Friday, May 25, 2007

Random Thoughts II

Ever notice how people say "dead body" rather than just body? If you've found a body in the duct work of an elementary school (as police in Phoenix did today) why do journalists say police found a dead body? It's pretty obvious it's a dead one otherwise they'd say they've found a person. Go figure.

Through googling I found a blog (loaded with comments) about how horribly against-God IVF (in vitro fertilization) is. Evidently quite a few Christians think if a woman can't get pregnant, God has other plans for her. Messing with "god's will" through IVF is wrong evidently, but none of them think open-heart surgery and diabetes medication is. Go figure.

Some journalists have nothing better to do than pick at nits about whether Barack Obama was correct in using flack jacket in a press release instead of Flak jacket or whatever the current correct AP style is. Yeah, one dictionary says it can be spelled both ways, but AP style probably has it one way. In any case, no one should expect a public figure to use AP style!

I love Grey's Anatomy and watch every episode. Last night Sleyed and I watched the season finale online since we had missed it while flying to NH for the big event. I thought it was the best of the finales we watched (Lost, 24, Desperate Housewives, Heroes) but still a bit disappointing. Do all of the women have to end up being pathetic, wimpy-dimpy basket cases?

I've found a couple of blogs about Newfies. Around here, we love newfs -- flying fur and slobber and all. Ayla likes ice cubes too. Orion has a friend named Wet for obvious reasons. Nanook is a Landseer who appears to be owned by a Norwegian who got him and his Newfy sib bibs that say "Drool if you're Norwegian" (also Spit Happens). Kodos posts videos of himself and is huge. Haley doesn't have her own blog but she is one seriously cute puppy!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


I actually have a PhD now!

There's so much to say about the trip back to NH for the event - seeing 2 U.S. Presidents speak, what my advisor said about me at the luncheon, getting hooded and walking around town in the garb, recovering my golf clubs from the storage unit, the lost luggage (including the PhD diploma!!!!) . . .

The Luncheon
My dad came with us to NH for the event and was a good sport about traveling. He hadn't been on a plane for decades. The weather was crap, but typical NH. We got in at about 2am and had to wake up early the next morning for the "new PhDs" luncheon.

The luncheon was interesting. Evidently it's the occasion for advisors to talk about their students and their students to rebut. I was a little worried about what mine would say about me but she was amazingly complimentary. I was genuinely surprised.

The Graduation Ceremony
We took my dad out to the coast for lobster that night and woke up bright and early the next day to get to the stadium for the graduation ceremony. We left at around 7am so that we could park for a ceremony. We had to walk about a mile to the stadium. Then we waited, got rained on, and waited some more. I was off by myself with the other graduating PhDs.

Bill Clinton and George Bush spoke. I had an amazing seat - at the edge of a row right in front of the stage. I had only one person in front of me. I hoped that the Presidents would walk down our aisle but they went down the next one, shaking hands along the way. It would have been so amazingly neat to be able to meet them, but it didn't happen. While waiting to get hooded, I was so full of anticipation. Not knowing what these ceremonies are like, I invented a picture of what the hooding would be like.

On one hand, I hoped that one or both of the Presidents would assist with the hooding like Gore did years ago when he spoke. On the other hand, I hoped we would get the same kind of hooding that the honorary doctorates received, but nope. They did have us go up on stage, and have the hood placed on (by our advisors), but they just read off our names, put the hood on (two seconds) and that was that. Once we had all walked across stage they did the whole "By the power invested in me by the trustees of the university.... blah blah blah, I pronounce you blah blah blah" while we were seated.

I have to say that I was disappointed by how perfunctory the hooding was.

The Presidents took off right before all the PhDs got up on stage to be hooded. That was a disappointment too.

Oh well. I think I just expected too much.
-- Kind of sounds like graduate school!

We walked around town afterward; my dad really wanted me to keep the garb on so I did. I figured why the hell not; it cost enough! While we sat and had coffee and bagels several people came up to congratulate me and say they saw me on TV. Apparently it was televised on NH public TV. According to my family I was the only graduate who got a close-up shot on the big-screen projector.

To celebrate we ate at my absolute favorite restaurant. I had my absolute favorite food: lobster ravioli. And, for the first time I ate the whole serving. I was so stuffed, but it was worth it. Who knows when we'll be back again.

We had clam chowder at our favorite clam shack the next day, went birdwatching at Plum Island, and showed my dad the Bush compound in Kennebunkport, ME.

The Golf Clubs
On a whim we stopped at the apartment buildings we lived at TWO YEARS AGO to see if the golf clubs I had forgotten were still around. Much to my surprise they were. They had been in an unlocked area in an UNLOCKED shed. We also spotted a dining room table, chairs, and lamps we had to leave behind because we didn't have space in the U-Haul. I thought about checking the clubs but ended up giving them to my friend who came up from Baltimore for graduation. She's more likely to actually use them. I just asked her to give them back to me if she ever doesn't want them anymore because they are the clubs I used throughout high school when I was on the golf team and the sand wedge and putter were graduation gifts (for my BA).

Lost Bags
We flew home bright and early. I had to check my bag at the door of the airplane because the flight attendant insisted there wasn't enough space. I never check luggage for fear of them losing my stuff. So, what do know? They almost lost the bag and also my dad's bag. My diploma was inside! I wasn't terribly worried because nothing in my bag was truly irreplacable. I could get a new diploma printed (at a significant charge). What really made me anxious was that they had the bag I was planning to use for our Japan trip. Fortunately we got the bags back a day later. The airline had a courrier drive them to my house - about 200 miles away from the airport. My diploma was still inside, unharmed.

Clinton's Speech

Bush's Speech

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Never E'Neuf Newfs!

This afternoon at lunch Sleyed mentioned something about how cute Landseer newfs are and before we knew it we were talking about getting another newf. Not seriously talking - just having fun imagining life with two newfs. If we had enough land and money, I'm sure we'd have nine newfies...

There are a bunch of cute stories about "You know your Newf is big when..." at Drulzelot, a Newf blog. I can relate to this one:

"... driving with my Mack, who was a very long slabby dog, and when I was in paying for my gas, the teller asked me how many dogs I had in the car. I answered "Just one..." and then followed her line of vision, to see Mack standing in the back seat of my car with his head out one side window, and part of his tail sticking out the window on the other side, wagging..."

Speaking of her Royal Newfssance, Katy has been the subject of a bit of concern ever since she wigged out when our neighbor had a new roof put on his house last week. Actually, I think her little panic attacks started a few months ago when she got spooked by kids lighting off fire crackers behind the science building. She hesitated to walk on campus and is just now coming around.

Then the roofers arrived, followed by balloon stampede weekend with the sound of hot air balloon firings over our house, and then more fireworks to close the fetsival. She was so freaked out the night of the fireworks that she slept in the bathtub one night and refused to eat one of her "munchy snacks." She cowered for a week and acted afraid of just about everything, including us at one point.

She's on the mend now. Today the Baroness von Roughenhausen worked up enough confidence to wander off to the alley and BOTH neighbor yards while I was outside with her weeding. We weeded together for a while but she got bored and wandered off a few times. She came back everytime I called her so I figured her freedom outside would be good for confidence building.

She loved it - tearing around the yard at high speed, juking imaginary dogs, play bowing, etc. I love to see her happy. It's also wonderful that she seems to like pulling weeds - it's the weirdest thing. She only pulls the weeds!

We aren't getting another newf, but it sure is tempting sometimes. She's a big sweetheart - very protective, emotionally sensitive, agreeable. And, when I've been working at my laptop too long, she's eager to make me take a break for the towel game.

Stupid Towel Game is her favorite. She holds one corner of a kitchen towel in her mouth while one of us holds another corner. Then we flip the towel around in the air like you would a jump rope very fast until it forms a long, tight spiral. She goes nuts when it hits her on the top of her giant head. I've played STG so long that my arm hurts... and still she asks for more.

The pictures capture what I was confronted with every few hours while writing my dissertation.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Newfy Drool-o-Meter

Found at Nanook the Newfoundland, the Newfy Drool-o-Meter Key:

Dry Mouth: Zero interest or appreciation for the item in question - not worth drooling over.

Minicicles: Just the tiniest hint of a droolcicle starting at either corner of the mouth. Drool worthy? Barely.

One-Slinger: The treat is good - good enough to get the juices flowing but not so good that I would offer it as an aperitif on a first date with Sunshade.

Two-Slinger: Now we're talking! The drool is even, it's sling-able, and it has been earned.

Simultaneous-Ropes-to-the-Floor: The highest honor I, or any newf, can offer a treat or toy. So delicious and delightful that the drool flows like water.

We call Katy's version of this the "drool fangs" but I like this one too.

Female Infanticide

Primate groups are rife with infanticide. Now there's more evidence females kill each other's babies too.
Typically, it is the newcomer males who kill infants in a group. Infanticide usually happens in species where males leave their natal groups (the ones they were born in). At maturity they leave to form their own group or join an existing one. By killing babies, the new males bring the nursing females back into estrus sooner so they are able to impregnate them and sire their own offspring right away rather than waiting the 3-4 years it would take for the females to wean their babies sired by the previous male and become fertile again.

When infanticide was first observed in primates, scientists thought it was pathological. Later the careful detective work of primatologist Sarah Hrdy demonstrated that infanticide was an adaptive reproductive strategy for males.

I think the same thing might be happening with the discovery of female infanticide in primates.

When Jane Goodall first observed a mother-daughter pair of chimps who killed, in seemingly systematic fashion, the offspring of other females in their troop, she thought the pair might be mentally off - perhaps psychotic. Serial killers even! At one point, Goodall co-authored an article with an American personality psychologist in which they created personality profiles of all of the females in the troop. They showed that the two females (Passion and Pom) were different from the other females.

Even with this new observation of female infanticide, the behavior is unusual and not normal so far as anyone knows right now.

It all leads me to question whether this is abnormal behavior/mental illness in chimps or some sort of adaptive reproductive strategy in which the females are taking out the competition.

I think it is also possible that it could be both abnormal *and* adaptive, but doesn't warrant a label of mental illness. For aberrant behavior to be a "mental illness" it has to be maladaptive. There isn't a whole lot of evidence that wild primates have any mental illness. That's associated with captivity - a fact that would be totally unsurprising to Freud who believed that Civilization is what causes our discontent.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Uakari Monkey & The Origin of Blushing

It is said that humans are the only animal that blushes.

Uakari monkeys have bright red faces and are unusual among primates for it. But they don't blush. I don't know how anyone would be able to tell even if they did!

The evolutionary origin of their bright red faces is as about as big of a mystery as why humans blush.

One theory about uakari monkey facial redness is that it's a sexually selected trait associated with testosterone. A related theory says it advertizes health.

These neat-o small (9 pound) monkeys live in South America, really are that white (at least this subspecies), and are reputed to be monogamous.

Uakaris, along with bearded saki monkeys, might be the only primates other than humans that form large groups made up of monogamous pairs. These monkeys are NOT well studied so they may not actually be monogamous. The ARKive site has some really great footage of uakaris.

Blushing, like any other nonverbal behavior with communicative value, fascinates me both academically and personally. You see, seldom am I embarrased to speak in public; it's an occupational hazard after all, but, every once in a while a totally uncontrollable and horrible blush sweeps across my face, neck, and upper chest. I can feel my skin heat up, sometimes I sweat. What is weird is that rarely in such instances do I actually feel embarrassed, yet there it is blazing, bright freaking red, red, red. I even blush alone. I think it must be related to hot flashes, but I am way too young for that. To add insult to injury, I am incredibly pale-skinned, so even the slightest blush can be seen from afar, like the fire truck roaring down the street yelling at everyone to get the hell out of its way.

Bright red faces are not unknown in the animal kindom. Primates, and famously humans, become red with anger. Here the red signals, indeed, SHOUTS: Get away!!!

I would argue that reddened faces during anger make it possible for socially grouping animals to maintain those groups in spite of frequent conflicts which inevitably emerge whenever individuals must live together and use the same resource pool. Having a signal that indicates to everyone else that you are pissed off and which prompts others to get away from you protects everyone from fighting, injury and group disintegration.

Why we would show rage on our faces rather than some other part of the body intrigued Darwin, who wrote about that and the subject of emotion and facial expression in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. I love picking up the book and reading it but I find it incredibly frustrating because it is mostly (80% I'd say) descriptive with little evolutionary theorizing about why animals and humans have the facial expressions they do, including that of shame. Needless to say, in the last few days of pondering my impending unemployment, I thought about writing a textbook about nonverbal communication across animal species! I found out when prepping my nonverbal behavior seminar that there isn't anything on the market that does even a decent job of reviewing the relevant research. Much of what exists is pop-psychology rubbish.

But, back to the point. Rage and shame are not the same, but maybe both work to hold groups together. Darwin didn't offer up a compelling theory of why people, alone in the animal kingdom, blush. Perhaps, as he hints, it has something to do with us being one of the few species that has a self-concept. In order to blush, you have to know you exist independently from others. This is why humans don't tend to blush until about age two, right around the same time they "individuate" and realize they are not the same person as mom and dad. Congenitally deaf and blind people blush.

The one theory that Darwin presents and subsequently rejects in The Expression argues that the Creator (today we'd call it an Intelligent Designer) made us blush when we do something that violates the rules of our social group so that others will know we regret it. I like the theory a bit. Yet like Darwin, I think evolutionary forces made it so. If a signal makes others want to keep us on the island when we screw up, such a signal could evolve through natural selection. It could also have arisen through group selection, sexual selection, or random genetic drift.

You know what's interesting? The face becomes red and then we feel the heat from the flush. Thus, others see the signal before we even know we're blushing.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The World's Strangest Looking Monkey

Among the world's strangest looking monkeys is the snub-nosed langur, the species I chose for my third primate pastel.

Many monkeys, and this one in particular, bare a striking resemblance to our depictions of extraterrestrial beings, a coincidence noticed by feminist historian of science and technology, Donna Haraway, in her thought-provoking but dense tome, Primate Visions. If you're curious about the connection Haraway draws between primatology, cybernetics, and space exploration, her book is fairly reviewed by (male) primatologist Robin Dunbar here.

The golden or snub-nosed langur (rhinopithecus roxellana) is a rare species that lives in temperarate broad-leaf and coniferous mountain forests in southwestern China near Tibet. They live in huge troops which have been known to join up from time to time in bands that can contain to 600 individuals. This is very unusual for a primate species. Most live in much, much smaller groups.

Like many other "old world monkeys," the snub-nosed langur's basic grouping pattern consists of one male with 3-4 females and their offspring. Such groups are called "one male units" or OMUs, aka harems.

You can view photos and even video clips of this neat primate at a really neat website called Check it out! It's really cool.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

What's in a name?

A Rose by any other name may smell as sweet but would be more likely to pursue a career in math and science if you believe the results of a study by economist David Figlio that will be published soon in the Journal of Human Resources. I got the press release this morning, through the grapevine, which being as I live in the Petite Provence of Washington is very à-propos.

You can read the press release if you want to here. It is amusing, but I can tell you that it basically says girls with feminine names like Anna, Elizabeth, and Emily are less likely to study math and science after age 16 than their peers with more masculine-sounding names like Alex, Abigail, and Lauren which are evidently names judged to be less feminine. The conclusion is that girls with girly names live up to social expectations that they aren't any good at math.

Unfortunately the study has not been published yet so I could not read the article to determine whether this is junk science. Grrr.

It's great that interesting studies get good press, but the system that exists makes it incredibly difficult to critique a study at the time it becomes news. Later when the study is actually published, it's yesterday's long-forgotten news but people come away with the impression they should think carefully about what they name their kids because THE NAME WILL HAVE SERIOUS LIFE-LONG CONSEQUENCES!

Sure, the article went through peer review, but I suspect a lot of shitty science gets published because someone knows the editor or reviewers or someone else so the wheel gets greased. The author has published before on this topic - one I remember hit the press a few months ago - and said people with black names like "Shaniqua" fare more poorly in life than people with names like Robert and Elizabeth.

It may well be that girls with more masculine names end up being encouraged to pursue math and science or at least aren't subtly discouraged, but I think the findings may very well be the product of statistical error.

I don't know what the sample size is, but if it is large one can turn up statistically significant results with very small effect sizes. I would be incredibly surprised if the effect size for name on math/science achievement is large or even moderate. If it's a small effect, as I suspect it is, the finding is pretty much meaningless in real life.

Another problem is that there simply are not that many girls with gender incongruent names so the sub-sample size is small compared with the sample of girls with feminine names. Small sample size is associated with much more variance in outcome than large samples. Perhaps the 5 girls with masculine names just coincidentally happened to have pursued math and science. It's a statistical fluke.

If it is a real effect, then just what do teachers, peers, and parents do to get masculine-named girls to pursue math and science - AND - is the effect of NAME more or less damning than LOOKS?

Is it possible to be a very attractive woman and pursue math and science successfully?

Of course it is, but is it harder?

My personal observations and experience lead me to believe that pretty women have a much harder time in academia (the realm I am familiar with) than women who look less feminine. There's not a lot of make-up, trendy clothes, sexy hair and the like among women in academia, at least at work. It's a rather butch crowd in my experience.

Perhaps women have learned early in their careers that in order to be taken seriously and to not get sexually harassed as much when dealing with the old boys network, it's wise to tone down femininity.

Perhaps some combination of social pressure and niche selection is responsible for the finding that names affect career path. Or, maybe it is just a statistical fluke.

Either way, I won't be too concerned that my hypothetical daughter won't like math and science or excel in those subjects because I name her Elizabeth and everyone calls her Betty. Her parents will be surprised if she doesn't excel in those subjects given the kind of family and upbringing she will have! But if hypothetical daughter doesn't pursue math and science, the last thing I'd blame is her name and peer pressure.