Friday, October 31, 2008

Barack O'Lanterns

Just a little something fun for Halloween...

The image is watermarked, but here's a link: They even have stencils for you to make your own Barack O'Lantern. (Jack O'bama? No, definitely Barack O'Lantern.) Gotta love the flexibility of that sunrise/O logo. It's a sun! It's a notebook! It's a pumpkin!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Sarah Palin Loses the Geneticist Vote

This is already burning up in the science-oriented part of the blogosphere, but I want to mention it here too.

I've talked before about how Sarah Palin is a heartless lawbreaker who would love to shoot every wolf in Alaska. But did you know she's also opposed to basic scientific research?

Well, more specifically, she doesn't know what she's talking about when it comes to research. Otherwise, why would she highlight spending on fruit fly research in Paris as a "pet project earmark"? Did no one in the McCain campaign bother to find out what kind of research they were doing? I hate to tell you this, Ms. Palin... but fruit flies are the favored lab animal for genetics research around the world, both in Paris and here in the good ol' USA. (Except for New Jersey, which is not part of the "real" America.)

I think PZ Meyers, who writes the excellent blog Pharyngula, said it best:

Yes, scientists work on fruit flies. Some of the most powerful tools in genetics and molecular biology are available in fruit flies, and these are animals that are particularly amenable to experimentation. Molecular genetics has revealed that humans share key molecules, the basic developmental toolkit, with all other animals, thanks to our shared evolutionary heritage (something else the wackaloon from Wasilla denies), and that we can use these other organisms to probe the fundamental mechanisms that underlie core processes in the formation of the nervous system — precisely the phenomena Palin claims are so important

Oh, and he also threw in this disturbing but excellent point:

You damn well better believe that there is research going on in animal models — what does she expect, that scientists should mutagenize human mothers and chop up baby brains for this work?

If you're interested in watching, Think Progress has a video clip of Palin delivering the remarks. You can read the original prepared text at the McCain campaign page, but they differ somewhat from what she actually said. (For example, sarcasm is not noted anywhere in the prepared text.)

With the election so near (I've been unable to think of anything else lately), I think it's important to recognize what a McCain victory would do to the scientific community. Government funding for basic research is non-negotiable.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Dinosaur Documentary Drinking Game

Last night, D. and I watched a Nova episode about Arctic dinosaurs. (You can view the whole episode online!)

D. is a remarkable and patient man, for I know few people other than him who could tolerate watching a TV show about dinosaurs with me. I am incredibly annoying. I have a tendency to argue with the television, pause the show to make a comment about what I feel is wrong with the most recent shot, and so on. I do this a lot with science shows in general, but dinosaur shows for whatever reason have a greater likelihood of skewing towards hyperbole. (That, and I don't know enough about astrophysics or material science to keep up my end of the argument.)

I guess I must have paused the action one too many times (is three times in the first ten minutes a lot?), because D. turned to me and said, "You know, we should create a dinosaur show drinking game."

Voilá. We took notes during the show and added a few other things based on previous things we've watched. (Walking with Dinosaurs, etc.)
  • Drink for tired clichés -- "gentle giant", "vicious carnivore" etc. -- that make assertions about an animal's temperament based solely on what it eats. (Cape buffalo and hippos are herbivores, but no one would call them gentle!)
  • Drink for scientific inaccuracy, like showing T. rex urinating on its territory. (Feel free to call me if you aren't sure. Here are a few to start you off.)
  • Drink for Jack Horner. (Jack Horner is awesome!)
  • Drink every time they show a digital animation of an asteroid hitting the earth at the end of the Cretaceous. Drink twice if the ensuing explosion is reflected in the eye of a dinosaur.
  • Drink for Montana.
  • If anyone says "Brontosaurus," (including the narrator!) finish your drink.
  • Drink each time a prehistoric critter breaks the fourth wall (bumps the camera, etc.) -- prevalent in the "Walking with..." series.
  • Drink for paleontologists in cowboy hats. (One drink per hat.)
  • Drink for dinosaur-on-dinosaur violence or dinosaur mating.
  • When a female paleontologist or other scientist appears, finish your drink. (Don't worry, guaranteed not to happen more than once per show. The Wikipedia page for Sue is longer than the page for the woman who discovered her. These are very male-dominated shows.)
Grab a couple of beers and your TV Guide -- there's always something about dinosaurs to watch, whether on Discovery Channel, PBS, National Geographic or Animal Planet.

In the end, though, as critical as I am of these shows, I have a deep affection for them. Perhaps its the part of me that hasn't stopped hoping to see a real, living dinosaur someday, or maybe I'm just a nature nerd. I couldn't tell you which. But check out the Arctic dinosaur show, it was actually quite interesting. Bring a beer over to your computer while you're at it. Keep an eye out for cowboy hats.

PS: Forgot to mention -- if you have anything to add to this list, please leave a comment!

Saturday, October 11, 2008


I can't believe I haven't mentioned this sooner!

If you love number-crunching, politics, statistical research, sociology, or any combination of the above, (or you're a big fan of Obama and want a joyful little reprieve from the woe of the stock market) you will love

There are a lot of polls out there. But any given poll will only survey a few hundred, maybe a few thousand, people at best. With something like 200 million Americans of voting age in this country, how much information can you get from a single poll?

Not much.

That's why a baseball statistician from Chicago named Nate Silver created this marvelous website. He combines polling data from all over the country, assigns a weighting to take into account factors like the number of people interviewed and how reliable a polling company is likely to be, and runs thousands of simulations. All this lets him make predictions about how each state will swing on November 4. (You can read more about the particulars on the FAQ.) These predictions are presented in various ways on the site, but my favorite is the at-a-glance map in the upper right corner.

That map is starting to look a little like my fantasyland map, and I'm tickled dark blue.

The most exciting part recently has been watching states turn white from pale pink, and then slowly, gradually, start turning the palest shade of sky blue... then a little more of a baby blue... and then all of a sudden Virginia is almost as blue as Vermont, Michigan is as blue as Minnesota, and it seems to be spreading from Pennsylvania to Ohio to Indiana.

There's more to the site than the presidential race -- you can read up on the Senate and House races as well. You'll have to sort through that for yourself, as I'm mostly paying attention to the big race (although I like checking the Senate map as well). Enjoy!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Sneak Peek

This Sunday's New York Times Magazine is all about food!

Bittman! Pollan! Kosher conundrum! Exploding corn (on the cover)! All this and more on newsstands this Sunday... or, yours to read right now.

I haven't had a chance to read any of it yet, so I'll probably have at least one more blog post about this issue of the magazine. I just wanted to bring it to your attention, since it looks like there's tons to read. Before I dig in, though, I just want to point out exactly which food they chose for the cover. It's not an heirloom tomato or a bag of wheat or a Twinkie. It's an ear of corn. And that's not an accident.

Read, enjoy, discuss... I'll blog it up soon enough!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Uncertainty Parcel Service

I recently ordered something through a website, and the merchant kindly provided a UPS tracking number.

When I clicked through to track my package (still in CA? what's with that?) I ended up on the UPS page. Apparently, UPS now has a new program called "Quantum View". The description is interesting:

Quantum View® visibility services help you manage your shipping information securely and efficiently. Whether you want to provide proactive notification to your customers when their shipments are on the way or create a custom tracking report, Quantum View has a solution for you. [emphasis added]

Now, of course, the way they want you to parse this paragraph (I believe) is that you can do all of these things with their new program for businesses.

But, given what they've decided to call the program, I'm pretty sure you can only do one or the other. You can find out when your package will arrive, or you can know what city it's in. How uncertain.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

New Poll!

Hello readers,

Just wanted to let you know, there is a new poll up on the sidebar! I'm curious about how many of the international hits on my blog are actually people reading my posts, and how many are just looking for photos of Johnny Depp or giant isopods or something. Oh, and hey, if you're just here for the pictures that's cool too -- maybe leave a comment and tell me what you were searching for? I'm curious about who's checking out my blog!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Corny Ads

Lately there have been some very interesting ads on television and in newspapers. Perhaps you have seen them. In the TV ads, the script is something like this:
Person A: Ew, you're eating that? It contains corn syrup!

Person B: So? It's made from corn. Corn is a plant! What's wrong with it?

Person A: Uhm... I... uhm... can I have some?
You can check them out on YouTube: Ad 1 and Ad 2.

Naturally, these ads have been lighting up the food blogosphere. The Jew and the Carrot (hereafter known as JCarrot and now part of my blog biscuit) had a good, long post about them a few days ago, and I don't want to just repeat everything that they said, so check out their post. I just wanted to bring this to your attention, in case you're like me and don't actually watch enough TV to see these things for yourself.

Don't be like the folks in the commercial, clueless when it comes to actual reasons to avoid corn syrup. There are plenty of good reasons, having nothing to do with its nutritive value. Notice that in the commercials, the products are "fruit drink" and a popsicle, things we expect to be sweet... had they shown breadcrumbs, canned soup, tomato sauce, or any of the myriad products that really *don't* need to be additionally sweetened, I would hope that Person A would reply, "But why do you need to have corn syrup in your breadcrumbs/tomato sauce/chicken soup/whole wheat bread in the first place?" and it would be Person B's turn to be at a loss for an answer.

Actually, that's not a bad idea... maybe we should get some talented filmmakers to make alternative versions of these ads and post them as responses on YouTube to the corn syrup ads. Any volunteers?

In the meantime, though, read the JCarrot article for some suggestions about why corn syrup is, in fact, not all that great. (Although in my conversations with Aliza, I have learned that nothing is nearly as simple as we'd like it to be.) And, you know, while you're at it... keep reading JCarrot, it's a great blog!

PS: I have no idea why I didn't post this when I wrote it. So I'm posting it now, a little late but better than never, right?