Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Sign-language chimp Washoe dies at 42

Washoe, a female chimpanzee who for years has been living right up the road from me at Central Washington University's Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, was widely regarded to be the first chimpanzee to ever show scientifically verified language production and comprehension. She's a very special girl, a celebrity ape, if you will.

According to a press release, she died of natural causes last night at the age of 42. Three younger chimps who also know some sign language remain at the institute: Tatu, 31, Dar, 31, and Loulis, 29, Washoe's adopted son. Washoe was the matriarch of the family.

Washoe was the only chimpanzee who participated in the language studies at CHCI who was born in the wild. She was named for Washoe County, NV, the place she lived for the first four years of "Project Washoe," an ambitious experiment begun in the 1960s by Beatrix and Allen Gardner, a psychology professor at the University of Nevada.

Previous attempts to teach chimpanzees to say words had failed. Only later did it come to be recognized that the vocal tracts of chimpanzees and humans are sufficiently different to prevent chimpanzees from articulating distinct sounds like humans can. Chimp hands are almost as dexterous as human hands though, so the Gardners embarked on the painstaking process of teaching Washoe to mould her hands in the form of signs from the lexicon of American Sign Language.

Roger Fouts, director of the CHCI, started out as a graduate student working with the Gardners. Eventually he took over for the Gardners and added more chimpanzees to the sign language studies. His best-selling book, Next of Kin, chronicles the history of Project Washoe and his personal experience working with Washoe.

According to the book, Washoe had a working vocabulary of about 250 words. She could follow spoken directions, communicate her wishes, and also string words together in a meaningful sequence - something that is considered to be the hallmark of language.

Although the question of whether chimpanzees can understand and use language remains open for debate, the fact remains that Washoe is a pioneer. She was the first chimpanzee to show that the question is even worth considering.

Project Washoe helped launch other ape language projects, namely Sue Savage-Rumbaugh's work with bonobos and Penny Patterson's work with Koko the gorilla.

... para El Dia de Los Muertos, Washoe, R.I.P.
Her memorial will be Nov. 12 and I am seriously considering going.

Evolutionary Origins of Kissing

Some time ago Sciencewoman, who has a new baby, posed me a question about the evolutionary origins of affectionate versus erotic kissing. I'm not really sure what she was getting at, but my sister, who also has a new baby, chatted with me recently about how her son is a very affectionate little (open-mouthed) kisser. So, it got me thinking.

Of course, my perspective is heavily influenced by my knowledge of primates and also the relative lack of scientific investigation on the subject of kissing. In other words, what I am about to say about kissing represents my best theory, albeit a speculative one.

What we know about babies, humans or other primates, is that they love to explore the world through their mouths. Lips contain some of the highest concentrations of nerve endings found anywhere in the body, which suggests that we are programmed to derive, if not seek, much sensation from our lips. For infants, this makes nursing rewarding on a sensory level. I don't think it matters terribly, from an infant's perspective, what those lips land on - as long as at some point they land often enough on mom's nipples to receive enough food to stay alive. I'd argue that infants are programmed to explore life open mouthed. Only later do we learn to associate that sensation with other kinds of physical pleasure. We also learn later when it is not okay to associate open-mouthed exploration with pleasure.

As human adults, we've learned that exploring others' bodies with our tongues, lips, and mouths is inappropriate to do with just about everyone, and even for those granted special oral stimulation recipient status, we have learned that there is a time and place for that kind of activity. Not so for another great ape - the bonobo.

Bonobos, also called pygmy chimps, are close genetic relatives of chimpanzees and humans. In fact, bonobos are as closely related to humans in terms of DNA as they are to chimpanzees. Although they look a lot like chimps to the untrained eye, there are some marked differences between the them. They've got more human-like faces and expressions, including bright red lips. Bonobos are also gentler with each other. Unlike chimpanzees, bonobos have never been known to engage in gang warfare or organized hunts. They live relaxed lives by comparison even though they also live in the same large social groups as chimpanzees, along with all of the stressors - food competition, social hierarchy, and the like.

Rather than allowing competition to boil over into aggression, bonobos "make love, not war" as one well-known primatologist (Frans de Waal) has said of them. Basically bonobos are a very physically affectionate bunch. They kiss each other open-mouthed, including with tongue. They have sex, including oral, with each other without regard to age or who is male and who is female. In other words, homosexuality and pedophilia are the norm.

Some scientists have speculated that bonobos are "paedomorphic" which is to say that they retain infantile or youthful traits into adulthood. Paedomorphic traits are those that are characteristic of infants and children. Humans are also believed by some to be paedomorphic. For a comprehensive explanation of paedmorphism, see Stephen Jay Gould's 1977 book Ontogeny and Phylogeny.

I believe there is no huge evolutionary difference between open-mouth exploration of other's bodies, including "French kissing" and erotic kissing, and that of the non-erotic "affectionate" kissing. We begin life biologically prepared to do the first and only learn later that our culture reserves that form of affectionate expression and sensation-seeking for people we are romantically involved with. Biology prepares us to follow the rules that culture enforces.

The rules of display vary immensely from culture to culture and even in sub-cultures. Some allow open-mouthed kissing in public; others expressly forbid even closed-mouth kissing in public. Some allow open-mouthed kissing between people of the same sex; others forbid it and punish it with death. Most forbid open-mouthed kissing between an adult and a child. Yet, it still occurs.

But back to the beginning of the story - kissing of any kind is ultimately tied up with the original function of the lips - to nurse and to eat. In some cultures, mothers (and I imagine fathers too) masticate food before giving it to their babies to eat. When there is no Gerber baby jar to reach for when the baby can finally begin to have solid food and is being weaned from milk, masticating food in a parent's mouth is a great way to solve the problem. Later it may be the only way to get a teething baby the most precious form of nutrition: meat. Rather than passing masticated food to the baby with fingers that may be dirty, food is passed mouth-to-mouth. It's easier and cleaner and very pragmatic, just the solution evolution favors.

So how then do you get from kiss-sharing food to adult romantic kisses? Perhaps kissing can be explained by paedmorpism. It's just a childish ritual adults have stretched into adulthood because it's what our species does, kind of like bonobos. But I think there's a little more to it. I think it's hi-jacked behavior - an exaptation, not an adaptation. Originally, kisses solved an important problem of getting food, but once humans started to form pair bonds and parent with a mate, kissing took on a new ritual, that of courtship.

If you consider that adult courtship rituals all over the world involve the kind of caregiving behaviors we see parents displaying for their kids, you'll recognize kissing is an effective form of courtship and pairbonding because it signals a desire and ability to care for the children that union might produce.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Life in a WarZone

How Bad Could It Be?

That's the question I've jokingly asked myself more than once in the last few days. First in reference to my darling Mr. Field Notes sending me an an alert that the American University in Iraq has an opening for a psychology prof, and most recently, in reference to us not even watching my beloved Red Sox win the World Series last night (I wish it had been a war, or at least a little bit of a battle, c'mon!).

I'm still thinking about teaching and Iraq.
Iraq?! I know he wasn't suggesting that I should apply, I mean, if I really wanted to join the Modern Crusades, I'd have done it the right way a long time ago. After high school, I would have gone to West Point, done OCS, become an officer, gone to medical school on the gov's dime, and worked in a medical unit fixing people up. Or maybe I would have become a sharp shooter. I had some talent there, maybe still do.

Anyway, in the middle of a war zone is not where I want to be, physically or even metaphysically.

I suppose that's why I've kind of giving up on the idea of working long-term at a SLAC. My field, discipline, perspective, whatever you want to call evolutionary psychology, is a marked man in the realm of SLACs. Nearly everyone is unfavorable to it and won't touch someone with a CV as marked as mine is by Darwin's Dangerous Ideas. After all, I teach people that because it's in their DNA, men can't help themselves when they rape a woman, have an affair, molest a teenager, or brutalize their domestic partner. Right. Yeah, that's what uninformed outsiders think because that's what they've heard in the media or from equally uniformed women's studies groups.

It's emphatically not what I teach, and it's not what real evolutionary scientists teach either. Responsible evolutionary scientists, like me, go out of their way to make sure that students do not come away thinking those things. They teach them to be critical readers and consumers of evolution research and news reports. There is so much inaccuracy and misunderstanding of evolution as applied to the human condition that I really think everyone should take a course in evolutionary psychology that is taught by someone who is moderate and circumspect enough to help students sift the wheat from the chaff.

I ought to be that person, but I don't think I am up for fighting the good fight in the midst of a SLAC. That's a long haul war and I'm only packing a civil war era pistol while everyone else has an arsenal of Uzis and semi-auto rifles. With those odds, I'd be lucky if I even manage to blow away enough of the competition to get an interview for a tenure-track position at a SLAC. Plus, I am a little snooty. I want to work at a good one. But then there's my strong sense that I'd provide the most educational value at a school that doesn't overwhelmingly serve a bunch of privileged rich white kids.

So, I need to find a well-respected SLAC that is open-minded about evolutionary psychology and that serves under-privileged students with potential. Did I mention it has to be located in an affordable to live town (not city, no one here wants to commute) in an area with a mild climate that has a good newspaper and is not too socially conservative?

Know of any of those?
Me neither.

And that is why I am looking into other career choices.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Pragmatic Solutions

I am all for pragmatism. Why screw around when the simple, easy solution is good enough for who it's for, as I have heard some say around here lately. So, I took those words to heart today and decided on the pragmatic solution to a couple of ongoing problems around here.

Problem 1:
Giant DIRTY dog NewfHead wants to sleep on our bed whenever she pleases. She is HUGE and immobile when she wants to be. Since the dirtiness of her paws is the *real* problem and the nice Pottery Barn comforter is a royal pain to clean, and I don't feel like getting up to reprimand her every time she sneakily gets on the bed, I came up with this.

Solution:Put an easy to wash sheet on the bed after I make it in the morning. EASY.

Problem two:
The jasmine I planted outside this summer made it through our 100 plus heat even though it's only rated to 90 degrees. It's also only rated to about 20 or so degrees for the winter. It has been shooting out new growth and is doing very well, and I'd hate to see her die. So the problem is, do I dig it up and "overwinter" it inside or do I turn her lose on the world and see if she's hardy enough to make it on her own?

I'm thinking if she was tough enough to make it through the brutal summer, she might be a fighter. But maybe asking her to tough it up for the potentially below zero winter may be a bit much.

Solution:Leave her where she is; mulch with leaves
and observe. Call it an experiment.

If she makes it - fantastic! If not, we've got another indoor jasmine plant who can go outside next year and be next year's winter experiment (making a little greenhouse for it to overwinter in). If that fails, we'll stop experimenting and treat the jasmines as indoor annual plants.

Getting the language right

When the press says we've found a gene "for" something, what it ought to say is that we've found an allele that affects something.

I could not agree more.

Anthropologists may want to read a story from John Hawks Anthropology Web about the latest research on one of my favorite genes, FOXP2, which affects language.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Increasing Retention Without Increasing Study Time

You've no doubt heard that young American adults have poor knowledge of geography, science, mathematics, and history. It's easy to chalk that up to our lackluster system of education, but rather than never having learned it in the first place, our students might simply have forgotten what they learned.

Ever wondered what study tips to offer your students so that they may study more effectively and retain what they're learning?

I certainly have. I think for a lot of professors, we take for granted that we are good students, practiced students - and our students are not. We need to take the time every now and then to meta-teach, which is to say, teach our students how to learn.

If you teach psychology classes, especially introductory ones as I have, it's easy to integrate study tips into units on memory and learning, but those units often don't appear until the middle of the semester when it's too late to make a big difference early on. Freshman or as they are more typically called at SLACs, first-year students, may already be floundering. That's why I'd advocate doing a little meta-teaching on learning the very first day of class when you go over the syllabus. But remember, there's never a wrong time to discuss it!

So what are the tips? Rather than imparting my own personal experience or anything based on intuition (which can be faulty), I'll share tips gleaned from a great review article of experiments on human learning.

The article "Increasing Retention Without Increasing Study Time" by Rohrer and Pashler was published in Current Directions in Psychological Science (2007). It's only 4 pages long and is well worth a full read. Using an ecologically valid approach which had students learning vocabulary, geography, foreign languages, and mathematics, the authors report that overlearning does not produce long-lasting benefits. So, if students learn something to a criterion (say of getting items correct at least once) and then go over it again, they don't recall any more a month later than if they had just done it once. However, overlearning is beneficial in the short term.

Basically, this confirms that what our students call cramming is effective if the test happens right away, but they won't have retained anymore by the end of the semester. Cramming takes time and doesn't provide very much bang for the buck.

So if studying for an extended session (aka rehearsing in a massed practice) isn't effective for long-term retention, what is? Distributed practice. Retention is much better if the study time is spaced out. But how much time should go by between study sessions for optimum retention?

That depends on when the test is. If it's about 10 days away - once a day (studying to the criterion). If it is 6 months away - about once a month.

That's why I'd advocate for having a cumulative final. It encourages students to revisit what they have learned earlier in the semester, and if you do a good job of pointing out what is important to learn along the way, they don't have to spend a whole lot of study time out of class revisiting every little detail of what they learned. Once a month for the big picture ideas will do. I know that's an oversimplification, or more easily said than done, but setting up your course in such a way that students have to use previous knowledge to answer exam questions later is actually quite difficult to do if you aren't teaching math, chemistry, etc. If you are in a content based survey course where there is "a lot of material" it is imperative to help your students navigate through the forest of information by teaching them landmarks along the way. If they don't know which trees are important, they will get lost and never make it to their final destination.

Also, encourage students to study by testing themselves, either alone or with a friend testing each other. I often asked my dad to test me when I was in high school. I'd hand him my history or biology notebook or textbook and ask him to make up questions. I'd try to answer them and if I didn't know the answer or got it wrong, he'd tell me the correct answer. Such retrieval practice is much more effective than re-reading notes or the book.

So remember spaced practice - and - self-testing.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Pharyngula Mutating Genre Meme

I was tagged by No One, So Far As I Know for a meme. It was started by PZ Myers at Pharyngula as a means of demonstrating evolution in cyberspace.

First, the rules:
There are a set of questions below that are all of the form, "The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is...".
Copy the questions, and before answering them, you may modify them in a limited way, carrying out no more than two of these operations:
* You can leave them exactly as is.
* You can delete any one question.
* You can mutate either the genre, medium, or subgenre of any one question.
For instance, you could change "The best time travel novel in SF/Fantasy is..." to "The best time travel novel in Westerns is...", or "The best time travel movie in SF/Fantasy is...", or "The best romance novel in SF/Fantasy is...".
* You can add a completely new question of your choice to the end of the list, as long as it is still in the form "The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is...".
* You must have at least one question in your set, or you've gone extinct, and you must be able to answer it yourself, or you're not viable.

Then answer your possibly mutant set of questions. Please do include a link back to the blog you got them from, to simplify tracing the ancestry, and include these instructions. Finally, pass it along to any number of your fellow bloggers. Remember, though, your success as a Darwinian replicator is going to be measured by the propagation of your variants, which is going to be a function of both the interest your well-honed questions generate and the number of successful attempts at reproducing them.
So, without further ado:
My great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparent is Pharyngula.
My great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparent is Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.
My great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparent is Flying Trilobite.
My great-great-great-great-great-grandparent is A Blog Around the Clock.
My great-great-great-great-grandparent is Primate Diaries.
My great-great-great-grandparent is Thus Spake Zuska.
My great-great-grandparent is a k8, a cat, a mission.
My great-grandparent is Monkeygirl.
My grandparent is DancingFish.

My parent is Dr. Brazy Hussy.

The best young adult novel in SF/Fantasy is: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
The best recent movie in comedy is: Knocked Up
The best uplifting song in country music is: Goodbye Earl by the Dixie Chicks
The best cult novel in classic fiction is: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
The best high-fat food in Mexican cooking is: Nachos
The best dissertation-related words I ever received from a scholar are: (In response to my young, eager, and naive assertion that I wanted to write a good dissertation): But WHY?
The best boy band song in pop music is: Bye, Bye, Bye by N Sync

I am propagating this meme on to:

anyone else who cares to replicate

& these bloggers I lurk at:
ProfGrrrrl, BrightStar, ClutterMuseum, TwiceTenured, ProfessingMama

How to avoid a fight

I know the secret to avoiding a fight. It's a very specific kind of argument - the kind where there are several movies you want to see with your spouse but neither of you wants to go see what the other person does. Go on a walk instead!

You can spend the same amount of time watching what passes by on your walk, but you'll be seeing the beauty of your neighborhood, noticing what you've never paid attention to before, and connecting with each other in a meaningful way. Going to the movies is inherently a way to disconnect.

We walked all over Walla Walla, noticing which houses were for sale, what flowers were still blooming, who had nice outdoor dogs - and - where the oak trees weren't growing. See, part of this great idea on how to avoid spending half an hour negotiating which movie to see, involved collecting oak leaves. We found lots of impostors; I'm not sure what species they belong too, but they outnumbered oaks 6 to 1. I did a minute amount of research - the mystery species was indeed an oak, it just wasn't the species I was looking for!

Why am I collecting oak leaves? To make more embossed leaf cards! I have always had a fondness for oak trees. I love what you smell when you stand on the blanket of rotting leaves under one. It's what I imagine the oak barrels used by vintners around here smell like after the wine has been scraped from them. If this valley is going to be known for artisan wines, then I am certainly going to making and marketing some matching artisan paper! "Vintners Special No. 9" is the name I'm going with for now. They are still drying so it'll be a few days before they're ready.

Thanks to our ambitious walk I now have a nice dime sized blister smack on the ball of my right foot. The only thing that feels good to stand, step, or walk on is the sheepskin the dogs lay on. I need slippers lined with that sheepskin!

So for today, I'm staying off my feet :-)

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Take Me to Tunisia

Through etsy I made a contact with a woman who lives in Morocco who will be buying me some tiny silver charms in the shape of hands of fatima (also know as hamsa). The hand of fatima is a folk symbol used by both Jews and Muslims throughout the Middle East and North Africa to thwart the evil eye. It protects one from the envy of others.

I am in love with this symbol, not because of its alleged power, but because of the multitude ways it is artfully rendered. Sometimes the hand can been seen on the arched doors of houses. I have three hands of fatima that I bargained hard for in the medinas of Tunisia. Well, one was actually negotiated on a beach in Mahdia, but that's beside the point.

As my ex-pat contact and I talked about what hands of fatima the souks in the medina have available at what price, I was hit by a serious wave of envy. Ironic really. She's the one who needs these amulets, not me!

If I could be anywhere in the world today, I'd be with my honey in Tunisia.

We'd either be soaking up the ancient ambiance of the grain storage structures in Ksar Ouled Sultane while I paint with my one armed friend Miled ...

..or we'd stroll the jasmine scented streets of Sidi Bou Said

... before heading south where life is even slower and dustier.

The desert frontier spirit lies deep within my soul.

Friday, October 19, 2007

I just made my first sale!

Just a little while ago I sold these beauties:

3 Leaves 3 Hearts
Embossed Organic Fall Foliage Cards (set of 3)

I will be making more of these! Just as soon as my hand recovers... last night my hand wound up smack in the middle of the large and powerful set of jaws belonging to the Baronnes von Roughenhausen. It was an accident while playing her favorite game. I went to throw, she went to catch. It hurt like you wouldn't believe. I have two puncture wounds, one on the palm of my right hand where my thumb meets my wrist (prime area for paper pressing) and the other on the knuckle of my ring finger. Newfssance was sorry and immediately came to lick the tears from my face, then laid down in her sitting pretty, perfect Newfoundland pose.

I finally wrote a shop announcement too:

Love the earth?
Me too.

My passion for primates led me to study them and in doing so, I learned of their precarious position on earth. So many are endangered because their habitat is being destroyed everyday. That's why I make green gifts.

I specialize in two things: monkeys & handmade paper.
I make boxes, cards, and bookmarks from cereal boxes, junk mail and newspaper inserts with some flower petals, leaves, glitter, and post-consumer yarn thrown in.

Monkeys are not made from 100% post-consumer material, but your purchase of them helps fund organizations like the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and the Jane Goodall Institute.

When you buy from me, you are supporting a sustainable planet.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Toto is Known For Toilets

Toilet talk forthcoming. You are hereby warned.

I'm finding my groove with the paper making enterprise now so I have developed a little routine. I make 8 sheets before 10 am, then watch The View. While watching, I do a blog post, then hit etsy. Mr. Field Notes comes home for lunch, then I referee Fight Club and make another set of 8 sheets in the afternoon. Somewhere in there I prep photos in Photoshop for adding items to my store. Now I've joined Facebook at the request of my sorority sisters. Yes, I'm a sorority girl! Anyhow, yet another thing that takes up time GAH!!!!

So the hot topic conversation I walked in on after cleaning up my paper making area this morning was TOILETS - and specifically Toto brand toilets. I have watched The View in the mornings off and on for years. I really like the hot topic bickering and even though I liked Rosie as the host the best, Whoopie is growing on me. "Toto is known for toilets," she asserted this morning. Damn right they are. And I know this brand! They are all over Japan. I never saw another brand there.

So what's so special about Toto toilets?
First, you have to understand that Japanese toilets are just different. And, we have to distinguish between the squat toilets and the "western" ones. Toto makes both, but Whoopie & Co. were not talking up the squat ones. Although they can be messier, they do have merits. You'd just never see one in an American house. Wow that would be a real shocker! Anyhow, if you've never used a squat toilet before, you haven't lived.

Squat toilets are actually pretty cool, and if you are going to have to hover over a toilet seat anyway because it's "dirty" then I can tell you from personal experience that hovering over a squat toilet is much, much more comfortable. You have to pay attention though, because if you don't direct your stream just right, you'll pee on your shoes. There's a technique to aiming too - otherwise you'll splatter your shoes, ankles, legs - all over. Aiming is something all Japanese women and men around the world have learned, but we western women just have no clue how to pee properly.

That's a lesson I learned the hard way when I had to pee in the Sahara desert by the side of the road in southern Tunisia. No rest areas, and no cover. That wasn't the worst part. Only after I succeeded in making a mess of myself did Mr. Field Notes point out I should have peed on one of the scroungy looking "bushes." I don't know if I would have believed him though. Afterall, he was the one who tricked me into thinking the gizmo for keeping sand off the road was a freaking camel parking lot!
GAH! I grew up seeing the snow versions of them! He had me; he really had me. He is a major tricky head. You have to watch out.

If you're in the desert, pee on a bush.
But, if you're in Japan, pee on a Toto.

Platform shoes are a must in Japan. I think they were invented there.

This is the prettiest bathroom I saw in Japan. It was at a Buddhist temple; I forget the name. All I remember is that it's the one with the perfect bell. I love the green slippers lined up. They're there so that you can cover your feet when you use the bathroom. In temples, you have to remove your shoes so it's really handy they set these out for visitors. I made sure the ones I used were lined up again when I was done.

In temples, gardens, and any place frequented by tourists, there is a ratio of about 8 Japanese squat toilets to 1 western style one. If you insist on sitting down, you might have to wait. Oh, and another great thing about the squat toilets is that the flush lever is at the floor so you can flush easily with your foot and be out of there without touching anything gross.

Western style Toto toilets made in Japan are fancy. They make American toilets look like we take craps in the Stone Age. Heated seats. Built in bidet, with customizable spray intensity and water temperature settings. Sanitizing seat dryer. Full flush and half flush. The price tag? $3,369.00 (and that's on sale) See more here. These toilets are standard in Japanese hotels. Most people in Japan, however, have squat toilets at home. As far as I can tell, having one of these Toto "washlets" at home is a real status symbol. By the way, some of the Toto Washlets will raise and lower the seat for you.

Here's a *very typical* cartoonish Japanese TV commercial for the Toto Washlet. You gotta see it.

The Toto Washlets make my Australian toilet (at right) look like something from Roman times. The only special thing about it is it's full/half flush - and it's unfortunate brand name: Caroma. Seriously, they named their toilet c-aroma. It is a wonderful, environmentally responsible toilet. Even my dad is envious, and if you knew him, that says a lot!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Playing Action Video Game Reduces Gender Differences in Spatial Cognition

Apparently first person shooter games are not all bad. Among young women who are not players of those types of video games, ten hours of playing them for an hour or two a day over a one month period increased spatial cognition. What's more, the gain persisted for at least five months.

Spatial cognition is often measured by performance on tests of mental rotation, pictured below. You've got to decide which of the 3 comparison shapes on the right matches the standard shape on the left. (If you want the correct answers, leave a comment.)

The research used this type of problem to test spatial cognition.

Performance on such tests is associated with skill in math, science, and engineering - and - also gender. In fact, spatial intelligence is one of the last areas of marked gender differences. Boys routinely out-perform girls on these tasks. But why?

It has been assumed that there is an underlying genetic difference between males and females in spatial ability. Some evolutionary psychologists even assert that man the hunter would have been more successful in the hunt with better spatial cognition, thus the evolved gender difference. Maybe so, but it is also possible that spatial skills are achieved through practice. Boys are often steered to the kinds of tasks that promote spatial skills.

First person shooter game play increases mental rotation skill, the authors think, by encouraging spatial attention. Spatial attention refers to paying attention to quick and often subtle changes in one's field of view. First person shooter games require the player to visually scan and quickly spot moving targets on screen to shoot them. That this activity resembles hunting does not escape my evolutionary mind...

But back to the real story.

This skill can be practiced and we've got a specific activity that can help girls achieve gains in spatial cognition. What's disappointing is that even with the 10 hours practice, women in the study still lagged behind men. I imagine that all it takes is more practice. I would just be great if girls didn't have to play shooter/hunting games to achieve spatial performance on par with boys.

I am sure there are other tasks that would achieve the same effect, without the violence. Although I am not technically in a STEM field (science, technology, engineering, math), I do perform better than the average male on mental rotation tasks and better even than one super above-average male - he he - you know who you are Mr. Field Notes ;-) you kick my butt at Super Scrabble all the time so I get to lord this one over you! When I read about studies like this, I wonder how my developmental experience can shed any light on what it takes to get girls interested in STEM fields and excel in them. I don't know what the answer is, but I can tell you that I did play video games, including first person shooter games.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Gifts for you!

**By the end of the calendar year, I will send a tangible, physical gift to each of the first five people to comment here. The catch? Each person must make the same offer on her/his blog.**

Leave a comment if you want to play along.

Paper Making

Over the weekend I broke out my brand new blender and made 15 or 16 sheets of paper. It's the first time I've made paper in about 10 years. Although it was fairly easy to pick up where I left off, I still have to learn exactly how much pulp to use for each sheet. I also forgot how long it takes for the paper to dry, exacerbated of course, by the thick sheets! Even in this dry climate, which has been unusually wet lately, it takes at least 2 days for the sheets to dry enough to press. And now I have twice as many dog feet to watch out for during the drying process. I can dry them on a rack, but then they don't dry flat. That's something I will have to experiment with.

Mr. Field Notes also had to dismantle the entire kitchen to make room for my little paper processing plant. At least we've got a huge kitchen. This would never have been possible during the dark days of grad school. Those were also the cramped kitchen days. Now we've got a bright airy kitchen. I love it. We can work together in the same space - him making complicated Indian meals and me making paper. It will be a lot of fun and good bonding.

For the paper making, I'm using a slightly different technique so the sheets are smoother than before. I am eager to see how the colorful paper looks with this new technique. Over the weekend I didn't have any truly colorful paper to add to the pulp so all of the sheets are on the neutral side. With nothing to jazz them up, I decided to press leaves into the pulp. I think they make very neat cards with an organic feel. I think I'll add them to my etsy store as a set with different leaf imprints.

The example card pictured here is from my old collection. The new collection is still being flattened :-)

Monday, October 15, 2007

Blog Action Day: Save the Earth-Don't Have Kids

Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day

Thanks to my blogpal Sciencewoman, I was alerted to Blog Action Day's topic: the environment.

As I started to write a comment on her post, I realized I had a lot more to say than could appropriately be considered a comment. Plus, my comment may have come off as a bit snarky.

So here goes. I have some opinions about how best to help the environment through small actions, but I also have a big one in particular that I haven't talked about very much. It's not bound to be a popular one, but I think it is the morally right decision to make. It's the issue of having kids - reproducing.

One of the best things you can do to reduce your personal impact on the environment is to not have kids. If you make the choice to not reproduce, you won't create a kid who grows up in this throw away American culture. Americans burn through the most natural resources of any group of people in the world. Why would you want to add another one to the planet? It's selfish.

Think of all of the stuff you buy and then throw away when you have kids. Thousands of diapers. Toys, clothes, bedding, bottles, etc etc. Then there's all of the extra driving you will do to cart them to and fro.

You are not off the hook if you adopt from another country. You're still raising the little one in this consumer culture. Sure, you can do your best to instill your values, but even if your child grows up to consume less than you do, you have still added another resource consumer to the planet when you didn't have to.

There is no way you can produce a child and have no added strain on the environment.

I don't blame anyone for wanting to have kids. As an evolutionary psychologist I understand the fundamental drive to reproduce. But we are not solely creatures of blind desire, we can make choices that aren't in the best interest of our genes.

I'm not the only one who thinks Having A Child - Even One - Is Environmentally Destructive and there are certainly people who passionately and vehemently disagree with this position, as can be seen here.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Snooze Buddies


The remarkable thing about this photo is that it was NOT staged.

Normally if one is already on one of the two pillows, and the other wants to sleep on the unoccupied pillow, the desirous one moves along to a different spot.

If little Max is the desirous one he makes a big show of wanting to sleep on the open pillow. He'll stand around and stare off in all directions. He wants Katy to move, but she won't. He eventually trundles off, disgusted.

If the desirous one is BIGG Katy, she occasionally just flops down on the open pillow. She doesn't much mind sleeping next to Max. But he *hates* it. He always gets up and moves.

This photo captures the rare exception. He actually stayed.

(If you look closely, you might be able to notice that his paw is actually resting on her!)

Friday, October 12, 2007


Wow, the etsy blog community certainly is active! And they love data as much as I do. The post I wrote about the results of my marriage of science and art (market research) has 14 comments - and counting.

That's more than the number of congrats comments I received for finishing my dissertation (9) and also the Video Packing Professor post (9) about how to pack for three weeks with just a carry-on backpack. Oh, and people had a lot to say about my Snakes in Primate Vision too (9).

But still the posts I get the most google hits from continue to be:
How to Attract Mr. Right
Inside Skinner's Box
Notes on An Inconvenient Truth (also notice that Al Gore won a Nobel Prize for Peace today!)
Immune System Involvement with Endometriosis

Each of these gets at least a few hits a day.

I also see that I've been getting so many hits that my statcounter log is full and won't collect any more data...

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Ever the scientist

What does an unemployed social science researcher do with her morning when she's bored and looking for ways to boost sales of her hobby art?

Market research.

I sat with a pen and paper this morning and collected data on variables that might be correlated with sales on etsy. I chose 5 variables I could get quantifiable numbers for:
* number of items for sale
* number of items sold
* number of people who identify they like the items in the shop (i.e. number of hearts)
* average price of items in the store
* average number of views for each item in the store

I spent about 2.5 hours collecting the data, 10 minutes setting up the SPSS spreadsheet, and 10 seconds analyzing it. Hmmm. Looks a lot like the time budget break down for doing dissertation research.

I just wanted to see whether any interesting correlations turn up that might help me decide where to allocate my efforts - i.e. Do I need to concentrate on getting more things into my store? Do I need to get more people to view the items, or do I need to get more people to know about my store and "heart" it? Maybe I need to offer less expensive items. Who knows, thus, the market research.

Here's what I found out:

If you can't read SPSS output correlation tables, this is what I found out in plain English:
The number of items sold is very strongly associated with the number of people who "heart" your store, and that is associated with the average number of views your items get. Also, the more items you have for sale in your store, the more sold items you end up with. Price doesn't matter at all. And interestingly, just because you have a lot of items in your store, that doesn't mean you're going to get more people taking a look. There was a big fat zero correlation between number of items in a store and the number of views.

All of this tells me I shouldn't waste money willy-nilly listing a ton of items until I figure out how to get more views and especially hearts.

If I can't make money teaching or doing research for this academic year, then I am at least going to try to make the art thing a paid endeavor.

As far as I can tell, greater visibility on etsy can be achieved if you:

* post to etsy forums: What generated a lot of views for me was to open a discussion with a simple question about "are my prices too high?" Price point is something everyone worries about to some degree so it's a good conversation starter. And, people have to go to your store in order to answer the question.

* list items over the span of hours & days: Each time you list a new item, a photo of it gets put on the etsy homepage where it gets some visibility. If you list everything at once, people who scan etsy's homepage, but not during the 4 minutes you posted, will miss you.

* get involved in arts & crafts blog circles: Do this in the same way you would to attract fellow bloggers to your blog - leaving comments on their blogs. Don't just leave throw away comments like "You are so right!" or anything that doesn't make people think you have something unique to offer. You've got to leave thoughtful, insightful comments that make people want to click on your profile to see what you have to say on your own blog.

* put up etsy mini on your blog: It takes a minute and any traffic to your blog will see what you have on offer at your store.

These simple things can add up to greater visibility.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Daily Routine

Last night my SIL sent a fun email about how my little niece, who isn't even one yet, put her toys away at bedtime. It got me thinking about what our routine is around here.

No kids yet, but we do have our hands nearly full with two dogs, one of whom is a puppy who *loves* toys. Each night we watch Toy Parade, which is a much quieter alternative to Fight Club.

Toy Parade:
Katy brings us one of her toys at a time, usually when we're trying to finish watching a movie. She flops down in front of us and mouths the toy for about 30 seconds before getting up for another one. The average is about 8 toys a night. She never puts them away. I get to do that in the morning.

Fight Club:
Both dogs run at full speed from the front of the house to the back until dog tired. The little ones yaps, snarls, and barks his fool head off at the big one the whole time. The big one fake bites, tries to run the little one into walls and furniture, play bows, and swats him over the head. Rarely does Fight Club escalate into a brawl. It's a noisy affair that often happens twice a day - once after breakfast and once after Mr. Field Notes goes back to work after lunch.

This is her preferred method
for carrying her bunny:
Squeaky toys always get carried like this
so she can squeak them when she walks by:

Ok, so this one isn't an official toy,
but check out that tongue.
She was so happy when she scored this "toy."

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Etsy Store Launched

Just moments ago I put up a new side bar for my Etsy store. I call it recycled ideas because many of my creations are made from materials I have recycled or ideas I get from elsewhere.

It took all day and weeks of prep to get my store front launched. Phew. I became photographer, catalogue copy writer and image editor.

I've got two types of product:
monkey stuff: Fimo guys, non-sock sock monkeys & a non-monkey sock monkey
handmade paper stuff: boxes, cards, bookmarks

In time I will more creations.

Thanks for looking!

Monday, October 08, 2007

Primates in the News

Mountain gorillas in the Congo are having a rough time of it again as reports indicate that a rebel Congolese general led his soldiers into the protected Virunga National Park, home to 73 mountain gorillas who live on the Congolese side. This is very bad news for the survival of the critically endangered gorillas. Park guards have been run out of the area, leaving no one to enforce the codes of the park. Already this year 10 mountain gorillas have been killed and more will likely follow given the intrusion into the park.

Sometimes I wonder if it's a hopeless situation for mountain gorilla survival. They have everything going against them in terms of the factors that matter in conservation biology. They are few in number, which means they are at an increased risk of birth defects and aberrant genetic mutations that arise from inbreeding. They also live in populations that are geographically isolated from other populations which means they can't easily breed outside their group. They are huge. They need more area to acquire the food they need, plus they are easy targets for hunting.

The only thing they have going for them is celebrity status in the conservation world, but there is only so much that can be done to keep armed rebel forces out of their habitat. Guards carry weapons, but there are too few of them to do anything in these crisis situations. I don't know what the answer is, after all, TIA. My family makes regular contributions to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, an organization that from the inception of the Virunga National Park, has outfitted armed guards to safeguard the gorillas. Even if gorillas don't make it in the long run, at least the guards and their families have employment and are taken care of.

Bonobos live in the Congo too, but rebel forces don't seem to be causing problems in their limited habitat, otherwise we'd be hearing about it too, right? Wrong. Bonobos don't have the cache that gorillas have. Who knows what's happening in bonobo habitat, but at least in the capital of Kinshasa, some semi-wild, semi-captive bonobos living at a research center have it pretty good. A blog of note this week, Bonobo Handshake, is devoted to reporting what happens at the research center. The researcher, Vanessa Woods, posts fantastic videos of her interactions with the bonobos. I have added the blog to my links.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

A Mouse in the House & Other Tidbits.

Yesterday we found a mouse in Katy's bag of dog food. Yuck. It was a scrappy looking mouse too. Perhaps it had been injured by the kitten/cat that has taken up residence under our back deck. We haven't seen the cat lately. I think Katy scared it off. Good thing too; it had been giving Katy the heebie-jeebies* every time she went outside.

That the mouse ended up in Katy's food is poetic, but I doubt Katy would have offered the mouse any sort of refuge status. Katy is a part time cat. She really is. She bats her toys around in the air while playing on her back - arches her back to stretch like a cat... I swear she purrs sometimes.

The mouse probably came in through the basement. In any case, I thought if there's one mouse inside, there are probably more, so we high tailed it to the Safeway close to our house. We chose to walk. It's not that far and the rainstorm that swept through left the area looking and smelling wonderful.

Today is garbage day so we put out the garbage last night before we left to get the mouse killer. Mr. Field Notes gathered up the weeds he had pulled and then collected all of the trash that blows into our yard. Living on a busy street means that we frequently have garbage in our yard - usually plastic bags, fast food containers, and scraps of paper. Once we found a beer can - which reminds me...

... that Katy found a half-full beer around the corner while we were walking her earlier this week. Before we knew what she had done, she grabbed it by putting her mouth completely around the top - like you would if you were trying to drink it while simultaneously showing off how capacious your mouth is. She was so incredibly goofy looking and had Newfed up the can so much that we couldn't really return it to the lady she lifted it from (someone who had set her beer down on the sidewalk while she was moving boxes into the house she was moving into). We were walking toward the campus recycling center so I figured we could just let her have the beer until we got there. So, there we were - two giggling people flanking a giant dog with a Tecate hanging out of her mouth.

Yeah - so back to the stuff that washes up on the shore that is our yard. Last night in addition to finding the usual trash, Mr. Field Notes also found a half-used package of blue construction paper. Seriously the best thing that has ever washed up in our yard!!! why am I so excited about this? Well, I have been meaning to make some more of my totally gorgeous handmade paper but lacked the supplies to make what I want to make - lavender colored paper with bits of lavender and lavender seeds embedded in it. I want all of it to be post-consumer recycled waste which means that if I want the paper to be colored purple, I need blue and red paper for the pulp. I can use the Netflix envelope flaps for the red and now I have the blue! Sweet - now I can make 100% post-consumer waste recycled handmade paper :-)

I have been making boxes out of cereal box type cardboard (post-consumer waste!) which I then cover with the paper I made out of junk mail and newspaper inserts. The beautiful boxes are nearly 100% post-consumer waste. The only parts that aren't recycled are the glitter I added to the paper to make it sparkle and the beads I use on the pull top.

* heebie-jeebies: Slang,. Uneasiness or nervousness; the jitters. [Coined by William De Beck (1890-1942), American cartoonist, in his comic strip Barney Google.]