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Monthly Archives: May 2014

Hair of the Dog

ImageMusic’s ability to manipulate human emotions in film and TV for decades. It’s been used to raise spirits, promote introspection, and signal mood for centuries in theater, weddings, church services and funerals. Stores play music to promote spending, films communicate the mood of a scene, foreshadowing events through music. Elevators … Actually, I don’t know what elevator music is supposed to do – maybe help keep us from killing one another when confined in a small space.

In 1993 Kim and Areni of Texas Tech demonstrated the power of music:

As part of a field experiment … the background music (classical versus Top-Forty) in a centrally located wine store was varied over a two month period. The results … indicated that the classical music influenced shoppers to spend more money. Additional findings suggest that, rather than increasing the amount of wine purchased, customers selected more expensive merchandise when classical music was played in the background.

ImageI know the effect music has on my mood. Yet, I’m drawn inexplicably to a certain type of music when I’m depressed. Specifically, it’s music that lulls me deeper into depression (at least somewhat) – but that’s a very subjective statement. Let’s say that when I’m depressed I gravitate to a certain genre of music may possibly re-enforce those same depressive feelings. Or perhaps it’s just music that I relate to better when my mood is so.

This behavior is not unique to me. Many people suggest that they self-select depressing music when they are sad in order to raise their mood – yet, evidence suggests that this is a counter-productive behavior. Last year (2013) a University of New South Wales, Australia group assessed the mood of a number of people before and after listening to just this type of music.

It was found that both [subjects] had significant increases in depression after listening to self-selected sad music … [These R]esults support the hypothesis that listening to sad music is related to maladaptive mood regulation strategies in some listeners.

That is, it’s not helping us, but we seek it out anyway. It’s exactly why I have my stations ‘Down notes’,  ‘Pity me not’, and ‘Fire walk with me’ (among others) on Pandora. Each approaches depression from a slightly different angle, like my own musical version of 50 Eskimo words for snow.

the Inuit dialect spoken in Canada’s Nunavik region has at least 53 [words for snow], including “matsaaruti,” for wet snow that can be used to ice a sleigh’s runners, and “pukak,” for the crystalline powder snow that looks like salt.

Perhaps it’s just the hair of the dog.

the man who was mercilessly tortured by thoughts kept on thinking 

 
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Posted by on May 30, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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We’ve known for years that we can raise our IQ by eating gifted children

Or, we could if experiments done in flatworms translated directly to humans. If you haven’t read about James McConnell’s experiments with Planarians and memory transfer, I urge you to do so, if only just for the opportunity to read science writing that sounds as if it was ripped directly from the pages of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It also turns out that their blood is carrying some youthful factor that we want as well. The trouble is getting it out of them and into us. One might immediately think of vampires – which is not a bad place to start, but it might require a bit of refinement.

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Get ’em while they’re smart!

Science magazine from 9 May 2014 informs us that there is something soluble in the blood of young mice that, when transferred to older mice – well, to put it simply, it rejuvenates them.  “The therapeutic implications are profound if this mechanism holds true in people,” says Matt Kaeberlein in the News and Analysis summary accompanying the article.

This article captured my interest and made me want to write about it for several reasons. First, this is effectively a ‘Fountain of Youth’ experiment – and it seems to work! Researchers have long wondered: what keeps the young, young and makes the old, old? What changes as we age? Can we stop it? Reverse it?

In terms of ethics, should we even be looking at age as a disease? Or is it just something that happens and needs to be accepted?

ImageMost notably, work has been done to show that telomere length and the enzymes that maintain it, may be intimately involved in the aging process. Telomeres are sections of non-coding DNA at the very ends of chromosomes that consist of a number of sequence repeats. The thinking is that these DNA elements are maintained (by telomerase) in order to prevent the chromosomes from getting attacked and destroyed by nuclease enzymes. I think the Ponds Institute has been working on this for years 🙂

The other interesting thing about this work is the technique that gave us the data in support of this hypothesis. It’s a fantastic experiment called parabiosis. From the Greek you can see that this ‘living with one another’ experiment involves making artificial siamese twins of two mice, an old one and a young one.

I hope to be able to discuss this procedure in some detail in upcoming posts. But, until then, let us be satisfied that the technique was done. This now permits the intermingling of soluble blood products between one (clonal) mouse and another. When it’s done, something, crosses from one animal to the other. This provides cellular cues to the fact that something from this young mouse has been lost in older mice, but if it could be restored, it would result in (at least some) regeneration of youth.

– I’ll come back and revisit this more in the future to explain what has actually been observed and also to discuss some other interesting experiments carried out using this parabiosis technique. Right now I’m falling asleep and violating a new family rule on computer time to boot!

 
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Posted by on May 25, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Zite is clearly on to me

This is the second article my iPad news reader, Zite, has pulled up for me on the beauty of libraries and books. This time it is an illustrated list of 15 home libraries that I wish I had.

http://apartmentgeeks.net/15-inspirational-home-libraries/

I was immediately reminded of photos of James Murray, the original editor of the Oxford English Dictionary amongst all his reference books and little slips of paper that he used to compile the tome. Murray’s work has been documented (at least) three times in long form. Once by his grand-daughter, Elisabeth Murray, titled Caught in the Web of Words; twice by Simon Winchester as The Meaning of Everything and The Professor and The Madman.  Admittedly, I’ve had The Professor and the Madman on my list of ‘to reads’ pretty much since it came out and have not yet gotten around to it. 

OK – that’s it. Off to bed. I hear this sleeping thing is really important.

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Where did that notecard go…

 
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Posted by on May 21, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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What if learning C++ was as easy to learn as javascript, ruby of python?

collab
Not that any programming language is actually easy to learn. But some languages – scripting languages like the ones in the title of this post – function differently than other- compiled languages, like C++. For this reason, javascript, ruby, python and some other programming languages / web design tools can be taught online with the use of realtime, online compiling. Some websites that I’ve learned a lot from that do this are codecademy, PythonMonk, and RubyMonk. Ironically, what makes them so good, is also their greatest weakness – they are sandbox environments. You can learn to do every single exercise in Codecademy, but have no idea how to actually apply these skills outside of that sandbox.

When it comes to C++, Objective-C, or the like, creating this online sandbox becomes impossible to do (or at least no one has figured out how to do it). However, this doesn’t mean that we can’t learn online. In fact, many programmers do much of their work online – even if they are sharing an office with their co-workers. This has to happen because of the need to share files and compile those worked on by different groups.

Screen Shot 2014-05-19 at 11.19.11 AMOne way programmers share files and integrate their work is via Github. This is a resource that programmers know of, but when they learn this exists, non-programmers throw up their hands and admit defeat before trying to disentangle another obscure resource.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There can be be a way to keep the security of the sandbox, while also learning how to break out and tackle real world problems and work in real world teams.

Join me, as DownHouse software creates this environment at CollabFinder.

 
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Posted by on May 19, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

A Post Across Two Blogs

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Where did my mind go?

I admit that I have a problem.

That problem is that I have to try-really try to be organized (if any students are reading this, they won’t believe that I am ever organized, even after trying, but that’s only partly correct). It does not come naturally to me and I tend to add complexity when I should be adding simplicity. The good thing is, at least I recognize this and I have a couple solutions, one of which I’ll fess up to right away: When I get lost in my own web, the best thing I can do is put my problem down and come back after a good night’s sleep.

It’s rare that I actually get a good night’s sleep though, but it often works out that any degree of shut-eye will do. And this is just what neurologists have been telling us for a long time. We don’t fully understand sleep, but we do know that it’s important. Recent data has just come out from the University of Wisconsin-Madison lending further support to the hypothesis that sleep is an organizing tool for our brains.

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Really, this is an important part of my work.

 

 Dr. Giulio Tononi, of the UW Center for Sleep and Consciousness. “During wake, learning strengthens the synaptic connections throughout the brain, increasing the need for energy and saturating the brain with new information. Sleep allows the brain to reset, helping integrate newly learned material with consolidated memories, so the brain can begin anew the next day.”

We know that sleep functions in many ways to help out brains. Again, from the UW-M website,Indeed, there is evidence that sleep enhances important features of memory, including acquisition, consolidation, gist extraction, integration and “smart forgetting,” which allows the brain to rid itself of the inevitable accumulation of unimportant details.”

Prior work from Brown University also shows that “sleep is not just a waste of time.” While the data from UW-M suggests that sleep is important in the organization, integration and normalization of new material, Masako Tamaki and co-workers from Brown have shown that sleep is necessary in order to learn new motor tasks. This means, that we need sleep not only to make sense of information, but also to be able to retrieve it more efficiently and tie it to specific musculature functions (e.g. riding a bike, playing an instrument).

The other evening I was lost in the complexity of a new programming project I have been working on. I had an idea of how I wanted to attack the task, but it involved learning a number of new methods for handling and retrieving data. The point of the project was to create an program that was incrementally advancing in the way it was crafted – i.e. it was a learning tool for me. There’s no need for this project, just practice for me. Yet, I was doing something that I’ve learned not to do again and again in science. I was adding more than one variable to an experiment and then being frustrated by my inability to work out the kinks and get any meaning.

I needed sleep and knew it. So, I did the nest I could to make notes about what I was dealing with and closed everything (including myself) down.

The next day, I gave myself permission to re-examine the problem from scratch and figure out if I was going about it in the best way possible. The first thing I did was to ratchet back the number of new methods used and made a larger, more cumbersome program, but one that was functionally simpler. I also permitted myself to ‘cheat’ a couple of aspects of the program in order to get it working and then try to re-introduce the items that I cheated by removing before. An example of this was to just use a simple integer, like ‘5’ where I really wanted to generate a random number based on the size of a container that was holding ‘objects’ I used in the program. This meant that I could focus on the use of the data without needing to feed in the ‘real’ information yet.

Most importantly, I feel better about the project now. I think I can finish it with a couple more hours of work and I don’t think I have to throw my computer out of a high window just yet. Take my advice. When working on something that is giving you trouble, give it a good go, then stop, sleep, regroup, and start fresh the next day. Your time is better spent sleeping than spinning your wheels.

code_cpp

goto the code

In fact, I am still having problems, but they are becoming more well defined and manageable. I’m posting the program itself and some discussion of my problems on my other blog, but I thought I would start with a little Neurobiology here first.

Sarah Allen in the Southern Methodist University explains how this works when learning music…

 
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Posted by on May 15, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Freakonomics Questions Podcast: Too close to home?

ImageHow to Think Like a Freak.

That’s the title of the new Freakonomics book just out this Monday, May 12, and it is also the name of this week’s Podcast. It’s a good show and a good premise. However, as a scientist (well, biologist – but it counts!), I think that calling this a show /book about economics is incorrect. It’s really a show about science. Or at least the application of scientific method to problems that are often not tackled by traditional scientists, but by their more handsomely paid colleagues, economists. Or by their equally unhandsomely paid colleagues, sociologists and psychologists.

It shouldn’t be something I stop to point out, but it is somehow troubling to me to parse science. It probably means more about me than it does about the actual topic to say this though.

Nevertheless, the current episode is a combination Q&A and book promotion. Which is why I need to point out that sometimes it is hardest for us to look critically at the things that are near to us. This is exactly why we are judged by a jury of our peers – people who may be able to relate to us in some way, but who are also not emotionally involved in the crime.

Several things struck me in this episode that I considered writing about. One was the questioner who asked about the current fetishism of bacon. It turned out that the question was examined just as I thought it should be: one part seriously considering the question and one part reading the assumptions and position of the questioner.

I put that one out of my mind. Then there were two questions that brought up the financial motivations of Levitt and Dubner. The first was about whether it might be worthwhile to have a tiered questioning scheme in which listeners could pay money to give their questions higher priority, i.e. the highest tiered questions were guaranteed to be answered on air, while lower tier questions would only be answered if they met other quality standards.

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Levitt

Levitt and Dubner addressed this question well too, saying that it would undermine the quality of the show to do this, while also raising an interesting question about the pricing of these tiers. Would they be priced only to separate the listeners? Or would this actually be meeting some financial goal of the show’s producers.

In the course of the discussion, Levitt said this:

LEVITT: And our podcast is defined by a relationship in which we give it away, and we don’t really do this for money. I’m not sure why we do it, but I don’t think it’s for money. It can’t be for money. And so, to then change the frame that this is about money.

then, backing this up further, when the question about how they could participate in a fundraiser for NPR if this show was not, in some way, about the money:

But that makes me feel bad, we shouldn’t have taken their money. Why would we take their money, we’re just doing this for fun. It feels horrible to take their money.

A second question comes in also questioning the financial motivations of the show’s hosts:

 from Meredith Summers. “Hello, I wonder if it would be at all possible to quantify in financial terms Steven Levitt’s contribution to the University of Chicago? For example, does his fame bring in more students who hope to work with him and learn from him, and is this contribution commensurate with his salary.

This question was considered in a number of interesting ways. First, Levitt made clear that he was paid very well by the University of Chicago, and had nothing to complain about there. (I’m glad to hear this. It always makes me happy to hear about academics doing well. It’s so often the case that academics are disenfranchised from their knowledgable contributions, that it is comforting to know that this does not happen at the best Universities.)

They also spoke about the difference between the way Universities take ownership of inventions (they do) vs literary contributions (they don’t). I expect that this is probably due to the bargaining power of academics at the time that each of these legal questions came up for discussion and the argument that being a professor may not actually drastically help you to write a book, whereas many inventions require the infrastructure that a University supplies). “It reminds you of alcohol versus marijuana in that if you were starting over from scratch there’s no way these two would be so different,” Dubner comments.

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Dubner

But still, the question remained largely unanswered. “Why do the show?”

I think there are several reasons why they do the show. The first, they cover: because it’s fun, and it’s cool to do things that are creative and fun. I would feel the same way.

But the part of the answer that is a little too close to them to either see, or to admit, is that the podcast / radioshow promotes their books. It’s right there in the ‘About’ section of their website. Blah, blah blah, wrote an article. blah, blah, blah, wrote a book. blah, blah. Book sold well. Podcast, blog, etc. etc. were born. Fun, yes. But it all fits together neatly as something they enjoy doing that brings more people in to buy their books so they can spend more time doing what they enjoy doing.

Like the quote that works so well for some people but not others, “do what you love and the money will follow.”

I may be getting a little dark here, but I’m not sure that always works…

Nevertheless, listen to the podcast, buy their books, you’ll love them. They’re filled with good questions and how they can be answered in a scientifically rigorous way. More power to you guys!

 
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Posted by on May 14, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Clowns, Psychology and C++

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not clowns!

The semester has ended and I’m starting to play with some other projects like C++ coding, working on the next mythology book (this time the educational focus is Latin, rather than science – but I consider it part of the same series) and some other writing projects.  In my most recent C++ coding problems I’ve been trying to get a good handle on how to manipulate objects and create vectors (like arrays) of objects. In order to do this, I’ve made several simple projects to generate a vector of objects (I’ve chosen my vector to be a clown car and my objects to be clowns).

The basic setup was a little tricky (for me), but I managed it with a little help from the good people at dreamincode.org. As the next step in this project, I’m expanding my program to allow for the clowns to interact with one another, eventually kicking one another out of the car. I’ve outlined my basic project on my ayearincoding blog. If you have any interest in coding, take a look there and either learn along with me or help me out.

In looking for some clown art for these posts, I came across an interesting article in smithsonian magazine about the psychology surrounding people’s fear of clowns. The reason I find this particularly interesting right now is two-fold: 1. I’m reading Stephen King’s ‘It’ right now. 2. My wife doesn’t believe me that anyone is afraid of clowns.

 
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Posted by on May 13, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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