Monday, February 28, 2011

The Other Brain

An interesting new book from R. Douglas Fields: The Other Brain.

"Glia" is a catch-all term for every cell in the nervous system that's not a neuron. We have lots and lots of them: on some estimates, 85% of the cells in the brain are glia. But to most neuroscientists at the moment, they're about as interesting as dirt is to archaeologists. They're the boring stuff that gets in the way. The name is Greek for "glue", which says a lot.

It's telling that most neuroscientists (myself included I confess) use the term "brain cells" to mean neurons, even though they're a minority. Hence the book's title: Douglas Fields argues that glia constitute a whole world, another brain - although of course, it's not seperate from the neuronal brain, and neuron-glia interactions are the really interesting thing and the central theme of the book.

Glia have historically been regarded as mere "housekeepers", keeping the brain neat and tidy by cleaning up the byproducts of neural activity. Douglas Fields explains that there's actually a lot more to glia than that, but that even if they were just housekeepers, the housekeeping they do is extremely important.

Astrocytes, one kind of glial cell, are key to the regulation of glutamate levels in the brain. Glutamate is by far the most common neurotransmitter yet it's also the most dangerous: glutamate can kill neurons if they receive too much of it (excitotoxicity). I previously wrote about some bad clams which can cause permanent brain damage if who eat them; the toxin responsible mimics the action of glutamate.

By quickly clearing up glutamate as it's released from neurons, astrocytes perform a vital function which saves the brain from self-destruction. Yet recent evidence has shown that they don't just mop up neurotransmitters, they also respond to them, and even release them. People are nowadays talking about the "tripartite synapse" - presynaptic neuron, postsynaptic neuron, and glia.


Glia even have their own communication network quite seperate from the neuronal one. Whereas neurons use electrical currents to convey signals, and chemicals to talk to other cells, astrocytes are interconnected via direct gap-junctions - literally, little holes bridging the membranes between neighbors.

Waves of calcium can travel through these junctions across long distances. The function of this glial network is almost entirely mysterious at present, but it's surely important, or it wouldn't have evolved. (A few types of human neurons do the same thing; in some animals it's more common.)

The subtitle is overblown, as subtitles often are ("From Dementia to Schizophrenia, How New Discoveries About the Brain are Revolutionizing Medicine and Science"); the book also repeats itself in a number of places, especially when it's castigating neuroscientists for overlooking glia for so long (a fair point, but it gets old.) Overall though it's very readable and it's got some nice anecdotes as well as the science.

The Other Brain makes an excellent case that neuroscience can't remain neuron-science if it hopes to answer the big questions. It's certainly opened my eyes to the importance of glia and given me ideas for my own research. As such it's one of those rare popular science books that will prove interesting to professionals and others too.

Link: Also reviewed here.

Disclaimer: I got a free review copy.

The Other Brain

An interesting new book from R. Douglas Fields: The Other Brain.

"Glia" is a catch-all term for every cell in the nervous system that's not a neuron. We have lots and lots of them: on some estimates, 85% of the cells in the brain are glia. But to most neuroscientists at the moment, they're about as interesting as dirt is to archaeologists. They're the boring stuff that gets in the way. The name is Greek for "glue", which says a lot.

It's telling that most neuroscientists (myself included I confess) use the term "brain cells" to mean neurons, even though they're a minority. Hence the book's title: Douglas Fields argues that glia constitute a whole world, another brain - although of course, it's not seperate from the neuronal brain, and neuron-glia interactions are the really interesting thing and the central theme of the book.

Glia have historically been regarded as mere "housekeepers", keeping the brain neat and tidy by cleaning up the byproducts of neural activity. Douglas Fields explains that there's actually a lot more to glia than that, but that even if they were just housekeepers, the housekeeping they do is extremely important.

Astrocytes, one kind of glial cell, are key to the regulation of glutamate levels in the brain. Glutamate is by far the most common neurotransmitter yet it's also the most dangerous: glutamate can kill neurons if they receive too much of it (excitotoxicity). I previously wrote about some bad clams which can cause permanent brain damage if who eat them; the toxin responsible mimics the action of glutamate.

By quickly clearing up glutamate as it's released from neurons, astrocytes perform a vital function which saves the brain from self-destruction. Yet recent evidence has shown that they don't just mop up neurotransmitters, they also respond to them, and even release them. People are nowadays talking about the "tripartite synapse" - presynaptic neuron, postsynaptic neuron, and glia.


Glia even have their own communication network quite seperate from the neuronal one. Whereas neurons use electrical currents to convey signals, and chemicals to talk to other cells, astrocytes are interconnected via direct gap-junctions - literally, little holes bridging the membranes between neighbors.

Waves of calcium can travel through these junctions across long distances. The function of this glial network is almost entirely mysterious at present, but it's surely important, or it wouldn't have evolved. (A few types of human neurons do the same thing; in some animals it's more common.)

The subtitle is overblown, as subtitles often are ("From Dementia to Schizophrenia, How New Discoveries About the Brain are Revolutionizing Medicine and Science"); the book also repeats itself in a number of places, especially when it's castigating neuroscientists for overlooking glia for so long (a fair point, but it gets old.) Overall though it's very readable and it's got some nice anecdotes as well as the science.

The Other Brain makes an excellent case that neuroscience can't remain neuron-science if it hopes to answer the big questions. It's certainly opened my eyes to the importance of glia and given me ideas for my own research. As such it's one of those rare popular science books that will prove interesting to professionals and others too.

Link: Also reviewed here.

Disclaimer: I got a free review copy.

Going Through People's Stuff

I have finally figured out why my students think it's perfectly fine to rummage in my handbag when I leave the classroom. In order to make the task of endless paper grading a little more bearable, I turned on Dr. Phil's Show and discovered that parents who routinely invade their children's personal space and go through their pockets, cell phones, backpacks, and drawers are considered good and responsible parents.

After being brought up in the environment where personal space is not respected, is it surprising that my students have no idea that it is not acceptable to go through people's stuff in their absence?


Who Is Considered a Star. . .

. . . by the young people today? I need to include pictures of (American) celebrities that my students will recognize in a Spanish assignment. I discovered, however, that I'm hopelessly behind on who is considered a celebrity nowadays. I don't want to be one of those frumpy profs who hands out pictures of people that used to be famous 30 years ago and expects students who weren't even born then to recognize them.

So who is visually recognizable to 18-20 year olds? Please help!

Suing the Reviewer

When Thomas Weigend, a professor of law at the University of Cologne, wrote a 4-paragraph-long review of a book by Karin Calvo-Goller, a senior lecturer at the Academic Center of Law and Business in Israel, little did he know that the irate author would sue him in a criminal court. Apparently, nobody else noticed Calvo-Goller's book, and she decided to promote it by bringing a criminal suit against somebody who might well be the only person to have read it.

Academic publishing isn't easy. Getting people to read the product of one's scholarly labor is even more difficult. It's sad to see that some hapless academics are now resorting to these undignified stunts in hopes of attracting attention to their work.

What Is A Good Football Cleat For A Linemen





This watch has been commissioned very rewarding for me. From simple lines to the old it is, was mainly an issue of cleaning the multiple layers of varnish that overlapped each other. In addition, the plate of the clock showed discoloration spots. The clock numbers were painted with brush and without excessive pulse.




In the part where you see the pendulum had a molding cap I chose to remove. I think that is more attractive as well. And helps to clean the glass. Here you can see the plate in the process of polishing the metal with the dremel:




And that's how it was before the cleaning and pickling alcohol, Retinto and final varnishing. Ah, I painted a small ornament on the top and hit the plate to buy Roman numerals craft stores. The hands, smooth metal, I also painted. And as always, hope you like the result.



The War on Women

The New York Times published an article that condemns the Republican war on women. We have witnessed such egregious assaults on the rights of women recently that even this conservative newspaper can no longer be silent on the issue:
Republicans in the House of Representatives are mounting an assault on women’s health and freedom that would deny millions of women access to affordable contraception and life-saving cancer screenings and cut nutritional support for millions of newborn babies in struggling families. And this is just the beginning. The budget bill pushed through the House last Saturday included the defunding of Planned Parenthood and myriad other cuts detrimental to women. It’s not likely to pass unchanged, but the urge to compromise may take a toll on these programs. And once the current skirmishing is over, House Republicans are likely to use any legislative vehicle at hand to continue the attack.
Once again, the Republican hypocrisy I wrote about recently is self-evident. On the one hand, legislation aimed at curtailing women's rights to an abortion is being discussed in a variety of states. The Republican majority in Congress states openly that it's main goal at this point is repealing abortion rights. (Jobs? What jobs? Who the hell cares about anything as ridiculously unimportant as that when you can rummage in a woman's uterus instead?). On the other hand, Republicans are trying to make sure that children who have already been born are deprived of health care and nutrition:
Beyond the familiar terrain of abortion or even contraception, House Republicans would inflict harm on low-income women trying to have children or who are already mothers. Their continuing resolution would cut by 10 percent the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, better known as WIC, which serves 9.6 million low-income women, new mothers, and infants each month, and has been linked in studies to higher birth weight and lower infant mortality. The G.O.P. bill also slices $50 million from the block grant supporting programs providing prenatal health care to 2.5 million low-income women and health care to 31 million children annually.
After all this, how can anybody be blind enough to believe that the Republican anti-abortion frenzy has anything to do with "saving babies"? How can anybody be inhuman enough to support these cannibalistic measures?

I have always been fascinated - in the same way that one is fascinated with really nasty insects - with people who support Republicans. Anybody who has been graced with an ounce of brain matter can see very easily that this is a party that would rob everybody to benefit the tiny group of the extremely rich. That hates women to the degree of having a near epileptic fit whenever a woman tries to live her own life. That would gladly see children from poor families die out. That has come as near fascism as possible and is eagerly awaiting the opportunity to take the next step. How can anybody keep supporting them and still live with themselves? Isn't it obvious that these are vile creeps whose tenancy on the garbage heap of history has been guaranteed for a long time now?

Come on, people, try to forget about women's uteri for a while and concentrate on how many times the Republicans have lied to you. Weren't you told that their goal was to help you through this devastating economic crisis? Well, they lied as usual. Right now they are not only attempting to kill off poor babies but are also trying to destroy the housing rescue programs instituted by Obama's administration. There will be over 2,000,000 foreclosures this year.

Do you really hate women so much that you would keep voting for a party that is robbing you blind? Really? 

Dickies Singapore Outlet

wall clock time Rocked brave


The British comedy lives a great time. I find it sweeter, more for everyone. The film specifically follows the steps in "Love Actually" in the choral of actors with their dot tender all but I was also reminded of another movie characters gulfs of radio, rowdiest "private parts." Account specifically how censorship in England of the 60 stations that wanted to give young pop and rock, they were going to be broadcasting from a boat in international waters. A piece of cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Bill Nighy and my new idols thanks to a series of computer Chris O'Dowd and Katherine Parkinson. Hope you like

Sunday, February 27, 2011

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Store Hours

Is it possible that our local Schnucks is really open 24-7 like it says on the website? As somebody who was born in the Soviet Union, I find this next to impossible to believe. So I will go and find out for myself. 

No matter how much time passes since December 26, 1991, there are still things I can't get used to.

Quality of Commenters

I read a post on yet another Clarissa-bashing blog. The post was nothing new, it just indulged in some unhealthy fantasies about my sad and lonely existence and evinced fake sympathy to the state of my utter friendlessness (which, of course, is a figment of the author's strange imagination.) I wasn't surprised at the post but the comments made me feel a little scared. Here are some examples:
Everyone has already said everything I’m thinking….but I wanted to add that I’m one more person that loves you 
Love ya! 
Bless you sweetie! 
I have no idea what’s going on here but I love ((((((you))))))

And it goes on like this for a while. I looked into other threads, and the comments are all in this same saccharine, cloying vein.

Then I felt very grateful for my commenters who never come to tell me that they have no idea what I'm writing about but they love (((me.))) My blog attracts all kinds of commenters but, save for an occasional troll, they are all intelligent people who offer arguments and not just fake, meaningless declarations of non-existing love.

Thank you for being you, guys!

Liberal Academia

The Washington Post realizes that if its conservative subscribers get any less educated than they already are, they will not be able to read even the simplistic swill that this newspaper is feeding them. As a result, it decided to dial back its hate campaign against the commie hippie latte-swigging tree-hugging college professors. Now it is trying to convince its readership that getting a higher education might not deal such a serious blow to their children's Republican convictions. A clumsy article trying to argue in a very impotent way that college campuses are not all that liberal appeared in The Washington Post recently. It's titled "Five Myths About Liberal Academia" and can be found here in case you really enjoy bad writing.

Whatever bill of goods that The Washington Post is trying to sell to its conservative readers, the truth is different. Unless we are talking about a student who has been brainwashed to the point of not having a single thought of their own, college education will end up broadening their horizons and demonstrating to them that any conservatism is unnatural, meaningless, and unintelligent

To the contrary of what many conservatives fear, progressive professors don't use the classroom to voice their political convictions. We simply don't need to. When I come into the classroom, looking chic, fashionable and professional and begin to share my knowledge with the students, my way of being is the best argument there could be against female subjection. I don't have to proclaim feminist slogans in the classroom. I bring my point across just by existing. In the same way, I make my students reconsider their dislike of immigrants. And of intelligent, knowledgeable, educated people. The list can be continued ad infinitum. (The dislike of people who use expressions such as ad infinitum could be added to the list).

Every literary text we read in class, brings the students closer to progressive values. For some unfathomable reason, there don't seem to be that many great writers who advocate accepting things the way they are, resisting all change, and trying to revert to some imaginary paradisaical moment in the past where things used to be perfect. 

We teach our students to think for themselves, identify gaping holes in any argument (such as the above-mentioned article in The WaPo, for example), to analyze and operate with facts. We are not always successful, of course, but when we are we end up creating more open-minded, intelligent, progressive people.

Conservatives exist on campus, of course. They are treated by everybody with compassion. Not because of their political beliefs, but because they are those hapless academics who never manage to publish anything. The conservative academics' CVs are very light on publications not because, as The WaPo article suggests, there is some bias against their so-called ideas in liberal publishing houses and journals. Rather, the very nature of research calls for the creation of something new, for progress, for a rejection of old certainties. A piece of research is always judged, first and foremost, on the basis of whether it contributes anything new to the understanding of the subject. The definition of a conservative is "Favoring traditional views and values; tending to oppose change." It is self-evident, I believe, why this kind of person will not be able to transform their area of expertise in any significant way by their research.

Conservative forces in this country might manage to push another Republican president into office in 2012 by the sheer force of their mass hysteria. That, however, will not stop things from changing, progressing, transforming. Theirs is a losing battle, which is why their rage is so virulent.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Why Gender Privilege Does Not Exist

I have always said that "privilege" is a meaningless, useless, empty concept which is employed by people with lazy brains whenever they want to avoid any attempt at analysis. Let me use the mythical "gender privilege" to demonstrate that privilege is non-existent.

As a woman, I am routinely underpaid and discriminated in the workplace. In this country, women in all professions are paid less than men for performing the same work. This is disgusting, unfair, and wrong. When you experience it yourself, as I did, it is also very painful. So is that male privilege at work? You could say so if it weren't for one little thing. I could quit my job today and spend the rest of my life painting my nails and snoozing on the couch while my husband would exercise his male privilege to pay all of my bills, bear the financial responsibility for both of us, stress out about the competition in the workplace and the danger of being laid-off, and die several years earlier than I do. 

If I decided to exercise my female privilege never to work for a living again, everybody would applaud this decision. The New York Times routinely celebrates women who "opt out" of the workplace. "Choice feminists" keep screeching that women should have the right to choose to be kept by men their entire lives. If a man chose to stay at home permanently doing his nails and snoozing in front of a soap opera, there would be no similar social acclaim and support for him. He'd be a laughing stock and an object of derision for the rest of his life. 

Feminism got itself into a dead-end when it chose to analyze the workings of patriarchy in terms of gender privilege. Only when we recognize that patriarchy benefits both men and women while at the same time causing great harm to both men and women, will we be able to move ahead. This is a system that has existed for such a long time because it offers huge rewards to people whom it oppresses. It's time we stopped all senseless blabber about privilege and started recognizing that.

Psychoanalyzing Writers

One of the most difficult things that the teacher has to achieve in introductory literature courses is convincing the students that trying to psychoanalyze writers is a bad idea.

Benito Jeronimo Feijoo, one of the greatest thinkers of the Spanish Enlightenment, did not write his famous feminist essay "In Defense of Women" because "his mother was nicer to him than other writers' mothers and she spent more quality time with him." Both Feijoo and his mother have been dead for centuries, and their relationship is neither interesting nor relevant.

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Do You Earn Less or More If You Work in the Public Sector?

Remember our discussion about those lazy public sector workers who make huge amounts of money for doing nothing? And how the poor people who work in the private sector can only sit there and observe with envy the over-entitled lazy brats in the public sector? This table that I discovered at David Ruccio's blog tells us something different. Middle- and higher-wage employees make significantly less in the public sector. This means that people who are better educated and more experienced end up being punished financially for working in the public sector.

So enough already with this myth of lazy, spoiled public school professor who grow stinky rich on the public dime while doing nothing of value.

Grading

I've been very concentrated on my research in the past couple of weeks and as a result I fell a little behind in terms of grading. I make students hand in a written assignment for every day of class in each one of the classes. We also wrote a mini-quiz and a composition this week.

So today I put all of the papers I need to grade on the floor, and they reached higher than my ankle. I'm literally ankle-deep in grading. I need to get on this now, before I end up knee-deep in ungraded assignments.

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An Astonishingly Brilliant Epic Tour-De-Force

So I was browsing my local bookshop yesterday.

But what to buy? The back covers are not very helpful. Apparently, every novel published nowadays is, at the worse, a breathtaking masterpiece. Most are epoch-making, life-changing works of godlike genius.

OK, but which ones are actually good?

Why is this? Part of it, surely, is that literature is an incestuous world where the same authors who write the books are the first port of call when publishers want blurbs for everyone else's. Clearly you don't want to say anything bad about your peers lest you stop getting invites to dinner parties. Unless you're embroiled in a "bitter literary feud", but no-one has the energy to do that on a regular basis.

Because everyone is constantly complimenting each other in this way, praise inflation sets in and we soon reach the point where "This is a very good book" would be a serious insult.

There's also a theory, which has been around for a good few hundred years and maybe forever, that creative types are a breed apart from everyone else, possessed of divine powers and insight. Not just the really great artists, but any artist as a profession.

When Nietzsche wrote a book comparing himself favourably to Jesus, with chapters called "Why I Am So Clever" and "Why I Am A Destiny", people thought that was a bit much. (It didn't help that he went completely insane the next year.) You can't go on record and say that about yourself, but say it about your friends and get them to say it about you, and it seems to work quite nicely.

An Astonishingly Brilliant Epic Tour-De-Force

So I was browsing my local bookshop yesterday.

But what to buy? The back covers are not very helpful. Apparently, every novel published nowadays is, at the worse, a breathtaking masterpiece. Most are epoch-making, life-changing works of godlike genius.

OK, but which ones are actually good?

Why is this? Part of it, surely, is that literature is an incestuous world where the same authors who write the books are the first port of call when publishers want blurbs for everyone else's. Clearly you don't want to say anything bad about your peers lest you stop getting invites to dinner parties. Unless you're embroiled in a "bitter literary feud", but no-one has the energy to do that on a regular basis.

Because everyone is constantly complimenting each other in this way, praise inflation sets in and we soon reach the point where "This is a very good book" would be a serious insult.

There's also a theory, which has been around for a good few hundred years and maybe forever, that creative types are a breed apart from everyone else, possessed of divine powers and insight. Not just the really great artists, but any artist as a profession.

When Nietzsche wrote a book comparing himself favourably to Jesus, with chapters called "Why I Am So Clever" and "Why I Am A Destiny", people thought that was a bit much. (It didn't help that he went completely insane the next year.) You can't go on record and say that about yourself, but say it about your friends and get them to say it about you, and it seems to work quite nicely.

The Hypocrisy of Anti-Abortionists

You can hardly find people who are more hypocritical than anti-abortionists. They have the incredible gall of calling themselves "pro-life" when they favor subjecting women against their will to the risk and trauma of childbirth (the world average of maternal mortality rate is 400 per 100,000) and attempt to pass legislation making murders of doctors legal. 

They say they want to save the lives of babies when, in reality, they only struggle against the ejection from the female body of a couple of cells. As soon as these unwanted, unloved fetuses actually turn into babies after they are born, the anti-abortionists forget all about them. You'd think that with all their screeching, marching, protesting, assaulting women and abortion providers, and lobbying they would fall over themselves in providing care and support for these unwanted babies when they actually become babies. You'd think they'd be adopting all of those abandoned miserable children who have been severely damaged by being carried to term by mothers who hate the fact of their existence. You'd think these baby-lovers wouldn't rest until there wasn't a single abandoned baby in the world.

None of this happens, though. Anti-abortionists aren't adopting scores of unwanted babies all over the world, they are not investing any money into rehabilitation problems that would mitigate the damage caused to children and women by being forced to go through a pregnancy that is undesired, hated and experienced as a horror.

If you oppose women's right to abortion and have not dedicated your life to adopting and rehabilitating unwanted babies, then you are the biggest hypocrite the world have ever seen.

Forgetting Spring Break

Something unbelievable happened. I forgot about spring break. Just erased it from my mind completely. I was talking to the students about the syllabus and noticed there was a weird space between class dates.

"That's strange," I said. "Is something wrong with the syllabus?"

"We have the spring break the week after next," students answered looking at me like I was retarded.

How is it possible to forget about a vacation? I understand forgetting about work but vice versa?

Friday, February 25, 2011

A Letter to Georgia's Rep. Franklin

Jill at Feministe posted this fantastic letter that we should all send to Georgia's crazed Re. Franklin who is sponsoring legislation that will require all women to file police reports every time they miscarry:
Dear Rep. Franklin,
I applaud your efforts to support the rights of zygote citizens of Georgia by criminalizing miscarriages and investigating every instance of fetal death as a potential crime. The Georgia State Assembly knows that life begins at the moment of conception, and a fertilized egg death is a human death — a death that we should all grieve, and of course investigate to the fullest extent until we find the responsible party and bring them to justice (the death penalty, which your bill prescribes as the punishment for killing a pre-born Georgia citizen, is definitely appropriate here). I couldn’t agree more, and I would like to help.
As I’m sure you know, more than 50% of fertilized eggs –Georgia citizens! — naturally don’t implant, and are flushed out of the body during menstruation. I am personally concerned that my own murdering woman-body may have flushed out some human beings, and I may have flushed them down the toilet without knowing that I was disposing of Georgia citizens in such an undignified way. This must be remedied. I would like to be sure that I am not killing any more Georgia citizens — and that if I am, they are able to receive a proper funeral and not a burial at sea, and that our state police can dedicate valuable time and resources to investigating their deaths.
To that end, I attach a picture of my latest used tampon. I am preserving this tampon, as well as all of my other tampons, pads, feminine hygiene products and soiled panties from my current menstrual cycle, so that the Georgia State Police can come collect them as evidence. I would also be happy to drop the specimens off at your office, should you want to examine them yourself.
Please let me know if I can make an appointment to give you these items. Or, since I appreciate that you are a very busy man, please let me know when the police will be by my home to collect them, as my next cycle is rapidly approaching and they are starting to smell. I cannot keep them in my refrigerator for much longer.
Thanks for all the work you do to further the pro-life cause.
Sincerely,
Jill Filipovic
This is Rep. Franklin's contact info:

Rep. Bobby Franklin
401 Coverdell Legislative Office Building
Atlanta, Georgia 30334
Phone: 404.656.0152
Fax: 404.656.5562
bobby.franklin@house.ga.gov

Funny Video on Science

The very first real reader of this blog V. just shared with me this great video. Watch it if you are either in sciences or love to make fun of Lady Gaga:

Dorothy Seymour

I'm sorry for posting so much, people. I often resolve to stop inundating people with posts so often but there are so many things going on everywhere that are worth commenting on that I just can't help myself. This is a story that was brought to my attention by reader Patrick whose controversial comments we all appreciate. Thanks, Patrick!

The baseball lovers among us must have surely heard about Harold Seymour's seminal studies of this sport. I know nothing about baseball but even I have heard his name and know of his importance to the writing of baseball's history. Now it turns out that much of the research for all of the books and most of the writing for the last one had been done my Seymour's wife Dorothy, his life partner of 30 years whom he refused to acknowledge as a co-author. 

Dorothy contributed a lot to Harold's career from the moment they married. She was helpful in helping him get through the writing of his doctoral dissertation:
As a good '50s wife, she typed the 632-page dissertation in which Seymour traced baseball from a childhood pursuit of boys into a full-fledged business and American cultural centerpiece. Cornell University awarded him his doctorate in 1956, and the dissertation helped launch sports history as a legitimate scholarly pursuit. It grew into his first baseball history book, published in 1960.Dr. Seymour's wife knows now that she probably contributed more to that dissertation than the academic world would consider appropriate. In the preface, Seymour acknowledged "the help of numerous individuals and organizations."He did not mention Dorothy.
Everybody knows that being the partner of a person in the throes of writing a doctoral dissertation is very hard. Those of who who suffered through the process of researching, writing, revising and going nuts over the dissertation know how much we owe to those people who were by our side and put up with us in the process. Seymour, however, felt nothing similar. A wife for him was not as person. She was a convenient object who was supposed to produce and shut up.


The most frequent argument male chauvinists use to disparage women is that the entirety of human civilization was created by men while women just sat there twiddling their thumbs and sometimes managing to look pretty which only served to distract men from their all-important endeavors. I wonder how many of the great works of literature and scientific advances owe their existence to the silenced wives who toiled in the background and whose input was never recognized.

Harassing Posters in the Classroom


Fellow blogger Izgad was kind enough to allow me to share with you this picture of a posting board that is located in the back of the college classroom where he teaches.

I'm completely incensed by this. In would refuse to teach in this classroom. Then, I would bring one of the administrators to look at the board and ask them to explain why it is OK for me to be harassed in the workplace. Then I would get in touch with the feminist organization on campus and ask them what it is they see as their mission if something this egregious slipped right by them.

I'm sure there will be readers who will not understand what the big deal is and why I find this offensive. Something tells me these readers will be male. So for them, I found the following picture:


How would you like to teach your classes while staring at this the entire time?

Ricardian

I have a host of weird hobbies and interests. One of them consists in collecting materials coming from Ricardian Apologists. To honor this interest of mine, I will regularly post reviews of Ricardian sources and start a new page on this blog where I will gather links pertaining to the topic of Ricardian Apology. It might seem like a boring subject at first, but bear with me, and I will tell you why it's fascinating.

We have all heard the opening lines of Shakespeare's Richard III:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York.
In Richard III, Shakespeare presents Richard as a nasty, ugly, humpbacked character who compensates for his lack of male charms with an unquenchable thirst for power:
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace, 
Have no delight to pass away the time, 
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun, 
And descant on mine own deformity: 
And therefore,--since I cannot prove a lover, 
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,-- 
I am determined to prove a villain, 
And hate the idle pleasures of these days. 
 Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 by Henry Tudor who started the Tudor dynasty. His death is often considered to be the symbolic end of the Middle Ages in England. Richard has been accused (and this is very important) of murdering his two young nephews who were legitimate successors to the throne. Ricardians believe that Richard was unjustly accused of killing the boys. They have offered very strong arguments as to why it makes no sense to accuse Richard of killing the two young princes and as to who was the real murderer. I will acquaint you with the Ricardian version(s) of events little by little.

Now you might ask why I, who am neither a medievalist nor a scholar of English history, became so interested in Richard III. When I was 9, I discovered the story of Boris Godunov, the Russian tsar who, just like Richard III, rose to the throne against enormous odds and was accused of killing the little prince Dmitri who was a legitimate heir to the throne. There are two famous literary works in Russian literature that take competing positions as to Godunov's guilt in the murder of the little Prince. Pushkin, the greatest Russian poet, wrote a famed play called Boris Godunov that supports the version of Godunov's guilt.

A.K. Tolstoy (not to be confused with a much inferior Leo Tolstoy, the author of the vapid Anna Karenina and War and Peace), however, wrote a much better (in my opinion) play titled Tsar Boris where he suggests that Godunov was not to blame for killing the Prince. I was so impressed by these competing literary accounts that I wrote my first piece of literary criticism at the ripe old age of nine, comparing these two works of literature.

The myth of Boris Godunov, an upstart who ascends to the throne as a result of cunning and a murder of a prince of blood, is as much a mark of Russian bloody separation from the Middle Ages as the story of Richard III is of England's.

Now think about what's going on in the US today for a second. Are we not living through a very similar debate as to who is more worthy of ascending to the throne, Bush Jr., who inherited it or Obama, who forged his birth certificate? Oh, you don't think he forged it? Well, maybe Richard III and Boris Godunov didn't kill anybody either. Maybe a painful entrance into modernity is always accompanied by a debate about whether inheriting power is more legitimate than ascending to power through one's own efforts. Maybe it always involves questioning whether "the upstart" has usurped power through a crime against the true, royal blood.

The Decline And Fall of Effects In Science

Nature has a piece called Unpublished results hide the decline effect.
This refers to the fact that many scientific findings which seem to indicate something big is happening, end up getting smaller and smaller as more people try to replicate them until they, eventually, may vanish entirely.

The Last Psychiatrist's take is that "The Decline Effect" just represents sloppy thinking, treating different things as if they were all instances of The One True Phenomenon. Someone does a study about something and finds an effect. Then someone else comes along and does a new study, of a related but different topic, and finds a different result. Both are right: there's a difference. Only if you, sloppily, decide that both studies were measuring the same thing does the "Decline Effect" appear.

This is perfectly true and I've touched on it before, but I think it's a bit optimistic. It assumes that the first study was true. Sometimes they are. But because of the way science is published at the moment, a lot of results that get published are flukes. Some even say that the majority are.

The problem is that there are so many ways to statistically analyze any given body of data that it's easy to test and retest it until you find a "positive result" - and then publish that, without saying (or only saying in the small print) that your original tests all came out negative. Combine this with selective publication of only the best data, and other scientific sins, and you can pull positive results out the hat of mere random noise.

In the Nature article, Jonathan Schooler discusses this and suggests that an open-access repository of findings (meaning raw data rather than the end product of analyses) would be A Good Thing. I agree. However, he seems to think that if we did this, we might still observe the "Decline Effect", and would be able to find out more about it. He even seems to suggest that some kind of weird quantum effect might mean that scientists are actually changing the laws of reality by observing them
Perhaps, just as the act of observation has been suggested to affect quantum measurements, scientific observation could subtly change some scientific effects. Although the laws of reality are usually understood to be immutable, some physicists, including Paul Davies, director of the BEYOND: Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University in Tempe, have observed that this should be considered an assumption, not a foregone conclusion.
Hmm. Maybe. But there is really no need to posit such magical mysteries when plain old statistical conjuring tricks seem like a perfectly good explanation. On my view a raw result repository would not explain the decline effect, but just make it disappear.

Schooler doesn't go into detail as to how this repository would be set up, but he does cite the fact that we already have a pretty good one for clinical trials of medicines conducted in the USA. Anyone running a clinical trial is required to register it in advance, saying what they're planning to do and crucially, to spell out which statistics they are going to run on the data when it arrives.

What's really silly is that most scientists already do this when applying for funding: most grant applications include detailed statistical protocols. The problem is that these are not made public so people can ignore them when it comes to publication. Back in 2008 I suggested that scientific journals should require all studies, not just clinical trials, to be publicly pre-registered if they're to be considered for publication. This would be eminently do-able if there was a will to make it happen.

ResearchBlogging.orgSchooler, J. (2011). Unpublished results hide the decline effect Nature, 470 (7335), 437-437 DOI: 10.1038/470437a

The Decline And Fall of Effects In Science

Nature has a piece called Unpublished results hide the decline effect.
This refers to the fact that many scientific findings which seem to indicate something big is happening, end up getting smaller and smaller as more people try to replicate them until they, eventually, may vanish entirely.

The Last Psychiatrist's take is that "The Decline Effect" just represents sloppy thinking, treating different things as if they were all instances of The One True Phenomenon. Someone does a study about something and finds an effect. Then someone else comes along and does a new study, of a related but different topic, and finds a different result. Both are right: there's a difference. Only if you, sloppily, decide that both studies were measuring the same thing does the "Decline Effect" appear.

This is perfectly true and I've touched on it before, but I think it's a bit optimistic. It assumes that the first study was true. Sometimes they are. But because of the way science is published at the moment, a lot of results that get published are flukes. Some even say that the majority are.

The problem is that there are so many ways to statistically analyze any given body of data that it's easy to test and retest it until you find a "positive result" - and then publish that, without saying (or only saying in the small print) that your original tests all came out negative. Combine this with selective publication of only the best data, and other scientific sins, and you can pull positive results out the hat of mere random noise.

In the Nature article, Jonathan Schooler discusses this and suggests that an open-access repository of findings (meaning raw data rather than the end product of analyses) would be A Good Thing. I agree. However, he seems to think that if we did this, we might still observe the "Decline Effect", and would be able to find out more about it. He even seems to suggest that some kind of weird quantum effect might mean that scientists are actually changing the laws of reality by observing them
Perhaps, just as the act of observation has been suggested to affect quantum measurements, scientific observation could subtly change some scientific effects. Although the laws of reality are usually understood to be immutable, some physicists, including Paul Davies, director of the BEYOND: Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University in Tempe, have observed that this should be considered an assumption, not a foregone conclusion.
Hmm. Maybe. But there is really no need to posit such magical mysteries when plain old statistical conjuring tricks seem like a perfectly good explanation. On my view a raw result repository would not explain the decline effect, but just make it disappear.

Schooler doesn't go into detail as to how this repository would be set up, but he does cite the fact that we already have a pretty good one for clinical trials of medicines conducted in the USA. Anyone running a clinical trial is required to register it in advance, saying what they're planning to do and crucially, to spell out which statistics they are going to run on the data when it arrives.

What's really silly is that most scientists already do this when applying for funding: most grant applications include detailed statistical protocols. The problem is that these are not made public so people can ignore them when it comes to publication. Back in 2008 I suggested that scientific journals should require all studies, not just clinical trials, to be publicly pre-registered if they're to be considered for publication. This would be eminently do-able if there was a will to make it happen.

ResearchBlogging.orgSchooler, J. (2011). Unpublished results hide the decline effect Nature, 470 (7335), 437-437 DOI: 10.1038/470437a

Teaching Rewards

There are many annoying things that come with being a teacher. This is a profession that transforms you, and not always in a good way. A teacher is often a person who grasps at any opportunity to offer a lecture.

"Do we have any bread left, honey?" a teacher's partner asks her.

She clears her throat and launches into a lecture on the meaning of bread, its history, and ideological ramifications of its consumption. In the meanwhile, the hapless partner munches on the bread and wonders how he got himself into a  relationship that is an eternal classroom.

At a party, a well-meaning host often has to approach a teacher and tell her, "Sweetie, we are not in the classroom. It's OK not to answer every single question people ask of others."

My mother who was a teacher of mathematics in our country became very used to students greeting her entrance into the classroom by standing up (which is traditional in our culture.) The students don't sit down until the teacher tells them they may do so. One day, after teaching 10 classes in a row (which was a regular practice in the Soviet Union), she walked into a crowded subway car. there were no empty seats, so many passengers were standing. When she saw all those people standing when she walked in, my mother thought she was in yet another classroom.

"Good evening. Please be seated," she announced in a loud teacherly voice. The passengers regaled her with bewildered stares.

However, being a teacher has its rewards. I just received an email from a former student who thanked me for everything I taught her and shared how she is using the activities I presented in class with her students. And they love it. 

When a student feels like getting in touch to thank you long after the course ended, you get the highest teaching reward imaginable. No award for excellence in teaching could beat this great feeling.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Entitlement and Parents

I read the following comment at College Misery today that made my hair stand on end:
I recently learned my parents gave my younger brother $40, 000 so that he could buy part of a regional airport. These are the same parents who paid $50,000 less for my college education than they did for his, and who told me two years ago that there was no way I could live with them or borrow money from them since they didn't have any.
Some people's sense of entitlement is really scary. They forget that the moment when they reach the age of 18 their parents don't owe them anything any more. If your parents are willing to support you financially after that, that's great. They are not, however, obligated to do so in any way. They have the right to dispose of their money, the money that they made for themselves, in any way they wish, and nobody, in my opinion, has the right to dispute their choice and feel resentful about it.

If I were to discover tomorrow that my parents gave $40,000 to my younger sister so that she could buy an airport or anything else, I would be very happy on two accounts. First, that my sister had the money. And second, that my parents were in good financial shape that allowed them to make this kind of gifts to whomever they chose. As I was growing up, I was always told by my parents, "The only money that is truly yours is the money you made." This was a very valuable lesson as it taught me never to desire or begrudge anybody else's money.

Many people tend to see their parents as property that belongs to them and that has no life, will or desires of its own. Parents are people, too. They are responsible for their children's well-being until the children reach the age of majority. After that, they have no financial obligations to their children. 

The Insanity Is Contagious

Do you remember the bill in South Dakota that proposed to legalize murders of abortion providers? The idea caught on, and now Iowa and Nebraska are considering similar legislation. The people who are pushing for these bills are the same people who call themselves pro-life. These are also the same people who screech about how much they hate governmental intrusion into citizens' lives while advocating governmental intrusion into women's bodies in the most egregious way possible.

Just to think that a bunch of sexually repressed maniacs who hate any reminder that others do enjoy actual sex lives would make such a public spectacle of three states. 

Who's next, I wonder?

MEUS AMORES


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Research Is Unforgiving

There are many wonderful things about the academic career. A great amount of free time, a high social position, a respectable salary, good benefits, the opportunity to spend one's life reading, thinking, and writing, getting paid for expressing one's opinions and growing intellectually, the chance of helping young people to develop their love for learning - all these things make our job one of the best career choices possible. There is, however, one big obstacle a beginning academic needs to overcome, which consists of actually finding a tenure-track position.

There are many positions where one can end up after getting a PhD. One can become a Visiting Professor, an adjunct, a lecturer, an instructor, or get that horrible curse of scholars in the Humanities, a post-doc. It is only a tenure-line position, however, that opens the door to the wonderful things I have listed above. All other positions only lead to crazy teaching loads, no support for research, ridiculously low salaries, and no power of decision-making at one's institution.

Tenure-line positions are very hard to get nowadays. In the first year I was looking for a job, over 400 people competed for one tenure-track job in my field at a college that nobody will ever consider first-tier. The second year I looked for a job, things got worse. Many people fail to find tenure-line positions for a few years after they get their PhDs. Often, they discover that these several years that have elapsed since they graduated and that they spent as adjuncts, post-docs or instructors make them nearly unhireable for any tenure-track positions. As an example, see this story from College Misery.

It might seem very unfair that employers would reject people who have graduated a while ago in favor of "freshly minted PhDs." This policy does, however, have a very practical justification. Research is a very unforgiving endeavor. It is similar to a jealous, high-maintenance lover who cannot be abandoned even for a short time, let alone for years. A while ago, I listened to a scholarly presentation by an academic who hadn't done any research for a few years for a variety of personal reasons. As a result, he was completely clueless about some important new developments that had been done in his field. His presentation sounded like a valiant attack on windmills that weren't really there any longer.

Unfortunately, the teaching loads of adjuncts and instructors are huge, while the pay is extremely low. As a result, they have to teach part-time at a variety of places just to make ends meet. Who has time and energy to think of research under those conditions? Prospective employers understand that and are unwilling to give tenure-track positions to people who have been in such jobs for a while. After I got the PhD, I knew that I had to do everything I could - and more - to get a tenure-line job. Or I would be out of academia for good. This is an extremely stressful situation to be in, but that's how things are.

What Everybody Needs to Know About Bandwidth

Mike, who is an expert on everything that has to do with connection technologies (pardon my clumsy expression but I'm a little tired this week), writes the following on his blog:
People in general just don’t really understand how fantastically, insanely cheap bandwidth is these days. It’s so cheap imagine that if you went to the grocery store and your monthly food bill was a fraction of a penny. . . Yes, there does need to be equipment in place to support all the traffic. But I can buy and roll out enough equipment to provision a small country – say, 10 million people — with 100Mbs synchronous connections for not more than 100 million dollars. (Yep, really.)

I had absolutely no idea about this because this is not what we keep hearing about the pressing need to kill unlimited usage plans.

In case you didn't know, AT&T recently cancelled its unlimited data usage plan for cell phone users and made all of its plans usage based.

Inconsiderate Coworkers

Some people have no idea how to be civil to their coworkers. They believe themselves to be the center of the universe and don't seem to realize that other people exist. We complain about our students having no manners, but how can these kids be expected to behave courteously when they see esteemed older professors being extremely inconsiderate towards others.

Today, I'm showing a movie in two of my classes. In order to ensure that the audio-visual equipment works well, I stayed until after classes ended yesterday and did a trial run of the DVD. I hate making students waste valuable class time while I fumble with the equipment. So I made sure that everything worked perfectly and left. Today, I come to class and discover that:

a) the person who taught before me didn't log off. Which meant that I had to reboot the computer. This operation takes at least 5 minutes since the computer is not extremely new.

b) the audio-visual equipment was disconnected. There is no legitimate reason why one would need to unplug the sound system and the DVD player that were turned off and weren't bothering anybody. But this is what the inconsiderate colleague did. So I had to crawl around on the floor for ten minutes, messing up my clothes, and letting the students experience the richness of my swearing vocabulary in Spanish while I connected everything back.

The next time I'm showing this movie today is 2 pm. I'm quite resigned to yet another inconsiderate person messing up the equipment yet again.