January 29, 2007

I was disappointed that no one created a civilization in a tooth. (Science fair part I)

Last Thursday, I was invited to a local private school, in order to help judge their annual science fair. I was never really into these growing up, but I jumped at the chance to meet other postdocs in the community. Plus, I figured I could help encourage some young local science minds. I enjoyed science as a child, but never had much help coming up with good ideas. I think I only did two – as they were mandatory in the 4th and 5th grade – and neither was well thought out. One of them involved growing sweet potatoes in water under various colors of light bulbs. Mostly they just rotted. In the other, I constructed a maze in a shoe box and watched if a small viney plant could work its way through to the light opening at the end. Kinda cool, but no real experiment here – it either would or wouldn’t. Or in my case, it just died midway through.

Nevertheless, I had hope that the scientists of the future would have better luck. The entries were divided up into 5th grade, Junior (6th-8th grades), and Senior (9th-11th) and further divided up by category. I took Behavioral and Social Science as it seemed that this was a reluctant category to judge. And soon I found out why. Doing a science project is mandatory. And if you don’t/can’t/shouldn’t do science, then you make your classmates fill out surveys and throw something together for the Behavioral and Social Science category. What effects do different types of music have on test taking? Not many. Does ESP work? Probably not. Hey, do you want to see all of this stuff I found on the internet about the Stroop test? Not particularly.

For the first year, students stood by their posters while the judges went around giving them scores on various categories. And for the most part, they weren’t that bad. My main problem is that, at least for the large surveys they conducted, the students didn’t extrapolate much good information from them. One guy in the Senior level collected a massive amount of surveys (~100) on other students’ sleep schedules. He thusly concluded that his fellow students woke up earlier on weekdays rather than weekends. Shocking. But he not only gathered information on waking time, but also what time students typically went to bed, and whether or not they felt rested during the day. It wouldn’t have been much more work to do a quick check to see what percentage of people who claim to be tired in class also go to bed after 2 AM. You know, something moderately interesting. After asking him about this, he just stared at me, confused.

But not all of them were bad. One student looked if different colored paper had any effect on the ability to take math tests. Another found that people are more likely to memorize an object with a smell if they are not related. For example, more people remembered the smell of chocolate associated with an iron than with a mug. My only guess is that the test subjects had to try harder. Basically, if you had a good idea and some kind of conclusion, you did pretty well.

To get a break from the sameness of the survey club, I also judged the Junior Environmental Science category. Beyond a girl that grew carrots in sand under different amounts of light (I had a soft spot in my heart for that one) and a guy that found info on biofuels on the internet and glued them to a board, not much was there. The winner, however, collected hundreds of cans on the side of the road and discovered that an overwhelming majority were from beer. In soda, a huge percentage was Mountain Dew and there was surprisingly little littered Diet drinks. This was an interesting idea that was missing just a few things to get a “Best of Show” prize.

So what I did get out of this day? Well, sore feet and a so-so lunch for one. But it was very refreshing to see kids that really got excited about their projects. Sometimes I get bogged down with my own, and I couldn’t help but get refueled by their enthusiasm. So what's next? Regionals. Powerpoint. This Thursday.

Expect Part II -- The Reckoning soon.

January 22, 2007

Hey, we still have rights, don't we? I hear they're unalienable.

I may have hypocritical wacko viewpoints sometimes, I'll be the first to admit. I tend to lean socially liberal and financially conservative -- a prototypical libertarian viewpoint on government in society. But even acknowledging my own wacko nature, I really don't see how any American can let some things stand. Last week, our very own Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, who really ought to know a bit about the Constitution, declared that "there is no express grant of habeas [corpus] in the Constitution." Habeas corpus is basically the right of the individual to not be unnecessarily jailed by a governing body. Article 1, section 9 of the US Constitution declares "the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it."

Mr. Gonzalez argues (against Republican senator Arlen Specter, mind you) that while the Constitution guarantees that habeus corpus cannot be taken away, it never actually grants it to the citizens. Now, this is a bit ridiculous and Specter doesn't fall for it, but it seems very reminescent of debate team practice. Find an argument, no matter how dumb, and defend it until you're blue-faced.

To me, this is exactly the problem of government. It seems as if many of the people are jumping into it because they enjoy the debates and the procedures, but don't really care what they're fighting for. Even if it's just semantics, what is our Republican-nominated Attorney general speaking out against individual rights? How does this help anything?

On another right-related matter, a San Mateo, CA woman is being ordered to remove messages from her home's roof, garage, and yard or face up to $5,000 in fines. While I find her opinions to be a tad nutty (filled with scripture and anti-government diatribes about witchcraft), I'm a bit conflicted about how I feel. It seems like she's not hurting anyone around her, except for maybe in the property value department. I do have to admire her devotion, though. There's no way I would climb on top of my roof with a can of paint to write anything.

January 13, 2007

At least they still have hydrant urination to fall back on.

Can humans track smells as well as dogs? You wouldn't think so, but a recent study has shown that we might have similar abilities in this regard. As least in tracking a chocolate scent. Basically, the researchers at UC Berkeley found that 2/3 of undergraduates (interestingly enough, slightly more men than women -- but this may not be statistically relevant) were able to follow a ~10 meter chocolate scent trail in a field. The back-and-forth motion followed, as shown in the picture, is comparable to a hunting dog's path in tracking prey.

Amusing to me, the picture of the guy on his honches was the cover to the most recent Nature Neuroscience journal.

And, because I haven't been able to figure out how exactly to post videos to the blog, here's a link to the the methodology.

January 12, 2007

Hungry Like the Wolf

News: Idaho governor calls for the eradication of all but 100 of the state's wolf population.

This is a good idea because, as many people don't know, Idaho has an inpenetrable fence surrounding it and due to advancements in satellite technology, wildlife officials can pinpoint individual animals from space.


January 10, 2007

BOOKS: Under The Tuscan Sun

It's truly unfortunate when you're halfway through writing a memoir and run out of things to say. Frances Mayes, a creative-writing professor from San Francisco, tells of life in Italy from a egotistical, liberal guilt-filled perspective. The first half of this book was fascinating, as she details each step in purchasing and fixing up a new house in Tuscany, a northern region of Italy containing the cities of Pisa and Florence. I loved reading every bit of the work it took the author and her husband to find and buy house, with very little grasp of the language. The work it took to update the plumbing and structure was tiring just to read. I have no idea what it is to live in a place that has been cultivated and improved for over two thousand years. Great stone walls were built, wells were dug, and whole rooms were completely refurbished. She all-too-briefly details the stresses of finding competent contractors and the peculiarities of European real estate, the main strengths of the memoir.

However, once they managed to get everything worked out, this book read more like a bad Christmas letter from my cousin Janet. Relatives and friends come and go, with only first names used to describe them, almost if we should know these people already. The second half is full of long, boring descriptions of Etruscan caves and piazza after piazza. Which brings up another point - consistency in explanation. Ms. Mayes likes to throw Italian words into her own language like we have any idea of the meaning. While she translates some and a few are obvious based on context, the majority of the expressions are just floated out there. Perhaps she is trying to put us in her shoes, but I'm not trying to live in a place where I barely understand the language. To top it off, the book concluded with a few charts to help convert old recipes to new kitchens (example: a "very hot" oven is about 450 degrees). But the book contained only a few pages of recipes to begin with, and the charts were certainly not necessary in understanding them.

Overall, a promising start, with a let-down of a second half. I wish that it didn't have such overwhelming pro-Italy biases throughout to give us a fair view of what it is like to summer in Tuscany.

January 8, 2007

Up, Up, and To A Higher Tax Bracket!

My mind wanders from time to time, but a question popped into my head today and deserved an answer: Is it really in Superman's best interest to be a newpaper reporter? Maybe writing for a big-city metropolis paper was his lifetime goal, but isn't it everyone's duty to find an occupation most suited to one's individual talents? And it's in everyone's best interests that Superman has a well-paying job so he isn't corrupted by financial contributions from Lex Luthor and the like. For all those who say that Superman's morals are too high to be corrupted, let's be serious here. If he's stuck in a shabby studio apartment eating Ramen noodles and cold coffee, Superman will be eyeing that blank check from LexCorp.

For my experiment, I'm using Yahoo's HotJobs to calculate salaries, assuming Metropolis has a roughly equivalent economy to Chicago. With this, I'll keep in mind time required (Metropolis may have an endless supply of telephone booths, but it won't matter if you're stuck behind a desk), personal satisfaction, and fringe benefits. According to HotJobs, starting reporters in the Chicago area make roughly $30,000, progressing to almost 50,000 after a few years of service. Couple this with the many hours at a word processor and demanding deadlines, and I don't think ol' Kal-El will have much time tracking down rogue missles or foiling bank heists.

Let's play career counselor for the comics. What else could he do?

  • Welder - base salary of ~$35,000 to 55,000.
    Sure, the money's closer, but just think about how much happier he could be working with his hands (eyes?). And what about the efficiency of working near tall buildings? I'm sure half his day is spent saving careless construction workers anyway. Plus there's the added bonus of owning your own business to schedule appointments around global catastrophes. Or there's always the more artistic side of metal sculpture and design. I bet "Man Of Steel" would look awesome on the side of a van.

  • Home/Building Inspector - $50,000 to 75,000
    Better pay, better cover. Really, who would expect a home inspector to be a superhero? And you gotta use that X-ray vision for something more than giving kids leukemia.

  • Nuclear Engineer - $65,000 to 125,000
    As long as they're not mining glowing green rocks for heavy metals, he's golden. May have a bit less downtime than the previous jobs, but there's very little risk involved when you can be shot in the eye with a bullet and walk away unscathed. Really, what's the deal with that anyway? Who shoots a guy in the freakin' eye? Actually, Superman seems a little dim to me. Not sure I'd want him manning the core.

  • Professional Football Player - $260,000 minimum salary to millions
    Maybe the big guy's best shot so far. Plenty of money for wing expansions on the Fortress of Solitude; only have to work a few months out of the year. Plus, most of the time you're wearing a helmet so no one can really get a good look at you. Perfect for the secret identity.
So what's with the reporter gig? We all know he's just trying to stay close to Lois Lane, but don't you think he'd win her heart wearing a nice suit and a nice place with hardwood floors and a bed that doesn't pull down from the wall? Have some self-respect, Last Son of Krypton.

January 4, 2007

Just because you need another reason to exercise.

A recent study by a group at the UAB Department of Nutrition Science claims that body composition may have an impact on the growth and spread of cancer. Traditional views have pointed towards calorie intake as the main problem in obesity, but it seems that what the body does with these calories is the main concern.

In the first experiment, mice genetically prone to pancreatic cancer were kept at two temperatures -- the cooler the ambient temperature, more energy (as calories) is required to maintain normal body functioning -- and fed the same amount of food. The mice kept closest to normal body temperature predictably became more obese than the other set, but also became significantly more inundated with cancer. The mice that had to expend more energy in the cooler environment retained generally normal pancreas tissue.

To further clarify this result, the researchers kept the mice at different temperatures, but allowed them full access to as much food as they could take in. This would keep both sets of mice at a relatively similar body composition to show whether actual food intake or the controlled temperature had any effect on the spread of cancer. In this scenario, the mice held at the lower temperature consistently ate more, had similar body mass, and thus had similar instances of cancer as the other group.

The actual link between obesity and cancer is still unclear. Leptin seems a likely candidate, as this hormone is not only involved with fat retention, but also in the induction of oxidative stress (cell damage caused by the creation of oxygen free radicals also linked to aging, neurodegenerative disease, and cancer). As a hormone, increased leptin is supposed to tell the brain when hunger is satisfied and to stop eating. But people suffering from obesity are resistant to its effects (much as they are similarly resistant to effects of insulin, thus the increase in occurence of type II diabetes). More and more leptin is produced without satiating effect, wreaking havok on other systems. The transgenic obese (ob/ob) mouse shown in the picture above has a mutation in which its brain is similarly resistant to leptin. The cancerous mice in the study were shown to have a huge increase in internal leptin levels.

So what does all of this mean? Well, basically, leaner bodies tend to handle calories better. Of course, this doesn't increase drug companies' revenues or really help anyone's day-to-day lives. Even though the research shows that caloric intake doesn't in itself cause cancer, excessive eating does lead to increased body fat, obesity, and then disease. Though maybe lowering the thermostat a few degrees over these winter months couldn't hurt.

January 2, 2007

Black-Eyed Peas, Hog Jowls, and Other New Year's Resolutions

Growing up, our family would always be hustled out the door on December 26th for the annual expedition to grandparent homes. First, we'd generally cruise down I-65 to rural Mobile county for my mother's parents, then after a few days head west to the bustling metropolis of West Monroe, Louisiana, to visit the paternal side. Many New Year's Day celebrations were held in the home of my father's parents, with food ranging from the traditional ham, turkey, and dressing to my grandmother's famous ravioli with homemade gravy. (A brief note: I feel I must explain that I'm not talking about meat and two sides, chicken and biscuits gravy. My grandmother called any kind of sauce "gravy", and in this case, was referring to tomato sauce.) We would always have black-eyed peas and cabbage. Wikipedia claims that the peas represent coins, but I remember that my aunts and uncles said that the peas are for good luck and the cabbage was for money. None of this was ever questioned, of course, and all the kids were implored to "just take a bite." Assuredly we would. Even though there are few smells worse than cabbage boiled for 4 hours, who wanted to go through the course of another year without the mystical power of soul food on your side?

Talking with friends on New Year's Eve, it was remarked that the local Beer and Cut Bait shop was advertising the availability of "hog jowls." Never having heard of this, I assumed it was just some strange Wheeler Lake ritual. Yet, for some this part of the pig is just as essential for New Year's feasts as the stinking pot of cabbage in my grandmother's house. And apparently jowls are growing in popularity and getting more expensive.

Superstitions are a big part of everyone's celebrations. Pretty big list here. I'm sure everyone can find an item or two they'll do each year, perhaps without realizing it. This brings me to the point of resolutions. Everyone makes them, with the possible exceptions of those who resolve not to make resolutions. Some diligent people make lists and write budgets and have no problem adhering to big ideals set upon them (by themselves). But these people probably didn't have to make resolutions in the first place. They're for people like me, the procrastinators and the purchasers of self-hypnosis tapes. But this year, things change. Slowly.

So I'm only making one resolution -- write more. Writing seemed like one of those things that seemed more fun to do than it actually was. I envied the people who could do it with seemingly little effort. But I know it takes practice to get there. So here it is, blog gods. I present my offering to you. No way to get better at it besides doing it.

What should you expect from this? A veritable and variable potluck dinner of life. Be sure to get around the table, though, and try a bit of everything. You don't have to eat everything, but at least try the boiled cabbage. Can't hurt.