"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!!

Monday, January 31, 2005


No, not that kind (though it'd be nice). I mean, in the brain. One of the (apparently infinite) most interesting things about neuroscience is how things - knowledge, sensory information, memories, etc. - are represented in the brain by electrical and chemical impulses. There are many, many theories, and all kinds of questions. Two recent studies may help shed light on very different aspects of this area.

First, a study of a blind artist. There was a funny scene in John Waters' Pecker with a blind photographer, who "feels" his photographs, and the Artistes love him, but his stuff is crap. In the 'real world' (whatever that means!), we have a middle-aged Turkish man named Esref Armagan, who has been blind since birth. He paints gorgeous sunsets, scenes, and pastorals, getting colors and shadows and perspectives all brilliantly, as if he can "see" them. The question is, can he? To explore the answer, he came to America to do some drawings in a brain-scanner, and doctors find that he 'sees' objects in his brain just as a sighted person would do. These results suggest that, for the purposes of day to day life - walking around, recognizing an old friend from a distance, watching TV - he is blind, but for purposes of his paintings and drawings, he can see just fine. I would love to see his IQ scores...I bet they're off the charts with a memory like that, etc.

Leaving art entirely behind, our second study examines grammar. In English, prepositions have very different meanings in different contexts. The difference is so subtle here: not like a word that can be a noun or verb - run, park, crash, slide - the word remains the same part of speech, but has totally different use: "Around the corner" versus "Around three o'clock," etc. So, researchers examined stroke patients with brain damage. They found that processing of the two uses, spatial and temporal, were independent. So cool.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Viral Blogging 

I love memes. If I was better at calculus, I would be in grad school right now studying memetics. But, since I'm not, I participate in blog memes. This one comes to me from John of the Beaverhausen Blog. Here goes.

1. What is the total amount of music files on your computer?

I have about 13 GB, with around 2500 songs. I still listen to lots of CD's - so mid-nineties I know. I have no iPod, so I don't bother much. I also tend to delete stuff pretty quick when I get sick of it.

2. The CD you last bought is:

Album: Rufus Wainwright, Want Two. I heard it in a store, and it surprised me. So I bought it - I like supporting severely wired music.
Single: I have no idea what the last CD single I bought was. It probably involved a remix of some track or other during my trance phase.
Download: The Kleptones - A Night at the Hip-Hopera. I know I"m late to the game on these guys, but this album is fucking awesome.

3. What is the song you last listened to before reading this message?

St. Etienne - B92.
4. Write down 5 songs you often listen to or that mean a lot to you.
I'm also gonna go with two lists here...first the often listened then ones that mean a lot to me. Ones in the second list would mostly end up in the first too, but I'm making two lists because not all of them do.

- April March - La Nuit Est Là. A sweet groove, and seriously subversive lyrics. What could be bad?

- Yoko Kanno - Yo, Pumpkin Head. Makes me wish I was a better dancer.

- Serge Gainsbourg - Requiem pour un Con. Makes ma laugh every time.

- Self - Suzie Q. Sailaway. Catchy, fun, slightly evil. Especially the toy version.

- The Future Bible Heroes - Doris Daytheearthstoodstill. Pure brilliance in kitschy, pretentious fun form. Like the rest of the album it's on, it never gets old.

Now, ones that have, for some time, meant something to me:

- The Magnetic Fields - Papa Was a Rodeo. Fucking awesome song, for starters. And it hits perilously close to home.

- Tori Amos - Hey Jupiter/Putting the Damage On. Yeah, it's cliché, I know. That album came out at just the right time and those two songs (which always go together in my mind) fit a little too perfectly.

- The Clash - Spanish Bombs. Picked more or less at random from the catalogue of songs I love. The Clash had a huge influence on my growing up.

- Minor Threat - Straight Edge. DC Punk/ska/hardcore, always under Ian MacKaye's influence, was pretty formative for me. I was never 'straight edge' (even a little), but I kinda like the idea, or at least where it comes from.

- David Bowie - The Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud. Perhaps liking this song at such a young age should've been a hint, hmm?

5. Who are you going to pass this stick to? and why?

Jeff - Because he needs to post more, and likes good music.
Natalya - I like stuff she listens to.
Travis - He also needs to post more, and I wonder about his music.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Sexy Genes 

University of Illinois researchers say they've identified a few 'gay genes' on male chromosomes 7, 8, and (maternal) 10. I'm all for finding this sort of thing, although, as Graham points out, there are some potential downsides as well, so this is cool.

I'm less interested in a 'why am I gay' kinda way than in a 'how's it all work' one, and some of the details here are really fascinating. Why does the copy of 10 with the gene on it have to come from the mother, but not the rest? What about the stuff on X? And why, ferfuckssake, would it even occur to anyone anymore that "it is not believed to contain many genes" is even a vaguely acceptable reason to not look at Y?

Fit or Flab 

More fatty news today. New research indicates that fidgeters burn more calories a day and are apparently thinner than non-fidgeters. While this makes sense in concept, duh, people who move more burn more calories, I don't necessarily buy it: I'm a huge fidgeter, I absolutely am always tapping my foot or bouncing my leg or whatever, and have to get up and move around pretty regularly, and am not so skinny. Stupid population-level effects.

Another study suggests that green tea extract (or about 4-5 cups of green tea per day), over the long term, increases fat catabolism and exercise endurance. This I like. A good excuse to drink more green tea, and another way to increase my endurance for when I start going to the gym more regularly. The authors say they don't think the caffeine in the extracts affected their results, which is entirely possible (I've never heard of caffeine directly boosting lipolysis), but I wonder why they didn't just do the obvious control? Hmmm....this one will need to be replicated.

Thursday, January 27, 2005


Two quotes in one week? Egads! But seriously, I wanted to go out tonight, but it's too fucking cold, so I'm just at home watching bad movies on cable. I watched about 15 minutes of "Prey for Rock+Roll," which was crap, but Gina Gershon's character had this line that made me very happy, because it was so utterly something I would say before getting myself into trouble:
"OK, he's a virgin. A convicted murderer virgin with an expired drivers license. Why am I finding this sexy?"


For all many people (myself included) complain about the evils of mega-corps, there are times when even those usually guilty of the grosses offenses do the right thing. Beginning in April this year, a consortium of 60 large employers will begin offering lower-than-individual-market-price insurance plans, ranging from inexpensive, low-coverage discount cards to high-deductible insurance plans to their uninsured part-time, temporary, and contract employees.

Included in this group is the notorious dead-end-job king itself, McDonald's. It's not real coverage, but it's a start, and, to be honest, probably all these companies can realistically afford.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Shakespeare, Shmakeshmere 

I've never been able to really get into Shakespeare. I mean, I've been to lots of performances, and they're usually fun (especially the Shakespeare in the Park bit that happens in DC), but I'm rarely really moved by the plays. It may be that everything he did has become so ingrained in our culture that it just doesn't seem that interesting, I don't know.

Regardless of whether or not I lack any sense of history or art or whatever, there are some Shakespeare plays I fully dislike. "Pericles" has always been one. Via Making Light comes an amusing monstrosity: Pericles, Prince of Tired Plots.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005


From Terry Pratchett's Small Gods:

Cuius testiculos habes, habeas cardia et cerebellum.


We all know about the six-degrees-of-separation idea, brilliantly exemplified by social networking websites like Friendster, but people often forget to go to the next level: to consider that for every person you've had sex with, you've got second, third, fourth, etc. degrees of hooking up. A new study examined these relationships in a Midwestern US high school, and found as many as 288 students directly linked in this fashion. Getting kids to think in these terms might help them understand the importance of safe sex.

I emphasize might, but I do suspect it'll have some effect: in college, my groups of friends periodically made our own "hook-up charts," the most detailed of which was the one done at the beginning of senior year in my off-campus house. There were 8 of us living there, and as I recall, about 6 of us had, in some combination, hooked up with another member of the household. Then we moved out of the house - current and ex boy/girlfriends, random hook-ups, etc. One mildly disturbing result was learning that I'm about four degrees from Justin Timberlake, prompting me to pay an immediate visit to the student health service for a full battery of tests (all clear!).

Knowledge and Prevention 

HIV infection rates continue to grow, and everyone seems to have a slightly different view of how to slow that growth. A paper in the most recent PLoS Medicine models a number of approaches, predicting varying degrees of success. An editorial in the same issue calls for a more aggressive vaccine development plan: the current lets-try-and-find-one-when-we-can model is OK, the authors say, but having real concrete milestones and timeframe goals would be better. I'm inclined to agree there, for most of the same reasons - having a timeframe set in the future focuses people on the fact that the vaccine is far in the future, and we have to deal with HIV/AIDS now.

A major impediment to prevention in the US is the belief, particularly among African-Americans, that HIV/AIDS is a government-created conspiracy against the poor and against blacks. I've heard this idea espoused from a number of people - many of them otherwise sensible friends and co-workers - and it does not ever cease to piss me off. Not just because the first community really affected by HIV was gay men, about whom many of these conspiracy theorists seem all to happy to forget, but also because it's a bloody stupid thing to say. We *still* don't have the technology to create anything like HIV, to be sure we didn't have it in the 1970's. I could go on, but it's probably unnecessary.

One reason for the persistence of this conspiracy theory is that it wouldn't be the first time the US government had done something appalling to its citizens without telling them about it. And memory, as we know, is a powerful thing. Which is not a very good reason to believe things that simply aren't possible, but it is a weak segue into a fascinating overview of new research into the molecular basis of memory in yesterday's Scientific American.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Risk Factors 

As Graham learns to love statistics, let's take a look at some of the results, that can lead the way to better understanding of risks affecting health.

Funniest first. Israeli researchers have found that Orthodox Jews take more risks when walking around town; apparently, they believe G-d will protect them from oncoming traffic. Before we all roll our eyes, let us consider the fact that they don't seem to be getting run over in droves, or even, from what I can tell, at a marginally increased rate relative to their behavior. Maybe there's something to this faith thing after all!

Some people just can't lose weight: whether it's the annoying last 5 pounds or the crippling first 300, their bodies seem to just want to be there. Other people are skinny little bitches and stay that way, no matter how many double quarter-pounders with extra mayo they eat. Most of us are in between - we *could* lose (or gain) those few pounds if we really tried, but it's mostly not worth the effort. And then there are the freaks. It's long been suspected (and/or assumed) that the reasons for this variation are largely genetic, but pinning down the actual genes has been tricky. Recently, researchers found a parallel situation in rats: some that took quickly to exercise, and some who didn't. The study doesn't seem to have any real direct genetic examination involved, but looking at the 'jock' rat strain versus the 'wimp' strain could shed some interesting light on how our metabolisms work.

Finally, the strange. A new CDC study has found that Mexican-Americans born in the US have a higher risk of developing asthma than do Mexican-Americans born in Mexico. From the abstract, this doesn't really make sense to me: much of Mexico has much worse pollution than much of the US, not to mention poorer sanitation and healthcare (especially for the poor, whom I am guessing are the majority of migrants). I wonder if they controlled for people moving from rural (less smoggy) Mexico versus D.F. or Guadalajara, or people born in, say Houston or Dallas versus Tempe or La Jolla? Could this be the spectre of more annoying immunization debates?

Friday, January 21, 2005

I'm Bored Meme 

Via Stebbins.

A - Accent: DC. Yes, there is a DC accent and I have it. Not as strong as it used to be or as my sister's is, but still there.
B - Breast Size: I like a man with nice pecs.
C - Chore You Hate: Filing
D - Dad's Name: Robert
E - Essential Make-Up Item: Chapstick
F - Favorite Perfume: Burberry-London.
G - Gold or Silver: Silver
H - Hometown: DC
I - Insomnia: Perpetual
J - Job Title: Research Assistant
K - Kids: None
L - Living Arrangements: My own.
M - Mum's Birthplace: Independence, MO
N - Number of Apples: Pi(e)
O - Overnight Hospital Stays: More than three.
P - Phobia: Being stuck with Reality TV characters in reality.
R - Religious Affiliation: Jewishish
S - Siblings: Younger sister, Becca - 21.
T - Time You Wake Up: About 10 minutes after the alarm goes off.
U - Unnatural Hair Colours You've Worn: Red, orange, blue, blonde, platinum blonde, purple, blue, green, etc.
V - Vegetable You Refuse To Eat: Brussel Sprouts.
W - Worst Habit: Procrastination and lolly-gagging.
X - X-Rays: Many.
Y - Yummy Foods You Make: Moorish-ish salad, other things too.
Z - Zodiac Sign: Leo.

Meme for the Fire 

Boingboing alerts us to a spreading trend in the UK, called "Happy Slapping." Now, I'm a big fan of impromptu street theatre, especially when strangers and cameras are involved, but this is especially amusing. I mean, this isn't just comedy, it's also assault(although one could argue the same about bad mime)!

Hey kids: this would be a great way to liven up your ride home on the Green Line!

Sexy Brains 

Research is all about context, external validity, etc. If your new super-antibiotic only works in people with red hair who live above 30,000 ft and drink kangaroo milk daily, you don't have much of a product, and if you've discovered a solution for a problem that may or may not develop in 50 years if and only if nothing is done about it in the next 49, it's a waste of time. And the best kind of context of all is, of course, social controversy.

Earlier this week, Harvard president Larry Summers gave a rather poorly considered talk in which he (rather sloppily) outlined research indicating that women and men are inherently good at different things. Yes, I agree: women at are inherently better at producing eggs than men; men are inherently better at producing semen than women. This talk of course pissed some people off.

But wait! A study released yesterday by the UC-Irvine shows that men and women achieve equal intelligence using markedly different brain regions. I don't think you have to be a neuroscience person to realize how unbefuckingleavably cool this study is. It even makes sense in terms of previous studies that showed women and men being slightly better at different things than each other. It also poses some really amazing questions about the evolution of intelligence: evolution is usually not this inefficient! Why would it 'invent the wheel' twice in the same species?!?!? I can only think of a couple other things that evolved more than once separately (winged flight being the big one), and those in entirely different classes and phyla!

I have too much to say here, because this is SO FRIKKIN COOL! Discuss.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Finally, A Reason 

....To drink non-alcoholic beer: Japanese researchers have found that some as-yet unknown factor(s) in non-alcoholic beer decreased cancer-causing DNA damage caused by heterocyclic amines in the liver, lungs, and kidneys. Hopefully, these mystery compounds remain in proper beer, and better yet could be made and added to other stuff as well.

Also, if a covenant with G-d wasn't enough, science has found a very good reason for male circumcision: it reduces the risk of contracting HIV. Cool.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005


I'm not sure what to make of being Yahoo's first search result for "what would happen if you are pregnant and overdose and not being so healthy and not eating." I don't exactly know the answer, dear traveler, but it's likely to involve all manner of unpleasantness. For years to come. Go see a doctor, please.

Good Sense 

...About sex. I've ranted and raved repeatedly about the stupidity and futility of faith-based sex-ed, and am thus glad to see those views yet again supported by research. This week's JAMA includes research indicating that parental notification laws don't discourage teens from sex, but do increase STD and pregnancy rates. It also appears that
"[girls] with positive attitudes about contraception were much less likely to become pregnant."
Wow, who'da thunk? On a related note, the Spanish Church has broken with the Vatican and embraced condoms as part of an anti-AIDS strategy. This is a real breakthru, and will likely help a great deal.


When you were a kid, you hated making your bed. 'What's the point,' you'd complain, 'it's just gonna get messed up again tonight.' But now you're older and wiser and panic if someone is coming over and your bed isn't made, especially if you're hoping that someone is going to help you mess it up again.

But! Here's a good reason not to make your bed: unmade beds seem to be less hospitable to allergy and asthma-causing dust mites. So whatcha gonna do?

Hit List 

The BBC kindly provides us with a guide to the places we're likely to start a war in the years following tomorrow's coroinauguration. Well, at least ousting Mugabe wcould be a good thing.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005


Novosti is reporting that a Ukrainian man has not slept in twenty years. Now, as much as I'd like to believe this (I've been on a failing mission to eliminate sleep from my routine for a decade or so), I don't. Not even a little. First, there's the fact that your brain starts eating itself after a bit more than five days of wakefulness. While I appreciate that there are allegedly apparently ways of ... circumventing this ... they are not likely to happen by accident.

However. The short article reveals a rather big chink in its own credibility: the patient reports 'dozing' while attempting to fall asleep: insomniacs frequently perceive themselves not to have slept when in fact they have. This and the dubious nature of (or, actually, lack of as far as I can tell) actual medical records make me think this is crap.

We can only hope that this guy is for real and gets proper attention from proper neuroscientists, who can discover how he is doing it and share it, in convenient pill form, with me. The rest of the world too, I guess, but really just me!

Friday, January 14, 2005

Sign Me Up!! 

Providing yet more evidence of Canada's superior medical system, Grunt Doc points to this ad, from Toronto, for people willing to participate in a study of larynx pathology. For money.

As "Hello_World" points out though, this must be a hoax. Even so....

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Time to Change 

Today brings another reason to abolish the extended shift for medical residents: when they've been working extended shifts, they are more likely to get in car wrecks. No shock here, we already know that sleepy drivers are not safe, but it's good to see some validation. And maybe there's an off chance that things will start to change, as this practice has no discernible benefits that I know of. Other than being an initiation/hazing ritual.

Photo du Jour 

via BoingBoing


A number of months back, I kept hearing the hype and buzz about this band and its sexy-ass frontman, Jake Shears. I thought, 'oh God, here comes even more tacky gay trendy pap,' and wrote it off as something I might hear in a club but mostly ignore. Then, my then-housemate gave me the CD to have a listen, and I did, and was blown away. This is a Fucking Excellent Band!!! So last night I went to see the Scissor Sisters live at the 930 Club. I must say, it was a brilliant show, and it was great hanging out with the Big Gay Blogger Posse.

There was no opening band, but a DJ spinning a fairly good array of stuff. He was no Rock Chasty, but I was much happier than with an opening band. I don't feel bad milling about chatting away while he spins, as I do over an opening band. Which is hat happened, mostly. I got situated in a way that thwarted my plans of getting totally hammered by the time the band came on, because to reach the bar would have meant exile from friends and center floor, but in the end, the show was so good I'm glad that happened.

Jake Shears really is damn sexy in person - much grittier and less fey looking than in the press photos - and while his low range is a bit rocky, a fairly good singer too (brilliant by pop standards!) - but there really isn't a single member of this band I wouldn't happily get with. A big fucking Scissor Sisters orgy! Yum. But seriously, I was really blown away by Ana Matronic. I was expecting her to be sortof like a pomo backup singer, or just backup cheekbones. But, she stole the show: tons of charisma, the cheesy dialogue didn't come off too forced, and she sings more than I thought, her vocals really bringing up Shears' shaky low-end. I'd best describe her as a drag queen, except with the added confidence of having been born with it.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Eating Well, and, well... 

Today marks the release of the 2005 US Government Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report. It doesn't contain anything that regular readers here haven't heard before, but is nonetheless a big step forward in terms of our government's handling of dietary and health issues. First off, the Committee broke from precedent this round, not simply updating its 2000 report, but conducting "an evidence-based review of diet and health." Literature was reviewed, experts testified, et cetera, et cetera, and now we have a bright shiny new report. The report is organized around answering a set of 34 key questions, yielding nine key Messages, about which I shall briefly write:

1. Consume a variety of foods within and among the basic food groups while staying within energy needs.

This is something that's been a message for some time, but weakly heard. Americans love their fad diets, and in rushing off to eat all one type of food and none of another, miss the point entirely. The key message here is variety: Americans are suffering from a critical lack of basic nutrients, particularly vitamins C, E, and potassium, in part because we just don't eat enough variety.

2. Control calorie intake to manage body weight.

Here's a big ole' duh, but apparently many people seem to have missed this message: you need to consume, in a day, at most the number of calories you expend in a day. If you consume fewer calories, you will lose weight, and if you consume more you will gain weight. Regardless of what type of food provided those calories!

The key bit here is portion control: the Committee recommends substituting lower calorie-density, nutrient-rich foods for higher-density, lower-nutrient ones as a way to both get more vitamins and control weight.

3. Be physically active every day.

They recommend at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day, and more like 60-90 for people who want to lose or keep off weight. We all know this, but again, some just don't seem to get it.

4. Increase daily intake of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and nonfat or low-fat milk and milk products.

Take-home messages are again to eat a variety of foods, but specifically to have 3 cups worth of low/non-fat milk products a day, and replace as much processed grain food with whole grains. Sounds good to me...except I cannot stand the taste of anything below 2% milk or yoghurt. Low/non-fat cheese is abomination.

5. Choose fats wisely for good health.

Eat less saturated and trans fats, and eat fish high in n-Omega-fatty acids twice a week, unless you're pregnant, nursing, or a kid, in which case you have to worry more about mercury levels. They recommend just checking with "consumer guides" to identify lower-mercury fish, but to be honest, the kinds of things these acids are good for can probably wait till you're older, or not with child.

6. Choose carbohydrates wisely for good health.

We know about the debate on carbs, and how inconclusive data so far has been. The Committee reiterates that it's relative calorie intake and expenditure that will determine weight loss/gain, but it is clear that too much sugar, especially of the processed/refined variety, is bad. They recommend getting more fiber too. And drinking less soda (and other sugar sweetened beverages).

7. Choose and prepare foods with little salt.

Less NaCl, more KCl. Unless of course you're like me and have dangerously low blood pressure, in which case you probably should just drink more water.

8. If you drink alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation.

They recommend 1 serving per day for women and 2 for men starting at middle age, and none in adolescence and not much in between. Yeah, riiiiiiiight.

9. Keep food safe to eat.

This bit is about all those nasty things you can get from bad food and how there are about 76 million illnesses due to bad food in the US each year, including about 5,000 deaths. Yuck.


The New York Times reports that the Center for Science in the Public Interest has found that, big shocker!, parents are fighting a losing battle against food marketers in getting their kids to eat healthily. If SpongeBob were hocking broccoli instead of Lunchables (or, contrarily, if Lunchables contained anything that occurs in nature), kids would be more likely to eat healthy. Kraft and others have made some gestural movement in the direction of addressing these concerns, but it still boils down to spin.


After you eat, you poop; this fact is not in contention. However, new research questions conventional wisdom about constipation: fiber and water may not help, and regular laxatives may not be harmful or habit-forming. This is all stuff I'd thought had been worked out long ago, but it seems there's a bit of a gap in the research, apparently due (in part) to patients' unwillingness to discuss such matters with their doctor.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Islets of Non-Idiocy 

For the third season of their tired-before-it-began series, "The Simple Life," the inexplicably famous Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie will travel the country doing odd jobs in various settings. One stop was to be Buena Vista Township, New Jersey, where the girls were to spend a day as substitute teachers (or perhaps teacher substitutes? Asprateacher - looks like a teacher but actually just rots kids' brains). A few parents said 'hell no.' But not all of them: according to school officials, only 34 out of 340 complained.

Calling child protective services, calling child protective services!! There are 306 parental units of one or more in the Buena Vista Township, New Jersey area who would expose their children to Paris Hilton!!! If gays aren't fit to be parents, then certainly anyone who willingly lets Skeletris, Pr0n Princess of Stoopid anywhere near their own kids should lose custody.

Boozy News 

Alcohol (ethanol) is one of the few addictive substances, Diazepam being the other that springs to my mind, the withdrawal from which can be lethal. The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are called Delirium Tremens, which is also a tasty Belgian beer.

In the most recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of Rockefeller University scientists announce that they have identified a protein key to alcohol withdrawal symptoms, which could lead to new treatments making it easier to get clean. Cool.

Monday, January 10, 2005


I'm fascinated by languages, and by linguistics. It's something I wish I'd had the time/opportunity to study in school...maybe I will later on. Here are two very interesting articles, on very different aspects of linguistics, both from Spanish researchers.

If the first, researchers found that rats have the ability, similar to humans and (some) other primates, to distinguish between two languages. One group of rats learned to press a lever when they heard a sentence in Japanese, another to do so when they heard a sentence in Dutch. In trials, both groups successfully discriminated between the two and, to a lesser degree, between other sentences in the languages. Interesting support for the preadaptation camp in linguistics. Press release. Full-text.

Secondly, researchers performed fMRI on Spanish speakers, Slibodores, and people who use both. Silbo is a whistling language used in the Canary Islands. Now, it comes as no real surprise to me that the brain processes Silbo in the same way that it does other languages in speakers (or, actually, whistlers), since that's been seen in sign languages and in other sonic systems like !Kung (a percussive language of clicks and clucks). What is interesting to me is that the brains of the Spanish-only subjects didn't seem to recognize Silbo as a language...I wonder if the same thing would show up if you played them Japanese or Oulof?

Marketing Health 

Most kids will tell you: healthy food doesn't taste good. Why? Because years and years of marketing have convinced them (and us) so. Playing off of evolutionary designs left over from before the agricultural revolution (and certainly before super-market culture), marketers and producers have bred us to crave high-sugar, high-salt, high-fat foods with little to no nutritional value, because it's cheap to produce and we're likely to consume it in ever-increasing quantities (to sustain the sugar rush, and because with no nutrition, it's hard to feel satiated). The result: our galloping (or, more accurately, lounging) obesity epidemic.

Now the news media has latched on to this, along with whatever fad diet is big this week (Atkins? South Beach? Graham Cracker?), and the public has begun to demand healthier food. Or at least to demand its junk be made to look healthy. This is precisely what's happening. The Washington Post today writes about new initiatives by food makers to market 'healthier' foods - by adding vitamins, "whole grains" (whatever that means), etc. to products. Some have also cut out trans-fats, but that's likely got more to do with the fact that they now have to list those on labels than anything else.

There is so much to say about the material in this article. Where to start??

As the author points out, just because you add calcium to chocolate syrup does not change the fact that you have, well, chocolate syrup. And cutting "sugar" only to replace it with "other carbohydrates" (aka, in scientific terms, sugar) without reducing calories is just ... ... brilliant marketing.

Packaging snack foods in 100 calorie pouches is the only sort-of good idea in the whole lot. Problem is, they're charging twice as much as for the stuff that comes in regular boxes (at least at my store).
"...milk sales have soared since the chains replaced the staid and often hard-to-open cartons with snazzy plastic bottles..."
Whuh?? As a child with major ADD and poor small motor skills, I never had any trouble opening milk cartons. Ever. I just didn't like milk, because soda was so much ... fizzier. When I was a kid it was a big deal that all my juiceboxes contained "real juice" and that I ate cheese, not "cheeze product." Now they're selling "milk-based, canned" beverages to kids at school. This could be worse than kool-aid.

The most sensible thing in the whole bit is a dietician who says: "We're doing a disservice to kids, to make them think anything they eat or drink needs to be sweet." Damn right. That's why we have so many fat kids in this country. Because they're taught from day one that sweet=fun=for kids and not sweet=boring=old. And don't get me started on artificial sweeteners. But, like I said, crap is cheaper to produce and sell than healthy stuff. And Commerce is the God of America.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Another Meme 

Because I'm again short on time and attention span today. It's blogosphere de-lurking day, so please de-lurk yourselves and make for an interesting comment thread! Talk about science, health, or whatever is making you crazy at the moment.


While most research focuses on how to kill HIV, another critical part of the battle is understanding how it works, and why different people are more or less susceptible. A new study from the NIH finds that an increased number of copies of the gene CCL3L1 makes a person more resistant to HIV than people with fewer copies. They found that African-Americans had an average of four copies whereas European-Americans had an average of 2-3, but apparently not that European-Americans were more susceptible than African-Americans.

This last bit confuses the hell out of me. I mean, I understand from a statistical perspective how that can happen, but it doesn't make sense. There should be a protective effect across populations, shouldn't there? Any help from the epidemiology crowd here?

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Look 'em In The Eye 

Parallel to a current blogosphere snipe-fest about autism (which is fascinating, aside from being unfortunate that we can't all just get along, etc.), a new study published in Nature may help with understanding and treating that disease. A patient, SM, has lost her ability to identify fearful facial expressions, except, it seems, when she's reminded to look people in the eyes.

Now, this is the kind of study that really thrills me. I mean, how amazing it is that this system is so finely tuned that just the tiniest things can go wrong, and have such specific effects. It's a wonder any of it works at all.

So. Cool.

(via boingboing)


Because I'm too distracted to actually post anything, I'll reveal my
Inner Bitch

Susan Ivanova - from Babylon 5

Never watched the show, but I like my match!

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Best Bets 

Abstinence may be 100% effective, but it is also 100% unlikely to happen on a large scale. So, people need condoms. But, not all condoms are created equal - a consumer group has tested a number of brands, and named the best: The Durex Extra Sensitive Lubricated Latex.

But remember kids, you also have to use them correctly!


A team of researchers at Edinburgh University have found some pre-onset signs that could be useful in predicting who's likely to later develop schizophrenia. This would be a big step, since such prediction could allow preemptive treatments to lower the risk and improve disease course. In college, I wrote my term paper for Developmental Psychology on pediatric premorbid predictive factors for schizophrenia, so seeing this research is really interesting to me, but not a surprise.

Back when I was writing, it was fairly clear that there was some way to predict who as at risk even in early childhood. In one study, clinicians watched home videos of kids, and were able to pick out which ones would go on to develop the disease with superb accuracy. This was from pretty much the same behavioral factors this new study examined - blunted affect, asocial behavior, and learning problems. In other studies, abnormal eye movement tracking was predictive of later disease states.

If people are interested, I could post some of that paper here.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005


Will Eisner has died. There is an article about him here, which really says it all better than I could. I remember, when I was in Junior High I took a class on "Understanding Comics" at the Smithsonian, and he was one of the speakers. I had only been exposed to superhero books and, at best, Maus at that time, so I had no idea who this guy on the syllabus for that night was. He got up and spoke and explained where all of that stuff came from and how it all worked and why it was important to think about framing and shapes and sizes and all that other stuff you don't think about as a 13-year-old X-Men fan. I cannot wait to get ahold of his last work when it comes out this summer. He was an absolute genius, and certainly as important and influential as any other artist or writer of the 20th century. He will be sorely missed.

'Sfunny. The CD I put in this morning (well before I heard about this) is a recording - Mariss Jansons' - of Modest Mussorgsky's "Songs and Dances of Death." Synchronicity's a bitch, huh?


There's been a good deal of hype recently about how having a couple drinks a day is good for you. The key here, however, seems to be moderation: new research indicates that three or more drinks a day increases stroke risks in men. Mind you, that's 3 UK drinks, which is more like 1.5 in the US. D'oh!

After you've overindulged, you may be tempted to douse yourself with painkillers such as aspirin or ibuprofen (Advil)...I know I am. This, however, may be tearing up your intestines. They're also rough on your liver, which alcohol irritates as well, so maybe just some vitamin B and water is your best bet against a hangover.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Nothing to Sneeze At 

Researchers have discovered a protein, p110-Δ, on mast cells which, when blocked, prevents allergy symptoms in mice. This is a long way from human treatments, but if it means that someday spring will mean something other than sniffles and sneezing to me, I'm very excited.

In other big news, the British Medical Journal received, from an anonymous source, documents which may further implicate Eli Lilley in nasty dealings around the drug fluoxetine (aka Prozac). Unfortunately, I don't think anyone here would be surprised to learn that this company was/is holds the safety of patients in such total disregard relative to profits. In a perfect world, companies wouldn't pull this sort of BS, in a less perfect one, they would at least be barred from further FDA approvals and fined out of business, but I fear that in this world, the worst they'll get is a slap on the wrist.

Big shock-o-shocks, eating lots of fast food makes you obese and increases your insulin resistance, raising your risks of type 2 diabetes. Study participants who ate fast food twice a week gained ten pounds more than controls, and that is nothing to sneeze at.

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