Thursday, September 28, 2006

Project Completion!!

I succeeded in getting a lavender seed to germinate! It's doing well in a styrofoam cup that I cut the top off and punched a hole in the bottom to promote drainage. I also have a cup full of snapdragon seedlings and one with an unidentifiable seedling that I think will become one of the "dollar weed plants" I wrote about earlier. Now that I know I can germinate seeds and keep them alive I'll wait until spring to start the others. I'm very excited about the lavender - it's a different species than the mature one I have growing in the back yard. The snapdragons will be wonderful too; I have seeds for a variety of flower colors - deep burgundy, pink, white, orange with yelllow, pink with white, and pink with yellow. The front yard sprouted a yellow snapdragon two weeks ago. I didn't plant it. Its origin remained a mystery until I noticed my neighbor three houses down had a small patch of them. I think it's impressive that a tiny seed can be blown that far and actually take root. I'll collect its seeds soon so I'll have yet another color to add to my library for spring germination. The scrawny yellowish brown plant in the stryofoam is an african violet that my book said could be rooted from a cutting so I'm trying that experiment too.

The photo also shows my seedlings and a pod from a trumpet vine. A stand of them grows a few blocks from our house so I pulled off a few pods one day. They're ripening in the kitchen. They produce fast growing vines with pretty orange flowers that attract hummingbirds. The other photo on the right shows a couple of the other plants I'm trying to "root" from cuttings. The twigs are wisteria cuttings. My gardening book and the internet suggested that cuttings from a parent plant will grow roots if the fresh cutting is dipped in "rooting hormone" and then sunk into soil or vermiculite. I followed the directions so we'll see in about a month whether it worked. If so, the cuttings can be grown inside until spring and then transplanted. Wisteria produces flowers off the previous season's buds so I made sure to take cuttings with visible new buds. Cuttings are supposedly the quickest way to propagate a wisteria that will actually flower in the spring. I have seed pods too but the gardening gurus say that route will take at least a decade before the plant blooms.

I also finally bumped off my sewing project! Since we moved in I have made curtains for every room of our house except one. I finished the bedroom curtains a while ago and finally used the excess fabric to make matching pillows and shams for the bed. The shams were intended to be just like the kind of thing you might see in a Pottery Barn catalog. I didn't follow a pattern for any of this stuff, so the shams look a little odd. I had to stuff the black border to make it look decent - they were supposed to be two dimensional flaps ringing the pilllow but they looked b.a.d. when I turned the finished product inside out to take a look. I cried so hard from the laughter when I saw them. They really looked terrible. I showed them to my very understanding husband who laughed at how hard I was laughing at myself and my Frankenstein pillow shams. To solve the problem, I just stuffed the flaps with a little batting. They look much, much better now. I should have taken a photo of the shams before the fix. I like how the other pillows turned out too.

The photo to the left shows some cloth baskets I made to store odd and ends like my glasses and whatever book or magazine I might want to read before going to sleep. Like the pillows, the concept comes straight out of a Pottery Barn catalog. I didn't like the colors or the price they offered so I used the left over curtain/pillow fabric to make them. They will hang off of wood dowels on the wall next to the bed and window. I didn't follow a pattern for these either; I just winged it based on the image I saw in the catalogue (see right). The hardest part was making sure the stiches matched up on the sides and top. It became a carpentry project and even a plumbing project in the sense that for some of the pinning I couldn't see what I was doing. I had to feel around for the previous seam to judge the distance from the black border to the bottom of the bag. I figure I'll cut a rectangular piece of cardboard for the bottom to keep it stiff and tidy. It should look something like the picture to the side (the Pottery Barn version).

Last but not least I discovered a really cool line of stuffed animals (birds) that produce the song of the bird they represent when squeezed. The National Audubon Society produces them in conjuction with the Wild Republic company that makes a few of the monkeys I have. The stuffed monkeys bear a close similarity to the actual species they represent; the bird line is even more impressive. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology provided the song recordings. These bird toys strike me as an excellent way to train a child's ear so s/he'll be able to recognize the calls out in the field. It was difficult to choose which one to get so I purchased two with the neatest songs: the purple martin and the wood thrush, neither of which is on my 'life list.' The pamphlets stapled to their wings provides a biographical sketch of the species (in English and French) and shows its North American range. It also illustrates a few of the other species that can be collected. I think they're really neat. I found out the purple martin is called l'hirondelle noire (black martin) in French. The wood thrush is la grive des bois. Now that I think of it, I have seen the purple martin - many years ago near the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in south Florida. The photo shows the scissor tailed flycatcher the company makes. Perhaps Wild Republic can team up with the University of Wisconsin Primate Library to make voices for their line of monkeys. Now that would really be cool!

Monday, September 25, 2006

Looking Good!

I've got a lot of things to celebrate this morning - they are relatively minor in the grand scheme of things - but nevertheless comment worthy!

First off, the TSA finally lifted its assinine ban on toiletries and cosmetics. Given that I've got at least 4 plane flights scheduled in the next nine months (far more than usual!) AND I am proud to have never checked any luggage on any flight (see my clever packing advice for avoiding checked luggage here), I am really relieved that I don't have to buy a suitcase just so that I can check through three items.

Second, my data collection is going very well. I am so close to having all of the participants I need. In the last 9 days, I had seven more cells fill up and now I only need about 50 more men to participate. Whooo hooo! My research also got approved for use at Cal Poly so that should hopefully generate the responses I need to be done.

Finally, I bumped off part of my sewing project and am well on my way to being totally finished with it. My sweet Guy With Gills will soon here me say "Yes!!!" to his nearly daily querries about whether he can pack up and move the sewing machine off the dining room table. We've got guests coming this weekend (my ten year college reunion!) so that provides the extra motivation I need to finish it.

Oh yeah - one last thing - I have decided to give the two second authors guys a go thanks to all of your helpful comments. It is better to have pubs than none at all.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Random Animal News

Battle of the Hermaphrodites

Anybody who's ever mused that the world would be better if men got pregnant needs to talk to Nico Michiels. And so does anybody who's asked-or sung-"Why can't a woman be more like a man?" Michiels has seen that world, or at least a version of it, and he's even got pictures to show. It's not pretty, he says.
Many snails, slugs, and worms are so-called internally fertilizing, simultaneous hermaphrodites. In any encounter, such creatures can deliver sperm, receive it for fertilizing eggs internally, or do both.
Michiels, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany, offers the striking example of hermaphroditic polyclad flatworms called Pseudobiceros bedfordi.

When two of these small, speckled sea worms meet to mate, there's no taking turns. Each worm, 2 to 6 centimeters long, wields its pair of side-by-side penises like a weapon. One worm tries to fertilize the other by ejaculating anywhere on its partner's body, splashing it with sperm in a cocktail that dissolves flesh. After the brew eats a hole through the skin, the sperm work their way through various tissues until they reach the eggs.

... Read more!

lephant Crop Raids Foiled by Chili Peppers, Africa Project Finds

Conflicts between farmers and elephants have long been widespread in Africa, where pachyderms nightly destroy crops, raid grain houses, and sometimes kill people.

Now farmers are fighting back with an unlikely weapon: chili peppers.

Read more.
It makes sense to harness the power of the principles of behaviorism.

Humpback Whale Calls Are Love Songs, Biologist Suggests

Even among whales, it seems, the best singers get the girls.

Joshua Smith, a doctoral student at the University of Queensland in St. Lucia, Australia, has spent three migration seasons collecting the songs of humpback whales.

Read more.

Flying sex pest silences the crickets

What do you do when your only means of attracting members of the opposite sex also puts your life in jeopardy? For field crickets on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, shutting up seems to work.

According to a new study, rapid evolution in the Kauain population of the oceanic field cricket Teleogryllus oceanicus has rendered nine-tenths of the males there incapable of producing their iconic night-time call. The genetic mutation, which changes the shape of the male's wing to make it silent, means the crickets are better adapted to avoid a deadly parasite.

The finding dumbfounded biologist Marlene Zuk, at the University of California in Riverside, US, who first thought the dwindling population of crickets she was studying had gone extinct when she no longer heard their calls.

"If you're a cricket and you're a male, your life is defined by calling," Zuk explains. "How are you going to find a female, and once you do, how are you going to get her to mate with you without your call?"

Read more.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

PhD Student Rant #2

Grrrr. I feel academically isolated and in a hopeless situation.

Why am I academically isolated? My contract ran out at the college I taught at last year and it was not renewed. Not a surprise there - I don't have a terminal degree. I didn't take a job elsewhere because I still need to finish my dissertation and I love living in this town where my husband makes enough to support us. We live very comfortably in our own house with nearly everything we need in walking distance. We are also virtually equidistant between our families. This means the quality of life is very good. So, it just didn't make sense to take another visiting position. So, I am working on my dissertation from a university that is on the other coast. It may as well be in Timbuktu. I can't have regular meetings with my advisor. Access to researchers to try to get something collaborative going is challenging. If I want to launch a new research project, I will have to do it online because I have zero access to lab space unless my alma mater and former employer grows some new generosity streak. With some finagling and sweet talking (begging) maybe they would work something out with me.

Why do I feel hopeless? In a nutshell, I have a great teaching CV. I taught at two excellent small liberal arts colleges while still ABD - something that virtually no one does which makes me special. My student evaluations range from average to outstanding depending on the class. But, I have a virtually non-existent research CV. I have given talks and poster presentations, involved students in my research - even got three of them into conferences to present our collaborative work, but I don't have a publication yet. Without that, I won't be competitive in academia.

My strategy of contacting people I'd like to work with hasn't really panned out.

One, who is on my committee and who is well established in my field (a student of the founder of my field), doesn't have time for me outside of reading my dissertation when it's completed. She offered to read and comment on a complete manuscript of my MA research but then when I emailed it to her she wrote back and said that she is about to take over as one of the editors of a journal (the one I would like to publish my research in) and doesn't have time.

The second - who is also in my field, is less well known, and is a student of my advisor, wants to rewrite my MA research and submit it to a less prestigious journal. This seemed like a good idea until I realized that it's possible he may be credited with the idea. A second author on my paper could be perceived as having done 50% of the work when really he did 5% (or less!) So, I'm just skeptical of turning my original idea and work over to someone else who could then get substantially more credit than he deserves. My work really is original; it's not another example of derivative work with a 'new' twist. Maybe I will end up going with this option in order to just get it published. I'm just not there yet because I don't think I've tried hard enough to turn it over to someone else. I have left this door open though, and have asked to be brought in on a project he's working on if I go that route.

My third strategy is to find someone outside of my immediate field who is more mainstream and also recognizable to collaborate with on a line of research that is different from my MA and PhD work. I really need to branch out. I have some ideas for other research - some of which requires equipment I don't have (!) - and could start it up on my own in isolation, but I really need to work with more established people to make sure I don't take wrong turns, screw up the design, or fail in the publication process. I would like someone to walk me through the whole publication process and serve as an advisor in that capacity. My own advisor has not done that. She writes textbooks and is near retirement. Nevertheless, when I asked her to provide comments on my manuscript before I send it out to a journal, she wrote back and said that she is focusing on her textbook and starting new collaborative research with other people and just doesn't have the time. She could have said that she's been as helpful as she can be already and that I should ask someone within my field who has more expertise on the topic to provide comments. I would have understood that but instead I got the blow-off from my advisor who then sent me into a tizzy of thinking she will not be helpful when it comes to my dissertation. So... I had a meeting with my real mentor who pointed out it's in my PhD granting institution's best interests to make sure I get the degree. She told me her dissertation (at the same place) was a total mess and she still passed, so there's always hope. I walked away feeling better about that. I will get those three little letters, but without publications I won't be able to do anything with them.

A while back I wrote to a recognizable researcher in a field that's mine but more mainstream, i.e. social psych rather than EP. After several email exchanges clarifying what our roles in this collaboration would be I ferreted out that he wants me to conceive the idea, conduct the research, analyze it, and write it up. Then he would re-write it and we could publish it together. I could bounce ideas off of him but his role would be minimal. Yet, he'd be second author. Again, I'd do all of the important work, but he'd get substantially more credit than he's earned.

This morning my wonderful husband, who's been with me all along bouncing ideas and troubleshooting and enforcing breaks that I'd otherwise not take, listened to my latest rant and offered that it sounds like this guy "wants to wave his dick over it & slap his name on it."

So now what do I do?

Do I turn over my ideas to someone else who may get me published? Do I start up a new project in which I do all the hard work and hope the guy works with me throughout so I don't screw it up and is still around to get it published in the end? Can I do this at the same time I am working on my dissertation? Do I sya thanks but no thanks to these two guys and look for someone else who is willing to do more of the work? Or is this the best I can hope for? Is this normal in academia?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Dancing With the Stars

Okay, I'll admit it - occasionally I indulge in some guilty pleasures like watching the show Dancing With the Stars and of course, I have some commentary on it from the vantage point of evolutionary psychology. The show, for those who don't know, centers on several "celebrities" who get paired with a professional ballroom dancer to learn and then perform dances like the mambo, two step, and tango in front of a panel of professional judges. Each week brings two new dances and a rejection for those who don't measure up. The audience gets to weigh in on the decision. The show became so insanely popular last year that it was brought back for a second season.

Last year in my Evolution of Human Mating class a student asked about why her boyfriend refuses to dance with her. She wanted him to take ballroom dance lessons with her. Perhaps there are millions of women who are now asking this same question and hoards of men shrugging their shoulders at the thought. But why? Because it's prissy is not a good enough reason. The men really are sexy when they dance. And we all know what dance is a metaphor for. It's insanely sexual at its core - a sexual display served up for our consumption or rejection. So why won't the average guy get on board?

The information conveyed through dance reveals a guy's fitness and most just don't measure up. The article "Dance reveals symmetry especially in young men" in Nature 2005 presents evidence that men who are rated by women as the best dancers are also more symmetrical. The right and left sides of their faces and bodies more perfectly match. In nature, symmetry is associated with greater reproductive success for numerous species, including humans. Thus, dance isn't just for fun; it reveals hidden messages about an individual's fitness - messages men may want to keep hidden.

The Dance Symmetry Project website describes the neat study methodology (they used image capture technology with body mounted light sensors), presents video of symmetrical and less symmetrical dancers, and has a link to the Nature podcast. This study counts as one of many that I think is so cool I wish I had done it!

Why symmetry is associated with dance is still a bit of a mystery. One theory holds that symmetrical organisms are more metabolically efficient and that translates into greater coordination and stamina. This would also explain why a sample of gifted track athletes were more symmetrical than less successful athletes. A quick google search revealed that in the professional running world, symmetry of stride is a major goal and source of concern if it isn't. By studying runners on a treadmill or wear patterns on shoes, physical trainers can figure out how to improve stride and reduce injuries.

Just how important symmetry is to athletic ability and the chances of wooing a mate is open to debate. Hundreds of articles have been published on the subject but one meta-analysis by A. Palmer showed a publication bias so it's hard for some to take studies like the Dance Symmetry Project seriously. Palmer's website even calls most of the neat studies from EP we discussed in my EHM class "follies." That includes the dance study project.

It's annoying. If we looked at any field of inquiry I think we'd find publication bias. Does this negate the conclusions of studies that are published? Perhaps EP gets singled out for special criticism because people don't like its political implications. People regularly get bent out of shape about discoveries that we humans function under the same rules as the rest of the animal kingdom.

Humans like watching presumably symmetrical stars dancing just like blue-footed booby birds presumably derive some pleasure from watching the fancy footwork of other boobies. Both are examples of courtship rituals backed by sound evolutionary theory and evidence.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Inside Skinner's Box

The history of psychology is peppered with prominent psychologists who have experimented on their own kids. Freud psychoanalyzed his daughter Anna and Jean Piaget mapped out his theory of cognitive development by studying his own children, but the psychologist who really takes the cake for bizarre parenting is B.F. Skinner.

Following up with E. L. Thorndike's "puzzle boxes" (shown above) that showed cats could fairly quickly learn how to operate a tricky lever to release themselves from a box, Skinner put together a similar device that's now known as the Skinner box. Inside is a lever for mice to press or a backlit button for pigeons to peck in order to get chow from a food hopper. To properly motivate them, they are usually starved to 80% of their pre-training weight. The task I had in "Rat Lab" during college was to get the pigeon to peck the button - something that is actually pretty tricky to do. You've got to trip the hopper at just the right moment so you reinforce just the right behavior, otherwise you'll end up with a dancing, spinning, or head bobbing bird instead of one who diligently does the task at hand.

Many times while training Katy (and while providing therapy to a young boy with autism during college) I have been glad to have had the training in operant conditioning that my college professor "Skinner" provided. The paradigm makes a lot of sense and is intuitive to apply. It's also easy to screw up if not done carefully. Think of all those parents who wind up rewarding their kids for exactly the behavior they're trying to extinguish. Whining at the grocery store is a classic example. My sister and I worked it on my mom all the time while growing up. We'd be up late talking and carrying on and she'd yell from the next room something about being quiet and going to sleep. We'd keep it up until she told us she'd take us to get DQ Blizzards the next day. What's crazy is that she actually followed through just often enough to make it rewarding for us to deliberately stay up making noise.

Skinner believed in his theory so much that he applied it to his infant daughter Deborah. He constructed a box for her to live in complete with climate control (temperature and humidity), air filtration, and a bottom linen feed so that if she soiled her space it could be easily changed with a turn of a crank. The Air Crib, as he called it, was nothing more than a giant Skinner box. Time magazine wrote about it in 1971; you can read the full story here. This story has since become part of intro psych classroom legend with variations saying alternately that his daughter grew up to be severely depressed or a psychologist like her dad.

Skinner also worked for a while for the government - he drew up plans for a pigeon guided missile. Imagine that. Skinner's plan scored mention in a Richard Dawkins commentary on Sept 11 in the Guardian, "Religion's Misguided Missiles." It's a good, short read. His plan never got realized but the techniques he devised now get put to use training rats to sniff out land mines. It's a much cheaper and efficient solution than employing dogs or humans to do it. The BBC has a story on this cool rat lab research.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Ring of Fire

I'm not at all familiar with Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" franchise, but if his opinion piece on the mysterious silence of the gun-loving right wing in the wake of the latest absurd changes to airline security is any indication, it's great stuff.

In other news a Portland, OR ER nurse strangled and killed an intruder with her bare hands (!) who was actually a hit-man her estranged husband hired to kill her. She has left this message on her answering machine in response to the oodles of people who've tried to call her: "I am not able to answer all the calls that I've received. I'm being comforted by your concern and your support. I want you to know that our lives are all at risk for random acts, but more likely random acts of love will come your way than random acts of violence." Did I mention she also weighs 260 pounds? That might have had more than a little something to do with her success.

That's impressive. So, too, is the size of the lava dome atop the crater of Mount St. Helens. It's reported to be 1,300 feet tall and the size of the Empire State Building, which for me conjures up memories of climbing through now-aptly named Ape Cave, a lava tube. The volcanoes that can be seen from the Willamette Valley are awesome - that is - when they are actually visible! Mt. Hood is likable for its Fuji-esque shape & symmetry and its spectacular albeit irregular appearance at exactly the place along the Columbia Gorge highway that corresponds to the teeny tiny sign alerting passersby to its presence. I've never fully appreciated the beauty of Mt. Rainier until recently when I saw it closer up at the national park that bears its name. Too many tourists! Just like the Matterhorn in Switzerland... which is surprisingly reminiscent of Mt. Rainier National Park.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Social & Economic Equality Should Trump Diversity

Due to my tremendous progress toward meeting my dissertation goals, I had 4 issues of the local newspaper to catch up on this morning. It's pretty much required reading in my household. The local paper keeps me in the loop about what's going on around town and continually reinforces my conclusion that good jobs are scarce here and that the housing market has already priced out most people.

My source for national and international news lies elsewhere. Lately I've been reading the Economist. I used to buy it off of the newstand when I desired, but recently realized that its short article format is a better fit for me. I can pick it up whenever, wherever and never lose my place like I did with The Atlantic, Harpers, and The New Yorker. I have stacks of those with good intentions of at least reading the featured articles. I still love The Atlantic's "Primary Sources" but now that it seems to have been cut down to one page from a double page spread, it may lose out to Harpers, whose Index I love.

Anyhow, every once in a while the "national" news scene in the local paper ignites some spark. This one follows on the heels of a recent experience I had of attending the welcome get-together of Working Class Whit(e)man College (WCWC), a group of self-identified first-generation and/or working class students and faculty formed to make life easier for those students who struggled to get into Whiteman in the first place and who have to work harder to succeed here than the advantaged students who make up the majority of the college (and faculty) population. The perennial issues involve financial aid, work study that is actually helpful academically and financially (Whiteman's idea of work study while I was a student was to have the poor kids scrub the dishes at the dining hall for the rich kids - a humiliating, demoralizing & academically pointless "work study" for minimal compensation), and of course social equality. The turn out was horribly weak compared to last year's. Perhaps the invitation failed to fully communicate the value and necessity of the group. Maybe the new crop all had Core papers to turn in the next day (which is NO excuse) or maybe the College paid lip service to diversity yet again by failing to attract and admit highly qualified WCWCs. Who knows.

In my opinion, the college pays lip service to the diversity that matters most now (socioeconomic),** the form of diversity that really matters according to Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune, whose opinion piece I read this morning in the local paper, which incidentally published an editorial about how WA & OR higher education is unaffordable to middle class students (let alone working class kids like the WCWCs). Page presents statistics that counter the widely held notion that the face of poverty in this country looks young, inner city, and black offering, "While poor whites outnumber poor blacks, poverty has taken on a black face in the public mind." He quotes Walter Michaels' new book The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, "The truth is, there weren't too many rich black people left behind when everybody who could get out of New Orleans did so." Page finished by adding that the most compelling part of Michael's book for him is Michael's descriptions of the vanishing American dream.

Harper's presented these figures in its Sept. 2006 Index (from a CBS newspoll):
Percentage of Americans in 1983 who thought it was "possible to start out poor in this country... and become rich": 57
Percentage who think this today: 80
Percentage of US income in 1983 and today, respectively, that went to the top 1 percent of earners: 9, 16

So, the American dream really is a dream - one that grows ever more elusive to realize.

When I applied to Whiteman, I saw it as the ticket out of the economic depression I was probably heading for had I stayed in state and attended a more affordable university. That was never an option in my mind, nor was not going to college. I wanted out of my blue collar work your ass off for squat background. I thought I wanted to become a medical doctor because they're rich and must therefore have a good quality of life. My years at Whiteman changed my priorities.

In the years after graduating from Whiteman I found myself unable to get a decent job (one that required some intelligent skills and paid enough to make the monthly payments on my student loans back to Whiteman). When I couldn't find that, I felt like I would have been better off had I attended a cheaper state school. Later I decided that more education was the way to go, so I applied to the one graduate school that fit my career goals and also provided the equivalent of a full-ride scholarship with pay. Only later did I realize that some aspects of the grad school "work study" were very much like washing dishes (for my TA one year I was required to make ubiquitous xerox copies - an almost completely worthless experience, and that's being generous).

Now I am back at Whiteman in a different capacity, months away from a PhD, and definitely no longer identifiable as anything but advantaged. Last year I made more money than anyone in my family ever has and my quality of life is pretty darn amazing. Despite the 80 hour work week, the life of a college professor is in many ways like having a life on Easy Street. I've never been so happy to work for the equivalent of 8 bucks an hour.

But, I don't know if that's the life I'll be able to enjoy. I just hope I will be able to find intellectually fulfilling work that pays enough to pay off my student loans and allows me to give something back to the community while enjoying a good quality of life with my little family.

I don't want to be $$$ wealthy if it means people will think I am a better person simply because I have a lot of money, a big house, a plasma TV, and an expensive car. If Whiteman students come away with a moral lesson from their "Experience," I hope it's the notion that having money doesn't make you an inherently better person. I wonder how pervasive that sentiment is and how hard it is for non-WCWC students to unlearn.

** The college must pay lip service to socioeconomic diversity at some level because it needs the rich students' parents to subsidize the education of the poor kids (all 8 of them). I don't know how many there actually are, but the college has a decent endowment, so if it could just get its heart in the right place it could and should (!) provide all WCWC students a TRUE full-ride scholarship.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Gift of Language

One of the benefits of sticking around the college (and specifically sitting in on a colleague's class) even though I'm not teaching this semester, is that I still get to have engaging conversations with bright students. These conversations truly are gifts. Oh man, it also reminds me of what I miss out on by not teaching. Well, I'll be back into it soon enough! That's what I remind myself in moments of doubt.

This morning's conversation evolved from a simple comment at the end of class about how a video of Washoe, a sign language trained chimp, which was shown in a different class was not as impressive as the one I showed in class last year. Here I had to negotiate the murky territory of being this student's prof last year, sitting in a class as a 'student' with him, and hearing comments about my colleague and how he should have used some other (better) video.

First, I asked the student to defend his statement that the video I had shown was in fact more impressive. I simply responded, "Oh yeah? What part?" To which he gave a typical student response, "Oh uh, mmmm, the whole thing." He conveyed his enthusiasm for the video nonverbally.

We then proceeded to have a wonderful conversation that brought up some core issues in the evolution of thought on language evolution. I was even able to impart a bit of information that he found utterly fascinating. It was all so very rewarding, and just what I needed. I'm finally beginning to understand what Henry Gleitman meant when he told me "Research is your bread; Teaching is the cake."

I shared with this student that for me, what excited me the most was the scene where Sue (Savage-Rumbaugh) cooks alongside Kanzi in a kitchen. He follows her spoken directions to rinse off a knife, turn on the burner, and other actions involved in preparing a meal with such seemlessness that it appears he must for certain understand language. I added - "BUT my scientific mind remains critical off this. They could have gone through these motions so many times and be so well rehearsed that all Sue does is add labels to his actions."

I don't really believe this because I have seen the results of many double blind tests that show definitively that Kanzi understands spoken language, can produce language with lexigrams, and shows evidence of understanding syntax. He can tell the difference between "Pour the water into the Coke" and "Pour the Coke into the water" for example. But I wanted the student to think critically about the possibility that Kanzi has been conditioned to do what he does. Incidentally, the topic for the intro psych class was classical conditioning so we had a perfect prime for our discussion.

"Couldn't we say then that human language is learned conditioned associations?" He asked.

"Oh yes, indeed! You've just hit on one of the great debates of psychology," I said. "B.F. Skinner proposed that very idea in his book Verbal Behavior."

So then is it all learning? he ponders aloud. "Well that is the age-old debate," I added.

At this point we transitioned into a conversation about how one system of communication (human language, chimp gestures, dog signals, squirrels squeaks, etc) is not inherently superior to another and that really they all exist because they solved some problem or conferred advantages. I asked him to consider what language does for us that chimps miss out on - the ability to share information, talk about what's not present, and plan ahead. This gives us a tremendous advantage and may explain why humans took the evolutionary trajectory they did rather than go the direction chimps did.

Here the student asked a terrific question: "But why did we develop language and not chimps when it's so beneficial?" He adds, "And why does Kanzi have what he has; what does that say about bonobos?"

I told him that Steven Pinker writes about this and his theory of language evolution in his book The Language Instinct. Pinker proposes that Language is the product of a freak genetic mutational accident. I even called it a gift.

At this point my student, who is now trying to wrap his head around the idea, asks or comments on something that prompts me to say:

"Ah! But yes there is - it's the FOXP2 gene."

I told him about how deficiencies in this area of genetic code are associated with deficiencies in language that mimic Broca's aphasia, a condition remarkable for the utter lack of patients' ability to produce syntactically correct sentences. They produce pure gibberish.

"Woah! Really?" he exclaims. "So we really are biochemical machines." He must have been picturing Descartes. "I already was already heading there but now I'm there!" (or something like that) he mutters as he walks off in the direction of the science building...

Students like him make my day.

If you'd like to read some of my other thoughts on language and apes, click here.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

From Phrenology to Modules

Mapping the mind's black box.

The history of psychology is a relatively short but varied one, replete with many wrong turns. One of these is phrenology, the art and sometimes science of reading personality from bumps and recesses on a person's skull. Invented by Franz Gall, phrenology's heyday expired near the end of the 19th century. The basic idea held that the brain was an organ like no other, for contained within its black box were several suborgans, each with a different function. Running with the idea that the size of an organ tells us something about its usefulness for the organism, Gall reasoned that we could deduce the relative importance of each suborgan for each person based on the imprint it made on the head. For a more complete picture of phrenology, check out this excellent online phrenology resource from the British Library.

Like many wrongheaded ideas in psychology, phrenology has become like what astrology is to astronomy today. Neuroscience has come a long way since then, but we can still see vestiges of Gall's idea in the ideas from two founders of Evolutionary Psychology: Leda Cosmides and John Tooby.

First, more on Gall's organs.
He proposed 27 of them, listed below. The final 8 he thought were unique to humans but the rest we share with other animals.
  1. The instinct of reproduction (located in the cerebellum)

  2. The love of one's offspring

  3. Affection; friendship

  4. The instinct of self-defense; courage; the tendency to get into fights. The carnivorous instinct; the tendency to murder

  5. Guile; acuteness; cleverness

  6. The feeling of property; the instinct of stocking up on food (in animals); covetousness; the tendency to steal

  7. Pride; arrogance; haughtiness; love of authority; loftiness

  8. Vanity; ambition; love of glory (a quality "beneficent for the individual and for society")

  9. Circumspection; forethought

  10. The memory of things; the memory of facts; educability; perfectibility

  11. The sense of places; of space proportions

  12. The memory of people; the sense of people

  13. The memory of words

  14. The sense of language; of speech

  15. The sense of colors

  16. The sense of sounds; the gift of music

  17. The sense of connectedness between numbers

  18. The sense of mechanics, of construction; the talent for architecture. 20. Comparative sagacity

  19. The sense of metaphysics

  20. The sense of satire; the sense of witticism

  21. The poetical talent

  22. Kindness; benevolence; gentleness; compassion; sensitivity; moral sense

  23. The faculty to imitate; the mimic

  24. The organ of religion

  25. The firmness of purpose; constancy; perseverance; obstinacy.
What's really fascinating and what nicely captures the evolution of thought on thought, is that Cosmides and Tooby's recent theory (1990s) builds on a century's old idea. C & T posit that humans have mental modules (number unknown) that have been forged over evolutionary time because each solves a specific problem our ancestors faced. This idea runs counter to the prevailing notion, the one argued by S. J. Gould, that our brain is a general problem solving device not a domain-specific one.

In the grand developmental scheme of psychology, EP is practically prenatal so there's been a lot of theory, some great emblematic research published, and vanishingly few bona fide modules proposed, let alone confirmed.

That said, here's my list of some proposed modules mapped onto Gall's organs (in parentheses):

1) Selecting, Attracting & Reproducing with a Mate
(reproduction - located in the cerebellum)

~ Fieldnote: Studied by David Buss & others. This module, like all of those proposed, incorporates many, many parts of the brain, including the cerebellum (especially if you agree with Geoffrey Miller that dancing is part of the courtship repertoire of our species). This is the sexiest line of EP research, and the most fun!

2) Differential Parental Solicitude
(love of one's offspring)

~ Fieldnote: Studied by Robert Trivers & others. Bob stands out as one of the great evolutionary biology All-Stars; he gave us the theories of parental investment and reciprocal altruism that so many theories of evolutionary psychology depend on. It can help explain sibling rivalry among other things.

3) Forming, Maintaining, and Breaking Alliances / Networking
(affection; friendship)

~ Fieldnote: Studied by Trivers, Dawkins, Dunbar, et al. Sandwiched between this and number one sits my little line of inquiry.

4) Self-Defense / Aggression toward Others
(self-defense; courage; fights, murder, carnivorous instinct)

~ Fieldnote: Studied by Buss. Note his The Murderer Next Door.

5) Intelligent Problem Solving: Making Tools & Being Machiavellian
(Guile; acuteness; cleverness)

~ Fieldnote: This one was difficult to name. We could talk about modules for tool making & use, for social cunning, for creativity, etc. But I'll point you to Cosmides and Tooby's most celebrated: the cheater detection module.

6) Selfishness
(feeling of property; covetousness; tendency to steal)

~ Fieldnote: Dawkins The Selfish Gene has much more to say about this.

7) Self-Esteem
(Pride; arrogance; haughtiness; love of authority; loftiness)

~ Fieldnote: EPs posit that self-esteem is an organism's measure of how well it thinks it's solving survival and reproductive problems. Lost your job and haven't found one for months? You feel depressed / low self-worth because you have failed at several major problems - feeding & sheltering yourself & your dependents. You've probably also suffered a loss in your social position and ability to attract or retain a mate. States of temporary low self-esteem and depression send you the signal that what you're doing isn't working & that you'd better try something new.

In the interest of brevity, I'll fast-forward to the rest of the most interesting modules:
14) Language Acquisition Device
(language; of speech)

~ Fieldnote: The LAD was first proposed by Noam Chomsky and later elaborated on by Steven Pinker. The central idea holds that through a freak accident of nature humans have acquired universal grammar and the necessary brain architecture that allows any human, given the right stimulation (exposure to language) at the right time (before @ age 7), to produce sentences that obey rules of syntax. Colorless green ideas sleep furiously is but one example.

23) Capacity to Imitate

(faculty to imitate; mimic)

~ Fieldnote: "Monkey see, monkey do" is not an entirely correct designation for our tailed primate relatives. Monkeys don't really imitate each other. Instead, the emulate each other. Monkeys, and indeed most nonhuman apes, get the general idea about how to do something by observing another (e.g. to solve a problem), but when it comes time for them to do it on their own, they nearly always go through some trail and error before stumbling on the same solution. This is one area where humans (at a certain age) surpass even the brightest of nonhuman apes. We humans are able to duplicate actions the first time we are shown, within reason of course: I've seen swimmers do flip turns but I'd bet my imitation would look downright sloppy. Humans learn by trial and error too, so when I say we have a greater capacity for imitation, I mean we can copy some actions perfectly that other apes cannot and that we may need fewer trial & error steps to achieve perfection.

24) Religion: Product of Consciousness of Our Own Mortality
(organ of religion)

~ Fieldnote: EPs propose that the little accident of nature that gave us consciousness also made us aware of our own mortality and that led us to invent religion as a way of assuaging the grim news. This is a line of thought I would like to know more about - when hell freezes over.
No seriously, I am not as familiar with this particular theory and research as I should be. There is a ton of it - see here. Perhaps this is a decent place to start: Attachment, Evolution, and the Psychology of Religion by Lee Kirkpatrick. Or maybe I'll see what a book already on my shelf has to say: Philosophy in the Flesh.

Cosmides and Tooby's idea of modules and my brief map of a few of them here should convince you that:

a) Evolutionary Psychology could come to be viewed as just as thoroughly wrong-headed as Gall's phrenology


b) With sufficient modification and elaboration, the descent of Gall's organs into C & T's modules will come to be viewed as the predominant paradigm in Psychology.

For that to happen, EP must incorporate findings from neuroscience into its theory of the modular mind. What I want to see is the identification of specific neurotransmitter pathways that activate/deactivate given specific sensory inputs and also the articulation of "filters" for stimuli or sensitivity thresholds so that we can explain individual differences in behavior. These have to be shown to be genetically constructed at some level but also subject to developmental and experiential modification.

Basically, any all-encompassing theory of human nature must also explain why there are individual differences in behavior.

Monday, September 11, 2006

5 Years Ago Today

... I was teaching my first course in psychology (intro) and taking the teaching practicum. It was a glorious day weather-wise. Now that I am taking my first intro class in lets' see - - 14 years(!) I have gained some new perspective.

It was okay 5 years ago to still use an overhead and write on the chalk board. Indeed, that was the only choice I had. When I taught intro at Whitman last year I had the option of using the much maligned Powerpoint in one class but not the other. Argh. So, I chose the path of leats resistance and TIME and stuck with my previous format. BIG mistake. See, students had changed in the 4 years that had gone by since 911-01. They had grown to expect powerpoint. They were not the students of my generation who were comfortable listening to a great lecture with few visuals. They expected, and arguably, needed something more akin to their multimedia-iPod-cameraphone-TMing lives.

((Side note: my clever pup just scored the end of a banana I had set down to start typing by licking the bottom of my foot and then my back. Yet another example of preferential sharing to those who groom!)).

My class stunk (it did, I know it; I'm not happy with it, and I'm motivated to fix it) because I failed to fully appreciate that none of the students sitting in my class were the student I was when I took the same class 14 years previously.

And TWO:
Since 911-01, students have changed. And, I need to adapt my methods to better meet their needs and expectations. So, I have decided I will revamp my intro class to fit the powerpoint multimedia format. I started that halfway through the semester so now I just have to go back and finish the front half. See, I did sense this last year and I did make time to do it. I even found a way to get PPT into my non-PPT equipped room :-)

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Of Cuttings and Tennis

While watching the men duke it out over in Flushing Meadows, NY I have acquired the info I need on growing wisteria and gardenia from cuttings. Now that tennis is dominated by big servers, it just doesn't hold my attention as much, plus I like to mutlitask.

The cuttings: It sounds pretty straightforward. Cut about 6-12 inches of the end of a softwood brach/stem just below a leaf note, come home, dip in rooting hormone, stick in moistened soil, set in bright indirect light, wait 40-100 days. Last weekend I purchased the rooting hormone I will need from a local company. After tennis (it may be a 5 setter!) we'll walk the babes over to make the cutting.

I think I will take the following advice (ingenious use of a plastic coke bottle!!) to make a gardenia cutting:
"I use clear soda bottles. I cut the bottles in half about three inches from the bottom, poke drain holes in the bottom ribs with an ice pick. Put about two inches of mix in the bottom part, insert the cutting with the bottom set of leaves stripped off, and a cut made just below the lowest node. Put the top of the bottle back on the bottom by gently squeezing the top of the bottom part. You now have a mini greenhouse. You can see when the roots have grown by looking thru the clear plastic. Put in abright spot, but don't let the sun shine on them, because it will bake the cutting. You might devise a way to hang them under a tree near the branches so the sun doesn't hit them. In about three weeks you will see roots, it helps if the weather is hot, in the ninties."

The man with gills has returned home from his fun across campus and is now being greated by Mad Bomber Ears. Maybe I can get him to hit the courts with me later... give his darn streptococcal inflammation condition a rest!

I love tennis. I really dearly do. My grandpa taught me to play. He's won a few tournaments in his day, many of them as a "senior citizen." It is a game that can be played lifelong if one has good joints (knees, ankles, elbows). If not, swimming it is! Anyhow, GillMan and I pontificated in our usual completely agreeing fashion that Federer and Hingis in their prime are simply amazing. The make the game look effortless, like topnotch ballet. Angled shots, precision placement, stamina to run down almost anything with ease... their only weakness is retun of serve. Reminds me of trying to play my grandpa - even when he was OLD and I was a healthy young teenager I just could not return his serve. But, if he served a soft one, or a fake-o sidearmed one, I was all over it! He hasn't played for a while; it's sad. I know he has his reasons, but I think he should get off it and get back into it. Next time I visit I'll have to remember to bring my racket and shoes and not accept anything but a visit with him down memory lane.

I'll try not to hold his "You'll never be a good tennis player because you're too short" comment against him. At least I had the sense to call him on it (I usually just roll my eyes covertly and let it ride). I pointed out that Hingis is my size. I might have seen his eyes roll back in their sockets but I was too proud of myself to notice.

Roddick's hanging on by sheer power of will here in the bottom of the 4th set...

... some things just refuse to die, like twigs stuck in soil that blossom into fine plants.

Walla Walla Weekend

Davy Jones's Locker unpacked a nice story about the scene in Walla Walla, a town so nice they named it twice! Wine country, rodeos, onions, hot air balloons, and a stellar classic car show - just to name a few. He finishes, like a good red wine, with commentary on the town's future.

Warm Fuzzies

Positive reinforcement does wonders. Thank you sciencewoman for your kind words & for listing me as your featured blog. I wondered why I suddenly received a lot more traffic from your blog. Now I know :-)

"Featured Blog
Field Notes from an Evolutionary Psychologist is written by Holly. She's got some great posts on aspects of evolutionary psychology, which I know nothing about but am finding totally fascinating. Plus she manages to find the science and the beauty in her everday life, with posts on seed gathering, bats and much more. Plus, she's an academic struggling to finish her PhD. Plus, she's a great writer. How much more do I need to say. Go. read. now."

Friday, September 08, 2006

1 Blown Tire = No Chimp Sighting

Today I rode with my former colleague to Central WA Univ. to see the sign language using chimp Washoe and her relatives.

I went along as the resident chimp expert and was relieved to see the names of several former students on the roster. In fact, more than half of them were my students. Despite speaking in front of an audience for a living, I still get social anxiety around those I don't know. For some reason when I'm teaching my tendency to be reserved and introverted totally dissipates. I become loquacious. My friends tease me about being completely quiet for hours at parties until I finally deliver an Emancipation Proclamation. Students don't believe I'm shy, but I am. It's amusing how many professors are. I think it goes with the territory of being a bookworm turned professor. Anyhow, aside from being shy and uncertain about socializing with students as their quasi-equal, I was really looking forward to meeting Washoe and hearing about Roger Fouts and his students' work with the chimps. But, right before Yakima, our van blew out a tire. We ended up coming right back.

It was a let down for all except the students who were at least 21 and who could buy wine at the winery we happened to stop near. See, this area of southcentral WA is serious wine country. In fact, Walla Walla was Sunset magazine's wine destination of the year for 2005. There are at least a dozen wine tasting rooms just within walking distance of my house alone.

Back to the van - I actually scored a seat by myself so I used the time to read some of Adapting Minds by David Buller. It's a critique of evolutionary psychology - the paradigm - that got a lot of attention when it was published last year. So far, he has done a great job of reviewing some of the core ideas of evolutionary biology (especially frequency dependent selection, conditional strategies, developmental plasticity, etc.) and is now explaining the modularity of mind concept developed by Cosmides and Tooby. It's well-written and devoid of the vitriol present in so many other EP criticisms that dismiss it on political rather than scientific grounds (see for reference much of the book Evolution, Gender, and Rape). I like to keep up with what the other side thinks.

A few months ago on a job interview I was asked if I had read the book. I hadn't. But neither had the person asking - and she really should have too. So, I figure I should use my enforced time-off from teaching to gain some more perspective on my field. Thus far, it is interesting and I will keep reading it.

But back to Washoe - there's a lot to say about her and her family. For a primer, check out the book Next of Kin by Roger Fouts. Right now I'm in the process of transfering my black and white Washoe clips from VHS to my digital video camera to DVD (read: worth-it pain-in-the-butt). My favorite parts are Washoe putting three fingers up to her ear to name herself, identifying things she doesn't like as "black," and her signing "hurry, open" repeatedly to get her people to open a door.

There's a great story about "black" in the Fouts book. When the young Washoe first saw other chimps (she was raised entirely by humans as part of the cross-fostering technique), she called them "black bugs." Woah!

There you have it - evidence of in-out group mentality in a chimp. Question is - did she pick this up from her human environment or is it part of some shared hominoid evolutionary makeup?

Whichever way, I agree with E.O. Wilson (father of sociobiology) who said something like this:
As long as we draw distinctions between us and them, there is little hope for global harmony.

Every time I hear that Amajaniahdhihad (deliberate misspelling here) talk about how his nuke plan is for peaceful purposes, I think about his view of anyone who is Jewish. Why can't we all focus on our similarities and downplay our differences?

I think this about most things in life - including the debate about whether chimps understand language. From an academic perspective it creates an opportunity to practice critical thinking, but at the end of the day, I think it's more important to accept that humans and chimps are really quite similar.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Halti Collar For Puller Canines

On the advice of Daphne, I checked out the Halti collar she recommended for my Newfy, a dog - she is correct to point out - was bred to pull (drowning people to shore). Lately I have been having trouble reining her in when we walk her with our other dog. Reining him in has helped, but it is a pain in the already-injured shoulder for his walker to keep him that way, so... Perhaps the Halti is the way to go. The only thing I don't like about it is that it looks like a muzzle which certainly has the potential to scare people off. I don't want that to happen because she already tends to be wary of people. So, the way I see it, she could wear the Halti at night when we don't tend to run into anyone anyway. It is also the time we are most likely to walk the two little monsters together. Thanks Daphne for the great suggestion!

Canine Problem Solving

Recently I added a purebred Newfoundland puppy to my life. She has quickly grown into a sizable and determined individual. I estimate she weighs about 65-70 pounds and is 22 weeks old. In her pedigree is the dog that is in the Guiness Book of World Records for strongest dog. Yikes. More on that later.

Yesterday, I posted about dog jealousy and raised a question of how to actually define and measure jealous behavior as a first step toward scientific inquiry. This morning I still haven't got a clue. I haven't spent any time thinking about it either. Perhaps these two things are related?

I have observed that my new Newfy is quite a problem solver. This morning marked the third morning that she has pawed my other dog's head when he refused to sit on command before I dish out their food. I always make them sit now to prevent a repeat performance of the Happy Hippos Game when Miss Exuberance jumps in excitement at the appearance of a full bowl and noses it, sending the pieces flying in a thousand directions only to be hoovered up by the wrong dog. Now that she has to sit, we haven't had any more spilled dishes. They thing is that I have both of them sit. Why? I ask myself this every time Mr Curmudgeon just stands there refusing to sit. He does eventually sit, though sometimes I have to ask 3-4 times (even though my hand signal is staring him in the face so he can't 'forget' what he has to do) or prompt him with a tap on his bum. She sits right away and then has to wait what must seem like forever before she gets the reward for sitting. In the meantime, she gets frustrated - I think it's safe to say - judging by her moan-yelps and her paws to his head. I tell her "good dog" sometimes and wonder if this is a good idea because he might be taking that as a reward for not sitting, and other times I pat her on the head. The thing is, she appears to know exactly what the problem is - HIM. With every tap on his head she seems to be saying "Hey Mister, you gotta sit now!" It is adorable, funny, and very clever of her.

Back to Miss SmartyPants the Incredibly Strong Dog - She tugs at the leash with all of her strength ONLY when our other dog walks with us. The rest of the time she walks on a loose lead to my left like she's supposed to. I have a choke chain collar for her which has helped a lot. It takes most of my strength to keep her in line. Lately she has started to dart off the sidewalk to try to catch pine cones, grass clumps, leaves, sticks, walnut husks, etc. The lateral movement really pulls a number on my back and I have a strong back. She is just going to get bigger and more unmanagable, but I refuse to admit defeat and walk them separately, so I have got to find a clever solution to this canine problem.

I get tired of saying no and jerking at the collar, but really what else can I do? Persist I suppose. My willpower over hers. I have also got to give her more exercise during the day. That has not been a priority over the past two weeks. I have been busy with other things. In short, I need to prioritize that until we get this solved. I know I'm doing the basics correctly, I just have to be tenacious with her training and give her more exercise.

On that note - lunch (!) followed by running around the quad... I mean Ankeny.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Dogs Experience Jealousy

Guilt in dogs? Pride in horses?

If scientists say so, but where's the solid evidence? The Discovery news site reports new research from England that purports to have found evidence of jealousy in dogs based on 1,000 "observations" from dog owners who self-reported their observations of their canine green-eyed monsters.

Whether animals have emotions is a hotly debatable topic, and unfortunately this research doesn't add much to further the debate. It doesn't meet my criteria of solid evidence - i.e. it isn't objective. Self-report is prone to bias. People project how they would feel in any given situation to their four-legged companions. I am not knocking anthropomorphism as a technique for generating theories of animal behavior and testable hypotheses, but as science, this research appears to be weak.

I love the idea (!) and it is nice to see someone making an effort to accumulate a thousand data points of anecdotal evidence that all point in the same direction. My grandma and I are not alone in having little green-eyed monsters who flip out when they are not the ones being petted or fed a treat.

I would like to see this research replicated with objective observers in an experimental setting.
One of the first things the researchers would have to do is define what constitutes jealous behavior in dogs. Next, I'd want to know in what situations we can expect to observe jealousy.

How would you define it, Daphne? Other dog owners out there who can chime in?

That little monster on the right might be jealous of his larger and younger sister on the left, but how am I to know for sure? That hint of utter contempt on his face?!

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Bats in My Belfry

Bats in My Belfry

"Friday evening (September 1, 2006) just prior to midnight, a bat was observed flying around Penrose Library. Security removed the animal from the Library.

If you touched or handled the bat prior to its removal, or was exposed to bat saliva, please contact the Health Center at 5295 to make sure there are no health risks because of the contact.

The Public Health Department says there is little health risk unless you touch or handle a bat. According to the Public Health Department bats rarely carry rabies, but we need to be careful.

A word of caution: Although we believe this to be an isolated incident, this is the time of year when bats may seek shelter indoors. If you encounter a bat in a building, your office, your residence hall room, or anywhere indoors, do not touch it! Please call Security (5777) and they
will notify the proper personnel to remove it.
Thank you.
Chuck Cleveland
Dean of Students"

When I saw the subject line of the email "bats around campus" I honestly thought it was yet another message about how a student was a target of some Townie hate crime. (I imagined a bat wielding punk who thinks all Whitties are rich snobs). Instead, the email was about furry little mammals.

I thought I'd take the time to point out that although bats are associated with rabies, the risk really is minimal AND bats are extremely beneficial for keeping pesky insects like mosquitoes under control. I have bats roosting in my attic (I think) based on several observations of them flying over my house. I also have never been bitten by a bug in my backyard. You can build your own bat house to encourage them to roost near your home.

Bully for bats!

I really like bats. Did you know that vampire bats can lick and groom their roostmates for up to 8 hours a day?! They regurgitate blood preferentially to those who have recently groomed them. This tit-for-tat trade helps vampire bats who don't get the opportunity to eat. Plus, there's no arguing against a little tactile comfort. I'd love to have a cartoon about vampire bat day spas.

Ethics of Primate (Ape) Research

An anonymous person has left a few comments on my post "New Primate Links" and rather than let that conversation die, I'd like to encourage futher commentary on the issue of using primates as human models in research.

According to the NIH website, 26,000 primates call the 8 National Primate Research Centers home. They represent 20 different species including chimpanzees, baboons, marmosets, and squirrel monkeys. Most are rhesus monkeys (macaques). All told, there are at least 20 plus labs that either breed or experiment on primates, or both.

The way I see it, the main issue is:
Do we really need to experiment on primates in labs?

I have stated that I am against unnecessary biomedical research on primates.
I am not against primate studies! I'd prefer that primates not be in labs, but there are people and places that study captive primates responsibly. See for reference: Marc Hauser, Sarah Boysen, Frans de Waal, and the Chimpanzee Human Communication Institute.

Defining what is unnecessary is very challenging. People who are paid by the government make it their business to justify the necessity of their research. I would personally draw the line much closer to "unneccesary" than the NIH people do.

One of the arguments for primate biomedical experimentation is that they are similar enough to us physiologically, socially, emotionally, and cognitively to be good models. That is the same argument for not using them in research. If we use primates because we ethically cannot use people, then if they are so similar to be useful models, aren't they also similar enough to be immoral choices?

I think we should find alternate routes to developing treatments and vaccines for the conditions that primates are used for. AIDS is one that gets much of the money and attention and which is also possibly the least necessary. Chimpanzees do not actually become sick from HIV. They don't get AIDS. Monkeys that are used in HIV/AIDS research are infected with SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus) which would be fine if humans got sick from SIV or if SIV worked like HIV, but it doesn't. Any condition (like dementia, Parkinson's, endometriosis, etc) can be artifically created in a primate with enough trial and error, yet when those conditions are 'duplicated,' they never approximate the real human condition because the etiology is totally different. I think recreating human conditions in nonhuman primates, particularly apes, for the hope of helping humans is unnecessary.

We should find alternate means to achieve cures, treatments, and vaccines for humans that do not rely on primates.

I equate it with weaning ourselves from our oil dependency for personal transportation.

If those in power really wanted to, they could fund and develop alternative fuel sources. They could do the same for biomedical research. The European Union has ended its use of apes in biomedical research. Primates studies are still alive and well in the UK; they just aren't doing biomedical research anymore.

I have found some more interesting links on this subject I'd like to share.
• This one is an organization that seeks to modernize medical research by ending biomedical experimentation of primates. Among other points, they argue that laboratory conditions are unusual enough that results can't be generalized to wild populations, much less humans.

• The Humane Society presents some information about which EU countries have banned biomedical experimentation on apes (chimps, orangutans, gorillas, and bonobos). The Netherlands was the last holdout until 2002, when it decided to retire its apes to sanctuary.

• The Great Ape Project was formed to grant a few basic rights to the nonhuman great apes: life, liberty and the prohibition of torture. The project has been controversial, namely because of who started it: Peter Singer. "Some opponents argue that, in extending rights beyond our own species, it goes too far, while others claim that, in limiting rights to the great apes, it does not go far enough."

• So as to be more balanced, here's a link to an OHSU Oregon Primate Research Center website that has links to information about how primate biomedical research has helped enhance human health. OHSU does not experiment on apes.

Order in Disorder

It's amazing the way the human brain creates order out of disorder. Take Led Zeppelin's lyrics to Stairway to Heaven played backwards. Some people think it reveals a hidden satanic message. You can listen to it here. Play the backwards clip first without the subtitles and see if you can pick up the message. I couldn't. Click to read the subtitles and then listen to the song again. Suddenly the satanic message comes through. (Queen's Another One Bites the Dust is great too.)

This is a now classic textbook example of top-down processes, or rather the idea that our previous experience and expectations affect our perceptions - especially of ambiguous stimuli.

Almost any ambiguous stimulus can be primed.

Images in clouds.

An old woman -or- a young girl?

A duck vs. a rabbit.

The letter B instead of a 13 when it's embedded in ABC vs. 12 13 14.

The Virgin Mary on a piece of toast.
((Before eBay stopped the bidding, the toast was up to $22,000)).

All are classic examples of perceptions distorted by higher cognitive processes.

My favorite one:
The face of satan in the smoke of one of the World Trade Center towers.

This was news to me, but evidently old hat to people who took it as a sign of the end of days. A taste of the strangeness can be had here. Scroll down to the "The Apocalypse of St. John the Apostle Re: The WTC Collapse" near the end for a great example of the human brain in action on Revelations 17:15-17.

Can you hear the hooves of the four horsemen yet?