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November 16th, 2007

A Nice Little Mind Bender

Look at this graphic…is the dancer spinning clockwise, or counter-clockwise…?

 

Actually…she can be spinning in either direction.  It depends on how your brain initially puts together the visual cues it finds. This from The NeuroLogica Blog, where Steven Novella debunks the notion that this optical illusion reveals left brain/right brain dominance…

Take a look at the spinning girl below. Do you see it spinning clockwise or counter-clockwise? I see it spinning counter-clockwise, and I had a hard time getting it to switch direction. Give it a try.

These kinds of optical illusions are always fun. What they reveal is how our brain processes visual information in order to create a visual model of the world. The visual system evolved to make certain assumptions that are almost always right (like, if something is smaller is it likely farther away). But these assumptions can be exploited to created a false visual construction, or an optical illusion.

The spinning girl is a form of the more general spinning silhouette illusion. The image is not objectively “spinning” in one direction or the other. It is a two-dimensional image that is simply shifting back and forth. But our brains did not evolve to interpret two-dimensional representations of the world but the actual three-dimensional world. So our visual processing assumes we are looking at a 3-D image and is uses clues to interpret it as such. Or, without adequate clues it may just arbitrarily decide a best fit – spinning clockwise or counterclockwise. And once this fit is chosen, the illusion is complete – we see a 3-D spinning image.

By looking around the image, focusing on the shadow or some other part, you may force your visual system to reconstruct the image and it may choose the opposite direction, and suddenly the image will spin in the opposite direction. 

The trick, once you’ve settled on a direction for the dancer’s movement, is changing your mind about it at will.  It’s not easy at first…at least it wasn’t for me.  Initially I saw her spinning counter-clockwise.  It took effort, but after a while I found that if I view the image in my peripheral vision, I can train my eye, while not looking directly at the image, to see her spinning in the opposite direction until it "takes".  Then when I look directly at her she’s now spinning in that direction.  At first it took a while and a lot of effort, but after some practice I could make her switch pretty quickly.

But…now I have a headache… 

 

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on A Nice Little Mind Bender

October 25th, 2007

Global Warming Much?

Actual time lapse footage from NASA, showing what happened to planet Earth’s north polar icecap this summer…

Republican bill defunding NASA to be introduced on the house floor in…5…4…3…2…

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Global Warming Much?

September 5th, 2007

His Strut

I always knew this…

Sexual Orientation Revealed by Body Type and Motion, Study Suggests

An individual’s body motion and body type can offer subtle cues about their sexual orientation, but casual observers seem better able to read those cues in gay men than in lesbians, according to a new study in the September issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

"We already know that men and women are built differently and walk differently from each other and that casual observers use this information as clues in making a range of social judgments," said lead author Kerri Johnson, UCLA assistant professor of communication studies. "Now we’ve found that casual observers can use gait and body shape to judge whether a stranger is gay or straight with a small but perceptible amount of accuracy."

Johnson and colleagues at New York University and Texas A&M measured the hips, waists and shoulders of eight male and eight female volunteers, half of whom were gay and half straight. The volunteers then walked on a treadmill for two minutes as a three-dimensional motion-capture system similar to those used by the movie industry to create animated figures from living models made measurements of the their motions, allowing researchers to track the precise amount of shoulder swagger and hip sway in their gaits.

Based on these measurements, the researchers determined that the gay subjects tended to have more gender-incongruent body types than their straight counterparts (hourglass figures for men, tubular bodies for women) and body motions (hip-swaying for men, shoulder-swaggering for women) than their straight counterparts.

In addition, 112 undergraduate observers were shown videos of the backsides of the volunteers as they walked at various speeds on the treadmill. The observers were able to determine the volunteers’ sexual orientation with an overall rate of accuracy that exceeded chance, even though they could not see the volunteers’ faces or the details of their clothing. Interestingly, the casual observers were much more accurate in judging the orientation of males than females; they correctly categorized the sexual orientation of men with more than 60 percent accuracy, but their categorization of women did not exceeded chance. 

Emphasis mine.  Why am I not asked to participate in experiments like these?  This is the one area where my weak gaydar seems to work most reliably.  I love to watch beautiful guys walk.  There’s just something about the sight of the male body in motion.  And in the gait, sometimes, I can just see it.  Some guys just have a more beautiful, or at least a more attractive to my my eye, gait then others.  The gay ones.  Makes my heart beat. 

There’s this Bob Segar song…  I realize that, according to the story, he’s singing about about a specific person…but ever since it started playing on the radio, whenever I hear it I just mentally flip a pronoun and rock to it…

But oh, they love to watch him strut

The play on words about how they all respect her, but…doesn’t quite work with the male pronoun so I end up mentally adjusting the lyrics further as the song goes on.  But I seldom pay that much attention to the lyrics of a rock song anyway…it’s about the music, and the music of that particular song is just about right for watching beautiful guys walking.  And sometimes you just find yourself following along…er…you know…to the rhythm of it…

But there’s a disquieting side to all this, that you also need to pay attention to…

The findings build on recent research that shows that casual observers can often correctly identify sexual orientation with very limited information. A 1999 Harvard study, for example, found that just by looking at the photographs of seated strangers, college undergraduates were able to judge sexual orientation accurately 55 percent of the time.

"Studies like ours are raising questions about the value of the military’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy," Johnson said. "If casual observers can determine sexual orientation with minimal information, then the value in concealing this information certainly appears questionable. Given that we all appear to be able to deduce this information to some degree with just a glance, more comprehensive policies may be required to protect gays against discrimination based on their sexual orientation."

The findings also are part of mounting evidence suggesting that sexual orientation may actually be what social scientists call a "master status category," or a defining characteristic that observers cannot help but notice and which has been scientifically shown to color all subsequent social dealings with others.

"Once you know a person’s sexual orientation, the fact has consequences for all subsequent interactions, and our findings suggest that this category of information can be deduced from subtle clues in body movement," Johnson said.

A lot of gay guys,,,myself included…just assume most of the time that we’re not really all that "obvious".   In particular, those of us who grew up being fed a lot of stereotypes about swishing and limp wrists and lisping and that kind of crap, tend to assume that to the degree we don’t fit the stereotype, we’re probably passing.  Well guys…it looks like they can see right through us anyway.

And in a world that’s been so relentlessly polarized, gays so relentlessly demonized by this kind of republican party crap…

…that can have, as the article points out, consequences.   

Have you ever had a business interaction that all of a sudden just turned negative and you couldn’t quite put your finger on why?  You’re talking to a clerk at a store somewhere, or trying to arrange to have some professional come and do some work on your house, or your car, or whatever, and suddenly they turn all cold and contemptuous and suddenly find a million excuses why they can’t sell you what you were looking for, or do the work for you that you need done?  I’ve had that happen over and over again and usually I put it down to being a longhair in bluejeans and sneakers, and the lingering resentment some folks still feel toward the 60s counter-culture. But what if it really is homophobia?

It’s all too easy to fall into the suffocating trap of putting every negative reaction down to prejudice against gay people.  But there’s another side to that coin and it’s called denial.  I don’t think I have any obvious effeminacy to me, I’m no macho guy by any means, but I’ve always pictured myself internally as pretty much an average middle class, suburban American guy.  Okay…so I don’t much care for sports.  I love fast cars, firecrackers, and hard rock.  I am a stereotypical male in so many ways, some pretty embarrassing.  No…I don’t ask for directions.  I hate shopping for clothes.  Weekends when I’m cleaning house, I am always scolding myself for not picking up after myself like I should.

But maybe none of that matters anyway.  Maybe none of it ever mattered.  The clues are subtler, and they’re hard wired into us.  The way we talk, the way we move, even according to this 60 minutes article, the way we sit

Bailey and his colleagues set up a series of experiments in his lab at Northwestern University. In one study, researcher Gerulf Rieger videotaped gay and straight people sitting in a chair, talking. He then reduced them visually to silent black and white outlined figures and asked volunteers to see if they could tell gay from straight. The idea was to find out if certain stereotypes were real and observable.

Based on physical movement and gestures of the figures, more often than not, the volunteers in the study could tell a difference. 

You can be flaming and you can be quiet and reserved and it doesn’t matter.  You can be fabulous and you can be a geek whose clothes never seem to fit quite right and it doesn’t matter.  The people we interact with on a daily basis may never even be aware consciously what it is they’re picking up on.  They just know, somehow, that they’re dealing with a homosexual.  And that can have consequences.   Especially after so many elections where gay people were painted as the demons who were going to take over America, prey on children, spread AIDS and destroy marriage and family if the democrats won.

 

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on His Strut

July 11th, 2007

Making Nonsense

In the wake of three Surgeon Generals testifying on Capital Hill about Bush administration political interference in medical science, raising once again the issue of how the Bush administration has been relentlessly attacking any science that doesn’t agree with their agenda, Andrew Sullivan thinks Virginia Postrel is making sense…

"Scientists have gotten way too fond of invoking their authority to claim that "science" dictates their preferred policy solutions and claiming that any disagreement constitutes an attack on science. But, even assuming that scientists agree on the facts, science can only tell us something about the state of the world. It cannot tell us what policy is the best to adopt. Scientists’ preferences are not "science." You cannot go from an "is" (science) to an "ought" (policy). Social science, particularly economics, can tell you something about the likely tradeoffs (hence some of my frustrations at Aspen). But it can’t tell you which tradeoffs to make,"
Virginia Postrel, making sense as usual.

Postrel is referring to an op-ed defending Governor Girly Man’s sacking of Robert Sawyer, chair of California’s chair Air Resources Board.  Schwarzenegger had appointed him in December of 2005, calling him "an exceptionally accomplished scientist, teacher and environmental policy expert who has devoted his career to using science and technology to improve air quality not only in California, but across our country and the world." 

The grim irony in Postrel’s blog post is that what the Schwarzenegger camp would have you believe is that Sawyer was fired for doing exactly what Postrel said needs to be done: weighing the science against the public interest.  Against the wishes of environmentalists, the state air board led by Sawyer voted by a 7-1 margin to let San Joaquin Valley polluters have until 2024 to come into compliance with the Federal Clean Air Act.  The San Joaquin Valley is California’s, and by extension much of this nation’s, food basket.  But it wasn’t this decision, so much as Sawyer’s insistence that the State Air Board remain politically independent, that got Sawyer his pink slip.  That is what Postrel is defending here; not the idea that public policy often has to be a compromise between various necessities, but that science must serve politics.

Postrel’s post is dishonest claptrap of the sort that homophobes use when they bellyache that they’re being called bigots merely for "disagreeing with the gay agenda".  It isn’t disagreement the scientists are calling attacks, it’s when politicians censor them, and then rewrite their science outright to fit a specific political agenda, that’s the attack on science.  It’s one thing for politicians to say that they have to weigh the science against what they see as the public interest, and another for them to force science to tell the public things that are not true.  But this has been Bush administration policy from day one, and republican party policy now for decades.  Intelligent Design anyone?

I keep turning to Jacob Bronowski on this, but he said it absolutely right…

Picture the state of German thought when Wener Heisenberg was criticized by the S.S., and had to ask Himmler to support his scientific standing.   Heisenberg had won the Nobel prize at the age of thirty; his principle of uncertainty is one of the two or three deep concepts which science has found in this century; and he was trying to warn Germans that they must not dismiss such discoveries as Relativity because they disliked the author.  Yet Himmler, who had been a schoolmaster, took months of petty inquiery (someone in his family knew Heisenberg) before he authorized of all people, Heydrich to protect Heisenberg.  His letter to Heydrich is a paper monument to what happens to the creative mind in a society without truth.  For Himmler writes that he has heard that Heisenberg is good enough to be earmarked later for his own Academy for Welteislehre.  This was an Academy which Himmler proposed to devote to the conviction which he either shared with or imposed on his scientific yes-men, that the stars are made of ice.

-Jacob Bronowski, Science and Human Values.

For years after reading that I wondered why the hell anyone would want to force scientists to say that stars are made of ice.  Then I came across this web site run by a group of people who still believe in the Ptolemaic earth centric model of the universe and then it made sense.  There are still some nutty fundamentalists out there who insist that the earth must be the center of the universe, because they bible says so.  But in that case the stars simply cannot be suns like our own, and light years away from us, because then the outer edges of the universe would be whipping around the earth once each day at speeds even a fundamentalist could not accept.  So the stars must be a lot closer to the earth and the universe must be a lot smaller.  But if the stars are a lot closer to the earth then they can’t be objects like our sun.  So they must be made of ice instead, and are merely reflecting the light from our own sun back at us.

It’s crazy.  But that’s apparently what Himmler believed, because his screwball religion told him it had to be so.  And never mind what the evidence says.  Contrary opinions are not merely wrong, they’re heresy, and even worse, they’re rebellion against authority.  This is why theocrats and totalitarians hate the practice of science.  The only authority science accepts is the evidence.  At the end of the day nature speaks for itself.  This is why science is always going to have a tense relationship with politics.  But it’s not a hopeless one, so long as everyone is willing to tell the truth. 

It’s one thing to say that we have to weigh the costs and benefits, and make hard decisions sometimes that maybe nobody really likes, and another to try to make scientists say things that aren’t so.  No, science can’t tell us what policy is the best to adopt.  But it can sure as hell narrow it down.  You can’t even begin to guess what the best policy is, if you don’t know what the goddamned facts are.

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Making Nonsense

June 28th, 2007

Beware The Hidden Assumptions

That’s something I was taught to consider in a structured analysis and design class I attended once and it’s the kind of thinking that we should all practice.  You really need sometimes to look critically at the obvious, the taken-for-granted, those "everyone knows such-and-such is true" truths.  They can be delicate, nearly invisible curtains hiding from your eyes the reality that’s staring you back in the face.

Via aTypical Joe, comes this story of 81 words that were once in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and how they were there in the first place, simply because everyone just assumed they were true.  And this particular assumption got its first really critical looking at, when Evelyn Hooker, a psychologist at UCLA, met Sam From, a student…

Evelyn was a psychologist at UCLA and Sam was her student. He was also a homosexual. They started spending time together in the mid 1940s and Sam introduced Evelyn to his group of friends most of whom, like Sam, were gay.

Now, as I said, everyone in this group was homosexual but curiously, none was in therapy. They were all well-adjusted young men who utterly failed to conform to the traditional psychiatric image of the tortured, disturbed homosexual.

This, naturally, got Evelyn thinking.

Now, prior to Evelyn Hooker, all of the research on homosexuality – all of it – was done on people who were already under serious psychiatric treatment. Let me repeat that: In the history of psychiatric research, no one had ever conducted a study on a homosexual population that wasn’t either in therapy, in prison, a mental hospital, or the disciplinary barracks of the armed services.

Evelyn thought about this and decided that this kind of research was distorting psychiatry’s conclusions about homosexual populations. To test her theory, Evelyn came up with an experiment. Through her former student she located 30 homosexuals who had never sought therapy in their lives and matched those homosexuals with a group of heterosexuals of comparable age, IQ and education.

Evelyn then put both groups through a battery of psychological tests including a Rorschach Test, the famous ink-blot test. After disguising her subjects, Evelyn gave the results to three experienced psychiatrists and asked them to identify the homosexuals. She figured that if homosexuals were inherently pathological, the psychiatrists would be able to pick them out easily. But the judges were completely unable to distinguish the homos from the hets.

Equally important was the fact that the judges categorized two thirds of the homosexuals and the heterosexuals as perfectly well-adjusted normally functioning human beings. 

Hooker’s study challenged the idea that homosexuality was a pathology in the first place, and in doing this it not only called into question an entire generation of research on homosexuality, it also challenged psychiatry’s basic concept of disease. If you believed Hooker’s data the only conclusion you could come to was that psychiatry was deciding that certain behaviors were diseases, not out of any sort of scientific proof, but based on their own prejudices.

Beside Evelyn Hooker, psychiatrists who wanted to change the DSM really had only one other scientific study on their side: Alfred Kinsey’s famous 1948 sex survey which found that a whopping 37% of all men had had physical contact to the point of orgasm with other men, a finding which – besides shocking the hell out of 63% of the American public – seemed to suggest that homosexual acts were too common to be considered a disease.

In spite of all this work, psychiatry continued to maintain that the homos were sick and steadfastly refused to reevaluate the DSM. And then luck, or maybe fate, intervened.

This is but a small excerpt from a really good This American Life broadcast, which originally aired in January 2002.  It’s available for listening at the link above.  If you have iTunes it can also be purchased for ninty-five cents.  I highly recommend it.  The broadcast is the story of the DSM change as told by Alix Spiegel, the granddaughter of the man who was the president elect of the APA when the change occurred.  Like many profound historical events, this one is something more, and something less, then the mythologies that have grown up around it.  It involved political theater, and behind the scenes activism.  It involved many diverse people from many diverse backgrounds…most of them heterosexual, some of them gay.  Most of the gays in the APA at that time were in fact, deeply, deeply closeted, and what is probably a striking thing for modern ears to hear is how many of them accepted the prevailing assumptions about the pathology of homosexuality.

But if the internal behind the scenes politics, and the external pressure of gay activists accomplished anything, it was to hasten what the science would eventually compel them to do anyway.  That is not to ether dismiss, nor exaggerate the impact of the activism.  There is a scene near the end of Alix Spiegel’s story that needs to be in any film or TV recreation of these events, and it is that moment when Robert Spitzer is brought by one of the activists who had been protesting the APA’s categorizing of homosexuality as an illness, uninvited, to a gathering of the closeted gay professionals, and he sees how many distinguished and successful people of his profession are homosexual, people he would never have suspected, people whose accomplishments were considerable, people who would, every one of them, have been drummed out of their profession had their sexual orientation become known then.  For Spitzer, it is a profound revelation.  And then…a young man in uniform walks in the door.

You should listen to this episode.  It’s nearly an hour long but well worth it, to get to that scene.  There is a historian toward the end who says that questions of disease and pathology ultimately resolve down to moral questions, not scientific ones.  I disagree.  Science can certainly tell us whether or not something is or is not harmful to us mentally and physically.  And the moral question was answered millenia ago: First Do No Harm…  But there is a profound moral question at the bottom of every scientific one and that is the question of truthfulness and letting the evidence speak for itself.  Even if means you have to discard a cherished assumption you’ve held on to for years.  Even if that assumption has given you the recognition of your peers, fame, and made you a pretty good living. 

Robert Spitzer has taken a lot of justly deserved criticism for his so-called study of clients of ex-gay ministries, but you have to give the man credit for that one dazzling moment near the end of this report, when he let the evidence he could clearly see with his own two eyes, finally, speak for itself.  Charles Socrades comes off by contrast, as a man so blinded by dogma that he’s even willing to regard himself as a parental failure to his own gay son.  But as he says, his business was booming.  He speaks with pride toward the end about some parents who took their 16 year old gay son to one psychiatrist after another, only to be told there was nothing wrong with the boy…until they met him.

And now you know what happens to a soul that stops asking questions.

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Beware The Hidden Assumptions

June 14th, 2007

Nature’s Logic

There’s a kind of primitive variable that probably everyone who writes computer code knows and understands these days…the Boolean.  Unlike other variables which can hold a range of values, be they numbers, or strings of ascii characters, the Boolean is a relentlessly either-or variable.  And for that reason, it maps pretty well to the fundamental logic by which all digital computers operate, and to their smallest unit of data, the bit.  But humans have been considering their world in Boolean logic ever since our minds first emerged from out of the biological background noise.

Yes-No.  True-False.  Right-Wrong.  Good-Bad.  Even as we admit to ourselves that there are often only shades of gray, we persist in reducing our experiences to these terms.  It’s as basic an evaluation as can be.  The second postulate of Aristotelian logic is that of ‘either-or’.  A thing cannot both be, and at the same time not be.  Either yes, or no.  Either true, or false.  Either right, or wrong.  Either it is, or it is not.  It must be one or the other.

Well…tell it to Schrodinger’s cat.  It’s probably no coincidence that our machines are made in our image, that they resemble the way our minds like to think.  The canvas always speaks of the artist.  But as it turns out, that’s not actually the way our brains operate.  It may not even be the way nature, at its most elemental level, works.  There’s this intriguing tri-position logic in the natural world that I keep seeing raise its hand and wave at us from time to time.  But it seems to go unexamined most of the time, and I think that’s because like the extra space-time dimensions physicists keep telling us are there, it’s hard for our minds to wrap themselves around it.   And that’s really interesting, because one place you really see this tri-position logic is in how our brains actually physically work.

Consider the humble synapse.  It is the gap between brain cells, across which two different kinds of chemical "messages" can cross.  One kind of chemical causes the cell on the other side of the gap to fire.  The other chemical inhibits the cell on the other side of the gap from firing.  So far, so good.  We’re still comfortably in the basic Boolean logic of things.  Fire-Don’t fire.  Yes-No.  Off-On.  Either-Or.  But there’s a third thing that synapse can do: Nothing.

So synapse logic has three states, not two.  Fire, don’t fire, and…what?  Here’s where it gets interesting for me.  What is the word here.  We don’t really have one.  And that I think, is because the concept is difficult for us.  The state itself seems foreign enough to the way our minds naturally work, that as far as I know, humans don’t really have a good enough word for that third position.  Neutral doesn’t quite do it.  It isn’t that it isn’t engaged, like a gear shift you put into neutral, say.  It’s connected, to the rest of the brain.  ‘Off’ isn’t quite it either.  Each half of the synaptic gap has a current state that influences the state of the cells on either side of the synaptic gap depending on the direction of the message, or the absence of one.  So there are really three states possible here:  Fire, don’t fire, and a third, that is neither fire or don’t fire.  Depending on the state of the synapses it’s connected to, a brain cell may or may not fire.  So the cell itself may have just two states.  But the synapses have three.

Our minds just don’t seem to grasp that third logical state very well, and we fumble to describe it.  It’s a between state.  No…it’s a middle state.  Wait…a transitional state…  Uhm…  No…it’s…it’s…   (shrug)  I dunno…

Maybe ‘zero’ is the right way to think about it.  But I can only say that because I write software code and I understand how zero is actually something distinct from a positive value, is distinct from a negative value.  But that seems to be a non-intuitive concept for us humans.  Consider that the Arabic invention of the zero as a form of notation actually came well after a lot of other very basic mathematical concepts.  Well of course everyone knew that you can have a zero quantity.  But expressing it abstractly seemed to be a difficulty.  And in many programming languages, 0 evaluates to false anyway, and any other value is true (except in Basic, where  –1 is (was) true, which I think is right from a bitwise NOT sense…but don’t get me started…).  And…this third position isn’t really a ‘nothing’.  It’s more of a ‘neither’.  

Another place you see this tri-position logic is natural selection.  In the grand scheme of things, the winners are those organisms that are best adapted to their environment.  Variation then, that gives an organism an advantage tends to be passed on, and variation that puts an organism at a disadvantage tends not to be passed on.  Over time the advantages accumulate, and the disadvantages get culled out.  Either-Or.  But there is a third thing that can happen.  Nothing.  A variation can simply be neither an advantage nor a disadvantage.  Those variations it seems, get placed in the genetic portfolio right along with the advantages too…

Landmark study prompts rethink of genetic code

The most detailed probe yet into the workings of the human genome has led scientists to conclude that a cornerstone concept about the chemical code for life is badly flawed.

The ground-breaking study, published in more than two dozen papers in journals on both sides of the Atlantic, takes a small percentage of the genome to pieces to draw up a "parts list," identifying the biological role of every component.

For the international team of investigators, the four-year project was the computer-equivalent of passing a fine-toothed comb through a mountain of raw data.

Reporting in the British journal Nature and the US journal Genome Research on Thursday, they suggest that an established theory about the genome should be consigned to history.

Under this view, the genome is rather like a ribbon studded with some 22,000 "nuggets" in the form of genes, which make proteins, the essential stuff of life.

Genes — deemed so valuable that some discoverers of them have been prompted to file patents over them for commercial gain — amount to only around a twentieth, or even less, of the genetic code.

In between the genes and the sequences known to regulate their activity are long, tedious stretches that appear to do nothing. The term for them is "junk" DNA, reflecting the presumption that they are merely driftwood from our evolutionary past and have no biological function.

But the work by the ENCODE (ENCyclopaedia of DNA Elements) consortium implies that this nuggets-and-dross concept of DNA should be, well, junked.

The genome turns out to a highly complex, interwoven machine with very few inactive stretches, the researchers report.

Genes, it transpires, are just one of many types of DNA sequences that have a functional role.

And "junk" DNA turns out to have an essential role in regulating the protein-making business.

Previously written off as silent, it emerges as a singer with its own discreet voice, part of a vast, interacting molecular choir.

"The majority of the genome is copied, or transcribed, into RNA, which is the active molecule in our cells, relaying information from the archival DNA to the cellular machinery," said Tim Hubbard of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, a British research group that was part of the team.

"This is a remarkable finding, since most prior research suggested only a fraction of the genome was transcribed."

Francis Collins, director of the US National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), which coralled 35 scientific groups from around the world into the ENCODE project, said the scientific community "will need to rethink some long-held views about what genes are and what they do."

"This could have significant implications for efforts to identify the DNA sequences involved in many human diseases," he said.

Another rethink is in offing about how the genome has evolved, said Collins.

Until now, researchers had thought that the pressure to survive would relentlessly sculpt the human genome, leaving it with a slim, efficient core of genes that are essential for biological function.

But the ENCODE consortium were surprised to find that the genome appears to be stuffed with functional elements that offer no identifiable benefits in terms of survival or reproduction.

The researchers speculate that there is a point behind this survival of the evolutionary cull. Humans could share with other animals a large pool of functional elements — a "warehouse" stuffed with a variety of tools on which each species can draw, enabling it to adapt according to its environmental niche.

IMO, there’s that third logical position at work again.  The variation is neither good, nor bad, it’s just there.  At some future point, say a rapid change in the organism’s environment, and that gene might be a handy thing to have all of a sudden.  Or, conversely, it might turn into a complete disaster for the organism.  But for the moment, it’s just there, evaluated to position three.  Zero, let’s say.  Neither positive nor negative.  It has the potential to be either one, given a chance to express itself.

From somewhere deep in the physical fabric of the universe, Schrodinger’s cat licks its chops and smiles.  Or doesn’t.  Or both.  Just don’t open the box.

The science fiction writer Larry Niven once averred that giving gay people what we want would be the quickest way of breeding us out of the population.  But then, he didn’t get the fact that his Ringworld needed attitude jets until some real engineers pointed that fact out to him.  I happen to think that having a gay minority does in fact provide a survival advantage to the human line.  But as it turns out, homosexuality can fit comfortably into our gene pool just fine, along with a bazillion other random variations on a theme that simply are, and do no harm. 

I don’t need to pass on my gay genes.  My heterosexual brethren probably have them too…they just aren’t expressing them.  For some reason, I expressed mine.  But I’m fine with that, and so is nature.  I happen to think it’s a plus.  But the point is that a variation only gets culled out if it’s a minus.  A really big minus.  And this one isn’t.

[Edited a tad…] 

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Nature’s Logic

June 13th, 2007

Another Childhood Icon Passes

For some kids it was Mr. Rogers.  For me it was Mr. Wizard…

TV’s ‘Mr. Wizard’ Don Herbert dies at 89

LOS ANGELES — Don Herbert, who as television’s "Mr. Wizard" introduced generations of young viewers to the joys of science, died Tuesday. He was 89. Herbert, who had bone cancer, died at his suburban Bell Canyon home, said his son-in-law, Tom Nikosey.

"He really taught kids how to use the thinking skills of a scientist," said former colleague Steve Jacobs. He worked with Herbert on a 1980s show that echoed the original 1950s "Watch Mr. Wizard" series, which became a fond baby boomer memory.

In "Watch Mr. Wizard," which was produced from 1951 to 1964 and received a Peabody Award in 1954, Herbert turned TV into an entertaining classroom. On a simple, workshop-like set, he demonstrated experiments using household items.

"He modeled how to predict and measure and analyze. … The show today might seem slow but it was in-depth and forced you to think along," Jacobs said. "You were learning about the forces of nature."

Herbert encouraged children to duplicate experiments at home, said Jacobs, who recounted serving as a behind-the-scenes "science sidekick" to Herbert on the ’80s "Mr. Wizard’s World" that aired on the Nickelodeon channel.

When Jacobs would reach for beakers and flasks, Herbert would remind him that science didn’t require special tools.

"’You could use a mayonnaise jar for that,’" Jacobs recalled being chided by Herbert. "He tried to bust the image of scientists and that science wasn’t just for special people and places."

He modeled how to predict and measure and analyze…  Yes.  Just so.  He also modeled for adults, how to behave toward kids.  He never talked down to the kid by his side at the experiment table.  The assumption that they could understand the concepts he was teaching them was always a cheerful given.  Whatever he was showing the kid at any given time, the first thing was always that they could do it too.

If the kids on that 1950s through early 60s TV show seem a tad too squeaky clean for this day and age, consider how different the man looks compared to most adults you encounter now.  He was decent.  He treated kids with respect, not condescension.  And he understood that a kid’s instinctive curiosity is something an adult cultivates and trains and sharpens, not something you snuff out the moment it starts asking questions.  If we had more adults like that in the world now, we’d have more kids like those in the world now. 

Thank you Mr. Wizard, from a kid who used to watch you back in the day, and who later became a software engineer working on the Hubble Space Telescope project.

 

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Another Childhood Icon Passes

May 8th, 2007

A Star Too Big To Even Make A Black Hole

Wow…you actually can be too big to make a black hole…

In a cascade of superlatives that belies the traditional cerebral reserve of their profession, astronomers reported yesterday that they had seen the brightest and most powerful stellar explosion ever recorded.

The cataclysm — a monster more than a hundred times as energetic as the typical supernova in which the more massive stars end their lives — may be an example, they said, of a completely new type of explosion. Such a blast, proposed but never seen, would explain how the earliest and most massive stars in the universe ended their lives and strewed new elements across space to fertilize future stars and planets.

The star in question wasn’t on the fringe of what we can see, toward the beginning of time, but "only" about 240 million light years away. 

Astronomers have been following the star since last September, when it was discovered in a galaxy 240 million light-years away in the constellation Perseus. The discovery was made by Robert Quimby, a University of Texas graduate student, who was using a small robotic telescope at McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis, Tex., to troll for supernovas.

The star bears an eerie resemblance to Eta Carinae, a star in our own galaxy that has been burbling and bubbling in the last few centuries as if getting ready for its own outburst. The observations suggest that the troubled and enigmatic Eta Carinae, thought to weigh in at about 120 solar masses, could blow up sooner than theorists have thought. Mario Livio, a theorist at the Space Telescope Science Institute

Hey…I work there! 

…who was not involved in the research, said Eta Carinae’s death could be “the most spectacular star show in history.”

They are still haggling over what happened to cause such a massive blast, but they have an interesting idea.  The star was so big, that it created matter/antimatter pairs.  Specifically, electrons and positrons…

Supernovas come about in two basic ways: explosions of small stars about one and half times the mass of the Sun, which are known as white dwarfs and are uniform enough to serve as cosmological distance markers; and the collapse of the cores of more massive stars into black holes or neutron stars when their thermonuclear fuel has run out.

The astronomers first suspected that the supernova’s dramatic output was caused by the shock wave of a white dwarf exploding into a dense cloud of hydrogen. When observations with the Chandra X-ray Observatory failed to find enough X-rays to support that idea, the group was forced to consider an alternative: that the luminosity was produced by the decay of radioactive nickel. But to match the observations, the star would have had to produce 22 solar masses of radioactive nickel — way off scale for the core collapse model.

In desperation, the astronomers turned to a theory proposed nearly 40 years ago by Zalman Barkat of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and his colleagues. The intensity of radiation in the cores of supermassive stars could be so great, they said, that pairs of electrons and their antimatter opposites, positrons, would be created.

“That is bad news for the star,” Dr. Livio said, explaining that the disappearance of the radiation would sap the core’s energy and cause the star to collapse. But in this case the star still has plenty of fuel and blows up.

“The core is still composed of explosive oxygen,” explained another of the paper’s authors, J. Craig Wheeler of the University of Texas. “The oxygen ignites and blows the star to smithereens with no remnant, no black hole left.”

Too big to make a black hole…or anything else!  Damn.  It just blows itself apart.  Damn!

The thinking is that there were a lot of these super massive stars around back near the beginning of time.  The stars back then, they think, got really, really big.  But so big, they figured, that most of the heavier elements they made had to be trapped in the resulting black hole at the end of their lives.  And yet astronomers see a lot of heavy elements in the light from those distances.  A lot more of it then they’d expected to.  So something had to be seeding the early universe with it.  Maybe this is what was doing that.  Maybe there is an upper limit to how big a star can be in order to make a black hole, and maybe those early super massive stars at the beginning of time didn’t actually make any.  Instead they started making antimatter at some point and blew themselves apart before they’d even exhausted their fuel.

Some really neat animations of the explosion, one an artist’s conception of how the explosion took place, and the other from actual observations, first from the PAIRITEL telescope, then an infrared adaptive optics image from Lick Observatory, then Chandra imagery, over at the Chandra project Here

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on A Star Too Big To Even Make A Black Hole

March 19th, 2007

How An Artist Sees…

There’s a really interesting article up on Cognitive Daily that looks at the difference between how a trained psychologist looks at a scene, and how an artist does.  Here’s one comparison.  The yellow lines represent the eyes of two different viewers roving over the image…

I knew right away which one was which, because I know how my own eyes scan, and because I’ve actually talked this over with others like me who draw, but also photographers too.  The thing is, the human eye/brain system tends to lock straight on to what it determines is the import stuff.  That’s probably because natural selection enhances a critter’s ability to size up a situation quickly.  Even those of us with a creative, exploring turn of mind, when we’re just starting to learn to draw, or to do photography, need work at looking, really looking at…well…what we’re looking at…

Art teachers have noted that when beginning students attempt to draw accurate portraits, they tend to exaggerate the size of key features: eyes and mouths are too big relative to the size of the head. Trained artists learn to ignore these temptations and draw the world as it really appears. Even world-famous artists such as Leonardo da Vinci have had to resort to tricks such as looking at their subject through a divided pane of glass in order to render proportions accurately.

And it’s true.  Even now there are times I will try looking at my own drawings in in a mirror, when I’m not sure I’m getting it right.  But I’m convinced it’s not all a matter of training either.  This would be a good experiment to run on a group of children, and then follow them into adulthood to see which ones took up art as a pursuit, to see how differently their eyes explored the world before the training set in.  I’ll bet the training only enhances a tendency that is there to begin with, to rove over it all, absorbed, curious, fascinated.  I remember when I was a kid, I would be drawn to even the smallest details of any scene that held my interest.  The delicate colors in a sunset…or in the ripples on water, as in the photos above.  I’ll bet the way my eyes roved over that photo when I first looked at it a few moments ago, wasn’t all that different from how they would have looked at it when I was a kid.  The difference would only be experience.  Now I know why I’m doing it.  You can’t render what you’re not really seeing.  You have to look.  Deliberately look.  That’s the training.

But here’s the inner reflex: This is a beautiful world.  Look…look…there is more there then first greets the eye.  See?  It is richer then it first appears.  Look.  Look.

by Bruce | Link | React! (1)

January 10th, 2007

Ice On The Brain

"Everything you know is wrong" – The Firesign Theater

I’m looking through my server logs and I see a reference to my blog coming from a site I’d never seen before…Why the hell are you here?  Check out the Bad Science and Dead Racists tags for some good reading.  Anyway…I was looking around and I found a link to this…of all things…

The Geocentrism Challenge

CAI will write a check for $1,000 to the first person who can prove that the earth revolves around the sun. (If you lose, then we ask that you make a donation to the apostolate of CAI). Obviously, we at CAI don’t think anyone CAN prove it, and thus we can offer such a generous reward. In fact, we may up the ante in the near future.

Scripture is very clear that the earth is stationary and that the sun, moon and stars revolve around it. (By the way, in case you’re wondering, "flat-earthers" are not accepted here, since Scripture does not teach a flat earth, nor did the Fathers teach it).  [Bruce: Actually…I belong to the Flat Mars Society…]  If there was only one or two places where the Geocentric teaching appeared in Scripture, one might have the license to say that those passages were just incidental and really didn’t reflect the teaching of Scripture at large. But the fact is that Geocentrism permeates Scripture. Here are some of the more salient passages (Sirach 43:2-5; 43:9-10; 46:4; Psalm 19:5-7; 104:5; 104:19; 119:90; Ecclesiastes 1:5; 2 Kings 20:9-11; 2 Chronicles 32:24; Isaiah 38:7-8; Joshua 10:12-14; Judges 5:31; Job 9:7; Habakkuk 3:11; (1 Esdras 4:12); James 1:12). I could list many more, but I think these will suffice.

This was copied from a site called Catholic Apologetics International, and seems to have since been pulled from it, as the page they’ve linked to is no longer found.  But some digging around among the other links back at Why The Hell Are You Here? turned up this amazing little tidbit

The non-moving Earth 

& anti-evolution web page of

The Fair Education Foundation, Inc.

Exposing the False Science Idol of Evolutionism,
and Proving the Truthfulness of the Bible from Creation to Heaven…

–  since 1973 –

Marshall Hall, Pres.

Questions from Daniel Ott and his audience will be seeking hard evidence from me

which proves that the Earth is neither rotating on an axis nor orbiting the sun.

You won’t want to miss this unraveling of the granddaddy of all conspiracies, and

what the Truth about the Non-Moving Earth issue means to every living person.

 

This site doesn’t appear to be satire.  In case you’re wondering, they seem to be claiming that the stars we see in the sky at night are mostly reflections of sunlight off of ice crystals.  Which explains for me a reference that’s always puzzled me in Jacob Bronowski’s wonderful book Science and Human Values.  In Part 2, The Habit of Truth, Bronowski relates a story of how the great German scientist, Werner Heisenberg, was denounced by the S.S.  He mentions a letter Himmler wrote defending Heisenberg, and suggesting that Heisenberg might be useful in a Nazi Academy he was planning to establish, "which Himmler proposed to devote to the conviction which he either shared with or imposed on his scientific yes-men, that the stars are made of ice."

Why, I wondered, would a blood drenched Nazi lunatic want people to believe the stars were made of ice?  Well now I know.  It’s necessary for an earth centric model of the universe.  The universe just can’t be as huge as it is, and work in an earth centric model.  So it has to be much smaller.  Which means the stars can’t be so big, and so far away.  They have to be much smaller, and huddled around the earth like a halo.  So the stars must be a cloud of ice crystals, reflecting the light from the sun.  That was what Himmler was wanting to prove, so he could prove the earth centric model, so the Nazis could throw out mountains of science that existed, and which was the result of free inquiry.  That much of modern physics by that time had been done by European Jews was probably on his mind.  But science, regardless of who is doing it, is anathema to totalitarians, who exalt authority over free inquiry, and the Nazis, contrary to a lot of claptrap about their so-called paganism, time and time again appealed to the bible, and to their own brand of biblical fundamentalism for justification.

It’s incredible to find people so afraid of the world as it is, that they’ll shrink back from it into this kind of delusion.  Galileo blew this model apart when he took a telescope he made and pointed it at the heavens and saw with his own eyes that the earth centric model simply didn’t work, and Copernicus’ powerful insight had been right.  You can buy a pair of binoculars nowadays that are far better then anything Galileo had in his day.  But Bronowski, writing this time in his book The Ascent of Man, puts his finger on it…

Galileo seems to me to have been strangely innocent about the world of politics, and most innocent in thinking that he could outwit it because he was clever.  For twenty years and more he moved along a path that led inevitably to his condemnation.  It took a long time to undermine him, but there was never any doubt that Galileo would be silenced, because the division between him and those in authority was absolute.  They believed that faith should dominate; and Galileo believed that truth should persuade.

And there it is.  This is why the republicans and the Bush administration have been waging an unprecedented (for America) war against science and knowledge.  When people say that the rush back into religious fundamentalism comes from fear of change and apprehension about where science is leading us, that may well be true in part.  But it is not the whole.  This is a fight over who is in charge, and at the core of it is the struggle for free inquiry.  Does your life belong to you, or to some strongman dictator, to the man thumping his bible at you, to your local committee of some national authoritarian political party?  Every time you ask a question, you challenge authority.  That is what is wrong with asking questions.  That is why science must be brought to heal.  Because it sets a bad example.

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Ice On The Brain

December 29th, 2006

A Perfect…Er…Zero…

The BBC site has a really interesting little brain sex test you can take.  It ask you to answer a battery of tests on verbal and spacial ability, how well you can judge someone’s feelings by looking at just their eyes, asks you to measure your finger lengths, and so forth.  One test presents pairs of faces (you can choose between male or female) and asks you to select which face in each pair is the more attractive.  Another gives you a minute to study the objects in a drawing of many random objects, and then presents them again but with some of them moved around and gives you another minute to correctly identify which objects have changed position.

An interesting test.  So I took it…and hit the bull’s eye…

 

This is just my summary…there is a somewhat more detailed analysis after it, but I’m not sharing.  Suffice to say that while it gave me some surprises, the test also confirmed a bunch of things about the way my brain seems to work that I’d always suspected.  My finger ratios were close to the average male’s, but my verbal skills were closer to the average female’s.  My spot the difference score was lower then both male and female averages, but that might be because my short term memory is so weak and always has been.  My empathy score was actually two points above the average response of women, yet I systematize way more then the average male. Oh…and I tend to prefer a feminine face over a masculine one.  Mind you, I asked the test to test me on guys, not gals.  Everyone who knows me from way back when would have a good laugh over that one.  I’ve been asked point blank by friends (gay and straight) based on the males I find attractive, if I am really gay.  Yes…I am. 

In the next installment of A Coming Out Story, I’ll start getting into the left brain/right brain struggle that’s been pretty central to much of my life.  It’s…something of a relief to see that I haven’t been just imagining it all these years. 

Left Brain/Right Brain

 

You can take the BBC Brain Sex Test Here

 

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on A Perfect…Er…Zero…

December 19th, 2006

There’s Knowing…And Then There’s Not Wanting You To Know Too…

There is natural ignorance and there is artificial ignorance. I should say at the present moment the artificial ignorance is about eighty-five per cent.  -Ezra Pound

Via the Log Cabin Republicans (yes…I know…) A little bit of shear brilliance from Chandler Burr:

The raging debate about gay rights ultimately turns on one simple question.  And, bizarrely, the fact that answering this question will put a definitive end to the national battle over gay rights is almost completely unknown, not only in America in general, but among gay people as well. At its core, the answer to this question is the only one that matters, the one that determines the most appropriate public policy course, and the one that will win the political struggle over gay rights: Is homosexuality a lifestyle choice or is homosexuality an inborn biological trait?  Put another way, does someone choose to be gay or are they just born that way?  You may be surprised to find out that we already know the answer to this question. In fact, surprising as it may be, we’ve known the answer for several decades.

I disagree that this is the only question that matters.  But never mind.  The brilliance I’m referring to here, isn’t in Burr’s framing of the question, but of his framing of the answer.  We’ve known the answer for several decades.  Yes.  Just so.  If the question is a pitch by the religious right, then Burr smacks it clear out of the ballpark with this…

A bit of Biology 101: For every human trait they study, clinicians and biologists assemble what’s called a "trait profile," the sum total of all the data they have gathered clinically (clinical research basically means research done through 1. questions and 2. empirical observation to answer the questions) about a trait. Researchers gather groups of subjects from different areas of the world, question them about their trait, observe the trait in them, and record the data. The various aspects of the trait are precisely described: gradations and variations in eye color are assessed, eye color’s correlation or lack thereof with gender, geography, race, or age is noted, scientists observe the way eye color is passed down through generations—all of which are clues as to whether or not eye color is a biological trait. The data are summarized in papers and charts and published in the scientific literature. That, in sum, makes up the trait profile.

Here is the profile of a trait on which clinical research has been done for decades. It is taken from the published scientific literature. The trait should be rather obvious:

1) This human trait is referred to by biologists as a "stable bimorphism"— it shows up in all human populations as two orientations— expressed behaviorally.

2) The data clinicians have gathered says that around 92% of the population has the majority orientation, 8% has the minority orientation.

3) Evidence from art history suggests the incidence of the two different orientations has been constant for five millennia.

4) The trait has no external physical, bodily signs.  That means you can’t tell a person’s orientation by looking at them. And the minority orientation appears in all races and ethnic groups.

5) Since the trait itself is internal and invisible, the only way to identify an orientation is by observing the behavior or the reflex that expresses it. However—and this is crucial—

6) –because the trait itself is not a "behavior" but an internal, invisible orientation, those with the minority orientation can hide, usually due to coercion or social pressure, by behaving as if they had the majority orientation. Several decades ago, those with the minority orientation were frequently forced to behave as if they had the majority orientation— but internally the orientation remained the same and as social pressures have lifted, people with the minority orientation have been able to openly express it.

7) Clinical observation makes it clear that neither orientation of this trait is a disease or mental illness. Neither is pathological in any observable way.

8) Neither orientation is chosen.

9) Signs of one’s orientation are detectable very early in children, often, researchers have established, by age two or three. And one’s orientation probably has been defined at the latest by age two, and quite possibly before birth.

These data indicated that the trait was biological, not social, in origin, so the clinicians systematically asked more questions. And these started revealing the genetic plans that lay underneath the trait:

10) Adoption studies show that the orientation of adopted children is unrelated to the orientation of their parents, demonstrating that the trait is not created by upbringing or society.

11) Twin studies show that pairs of identical twins, with their identical genes, have a higher-than-average chance of sharing the same orientation compared to pairs of randomly selected individuals; the average rate of this trait in any given population— it’s called the "background rate"—is just under 8%, while the twin rate is just above 12%, more than 50% higher.

12) This trait’s incidence of the minority orientation is strikingly higher in the male population— about 27% higher—than it is in the female population. Many genetic diseases, for reasons we now understand pretty well, are higher in men than women.

13) Like the trait called eye color, the familial studies conducted by scientists show that the minority orientation clearly "runs in families," handed down from parent to child.

14) This pattern shows a "maternal effect," a classic telltale of a genetic trait. The minority orientation, when it is expressed in men, appears to be passed down through the mother.

Put all this data together, and you’ve created the trait profile. The trait just described is, of course, handedness.

Yes.  What we’re all seeing with regard to human sexual orientation, is nothing new or surprising.  Burr compares the two traits, handedness and sexual orientation side-by-side and the likenesses are striking, as is the obvious conclusion.  We already know this…  I entered first grade back in 1959.  I remember vividly the sight of a classmate having his left arm tied down to his side by the teachers (two of them).  The boy’s parents had asked them to do that, if they saw the boy using his left hand to write or draw with.  The thinking being that if you just forced a kid to use their right hand, they would eventually grow out of using their left.  That was 1959.  You may notice that they’re not doing that to left handed kids anymore.  But there was a time when left-handedness was considered a mark of the devil.

It’s an image that has stuck in my mind ever since, and all the more so after I began my own process of coming to grips with my sexual orientation.  I’m gay.  You can pressure me into acting against it…teach me one lie after another about homosexuality, make me come to fear and loath my sexual nature so much I might never touch another male with desire without experiencing waves of guilt and self hatred and fear.  You can pass one law after another, penalizing and even criminalizing same sex relationships…in effect tying that part of me down.  And yet I am still gay.  The idea that you can make me not-gay by tying that part of me down is false.  You can no more make me not-gay then you can make me left handed by tying down my right arm.  That model of sexual orientation, as a learned or adaptive behavior is wrong.  It isn’t like that.  Neither was handedness.  But…we know that.

We’ve known the answer for several decades…  Burr, and many other people of good conscience, need to look at that simple fact.  I mean…really look at it.  Ironically, Burr gives it a glancing shot here:

Behavior isn’t sexual orientation, and the difference between behavior and orientation is as obvious as lying: When you tell a lie, you know perfectly well what the truth is inside…

And so do people like James Dobson, and all the others of his kind in the religious right, who routinely lie about the work of real scientists in order to incite anti-gay passions.  Because inciting anti-gay passions translates into money in the collection plate, and votes at the polls, and tens of thousands of obediant followers who jump whenever you tell them to…and more importantly, bend their knees.  You can’t distort the science the way the leaders of the religious right are, without knowing that you’re distorting it.  That’s lying.  And when you lie, you know you’re doing it.  They Know.

This is where Burr, and others, chiefly honest men and women of science and other civilized people, get it wrong.   Yes, facts matter, because ultimately you cannot fool nature.  But this isn’t a matter of convincing the opposition that they’re wrong.  They know they’re wrong, or they wouldn’t be lying.  The only question that matters isn’t whether sexual orientation is chosen or not, it’s whether the people who still insist that it is, have a conscience or not.  Because if they don’t have one, then appealing to it is utterly futile.

But…you should go read the rest of Burr’s piece.  For the shear pleasure of watching him smack the ball out of the park.  For the next time next time someone like Dobson goes babbling on about homosexuality and choice, so you can see with sickening clarity what a moral runt they are.  We don’t force right handedness on left handed kids because we know how damaging that is to them.  It’s damaging to gay kids too.  Profoundly so.  And yes…the religious right knows that too.  They’ve known for several decades.

by Bruce | Link | React! (2)

December 14th, 2006

Sunquake

Via Slashdot.  Wow…  Just…wow…

Tsunamis this large don’t happen on Earth. One week ago, a large solar flare from an Earth-sized sunspot produced a tsunami-type shock wave that was spectacular even for the Sun. Pictured above, the tsunami wave was captured moving out from active region AR 10930 by the Optical Solar Patrol Network (OSPAN) telescope in New Mexico, USA. The resulting shock wave, known technically as a Moreton wave, compressed and heated up gasses including hydrogen in the photosphere of the Sun, causing a momentarily brighter glow. The above image was taken in a very specific red color emitted exclusively by hydrogen gas. The rampaging tsunami took out some active filaments on the Sun, although many re-established themselves later. The solar tsunami spread at nearly one million kilometers per hour, and circled the entire Sun in a matter of minutes.

There is an absolutely amazing set of sequential images of this shock wave travelling across the surface of the sun on the NASA website: Here

Took out some active filaments on the sun… (!!!)  Some of those filaments are massively larger in diameter then the planet whose air you’re breathing right now.

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Sunquake

November 2nd, 2006

The Unconscious Self

Via Ex-Gay Watch…  University of Minnesota researchers used a technology to embed images on computer screens that were, in a sense, hidden or more properly, camouflaged, to see how their subjects subconsciously responded to them.  What makes this study particularly interesting is that some of the "hidden" images were of naked human bodies…male and female…and their subjects not only included heterosexual men and women, but homosexual men and women too

Nothing focuses the mind’s eye like an erotic picture, according to the results of a new study. Even when such pictures were actively canceled out, subliminal images of female nudes helped heterosexual men find the orientation of a briefly shown abstract shape. Such nudity-driven focusing worked almost as well for women, as long as the image accorded with their sexual preference.

Cognitive neuroscientist Sheng He of the University of Minnesota and his colleagues gathered groups of heterosexual men, heterosexual women, homosexual men and bisexual women numbering 10 each. Each viewed special images pointed directly at each individual eye. The researchers could cancel out vision of one eye’s image by presenting a specific high contrast image to the other eye. Such an image, called a Gabor patch, consists of a series of contrasting lines that form an abstract–and visually arresting–shape. "Normally, the two eyes look at the same image. They don’t have any conflict," he explains. "We create a situation where the two eyes are presented with two images, and then they will have binocular competition. One image is high contrast [and dynamic], the other is static. You basically just see the dynamic image."

Into the canceled out image slot, the researchers slipped an erotic image; for example, a naked woman displayed for a heterosexual man. To ensure that subjects did not consciously detect the invisible image, they were asked to press a specific key if they noticed any difference between the left and right images. Over the course of 32 trials, men were significantly better at detecting the orientation of Gabor patches when they appeared in the slot formerly occupied by an invisible image of a nude woman.

The heterosexual men, however, had a more difficult time detecting the same orientation when it was located where an invisible picture of a nude man had been; this was not the case for heterosexual women when viewing their own sex naked. And the homosexual men’s response was similar to that of the heterosexual women, as were the bisexual women’s and heterosexual men’s.

(Emphasis mine).  Mind you, they couldn’t see the images enough to process them consciously.  But at a level below consciousness something was clearly clicking in the subjects.  And it clicked differently for the gay subjects

Now isn’t that interesting.  The research wasn’t into sexual orientation, but to uncover the subconscious mechanisms the brain uses to processes visual information.  More here from Science Daily

When subjects become conscious of images, the sequence of steps in brain processing becomes very complicated because neurons engage in all sorts of feedback and crosstalk–especially with emotionally charged information. The researchers were studying the flow of visual information at an earlier stage, while it is still traveling along a one-way path.

"We’re trying to reveal what happens when one doesn’t have a conscious visual perception. That is, how the brain processes visual information independent of consciousness," said He.

The researchers chose to generate brain activity by using erotic pictures because they promised to elicit strong responses and clear patterns in the data. But the researchers believe the mechanisms by which the brain processes such images are universal.

"This definitely doesn’t just work for erotic pictures," said He. "But erotic images stand out in terms of potency to generate a response."

Which makes sense considering how ancient and powerful the sex drive is.  And this also makes sense…

The strongest shift in attention toward the area where the image had been was in heterosexual men who had been shown nude female images. Those subjects also tended to be repelled by nude male images. Among heterosexual women, nude male images induced a less strong attention shift toward the image site but no significant shift in response to nude female pictures. Gay men behaved similarly to heterosexual women, and gay/bisexual women performed in between heterosexual men and women.

The divergent results among the groups of study subjects provide evidence that the subjects’ brains were processing the visual information in a selective manner.

It also pretty well shows, once more, that sexual orientation isn’t a matter of conscious choice, or even self identification, as some in the kook pews keep insisting.  Gay or Straight, you are drawn to the attractive sex in ways your conscious mind plays only a supporting roll in.  In computergeek speak…it’s down in the kernel.  We are drawn to the sex we are hard wired to mate with, and for some of us, that is the same sex as we ourselves are.  It isn’t Godlessness.  It isn’t rebellion.  It isn’t sexual immorality.  It is simply the way some of us are.  We mate to our own sex, because that is how we are made…

Now…I wonder how all those folks at Exodus and Love In Action…who claim to have been cured of their homosexuality, would fare on this test, were it given to them.  I propose an experiment along those lines, but with a mixture of images of nude bodies and random other objects that might also provoke a strong emotional response…so they couldn’t game their responses.

Run the experiment with three groups of men…straight, gay and ex-gay men who are absolutely convinced, or at least say they are, that not only their behavior but their sexual interests have changed.  The person administering the test cannot know if they are testing a straight man, a gay man, or an ex-gay man.  The person evaluating the results doesn’t know who administered the test.  We can start with all those ex-gays that Spitzer claims have changed. 

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on The Unconscious Self

September 19th, 2006

Ten Percent

Kinsey never said that ten percent of the male population is gay.  What he did was construct a range from the behavior of his subjects, the Kinsey scale, which went from zero, which was exclusive heterosexuality, to six, which was exclusive homosexuality.  It was only later, as gay people began to fight against oppression, that the data for 5s and 6s were combined to come up with a figure of ten percent.  Kinsey never said it, but when you looked at it that way it was a figure that made sense to throw out there.  Ten percent of the male population is exclusively homosexual, or nearly so.

It’s a figure that the kook pews have challenged ever since, because it is in their interest to claim that we are a tiny, insignificant, worthless part of the human family.  Except when we’re the vast conspiracy of militant homosexuality that controls the news media, Hollywood, liberal churches and the democratic party.  Then we’re a looming menace.  But a looming menace mind you, that only amounts to 1, or maybe 2 percent of the human family at most.

Perhaps they need to rethink that…

Almost one in 10 straight men on the `down-low,’ study finds

PHILADELPHIA – Almost 10 percent of men who say they’re straight also happen to be having sex with men, according to a new study, one of the largest ever to specifically address "down-low" behavior.

The study, based out of New York City, found that most of the down-low men did not use condoms and that 70 percent were married. Researchers said they hoped their report would change the way doctors asked patients about their sexual behavior.

"Everyone talks about it, but it’s the first time I’ve seen data on this issue," said Thomas J. Coates, a psychologist who specializes in sexual behavior at the University of California at Los Angeles. Even so, he said the numbers were probably low estimates.

"It’s probably above this, because it’s hard to get people to admit to this kind of behavior."

What’s really interesting about Kinsey’s figures is how well they’ve withstood the test of time, considering what it was he actually looked at.  All he studied was the behavior of his subjects over a three year period.  But why three?  Why not just one?  Why not five?  It’s like Mendel and his damn beans.  Mendel was the monk who did that now famous experiment in which he showed how traits are inherited.  For his subjects, he used a bean plant, and he tested for seven characteristics.  And as it turns out, seven is the most you can cleanly test for, without getting some cross linkage on the genes, because the bean plant only has seven genes.  But Mendel knew nothing of genes.  As Jacob Bronowski once put it, you can be elected abbot of your monastery, you can even be elected pope, but you can’t have that luck.  Mendel had obviously done some background work with his beans prior to his experiment, which told him which traits he could test for.  Kinsey had to have done something similar, that told him three years of sexual history was all he needed to know about his subjects, to have a good idea of the whole.

Clearly, the stigma surrounding homosexuality is still strong here in America, and in particular in minority communities.  While many of us are now able to live lives out and proud, many cannot.  The religious right would like to bring the stigma back down on all of us in the name of righteousness and morality.  But the human identity isn’t a blackboard anyone can scribble their will upon.  Homosexuality they say, brings only disease and pain and suffering.  No.  Shame does.  Here is what shame buys you.

"We found that those who identified as straight but had sex with men were also less likely to be HIV tested within the last year and less likely to use a condom," than men who said they were gay, said Preeti Pathela, a research scientist at the department.

Pride has the power to lift us out of the gutter of self abuse and self destructiveness.  And that is why the religious right hates gay pride.  In the relentless logic of knuckle dragging fundamentalism, if we’re not bleeding, they’re not righteous.

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Ten Percent

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