Monday, December 31, 2007

The Year In Review

This year was a one of the best years I've had in recent memory. No one in my family died (in fact, a few were born), no one lost a job or was laid off, and we are all healthier than we were this time last year. That doesn't mean everything was completely rosy. Afterall, I had to have surgery and am still learning to accept the reality of not being able to have children even though in theory I would like to at least have the option. But, all in all, it was a fantastic year!!


10) I didn't have to settle for a low paying, heavy teaching load with research expectations academic position in a far away town with crappy weather and a high cost of living.

9) I got a job I hope I will be able to enjoy for as long as I need to.

8) My dad flew all the way across the country with me to see me get "hooded" in the big graduation ceremony. We had a great time eating lobster, going to the coast, and exploring the place I used to live. That was a trip to remember and I am so very glad that he was there to celebrate with me, Mr. Field Notes, and my friends.

7) Mr. Field Notes continues to be my very best friend and was, as always, an unbelievably amazing chef for our household this year. From his fresh raspberry filled crepes to the handmade samosas, curries and Tunisian stew, to the stove top chai teas with spices from his collection, the mac & cheese made with gruyere, and many other well made meals, he guarantees we are very well fed.

6) I got to hold my adorable nephew and niece. They both look like me - which is to say unbelievably cute with strawberry blonde hair!

5) Max, the geriatric spaniel, is still alive and kicking. Most days he still likes us us at least 51% of the time. And his Sister Katy continues to be paws down the best dog I have ever had. No offense to Mr. Max or my childhood Lily malamute girl, but Katy is friendly and affectionate and she never ever gets into the garbage or deposits runny turds Stonehenge style in the living room like a previously mentioned pointy eared dog was known to do. Katy is kind, sensitive, affectionate, obedient, playful, attentive and the best canine friend anyone could ever hope to have. Just don't ask M.A.X. He'll tell you I am exaggerating BIG TIME.

4) My etsy store/Recycled Ideas business is fully operational and operating in the black (that is if you count my recent sewing machine purchase as a Christmas pressie and not as a business expense).

3) The manuscript I thought would never be published is now published! It's in the June issue of Current Psychology.

2) I got to go to Japan! Man that was an awesome treat. I think any year I get to leave the country, and not just to Canada or Mexico, is a very good year indeed. Japan is one of the best places I've visited.

And the number one reason why I had the best year yet -

1) I earned a PhD and am now the first person in my family who can legitimately be called "Doctor."

Now if my dad would just say "What's up doc?" a few more times when he answers the phone in the future, you know for auld lang syne, that would be really cool. I might forget I'm a doctor otherwise.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

My Secret: How I Get So Many Things Done in A Day

Delegate tasks to others.

Her Royal Newfyness is hereby charged with the responsibility of keeping up with etsy promotions. Because the threads move so quickly, I am training her to type in *up* and then press return. That way when I announce the wonderful new product everyone just has to see, I can be off actually making the stuff. Unfortunately she is not the most diligent of workers.

** And, no, I am not really teaching Katy to do this. Though she is a bright and obedient pupil, she lacks the manual dexterity required for the job. She'll be staying at her day job. **

Friday, December 28, 2007

Harry Harlow & the Science of Anxious Attachment

One of my very favorite days in introductory psychology is the day we talk about developmental psychology and attachment. Why? I get to talk about monkeys and Harry Harlow.

As a scientist and a person, he is as interesting as his famous research on cloth vs wire surrogate mothers. The book Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection provides a good summary of attachment research at a level that is easy to understand. It also presents numerous stories about Harry the person. Did you know he wrote poetry? Yep - that's how he took notes for his exams as an undergraduate student! One of his famous papers, The Nature of Love, published in 1958, includes one of his poems. The man may have done some arguably cruel things to the cute little monkeys in the name of science, but he was not a heartless bastard, as some people would have you believe. Both the book and the Nature of Love article are well worth reading. If you click on the Nature of Love link, you get taken to the entire article, poetry included.

His research sparked the science of affection, and if someone had asked me at any point during my graduate career to name the progenitor of my field, I would have been hard pressed to come up with a more appropriate person.

It's crazy how fascinated research academics are with genealogy, but they all want to know who your advisor is, and who they studied under and who they studied under so on all the way back presumably to Wilhelm Wundt. Some university psychologists take great pride in being able to trace their lineage back to the big wigs. I wonder if it's just a psychology thing or endemic to academia.

Academic heritage aside, back in the "good old days," when people thought mothers caused their children to be autistic through improper mothering, Harlow set out to study affection - specifically LOVE. Apparently what sparked his big idea was an observation that monkeys screamed and threw tantrums when the cheesecloths lining their cages were removed for cage cleanings.

Ever try to take a child's favorite teddy away to give it a little cleaning? You'd start to wonder what it is about the teddy that is so appealing. Children, like monkeys, become attached to whatever provides them affection. If a warm, responsive caregiver proves absent, any soft cloth will do. It just won't result in a secure attachment.

For a secure attachment, infants - human and nonhuman primate alike - need a caregiver who takes care of their needs promptly, appropriately, and reliably. Mess up on any one of those things, and you may get an infant who is insecure, anxious, and primed for screwed up romantic relationships in adulthood.

It's not exactly that cut and dried - for more depth on the subject of attachment, this is a decent primer.

Harlow's experiments showed that infant monkeys bond to whatever is soft and cuddly - even if it is nothing more than some fake fur wrapped around some wire and made to vaguely resemble a primate. At the time, people really thought it was nursing that forged the mother-infant bond. They were partially correct, in that oxytocin "the bonding hormone" is released during breast feeding, but they were also really wrong to discount the importance of touch. One thing I really wish someone (maybe me!) would study is whether oxytocin and massage as well as other forms of touch like grooming are associated.

The classic image from Harlow's research is the one of the poor baby monkey clinging to the cloth surrogate mother and leaning way over to nurse from the wire surrogate that provided nourishment. The sad thing is that although the monkeys in his experiments bonded to the surrogates and were able to be bold and explore on their own in the presence of their "mother," what psychologists call using the caregiver as a "secure base," the monkeys could not form normal socio-sexual relationships in adulthood. They had no clue how to interact with other monkeys and could not dance the delicate dance of nonverbal cues used during mating.

One of the benefits of having a secure attachment style is the ability to read and respond appropriately to others' nonverbal signals - the subtle facial expressions and body postures that play a critical role in courtship and mating. The "good read" link I supplied above points to some really interesting research on this particular subject - and the research uses humans - adult ones in real relationships.

When I show snippets of the old black and white CBS aired footage of Harry Harlow's research in my class, it always stimulates discussion. The biggest battle I ever face is how to keep the conversation on the subject of attachment behaviors rather than the ethics of primate research. If my students only knew about Harlow's "rape rack" I'd have more than a few them going berserk!

Here's some YouTube footage of Harry Harlow and his monkeys
(See if you can spot the monkey sucking its thumb):

Bird Identification Challenge

One year someone gave me a National Audubon Society Page-A-Day calender of birds. I saved some of my favorite bird images from the calender and mounted them on cards made from my handmade paper.

I have more of these than I know what to do with, so I listed them on Etsy and also donated a set to the Etsy For Animals store. The EFA store donates all sales proceeds to animal charities. The sale of my cards went toward Pug rescue, allegedly. I figure that with my labels on the back, at least the recipients will know where they came from.
I think these cards would be perfect for bird lovers, bird watchers, Audubon enthusiasts and anyone who prefers to make eco-friendly consumer choices.

I've left the birds unidentified so you can give your birdwatching friend a terrific identification challenge.

The cover example is a bird I've always had trouble identifying in the field. Its look-a-like is too similar to be able to identify it accurately when it's out on the water and you're on shore. I think many waterfowl are really best identified with a scope. And, I think if you have to bring a scope with you, well, it's just not usually worth it.

All of this reminds me that I once worked for the National Audubon Society. It was an okay job and I certainly got very well-acquainted with grant-funded grass roots environmental work. I learned first hand about coordinating and communicating with like-minded NGOs, bureaucratic waste, inertia, etc. Inefficiency.

I am pleased to have worked for them, after all, it is a charitable organization whose mission I support.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Recyled Ideas...

Cereal boxes and used office paper, quality construction, glue, ingenuity, and time - that's all it takes to make a nifty and colorful box that can hold package labels. Rather than paying someone to make labels for me, I designed the ones displayed in this box. To affix them, I just apply a little bit of glue from a glue stick to the back and presto - cheap and easy stickers. VoilĂ !

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Carved Primate Pens in a Handmade Recycled Toilet Paper Tube Caddy

In lieu of a more substantive post, I present this gizmo. I made it out of three adjoined toilet paper tubes that I covered with paper I made out of junk mail and flower petals. The carved primates were given to me many years ago as a gift.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Perfume: The Story of DNA & Desire

The movie Perfume: The Story of a Murderer begins with scenes that are not for the faint - blood, maggots, vomit, vermin, rotten fish - foul sights, surely putrid smells. If you can stomach the intensity, the movie is about Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a man who was born with an acute sense of smell. Driven to create a perfume that captures the essence of a woman, he obsessively pursues the perfect scent to the point that his obsession moves from creativity to murder.

Though fictional, the story symbolizes our species' fascination with scent - and perfumery. The practice of creating scents to apply to skin, hair, body, fabric and living space dates back as far as there has been written history. Perfumery began before anyone ever heard of the three wisemen who brought frankincense and myrrh for a certain baby. Rather than go into the history of perfumery, I'd like to introduce you to the science of it. It's one of my very favorite subjects!

Figuring out which scents appeal to the broadest base of people is one way that professional perfumers can maximize their profits. Another way is to somehow target scents to people who most like a particular scent or scent family. Although perfumers have been at it for along time, research into why people prefer the scents they do is just getting started.

You may have heard that most people like vanilla, and that is generally true, and that some people like ylang-ylang, but others hate it. The same goes for patchouli; it's hit-or-miss. What you may not know is that scientists have figured out that whether people like a scent has to do with their genetic makeup, specifically the part of it that codes for proteins on the surface of certain immune cells.

MHC is a stretch of DNA that creates proteins of the surface of immune cells that help the body recognize and differentiate 'self' from 'non-self.' MHC has profound implications for our ability to stay healthy, but research from Wedekind has also turned up some fascinating connections to its role in body odor, perfume preference and even mate selection.

MHC influences body odor. Don't ask me how it does, it just has to do with bacteria, armpits, and crotches. People can actually detect the subtle MHC-based differences in body odor, and when asked to sniff the worn shirts of potential 'dates' and 'mates,' people routinely choose as the "best smelling" those people whose MHC is different. Humans prefer a significant other whose genes are different. This makes good evolutionary sense. That combination would produce offspring who's immune system has a good chance of being able to detect a wider range of germs, thus being healthier.

Wedekind's team of scientists discovered that people who have the same genetic code for MHC like the same scents. It hasn't been studied yet, but it stands to reason that perfume preferences would "run in families." Are sisters and mothers genetically programmed to select the same aromatherapy products from Bath & Body Works? Not exactly. It's not like such convenience was available in the nature red in tooth and claw days (and nights) of our ancestors' time. But - Wedekind's research suggests that people select perfume and odors to augment their own naturally occurring odor and DNA.

Other lines of evidence suggests that we've been evaluating others' mate potential based on their scent (and consequently MHC, DNA) for a very long time. I think humans used various natural odors in ancestral times to augment body odor and still use it in modern times to make ourselves more appealing to the opposite sex. Wedekind's other research suggests that we choose and reject mates based in part on their body odor. And, a few studies have even found that choosing mates with the wrong MHC actually affects fertility.

Nowadays we manipulate our body odor to maximize our appeal to others and alter our mood. The mark of a true Darwinian winner is whether or not you actually choose artificial scents that match your MHC - and - whether you choose a partner to reproduce with who likes what you like, but only to a point.

Next time you look at the tiny flower sewn to the center piece of a brassiere, recognize it as the modern day version of a little satchel of fragrant roses, oils, and herbs that women once pinned between their breasts to perfume and provoke - desire.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

How Social Hierarchies Affect Your Health

"One of the greatest challenges to public health is to understand the 'socioeconomic gradient'," says Robert Sapolsky, a primatologist at Stanford University.

Sapolsky has made a successful career of studying the effects of social position on health. Though he has studied mainly baboons, his expert synthesis of a broad range of studies on primate dominance hierarchies and health provides context for understanding how human social hierarchies affect health.

To him, the socioeconomic gradient refers to the finding that in Western societies, poor health is associated with lower socioeconomic status. He questions whether this is more due to unequal access to health care or to the psychosocial milieu of poverty. He also questions to what extent the stress of being poor affects health.

Groups of social animals form dominance hierarchies that produce pronounced inequalities in access to resources (food, territory, other individuals). An animal's rank can dramatically affect the quality of its life. A natural question to ask is whether low ranking or high ranking individuals are more stressed and consequently have poorer health.

In the 1950s, the concept of "executive stress syndrome" predominated. Until it was discredited, most people believed that for primates (including humans) high rank was more psychologically stressful. A decade later, the prevailing view held that low rank was more stressful. So what's going on?

Rank means different things in different primate species. I some species, high rank is more stressful while in others, it's low rank that kills - quite literally in some cases.

So which is it for humans? Think of the financially thriving alpha males and females out there who put in long hours as an executive and then come home and fix and plan meals, take care of children, etc. Are they more or less physiologically and psychologically stressed than people who live pay check to pay check, or are chronically under- or unemployed?

To predict whether we as a species would be in the the high rank = high stress or low rank = high stress group, we can look at the patterns that predict this for other primate species and question how those patterns apply to our species.

Resource Inequity: Despotic vs Egalitarian
Resource division depends on to what extent a species is despotic versus egalitarian. In despotic species, resources belong to those at the top and that is achieved through aggression and intimidation. In egalitarian species, resources are more evenly distributed and rank is achieved by the support of others.

Which human societies would you say are despotic, and which are egalitarian?

Social Rank Stability
Among primate species with ranking systems that are inherited, stable, and lifelong, (as in a caste system), lower ranked primates experience the most stress. In other species, rank constantly changes and is negotiated in what amounts to politics. When ranks change, the individuals who fight their way to get to the top experience the most stress. But, once they achieve their role as leader and can "boss" others, they calm down and then their subordinates experience the most stress.

In which human societies would you wealth is inherited and stable, and in which does income fluctuate widely and depend on what you do rather than to whom you were born?

How Rank is Maintained
For species in which rank changes and is achieved and maintained through physical aggression (e.g. ring-tailed lemurs), alphas are more physiologically stressed. Fighting is physically demanding. For species in which rank changes and is achieved and maintained through psychological intimidation (baboons, squirrel monkeys), lower ranked individuals experience more stress.

Which human societies would you say rank is achieved through aggression and which through intimidation? Do leaders become leaders by beating up others or through manipulation?

Breeding Style
Primates sometimes help rear each other's young. Usually these are older brothers and sisters who act as babysitters for their parents until they are old enough and experienced enough to attain territory and begin their own families (tamarins and marmosets). In these species, rank has little to do with stress. In most other primates species, the highest ranking males and females determine who actually breeds by aggressively monopolizing breeding opportunities. Subordinates are the ones who suffer, sometimes to the point of being infertile.

To what extent do you think people actively compete for a boyfriend/girlfriend, spouse, life partner so that they may begin raising a family?

Coping Strategies
How primates cope with stress is as important as whether they are stressed. The availability and efficacy of social support affects primate health in all species. However, not all species and individuals have equal access to social support. Among primates, social support takes the form of grooming, touch, and other forms of physical affection. These forms of contact provide the basis of alliances and reconciliation after conflict, which are also forms of social support. Because primates preferential groom family members, the presence of kin is an important. In some primate species, males leave their birth groups at maturity (e.g. puberty) to go live with another group. In these species, females are the ones in the group who are related. They support each other while unrelated males have few outlets for support. We call these primates 'female bonded.' The reverse is the case for species in which females leave their birth groups at maturity.

Which of these coping mechanisms are also beneficial forms of social support for people? To what extent are human societies male versus female bonded? What coping strategies have humans invented that are particularly harmful to health?

Stress -> Health
Without getting into a discussion of the physiological correlates of stress (specific hormones) and why they degrade the body, suffice it to say that stress diminishes health by producing:
* high blood pressure & elevated heart rate
* tighter, clogged arteries
* lowered levels of the 'good' cholesterol (HDL)
* higher levels of the 'bad' cholesterol (LDL)
* lower fertility
* lower immune system function
* altered brain chemistry (affecting memory and anxiety)

The answers to these questions can help us predict in which human groups, societies, and cultures people of low social rank or socioeconomic status are likely to experience the most stress and health problems. One aspect that makes humans somewhat unique among primates is that we don't form linear hierarchies. Instead humans belong to multiple kinds of groups and organizations in which rank varies. We also have internal standards we use to compare ourselves to others so that a person may feel poor or low ranked while occupying an objectively affluent or high ranking position. People may come to feel poor by their surroundings, especially where there are a few very noticeably wealthy people and much economic disparity.

Despite these differences with other primates, humans of lower socioeconomic class have poorer health. This is not just due to poverty preventing access to health care. Countries with universal and equal access health care still show a pronounced socioeconomic health gradient.

Sapolsky has strong feelings about the lack of social equality among humans and its effect on the health of the poor. He says, "It is a testimony to the power of humans, after inventing material technology and the unequal distribution of its spoils, to corrosively subordinate its have-nots."

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Dressing Up Used Containers

I prefer to re-use containers whenever possible.
My preference is strong enough that I can honestly say it was a sock-rotter when an item I ordered from etsy arrived in damaged packaging.

The USPS 'apologized' for damaging the container (a bubble mailer I would have happily re-used to mail off items that get bought from my etsy store). The bubble mailer smelled like smoked salmon - not a scent I want permeating anything I send to a customer, let alone my house! The smell was nauseating so I chucked it, albeit reluctantly.

Recently I had a craving for Brie, the kind that comes in those round wooden boxes with about a 4 inch diameter, and with the help of Mr. Field Notes emptied the container. Delicious! This afternoon I fished out some Japanese paper from my collection and covered the now empty brie container with some really terrific indigo-colored paper that I found in the Origami Center of Japan.

I had enough left over from the small sheet to also cover a now empty tea canister. I had eyed several tea containers while I was in Japan but elected not to buy one - perhaps because I knew I could make one of my own at a tenth of the price. Besides, plain green tea is easy enough to get at home and I prefer spicy chai anyway, so it was after all, a really easy thing to forgo.

I am very pleased with how the dressed up containers turned out.

In general I like re-using things. I spruce up empty toilet paper tubes (they become pen and crafting tool organizers). I have also turned some used calenders into envelopes and magnets. It turns out I amassed quite a collection over the last several years.

One set is from Le Petite Prince, a Little Prince calender I found in Paris.

The words on the magnets are lines from the original book, en francais.

The envelopes were snapped up by a Little Prince fan I know, but I still have the magnets.

It would take a princely sum to make me part with the magnets. Le Petite Prince was the first book I read in French, and I am fond of the imagery. More importantly, I have no idea when I'll be in France again!

Another set is from La Vache Qui Rit, a Laughing Cow cheese calender.

I bought it in Paris at the same time as the Little Prince one.

I think the cow art is very handsome. I left the calender hanging up on the fridge and kept rotating the pictures because the art is so wonderful. It dates back to 2001.

I also converted a Newfoundland dog calender and two calenders from the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund into envelopes.

I only have magnets for the newfies. The DFGF didn't set up their calenders the way commercial ones do so there aren't little images on the back cover to show buyers what is inside the calender. They haven't sent one for 2008 so I don't know whether they're not doing them this year or if we didn't donate enough, or some other thing. I like the calenders a lot, and don't need them as a reason or reward for donating.

I'm storing the envelopes in the plastic containers that our Organics lettuce comes packaged in. After the labels are pealed off and the container rinsed and dried, they are perfectly functional and look great. I never have to wonder what is stored inside.

Once you train yourself to consider other uses for packaging and containers, you'll start noticing all kinds of "garbage" that should never end up in the landfill.

Monday, December 17, 2007

What IQ Doesn't Tell You About Race.. or Intelligence

Malcolm Gladwell's article/book review on IQ in the New Yorker is a good read for anyone who wishes to brush up on the subject of the measurement of intelligence. Gladwell draws heavily from the work of James Flynn, who has a new book out called What is Intelligence?

Flynn gained a name for himself when he showed that IQ scores have risen over time throughout the world. The so-called Flynn Effect now receives mention in nearly all introductory psychology textbooks. You'll have to read his book to discover why he thinks IQ scores have risen over time. I wonder how much of the rising scores have to do with people taking the test (which rarely changes) repeatedly.

Gladwell and Flynn's discussion of intelligence raises some key topics and points worthy of debate. One of the most heavily debated is the influence of genetics and environment on intelligence. Another concerns to what extent the measurement of intelligence is actually the measurement of how well a person understands the cultural norms of the test creator. Finally, how should intelligence tests be used? These are the same questions I have my students think about during our unit on intelligence in introductory psychology.

My own stance on these topics is largely irrelevant when it comes to how I present the research on intelligence. At least, I try my best to make sure students get unbiased presentations of the issues, are armed with the research, and can state their own position on these three topics and back it up with a well-reasoned argument that relies on research. It's one of my favorite units in case you couldn't tell!

In any case, my position is that intelligence is influenced by both genetics and environment. I tend to look at the effect of environment as analogous to the effect of sunlight and soil condition on how well a plant grows to its potential height. Given impoverished sunlight and soil, plants are stumpy and leaves are small. However, given the right level of sunlight and soil nutrients for the plant, the plant grows taller and the leaves are broader. Sunlight and soil conditions are analogous to the availability of cognitively stimulating games, puzzles, and play as well as the absence of genetically based anomalies (such as an extra 21st chromosome) and environmentally induced brain damage such as from exposure to lead based paint and pollutants, blunt head trauma, oxygen deprivation, etc.

I also think tests that are culturally unbiased (at least less biased than the WISC and WAIS are) can be used to identify students who need special educational attention - whether they be students who score on the low or high end of the IQ spectrum. That is how intelligence tests were intended to be used by the original inventor of them - Alfred Binet. He wanted a standard, systematic way to identify struggling students who needed additional education. Although his test was itself extremely culturally biased, he had benign intentions. The Raven Standard Progressive Matrices are a relatively unbiased measure of nonverbal intelligence.

For a thorough and thoughtful discussion of the history and uses of intelligence tests, I highly recommend the book, The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould. It is *really* good.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

New Homes - A welcome and a goodbye.

For the first time ever, we have a our very own Christmas tree in our house. It only took 13 years! Mr. Field Notes ventured off to the great white north (er, south that is) with a buddy from work and brought us home a tree - a gorgeous Douglas fir.

Friendly fir, spiky spruce.

By its ring count, it made it about 20 years before heading off to its new home, in our dining room.

Miss Newfoundland looks very proud of her new tree, doesn't she? Crazy green eyed monsterish expression! Both dogs have been very well behaved around the tree, but just in case we bought a stand that is supposed to resist tipping. So far so good.

Keeping with tradition, we hung our collection of ornaments. My favorite is a cross-stitched lion in a red plastic frame.

Beneath the lion is the embroidered name "Leo," the name of my beloved childhood stuffed lion. My little sister made the ornament for me when she was about 10. She embroidered it herself and carefully taped the edges of the cloth into the frame. It's rag tag now, but I've kept it over the years and hung it on a variety of plants and miniature trees over the years at this time of year.

One year during Senior Spaniel's early unwrapping of Christmas presents destined for others, he got into the box of ornaments and altered the precious lion one. That's a nice way of putting it. Oh what a wretched curr he has been! You'd never believe this is the same dog who last night slept peacefully under the tree without a thought in his mind of further altering the ornaments that hung just above his noggin - including the lion ornament that bears the mark of his sometimes ferocious little mouth.

I'd rather plants trees than cut them down, so I feel good about having planted 4 plum trees, a maple tree, and a catalpa tree this year to make up for cutting this one down. The trees are all still alive, at least they appear to be. And, two of the ten trees I planted the year before are still alive.

Although we said hello to a tree this week, we also said goodbye to "Gorilla, the Non-Monkey Sock Monkey." She's in a box now, packaged up in a dark corner of the post office waiting to be put on a truck to travel to ScienceWoman! I snapped a pic of her with Russ, the Non-Sock Sock Monkey before she got bundled up to leave.

I sewed a new Gorilla this weekend; I think the profile turned out really well and I even got the front limbs to resemble what gorillas look like when "knuckle-walking." The blue-faced golden snub-nosed langur I've been working on is also done. Trouble is, that little wart-lipped rascal didn't make into the box destined for a new home in CA with my niece... oops. Miss PiPi will have to wait for the next shipment!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Art Feature - Sea Dream Art

I discovered Cari of Sea Dream Art when she posted a new mixed media painting on Etsy. The image was the neatest of the ones that scrolled across the page, so I clicked and ended up exploring all that her etsy store has to offer - vividly colored, multi-textured images that exude passion. Right away I knew that I wanted to interview her for this feature story. Cari was kind to answer my nosy questions and allow me to share a bit of her work and story here.

"Art is my life. It always has been," Cari says. She started creating art in high school with acrylic paint and over the years incorporated different media by experimenting. Her Sea Dream Art images now use wood, sand, rocks, inks, paper, glue, and any thing else that happens to achieve the look she's aiming for. She finds inspiration in the work of other collage artists. "The multiple layers of color, text and images make my imagination go wild. Just the way turquoise blue vibrates next to vermilion still gives me goosebumps!"

That color combination excites me too. Her piece "Creation" (above) juxtaposes just those colors with the addition of a bold hand floating between the yin and yang of the sun and moon. It's my favorite of her images. Cari says she has created and recreated Creation many times over. "It is an image that continues to surface from inside me and into my work... One day I want to paint it on the door of my studio. Right now the original piece hangs there."

And, I'm thinking this would be a gorgeous painting for the door of my office! The hand in the middle reminds me so much of the hands of fatima I saw all over Tunisia. The spiral motif finds a place in the art of numerous cultures. A Jungian psychologist would say such images spring from the collective unconscious we share as human beings. Such art can symbolize how the cosmos and psyche are intimately connected.

"I draw inspiration for my work mostly from the spirituality of different cultures," says the woman behind Sea Dream Art.

"That connection to things felt, but unseen continues to move and fascinate me. Poets, writers and musicians are great sources as well. A great song or poem can wrench a painting out of me quicker than anything else. Most of all I hope my work can help the viewer make that connection to the great mystery. I feel we are conscious and aware for a reason. Maybe one day our human connection to the divine will cause a shift that will make beautiful things happen here on our planet. I hope I live to see it."

Though she recognizes her work "isn't going to save the world from global warming or cure cancer or stop wars," Cari sees it as her calling. "I live for the hours that are mine alone with the canvas."

Although she enjoys working alone, Cari creates art in her studio The Factory in Albuquerque, NM in the company of artists (Ren Adams and Ken Murakami) she happened to meet through etsy.

"We are like minded souls living the dream," she says of her artist companions, all three of whom make a living from their artwork. "It's not always easy. Trying to make a living on selling your work is difficult and can be defeating. Art is a luxury item and sales can be sporadic to non-existent at times." Isn't that the truth. I think it's inspiring to find artists who create art and also run a successful business.

The theme that runs throughout Sea Dream Art is "Love, first and foremost. For me love is the most powerful energy in the universe.... It is the essence of who I am as a woman, artist, human being."

Of all the images that she has created, Cari says her favorite would have to be Hope (left).

"The image came to me in a vision when I pleaded to the universe for direction," she adds. "I will never part with the original, but the prints of Hope are probably my biggest seller. She speaks to different people for many different reasons."

Thank you Sea Dream Art for sharing your hope for peace, your beautiful vibrant art, and your story with us!

All images copyright SeaDreamArt.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Ring-Tailed Lemur Makes a Big Stink

A few days ago I sculpted a ring-tailed lemur out of polymer clay. I had been thinking about doing it for a few days, and I have to admit my usually confident self thought maybe it would prove to be too challenging.

My goal was to make it look unmistakably like a ring-tailed lemur.

I also wanted to make the little darling functional, so rather than simply being an ornament for a desk, which there is nothing wrong with, I gave her a job.

She holds an incense stick so she can exude all kinds of wonderful smells, just like lemurs do in real life.

Don't let her sweet appearance fool you - lemur girls are feisty creatures who are known for being dominant to males. They mark territory with scented glands in their wrists and have been known to have "stink fights." Smelliest one wins!

To learn more about lemurs, click here. The Duke University Primate Center rocks. One of my absolute favorite primate species is the aye-aye - the world's most unusual lemur. To find out more, click here and then scroll down until you see the primates.

Reading Day - Temperament & The Stroop Test

Lately it seems I have been so busy with my hands that I haven't exercised my mind by indulging in one of favorite pastimes - reading. Yesterday I had my annual doctor's appointment and had the good sense to bring a few journals with me that contained articles I had on my reading list, including one that referenced the famous Stroop Test (at right, throughout this post).

I knew from previous experience that with only People magazine and the other brainless publications doctor's offices stock, that I would be trapped half-naked for a seemingly interminable amount of time if I didn't bring my own reading material.

Armed with journals in the Psychological Science family, I didn't even notice how long I had to wait. And, as it turns out, I was smart to bring more than one journal because later when I met Mr. Field Notes for lunch, I had to wait again while he worked the kinks out of the new pagination system he uses to get the pages out at the newspaper. By the end of the day, I had read several articles, all of them food for thought!

I believe I showed an admirable level of inhibitory restraint by not immediately reading the primate articles. Topics ranged from temperament and personality development, vision, oxytocin, and immunity. I learned some really cool things that would be fun to incorporate into lectures.

For now, I'll share just this one.


Every animal is born with a biologically based temperament that affects how it responds to the environment. In time, this temperament becomes its personality.

Attentiveness to stimuli and the ability to control inappropriate responses are two very important aspects of temperament. Among humans, these two facets of temperament affect empathy, conscience, and feelings of guilt. In other words, some fairly high-level emotional and cognitive processes.

A person who is attentive to the subtle emotional cues of others is prepared to be empathetic. To act appropriately in response to another's distress, people also have to control or inhibit the negative feelings that distress arouses. Not all people are equally biologically prepared to be attentive or to inhibit. Those who are less prepared are probably not going to empathetic or have the "conscience" necessary to help, for example.

The question the authors pose in the article is whether people can learn to be more attentive and to demonstrate greater control and inhibition of inappropriate reactions. In other words, can you take an individual who demonstrates little empathy, conscience, or guilt (hallmarks of psychopathy) and teach him or her to be a kind and decent human being?

Interesting stuff.

From reading the article, I discovered there is an alternate Stroop task that can be used to test how well (illiterate) 3 year olds can control and inhibit responses. The stroop test presents words of colors in a color that sometimes matches the word and sometimes conflicts with it. So, "red" could appear in red or blue ink, just like "yellow" could appear in blue or yellow ink. The idea is to say as fast as possible the word, not the color. People have a difficult time controlling the urge to say the color. You can take a Stroop test by clicking here (you'll need shockwave) and following the directions. At the end you'll get to learn more about it by following the links.

The cognitive mechanism involved in the Stroop family of tests is called "directed attention." To perform well on the tests, you have to pay attention to subtle changes in stimuli and inhibit/stop one response in order to do another.

It's a little bit like paying attention to subtle changes in the muscles of a person's face in order to tell when they aren't so happy with something and then having to override your feelings of wanting to avoid getting sucked into their unhappiness so that you can then respond effectively. This matters in valuable caregiving relationships such as parent-child and romantic partners, but control is relevant for a wide variety of other emotions and social relationships.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

My "Hi Viz Dog Vest" in Hunter's Orange Finished!

Over the weekend I finished the blaze orange coat for Her Royal Highness the Newfoundland. She was kind enough to model it.

She thinks it's lame to wear, and when it comes off after a walk, she rolls all over the floor like a giant goofball. She's our Goofundland. Now if she could continue to get over her extreme fear of sudden loud sounds, she just might be a decent hunter...

Na! Her temperament is just not right for that, but her brother the curmudgeonly spaniel - man did he miss his calling in life! He would have been an awesome bird dog. He loves to flush and has always paid attention to what's up in the air.

If only Katy wasn't afraid of guns, and if only I actually wanted to hunt birds, we'd have quite the pheasant hunting posse. Max would flush, I would shoot, and Katy would retrieve.

I'd probably be crap at shooting a moving target, but that's what practice is for. I'd still like to see if I could hit a clay pigeon. That's on the agenda for next year, and I'm going to finally use the rifle my dad gave me (just not for the clay pigeons). I could use some good old fashioned target practice. You can take the girl out of MT, but you can't take the MT out of the girl :)

I have mixed feelings about hunting. I have never had to kill the meat I eat. The only time I did was a fish I caught when I was like 12. It's not the same as shooting a bear. I couldn't do that for sport, and I wouldn't want to eat it or have it as a trophy. But, some do and if it weren't for hunters, far fewer people would care about conservation. Every hunter I've met is a bit of an environmentalist. It's one area where liberal "tree huggers" and right-wing republicans can find some common ground.

I saw on one of the national news shows today that a little kid shot his first bear. I think the images they showed of the little boy and his dad and the bear would be shocking to some viewers. It reminded me of how my family is a hunting family, but it's a dying tradition for us. I also think it's a dying tradition all over the country, in some places more than others - New England specifically. The large predators have vanished from the ecosystem along with hunters. Deer run rampant.

Alas, I will never really be a hunter - and neither will Miss Goofundland, but we could in principle, if we had to, hunt to stay alive. For now, we stay home and eat meat somebody else processed. She practices eviscerating her prey and I have fun watching her disembowel her sock toys. She pulled out the entrails of one I made today.

When I make sock monkeys or sock gorillas, I always have little pieces of sock left over. Today I sewed some fabric scraps into the sock scrap and gave it to Katy. I made that goof's day. Talk about a cheap toy. She doesn't care what it looks like - as long as it feels good in her jowls and squeaks! I need a squeaky toy insert supplier... you know just the gizmo that squeaks so I can insert them into these silly toys. She loves them. And I don't mind if the entrails get all over the floor. I just scoop them up, let them air dry and restuff a different sock. How pragmatic.

Her jacket - size XXXL measures about 36 inches long and 32 in girth. It cost $12 and about 2 hours in work. It's also completely reversible. It comes with a blaze orange "mouse."

She's already received a few adoring looks from her neighborhood fans. She will get a lot more accolades from people when she parades downtown. I would love to have some custom patches embroidered for her coat. *That* would be kick *ss!

Friday, December 07, 2007

Stepping Out into a Winterwonderland at 1 am

If I hadn't taken Her Royal Newfsance out at 1am, her squeaking would have woken up the guy who has to be up an hour early for the "early deadline."

To give the carriers time to deliver, the newspaper sets an early deadline for page production whenever it snows. I am up late anyway so I took Her Royal Whinyness out.

I was rewarded with getting to see the fresh snow blanketing everything in sight. I brought the camera out with me just in case I could get good pics with the flash despite the darkness of night. I didn't take enough pictures at the previous place we lived and I do miss the massive snowfalls there, so I couldn't resist documenting the strange weather here. I have lived in this place for a total of ten years and have never seen this much snow pile up so regularly.. except that one year in college. The snow, if it came at all, either didn't stick to the ground or happened in early January when all of us kids were on break.

I don't know about the snow here this month. It's weird, but nice so long as this is fleeting. I would be happier with hoar frost. But I will just have to accept that we don't really live in a zone 8 gardening area. I think it is closer to 6. Seven in some years. Not this one, however. Oh well. My poor little jasmine plant is most assuredly a goner.

Katy spun some cookies in the yard around my planter bed before doing her back hoe impersonation. Can she just leave those weeds alone? I guess not. She must unearth them. I can't really complain - my giant dog aerates the lawn and pulls weeds for me. That dog is woman's best friend.

Finally I close with a photo of the snow shoes I will not be wearing to the mountains this weekend. Do they suggest I didn't grown up here, but instead grew up in a place where this weather would be considered a heat wave for this time of year?!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Belizean Sunrise & Primates

Yesterday we had a chinook wind blow through here.

That's what they're called where I grew up, but around here they are small winter gifts from the "Pineapple Express."

With them comes unseasonably warm air.

I use the word gift deliberately; in Swedish it means poison. Some people out on the coast got hammered with hurricane force winds and rain like you wouldn't believe. People died. The governor is trying to get some areas declared disaster areas so federal funding can be used to clean up and rebuild roads and bridges.

Inland, we got nothing but the benefits of the Pineapple Express.

The air smelled tropical this morning when I woke up to take the doggies out. It reminded me of a few mornings in Belize. It really did. In the inland mountains in Belize it got cold enough in the mornings to see your breath. The humidity was palpable even though it was cool. It was like that here this morning - except the only sounds of wild birds were the juncos chirping from the branches of our plum tree, and the only sounds of monkeys were the imaginary ones in my head.

I wished for a moment that I was actually in Belize.

I went back in side to attend to my work. I have orders to fill, items to list (a new OrnaMonkey ring-tailed lemur) and Pay It Forward gifts to send among other tasks.

Having Belize and primates on my mind, I decided to locate conferences that I could present my dissertation research at. I found two and intend to apply to both. If I get into both, great! If I get into neither, oh well. If I get into one, I hope it's the better one. The deadlines aren't for a while, so I have time to run my proposal abstracts by others first. Figuring out who to run them by is where I am stuck. My committee members? Only one has actually gone to one of the conferences. I don't know anybody personally who has gotten into the other one. That's why I end up doing these things by myself. If I can get into the conference then I can meet people who might be helpful later. That's the idea anyway.

This is just the impetus I need to get my publications together. That way, I can pave the way to turning my dreams into reality. And, maybe just maybe I will be in the field collecting dung or other samples from primates a year from now.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Stocking Stuffers for Women in Science

When I stumbled on the necklaces made by Uncorked at etsy, I was immediately struck by her clever re-use of laboratory supplies. If you have girls and women in your life who love science, these necklaces would be a great addition to their stocking this year. I would love to have one of these necklaces (the one with the family of mountain gorillas on it) myself. There are more than 50 different designs to choose from. I know you'll be able to find something you like too!

I asked Uncorked what prompted her to start making them. She said she has always loved to re-purpose things in her home and classroom (she teaches 6-8th grade science).

She has used test tubes as carrying cases for vitamins, in spice racks, and as push pin holders that hang on her bulletin boards. As for the necklaces, "One day with a regular test tube order I received a better grade of cork than what I was used to. The cork felt unbelievably cool and smooth to the touch and looked so beautiful that within seconds I was imagining my uncorked line!" she says.

Uncorked calls herself a "mad scientist" in her profile on etsy, so I asked her about what that phrase means to her. "I am the kind of scientist that gets "mad" when people think they cannot be scientific and artistic at the same time," she said. I completely agree. Science requires imagination, passion, originality, and an ability to think outside the box and improvise - all traits usually associated with artists. Uncorked has successfully combined her love of science and art with her test tube line.

When I asked Uncorked about what prompted her to start selling her creations on etsy, she told me that she "was trying to get some crafty girls in my school interested in the science fair by offering them a new category for the most creative project. The girls were all etsy addicted, and when I got home that night and googled it, I was quickly addicted, too!" It sounds to me like she learned about Etsy from her students. Neat!

In addition to teaching science, Uncorked teaches photography classes. Just as she encourages her science students' love for art, she introduces her photography students to the beauty in science. "I am determined to get my photography students to see the beauty in tesla coil, exploding glass and, yes, cork! And I am equally determined to get my computer students to see the beauty in their binary numbers!" she says.

Clearly Uncorked is passionate about what she does. "As a scientist I am continually inspired by the things I do not know. When a student asks a question in a way I had not thought about, I get excited. When I hear something I am unfamiliar with, the researcher in me kicks into high gear. I love to google! I am also a born skeptic so I love to experiment," she says. She also strikes me as a natural artist. "I have been an artist all my life. College was kind of a crossroads where I choose science as a career because I knew the art would always be there for me." Gotta pay the bills!

Her "uncorkedUCATION line" is designed specifically for girls to inspire a love of math and science.

The cork she uses in her pieces is a renewable resource (as are the glass test tubes). Cork comes from the bark of the cork oak tree.

She says the cork she uses "is grown in managed forests in Portugal and Spain where the bark is carefully harvested, once every nine years, in a centuries-old tradition with hand tools and without fertilizers or pesticides, a process that ensures the forests will remain undamaged."

The photo on the right shows what a harvested and still alive cork oak tree looks like. I passed through a forest of them in Tunisia, and they are amazing trees. The WWF has an excellent page devoted to the conservation of these unique Mediterranean forests.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Chimps Have Better Memories than Humans

My commentary is below the story.

by Yomiuri Shimbun

Young chimpanzees scored better results than humans in a memory recall test, according to a group of researchers at Kyoto University's Primate Research Institute.

The test involved recalling the locations of groups of numbers flashed onto a computer screen.

The researchers led by Tetsuro Matsuzawa also found that young chimps performed better than mature chimps. Matsuzawa speculated that humans might have lost this kind of short-term memory recall to make room for other information--such as language--as a result of evolutionary processes or aging. The results of the research appear in the journal Current Biology.

Before the test, three pairs of 4-year-old chimps and their mothers were trained to recognize the sequence of numbers from one to nine on a computer display over a period of six months. When the young chimps reached the age of 5-1/2, they were introduced to a computer touch-screen upon which randomly located numbers flashed up once before being hidden. The task for the examinees was to point at the hidden numbers in ascending order from smallest to largest.

Ayumu, a male chimpanzee, was the most successful performer, correctly locating all nine numbers, which were flashed onto the computer screen for 0.7 second. Nine university students who were pitted against the chimps failed to locate the numbers correctly.

In another test, five numbers were flashed onto the computer screen for 0.65 second. Young chimps and students scored similarly with about 80 percent. The chimps' mothers registered about 50 percent.

But when the numbers were displayed for only 0.21 seconds, which is not enough time for the eyes to scan the screen for the scattered numbers, the percentage of correct answers for the young chimps remained at about 80 percent, while that for the students halved to 40 percent. The percentage for the older chimps dropped sharply to 20 percent.

Regarding the degradation of this kind of memory, Matsuzawa said: "The brain's capacity is limited. To obtain new abilities, it might be necessary to give up old ones."

******* A primate psychologist's perspective *******

I have not yet read the research article, so my thoughts are off the cuff. First off, Tetsuro Matsuzawa has been training chimps at the ape lab in Kyoto for a long time. He's got a lot of practice getting them to hunt and peck numbers and other symbols on a touch-sensitive monitor.

The work is interesting, but I think it's important to reiterate that this research is about the capacity of short-term memory rather than numerical competence. These chimps are not counting; they probably do not know that the symbol "9" means nine items, such as pieces of candy or grapes they are accustomed to getting during training.

The capacity of short-term perceptually based memory in humans is about 7-9 items, so the chimps are performing at a level we'd expect from humans. One reason why they score better than people on the test is that the chimps might just be more familiar with the procedure and equipment. They've had 6 months to practice whereas the human participants in this experiment might not have had much more than a few minutes to figure it out.

As far as the conclusions the APA writer attributes to Matsuzawa, that he "speculated that humans might have lost this kind of short-term memory recall to make room for other information--such as language--as a result of evolutionary processes or aging," that sounds plausible on the surface, but I'd have to see the methodology of the research to be convinced there's something there.

As soon as I read the research article, I'll be back with more in depth comments on the methodology. Until then I'll just have to grump one more time about Why it is that news stories gloss over the methods. Oh yeah, that's right - it's because journalists don't learn how to do science in "J school" so they don't realize the methods are actually the most important element of the research they report. Grrr.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Pay it Foward

As seen at three muses, a Pay It Forward promise.

I will send a handmade gift to the first 3 people who leave a comment on my blog requesting to join this PIF (Pay it forward) exchange. I'm not sure what that gift will be. It will be a surprise! The only thing you have to do in return is to pay it forward by making the same promise on your blog. (And you gotta follow through!)

So basically, if you’re one of the first 3 comments, I’ll send you something crafty that I’ll make! Once you sign up, I'll email you to let you know that you are one of the three.

If you want to play along, copy and paste the above paragraph on your blog, and three other lucky people will be recipients of your handmade work.

Pay it Forward!

A Battle of Wills

The Newf is one persistent animal. She knows what she wants and pursues it relentlessly.




She whined at me this morning to get the day going. She had plans. She wanted to meet her daily goals: pee, eat, poo, nap, nap, nap, beg for treats, snooze on the couch... I meanwhile just wanted to sleep in a little. Oh well. What Katy wants, Katy gets.

She keeps winning the battle of wills to snooze on the couch. Sometimes she wins the battle of wills to chew on herself. She's a nervous kid so when she's bored a bit she licks her paws, her rear, her thigh. When I see her I always give her a stern "Heeeeeey" and she stops. I often win that one. But not so with the couch. She's sneaky and sleeping is a quiet activity so I can't catch her as quickly. Thus she gets the satisfaction and reward of being on the couch.

I got tired of making our bed in the morning with the dog sheet over our made bed, so I resorted to shutting the door to the room. But I can't shut the door to the living room. I would like her to use the big comfy chair instead of the couch; we've got the dog sheet draped over it. We rarely sit in it, so the sheet can stay on the chair indefinitely. But she doesn't like the chair as much. "It's too small" is what she grumps when she climbs out of it after a few minutes. At least she's used the chair more than once since we draped the sheet over it. We'll see who wins this one. I have a feeling it won't be me.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Neatest Owl You've Never Seen

It was love at first sight when I saw this on the front page of etsy right before I turned into bed for the night. I decided if it was still there in the morning, I would have to have it.

When I woke up this morning I told Sleyed all about it and how I thought his dad might be interested in seeing this artform. All three of us love birds, and lately his dad has been into knots.

This is the one I bought, and I can't wait for it to arrive!