"It is true, and thus the question of whether it is sad or happy has no meaning whatever."
Bernhard Schlink

Science is best when discussed: leave your thoughts and ideas in the comments!!

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Axis of Evil... 

...Software. We've been stuck with some really awful software requirements, and as the person in my department who seems to look most like an IT type, I've been stuck dealing with them.

Number one is Microsoft Project. This program does painfully little that I couldn't do in Excel, and is infinitely more difficult to use. Everything is automated, making it impossible to do anything useful: it may be a good tool for planning an office move or a system implementation, but not for a major, multi-faceted management and service project.

Number two is Lotus Quickplace. For those fortunate enough not to have ever heard of this monstrosity, it is a web portal tool. The interface is mostly text, without any of the advantages of a text interface. It is bloody difficult to navigate, uploading and downloading are tedious, multi-step processes, and customization is very limited.

Finally, we have Ultimate Survey. A forms-based web survey application, this would have been a great tool for the questionnaires I developed and sent around for 200-level psychology classes. However, it has so many features lacking I can't even begin to describe them. For instance, it will only export files as .csv, but will not let you block respondents from using commas in their answers. So, you get totally garbled data, with all kinds of extra columns and errors. Even better though is the fact that the program's "handlers" don't work properly from remote access: so you can't actually develop your web-based survey, you know, on the web.

How can we defeat this Axis of Evil? Simple: make programmers directly answerable to people who actually have to use the bloody software. Aack!

Tuesday, December 28, 2004


Please go here and help if you can.

Final Roll 

I'm all for making bad situations better for people, so I'm all for the FDA's new trial of Ecstasy for terminal cancer patients. The thing is, I can't help but think it's a mildly stupid thing to do. The article says that researchers hope that the drug will help patients talk to their families about death and other issues, and to enjoy their last few days. Fine. These would be good things. But! I've been around lots of people (far, far too many in fact) on X before, and lemmie tell you: they don't have meaningful conversations, and I certainly hope that no doctor would consider any treatment requests (i.e., turn off life support, etc.) from a patient taking Ecstasy. Plus, I would imagine that the hyperthermic effects of the drug might complicate therapies.

Monday, December 27, 2004

I Hate Mondays 

I have a number of quotes printed out and pasted up on my wall in my office. Cliché, I know, but I have not gotten around to actually buying good office art, so it does for the time being. I have been fixated on one all morning, possibly because it so appallingly fits the last month or so of my life:
J'ai pris un overdose de sensibilité et voilà - on ne trouve pas de remède et je n'arrête pas d'en prendre.
~Leila Houari
Now back to your regularly scheduled program.

Blood, Brains and Bowels 

A stable source of blood for transfusions is something of a grail for medicine, and a safe, effective artificial blood is often seen as critical to that goal. A group of French researchers have developed a method for cultivating red blood cells in the lab, using a three-step protocol combining stem cells with stroma cells and a growth factor. If this turns out to work, it'll be a Very Good Thing. I wonder if certain people might lift their boycott of French products for it?

Berkeley neuroscientists have performed a really fascinating study on olfaction, and found that the brain has a sort of sensory gating mechanism, that tunes out most of the smells in our environment until they either exceed a certain intensity threshold, or are attended to. Really amazing stuff. (On top of the head, Harvard researchers seem to have identified a (the?) cause of hair graying.)

Another group of scientists are working on a new colonoscopy tool, that is supposed to be safer and more comfortable, based on the paddleworm. The device mimics the worm's physiology and movements to move itself up the intestine by 'pulling' rather than being pushed like a traditional endoscope. This apparently is thought to be less stressful to the body.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Going Native, Part 2: Invasion! 

So we lost the election. A good way to prevent this from happening again is to take over the sparsely populated Red states' electoral votes. How, you ask? Why, here's an idea: let the government of Kansas pay you to do so!! That's right kiddies, if you can stand the thought of moving far far away from civilization (hey, they're also offering broadband access...) , you can help make all that red turn purple and then blue. Cuz with all that abstinence-only sex ed, you'll have no problem breeding up a nice new batch of down-home, heartland LIBERALS!!!!

Going Native 

Helen Thayer is bloody hardcore. She climbed her first mountain at age nine, and was the first woman to trek solo to the North pole at age 50. Her latest adventure, a precedent-shattering stay with the wolves in the Yukon, is the subject of a fascinating article in today's Post.

Whenever I read stuff like this, I want to go do it. Maybe not in the arctic (I'm not so big on the cold), but trekking through the jungle or climbing a mountain or something. Perhaps someday I will.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Nerd(s) and Quote of the Week 

I haven't awarded this in a while, so this week's NOTW goes to all three authors of this paper, which also contains the QOTW,
Tweed is often worn by fops, but many otherwise admirable men wear tweed from time to time without apparent adverse effects.
All in all a brilliant contribution to the scientific literature, complete with exquisite methodological humor and even a totally gratuitous jab at ethicists (who are in dire need of more jabbing).

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

More Good News for Diabetics 

Found in cherries, anthocyanins seem to have a potent effect of increasing insulin levels, and thus decreasing blood sugar. If this pans out, it would be a rather pleasant treatment option, I would say!

Memories.... (more and more) 

I know I suffer from the occasional memory lapse, and certainly am known for my lack of ability to focus for long periods (aka, ADD). Wouldn't it be nice if I could just pop a little green (/yellow/red/blue/brown/whatever) pill and have those problems evaporate? It may soon be possible, with a new generation of mind-enhancing drugs on the horizon.

The thing is, what will be the side effects? Of the compounds mentioned there, I've only had experience with one: Donepezil, or Aricept; various patients at the hospitals and senior centers where I've worked have been on it. It seems to help their Alzheimer's, yes, but the side effects are brutal: nightmares, blood pressure problems, sweating, and sometimes hallucinations. Thanks but not.

Modafinil sounds like the one I'd want to try. But I'm sure I won't, given that I'm (a) too poor and (b) know better than to just go pill popping at random. Oh well, maybe soon they'll add it to the water!

Friday, December 17, 2004

Fiction Science Friday 

Following last Friday's foray into the world of scientists with too much time on their hands and no respect for creativity, this week brings news from the University College in London, where students, lead by someone who apparently already has a degree, have diagnosed Gollum with schizoid personality disorder. The diagnosis is a fairly good one, I suppose, being that the patient is fictional.

My question: why are professors wasting their (and their students') time on this crap??? I happen to be quite sure there are plenty of actual, non-fictional crazies within the limits of the City of London who would more than qualify as subjects for students' case studies. And why is the BMJ bloody publishing it? Does this crap even count under the 'publish or perish' guidelines of academia??

Food and Drink 

We've heard about drunken flies before, now researchers have found that Insulin may determine susceptibility to alcohol's intoxicating effects. I wonder if anyone out there has any experience or knowledge - do diabetics (either type) have markedly different alcohol tolerances? I do know that alcoholics are hugely more likely to develop diabetes, but I wonder if this goes in the same or a different direction.

Insulin is also key to how the body handles food. And how we eat, as we all know, has big effects on our health, particularly on our cardiovascular health. A new diet regimen, proposed in a possibly tongue-in-cheek fashion, that will allegedly reduce risk of cardiovascular event 76%, sounds pretty good to me. It includes, fish, wine, garlic, vegetables and chocolate. Some of my favorite things. It may or may not make me healthier, but it sounds tasty!

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Bad Science Awards. 

I guess I don't really have much to say about these. They are funny, though the write-up is so stingy it's hard to get a sense for any of it, and they don't seem as good as the Ig-Nobels. Still though, I do have a favorite quote:

"Shrinking molecules caused some concern among the physicists...[t]he prospect of such equipment being used by hairdressers was deemed worthy of further investigation."

Failed Hybrid 

I came across this article, and must say I'm puzzled. African and Asian lions were interbred to create 'hybrids' in the 70's and 80's, they turn out to be sickly and prone to disease, and are being let die off. It really surprises me that a hybrid like this would be so vulnerable; mules, for instance, are quite hearty, which is why we have them. It also surprises me that they can breed at all: such hybrids are generally sterile.

It would make more sense to me if they just started breeding them back in with the pure lines, diluting the unsuccessful mix but perhaps retaining some of the introduced variety that you expect to be helpful. That's what bothers me: genetic variation should be good for the animals. I wonder what's up that has been left out of that article.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Interactive Segment 

I was browsing the various pages of SiteMeter, and saw something rather interesting: of the people who read this site, 65% are using a browser other than MS IE. Fascinating.

Is it you?

Also/Update: Ever have someone come up turn in a paper (or whatever) they've written, and you want to say "This is totally sub-par," but realize that since you are going to edit it anyways, "agrammatical crap" is now, in fact, the gold standard? Yeah, let's start a club.

Designer Babies 

On the front page of the Washington Post online this morning was a story about how a growing number of American parents are using IVF techniques to select the gender of their babies. I'm not sure how I feel about this one - I mean, it seems a rather harmless effect (even if you end up with this becoming mainstream in a place like China where they would all only want boys, that won't last long).

Most people's reaction (including my own) is to immediately question the ethics of a practice. Ethics are a funny thing though, in cases like this you really have to think about line-drawing, which always makes me uncomfortable.
"The use of a technology to fulfill parental desires is viewed as vain, capricious and frivolous."
This may be, but it is no basis for a legal decision about ethics. For all the Puritanical bluster about such things, people are allowed to be vain; and, to be fair, the entire American economy is built on frivolousness.

Then there are those who say that they would terminate (i.e., abort) pregnancy if they got a result they didn't want. Ugly? Yes. Unethical? Probably. Would they do the same thing in the case of a 'natural' pregnancy? Most likely - someone who's willing to abort an IVF pregnancy will be willing to abort a 'natural' one for similar reasons.

A third argument against sex selection is that it will place undue burdens of expectation on the resulting kids: that if daddy wants to have an athlete son, and selects a boy baby, who then turns out not to like sports, he'll be disappointed and take it out on his son, etc. Blah, blah, blah. You know what? My parents wanted an athletic, heterosexual son who'd go to medical/law/business school and make shitloads of money. They got a geeky queer son who does not play well with others and isn't sure what he wants to do, except that it isn't gonna pay well. Do they nag me constantly? Yes. Would they force me to go to med school like they did to go to tennis camp? If they could. Is this situation much different from anyone else's? Not as far as I can see. Parents always have high expectations for their kids, and some kids don't exactly fit the bill. That's the way life goes.

As for whether or not parents should be choosing their kids sex (or eye color, or whatever comes next), I don't know.

Monday, December 13, 2004


A clinical trial is set to begin to test a vaccine against Diabetes Type I. The vaccine would halt the destruction of insular cells that leads (or at least contributes) to the disease. If it works, this will be a really, really major event. Worth at least a couple of Nobels, I'm sure.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Fiction Science 

Some people feel the need to over-analyze everything. The Science of Harry Potter? Who cares...that's not the point. Another totally unnecessary attempt to ruin childhood memories is a new analysis of Tintin, explaining that his failure to age over the course of the series must be the result of a growth hormone deficiency from numerous concussions. Puh-leez. As Granny Weatherwax once said, "just because you know how it works doesn't mean it's not magic." And why aren't these researchers spending time figuring out how to treat real hormone disorders??

This brings me to another pet peeve of mine. The whole "suspension of disbelief" concept. I view this as a symptom a very dense reader. If you are reading fiction, you accept the author's rules for the universe of the story. In Rowlings' world, there are wizards and Dementors and hippogryphs. If you can't accept this as true, because it's not the way this world is (as far as you know), you should stick to reading elementary physics textbooks. There is nothing in those that will challenge your view of Reality.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

New Link 

I've added a new blog and a not-really-a-blog-but-that's-where-it's-being-classified to my sidebar. The former is Schizophonic, the latter is the lovely Olivia's Weekly Grudge. Enjoy!

Follow-up Roundup 

Again short on time today (and a bit too tired, from a fun night of MP3J with him, him, them, and also Brian whose url I don't know), so here's a roundup of more information on stuff I've already talked about.

While hearing all about what can go wrong during pregnancy, men may be eliminating the problem altogether: spending time with a hot laptop on your lap may lower fertility.

A new study has identified a key aspect if immune response to HIV. And the Red Queen rears her (most likely but not necessarily) ugly head.

Another step towards being able to realistically use hydrogen as a power source: researchers claim a breakthrough. The link seems to have been slashdotted, but a description is here.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Bastard QOTW 

Because no real quote-of-the-weeks have yet presented themselves to me (today being the arbitrarily decided Last day of This Week, which by no means indicates when the End of Next Week will be), I decided to fit an old favorite to my own life.
"An analyst is a device for turning coffee into reports." - adapted from Paul Erdos.


Since statistics is something of an area of interest for me, I spent a good while chuckling about this article, on the probability of improbably events. Funny stories, but don't forget the lesson at the end, which reiterates one of the most important things you can ever learn about statistics: it's all in how you analyze (and interpret) the data.

More Handedness 

Following up on yesterday's post about right- and left-handedness, today the Beeb has an article on a theory as to why lefties have survived, despite having higher disease and disability risks. Once again, it all comes down to spunk. Lefties seem to be better fighters.

I wonder if an analysis of pro/Olympic boxing or wrestling would bear this out?

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Skeletons in the Closet 

Graham points to this utterly brilliant collection. I think that that would be a very good way to teach kids about skeletal anatomy, don't you??

Old Hands 

MRI-based research studies have found that chimps, like humans, have significantly asymmetrical brains, particularly in limbic regions. It's long been known that chimps can be right or left -handed, like humans, but why remains a mystery that this work helps unravel. There are lots of reasons why this is significant, besides handedness, and a fair summary of some is here.

I would really like to write and say a lot more on these, but my time is scarce these days and my attention span is short (my version of Seasonal Affective Disorder, perhaps?), so I shan't. I know at least some of you should have things to say about this.

Reproductive Fun 

Despite what the messages constantly flooding you inbox say, there is not currently any real way of making your dick bigger. But, doctors have developed a new surgical technique to help the few men who really are seriously underendowed (under 7cm/2.5 inches). From a physiological standpoint, this is really a breakthrough - previous attempts have been totally unsuccessful or at best have left the patient with a large, sensationless member. Also, this technique could help FTM's be more, well, M.

On the downside, an ingredient in many shampoos and moisturizer may be dangerous to gestating fetuses. I wonder if we'll hear from these people about that?

Also of interest for those looking to have kids: being born in May may increase chances of developing Multiple Sclerosis later on, while being born in November may decrease them. This could be crap, but the vitamin D hypothesis is conceivable, so you know, get your freak on around Valentines, not Labor day.

UPDATE: Kids whose mothers were depressed duing pregnancymay be at higher risk for behavior problems.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Directing Public Discourse 

We of the blogosphere are famous for our suspicion of the 'mainstream' media - and rightly so I say - but we must be wary that we do not overlook our own vulnerability to fraud and misinformation. Teresa Nielsen Hayden writes on this topic today, focusing on a set of legal issues, and moving beyond that example. Her reportage is compelling, as usual, and while I'd like to say it's nothing we don't know full well already, a reminder seems eternally necessary. Go. Read.

Being Around To Remember 

People tend to lose their memory as they age. It's annoying, and causes problems. But, some middle-age memory loss may be reversible with Magnesium supplements. I'll be interested to see follow-ups on this research, because I'm not sure I buy it.

And today from DOQRAPS, we have an apparently credible (until now, perhaps) Oxford scientists who claims that we'll all soon be living 1,000 years. Now, I don't buy the boredom argument against eternal youth (I could easily spend that long reading all the books currently on my list, let alone those to be added!), nor am I concerned about playing God (we may have created him/her/it ourselves anyway), but really, until extraterrestrial colonization becomes easy and pleasant, we need to keep the population explosion as under control as possible. Earth will get really crowded really fast if no one dies predictably. Also food will be a problem.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

DOQRAPS: Misleader 

Research into marijuana has long been notorious for poor and biased methodology.

A study, published today, does not say what its authors (and certainly much the governmedia) would like it to say.

It demonstrates an association between pot smoking and psychosis, yes, but the data in no way suggest that pot smoking increases your likelihood of developing psychosis. Previous research has shown that THC acts as a natural anti-psychotic, and so the results of this study do make sense: people predisposed to psychosis are self-medicating, which they are already known to do with tobacco (nicotine is enhances cholinergic transmission, a deficit in which is a symptom of schizophrenia). I really wish people would just step back and do some serious science on pot/THC. It clearly has so much bloody potential to do amazing things, if only we could actually examine it!

Good News, Bad News 

We've been hearing forever that more exercise is good for us. I would still maintain that this is true, even if the results of this study pan out. Researchers found that some people appear genetically resistant to exercise, and do not benefit the way others do. This is an interesting concept, but unfortunately very dangerous to publicize: people will decide that they must have the resistant genes, and give up, when really they just weren't working hard enough, or hadn't been at it long enough. Further experiments in this vein, however, could lead to some big breakthroughs in all kinds of physiological stuff.

Following up on yesterday's post, today brings more bad news if you're a neuroblastoma. I don't really understand how it works, but scientists have found that injections of the herpes virus kills tumor cells. That's pretty cool, but kids, this is not an excuse to guzzle OJ while having sex with hookers.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Capt. Obvious Strikes Again! 

If low-income single mothers went to college instead of sitting around collecting welfare (or trying to work the three (or more) minimum-wage jobs needed to provide for their child, thus neglecting them), they could earn a real living and we'd all be better off. She'd be able to get a better job, go off welfare, and properly take care of her kid(s). This should be an obvious progression to anyone who's actually thinking. Now we have research to back it up.

To those certain political groups and politicians who want to just cut these women off, leaving them to 'fend for themselves' - which they will never do, they'll always have to go to safetynet healthcare providers and their kids will be more likely to turn to crime unless their situations improve - in the name of it being 'expensive to help them: think of the taxpayer money that was needlessly spend studying this obvious idea!!

Thank You, Capt. Obvious 

Discrimination may lead to an increase in mental health problems in GLBT folks. Ya think?!?! Gee, maybe people thought all that gay-bashing was good for us? Glad to have that cleared up.


As you may have guessed, I usually only like nonalcoholic drinks (besides coffee!) as mixers with alcoholic drinks. However, it turns out that one of my favorite mixers, and another think I drink a lot of, are Very Good For You indeed.

Liminoids, a compound found in citrus juices, has shown great promise against a certain type deadly childhood cancer. Well, I didn't get childhood cancer. Must have been all those screwdrivers!!

Another cancer I plan on not getting is that of the prostate. This nasty man-killer appears to be rather effectively thwarted by green tea polyphenols. I love tea, and green tea especially. We've already learned that it may boost memory, and fight leukemia, so drink more of it!

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