Friday, October 31, 2008

Players Wanted for TEAM Newfoundland!

A recent trip to the new dog park in town revealed that newfoundlands have a knack for football. It helps that they can wrap their enormous mouths around pigskin without any difficulty. They can run out for long passes, and they can force fumbles. With a few more players, we could have a formidable team.

Because I'm not beefy, I've decided to stay on the sidelines and coach. On offense, Katy will be wide receiver. Her speed and ability to go deep for passes is an asset. Mr. Field Notes will quarterback. Besides his great arm, he's a quick thinker who also has a deep knowledge of his wide receiver's psychology. And Yuki — if we can convince her to be on our side and not the opposing team — will make an awesome tight end. On defense, Katy will made a great linebacker. She's huge and can tackle anyone. Yuki would make a great cornerback. Her job would be to force incomplete passes either by swatting the ball away from the receiver or by catching the pass herself. She already shows natural skill and drive in that direction.

So, that's our team in the making. Wanna play?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Mountain Gorillas in Peril

A renegade Congolese army general and his rebel followers have taken over parts of the enormous central African country that is home to the world's rare mountain gorilla.

Even though our country's economy appears to be in a downward spiral and wars are being fought in the name of terror containment in two fronts and are spilling over into previously uninvolved countries, this lesser known problem has me worried too. It's escalated in recent days and the fate of the mountain gorilla is at stake.

The rebels have used the Virunga National Park, set aside to protect the mountain gorillas and their habitat, as a base in the past. But this time, they've actually taken over the park headquarters and booted out all of the rangers, who like other Congolese citizens, have fled with everything they own on their backs to try to stay alive another day.

Left behind are some 200 mountain gorillas now left with no protection. Why is this significant? Without anyone around to stop them, the rebels can shoot gorillas and eat them as bushmeat. This has happened in the past and could easily start happening again. What also happens is that mothers with babies are shot and the babies are stolen to sell on the black market. That money buys more weapons, making it harder to stop them. They also chop down trees to make charcoal, which is used for heat for shelter and food.

It's a really ugly situation brewing in the Congo. The park is a World Heritage Site and is home to the highest level of biodiversity in Africa.

According to an old AP story, hippos in the Congo are also on the verge of being wiped out with more than 400 killed last year, mostly for food. It's estimated that only 900 hippos are left, a massive decrease from the 22,000 reported there in 1998.
The UN has peace keepers around the Congo, and it is in fact their largest single mission, yet it, as always, appears to do little good. Since the on-again-off again civil war erupted in the Congo in 1998, more than 5 million people have been killed. Not many people are employed as park rangers, so the figure that 110 of them have died in their line of work in the last decade is sobering.

Poachers and deforestation have wreaked havoc in the Virunga National Park for more than a decade. Occasionally it spills across the border to Rwanda, making the Rwandan side of the Virunga park a dangerous place too. The situation in Rwanda has improved tremendously since the end of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Even so, that conflict saw millions of refugees spill across the border to Congo, sometimes right through the park, burning and looting along the way. Some say it marked the beginning of an era of unrest, lawlessness and clashes between militias and myriad rebel groups in the Congo.

It all reminds me that as long as Africa continues to be impoverished, there's little hope. And, very little research getting done on primates there. It's my hope however, that people can shift away from mining nonrenewable resources like coal, oil and minerals in order to provide for their families and instead find alternative means of income that are based on environmentally sustainable endeavors. Rwanda, bolstered by a president in favor of conservation, has managed to build mountain gorilla tourism so well that it is the country's third largest source of foreign revenue. Gorillas are a source of pride for the people, contributing to a positive image of the country.

Perhaps in time, this could happen in the Congo too.

You can get daily updates on the Congo situation by visiting the Virunga National Park's staff blog:

Here's a park ranger talking about the Virunga National Park and his work there. It's really interesting.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

I finally made Plantable Christmas Cards!

It took a custom order request to finally get me around to making them, but I finally created plantable Christmas (or holiday or Hanukkuh if you prefer) cards.

The doves on the fronts of the cards are plantable and will grow flowers when planted properly. Instructions are printed in the backs of the cards, which are also 100% recycle paper, albeit not the fancy handmade kind.

I've decided to sell them in sets of 10 since it keeps the cost down and means people can still get a good number of them for those very special people they wish to send them to.

The message on the front and inside can be customized as can the color of the doves and the type of seeds they include.

They are for sale now, so if you like them you can order them in advance of the holiday rush. Clicking on any of the pictures will take you to the right place!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Your Caption Wanted!

I just don't know what to say about this moment captured.
Maybe you can come up with a good caption for it.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A peek at peak leaf peeping time in NH

The afternoon sunlight came pouring in through the sheer curtains of our front window causing me to peek outside where I caught a glimpse of the vivid orange leaves on my neighbor's dogwood tree. Just past it I can see the flame orange leaves on a tree across the street. That can only mean one thing: It's peek leaf peeping time here! Scratch that — it also means I'm just more than a tad homesick for my old NH stomping grounds.

Fall was the absolute best, best time of year there. And it only lasted about 2 weeks.
I'm kidding, but it sure did appear out of nowhere and then disappear just as suddenly.

It meant the summer humidity that made life miserable was gone. The cool temperatures made way for simmering pots of clam 'chowdah.' Mr. Field Notes made some last night which made me recall one night in NH when he drove down to the local gas station to buy the all essential missing ingredient for clam chowder. He took his package of bacon to the cashier to pay for it and all she said was something along the lines of, "Making chowdah huh." There if you were buying bacon, and only bacon, in the fall, it could mean only one thing.

We lived in the NH woods, more or less, and there were all kinds of little roads lined with trees and stone fences to travel down. I fondly remember one huge tree on a hill next to a stone monument that was on the way to campus. It always lit up an unbelievable golden orange color like nothing I had ever seen. When I went back for my preliminary dissertation defense, I had to see that tree. It wasn't peak season, but the tree was still gorgeous.

At this time of year back there the weather channel would always cover the progression of prime leaf peeping zones so you could anticipate exactly what weekend it was going to be the best. As a transplant from the West I thought it was pretty weird that people would make that big a deal out of it. But after the first fall it became obvious.

Today, if I were in NH with Mr. Field Notes, we would've driven into Portsmouth or maybe down to Exeter to walk around and take in the sights. We'd go to Bob's Clam Hut and get Fish 'n' Chips for lunch then maybe go for a drive up through Maine along the coast and then head back for lobster ravioli dinner at Café Mediterraneo. Or, we'd just take the dingbat dogs for a country drive along Bay Road out to Durham Point. Clam chowder for din-din.

It's just not quite the same here.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Warm Drinks Melt Hearts, You Say?

A new psychology study has made a lot of press lately for reasons I don't really get. This mostly has to with the findings being: a) not at all surprising, b) not at all new, and c) very possibly caused by something else.
In other words, it's feel-good research that is complete hoooey.

Our local newspaper even ran with it. It basically makes the claim that holding a warm drink makes you think more positively about a stranger, so if you're meeting someone for date, you're well advised to go out for a cup of coffee — but make sure it's hot coffee, not iced coffee. On top of making people perceive another in a positive light, warmth also leads to increased generosity.

In the study, 41 participants held a cup of hot coffee or iced coffee before evaluating a stranger.

In a second experiment, participants handled hot or cold therapeutic pads in order to 'evaluate the product.' They were then given the choice of keeping a reward (Snapple drink, gift certificate to an ice cream) or giving it to a friend. People who handled the cold item chose to keep the reward 75 % of the time whereas those who handled the warm item chose to give it to a friend 56% of the time. Thus, warmth makes us feel good about others and also more generous.

Cool, right?

Sort of. Here's what actually happened: The researchers apparently hired a confederate, a helper who is blind to the study's aims. This is common practice in social psychology experiments because it reduces the problem of what is known as 'experimenter effects' - in other words, biases unintentionally introduced by the experimenter. A blind-to-the-research confederate won't be able to unconsciously get the participants to behave according to expectations.

So, in this particular research, that hired confederate rode with each participant in an elevator up to the 'study room.' This is typical in psychology research too — participants are often greeted in one spot and taken to another where the actual research is conducted. Except that oftentimes, the real research is being conducted right from the beginning. Sneaky, sneaky.

In this research, the confederate asked each participant to hold a drink on the elevator on the way up to the study. Sometimes they passed off a cold drink and sometimes it was warm. And, that presumably is the only thing that varied, which is good in an experimental sense. In an experiment, you want everything else but what you're interested in to be exactly the same for everyone.

Except, if the participants could feel the temperature of the drink, so too could the confederate. And if the confederate can feel that some drinks are hot and some are not, wouldn't they be affected by the drinks too, and maybe behave differently on account of them? If so, then the results may not have been a cause of the drinks but rather the confederate's different behavior. That's not to say that the drink's temperature had no effect, but maybe that effect arises through the behavior of the other person.

That's nothing new. Smiling generates positive feelings. So does direct eye contact — and touch. One study decades ago found that waitresses who touched the diner while providing the bill got higher tips than those who didn't touch. Maybe the confederate made better eye contact, smiled and may have inadvertently touched the participants when passing off the hot beverage. Maybe the warm beverage put the confederate in a good mood too. Who knows, but since we don't know, I'm skeptical of the conclusions.

And did I mention 41 participants is a very small sample size? That makes the generalization of the results to the rest of the 99.999999999999% of the planet's inhabitants questionable.

What's more, something that leaves more serious doubts in my mind about the conclusions, is what time of year was this research conducted?

Connecticut in winter is a very different place from Connecticut in the summer. My guess is, that since student participants, the lab rats of social psychology research, are more plentiful and easier to rope into research during the winter than the summer, this research was probably conducted in the winter when a warm beverage would be a positive thing. In the 80 degree, 80 percent humidity summer — no way! Give me an iced beverage, please.

Finally, there is nothing new about the notion that positive stimuli elevate our mood. Back in the 60s this type of research was pretty popular and was conducted with all sorts of stimuli from scent ( fresh baked bread vs. socks), to lighting (natural vs florescent lighting), to type of furniture in an experimental room, all with exactly the kind of common sense discoveries you'd expect. So, it's just a little funny to hear Lawrence Williams, the lead author of the study, say, "We used to believe that our actions and feelings are unrelated to physical cues, but they are."

He's a good salesman and you have to be if you're promoting your research, you've got to make it sound better than it is, and he certainly has. After all, hundreds and thousands of news people picked up his story, including me.

Williams, who is no longer a graduate student at Yale, is — no surprise here — an assistant professor of marketing. It's also not a surprise to hear that he says this research has marketing implications.

Okay, so we're supposed to give everybody a warm cup of joe to better sell them stuff?
It's more cost effective to smile.

So, the moral of the story is - don't believe every study you read.

Experiencing physical warmth promotes interpersonal warmth
Lawrence E. Williams & John A. Bargh
24 October 2008 322: 606-607

Thursday, October 23, 2008

An Exciting Afternoon

I have a restless Newfoundland puppy at my side. She expects me to bite the other end of the sock — the dirty, sweaty, man-foot sock — that she fetched from the clothes basket. She brought it to me and unlike Katy, who would always slither off to suck on them, Yuki pushed this one straight under my nose and when I didn't bite it, she dropped it on my chest.

This is a huge improvement over barking in my face.

We're still having barking issues. But, we're chipping away at it everyday and have seen measurable progress with noontime walks. Taking them down to campus at noon gives us 8 hours of peace and ..relative.. quiet afterward.

We didn't do that today because of the work Mr. Field Notes and I had on our plates, and I did get my work finished by 5pm (which is a major coup) — yet somehow we managed to have a day that went mostly like this:

I don't think this is likely to happen again.

They love that 'dog couch' so much I am loathe to get rid of it, but it is getting pretty ratty.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Lying Eyes: A smile is a thin disguise.

O most pernicious woman!
O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain! ...
That one may smile and smile, and be a villain.
~ Hamlet

I can trace my enthusiasm for psychology back to reading Hamlet in high school. There's nothing like a great piece of literature to excite one's passions and Hamlet certainly is rife with gems of the mind.

This one from Act 1, Scene 5 goes straight to the core of dual nature of the human smile. We humans have complicated emotions and they are intimately tied to the intricate sets of muscles that lie just under the surface of our skin. Lie - yes - those muscles also help us lie. But to keen observers, they also give away the lie.

So just how do you catch one of those damned villain liars smiling through his or her teeth?

You can see how good you are at it by taking a fun, quick test by clicking the picture below, or clicking here.
I bet you found it was pretty easy as long as you paid attention to the right muscles. It's all in the muscles.

Genuine smiles are expressed with the eyes and the mouth. Emotions researchers call them the 'Duchenne smile' as opposed to the 'polite' or fake smile. The Duchenne smile is named after a French neurologist, Guillaume Duchenne, who back when America was fighting a Civil War, was busy mapping the muscles of the face. He discovered the muscles around the eyes - the ones that when they contract give you crow's feet - could not be moved voluntarily. He couldn't force himself to smile with his eyes, only with his mouth.

This was serious business for him too. He used a precursor of today's electrodes to force individual muscles to move, and in classic psychological form — he experimented on himself.

Although the archived images are grotesque, his experimentation mapped 100 unique facial muscles. His crowning achievement was the differentiation of fake from genuine smiles. False or even half-hearted smiles used only the muscles of the mouth. But, "the sweet emotions of the soul," he wrote, "activate the pars lateralis muscle around the eyes."

Tried as he could, he could not get those eye muscles to contract by willing them to, and that is the key. For those muscles to contract, the emotion of happiness must be felt. Researchers in the 2oth century later figured out that those muscles aren't even connected to the same portion of the brain that control other facial muscles. It's as though they have their own circuitry.

It's no surprise that politicians and celebrities are some of the best subjects to turn to for the observation of these so-called polite smiles. It's no accident that politician and polite share the same word origin.

Primatologists, this one especially, like to point out that we can see the evolutionary roots of the human smile, both kinds, in the facial expressions of chimpanzees.

Chimps have a polite smile and genuine smile too. The polite smile acts as an appeasement, given when there's a need to pacify a disgruntled rival before things escalate. This smile is given with a wide closed-mouth grin with both sets of teeth showing. These faces are easy to find in online photos of chimps trained to be actors. It's a face often directed at the trainer and sometimes deliberately elicited for TV and film because it makes people think they're smiling and happy. They aren't. These are false smiles just as much as are the false smiles of a disingenuous politician or crappy TV actor.

The other chimp smile — the genuine one — can best be spotted during play and in laughter. It is often but not always an open-gaped grin, with only the lower set of teeth showing. The chimp genuine smile always covers the upper teeth.

The photo at the right shows a chimp playing blind man's bluff. A certain group of chimps in captivity started playing the game. They plug their fingers over the eyes while 'blind.' It causes much hilarity for the young and old alike.

From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes good sense because an appeasing smile, meant to prevent a potential attack, shouldn't advertise that you're about to bite. Thus — the closed mouth. To further convey no harm is intended in a genuine state of happiness, chimps will go a step further — they'll close their upper lip over their large and potentially deadly canines.

Humans have long since lost whatever sizable canines we used to have eons ago, giving way to a far more subtle signal involving the eyes rather than the mouth.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

A perfect marriage of wool and paper.

It all started with a simple custom order request. I saw it on etsy, their feature called alchemy to be specific. Someone wanted tags for mittens, but not just any mittens — mittens made from former sweaters. Recycling! I thought the paper I make with wool added to it would be perfect, so I sent a message. And that's when I met Charlotte of HandCandy Mittens. She agreed that the tags would be awesome so I whipped up a little design using graphics she had and the tags were born. Well, that is, after I made so much paper so quickly I thought I'd never recover! But, I did. Good thing too, because she wants more! 1000 of them. Holy cow.

These definitely count as one of my favorite creations ever.

Although it takes a lot longer to make paper with wool, mohair and other threads — the effect is well worth it. I love how some of the threads hang right out of the paper so you can see and feel them. The yarn comes straight from the scraps left over from my husband's weaving. When he has to cut a piece he's woven off of the loom, he saves the scraps for me.

The paper is a mix of junk mail, used envelopes, used office paper and whatever else I find, and these ones included seeds that I collected from the plants I grow: lunaria, lavender, marigolds, bachelor buttons, snapdragons and poppies.

As a thank you, which was totally unnecessary but very, very thoughtful, Charlotte sent me not one but TWO pairs of mittens, and they came inside the coolest recycled bag ever - a black t-shirt made into a sack. The mittens are the perfect size and they are so soft and thick. They're lined with fleece. It won't be cold enough to use them for a while here, but when I need to, I know they'll be plenty warm.

Now my husband and I get to bicker over who gets what pair. I think he's going to have to order his own though.

You can get your hands on the mittens by visiting HandCandy's online store.

Better snap a few pairs up while you can — at only $20 a pair they'll be gone fast!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Win a Monkey: 2008 OrnaMonkey Contest


The winners have been contacted, and I'm awaiting their confirmation. If their prizes aren't claimed, I'll go to the next person in line. Stay tuned to see who won!


Earlier this month I held a poll here for people to nominate a monkey to be made into the October 'OrnaMonkey' Monkey of the Month — and the Night Monkey won.

2 of these • People's Choice • OrnaMonkeys (retail value $16) will be awarded November 1 as prizes for the winners of the 1st ever OrnaMonkey Blog Scavenger Hunt.

To enter the contest for your chance to win one of these cool monkeys, you need to find 10 OrnaMonkey contest 'bugs' on the blogs of participating blogs. The bugs are shown at the left.

They can be found in some, but not all, of the following blogs:

~ Sorry, the contest has officially ended.

The Monkey of the Month Club gives people a different OrnaMonkey each month for a year. Membership spaces become available in November and are offered at a discount. Each member who signs up before December 31 will receive twelve 2009 OrnaMonkeys for only $99 plus S&H ($168 if purchased individually), a savings of more than 40%.

The OrnaMonkeys are a fun way to learn more about the beautiful diversity of primates while getting some very charismatic ornaments that can liven up your home or office throughout the year. Species to be included are: lemurs, macaques, marmosets, langurs, tamarins, titi monkeys and maybe even an ape or two.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Chewy Motor Noodle

When you have a little ruffian who is cute and full of personality, it's inevitable that she's going to get nicknames. The little Yuckster started off as "The Football" on account of her size. Then she got her real name: Yuki. Mr. Field Notes suggested it after looking through a book of kanji. We like the sound of it with Katy since it has some of the same letters but sounds totally different due to the vowels. I think it's a good one because like Katy, it's easy to say and distinctive. That made it easy for Yuki to learn her name. And, although the dogs are not the color of snow, Newfoundlands love icy, cold water. So Yuki is was. But, it morphed into:

Yuckster, Yook-u-lar, Yuki Dukey, Yuki Dooks, Beefins, Chunkins.. see, she went through a pudgy stage.

But she has now lost her baby fat and is all legs and tail and kind of skinny looking. She also has puppy freak outs in which she motors around at high speed. and oh man, does she chew. Bite bite nip nip, yank, pull.. thankfully mostly at Katy but sometimes at us too. She's getting the picture that the rules with us are different than the rules with Katy. Yuki is still learning how to play nicely with people.

Chewy Motor Noodle is very headstrong.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Parenthood: Males need not apply.

We've all heard stories of the "Virgin Mary" but did you know that in the realm of science it is actually possible for some species to become pregnant without having sex? Of course you have!

It's called 'asexual reproduction' and many simple species reproduce this way — bacteria, fungi and many plants. We just don't tend to see many female animals reproduce asexually, without the assistance of a male's DNA.

The Journal of Fish Biology reports that scientists have proof, through DNA testing, that a shark has managed to conceive without the help of a male - or even another female for that matter. It's not even the first time asexual reproduction has been documented in sharks either. The first known case occurred with a pup born to a hammerhead shark at an Omaha zoo years ago. The poor little thing got munched though — by the other sharks in the tank.

This newest case comes from a female blacktip shark at the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center. Her tank never contained a male shark, yet she was carrying an almost full-term fetus when she died. As it so happens, pregnancy is risky for sharks just as it is risky for people. She died from late-term pregnancy complications, determined through an autopsy. The pup she was pregnant with died too. His DNA was analyzed — it contained no genetic material from a male — proof positive of parthenogenesis, asexual reproduction.

This so-called 'virgin birth' has been documented in some amphibians, reptiles, bony fish and birds!

What happens during conception via parthenogenis is that the newly forming cell acquires an extra X chromosome when the mother’s X chromosome duplicates itself during egg development. I found this graphic that sort of explains it visually, for those already familiar with normal meiosis.

The resulting offspring is always a female, unlike with asexual reproduction in birds which can result in male offspring because female birds carry an X and Y chromosome. I've always thought that was pretty cool about birds, and I suppose that means that means that female birds are the ones likely to show sex-linked traits like human males are more likely to express color blindness if the gene is inherited. But, back to the sharks — a shark mother only has X chromosomes to contribute, so 'virgin' conceptions alway result in a female.

Without the chromosomes provided by the other sex, the offspring of asexual reproduction have reduced genetic diversity — a major disadvantage. The greater genetic diversity produced by sexual reproduction (two parents) is significant. For one, it creates a healthier immune system — one that is able to recognize and kill off a wider variety of pathogens.

However, the ability to reproduce asexually can also be a significant advantage. If, for whatever reason, the sex ratio (number of males to females) becomes skewed, a females might not be able to find a mate to reproduce with. If she can reproduce without a male - the species may continue to live — but only as long as females can continue to reproduce asexually. If they can, the number of females will continue to rise, remember, because they can only produce other females. The sex ratio will then become even more skewed, making it even more difficult for the remaining females to reproduce sexually. Eventually, the population will plummet. This is likely to be the case when pathogens and congenital malformations are present.

The scientists, during interviews about their research which was picked up by the AP (how I found out about it) cautioned that these rare asexual births should not be viewed as a possible solution to declining global shark populations. And, now you know why =D

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Is a 3-yr-old who eats paper normal?

She keeps eating paper. She's fine developmentally, she knows it's not food. Do you think she may have pica or is it just a preschooler thing?

Anytime paper and psychology intersect, you know I'm going to get excited!

According to the DSM-IV-TR, the diagnostic manual of psychiatry and clinical psychology, pica (diagnosis #307.52), is the "consumption of nonfood items, including dirt, clay, starch, ice, cloth, and so forth. Transient pica is very common in normal children, and may also be seen in about one-quarter of severely retarded patients. Pica may be seen in up to a third or more of pregnant women; it may also be endemic in certain culturally isolated groups, but is for the most part rare in otherwise normal adults."

Note especially this part: Transient pica is very common in normal children. Also, for someone to actually have a case of pica, the following DSM criteria need to be met:
  • Persistent eating of non-nutritive substances for a period of at least 1 month.
  • The eating of non-nutritive substances is inappropriate to the developmental level.
  • The eating behavior is not part of a culturally sanctioned practice.
  • If the eating behavior occurs exclusively during the course of another mental disorder (e.g., Mental Retardation, Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Schizophrenia), it is sufficiently severe to warrant independent clinical attention.
A developmentally normal three year old who eats paper occasionally is totally normal, i.e. it is most definitely a pre-schooler thing.

I think this question about pica is a good question because it relates to many things that are fun to think about: the culture of food, the definition of abnormal behavior in light of cultural expectations for behavior, and also a relatively new field in behavioral studies called zoopharmacognosy [Zoh-o-farm-uh-cog-nose-ee is how I say it].

Michael Huffman, a primatologist I would love to meet some day, perhaps at the Kyoto University of Japan in January when I'm in Kyoto, is one of the founders of the field. Zoopharmacognosy is basically the study of herbal medicinal use among animals. Primatologists like Huffman have discovered that monkeys and apes ingest substances that are not food because they have beneficial properties. These include charcoal, mud, the bitter pith of trees and various other things that are not normally eaten, including in the case of woolly spider monkeys and lemurs — plants that affect fertility.

Here's a brief synopsis of some non-foods that animals eat for health reasons:
  • Aspilia plant leaves - chimpanzees - rids intestinal parasites
  • Vernonia bush pith - chimpanzees - helps upset stomach
  • fruit from the 'Monkey Ear' plant - woolly spider monkey - increased fertility
  • leaves of Apulia leiocarpa & Platypodium elegans - woolly spider monkey - decreased fertility
  • Boraginaceae trees - elephants - induce labor
  • clay - spider monkeys - diarrhea treatment
  • charcoal - colobus monkeys - counteract toxins in a highly nutritious plant
Note that some of these (leaves, fruit, etc) may seem like food, but they are not ingested frequently and they are apparently only sought out when the individual is sick.

The condition pica, even as defined by the DSM, may not be inherently abnormal or 'crazy' after all. Perhaps the child who eats paper senses a dietary deficiency in fiber. And maybe the pregnant woman who craves dirt or clay instinctively wants to cleanse toxins from her body to keep the fetus healthy. However, there is no doubt in my mind that some forms of pica — such as a French man who ingested $650 worth of coins — are clearly abnormal and dangerous to one's health. Pica is just one example of a healthy behavior that when taken to the extreme, is anything but.

For further reading:
Really Wild Remedies
Geophagy: Soil Consumption
By Watching What Animals Eat, Experts May Find New Medicines for People
Bite the Bullet: A man who ate bullets

Monday, October 06, 2008

Trying something new with paper..

Because it's not planting season for annuals anymore and soon, not even for perennials, I thought it was high time to branch out into a new kind of card that isn't meant to be planted. I also have a stash of flowers I pressed but haven't done anything with yet as well as some mulberry paper. The card ended up being my largest ever - about 5 x 7 inches - which is also a great size for framing. I've got something similar in the works with leaves and grasses. I get tired making the same thing all of the time, and this area is fantastic for growing things, so there are a good variety of materials to work with. The only real limitation is imagination.

This card is now available for sale! You can see it here.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Abortion is murder. Say what?!

Last night I talked to someone I hold near and dear to my heart. The subject of politics came up, specifically Sarah Palin. After listening I said with a questioning tone, So I take it you're Republicans then? Well, Matt is but I'm more of an independent and then for a reason that I know has to do with being impressionable, she went on to tell me that she thinks abortion is murder even in the case of rape and incest and that a vote on abortion should be put to the states.

I just about died.

This person is my sister. Even though we have our differences, I respect her enough to listen and to try to understand her perspective and why she holds it. I also think it is my responsibility to tell her mine and why I hold it, because she should respect me and my position and why I hold it. We don't have to agree with each other but I do expect her to think about what her position means.

I told her what I would tell anyone who got into it with me. I think government and other people have no business, indeed no right, to dictate that a woman must carry a pregnancy to term that arose through rape or incest. Forcing someone to endure a pregnancy, a medically risky proposition, is like raping them again.

She said abortion is murder.

I think what is aborted are just cells, sure they are alive — but so are bacteria, lichen, oak trees, slugs, kittens, Malamutes, convicts and cancer cells.

If abortion is murder, then so is killing someone's family pet and so is killing someone on death row.

If you think it's your right to tell someone else they have to continue to be pregnant when they are pregnant through rape or incest because to do otherwise is morally wrong because it's murder, then you better not eat meat, wear fur or support the death penalty.

Inflicting an unwanted pregnancy on a woman who has been raped is raping her again. That pregnancy can become a constant reminder of having been raped when coping with the effects of rape are already difficult enough. Why make it harder?

As I found out this morning when I set out to do some more research on the psychological consequences of abortion, I found that anti-abortion sites often cite bogus studies that supposedly support the existence of something called 'post-abortion syndrome.' This is supposedly supposed to convince us that it's harmful for women to have an abortion.

According to the APA, American Psychological Association, there is no evidence that abortion causes psychological harm. They based this decision on the best scientific research available. If you would like to read the actual research, it is summarized in the APA's 1992 publication, Psychological Factors in Abortion: A Review. The APA's position statement is available here.

Here's another way to look at the consequences of forcing a woman who conceives through rape - through the lens of evolutionary psychology. Because I am a responsible academic, I will preface this by pointing out that the subject of evolution and rape is a seriously controversial one in psychology. The popular opinion is that rape is a product of the socially constructed power differences between men and women and that it has nothing to do with sex and reproduction. I personally do not agree with that. I think rape is a product of power differences between men and women that are socially constructed and reinforced but also that those power differences arose from evolutionary forces, specifically sexual selection. Women still prefer to mate/pair with men who are wealthy and who are taller, bigger and more muscular. As long as they do, and have more babies with those men, that power difference will continue. When women no longer need to marry a wealthy man to live well, you'll see that change. Equal pay. That is a pro-woman issue too.

But back to rape and the evolutionary psychology of it. If rape is a behavior that has anything to do with a genetic predisposition or susceptibility to use sexual violence to assert power, then do you really want the rapist's offspring, possibly carrying the genes for that psychological susceptibility, to live and have the opportunity to rape and reproduce those genes? Yes, I know that implies something that sounds an awful lot like eugenics. Because it is. But remember, people practice eugenics everyday without realizing it. Most people don't marry just anyone or have children with just anyone. People choose their mates and choose them selectively. Deep down, selective mating is about selecting someone on the basis of what they look like and how they act, both of which are affected at some level by genetics. When you refuse to get sexually involved with a guy because he's not good-looking enough, lacks the smarts or ambition to advance his career, is alcoholic or developmentally delayed — you, whether you like it or not, are practicing a form of eugenics. So why make a fuss over extracting some cells from a woman's uterus?

Is it morally wrong to do that because, unlike cancer cells, they might grow up to do something good in this world? They might also grow up to be a serial killer. More likely, they will just be another cog in the wheel of life on this already overcrowded planet.

Some people, my sister included and I know so because she said so, think it's okay to force a woman to carry a rape pregnancy to term because she doesn't have to keep the child. As if having to keep the child is the fundamental problem... but okay, let's just say that it is for the sake of the argument. If you're going to try to make a woman, pregnant through rape who doesn't want to be pregnant, feel better by telling her she doesn't actually have to keep the child, that she can give it up for adoption, then you better have a better reason than 'it's morally wrong to have an abortion' and you better pay and pay dearly to give those unwanted children the best possible life and education. I don't see extreme anti-abortion people advocating for raising taxes to put more funding into the DHS or to pay for health care and education for children. And, even if they were, it would not make it acceptable to force a woman to be pregnant.

Now if you ask me, the pragmatic thing to do, the best thing to do for everyone involved, is to let the woman get an abortion if she wants one.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Nonverbal Behavior during the VP Debate

I watched all of the debate on C-Span to avoid the commercials and running commentary across the bottom of the screen. I also chatted online with friends who were also watching the debate. I had a great time chatting it up with them.

For me, the defining moment came somewhere in the second half of the debate when Biden spoke about the accident that killed his wife and infant daughter, leaving him a single father of two children. The way he spoke about that said volumes and I could see that he was getting choked up. He wiped a tear from his eye while Palin robotically repeated her memorized sound bytes.

Her non-response was scary. She showed no compassion. Zero empathy. She could have shown sensitivity. That might have won over a skeptical audience. It would have been disarming. But no - she ignored him.

And why? I think it was because she didn't hear a single word he said all debate long. She spent virtually all of the debate, at least while he was speaking, looking down at what were presumably her notes and crib sheet.

Unlike Biden, who looked at her while she spoke, Palin rarely if ever, looked at him while he spoke.

I think that's because unlike Biden who is capable of listening and formulating his next thoughts simultaneously, Palin could not do both at the same time. She could not both listen and think of what she was going to say next.

That's what I think was going on. But, the nonverbal behavior expert in me says we can look at it another way — through the lens of the visual dominance ratio.

What's the visual dominance ratio? In short, it's something we psychologists, well, really only those who are exceptionally well-versed in research on nonverbal behavior (NVB), know is an important aspect of eye contact.

See, people are primates - indeed - animals. And animals communicate dominance with eye contact. Staring is a threat. Well, it's a little different with people. When we stare, or look intensely, it can be both domineering and also intimate. If someone holds a gaze unbroken for longer than 2 seconds - they're either going to fight or make love.

The significance of eye contact is a tricky one then. Sometime during the late 60s and early 70s when NVB research was in its prime, a couple of ingenious social psychologists unlocked some of its mystery.

Through careful experimentation, they found out that eye contact means different things - sends a different message to others - based on how much a person looks while speaking compared to looks while listening. For each person engaged in a conversation, such as the debate tonight, a visual dominance ratio can be calculated.

The higher the ratio - the more dominant, high status and powerful they are perceived to be. People who are dominant, high status, and powerful have higher ratios. It's probably also true for people who just think they are - i.e. the confident.

Typically the ratio ends up being around 1.0 for dominant, powerful, high status people. The subordinate person in the conversation tends to show a ratio of around .80. What this means is that the more dominant person tends to spend just about the same amount of eye contact with the other person regardless of whether they are speaking or listening.

Palin, by spending so much time looking down rather than at Biden when he spoke, signaled dominance, power and status. All things she needed to convey. But, her visual dominance ratio was skewed so high that it actually made her come off as arrogant. And you don't need me to tell you that's bad. Her condescending tone at various points, her smug winks, her eye rolls over her shoulder in Biden's direction — those rather further reinforce that.

The visual dominance ratio is at the heart of why you need to make eye contact during interviews. It suggests confidence. But you also need to make eye contact while listening to the person who is speaking to you — it conveys that you respect them, that you think what they have to say is important. Just don't do it more than you do while you're the one speaking. If you look more while you listen than you do while you speak, you'll come off as servile. If you don't do it enough, you'll come off as arrogant.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

3 species of monkey you should meet

I've been scratching my proverbial primate noggin looking for the perfect monkey to create for the October OrnaMonkey in the monkey of the month club.

For those of you who haven't seen them before, they are palm-sized monkey faces made from felt that resemble actual monkey species. I create one per month, choosing unique monkeys some of which are familiar to people and many of which are brand new.

This month, I've settled on three candidates: the night monkey, Hamlyn's owl-faced guenon, and the saki monkey.

I like them all for various reasons. But, I would love for you to vote and tell me which species you think should be the October OrnaMonkey.

Night Monkey
He's a charming little fellow so named because it's a nocturnal species. In fact, it's the only nocturnal monkey. Other primates that are nocturnal are technically prosimians, not monkeys. I say technically, because depending on which system of taxonomy you use, they might be.. but we'll not get into that. I don't know anyone who is as interested in taxonomy as I am. The other thing that is notable about these monkeys is that they are the animal subject of choice for research in to the herpes virus. Their eyes are incredibly sensitive to it. Male and female night monkeys are almost completely indistinguishable - a rarity among primates. This is one of the main reasons they are believed to be socially and sexually monogamous.

Hamlyn's owl-faced guenon
These monkeys are so named for their distinctive face. Aside from what is known about them from captive observation in zoos, which isn't much, vanishingly little is know about this species. They live only in a tiny area of eastern Congo, near where mountain gorillas live. But, their habitat is not protected and also happens to be where millions of refuges of the area's civil wars have fled, hungry and cold. The monkeys are hunted for food, further lessening their chances for long term survival. Now one other thing about these monkeys, like many monkeys with interesting faces - they have equally interesting looking hind ends. You can read more about them here.

Saki Monkey
I have to say I'm pretty partial to these monkeys. They look like a monkey version of Newfoundlands with their very, very shaggy black coats. The male and female saki monkeys don't even look like they are the same species. This extreme sexual dichromatism (different color morphs) is very, very rare. Males and females sing together, an activity primatologists call duetting. It's a very good indication of strong pair bonds and social monogamy, if not actual sexual monogamy.

Personally, I'm disinclined to chose the night monkey because they look very similar to another species I chose recently - the slow loris. And, I have already chosen primates that are nocturnal and also those that are monogamous. What I like about the last 2 choices is that their faces are totally unique and each has a story that educates OrnaMonkeys collectors a little more.

Of course, I haven't yet done a gibbon, so they are yet another option to consider for November. I'm thinking a moloch gibbon or pileated gibbon. The snow monkey or Japanese macaque is the monkey for December.