst a performance of opposing commercials.


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Proposition 8

A quick post, because I feel it's rather important.

I think this video has some weighty impact, and hopefully it will make a difference to some people. I honestly am beyond the point of understanding how you can say that discriminating on the basis of race is wrong, but discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation is A-Okay. It's disgusting, and in this day and age, it shouldn't be allowed to happen.

(And yes, here is the contention of the 1st Amendment...basically, so long as you are not inciting violence, I must let you have what opinions you will. And I must allow you to voice them as often as you wish. I'm okay with that, because this does not mean that I am not allowed to argue against you. And, luckily for me, I think the weight of rational and reasonable rule of law (i.e. at least coherent) is on my side. That's the point that many fundamentalists (of whatever variety) never understand - yes, you are free to speak your mind in this country...but you do not have the right not to be offended or argued against. No, not even if you're arguing your religion. Thank you, America, for getting something right so long ago. Can we please return to that?)

Tip O' the Blogging Hat to the Bad Astronomer and Skepchick.


Monday, October 27, 2008

A Quick Update and Explanation

So, with the exception of Jason, I know none of us have posted all that much recently. I'm sorry for this, and I hope that it will be rectified soon.

Basically, we've all become ridiculously busy with school work. This is why I didn't start this blog until the second quarter last year, which tends to be a little calmer. So, again, I'm sorry for the lack of updates. We aren't gone, and we won't be leaving anytime soon, but for the next couple of weeks expect a low output on the ole' blog.

In the meantime, Tom, I will get back to you as soon as possible. I know basically what I want to say, I just haven't had time to really put it down on electronic bits yet. This weekend probably won't happen. A lot of stuff is going on, but I'll try to get back to you as soon as possible.

I'm also planning on doing a series on Classical Theories of religion, as this is a class that I'm taking and it will help me solidify it for myself. It's also a fairly interesting topic, so I hope others will appreciate it.

Of course, I've also been meaning to keep you up to date on science news that I find interesting, and I have several posts about ready to put up about that. Delayed, I know, and some of you may have already seen them. However, I hope they will still be relevant.

In the meantime, Okada, if you want to comment about anything you're studying, please do, I'd love to hear about it. Or tell us about the conferences you and Jeremiah have been going to. Gaijin, if you want to air out your feelings for the CORE class, please do. I imagine it would be fairly humorous and informative. Jason, thanks again for posting, and I always enjoy your political/economic commentary. Rooster, music, philosophy...whatever you want to discuss would be lovely. And Zie, if you still read this, I know you've been going through some pretty big life decisions recently. If you want it, here's a forum.

Anyway, just wanted to let you all know why there hasn't been a lot of posts going up like there was during the summer, but also to let you know that we're all still around and I at least have some stuff I'll be trying to put up soon.

Hope this finds you well.



Friday, October 24, 2008

Is Your Money Safe?

After watching in level-headed horror as the Dow has lost almost 40% of its weight over the past three weeks and reading/watching various analyses of what's going on, I've found myself watching CNBC for the past half hour or so hoping to find some more fine-grained analysis. I will give CNBC a shout out for following through on a better analysis than CNN, Paulson, and our political candidates. However, there is a continuing sense of sensationalizing look how bad --- Inc is doing. All your portfolio is belong to Pooh Bear Market. At the same time, there's another thread of we'll hit the bottom and everything is going to bounce day. What does all of this mean for the common person? What about the market in the short and long term?

Dude: Your portfolio is probably out as much as 15-30% depending on your exposure to risk. You probably should re-think retiring within the next five years unless you have an inventive investor working for you.
That old pension system is looking pretty good right now too, huh? Too bad no one offers it anymore after it sank the American Car. Of course, the government's pension safety net is doing alright since it's only purpose is to make money for pensions, not cars. Anyway, young dude - get ready to tighten your belt and prepare to start throwing more of your money into the market. It will bounce back, but prudence means you should wait a while to see who's going to fold and what they'll bring down with them. Poor dude - if you're in the job market, you should be looking to get out. You're about to be laid off. Start looking for education opportunities so you can live off student loans, increase your human capital, and graduate when the markets start to bounce back. Home-owners: If it's not your primary home, sell now before home prices get any lower, take the loss, and start looking to reinvest in markets when they start coming back; if it is your primary home don't sell if you can make payments, home prices will come back though no one knows how long it will take; if you can't float the payments, you have no choice but to take the hit and downgrade to a cheaper home. If you're in trouble with the bank, all I can say is good luck working that out.

Short-term Markets: Wall Street will hit a bottom, bounce back a bit, but will probably stay there for a good while as this liquidity crunch starts tossing fragile companies off the cliff. Volatility is about to be the name of the game. Right now it's systematic cutting losses. The general atmosphere will remain aloof as investors will worry over who will lose in this financial shortfall and will probably jump sky high when bad news hits vulnerable companies (some of them very big - i.e. GM, Ford). We will see more big names fall. This speculation over who will collapse, be taken over, or dismantled will drive the volatility keeping the market under-valued and under-capitalized. The length and depth of this volatility will really depend on the "fundamentals of the market." It will be the best test of McCain's temporarily infamous, but important claim. This is a good time to start getting back in through diversification as the market begins to bounce back. The global market is solid. Certain developing/emerging markets are solid and could be some of the biggest winners if they can find a way to raise capital in these tight times for the first world. As for mainstreet, things are going to look a lot different in the realm of local business as their credit and underlying consumer squeeze that preempted the housing crisis and will continue with recession cuts off any source of money. National chains will survive at a better rate. Retail and service sectors will do the worst.

Long Range: I refuse to put a schedule on the market, but over the next ten years, this recession will reorganize the economy. I think the most significant change will be the growing reorganization of capital oversees as some institutions in emerging economies will thrive in this capital shortage. Furthermore, as first world companies fall or get dismembered, companies in emerging markets will fill the gaps. More chinese computers! Less American-European-Asian Tigers centrality in the world system. Americans - start looking on the past century as the American Golden Age. It may well be over before my lifetime and total national wealth will decrease as a proportion of total global wealth. While this seems inevitable, the U.S will retain predominance, but it will continue to decrease until a global equilibrium is met. None of this is inevitable, but seems like the likely trend. Ultimately, we begin looking for the next recession - the next sector that will bring down the system for another reorganization. Hint: look out for what's too big for its britches, what's too expensive, what's too plentiful?


Thursday, October 2, 2008

Finally back among the modern world

I finally have internet access once more. Expect a post this weekend. Thanks Jason and Rooster for keeping the posts coming.