Saturday, July 30, 2005

Frist and stem cells

I have to say I'm a bit puzzled by Senator Frist's recent decision to back expanded federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research*. I mean, obviously, it's great, but I have to wonder why he's had a change of heart. I'd reject out of hand the idea that he's generally more sensible than the rest of the religious right because he's a doctor, given his disgraceful behavior during the Terri Schiavo fiasco.

The consensus interpretation on Frist's behavior over the last year or so has been that he is positioning himself for a 2008 presidential nomination, for which he needs the crucial support of the religious right. This decision will kill (or has already killed) that support, and he can't win the nomination on the votes of moderate Republicans (McCain taught us that in 2000). So, it could be that he's decided he doesn't want to run for president, after all, so he no longer needs to grovel before the religious right. That's the only plausible interpretation I can come up with - does anyone else have thoughts?

*Just to be clear, because this topic generates a lot of confusion: Human embryonic stem cell research is currently legal and is funded at by the federal government, states, and privates sources. However, federal funding is limited to research on human embryonic stem cell lines that were created after August 9, 2001, the idea being that federal money isn't being spent on the actual destruction of embryos. The new bill would loosen this restriction by allowing federal money to be spent on creating new human ESC lines from leftover embryos from IVF (thus destroying those embryos) that are already scheduled for destruction by the parents anyway.

Solar system has ten planets

Or maybe eight? There's been a new object discovered that's bigger than Pluto, about three times as far away. So if Pluto counts as a planet, for consistency this one should too; or perhaps Pluto doesn't count as a planet anyway so we've got eight planets and a whole bunch of "miscellaneous" objects of varying size past Neptune.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005


Fascinating study on what happens in your brain when you blink:
BBC: Parts of the brain are temporarily "switched off" when we blink, scientists have found. The team from University College London found the brain shut down parts of the visual system for each blink.

Writing in Current Biology, they said this was the case even if light was still entering the eyes. The researchers said this could explain why people do not notice their own blinking, as it gave us an "uninterrupted view of the world". ...

They found that blinking suppressed brain activity in the visual cortex and other areas of the brain - known as parietal and prefrontal - which are usually activated when people become conscious of visual events or objects in the outside world.*
Something phenomologically similar happens during saccades**: when you dart your eyes around the visual field, you don't perceive the blurred image that you would see if a video camera did the same thing, because your brain just ignores visual input during saccades. In fact, there have been experiments where an eye tracker tells a computer when a subject is making a saccade while looking at an image on the computer screen, and the computer changes a major aspect of the image during the saccade. Invariably, the subjects don't notice the change.
The changes can be quite dramatic and can even occur with objects that a subject has just fixated upon. Still they remain unnoticed. For example, a prominent building in a city skyline became 25% larger and 100% of the subjects failed to detect any change. One hundred percent also failed to notice that two men exchanged hats of different colors and styles.
This is a special case of change blindness, where people fail to notice extremely obvious changes in the visual scene that occur across a visual discontinuity (e.g., by a blank screen, a blink, or a saccade) or they are paying attention to something else. Hence the usual failure to notice continuity errors in movies.

Daniel Dennett has elaborated on the implications of these related phenomena for visual consciousness: we never take in a visual scene all at once, because we can only really clearly see the focus of our vision. Instead, our brains build up a coherent image of the world as a composite of all the tiny snapshots taken by our eyes constantly darting around. Visual consciousness is a fictional narrative constructed by the brain to make sense of visual input. Perturbing the narrative by switching the visual scene in the middle of a saccade or a blink reveals just how much it is constructed out of bits and pieces.

Actually, Dennett takes this further and argues against the common intuition that after the brain puts together this narrative, it goes "on display" in a sort of "Cartesian theater" where the "real you" sits there watching the processed movie of what's coming in through your eyes. But this is just dualism - in fact, this pieced-together narrative is consciousness. Pretty cool.

*Footnote for those interested in how the study was done. The way they designed the study was ingenious: in order to get around the problem that when you close your eyes, your visual input and hence brain activity changes drastically, they designed a special light that subjects put in their mouths that shone light through the bone into the retina, while they wore goggles to block light coming in through the pupil (see slightly creepy picture). Meanwhile, to get around the problem that a blink lasts a fraction of a second while fMRI has a temporal resolution on the order of 2 seconds, they had subjects blink "at a fast regular rate" during "blink" periods, and just blink at a spontaneous resting rate during "no blinking" periods.

**Interestingly, though, while blinking suppresses activity in the parietal and prefrontal cortex, the neural effect of saccades apparently reaches only as far up as the visual cortex. This is somewhat odd as blinks and saccades seem quite similar qualitatively, but these fMRI studies are both quite new, so hopefully more studies will be forthcoming.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Worse than the Holocaust, famine, AIDS, and the gulags

Brad Plumer points out that anti-abortion activists are actually quite tame given the oft-stated view that legalized abortion is worse than the Holocaust:
Obviously there are a few clinic-bombers here and there, but we never see social disobedience on a very broad scale. Judging by their actions, the Civil Rights protesters in the 1950s and 1960s seem to have felt far more strongly about their cause than pro-lifers do about theirs. Again, whatever, people can do what they want, but you'd think something worse than the Holocaust would incite a bit more in the way of drastic action. [Emphasis original]
The "revealed preferences" of anti-abortion activists come out in other ways too. Consider: if human life begins at conception and a one-cell zygote has all the moral value of an adult human being, then we are currently facing a natural disaster of massive proportions. Why? A very large proportion of fertilized eggs die very early - most before the woman even knows she's pregnant - often due to chromosomal abnormalities due to meiotic nondisjunction (chromosomes fail to separate properly during meiosis and the egg or sperm ends up with an extra copy of a chromosome, or none at all). Many never even make it past a few cell divisions.

To be consistent, an extreme pro-lifer should view this as a horrendous unnoticed natural disaster, as tragic as babies born with lethal birth defects, and on the scale of the high rates of infant mortality that exist in areas without sufficient health care. In fact, one would have a moral obligation to stop this immense loss of life.

Pro-life activists should be agitating to increase funding for medical research that would either prevent chromosomal abnormalities or allow such embryos to survive for longer. Even if such a therapy did not allow the fetus to survive to birth or even to viability outside the womb, it would still be desirable to help it survive perhaps to week 20 rather than week 1 of pregnancy.

Then again, if all they're willing to do to fight something worse than the Holocaust is write letters to the editor, vote for Republicans, and give money to "pregnancy crisis" centers, then I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that they're keeping silent on a humanitarian tragedy worse than all the famines and AIDS deaths the world over.

A crappy airplane experience


(Be sure to check out the diagrams.)

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Offer does not apply

Hilarious, and yet so depressing:

Via Mark Kleiman.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

RU-486, not so risky

This story about how 2 women have died from infections after taking the abortion pill RU-486 brings out the latest bit of dishonesty from the religious right (I was going to say idiocy, but let's not kid ourselves):
Wendy Wright, senior policy director for Concerned Women of America, a conservative women's group, said news of the latest death proved that label changes would not make the drug safe.

"Changing the label the last time clearly didn't help the latest woman who died," Ms. Wright said. "Sadly, people who support RU-486 apparently believe the risk of death is preferable to having a child."
Luckily for us, the article states elsewhere that
Still, the risks of death from infection for users of the pill is roughly one in 100,000 uses - similar to the risks of death from infection after surgical abortions or childbirth. [Emphasis added.]
So the question is, did Ms. Wright actually forget that women can still die from childbirth, or is she purposefully misusing the image of the "miracle of life" to draw a false dichotomy between childbirth and death and hide the fact that you are more likely to die from continuing on with the pregnancy than from taking RU-486? Three guesses, and the first two don't count.

New template

Any objections?

Sunday, July 10, 2005


I haven't much to say about the London attacks, except with everyone else to express my horror and condemnation, and sympathy for all those caught up in the bombings. And to feel a tiny shiver that I've often been on the Tube at the very locations bombed. At times like these, you wonder how much you can say without descending into the tastelessness satirized here. So, a few days delayed, just consider my British flag to be flying at half-mast.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Phoebe Buffay, wise woman?

Phoebe Buffay:
Sometimes men love women,
Sometimes men love men.
And then there are bisexuals,
Though some just say they're kidding themselves...
A new study suggests [NYTimes article] at least some bisexual men really are kidding themselves...

PS: good critique of the NYTimes article by Majikthise here.

PPS: Even better critique by Chris of Mixing Memory here. Sounds like the spin on the study given in the NYTimes article is pretty bogus!

Betsy Bush

My first thought when I saw this picture was, "My God, that is a huge skirt that George W. Bush is wearing!"

(Picture from this article.)

Monday, July 04, 2005

Happy 4th of July

Today was the first 4th of July that I've spent outside the U.S. I've taken to listening to NPR online, at least partly because I've missed hearing American accents. This morning during 'Morning Edition' they did a reading of the Declaration of Independence, with patriotic music in the background. Even though I was aware of the staged cheesiness of it, and even though I bristled at the bit about Indian savages, and even though the document was written by a slaveowner - I felt a patriotic tingle down my spine during the reading, and a rush of excitement with the last words, "we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor." I sometimes still get that feeling listening to the Star-Spangled Banner. One of my clearest memories from high school is the band playing the Star-Spangled Banner at the end of an end-of-year concert in the school gym, and at "and the home of the brave," a sudden unfurling of a huge American flag on the wall.

Which goes to show that American patriotism is not the exclusive domain of rightwingers.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Random observation

I've noticed that when people ask what I do while making small talk, and I say I'm studying biology, they just nod their heads politely and say, "Oh, right." But if I say I'm studying neuroscience, they say, "Oh, wow! That's so cool!" or "That must be really hard!" or some combination of the two. (Sometimes people have even confused neuroscience and neurosurgery and thought that I'm a brain surgeon.) It seems strange to me that neuroscience should sound so much sexier than biology, since to they both describe what I do (neurobiology) equally accurately. Does anyone out there have (or get) the same reaction?