Monday, January 28, 2008

Stubbonrness is in the Genes

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig think they may have found a genetic basis for "stubbornness." A single genetic mutation, called the A1 mutation, is apparently found in approximately one-third of the the population.

The biochemical theory behind this mutation is that it reduces the amount of dopamine receptors in the brain. Dopamine plays a key role in the learning process, the feeling of pleasure, and in motivation and reward. "Motivation and reward" in this case is interpreted as "learning to repeat behaviors that maximize rewards."

The scientists tested a group of 26 men, asking them to select one of two symbols. Each selection was followed by positive (smiley face) or negative (frowny face) feedback. Brain imaging, which was being conducted while the men took the test, showed that the group of men carrying the A1 mutation had diminished neurological activity in the posterior medial frontal cortex, an area of the brain involved in monitoring errors.

As a casual observer of obvious phenomenon, I cannot help but wonder if the A1 mutation has a similarity to one of the more famously documented X-linked mutations -- hemophilia. Without another un-mutated X chromosome as a buffer against stupidity, the male gets the full brunt of the A1 mutation.

Compare the chart on the left with the family tree of George Walker Bush. It could explain how a profound case of diminished neurological activity could manifest itself itself in our current president, yet be relatively benign in his brother, Jeb Bush.

GW's mother, Barbara, is doubtlessly a carrier. Her mother, Pauline Robinson, died when her father's car slammed into a stone while while he was supposedly trying to stop a cup of coffee from sliding about (she was a passenger in the car, and not in front of the stone wall). While this isn't the legendary mushroom cloud for stubbornness, it could be construed as a smoking gun for diminished neurological activity.

I'll need to further investigate this matter.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Bright Lights, Big Sneezes

I've read about the photic sneeze reflex before -- it is something that I am very familiar with. Now Scientific American has weighed in with their article, Looking at the Sun Can Trigger a Sneeze. They're telling me that I have my wiring crossed:
A sneeze is usually triggered by an irritation in the nose, which is sensed by the trigeminal nerve, a cranial nerve responsible for facial sensation and motor control. This nerve is in close proximity to the optic nerve, which senses, for example, a sudden flood of light entering the retina. As the optic nerve fires to signal the brain to constrict the pupils, the theory goes, some of the electrical signal is sensed by the trigeminal nerve and mistaken by the brain as an irritant in the nose. Hence, a sneeze.

I believe this. The effect of sunlight does feel like an irritation in my nose. According to the article, 10 to 35 percent of the population are photic sneezers. It is said to be an autosomal-dominant trait that can be inherited from either parent.

The article hints that it's an embarrassing trait. Perhaps. It's also terrifying at times. Imagine being in fast, heavy traffic and having a violent, seven-sneeze fit. :-(

Autosomal-dominant Compelling Helio-Ophthalmic Outburst syndrome, or, ACHOO!

Subordinate science and reason to faith

Nobody wants the Inquisition!

Pope Benedict XVI, a.k.a. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, is not a wanted man in Italy.

Sixty-seven professors and researchers at Rome's La Sapienza university's physics department, as well as (free) radical students, joined in the call for the pope to stay away on Thursday, the start of the university's academic year. They fault the intellectual, conservative and tradition-minded pope for a series of positions he has taken that they say "subordinate science and reason to faith."

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi condemned the professors and students for "intolerance" towards the pontiff, who has said that Galileo had it coming: "The concrete consequences of the turning point Galileo represents... a very direct path that leads from Galileo to the atomic bomb."

“Once the relativity of movement is taken for granted, an ancient human and Christian system of reference has no right to interference in astronomic calculations and their heliocentric simplification; however, it has the right to remain faithful to its method of preserving the earth in relation to human dignity, and to order the world with regard to what will happen and what has happened in the world.”
I'm not sure how this bit of enlightenment jibes with the words of papal legate Arnaud-Amaury, Abbot of CĂ®teaux, who learnedly counseled “Kill them all, the Lord will recognise His own.”

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Vinyl Solution

I was amazed to read a article, Vinyl Gets Its Groove Back, by Kristina Dell. It says that LP record albums are making a bit of a comeback, with one company,Warner Music Group, showing a 30% increase in LP sales last year.

The article cites three primary reasons: sound quality, extra material, and socializing.

Sound quality -- LPs generally exhibit a warmer, more nuanced sound than CDs and digital downloads. MP3 files tend to produce tinnier notes, especially if compressed into a lower-resolution format that pares down the sonic information. "Most things sound better on vinyl, even with the crackles and pops and hisses," says MacRunnel, the young Missouri record collector.

Album extras -- Large album covers with imaginative graphics, pullout photos (some even have full-size posters tucked in the sleeve) and liner notes are a big draw for young fans. "Alternative rock used to have 16-page booklets and album sleeves, but with iTunes there isn't anything collectible to show I own a piece of this artist," says Dreese of Newbury Comics. In a nod to modern technology, albums known as picture discs come with an image of the band or artist printed on the vinyl. "People who are used to CDs see the artwork and the colored vinyl, and they think it's really cool," says Jordan Yates, 15, a Nashville-based vinyl enthusiast. Some LP releases even come with bonus tracks not on the CD version, giving customers added value.

Social experience -- Crowding around a record player to listen to a new album with friends, discussing the foldout photos, even getting up to flip over a record makes vinyl a more socially interactive way to enjoy music. "As far as a communal experience, like with family and friends, it feels better to listen to vinyl," says Jason Bini, 24, a recent graduate of Fordham University. "It's definitely more social."

The sound quality issue is a bit odd. A pristine record may sound wonderful, but the majority of goods you'll get used are going to be damaged goods -- dirty, scratchy records.

Now maybe it's my imagination, but I do think there's something to the "superior" sound argument on a clean record. I've been running my LPs through a stereo pre-amp to my PC's soundcard and then processing the files with some software. With the record noise removed, the raw files do have a richer, warmer sound to them.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The FBI's Prodigious Ineptitude & Other Snarks

If I were snark hunting, I think I might have stumbled upon the national breeding ground and sanctuary.

Its location is in an Ars Technical piece, Unpaid bills lead phone companies to hang up on FBI wiretaps, by Ryan Paul.

According to a recent report by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), it seems that telephone companies have terminated FBI wiretaps and FBI surveillance lines because of chronically unpaid bills.

The OIG summary says that "late payments have resulted in telecommunications carriers actually disconnecting phone lines established to deliver surveillance results to the FBI, resulting in lost evidence including an instance where delivery of intercept information required by a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) order was halted due to untimely payment."

The FBI says that this did not significantly affect any of the cases. No doubt they were what the intelligence community calls "slam-dunks."

Here's a particularly fetching snark:

During the recent controversy over whether or not the phone companies should be granted retroactive immunity for their involvement in potentially illegal government surveillance, the Bush administration insisted that phone companies should not be punished for their patriotic cooperation in antiterrorism activities. Apparently that patriotism only lasts as long as the government can afford to foot the bill.

Ah, but don't stop here, dear reader. There be snark signs the likes of which god has not seen throughout this article.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Hoping They Will Take Debate

"As you watched the scores of U.S. Presidential debates, did you ever wonder why there has been no debate devoted to policy surrounding what may be the most important social issue of our time: Science and Technology?"
Well, the folks at Sciencedebate2008 did, and they're trying to do something about it. Here are the topics they'd like to see addressed:

The Environment

  • Climate Change
  • Conservation and Species Loss
  • The Future of The Oceans
  • Fresh Water: Drought, Pollution, Ownership
  • Population Growth and Its Effect on Environment
  • Renewable Energy Research

Health and Medicine

  • Global Diseases and Pandemics
  • Stem Cell Research
  • Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria
  • Drug Patents, Generic Drugs
  • The Genome
  • Bioethics

Science and Technology Policy

  • Scientific Innovation and Economic Growth
  • Improving Science Education
  • Space Exploration
  • Preserving Scientific Integrity in Government
  • Energy Policy
Signatories for this project compose an impressive selection of laureates; government leaders; organization leaders; college and university presidents, deans and directors; leading scientists; and other thought leaders.

What will come of all of this? Will we really see such a debate? Ah, hope springs eternal. Realistically, however, I figure there would be a better probability we'll see an ecclesiastical debate.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Wanted, Dead and (Alive)

Chinese inspectors: "Enough is enough! I have had it with these motherfucking mice on this motherfucking plane!"

On a United Airlines flight to Beijing, Chinese inspectors found "Eight mice, dead and (alive), ... hidden in pillows."

The report prompted an "emergency team" to rush to the aircraft, Xinhua said, to "put rat poison and mouse traps at every possible corner on the aircraft, including the cockpit."

I suppose biological control in the form of rodent-eating snakes will be out of the question.

Perhaps one of the reasons that I'm amused by all of this is because someone has just pointed me to a site that has frame grabs of a Chinese version of a recent Star Wars film. Sub-titles are in Engrish. One cannot convey in a few words the inscrutable humor of Darth Vader saying "Do Not Want!" when he is actually shouting, "Nooooooooooooo..."

Friday, January 4, 2008

They have had it with these motherfu**ng lithium batteries

With the safety and inconvenience of air travelers in mind, the Transportation Safety Administration kicked off the new year with a ban on spare lithium batteries on a plane. Could this be another movie spin-off for Samuel L. Jackson? I just can picture his character, Neville Flynn, saying "Enough is enough! I have had it with these motherfucking lithium batteries on this motherfucking plane!"

The good news is that if you want to try to blow up the plane with your installed laptop battery, you're good to go.

BTW: It won't be long before the batteries come rolling in. Be sure to check eBay regularly for battery bargain madness.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Dearth of High Fidelity

Robert Levine's Rolling Stone magazine online article, The Death of High Fidelity, is another good example of how music quality is diminishing in the age of MP3s. Citing This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession:
Human brains have evolved to pay particular attention to loud noises, so compressed sounds initially seem more exciting. But the effect doesn't last. "The excitement in music comes from variation in rhythm, timbre, pitch and loudness," Levitin says. "If you hold one of those constant, it can seem monotonous." After a few minutes, research shows, constant loudness grows fatiguing to the brain. Though few listeners realize this consciously, many feel an urge to skip to another song.
It's sad to read that "newly re-mastered" music, such as Led Zeppelin's recent "Mothership" collection has been subjected to this form of audio compression. Not everything "new" is better. Here we're getting margarine for the ears.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

When Everyone is a Criminal

According to a December 30 article in, record industry goon squads are now going after people who make single, personal-use copies of music that they have legally purchased on CD. The case is against Jeffrey Howell, a Scottsdale, Ariz., man who had a collection of approximately 2,000 music files on his personal computer.

As the article says, some of the legal grounds are murky. Court rulings in the past have "found no violation of copyright laws in the use of VCRs and other devices to time-shift TV programs," i.e., making personal copies for the purpose of making portable a legally obtained recording. Musically speaking, this practice goes way back to recording audio cassette backups of LP records. By these criteria, everyone is a pirate. Arrgh!(TM)

Recording industry shills smugly point out that "there are consequences for breaking the law" -- even if that law was written by and paid for by the recording industry itself. There is a long history of stupid, immoral laws being on the books. If ever there were a situation to warrant jury nullification, this would certainly be one of them.

Update 1/3/08: Cnet's reports that this story might be bogus. Washington Post, however, is sticking to the story.