Monday, February 28, 2011

Facebook: It's All Done With Mirrors

Facebook now invites us, one and all,
To read the writing, there upon the wall;
To place your private self in public view
And see what other people think of you.
The internet, ten years ago, was only
Thought a place to be depressed and lonely,
Hidden from the friends you had outside,
The net was just a place where people hide.

This wasn’t just a random guess, in fairness;
It came from the Objective Self-Awareness
, which proposes that we view
Ourselves the way objective others do
As well as as a subject, from within.
When self is viewed as object, we begin
To see we fall far short of our ideal,
With negative effects on how we feel.

A second theory notes that we select
The details which we share, and which reject;
Selective self-presentation says, we choose
Among the information that we use;
Our public face is thereby polished bright
And we look good, in our and others’ sight.
This mirror, mirror, on our facebook wall
May show us as the fairest of them all

These two competing views were put to test,
To see which one described the outcome best;
Participants would view their profile pages,
Then take a test of self-esteem, which gauges
How they view themselves. These were compared
To two control conditions—one which shared
The room with a mirror (a prompt for OSA),
And one with all such objects tucked away.

The winner is… it seems the Facebook screen
Allows us to select, to frame, to preen,
To paint a perfect portrait we can share
And tell ourselves it’s our reflection there.
A gilded mask can take our place instead
And we, as well as others, are misled—
But does the positive effect apply
When facebook friends can catch us in a lie?

Ok... First off, Cuttlecap tip to Scicurious (click for a prose explanation of the study), and apologies to any lovers of poetry and/or verse. It's all Sci's fault. She tweeted about the study, I asked if she could send me a copy, and she suggested I versify it. So I did, but I don't know when I've ever seen such a nasty bit of forced rhyme and meter. But there it is.

So, the study. As Sci notes, it's a test of a very specific environment--Facebook. OSA (objective self-awareness--as the verse clumsily says) predicts that stimuli which prompt us to view ourselves as others do, will as a rule force us to see our real selves rather than our ideal, and depress us with the comparison. (Yes, that's an oversimplification--for the real deal, Duvall & Wicklund wrote the book. Literally. In 1972). Thus, looking at our Facebook profiles ought to be sobering and sad. Or maybe not. Selective Self-Presentation notes that we get to pick and choose amongst the things we post, and that we are more likely to post a flattering pic than an unflattering, for example. (Again, an oversimplification.) We can edit, and polish up our image. It's a facebook profile, not a lie detector test. Exposure to this polished image, then, would not depress us, but may in fact have a positive effect on self-esteem.

Which is what they found. (again, see Sci's post for details, if you wish.)

But. Let's contrast this with another recent paper, Back et al., 2010 (pdf), "Facebook Profiles Reflect Actual Personality, Not Self-Idealization". First off, the questions being explored are entirely different, and the methodologies likewise are different, so there is no direct comparison. Don't worry about that. But they do contrast two competing hypotheses, one of which is (to my eye) within spitting distance of Selective Self-Presentation. That hypothesis is the idealized virtual-identity hypothesis, which is pretty self-explanatory, suggesting that profiles display not the real, but an idealized self. This is contrasted with Facebook as simply an extension of the rest of the social world, and just another place to do one's best to accurately present oneself.

Which is what they found. As the title might have hinted.

Two reasons for this, they suggest, are 1) some of the content is not yours to control; other people can post on your wall. 2) people you know (either in real life or online) provide feedback. If you claim to be tall and thin (or the equivalent behavioral trait), and you are neither, you can only keep this up if no one knows the real you. And it turns out (again, thanks Sci, for this paper as well) that Facebook (and MySpace, for that matter) are mostly used as an extension of face-to-face interaction. (Kujath, 2011)

So, my question: is there a differential effect of self-esteem enhancement, dependent on the extent to which Facebook is used as extension of face-to-face interaction? If you decide to study this, I want second authorship.

Lastly... I don't do Facebook. Well, I have what they used to call a fan page (which has a link over there to the right, and which you should all "like", for reasons which escape me), but other than a shell that allows me to post stuff there, I have no facebook presence. Especially as the non-cuttlefish me. I can't imagine why I would want to, despite pleas from the occasional person (a cousin or two, e.g.). So, feel free to try to convince me to join, or reaffirm my non-joinage.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Ooooh... Quantum!

You can learn "facilitation"
Through our public presentation;
You don't need to be a doctor with a medical degree!
Pills or needles? We don't want 'em
What we're doing here is quantum—
You can learn to be an expert, if you've got the weekend free
We’re not scandalous or shady—
Why, just listen to this lady
Who was cured of emphysema in three-quarters of an hour
Sure, at first it rather shocked her
That I’m not a licensed doctor
But in under fifty minutes I’d convinced her of my power
Proper med school is so grueling,
But there’s no real need of schooling
If you follow my instructions, and the methods I have found
Raise your arms up to the ceiling,
Say “it’s time to start the healing”
And for roughly half an hour, simply wave your hands around.

Cuttlecap tip to PZ, of course.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Ear-Worm

There’s a tune in my brain
Which will drive me insane
Cos I can’t seem to rein 
          in my thinking
And it’s solace I seek
Cos it’s been there all week
Like my head’s sprung a leak 
          and it’s sinking
It’s just musical fluff
Though it’s catchy enough,
And an ear-worm is tough 
          to dismember
But I’d love to take aim
Cos it isn’t a game
And it burns like a flame 
          or an ember
I’ve been thinking it through
And I know what I’ll do—
I’ll just share them with you 
          in my writing
And I hope you’re inclined
Not to think me unkind,
Cos I hope that you find 
          them exciting
So I tell you, my child,
Here’s a list I’ve compiled—
Though my thoughts have gone wild, 
          this will tame me
My relief is my goal—
If these songs hurt your soul
They’re not mine to control… 
          so don’t blame me!

I have had a few songs going through my head for what seems to be two or three lifetimes just now.  Fortunately, these are songs I actually like quite a bit, so it isn't torture (I could imagine the Hell it would be to have, say, "Disco Duck" forever on the mind--yes, that dates me a bit, but I hope it makes my point).  These songs are a sampling of what's been bouncing around my skull for some while; if you know them, you probably know why.  If you don't know them, don't be afraid to click.  They are earworms... but in a good way.

Mark Twain (of course) did it first (of course) and better (of course), with his short story "Punch, Brothers, Punch".  Before I list my earworms, I leave you with his words of caution:
Why did I write this article? It was for a worthy, even a noble, purpose. It was to warn you, reader, if you should came across those merciless rhymes, to avoid them--avoid them as you would a pestilence.
If he were not dead, I would think he had possibly found my site!

The songs!  To share with you, so as to test Twain's theory...
First, The Decemberists, with "Grace Cathedral Hill"

Then, a bit of honey poured into your ears... Camera Obscura's "Honey in the Sun". I could list a half dozen or more Camera Obscura songs, but this one... *sigh*...

Last one for today (if this works, I may unload another batch sometime)... Parachute Musical, with "One More Song". It was a toss-up between this and "Jacksonville", which is also excellent. Actually, the whole album is, come to think of it.

So, if Mark Twain is right, I may finally be able to sleep tonight with a skull free of earworms. Although you may not have it so easy...

Thursday, February 24, 2011

It Makes Perfect Sense

No ifs, no ands, no buts, no maybes,
God wants women makin’ babies;
No contraception, no abortion,
Every gal must do her portion
Although it seems these funding cuts
Are absolutely fucking nuts,
The politics are reconciled:
We want all women great with child
That is our view, in this our forum…
Once they’re born, we can ignore ‘em.

PZ asks "That makes sense, right?"  On the face of it, Republican plans to cut funding to Planned Parenthood in order to prevent abortions is a bit like shutting down hospitals because there are occasionally sick people there.  Planned Parenthood has prevented more abortions than any sign-toting protesters--ah, but they do it by preventing pregnancies (unwanted ones--thus the "Planned" part of the name) in the first place.

There's the rub.  How can we be fruitful and multiply if we use contraception?  The GOP's plan makes perfect sense once we realize the proper role of women, as baby factories.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Hate Groups Top 1000

In the near-recent past
If your hatred was vast
You could sit there and plot in your basement
You were perfectly free
Where nobody could see
You, and ask what the look on your face meant.
You would sit there and stew
As you muddled things through
And get caught up in impotent rages
You could hiss, you could vent;
Though it’s not their intent,
Still, basements make pretty good cages
You could keep to yourself
As you fill up your shelf
With the books that would fuel your conspiracy
But you’re only one man
And your beautiful plan
You keep hidden so no one will hear or see
But technology changed
So the warped and deranged
With a desktop computer and modem
Could now easily find
Those who write the same kind
Of conspiracy screeds and upload ’em
And they soon became lords
Of their bulletin boards
Or their chatrooms or newsgroups or forums
Where they found one another
And brother to brother
They gathered together in quorums
Now these like-minded chaps
With their keyboards in laps
Found a comfort, a sort of community
When they set to their tasks
Anonymity masks
Them, and blather they will, with impunity
Their connection is fast
So their knowledge is vast
In the internet age, they’re in heaven
With definitive proof
Of the moon-landing spoof
And how Bush was behind 9/11
Or how giving vaccines
To the populace, means
That the government’s playing the villain
They’re in league with Big Pharma,
So sound the alarm, a
Concern since they “found” penicillin
And the Kennedy plot
With a gunman who shot,
In a story that’s kept from the masses
Just a C.I.A. lackey
They think it was Jackie,
Who’s free now to marry Onassis
And the people all laughed
When an alien craft
Was a weather balloon, though a nifty one
But a cover-up works
Now they look like they’re jerks
When they talk about area fifty-one
But this corkscrewing ride
Has a sinister side
When the groups may be formed around hatred
Where their heads are all filled
With a view that’s distilled
Cos they read all the stuff that their mate read
Now there’s one group of hacks
Who are blaming the blacks
For the changes they see in society
While another sees gays
And their sodomite ways
As a blow to the nation’s propriety
Yet another will frown
If a person is brown
Whether wetback or Ay-rab, you lose
And additional groups
Hate the government’s troops
Or the faithful old standby, the Jews.
Now you’ve written a site
Where you post what you write
Of the citizenship of Obama
And there’s hate in your views
And the language you use
You would never repeat to your mamma
You are joined by your friends
And the fun never ends
As you’re lost in the thrill of debating
You’re exchanging your views
And deciding on who’s
Is the group most deserving of hating
If you needed a clue
I could point back to you
As I’m reaching the end of this ditty
I’ll admit the appeal,
But the way that I feel?
It’s not so much hatred… as pity.

NPR reports on a new study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which finds the number of hate groups in the US has topped 1000, for the first time.  This is a sobering study (direct link), finding huge climbs in some sorts of hate groups (including a 60% rise in antigovenment "Patriot" groups), and listing known terrorist actions taken by some members of these groups.

As my silly little (?) verse indicates, I think a substantial part of this is simply that the internet makes it so much easier for the lone voice to join with other lone voices.  It's hard to escape noticing, though, that the leap in some sorts of hate groups corresponds with the election of a president of an unapproved skin color.  I'd have written about that, but it was too depressing.

Oh, and if you are wondering... yes, the Nightmare Song, from Iolanthe.  Not exactly, but inspired by.

Monday, February 21, 2011

I'm So Proud Of My Students!

We get them for a class or two
And then we let them go
We hope we’ve changed the way they think
As much as what they know
Too often, though they’re doing well
We cannot watch them grow
Though sometimes (but too rarely),
They’ll stop by to say hello

When friends ask, all too often,
Why I do the work I do,
I’m forced again to notice
That it doesn’t pay—it’s true,
But pity those who never hear
At all, their whole lives through:
“My world has changed forever,
And it’s all because of you”

Meh--what a saccharine little verse.  If I were not in such a good mood, it would never see the light of day.  But today, in two separate and independent incidents, former students (from just last semester, in this case) sought me out to tell me how my class had pretty much ruined them (in a good way!) for a class or two they were in this semester.   Basically, there were topics they were being presented with which... are not supported by either research or logic.  Their classmates, for the most part, don't know this, or if they do, they are keeping quiet.  My former students, though... I'll probably hear some complaints from these profs.

I'm used to it by now.  I love it.

I'm not going to mention what the topics are, or what the differences in claims are;  clearly, this blog is not the place to publicly identify someone, even by accident.  You can take my word for it that I am right, or you may feel free to doubt.  Doesn't bother me a bit. 

I'm just (uncharacteristically, I know!) crowing a bit.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Toxic Blob Alert!

Just off the coast of Florida,
A sticky, toxic blob
Is mystifying scientists
Who try to do their job.
It’s three feet thick, gelatinous,
And smells like rotten eggs
A giant, oily jellyfish
(without so many legs).
It’s a tangled mat of algae
And bacteria, which die
In the anaerobic water
While the blob is oozing by
This giant, toxic, sticky mess
Is floating, off the coast
The Gulf was once so beautiful…
Perhaps this is its ghost.

Just off the Florida Panhandle coastline, within site of Perdido Key, an underwater mass of dead sea life that appears to be growing as microscopic algae and bacteria get trapped and die has been found by scientists.
Early samples indicate the glob is at least 3 feet thick and spans two-thirds of a mile parallel to the coast.
No one knows where it came from or where it will go.
It appears to be nearly 100% organic, but this does not rule out something initiated by the Gulf oil spill.  Part of the confusion stems from the size of the blob--not that it was so huge it was a mystery, but rather because it was so big, the researchers did not have sufficient tools to sample from the bottom layer, which would likely be very instructive.  They will return with the appropriate tools.

Cuttlecap tip to Glendon Mellow and Deep Sea News, via twitter.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Care And Feeding Of Dragons

“A blog is like a dragon. You have to feed it all the time and sometimes you get burned”
unattributed quote, collected here by Scicurious.  (if you know who, let me know.)

If you want to own a dragon, there’s some things you ought to know
Though they’re cute when really tiny, if you feed them, they will grow—
And it’s fun to feed a dragon—well, it’s really fun at first,
Till you’re bleeding from the bite-marks and the blisters that have burst!
Finding food, at first, is simple, cos it’s laying all around,
And a dragon, when it’s little, eats whatever you have found.
As the months and years continue, dragon-feeding can get tricky,
As it’s eaten all the easy finds and now is getting picky
But you’ve got to feed the dragon, though it’s taking all your time
(And it really doesn’t help, should you decide to feed it rhyme)
All the dragon owners tell you, cos it’s something that they’ve learned,
That no matter how you feed it, there are times that you’ll get burned.

If you see I’ve written something, and you really wonder why
Well, I have to feed the dragon, or it’s gonna up and die.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Uncovering Nakedness In Leviticus

Cos wicked men are easily led
From here to there, from bed to bed,
By orders from their smaller head
We've had to ban the quadruped.

Uncovering the nakedness
Of relatives, we will not bless;
The major reason, I confess--
It makes reunions such a mess.

Thou shall not mark upon thy skin;
It is, of course, a wicked sin
As bad as if a man begin
To bed a sheep, or sleep with kin.

We read the bible, and we choose
Which laws to keep, and which refuse;
Not Godly Law, but human ruse...
As old as time, so hardly news.

Context here, and especially here.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Strong Anthropic Principle Song

When an ancient star collapsed about ten billion years ago
It didn’t have you in mind.
When its elements were scattered so that newer stars could grow
It didn’t have you in mind.
It’s a cyclical progression of destruction and rebirth
That eventually led to the creation of the earth,
And the chemistry of life itself, but still, for what it’s worth
It didn’t have you in mind.
It didn’t have you in mind.

When a replicating molecule turned into RNA
It didn’t have you in mind.
When eukaryotes emerged, the way we see them yet today
They didn’t have you in mind.
And when these began to merge in multicellular arrays,
When selection honed their features in so many different ways
When a multitude of species showed it’s more than just a craze
It didn’t have you in mind.
It didn’t have you in mind.

You may not want to hear it, but it’s true
The universe is not here just for you.
You really think you’re special, I’m aware
But the universe itself, it doesn’t care.

When a fortunate amphibian first crept upon the land
It didn’t have you in mind
When a fin became a lobe, became a foot, became a hand,
It didn’t have you in mind
From the big bang to the present, you’ve examined every clue
And imagine there’s a god somewhere who made it all for you
Well, you might not want to hear it, but I’m telling you it’s true
It didn’t have you in mind.
It didn’t have you in mind.

My muse today is a long-haired redhead with heavy mascara... that's right, Tim Minchin.  No, he didn't say anything in particular to inspire this, but I hear it sung with his voice.  Sort of a "not perfect" or "if I didn't have you" combined with Tony the fish.  

And yeah, I'm not in his league--if I was, I'd be doing this for a living--but fortunately or unfortunately, that doesn't stop me from writing.  And Tim, if you ever see this and want to steal it, it's yours. 

And yeah, I know the title is not a perfect fit--once I thought of it, though, I couldn't help myself.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Waters Here Are Rising

Long, long ago, Man’s primal sins
Were washed out in The Flood
Our modern sins are washed away
In Jesus’ precious blood.
The rainbow was God’s Promise
That He would not let us drown—
The waters here are rising…
But I’m sure He’ll bring them down.

The wisest words of science
May be changed from day to day
From one year to another,
No one knows what they might say
But the bible is consistent,
So we know it must be true—
The waters here are rising…
But I’m sure that He’ll come through.

The predictions of the scientists
Are coming true in droves;
Where we once had sandy beaches
There are inundated coves
I have faith in my Creator;
This must only be a test—
The waters here are rising…
But I’m sure He knows what’s best.

When the night is looking darkest,
That’s the time for faith and trust
I’ll surrender unto Jesus
As the Good Book says I must.
I could face annihilation
If the choice I make is wrong—
The waters here are rising…

From NPR, a story from the island nation of Kiribati.  This country is uniquely positioned to be concerned about the possibility of rising ocean waters due to global warming: 
The average height of the islands is approximately 6.5 feet. Already, land is scarce and drinking water can be in short supply. There's nowhere to retreat.
So concerns about climate change are felt very acutely here. Though estimates are rough, scientists predict average sea levels could rise as much as 3 feet by the end of the century due to global warming.
Science, of course, tends to be conservative, moving forward only as it can supply strong evidence for each step.  As such, people looking for direct, solid links between global warming and the loss of land that is already happening in Kiribati are likely to find enough play in the evidence that they can deny it altogether if they have sufficient reason (paging Leon Festinger...).

And they have sufficient reason, in religious belief.
Tito says he believes in the Biblical account of Noah's ark. In that story, after God devastates the world with a flood, he makes a covenant with Noah that he will never send another.
So while Tito does acknowledge that global warming is affecting the planet and that he has noticed some impacts, he says rising sea levels are not as serious a threat as Tong and others are making them out to be.

"Saying we're going to be under the water, that I don't believe," Tito says. "Because people belong to God, and God is not so silly to allow people to perish just like that."
Indeed, the current president's religious faith has come under question, simply because he has (quite understandably, given their precarious position) chosen to draw attention to climate change problems!

The NPR story is part one of a two-part series.  I'm really looking forward to part two!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

I Was Talking To God Today, Dennis

I was talking to God today, Dennis,
And the subject eventually changed
From how neither of us can stand tennis
To how both of us think you’re deranged.
He admitted he’d botched your creation
In his perfect and all-knowing view
He’d ruined the whole operation…
Then he shrugged, and said “what can I do?”
He had given free will to his creatures
And a conscience, to choose their own path
But you see, there were bugs in these features
And you’ve given him reason for wrath.

God thinks you’re an idiot, Dennis;
He was utterly clear on the point
You’re an absolute, pin-headed menace
And as God says, you stink up the joint.
Your behavior is wholly demented—
And believe me, He knows what you do—
Since thorazine first was invented
There’s been no better spokesman than you.
He’s powerful, awesome, and godly,
On a scale—any scale—He’s the top;
And He’s noticed you’re acting quite oddly…
God is telling you, Dennis, to stop.

I can't imagine what might have inspired this verse.  It must simply be a message from god.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Wait... I'm The Black Sheep?

So my grand-dad was a monkey, and his grand-dad was a fish?
What a complicated, ancient family tree!
I can trace my mother’s side to amphioxus, if you wish,
Though they won’t admit they’re relatives of me.

Happy Darwin Day to you!  

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Science Of Love: A Valentine

When science examines romantic attraction
(In other words, love and affection)
It uses the methods that serve us so well
But hearts can’t survive a dissection.

We study, in science, by breaking up problems
And looking at pieces and bits
Assemble the puzzle to show the big picture—
Assuming each smaller piece fits!

In life, we see love as a powerful feeling
It’s typically shared (say, by two);
You wouldn’t find love by examining neurons
But that’s something science might do.

A chemical cocktail assaulting the cortex,
Anandamide flooding the brain
Endogenous opiates running amok
And you’re either in love, or insane

Neurochemistry surely is crucial, I know,
But something important is missing
I’ve never encountered a brain, on its own,
With an interest in hugging or kissing.

Your genes play a part, I’m reliably told
By geneticists (likely, they’d know)
Though environment, epigenetically, molds
How those characteristics might show.

My heartbeat will race at the thought of your face
And my stomach gets tied in a knot
My fingers may tremble; my brow may perspire,
And other parts start feeling hot.

But none of these pieces can claim to be love
They’re mere tiles, in a larger mosaic
This modern view separates love into pieces;
My view is a bit more archaic

When I tell you I love you, you know what I mean:
Not only with all of my heart
Not only my brain, as complex as it is,
But all of me—every last part.

Looking through my blog stats, I have noticed the beginnings of the February Bump--the google hits for "biology valentines poem" or "scientific valentine" or the like (including charming misspellings).   And so, I give you this year's offering.   Funny thing is, it looks like it is an argument against a science of love, and that is not at all my view.  I am very much in favor of using the power of science to study love; I've even taught a senior seminar, half of which was on love (the other half, war. go figure.).  What I am opposed to is reductionism masquerading as explanation.  Love is something that whole organisms (usually people, but if you've watched my cat...) do, not something that parts of organisms do.  A proper explanation of love is not one which points to neurotransmitters or hormones; if anything, that is the how of love, but not the what or why.

For the one-stop-shopping ease of my readers, allow me to link to a couple of earlier valentines: the one that gets the most hits is the Evolutionary Biology Valentine's Day Poem.  It did make it to The Open Laboratory--the collection of the best science blog posts of that year.  Oddly enough, the previous year, Much Ado About The Brain? was featured in that year's Open Laboratory (and it is a love poem, which explains the link), and the following year, A Scientific Valentine made the collection.  One I don't recommend you use is What Do Women Want? (A Valentine's Day Poem), but hey, if that works for you, go for it.  Lastly, one of my favorites that I will not give you permission to use is An Uncommon Valentine Poem.  That was for a particular person, and it is hers, so you can't have it.

You have my permission, as per this post, to use these valentine verses if you wish.  Frankly, if you are in the sort of relationship where these are appropriate, you are an incredibly lucky person, and who am I to stand in the way of such a force of nature?  No payment is required.  However, having just found out that CuttleDaughter has been approved for a semester overseas, I would be tremendously grateful if those who use these verses and can afford to, would notice the tip jar over there to the right.  And, not that I'm voyeuristic or anything, but I'd love to hear about any positive (or humorous negative) reactions to these verses, if you do use one!

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Of Their Bones Are Coral Made

Full fathom five, or deeper still,
At rest within the ocean’s chill
The ocean currents may create
A home for fish and tiny krill
Where war machines have met their fate

The seascape changes, day by day
As predators now follow prey
To chase them into turret caves
And places they can hide away
In ships and tanks beneath the waves

A month goes by; the wreck conceals
Now, groupers, triggerfish, and eels
In every crevice, cave, and hole;
A shadow from above reveals
A shark or tuna on patrol

The algae fronds and coral fans
Have overgrown what once was Man’s,
Re-writing all his grand designs
And following their separate plans
They soften all the human lines.

Will corals act as Sandburg’s grass
As months and years and decades pass,
To cover death, and loss and grief
Until, through seas as clear as glass
We only view a coral reef?

Photos: David Doubilet/National Geographic (click to embiggen; you'll be glad you did)

These gorgeous photos may be found in the February 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine, on newsstands January 25 (you can tell from the fact that Jan 25th has already passed, that this phrase is part of the contractual agreement with Nat Geo to use these wonderful pictures), in a photo-essay on a variety of artificial reefs—from deliberately sunken ships and tanks, to the supports of oil and gas rigs, to a cemetery where cremated remains, mixed into concrete, allow those who desire to spend their eternity sleeping with the fishes.  Over time, each artificial reef is transformed--“nothing of him that doth fade / but doth suffer a sea-change / into something rich and strange.”  There are more photos, and the accompanying essay, here:

Parenthetically… I have been a National Geographic fan for as long as I can remember.  When I mentioned this fact to my fellow travelers two years ago in Greece & Bulgaria, it turns out that the vast majority of them, in their secret heart of hearts, had fantasized about taking the same amazing trip we did, seeing the same sights, talking to the same people… but with a NatGeo press pass.  So when the NatGeo rep contacted me with the offer to use some of their pictures for a blog post, there was no possible way I would turn that down.  And even if it were not part of the agreement, the idea that I could legitimately close my post with an official National Geographic magazine cover is just soooo coooool.  I know I’m not actually writing for National Geographic.  But I can dream.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Ride The "Headless Monk" Haunted Water Slide!

While laying out the water slide
Behind the roller coaster,
Some workers felt an icy gaze
And so they called a ghoster.

If they had called the Scooby Gang
(in fact, I think they tried)
They’d see it was the guys who ran
The haunted water slide

They’re honest as the day is long
(at night, there’s some duplicity—
They started silly rumors for
A bit of free publicity!)

But no, they called a different man—
A paranormal whiz—
Who used, in part, a Ouija Board
To tell us what it is!

And Orbs showed up in photographs!
(I’ll tell you, if I must—
They’re just a well-known artifact
Of camera-flash and dust!)

It seems that this anomaly
While living, was a monk,
Who, having somehow lost his head
Was rather in a funk.

He wandered ‘round Thorpe Park at night
And sometimes in the day
Though having no more mouth, of course
There’s nothing he would say.

But workers felt his icy gaze,
I note (with some surprise—
It seems to me, a headless monk
Is also missing eyes)

There are, of course, some skeptics
Who deride this as a trick…
And we could not get a comment
Out of Nearly Headless Nick.

There's a lot going on in the world today.  Tough for a fluff story like "New Water Ride At Amusement Park" to, er, make a splash.  Unless... didn't I see this on Scooby Doo?  (Even Tim Minchin's "Storm" remembers this!)  It's a haunted water slide--and not just that, but one duly investigated by a paranormal expert!  Who used the ideomotor effect a Ouija Board, and photos of lens flare and dust motes caught in the camera flash anomalous photos and orbs to verify, there really is something strange in your neighborhood!  

The Southwest London Paranormal Team, though, are unashamed to use these long-debunked methods, and based on their testimony (and additional evidence of underground anomalies, found by a geophysicist), the ride was moved.  Some months ago, it appears, given the progress on the ride in its new location.  My, my, it wouldn't surprise me a bit if it was up and running by the time the summer season opens.  If only there were a way to get this park a bit of publicity...

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Size Matters: The Daphnia Genome

The Daphnia, or water flea,
Contains more genes than you or me;
Five thousand more at least, you see,
The most we’ve seen amass!

The Daphnia’s thirty-one thousand genes
Allow adaptiveness, which means
Its features change to match the scenes
As generations pass

The Daphnia is closely tracked;
As waters change, these fleas react,
Evolving spikes that once they lacked
Which make them tough to swallow

To predators, to day and night,
To changes from pollution’s blight,
To water change, however slight,
Mutations soon will follow

The genes of Daphnia create
New copies at a higher rate—
A rate perhaps three times as great
As similar crustaceans

Environmental pressures yield
A spear-like tail, or spiky shield
Which reproduction soon revealed
Were useful adaptations

Our egotistic human eyes
Dismiss these useless little guys
And focus on our larger size
Which demonstrates our worth

But as our chromosomes are mapped
We find the Daphnia more apt
To test the waters, then adapt
And populate the earth

NPR reports on the results of a recent genome analysis, of one of the most well-studied organisms around... one you may have accidentally swallowed while swimming in a lake, without realizing it.  Now, I don't have access to Science, but a quick search found a press release from one of the many universities involved: 
Scientists have studied Daphnia for centuries because of its importance in aquatic food webs and for its transformational responses to environmental stress. Predators signal some of the animals to produce exaggerated spines, neck-teeth or helmets in self-defense. And like the virgin nymph of Greek mythology that shares its name, Daphnia thrives in the absence of males -- by clonal reproduction, until harsh environmental conditions favor the benefits of sex.

Arguably, more is known about the ecology and stress biology of the water flea than any other animal. The genome project was conceived with an expectation that many new gene functions would be uncovered when studied in light of the animal's natural environment -- not necessarily expecting to discover many more genes.

Yet, Daphnia's genome is no ordinary genome.

"Daphnia's high gene number is largely because its genes are multiplying, by creating copies at a higher rate than other species," said project leader and CGB genomics director John Colbourne. "We estimate a rate that is three times greater than those of other invertebrates and 30 percent greater than that of human."

"One theory is that Daphnia is so good at adapting to so many environments because it has this huge catalog of genes to call upon," says Thomas. The researchers note that more than one-third of Daphnia's genes are undocumented in any other organism – they are completely new to science.
Daphnia, as I understand it, have been used as a barometer of lake condition, because they are so sensitive to conditions, and so quick to adapt (across generations, not within).  The combination of an environmentally sensitive species well studied as an ecoresponsive indicator, and a thorough understanding of the underlying genetics, will allow an unprecedented depth of understanding in examining epigenetic processes.

Or, maybe I misunderstood everything.

An update, of sorts.  I just saw this really nice pdf file of my verse.  Apparently, I'm listed on the Daphnia Genomics Consortium Collaboration Wiki... and apparently, somebody made a really nice pdf of my verse without asking (tsk, tsk!).

The Digital Pack-Rat, Vol. 24

Wow!  Looking back over the archives, I see it has been over a year since my last Pack-Rat post.  I'm certain there are dozens of verses I've let fall through the cracks in that time, but now I have at least rescued the ones from January and early February of this year.  If I ever get motivated, I might go fishing through the previous months as well.  Probably not.  Anyway, the link below each verse will bring you to the post where I found it, should you desire any context.  

When Russia launched their satellite
I watched it from Wasilla
While keepin’ watch for freedom’s sake,
A patriot guerilla.
This “Sputnik moment” I recall
From element’ry school—
I didn’t listen, though, because
It wouldn’t have been cool.
But now, they ask me questions, cos
I want to run for POTUS;
I’ll make up something dumb instead—
My base will never notice.

Kenneth the porcophile
Feels that Kentuckians
Don't care for Ham--

Thinking so backwards it's
Most of them probably
Don't give a damn.

Believers offended? Well, pardon my shrug;
They'll call me a wimp, or they'll call me a thug;
They think it's a feature--it's really a bug,
So yes, I'm a little bit smug.

The arguments come and the arguments go
There's always one hiding they promise to show
That will tear me asunder! They strut and they crow,
But does it arrive? Sadly, no.

The dusty old logic that's polished anew
The same dead-end leads that they used to pursue;
It's tough to defend such a bankrupt world view
When the truth is, it's simply untrue.

Rebecca had a heart of gold--
At least, she said, gold-clad
She promised it was mine alone
But now I'm feeling sad
I thought her quite a treasure then,
But now I'm filled with doubt:
It wasn't worth a nickel
Once I cut the sucker out.

To the best of his ability,
The Pope, in his nobility
Affected a fragility
Through Papal force of will

So he (I'm feeling catty) can
Pretend the gilded Vatican
Is destitute and ratty, and
Have others foot the bill.

It's disgusting and immoral
But it isn't sex--it's oral,
Which, by presidential precedent, is perfectly ok
Though it's true you spilt your semen
You can blame it on the demon
And we'll tell the press it's good you're not a pedophile or gay.

An exorcist can exercise
Between her lips, but not her thighs
The sacrosanct vagina is off limits to a priest!
When the church's inquisition
Finds abuse of your position,
Not a soul alive expects a penance greater than the least.

Friday, February 04, 2011

New Roots On The Family Tree

The salient features
Of human-ish creatures,
Our sisters and brothers and cousins,
Across generations
Shows slight variations
And species, it seems, by the dozens
The picture’s still muddy,
As scientists study,
Concerning our relatives’ species
The task is colossal
Inferring from fossils
Of footprints, or bones, teeth, and feces
The clues, though, are leading
To claims of cross breeding
In hominids once thought distinct
With two populations
In different locations
With whom we’re genetically linked
It’s really exciting—
You see, we’re re-writing,
As only hard evidence can,
The view, now outdated
That claimed that we mated
With only the sapiens clan

In NPR's 13.7 blog, Ursula Goodenough writes of recent research on hominid genomes, and the increasingly varied story of our family tree.  To take just one tidbit, it appears that the locals of Papua New Guinea are "roughly 92.5% African, 2.5% Neanderthal, and 5% Denisovan"--that is, this population (with which the rest of us are interfertile, of course) has genetic material belonging to two extinct hominid species, whom we had previously believed were distinct from (read: non-interbreeding with) H. sapiens.  We knew we shared common ancestry with them, but the notion that they are among our direct ancestors (for some modern populations, at least) is new.

As I tell my students, Darwin's Origin of Species was ironically titled, because evolution by natural selection makes obsolete the concept of "species" as it was used at the time (or as creationists still use it).  Rather, as populations vary across time and geography, black and white distinctions simply do not exist.  Take the example of ring species, for instance, where neighboring populations can interbreed just fine, but populations a bit further apart (geographically, or chronologically, it works both ways) cannot, despite a continuous line of interbreeding populations linking the two.  Where is the species line to be drawn?  Are these one species, or two?

Frankly, it's a bit like Pluto.  Pluto is what it is, whether it is called a planet or a planetoid; our linguistic handle on it is for our sake, and simply allows us to talk about it.  The concept of "species" is a similar abstraction; tremendously useful in some cases, impossibly vague in others.  

H. sapiens, H. erectus, Neanderthal, Denisovan, and more... which are "us"?  It depends on the context.  

This, like Pluto, may take some getting used to.  Human exceptionalism (not to mention the historical influence of creationism) and ego ("what a piece of work is man...") have expressed themselves in a history of dehumanizing our ancestors.  Neanderthals are still brutes in the public eye (so easy a caveman could do it), despite recent attempts to update their image.  It would be difficult to maintain our belief that we are the pinnacle of creation, the top of the evolutionary ladder (yes, I know the metaphor is wrong), the final product of nature, if we must also recognize that by some measures we are far more closely related to Neanderthals than we had thought.   

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Whoopie For ME!

Another day
Another issue
We’re all a-waiting
They’re talking Whoopie

Is this for real?
Are they insane?
What’s taken over
The state of Maine?
The new election
Of state confection
They’re talking Whoopie

Picture a crème-filled sandwich
It’s sugar mixed with lard
Something that fits your hand, which
Will make your arteries hard

From Madawaska
To southern Kittery
Seems this much sugar
Will make you jittery
This pressing issue
Will make you wish you
Were talking Whoopie

Picture a Down-East picnic
What’s on your plate to see?
You give your fork a quick lick
Blueberry pie, for me!

They need a budget
Or folks will hurt
They say, “let’s fudge it
And talk dessert
This legal action
Is mere distraction
They’re talking Whoopie

For those too lazy to click links... the state of Maine is debating the adoption of a State Dessert, the Whoopie Pie, which was invented in Pennsylvania.  Me, I'm in favor of Blueberry Pie as the state dessert; if a state dessert can't turn your smile blue, what good is it?

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Dictionary Atheist Baby

I looked at my cute little atheist baby
(With wonderful new-baby smell!)
And thought that she might be more accurate, maybe
With other descriptors as well
The privative “atheist”, so I’ve been told
Is a measure of what she is not;
It’s clearly the case, if I might be so bold,
There are more words describing the tot:

My baby is flightless; my babe is unwed;
She’s not blonde, for there isn’t a hair on her head;
She’s scale-less, of course, for as much as I’d wish
She has no hint of Mermaid, or tidbit of fish;
She’s hatless, for now, till I give her a hat,
And cloudless as well, though I’m glad about that;
She’s treeless, which helps her to fit in her cot,
And windowless—windows, again, she has not.

She has plenty of cute—I shall not call her cuteless—
And she’s sweeter than Mom’s Apple Pie;
But listing her negatives clearly is fruitless
When privatives do not apply.

In case the verse wasn't blatant enough... I come down on the side that babies are not "dictionary atheists", nor are trees, rocks, fish, clouds, or galaxies.  They are undefined with regard to religious terms.  (Ok, they are undefined in my view; some (but not all) religions claim membership from babies, and it is not relevant that the baby actively believe.  This baby is (culturally) orthodox, that one is muslim, even though they have not chosen this membership.  Other religions wait--the anabaptist tradition requires the active choice on the part of an individual to join the church; prior to that, you may be unsaved or perhaps "innocent".)

In my (privative) view, if there were no religious believers, there would of course be no atheists.  The label would have never been invented, and would have no meaning.  We are all, right now, aflargists, because none of us are flargists.  We are all amulxists, because none of us are mulxists.  I could make up dozens of undefined things we are not.  But I prefer it when words actually have meaning, and give useful information.  It makes no sense to call my baby flightless, although she is "dictionary flightless".  Since no babies are (I have asked them) active believers in any particular religion, it makes no sense at all to call them atheists.  It is simply a dimension which is undefined with regard to babies.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Were You There? (The Ken Ham Song)

Jesus walked upon the water! Were you there?
(Were you there?!)
Jesus walked upon the water! Were you there?
(Were you there?!)
Jesus walked upon the water,
Though he knew he hadn't oughter
Jesus walked upon the water! Were you there?
(Were you there?!)

Adam wandered in the garden! Were you there?
(Were you there?!)
Adam wandered in the garden! Were you there?
(Were you there?!)
Adam wandered in the garden!
Eve arrived and Adam hardened;
Adam wandered in the garden! Were you there?
(Were you there?!)

Jesus walked upon the water! Were you there?
(Were you there?!)
Jesus walked upon the water! Were you there?
(Were you there?!)
Jesus walked upon the water, 
Though he knew he hadn't oughter
Jesus walked upon the water! Were you there?
(Were you there?!)

Brother Noah was a boater! Were you there?
(Were you there?!)
Brother Noah was a boater! Were you there?
(Were you there?!)
Brother Noah was a boater,
You're descended from a floater,
Brother Noah was a boater! Were you there?
(Were you there?!)


God burned Sodom and Gomorrah! Were you there?
(Were you there?)
God burned Sodom and Gomorrah! Were you there?
(Were you there?)
God burned Sodom and Gomorrah!
Oh, the horrah! Oh, the horrah!
God burned Sodom and Gomorrah! Were you there?
(Were you there?)


Comments are open for additional verses!

Cuttlecap tip to PZ, here, of course.