Wednesday, July 1, 2009

And the Wurlitzer plays on...

I consider myself a pragmatist in most respects; I like to find something that works and doesn't screw people over and implement it. I think my interest in politics is akin to most people's fascination with celebrity trainwrecks - the sniping and grandstanding, the fighting over ideologies that have been found wanting over and over's all wonderfully entertaining. It's just a shame that this happens to be the group of people that happens to, you know, control our country.

Full disclosure: I have no delusions that I could do a better job. While I've learned to craft a pretty good argument, my PR skills suck. I couldn't hold public office because I can't be trusted to not make an ass of my self during a night out on the town, and Lord only knows what would happen if evidence of my activities in the UK were to surface. I like to sit in my lab, picking through large data sheets, running statistics, and pretending that my work has tons of value and will change the world. I don't run the country; I vote in and pay people to do that for me. I like to think of it as delegating.

But everything one party supports, the other one is against? Really? Everything you say is correct and everything your opponent says is wrong? Pardon me if if sounds like I'm choking, it's just that the aroma of your bullshit is so...stanknasty.

Don't get me wrong, I like a good argument, and there are plenty of issues that group naturally together. I just think that voting against something because someone who happens to have the same opinion as you on abortion doesn't like it. In fact, I'm going to rank that right up there with getting a blow job in the oval office in the "stupid political moves" category. I suppose it doesn't really help that I don't fit neatly into any political category - I'm about as far left as you can get socially and somewhere in the middle economically. I like social safety-nets, but I want the fucking budget balanced and view corporate bailouts as a hemorrhoid on the ass of civilization. I couldn't give a rat's ass how you fix the health care situation, just as long as it's affordable and doesn't fuck me over when I need it. Ultra-Libs piss me off, Ultra-Cons piss me off even more. I don't need your causes reduced to moral imperatives; it's your job to convince me they're worthy in rational terms, just as it's mine to convince you similarly of mine. If you ignore tons of evidence and require some amazing flexibility to pull off your mental gymnastics, I laugh at you. And sometimes I point and make obscene gestures.

At any rate, this rant has been brought to you by this man who is living proof that all you need to get a column at CNN is tons of money and an axe to grind. Yeah, yeah, he's got quite the employment pedigree listed there, but I've yet to read any set of sentences that he's strung together that bear even the slightest resemblance to novel thought worthy of a paid column on a national news network. In today's doozy, he takes a look at the 60 vote super-majority that Senator-elect Frankin gives the dems in the Senate.

There are plenty of good reasons why this is not a good thing (sorry my liberal friends, you know I vote with you most of the time, but let's be frank), the first and foremost being that a super-majority inevitably leads to one party pushing its agenda with little to no argument or reason to reconsider some of their more laughably ideological blunders. It also ensures that corruption will be rampant and that the party in power will be bought by every major special interest group under the sun. This is why the pendulum of political opinion swings so violently in this country; once one group gets power they run amok and do all sorts of stupid shit. Kudos to Mr. Feehery for actually addressing this.

But F--- for the analysis. I should have realized from the first paragraph where he rags on the metric system that I should have stopped reading (Really, dude? I use that shit everyday, and so does the rest of the world.). For the last couple of commentaries he's written, his advice has been for Republicans to sit back and wait for the people to get sick of the Dems, and then magically they will be back in power. There's plenty of precedent for this type of thinking, and I can't argue that it won't happen, because it IS inevitable. But Jesus Christ on a cracker, is this what is passing for paid political discourse these days? Don't bother coming up with something new, don't bother trying to appeal to more people, don't bother making up an actual alternative budget, just slap together a string of numbers with some figures that my cat could have drawn, wait until the other side fucks up and then continue to ram through an agenda that people have already voted down once?

This is stupid. Really, really stupid. For the love of god, come up with an agenda that isn't based on voo-doo economics, stop fucking over your constituents in favor of big business (this is a biggie, as Dems have proven they that won't), and make some effort to reach out to minority communities that you've alienated. If the Dems can remake their image from the damage inflicted by the Dixiecrats, surely you can too. Make an effort to pull your head out from your anus and get back to your small government roots in a way that isn't completely offensive. Why is there never any discussion of this? Do you really not understand that myself and many people like me feel that a rational debate about the expansiveness and efficiency of the government is well worth having, but are so turned off by the racist, sexist, and classist antics of the GOP that we clench up every time we see one of them on a talk show (seriously, if I had stood up the last time I watched Pat Buchanan on TV I would have taken the couch with me), even when we agree with some facet of what they are saying? My conservative friends don't talk this way, why do their leaders? I have more in common than not politically with the conservatives I know, and yet I am so turned off by their politicians that we're always surprised when we agree on things. (I'm certain they have more than a few things to say about liberal politicians having the same effect on them, but I'm not qualified to write that because I voted for the weaselly bastards, so I'll let them have the honors.)

It all comes back to the "my side is right, yours is wrong" mentality. Everyone wants to claim that the founding fathers were on their side. No shit they were - the two parties have divided and pilfered everything that was laid down in writing in an attempt to have some claim on history. Here's an especially hilarious example, courtesy of Glenn "will I start drooling on air today?" Beck pretending that Thomas Paine, the man who advocated over two hundred years ago for a progressive tax system, welfare, and estate taxes, wants us to rise up against the government for implementing...a more progressive tax system, welfare and estate taxes! Sometimes I don't know whether to laugh, cry, or beat my head against a wall. And, while it's really tempting to sit here and argue that Thomas Paine was a liberal based on this, I'm not going to, because the word "liberal" as we use it has absolutely no bearing on his political affiliation 200 years ago. 200 years ago the man was undoubtedly a liberal, today, we've cut and crafted his philosophy into both our liberal and conservative political ideologies. Yay! Everyone wins, and for everyone who doesn't win, Glenn Beck has rewritten Paine's Common Sense to suit your bat-shit insane, revisionist Id.

And so it goes. We're too consumed with the "us vs. them" mentality to actually work through our challenges as a nation. The likes of Olbermann, Limbaugh, and Beck have pushed eliminationist rhetoric to a point where all we do now is demonize eachother and pretend that either the Dems or Repubs are destroying the country. Fuck that noise. I don't mind paying taxes, but seriously, for what I'm paying I want better representation. I'll hold on for the ride, but don't count on me holding my breath.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Today in "Organs I wish I had..."

Despite the fact that his relatives are complete bastards who tunnel through my front lawn and create soft spots that I will inevitably step on sprain my ankle, I am madly in love with this little guy. The fingers! The teeny-tiny eyes! The incredible schnoz! And he lives in wetlands, which I generally don't venture into as I donate more than enough blood to mosquitoes as it is and do enjoy not smelling like a poorly kept men's room, so I can totally get behind his tunnelling to his heart's content there.

But the nose! THE NOSE!! It's the best thing ever. Seriously. Look what it can do underwater:

Don't act like you're not impressed.

Even better than blowing some seriously sweet bubbles though, the nose acts like an eye. It's a bit dark in tunnels, as you will have learned from watching "The Descent", which makes finding food a bit tricky (unless you are a big scary monster with a taste for man-flesh). As you may note, the eyes on these guys are a bit hard to find, and their ears really aren't much better equipped. Sense of smell isn't exactly something to write home about either...but their touch reception on the end of those rays is amazing. Each one of the rays is covered with Eimer's Organs, which are fun little bazoomba-looking nerve endings:

Good stuff. The rays closest to the mouth have the most nerve fibers going to these organs, so these rays are the most sensitive. When I say that the star works like an eye, I really mean it. The moles jam their nose around in their tunnels until it touches something interesting - just like how you would scan bar patrons in search of someone who is not a complete douchebag. Once the prey is located by the peripheral rays, the mole brings the center rays into contact with it to be sure of what it is, or to go back to the bar example, turning your eyes toward the bright red blob in the corner and bringing it into focus (I really don't recommend this, as red blobs almost invariably turn out to be some asshole you met once at a party in college, but I digress).

So, not only do these central rays on the nose act as a kind of tactile fovea for these moles with tons of peripheral nerves supplying it, they also takes up a huge portion of their brain to process the information coming from it. One quarter of the sensory cortex is taken up by just this one ray. To give you some comparison, here is a map of the human sensory cortex where all of the body parts are drawn to scale with amount of representation they have in the brain:

Here's another super-fun representation, just in case you were sleeping too well at night:

Those of you who survived freshman psychology will recognize these as homunculi, which I'm almost positive translates loosely into "Wow, God surely does have a sense of humor to devote so much sensory area to lips and so little to the genitals." Seriously, I was expecting something more like this:

Although something less wrinkly would have appealed to my aesthetic sense a bit more. Also, I can't imagine the data they are losing with this by not including the foreskin...*tsk tsk*

Um, where was I?

Oh yes. Tactile foveation in the star nosed mole. Pretty amazing brain organization for something that most people consider to be quite a simple creature. And...yeah. Mostly I just wanted to post mole pictures. And accompany them with penis pictures. And, well, I have accomplished that, and managed to couch it in something that resembles intelligent discourse. So I win.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

I just saved a bunch of money on my eyeball-licking insurance!*

One of the best parts of being a grad student is that you have access to a shit-ton of journals. For those of you lucky enough to have never been exposed to the wonderful, terrible, freak-nasty world of journals, they are a bit like magazines, if magazines were written by a bunch of narcissistic 12-year-olds with Aspergers Syndrome. That is to say, most journal articles are written primarily in heavily field-specific jargon by people so wrapped up in their own research that they forget that the outside world exists. (Incidentally, I have an article accepted for publication in the Journal of Human Evolution on a topic that even my mother doesn't understand, assuming I ever get around to actually editing the damn thing. Feel free to stroke my ego at your leisure.)

The upshot of articles written by obsessed researchers is, naturally, that some are unintentionally hilarious (much like rabid fans of anything are unintentionally hilarious; see Trekkies). I'd make more fun, but to be honest, I was indulging my own obsession with monkey feet and their frictional mechanics when I came across this gem: "Frictional adhesion: a new angle on gecko attachment," published by Autumn et al. in the Journal of Experimental Biology (2006, vol. 209, pp 3569-3579). The study itself is pretty damned cool, as they were looking at how geckos manage to stick themselves to anything and everything without having gooey feet (like, say, frogs or insects). Geckos use dry adhesion, which they accomplish through little hair-like projections on their feet called setae, which branch into little spatulate endings. The spatulate endings contact whatever they are standing on and essentially form a bond that is amongst the best known in the natural world. They look like this:

So far, so good. I think these setae are pretty damn cool, and am most jealous that I don't have anything this cool on my toes. The unintentionally hilarious part comes once we get into the methods. Turns out that geckos are surly little bastards. "Bitey" doesn't even come close to describing their disposition. So, the researchers were left trying to find a way to get the little jerkwads to cooperate (which, in all honesty, is the main problem all animal researchers must address at some point. Do you give them a treat for good behavior or just hope and pray that they get over themselves? /snark) Did you know that "normally aggressive and temperamental" geckos become "docile when attached by a single toe to a glass surface?" I didn't either. Apparently they weren't docile enough, though, judging by the position they were attached in and the "muzzle" the researchers made for them:

Yeah. That would be sports tape holding the mouth shut. Ingenious I tell you. I'm actually considering using it on my monkeys, but they're either too smart or too dumb (depending on the day) and would either eat it, hump it and eat it, or throw it at my head. Either way, the tape would be peeled off.

And speaking of tape being peeled off; that was the main finding of the study. The detachment of gecko feet from whatever they are stuck to in no way resembles the mechanics of peeling tape. Specifically, what the study showed was that gecko setae will always detach when they are angled at least 30 degrees from the substrate they are stuck to, regardless of how heavy the gecko is. Duct tape, however, will peel faster at any angle if you apply more force to it (which, in this context, is the equivalent of having a heavier gecko). Yeah, I know, this all sounds completely inane. But it is actually pretty cool, because it means that there is something out there that has a stronger hold than duct tape, but requires less energy to peel off. This is good news for gecko researchers, who have now stumbled onto a whole new cash cow for research funding, and possibly good for 3M, provided they can patent this mechanism for sticky-notes and those hooks-that-aren't-supposed-to-kill-your-paint-job-but-do-anyway before anyone else does. Bad news for Sherwin-Williams though, although I suppose they could just launch an advertising campaign to encourage the use of nails for hanging pictures and whatnot...

So, there it is: the set-up, the punchline, and the explanation of how I am not as big of an asshole as the opening paragraphs might seem to suggest. But, this article contains and extra-special dose of fun. The authors weren't satisfied with their mathematical conclusion of how setae function (and why should they be? Math is so dull...), so they decided to apply their conclusions to a real-world model. And that, my friends, is what I shall leave you with. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, the "StickyBot":

*Tom assures me that geckos lick their eyeball.**

**I am too lazy to look that up, so just nod and smile, even if you know it's wrong.***

***Turns out I'm not that lazy and Tom was right. He's so amazing I still wonder why I am the one in grad school.****

****He says it's mostly because I am a masochist, but also because I have passion for learning and should stop making fun of myself.*****

*****I am putting words in his mouth and he is far too busy killing dragons online to have actually said that, but I'm sure he has said it at some point.******

******I love you Bear. You make my life worthwhile!!

Cheeky Monkey

I think it's fair to say that anyone who knows me well has heard me bitch about the capuchins we used to house in the lab. (Well, okay, there are probably those of you who know me well but I refrain from discussing graduate school with...mostly because I would hate to scare you...). For those of you unfamiliar with my woes, suffice it to say that capuchins are a) very smart little bastards, b) amazingly good at finding obscure parts of the wall to hang onto and jump from, and c) incredible crack-shots with monkey urine. My scalp still burns thinking about c. Their only saving grace is their cuteness. And we all know that I am a sucker for cute. And primates in general. Especially their feet. But I digress...

Anyway, it turns out that not only will capuchins pee on your head with only the slightest provocation, they're also lying, cheating little bastards. Or so says Brandon Wheeler (who I am happy to say I know...if only because he makes fun of me and screams obscenities at me from his bike on a regular basis). At Stony Brook, we like to joke about the stuffed carnivores that he used to elicit actual warning calls from the capuchins he was studying, but then again, how are you supposed to assert that they're shouting "Holy shit! BIG F'ING CAT!" if you have no idea what capuchins shout when there is a BIG F'ING CAT! present?

For those of you playing the home game, what Brandon's research found was that low ranking capuchins will often sound alarm calls for no good reason other than to scare high ranking group members away from a food source long enough for them (the low ranking member) to gank some. How do you demonstrate something like this, you may ask? How on earth are we supposed to know they're being deceptive, not being fluent in capuchin and all? Well, first you have to figure out whether the monkeys actually have specific calls for predators, or whether they are just squeaking gibberish. To do this, different models of capuchin predators were placed in the groups daily paths. When a group member gave a call, the call was recorded and the context was noted. Once it was clear that specific calls were given in the presence of certain predators (to the exclusion of just squeaking for the hell of it - there had to be a specific predator present and the call had to elicit evasive behaviors from the rest of the group), the deceptive use of these calls could be examined. As it turns out, low ranking members of capuchin groups will routinely give predator alarm calls when a limited food source is present. High ranking members get to eat first, and, as such, are usually already gorging themselves. When the alarm call is given, they freak out and run, leaving the food unguarded for the low ranking members to help themselves to.

Why on earth is this interesting? Mostly because it's comforting to know that humans are not the only primate who will lie, steal, and cheat their way through life. Lord knows we always need new excuses to justify acting like assholes. But also, because it gives us some insight into the cognitive development of other primates. It's unclear from the current research whether the monkeys lie intentionally, understanding that they are being deceptive, or if they simply associate the call with a food reward. Further research will undoubtedly focus on teasing out this difference, and either way it provides some insight into our own behavior. Is deceptiveness adaptive? Do deceptive monkeys have a higher survival rate than those who never give false alarm calls? Is this behavior genetic or learned? Are we indeed heading toward socialism, or just away from social Darwinism? Lots of important and interesting questions remain to be answered. I almost wish I was a monkey chaser rather than a gooey-jar-monkey examiner!

Congrats Brandon!