Wednesday, February 22, 2012

How to Design the Rice Experiment

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool."
– Richard Feynman

The rice experiment, as popularized by businessman Masaru Emoto, is a good example of how not to design a scientific experiment. I will explain why at the end. First, I will explain how I would design a rice experiment. I am not a scientist, but I try to stay scientifically literate. If anyone has suggestions on how to improve this design, let me know.

To be clear, I am not planning on doing this experiment, as I will explain afterward.

My Hypothetical Rice Experiment:

1: Prepare good words and bad words on opaque adhesive labels. The labels need to be opaque enough so that they cannot be read through the backs of glass jars.

2: For a control, I would prepare labels with no words. I would also prepare labels with neutral words. I would also prepare good, bad, and neutral words in a foreign language that I don't understand. All the labels would be prepared under the same hygienic conditions and cut in identical shapes. This is the heart of the experiment. Let's pause for a moment and ask why this is so important...

A controlled experiment should answer the question, "Compared to what?" If, all other things being equal, some interesting variable changes, what will happen? That's the question. The tricky part is to make all other things be equal.

For a wonderful description of eliminating variables, listen to or read "Cargo Cult Science" by Richard Feynman. Now back to our hypothetical experiment...

3: Have all the words recorded separately in a ledger. This will help keep me honest.

4: Sterilize dozens of jars, seals, and lids. This will zero out the bacteria count. Let them dry.

5: Have someone other than me apply the labels to the jars. This is the start of a double-blind.

6: Have that person cover the labels with identical strips of lightly adhesive opaque paper. At the end of the experiments, these covers will be removed. This will double-blind the experiment.

7: Have a third person rearrange the jars before delivering them to me. This will randomize the experiment and complete the double-blind.

8: The ledger from step 2 records what words are used, though I don't know which ones are on which jars. The words should be categorized at the outset: good, bad, neutral, or blank. Words should also be categorized as English or foreign. (The foreign word might well be kept secret from me, just in case.) The word categories have to be established at the outset to prevent fudging afterward.

9: Set the labeled empty jars in a relatively non-hygienic place so they can attain similar levels of light contamination. Totally sterilized jars may preserve rice indefinitely.

10: Cook some rice and put the same amount in each jar. A few ounces on the bottom will do. All we want is to be able to look inside the jar without the labels and their covers blocking the view.

11: Set the jars in an array that I can check every day. The jars would be numbered so I can track the progress of each jar individually.

12: See which jars get moldy first. Keep watching as other succumb. I would set a deadline of maybe 60 days.

13: The reveal. After the 60 days, look at the jars and their corresponding labels. Compare with the ledger and mark each jar as good, bad, or neutral. If the results are:
- 12 good English words and 12 good foreign words = all pristine
- 12 neutral English words, 12 neutral foreign words, and 12 blank = all somewhat moldy
- 12 bad English words and 12 bad foreign words = all very moldy

This, or something close, would be an extremely significant result. But I expect the onset of mold will be random and will not track with any good word or bad word labels in any statistically significant way. Mold will slightly favor one category of words over another, just as a matter of statistical noise. The math for this is well worked out. The more jars I use for each category, the smaller this statistical noise becomes. If I do the experiment with 30 jars for each category, I would get very high resolution, low noise results.

14: Submit for peer review. I would explain the process described above. My test would satisfy the basics of what we want from a well designed experiment: it's double-blinded, randomized, controlled, and uses an OK sample size. Negative results would be expected and not terribly interesting. (Sometimes negative results are groundbreaking, like the Michelson-Morley experiment that set the stage for Einstein's Relativity.) In the rice experiment, a positive result would be extremely surprising. The way this is designed, a positive result would have a rock solid foundation. Just one more step would be needed:

15: See if anyone reproduces the results under similar experimental conditions. If no one can reproduce my results, there's a good chance I falsified my data or was just plain sloppy.

16: If the results are positive, conduct the experiment for the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). If it does show evidence of paranormal activity that can be verified under scientific controls, I will win $1,000,000. And that's a lot of money! I would like to have that prize! But it's been available for decades and no one has won it yet.

How to Backpedal:

Let's say I was invested (monetarily or emotionally) in the results coming out positive—but they came out negative. There are some tricks, fallacies of special pleading, I can play on myself. These might help me to dismiss my own results or fudge them in my favor:

Anomaly hunting: Maybe some seals were red and some were beige. Maybe the red ones were moldier to a slightly higher degree that statistical noise would predict. Maybe the vibrations inherent in color caused the differences in moldiness. Of course, that's not what we were testing, that's a patterns identified after the fact. If you want to test for color, put that in the ledger at the outset. Don't shoehorn a pattern after the fact.

For some real adventures in anomaly hunting, look at the number juggling people apply to the Egyptian pyramids. You can take a rich batch of numbers and combine them into all sorts of flukes that match physical constants or astronomical distances. James Randi shows how you can do the same anomaly hunting with the Washington Monument in his great book Flim-Flam.

Blame science or Western thinking: This is the common tack of accusing the skeptical mindset of spoiling the results. The experiment above is designed without appealing to any particular cultural heritage. The design is based on me preventing myself from introducing bias. If scientific thinking is such a party-pooper, how has it been so successful in shaping every little bit of technology we use?

Science, skepticism, critical thinking—these have produced plenty of reliable results, like cars and air travel. Telekinesis, for example, has not delivered comparable goods for human transport.

Those YouTube Videos and Why I Will Not Conduct My Own Experiment Design:

The rice experiment, as popularized online, has no controls, no blind (let alone double-blind), and operates on the smallest possible sample size. It is a race to see which rice gets moldy first. If the bad word rice gets moldy first (it's a 50-50 shot) a naïve person might claim confirmation. If the good word rice gets moldy first, a naïve person might think, "I must have done something wrong," or "I got so impatient waiting for mold, maybe my impatience threw it off." Such a person may be less likely to post their results on YouTube.

Now, I have no plans to conduct my hypothetical experiment. It's a lot of work putting together a well-controlled study. And I'm very confident the results would be uninteresting. You might say, "Put your money where your mouth is. Do the experiment!" In a sense I am putting my money where my mouth is. If I'm wrong, I am giving away, for free, a great way to win a cool million from the JREF. Have at it.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Visualizing Poverty

Flowing Data, a site devoted to data visualizations, offers a challenge to its readers. It's called Visualize This.

Every two weeks I will post a dataset to the FlowingData forums for all of you to visualize. Download the data, visualize it (graph, chart, map, infographic, animation, etc), and post your work to the thread. As we've seen already, there are many ways to visualize a single dataset, and with multiple pairs of eyes, we get stories from different points of view. I will post the best visualization at the end of each cycle.
The current challenge is to visualize US poverty statistics.

On the right is the [revised] graphic I put together. Click to enlarge. A PDF is available here.

The graphic succeeds in some ways. And it is less successful in others. In all, I'm proud of it. But I am going to go into detail on how it was put together plus it's strengths and limitations. I was very excited to try this precisely because it is not a professional job. This allowed for some experimentation.

Hard Numbers

The original data from Kaiser State Health Facts provides basic percentages by state and age group. I wanted to try assembling data that would show the actual numbers of people living in poverty.

I found state population numbers with almost identical age breakdowns at the Northeast Midwest Institute from the same time period as the poverty stats. I found the DC stats at the Census Bureau. By correlating percentages with populations, I was able to derive hard numbers on the general populations and the numbers in poverty.

One glitch in this was in the age breaks. The poverty stats' first age group is 0-18. The population stats' first age group is 0-17. This skewed the size of the first age bracket by well over 1 percentage point. To correct this, I extrapolated. By multiplying the youth population by 1.056 (19/18), and subtracting that amount from the 18-64 category, I was able to take the skew well below 1 percent, and well within the resolution of the data.

It's important to note that this had no effect on the numbers in the graphic which are directly from the original poverty data.

I should make clear I am not a statistician. I would ask anyone who does work heavily with statistics whether my extrapolation was valid. (And also, what would be the margin of error from the extrapolation.) For this and other reasons, there is a note at the top of the image, "This graphic is an exercise. Do not use for reference." More on the disclaimer below.

Making the Image

I put the graphic together using Excel, CorelDraw and Photoshop. Excel matched the poverty and population numbers. CorelDraw assembled the bar graphs. Photoshop converted exported EPS files.

I already have CorelDraw set up to easily operate in increments of .1 inches so I'd have simple spatial relationships to work with. (Some of you might say, "can't the guy just use metric?" Well, I could, but just about all of my customers are Americans.)

Initially, I wanted the graphs laid out horizontally. But his proved troublesome. States with small populations forced the text into vanishing tininess.

At first I thought having the graph show "above" and "below" the poverty line would fit with common parlance. But the visual impact connoted the stats as buoyant -- as though, like a water line, it was keeping a population afloat. This visual connotation would have been extremely misleading.


The main strength of the graphic is that it shows populations. Each full square represent 100,000 people. A full account of the data was still able to fit in 11x17 inches without scaling.

Collected stats for the US as a whole provides a key for reading at the state-by-state level. It invites comparison within state populations and across various states. And there is enough empty space to allow for easy reading.

Breakdowns by age group are color coordinated for quick reference. For those who are blue-green color blind, there is enough contrast and visual breaks to understand the graph.

Most important, the graph highlights the enormous problem of child poverty in the US.


The greatest flaw is in the US threshholds for poverty. If you are a single adult who made only $11,000 last year, you are above the poverty threshhold. If you are a wife and husband with two children, the 2007 threshhold is $21,027. These standards are set nationally and there has been little political will to change them.

Since the numbers are set nationally, there is no accounting for the various standards of living in different parts of the country. We all know it's much more expensive to live in New York City than in Detroit. National poverty stats do not reflect this.

Also the data pre-dates the economic crisis. This is unavoidable because those numbers have yet to be calculated. It's safe to assume the figures will become much worse.

Aside from that, there are problems with the graphic.

First, small populations do not represent the percentages well. For example, Alaska and the District of Columbia look similar graphically. But the numbers contrast starkly.

On a related note, the graph does not adequately show the problem of concentration of poverty. This is endemic to the poverty problem. In areas with high concentrations, poverty becomes both entrenched and invisible to the larger public.

Another problem with the image is in combining bar graphs with boxes representing population numbers. While the boxes do show hard numbers, it creates discrepancies for the viewer. We humans are much better at comparing one-dimensional lines than in comparing two-dimensional areas. The confines of the graph necessitated making choices on the thickness of each color area in order to properly represent proportion. This often meant compromises. In general, the youth population is almost one quarter of the broader population. So, when possible, I kept that proportion for the thickness of the bars. For those graphs that do not adhere, the image demands more difficult attention from the viewer.

The giant image of the US statistics gets across the numbers. But it is extremely bulky. While I think it works in this case, it does come at a cost of information density.

A minor problem is that the population boxes suggest an even distribution of income as a varying distance from a poverty line. I would hope people would not read that into the graphic, but I am not sure. The graphic may suggest that the number of the highest incomes number the same as middle and low incomes. While I hope very few people read that conclusion into the graphic, it does raise an interesting question. I would be very interested in visualizing data (like a histogram) that would show the proportions of incomes by age, state and amount. Perhaps a future challenge.


As I mentioned above the top of the graphic says, "This graphic is an exercise. Do not use for reference." Partly, this is because I used a statistical extrapolation to adjust for age groups, and I'm not a statistician. But there is a much more important reason.

The graphic has not been properly fact-checked. It would have been nice to have software that would assemble this visualization automatically, but I transcribed the numbers and built the graphs rectangle by rectangle. While I worked some double-checks into my process, the rigorous thing to do is have a second party check the data.

Without a proof reading, I cannot have anyone use it as reference. (If you want to proof it, go ahead and let me know of any corrections! But I do not envy you the task.) For the same reasons, I did not post my sources on the graphic. But those sources are listed at the top of this blog post.


It was a great to submit something to Visualize This. Again, part of the excitement was that since this was a non-professional gig, I could try some things I hadn't done before and expand my repertoire.

Also, the subject of poverty in America is one of the most under-reported issues we face. It was sobering to work with the numbers involved.

Again, a big thanks to Flowing Data. I hope your future Visualize This entries are as challenging.


Update: I adjusted the thickness of the bars on the US graph so the adjacent 15% value are represented more flush with one-another. -- Pat

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Confirmation-Bias-Based Community

On this week's On the Media, Brooke Gladstone interviews Farhad Manjoo, author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society. They discuss how humans filter out undesirable facts. And they talk about how our new media culture reinforces this tendency.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You use examples from... decades ago to illustrate selective exposure and selective interpretation, but you contend in your book that these are really manifestations of the current media world of blogs and talk radio and email.

FARHAD MANJOO: Yeah. And in this world, there is the front door, the big newspapers and big network news outlets. The side doors are the blogs, talk radio, cable news, which actually draws a very small audience.

These side doors allow us to kind of amplify these factors of selective exposure and selective interpretation, and they make these factors kind of more important today than they were in the past, because in the past, you couldn't really seek out media that comported with your beliefs because, well, there weren't that many media choices...

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you show how false facts on both the right and the left make their way through partisan echo chambers, but you do suggest that conservatives have a different relationship with their media.

FARHAD MANJOO: Right. People have studied how conservative blogs, for instance, link to each other and how liberal blogs link to each other, and they found that the people on the right generally have a tighter network and are more likely to indulge in only those sources.

And this has been a longstanding pattern where psychologists have noticed that people on the right are more efficient at filtering out things that kind of don't really support their views.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: We all know it's really easy to manipulate audio, video, and especially with Photoshop and digital images. But it was interesting – you said that the biggest effect of the Photoshopification of our society is not that it's easier to fool people but that now they have even more reason not to believe the evidence of their eyes and ears if they don't want to.

FARHAD MANJOO: If you live in a world where everything is possibly fake, where every photo you see could have been Photoshopped, it gives you license to dismiss that photo. This is true not only of photos but of basically all kind of documentary evidence that comes at us these days. We can always assume that there's been some digital foul play there and that it's possibly not a truth.

Grid Hype

When CERN's Large Hadron Collider goes online, a high-bandwidth computer network will crunch the numbers. This new network is called the Grid. To do this, CERN has linked itself with research institutions around the world.

This is a genuine technical achievement. But there is currently some misleading hype. Here are some of the spectacular headlines: The Internet's over.. here comes the Grid, Interweb made obsolete and It’s The End Of The Internet As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).

Some of these stories erroneously claim that CERN invented the Internet. (Readers should take that as a red flag. The US Department of Defense came up with the Internet. CERN invented the World-Wide Web. The web is just part of the Internet.) But there are more significant problems with the hype:

First off, the Internet is not going to be obsolete. At best, we can hope for improvements in the Internet. As a journalist myself, I know the next-big-thing story may sound irresistible. But the Internet will continue to grow and modify. It's a little too big and entrenched for outright replacement.

Second, CERN's Grid is built to handle CERN's data. Yes, it's very high bandwidth. But it's not going to replace consumer connectivity right now. Just consider the last mile problem. It's one thing to lay 1,000 miles of fiber between CERN and a university. It's another thing to lay tens of millions of 100 meter fibers to homes. If the Grid can alleviate bottlenecks in traffic, great. But let's not pretend the whole system will be overhauled just yet.

Third, some of the stories talk about downloading movies in seconds and transmitting holograms. Movie distributors might have a problem with instantly downloadable movies. Also, your current monitor probably doesn't support holographic displays. While the Grid's bandwidth may be able to handle all this data, the hype completely ignores the economic and proprietary interests involved.

Still, what CERN is doing is still quite impressive. According to Scientific American:

The nearly 100 million channels of data streaming from each of the two largest detectors would fill 100,000 CDs every second, enough to produce a stack to the moon in six months. So instead of attempting to record it all, the experiments will have what are called trigger and data-acquisition systems, which act like vast spam filters, immediately discarding almost all the information and sending the data from only the most promising-looking 100 events each second to the LHC’s central computing system at CERN, the European laboratory for particle physics and the collider’s home, for archiving and later analysis.

A “farm” of a few thousand computers at CERN will turn the filtered raw data into more compact data sets organized for physicists to comb through. Their analyses will take place on a so-called grid network comprising tens of thousands of PCs at institutes around the world, all connected to a hub of a dozen major centers on three continents that are in turn linked to CERN by dedicated optical cables.

If this functionality can expand to benefit Internet users at large, beautiful! But please be skeptical of the "end of the Internet" stories. As we all know, the Internet is going to end when we are struck by a giant asteroid without warning.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Diamonds in Quantum Computing

Quantum particles have the bizarre capacity to contain a variety of different states at once. This is called superposition. A quantum particle may be in a superposition of states but it will break down into one of those states once it is observed. In fact, it will break down if the particle interacts too much with the external environment.

This delicate property makes the quantum world appealing to computer scientists. By exploiting superposition, many different mathematical values may be explored simultaneously. That would make computers thousands of times faster and solve mathematical problems that are too complex for classical machines. But the difficulty of keeping those quantum bits in causal isolation is a huge technical challenge. Often, it has required cooling materials close to absolute zero.

Diamond is now showing promise as a material that can perform quantum computing functions at room temperature. "The beauty of diamond is that it brings all of this physics to a desktop," says David Awschalom of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Science News posts an article about how diamonds -- or more precisely, flaws in diamonds -- are showing promise. In a natural diamond lattice, flaws are inevitable. The most common impurity is a nitrogen atom. Another kind of flaw is a vacancy in the lattice where a carbon would otherwise sit.

When a diamond crystal contains a nitrogen and a vacancy next to each other, something strange happens. Electrons from the nitrogen will orbit the vacancy as though an atom is there.

This virtual molecule, called a nitrogen-vacancy (NV) center, possesses spin, the quantum form of magnetism.

Spins are like microscopic bar magnets and can encode and store information by pointing in different directions. A single unit of information, called a bit, can be, say, a 1 if the spin points up or a 0 if it points down.

...Researchers have so far managed to store and manipulate only a handful of qubits [quantum bits] in superbly well-controlled systems, such as single ions suspended in an electromagnetic trap or superconducting materials cooled to very low temperatures. In a paper to be published in Science, Awschalom and his collaborators describe how they achieved a similar level of control over NV centers in diamond.

The October 2007 issue of Scientific American had an excellent article on this research [subscription]:
Diamond has a track record of extremes, including ultrahardness, higher thermal conductivity than any other solid material and transparency to ultraviolet light. In addition, diamond has recently become much more attractive for solid-state electronics, with the development of techniques to grow high-purity, single-crystal synthetic diamonds and insert suitable impurities into them (doping). Pure diamond is an electrical insulator, but doped, it can become a semiconductor with exceptional properties. It could be used for detecting ultraviolet light, ultraviolet light-emitting diodes and optics, and high-power microwave electronics. But the application that has many researchers excited is quantum spintronics, which could lead to a practical quantum computer—capable of feats believed impossible for regular computers—and ultra­secure communication.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Competing Theory of Menopause

Scientific American posts an article about why menopause may have been favored by natural selection. The prevailing argument, called the "grandmother hypothesis," states that non-reproductive women enhance their inclusive fitness by caring for existing children and grandchildren.

A new study says there is a problem with the inclusive fitness argument for menopause:

"The problem is that these grandmother benefits aren't big enough to ever favor stopping breeding between the ages of 40 and 50," says Michael Cant, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Exeter in England and co-author of a new study on the genesis of menopause published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. "When you look at data from hunter-gatherers and other natural fertility populations, the sums just don't add up." Grandmothers do benefit their descendants, he says, but the genetic payoff is small compared with those of producing another child.
Cant and Rufus Johnstone offer a new hypothesis based on reproductive competition between generations. Their model is based on the idea that reproductive-age women migrate to new communities with less similar genetic make-ups:
The rapid senescence of the human female reproductive system coincides with the age at which, in natural fertility populations, women are expected to encounter reproductive competition from breeding females of the next generation. Several lines of evidence suggest that in ancestral hominids, this younger generation typically comprised immigrant females. In these circumstances, relatedness asymmetries within families are predicted to give younger females a decisive advantage in reproductive conflict with older females. A model incorporating both the costs of reproductive competition and the benefits of grandmothering can account for the timing of reproductive cessation in humans and so offers an improved understanding of the evolution of menopause.
The Scientific American article continues:
The mother of the grandmother hypothesis, anthropologist Kirsten Hawkes of the University of Utah, says Cant and Johnstone are right to focus on intergenerational conflict. Elephants have babies in their 60s, and some whales give birth in their 80s. "It's clearly something selection can adjust," she says. "So explaining why it hasn't in us has to be part of the story." But she disputes their claim that female-bias dispersal is, in fact, the universal human/ape residence pattern, pointing out that half of the young female chimps at anthropologist Jane Goodall's Gombe Stream Research Center remain with their mothers, and that recent studies show that hunter-gatherers often live with the wife's family as well.

Global Sunblock Using Sulfur

Last week's podcast of CBC's Quirks and Quarks discusses the radical idea of blocking the sun's rays to mitigate climate change. Bob McDonald interviews Dr. David Keith, the Canada Research Chair in Energy and the Environment at the University of Calgary. Keith is not necessarily recommending the idea but he does believe we should put it on the research agenda. One option -- a pretty shocking one -- is to release sulfur into the upper atmosphere. From volcanic activity in the past, we already know this would have an immediate cooling effect on the climate.

Nobel Prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen^ also recommends looking into such research [PDF]. But he warns:

I must stress here that the albedo enhancement scheme should only be deployed when there are proven net advantages and in particular when rapid climate warming is developing, paradoxically, in part due to improvements in worldwide air quality. Importantly, its possibility should not be used to justify inadequate climate policies, but merely to create a possibility to combat potentially drastic climate heating.
Keith says in the podcast that many climate scientists are reluctant to discuss this because it would only treat the symptoms of climate change and not the cause. At the same time, he found policy-makers who were all too eager to deploy such a program.

In this panel discussion on geoengineering, Harvard geochemist Dan Schrag^ points out:
If we're going to use the Earth as an experiment -- which we're already doing by adding greenhouse gases -- if we're going to do an experiment by testing injection of reflective material, say, sulfur, into the stratosphere, we don't have a control. And so if something happens, it's almost impossible, given the complexity of the system, to attribute it either to the CO2 or the sulfur.
Sulfur injection into the upper atmosphere, says Keith, is within the power of poorer nations and even within the power of the richest individuals. And like the current trend in climate change, there would be winners and losers. Since we are already altering the atmosphere, is this something we should consider? And if so, who would be responsible? Who should be allowed to fiddle with the global thermostat?

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

April Fools' Day

The calendar conversion from the Julian to the Gregorian (in the 1500's) is the origin of April Fools' Day, right? Well, according to the master debunkers at, that's not entirely clear. What is more clear is that pranks have existed throughout human history and across cultures. Today's Science section of the New York Times discusses the social utility of practical jokes:

Jonathan Wynn, a cultural sociologist at Smith College, said pranks served to maintain social boundaries in groups as various as police departments and sororities. “And you gain status by being picked on in some ways,” he said. “It can be a kind of flattery, if you’re being brought in.”

One of the most highly respected pranks was the 1957 BBC Broadcast about the Swiss spaghetti harvest:

On the Media this week profiled Alan Abel. He's made a career of creating fake news events and is the subject of the new documentary, Abel Raises Cain.

The Yes Men take pranks to activism, impersonating such groups as the WTO, Exxon and Halliburton. Before they were known as The Yes Men, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno participated in the Barbie Liberation Organization. The BLO is the group that switched the voice boxes of Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls.

In science and math, we have Alabama Changing Pi to the Biblical Value of 3. This is a personal favorite which seems to resurface every few years.

The Museum of Hoaxes site lovingly enumerates the Top 100 April Fools' Hoaxes Of All Time.

In 1987, philosopher Daniel Dennett, Dr. Richard Paul Astley, and biologists Richard Dawkins and William Hamilton discussed the evolutionary adaptiveness of humor and pranks on the WYNS show, Perspectives. Video here.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Raymond Scott 100

"It's all very well to write screwy music, and imitate things like wooden Indians and powerhouses, but just writing screwy music isn't enough. If it's screwy music you want, there's plenty of that in Stravinsky..."
-- Harold Taylor, 1939, from the Rhythm Magazine article, You Can Keep Raymond Scott

In addition to making some of the most joyously intricate and distinctive melodies of the 20th Century, Raymond Scott was also a leading pioneer in multi-track recording, electronic music and collaborated with the likes of Robert Moog, Jim Henson and Motown. But odds are you will recognize his tunes from Warner Brothers cartoons. He is arguably one of the most influential musician/inventors in American music. Here is his signature song, "Powerhouse," as performed by the band Racalmuto.

"The compositions of Raymond Scott are etched, it seems, into the fabric of 20th century culture like some strand of DNA sequence coding our collective memory for future-mutations."
-- Paul D. Miller, a.k.a. Dj Spooky

Raymond's six-piece band was called the "Raymond Scott Quintette." (Apparently, Raymond thought the word "sextet" would distract from the music and the Frenchie "ette" lent a touch of class.) While the music was classified as jazz, jazz critics were frequently hostile. Despite the critics, the music proved highly popular with the buying public.

It was not so popular with the band members. Raymond coerced them into upwards of 60 takes, performing dizzying riffs -- and sometimes under weird acoustic circumstances in order to achieve a particular sound. Unlike other jazz acts, improvisation was not allowed. The songs are intricately assembled as though they were designed by an engineer. Band members could not deviate from the strict tune structure any more than parts manufacturers could deviate from an engine design. Raymond didn't use sheet music either. He recorded the players, edited the strips, played them back and asked the players to play the re-ordered arrangements from memory.

"What can you say about a man who inspired cartoon melodies and bebop, invented Frank Zappa and electronic music, and still found time to work for Motown?"
-- Andy Partridge, XTC

Here is the Raymond Scott Quintette performing War Dance for Wooden Indians. The image to the left is from a comic strip biography of Raymond Scott by Justin Green, available at the Official Raymond Scott site.

The 1940's saw a lot of changes for Raymond Scott. In 1941, he sold his compositions (finally rendered in musical notation) to Warner Brothers. The music was enthusiastically seized upon by Carl Stalling, the man who scored the Warner Brothers cartoons -- which is largely why these tunes are so embedded in our consciousness. (To this day, people think Raymond wrote for cartoons, but he never did. He never even watched cartoons.)

"The music of Raymond Scott is positively exhilarating. Its intricacies mesmerize, because they're part of a unique and utterly disarming musical tapestry."
-- Leonard Maltin, film critic

In 1942, he became Music Director for CBS Radio and made history by hiring black musicians. His CBS band was the first racially integrated band for radio. In 1946, he founded Manhattan Research Inc, "the world's most extensive facility for the creation of Electronic Music and Musique Concrete." It was the first electronic music studio.

Raymond's brother Mark Warnow died in 1949 and Raymond took over Mark's job: Orchestra Leader for Your Hit Parade. Raymond Scott and his wife, Dorothy Collins, became early TV celebrities. Here is the Raymond Scott Quintette performing "Powerhouse" on Your Hit Parade. Raymond called it a "rent gig." In fact, he used his handsome salary to invest in electronic equipment. In the late 40's, along with Les Paul, Raymond started experimenting with a new recording technique called multi-track.

"Raymond Scott was like an audio version of Andy Warhol; he preceded Pop-Art sensibilities, and he played with that line between commercial art and fine art, mixing elements of both worlds together. I love and respect Raymond Scott's work, and it influenced me a lot. I'm a big fan.''
-- Mark Mothersbaugh, Devo

In 1949, Raymond said, "Perhaps within the next hundred years, science will perfect a process of thought transference from composer to listener. The composer will sit alone on the concert stage and merely think his idealized conception of his music. Instead of recordings of actual music sound, recordings will carry the brainwaves of the composer directly to the mind of the listener."

By the mid-50's his studio began to look (according to friends such as Robert Moog) like a science fiction set. Over the years, Raymond invented numerous electronic musical instruments including the Clavivox and the Electronium.

Robert Moog credits Raymond as an important influence on the invention of the Moog Synthesizer. In 1962 and 1963, Raymond released Soothing Sounds for Baby. It was entirely electronic music he composed as an "aural toy" for children. While it was a commercial failure at the time, some now regard it as a strong pre-cursor to ambient music (over a decade before Brian Eno's recordings).

Electronic music can suffer from an outdated sound very quickly. However, Raymond Scott's electronic music from the 60's still hold up today. In a 1962 lecture, Raymond said, "To say that we haven't scratched the surface in this field wouldn't be exactly right. Because every time we scratch we find the surface thicker and thicker and thicker. For the possibilities in electronic music are really quite infinite."

"It's those front-line types that go into uncharted areas, and pave the way for others. Always go to the source, sources like Raymond Scott."
-- Henry Rollins, Black Flag, Rollins Band

In the early 70's, Raymond was hired by Barry Gordy to develop new electronic sounds when Motown was positioning itself as a leader in cutting-edge music. Today, we don't know the degree of influence Raymond had on the 70's Motown sound. (If you've seen "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" you know that the Motown star-machine, as policy, kept the support crew on the down-low.)

One very unique collaboration was with an up-and-coming puppeteer. Raymond Scott and Jim Henson collaborated on "Limbo - The Organized Mind" a very unique performance which appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

"Raymond Scott was definitely in the forefront of developing electronic music technology, and in the forefront of using it commercially as a musician."
-- Bob Moog, inventor of Moog synthesizers

Scott fans include Igor Stravinsky, Henry Rollins, XTC, Elvis Costello, the Kronos Quartet, They Might Be Giants, Devo, Jascha Heifetz, Art Blakey and Danny Elfman. You can hear Scott's influence in Benny Goodman, bebop, ambient, electronica and The Simpsons theme. In 1986, Raymond composed his last known work, "Beautiful Little Butterfly," in Midi. In 1992, a retrospective of Raymond Scott's work, Reckless Nights and Turkish Twilights, brought Raymond Scott to a new audience. Raymond died in 1994.

Concordia University in Montreal recently hosted a Raymond Scott Centennial Tribute Concert:

157 West 57th Street
Boy Scout in Switzerland
Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals
A Message from Where
The Rhythm Modulator
Twilight in Turkey
War Dance for Wooden Indians

As more music lovers discover him, Raymond Scott is gradually becoming recognized as one of the great innovators in American music. September 10th of 2008, will be Scott's 100th birthday. For much more, here is the official Raymond Scott site, the Raymond Scott Blog and the Raymond Scott MySpace page.

"Being introduced to the music of Raymond Scott was like being given the name of a composer I feel I have heard my whole life, who until now was nameless. Clearly he is a major American composer."
-- David Harrington, Kronos Quartet


Hello to MATRIXSYNTH Readers: A big thank you to Matrix for linking to this post. I hope you find this interesting and informative. Science Reporting is a fairly new blog devoted to public understanding of science. Please leave a comment if you like. I'm glad to see so many people who appreciate the legacy of Raymond Scott. Scott really is one of the great under-appreciated innovators in 20th Century music.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Evolution and Suicide Terror

Drawing from a variety of studies, evolutionary psychologist Andy Thomson has developed a hypothesis of suicide terrorism. He says we can understand three aspects behind the motivation:

  • The capacity for male-bonded coalitionary violence against innocents is as old as our species and may date to our common ancestry with chimpanzees.
  • The capacity for suicide exists in men and women alike. It is not necessarily the product of illness. Some suicides are the product of depression and social rejection. Other suicides are an attempt at "retaliation bargaining" waged from a position of powerlessness -- to force change from an enemy.
  • Our evolved mechanisms which make us vulnerable to religious beliefs are the same mechanisms which can be exploited to motivate suicide terrorism. Thomson asserts that religion, more than any other ideology, is able to hijack our capacity for male coalitionary violence and suicide.
Thomson discusses his theory in the latest podcast of Humanist Network News. He also presented his findings at the Atheist Alliance International conference in September. Thomson's paper on the subject [Word Document].

The podcast also touches on the work of Robert Pape, author of the book, "Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism"

They also discuss an interesting common denominator among male suicide terrorists -- immaturity and inexperience with sexuality.

This aspect of terrorism was identified years ago by comedian Marc Maron.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Human Cloning and Human Dignity

The President's Council on Bioethics has issued it's recommendations on cloning. The majority recommendation is a ban on cloning for human reproduction and a four-year moratorium on cloning for medical research. The moral basis for the recommendations rests on a concept of "dignity" as defined by Christian theology.

Steven Pinker, responding to the Council report, points out that 12 of the 23 contributors are from organizations with Christian mandates (almost entirely Catholic) and four of the remaining 11 advocate a greater role for religion in public life. Pinker states:

It's also conspicuous that the essayists did not include a single scientist, this on a topic inspired by scientific advances. The essayists did not include any empirical scholar who studies the facts of human life—no psychologist, no social scientist, no historian, and hence, no one who could enlighten us on the psychological basis of ascriptions of dignity or how standards of dignity vary across cultures and historical periods.
On the subject of dignity, Pinker says that our "squishy" concept of dignity is relative, fungible and in some cases, morally undesirable:

[M]edical procedures necessarily subjects us to all kinds of indignities. Everyone in this room has—or I assume—undergone a rectal examination. Many people have undergone pelvic examinations. Those of us over 50 have undergone colonoscopies. Needless to say, these are deeply undignified, and that's fine because we sacrifice dignity for other goods in life.

The third point is that dignity can be a bad thing, and Prof. Elshtain asked can any good ever come from denying or constricting human dignity, and the answer is an unambiguous yes. For example, any third-world tinhorn dictator, bemedaled, sashed, epauletted, strutting on his reviewing platform solemnly reviewing the goose-stepping soldiers parading in front of him, is an epitome of human dignity. That is not necessarily a good thing.

Political repression works by preserving a kind of dignity. Those who ridicule or satirize or even criticize their political leaders are subject to imprison, torture, or death, justified in many cases by their assault on the dignity of the state or the leader. Religious fanaticism is driven by an attempt to safeguard dignity, most appallingly in the recent story in Sudan where a British schoolteacher was imprisoned and threatened with death by an angry mob because she allowed her first-grade class to name a teddy bear Mohammed . Likewise, the fatwah against Salman Rushdie , the death threats against the publishers of the Danish cartoons on Mohammed , were all justified by their assault on the dignity of religion.

...Indeed, I would say that a foundation of democracies is that the right to dignity is extremely limited. We enshrine a right to make fun of our political leaders. You can turn on the TV set any night at 11:35 and watch Leno and Letterman and Jon Stewart reduce the dignity of our political candidates and leaders, and that is a good thing. [more...]

Steven Pinker discusses his testimony on the most recent podcast of Freethought Radio [MP3].

Laurie Anderson on "Here and Now"

Laurie Anderson is interviewed for WBUR's "Here and Now."

Laurie: The trend to life on the net is not as satisfying to me. So I find myself doing projects that have nothing to do with digital stuff -- doing things that have scale, doing things outside.

...Q: I'm just so surprised to hear you say that you are rejecting in some ways the Internet and digitizing and you want to move away. Because I would have thought, Laurie Anderson, this would have been your perfect playground. Because you were so in the forefront of electronics. Inventing the tape-bow violin in 1977, incorporating all these different electronic sounds, changing your voice to sound so many different ways.

Laurie: Well, I only say that because I, like everybody else, love it and hate it, sort of equally. And I'm so afraid because I love it that I'll get sucked into it and forget there are other things to life than looking at that screen.
Laurie discusses her show Homeland -- about the America she sees today and how it's changed since her recording United States * in 1983. (Tip to Donna)

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Legacy of War of the Worlds

This coming Halloween will mark the 70th anniversary of Orson Welles' radio-vérité broadcast of "War of the Worlds." Radiolab just posted an outstanding podcast of the "War of the Wolds" legacy. Why did it fool people then? And why does it continue to fool people?

First they look at the context of the times -- the recent destruction of the Hindenberg and the new media form of the day which is now part of our mental furniture. It starts, "We interrupt this program..." As Hitler continued his attacks throughout Europe, special bulletins became an authoritative and attention-getting feature of radio -- a feature Welles exploited. Tellingly, many of the listener's fooled by Welles' broadcast believed that it was Germans attacking, rather than Martians.

Other radio stations have staged their own versions of "War of the Worlds" over the years. And again people were fooled. The most disastrous example is the profoundly ill-advised broadcast in the capital city of Ecuador, Quito. The Quito broadcast was produced without any warning to anyone. In fact, the producer planted fictitious stories of strange phenomena in the days preceding the broadcast -- to whip up paranoia. At the end of the evening, the radio station was set on fire by an angry mob. Six people died that night.

Buffalo's WKBW (my hometown and my favorite station in the 70's) first broadcast "War of the Worlds" in 1968 -- modernized and set in the Western New York landscape. The 1971 WKBW broadcast is available online. The page contains a link to the full show (with great opening music) plus a making-of video. The climax of the '71 broadcast has iconic TV news anchor Irv Weinstein reporting from a rooftop like Edward R. Murrow. Except Irv is reporting on an approaching robot. It's really quite brilliant.

Google Visualization API

Google recently released a new application program interface for visualizations. Google Visualization API:

[It] lets you access multiple sources of structured data that you can display, choosing from a large selection of visualizations. The Google Visualization API also provides a platform that can be used to create, share and reuse visualizations written by the developer community at large.
  • Embed visualizations directly into your website: Display attractive data on your website by choosing from a vast array of visualizations created by the developer community.

  • Write, share and reuse: The Google Visualization API provides simple Gadget extensions to its API to create visualization Gadgets. Publish these here or in the Gadget directory. Become an active participant in the developer community; reuse and share visualizations with others.

  • Create extensions to Google products: Write visualization applications for Google products such as Google Docs. With a growing list of products that support Gadgets, syndicate your app.

  • Use many data sources, one API: Visualization apps created using the API are able to access any compliant data source with no required code changes to your application. Developers can start building apps immediately using Google Spreadsheets as a supported data source.

Information Aesthetics asks, "will this shape the future of data visualization online? if so, how?"

Flowing Data picks up on the question and responds:

If Google visualization becomes popular, visualization, in general, grows in popularity. People who weren't exposed will now know more, and if all goes according to plan, data awareness has a chance to develop.

As an example, Google Maps made online mapping what it is now - commonplace. Remember when online mapping was only limited to the big boys? Now everyone can mashup to their heart's content. People know how to use it and similar mapping applications and because of that, more "idea people" ask for mapping. As a result there is more opportunity.

Flowing Data then asks:

What do you think? Is the Google visualization API going to limit our imagination where we get stuck in a Google-ish funk; or is data and visualization awareness ready to rise to a point where we all benefit?
The responses are clearly positive. Flowing Data reader escargot points out:
It’s not going to limit our imagination any more than Excel does. Everyone has access to the standard bar, pie and scatter plots in Excel, and they’re by far the most common plots you see. And yet, you still see creative and informative visualizations.

Google is just offering a few more standard plots. Nice to have, but by no means limiting.
I've not used the API yet but my response is very positive. Information graphics will be more accessible. That's good for everyone... except, of course... graphic artists. Wait a minute. That's taking work away from me! I take it back, it's a terrible idea!

Just kidding. Some of the graphical styles are a little too cutesy. The gauge graphic to right is a fun visual analogy to traditional gauges. But it takes up a lot of space to deliver three data points.

In contrast, (fans of Edward Tufte take note) Google has included sparklines, which may be the most graphically efficient use of data space.

The example to the left is from Edward Tufte's book Beautiful Evidence.

If Google visualizations take hold, I'm anxious to see how they'll be used.

Monday, March 24, 2008

PZ, ID and BS

It happened just this Friday, but it's already the stuff of legend.

An advance screening of Ben Stein's anti-evolution, pro-ID documentary "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" was held in Minneapolis. Atheist blogger PZ Myers, who is one of the stars of the movie, signed up himself and a number of guests. The film's producer spotted Myers in the theater and had him expelled by security.

The guests were able to attend, though. Who was one of the guests?

Richard Dawkins.

Evolutionists have been grinning all weekend. That's the very short version.

For those who savor irony like a fine wine, I will try to decant the whole story.

Last April, atheist, blogger and evolutionary biologist PZ Myers received an interview request for a documentary called "Crossroads."

PR gaffe #1: It was a con. Under false pretenses, PZ was actually being interviewed for "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," Ben Stein's new documentary against evolution. Richard Dawkins was similarly duped into participating in the film.

PR gaffe #2: The producer of the film, Mark Mathis, claims that "Crossroads" was just the working title. That's a fib. The domain dame for was registered the previous March. Here's the Whois page to prove it.

Currently, the movie is touring the country with advanced screenings in various cities. In February, critic Roger Moore saw the movie and wrote a scathing review for the Orlando Sentinel. The producers of "Expelled: No Critics Allowed" responded with a media alert demonizing Moore. The alert quotes Stein, "The only thing I find despicable is when reporters sneak into screenings by pretending to be ministers. This is a new low even for liberal reporters." Moore says he never portrayed himself as anything but a reporter. That story made it to the New York Times.

PR gaffe #3: A pre-screening of "Expelled: No Skeptics Allowed" was held at the Mall of America during the same weekend as the American Atheists Conference in Minneapolis. So PZ signed up for the movie online -- for himself a number of guests from the conference.

PR gaffe #4: But PZ was ID-ed. Producer Mark Mathis told a guard to expel PZ Myers from the theater. When PZ asked why, he was informed that they didn't need to give a reason. PZ went to explain the situation to his guests, including ... here's PR gaffe #5: the most prominent evolutionary biologist in the world, Richard Dawkins. If anyone at the theater recognized Dawkins, no one greeted him. Dawkins is, after all, the most famous star in the film aside from Ben Stein.

The guard prompted PZ to leave immediately under threat of arrest. The guests entered the theater. PZ went to the Apple store and blogged the moment for posterity. His blog Pharyngula, owing to his red-meat style of humor, is one of the most popular blogs in the atheism movement. If producer Mathis was seeking ridicule, he could not have designed it more intelligently.

Pharyngula's Expelled post received record traffic. Within a day, it clocked well over 1000 responses in the comment thread.

Back at the theater, Myers' family, friends and the most prominent atheist in the world, Richard Dawkins, watched the movie. Here are reviews/eyewitness accounts by PZ's daughter Skatje, her boyfriend, Collin, and friend Kristine.

And here is an excerpt from Dawkins' account entitled, "Lying for Jesus?"*

...did he [Mathis] not know that PZ is one of the country's most popular bloggers, with a notoriously caustic wit, perfectly placed to set the whole internet roaring with delighted and mocking laughter? I long ago realised that Mathis was deceitful. I didn't know he was a bungling incompetent. Not just incompetent at public relations, incompetent in his chosen profession of film-making, for the film itself, as I discovered when I saw it on Friday (and this genuinely surprised me) is dull, artless, amateurish, too long, poorly constructed and utterly devoid of any style, wit or subtlety. It bears all the hallmarks of a film-maker who knows nothing about the craft of making films.
Dawkins says quite a bit more about the film itself:
A favourite joke among the film-making community is the 'Lord Privy Seal'. Amateurs and novices in the making of documentaries can't resist illustrating every significant word in the commentary by cutting to a picture of it. The Lord Privy Seal is an antiquated title in Britain's heraldic tradition. The joke imagines a low-grade film director who illustrates it by cutting to a picture of a Lord, then a privy, and then a seal. Mathis' film is positively barking with Lord Privy Seals. We get an otherwise pointless cut to Nikita Krushchev hammering the table (to illustrate something like 'emotional outburst'). There are similarly clunking and artless cuts to a guillotine, fist fights, and above all to the Berlin wall and Nazi gas chambers and concentration camps.
In the question-and-answer after the movie, Dawkins stood up and asked, "Why, when he was featured in your film, when the entire theme of your film was free speech and oppression, did you EXPEL my friend and colleague Dr. PZ Myers from the viewing tonight?"

PR gaffe #6: Mathis gave the old "no ticket" line. This is a canard. People could sign up online to see "Expelled: No Ticket Necessary." Recently, Mathis changed his story, "I banned pz because I want him to pay to see it. Nothing more."

That evening, PZ and Dawkins taped a short discussion of the event on video.**

The New York Times reports:
Mark Mathis, a producer of the film who attended the screening, said that “of course” he had recognized Dr. Dawkins, but allowed him to attend because “he has handled himself fairly honorably, he is a guest in our country and I had to presume he had flown a long way to see the film.”
PR gaffe #7: Mathis' claim is ridiculous. Dawkins writes:
...Mathis almost certainly detected Myers' name on the list of those who signed up on the Expelled website. Since my name was not on that list, it is highly likely that Mathis didn't spot me until the moment I stood up in the Question session, when it was too late to expel me. So all that stuff about allowing me to attend because I have handled myself fairly honourably is almost certainly dishonourable spinning. As for the implication that I might have flown all the way from England to see his disreputable film, the very idea is as ludicrous as the film itself. Like PZ Myers, I was in Minneapolis for the conference of the American Atheists.
PR gaffe #8: A summary gaff -- attempting to create "positive buzz" by screening the audience on ideological grounds could not have backfired more spectacularly.

For a list of the dozens of blog posts and articles on "Good Friday Fiasco," check Greg Laden's Blog.

Sites sympathetic to the film have set out to demonize PZ and Dawkins. Here and here.

PZ blogged late that night:

This outcome so far has been absolutely perfect, as far as I'm concerned. The hypocrisy of the Expelled makers has been exposed by their expulsion of one of the people they filmed (final lovely irony: I'm also thanked for my contributions in the credits), they've revealed their incompetence by throwing me out when Richard Dawkins was right next to me, and I didn't have to waste two hours on a bad movie.

I've also got a story to tell: when the creationists saw me and Dawkins in a lineup, I am the one that had them so frightened that they had to call for the guards. I feel mighty.

The story reads like an urban legend except far more multi-layered and nuanced. The story also has the virtue of being true.

In all honesty, I have been a fan of Ben Stein. He is obviously very intelligent and very knowledgeable. His public persona has been one where he doesn't take himself too seriously. Granted, his ultra-conservative views are bonkers but he seemed likable in other respects.

In fact, I sent him an email saying as much and hoping he had some other projects in the pipeline. I could anticipate that his "Expelled" movie looked like a very bad move.

He replied graciously, thanking me for the email but saying that the movie is not what I had expected. I haven't seen the movie yet, but I have seen Ben Stein on Bill O'Reilly and the "Expelled" trailer. These two videos are actually worse than I expected. Here are just a few problems with Ben Stein's arguments:
  • Believing the fact that evolution happened does not mean one endorses brutal selection processes in society. That's the the is/ought or naturalistic fallacy.
  • Calling modern evolutionary thought an imperialist relic of Darwin's days completely ignores 150 years of advances in the field. That's a straw man.
  • Blaming "Darwinism" for Hitler is several fallacies at once. It's false cause, appealing to emotions, appealing to the crowd, and cherry-picking. Capitalism too has been justified on flimsy evolutionary terms. See William Graham Sumner for an influential example.
  • Portraying evolutionists as an ideologically-driven cabal which demands party-line orthodoxy is a mischaracterization. It's a smear. It sounds paranoid. Calling it "Big Science" is a misapplication of the term. And given the events at the theater, it also sounds like psychological projection.
Ben Stein's no dummy. He should know better. He is presenting dishonest and manipulative arguments. Maybe the film will be better than its "hype" -- which itself is pretty disastrous. Maybe the film will be completely re-edited before its release next month and it will present excellent arguments. This hope bucks probabilities.

You need to be smart and very well educated to become a presidential speech writer (as Ben was for Nixon and Ford). I'm sure Ben is familiar with logical fallacies. But being a smart, well-educated Presidential speech writer doesn't necessarily mean one is honest. So far, given the fibs, the canards, the ridiculous statements, the fallacies and the weirdly clumsy PR gaffes, this is all pretty dishonest work. And the movie isn't even released yet.

Why'd you have to do it, Ben? Why'd you have to do it?

*Note: The title refers to whether Mathis is a liar for Jesus. I don't think Ben Stein himself is a Christian, perhaps I'm wrong. I do know he is a very devout Republican.

**Note: In the video PZ and Dawkins mention a slick computer animation. Mistakenly, they attribute the footage to an XVIVO visualization which was recently plagiarized by the ID crowd. (They have since stopped using it.) For the purposes of the movie, a new animation was produced which is clearly based on the XVIVO work, but it's not, legally speaking, plagiarism. The copy job may or may not constitute plagiarism.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Fossils in the Genome

Pharyngula posts a piece about the fossil record preserved in our DNA. The example he uses is the yolk sac:

By comparing the sequences of genes of known function in different lineages, we can get a measure of divergence times … and in the case of some genes which have discrete functions, we can even plot the times of origin or loss of those particular functions in the organism's history.

Here's one example. We don't have any fossilized placentas, but we know that there was an important transition in the mammalian lineage: we had to have shifted from producing eggs in which yolk was the primary source of embryonic nutrition to a state where the embryo acquired its nutrition from a direct interface with maternal circulation, the placenta. We modern mammals don't need yolk at all … but could there be vestiges of yolk proteins still left buried in our genome? The answer, which you already know since I'm writing this, is yes.


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Possible Agent for Gulf War Syndrome

Of Two Minds has an excellent post today on a possible agent for Gulf War Syndrome (via The Economist).

Speculation has roamed from blaming the anthrax vaccine that troops received, to depleted-uranium weapons, to intense exposure to pollution from burning oil wells. Now, a provocative article in the Economist suggests that the symptoms may be the result of neurochemical warfare. Specifically, that troops were exposed to acetylcholinesterase inhibitors (AChEis) found in pesticides used to protect the troops from sand flies, in the nerve gas Sarin, and in pyridostigmine bromide pills given to troops as pre-treatment against nerve gas. AChEis prevent the breakdown of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, causing it to remain in the synpase for longer than it should. This causes those neurons to fire excessively, causing abnormal brain and muscle activity as well as possible loss of white matter (myelin).

Dr. Beatrice Golomb, whose theory is currently published in PNAS, points out that severe exposure to AChEis mimics the range of chronic symptoms that many veterans suffering from Gulf War Syndrome report. more...

Paul Krugman on Interstellar Trade

In 1978 Paul Krugman took on the pressing problem of how to set prices when goods are traveling near the speed of light. His opus, "The Theory of Interstellar Trade" [PDF] takes the relativistic economics head-on:

"These complications make the theory of interstellar trade appear at first quite alien to our usual trade models; presumably it seems equally human to alien trade theorists... I do not pretend to develop here a theory which is universally valid, but it may at least have some galactic relevance.

The remainder of this paper is, or will be, or has been, depending on the reader's inertial frame, divided into three sections. Section II develops the basic Einsteinian framework of the analysis. In Section III this framework is used to analyze interstellar trade in goods. Section IV then considers the role of interstellar capital movements. It should be noted that, while the subject of this paper is silly, the analysis does make sense. This paper, then, is a serious analysis of a ridiculous subject, which is of course the opposite of what is usual in economics."
Via Slashdot.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing

A new anthology edited by Richard Dawkins is now hitting bookstores. It features popular science writing from a truly impressive array of several dozen authors.

The publisher, Oxford University Press describes the book:

Edited by best-selling author and renowned scientist Richard Dawkins, this sterling collection brings together exhilarating pieces by a who's who of scientists and science writers, including Stephen Pinker, Stephen Jay Gould, Martin Gardner, Albert Einstein, Julian Huxley, and many dozens more. Readers will find excerpts from bestsellers such as Douglas R. Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach , Francis Crick's Life Itself , Loren Eiseley's The Immense Journey , Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea , and Rachel Carson's The Sea Around Us . There are classic essays ranging from J.B.S. Haldane's "On Being the Right Size" and Garrett Hardin's "The Tragedy of the Commons" to Alan Turing's "Computing Machinery and Intelligence" and Albert Einstein's famed New York Times article on "Relativity." And readers will also discover lesser-known but engaging pieces such as Lewis Thomas's "Seven Wonders of Science," J. Robert Oppenheimer on "War and Physicists," and Freeman Dyson's memoir of studying under Hans Bethe.
I recall Dawkins asking for suggestions via his forum at I see many of the most suggested, including the wonderful Lewis Thomas, made the cut. (Alas my candidate, Heinz R. Pagels does not appear on the list.)

Seeing the list of hugely popular and influential writings, this looks like it may be the closest to a definitive collection yet published. I have some science writing anthologies on my shelf but this looks far more comprehensive.