linklog 060315

The Fat Bald Guy Rule
“The Fat Bald Guy Rule posits that, when considering otherwise roughly equivalent candidates for any job whose formal requirements don’t include being good-looking, hire the fat bald guy. The reason is simple: Society gives all sorts of unearned preferences to good-looking people, so when a fat bald guy manages to assemble a resume that at first glance resembles that possessed by his good-looking competition, the FBGR assumes that the former record is actually far more impressive than the latter, all things considered.” Damn straight.
More necessary than ever. “Sunshine Week is a national initiative to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include print, broadcast and online news media, civic groups, libraries, non-profits, schools and others interested in the public’s right to know. Sunshine Week is led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and is funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.”
Rhosgobel: Radagast’s home
Finally, a Linux distro that might not make me want to chew out my own pancreas.
Deltoid: Dunk Malaria
Tim Lambert is looking for donations to one of his pet causes (and a good one). He’ll match pledges to $300. Note to the spousal unit: I gave $10.
c h r o m a s i a / 15 March, 2006 / I wouldn’t bet on it
David says the sepia-toned effect is achieved by applying a gentle reverse S curve to the blue channel in PS. Good to know.
BlueOregon: Brokeback High: Expelled West Linn Student Re-instated
Straight senior makes short film for English class, is expelled because said film is a gay love story (no nudity or anything untoward, mind); massive protest; student reinstated. Score one for the good guys, except that the school admin in question probably won’t suffer for their assholery. See also
Big Monkey, Helpy Chalk: Meritocracy, knowledge production, and killing your advisor
“…people with tenure generally believe that academe is a meritocracy. People who would otherwise never endorse social Darwinism assume that those who fail in the academy do so because they weren’t smart enough to compete. Obviously, people hold this belief largely because it lets them flatter themselves. But I think there is another reason for it. We in the academy, whether we are in the humanities or the sciences, believe with good reason we are producing knowledge. Our central processes, like peer review and experiment replication, are designed to ensure the quality of our product: knowledge. So if we are producing knowledge, it is natural to assume that we are also rewarding the best knowledge producers. This inference is at best unjustified. The systems of knowledge production and career advancement are a few steps removed from each other, and it is quite likely that they do not work in synch.”
Morford: I Am Done With Violence
I read Mark Morford for the funny, but he’s also good in serious mode. Here he is making a lot of serious sense about the role and pervasive presence of violence in the modern USA.
A. E. Stallings – 2005 National Book Festival (Library of Congress)
My favourite living poet reading her own work. Sadly, it’s in the vile RealMedia format.
Seed: Overthrowing Darwin’s Number Two Theory
Joan Roughgarden and team model reproductive behaviour in terms of Nash’s bargaining theory instead of sexual selection and competition. This is gonna be good; I don’t have a dog in the fight so I’m going to enjoy watching the field argue over this. Pointless (and almost baseless) prediction: she’s mostly wrong, but the standard view will be revised to accomodate the bits she has right.
Adventures in Ethics and Science: Institutional obligations to animals and to researchers.
Canadian IACUC equivalent shuts down an entire research program. Details are sketchy, but my inclination is to side with the ethics committee. You have to be pretty combative (AND be breaking guidelines) to get them to shut you down, in my experience. Some students may have a legit “meat in the sammich” complaint, but they’re *graduate* students — viz, they’re supposed to be grownups so my inclination is to have little sympathy for them either. Where were they while the dispute was progressing?

linklog archive, aka my Ma.gnolia account

linklog 060313

Informed Comment: Peace and Love in the Quran
Quranic exegesis from a genuine expert. I guess Cole is cherrypicking to some extent, and could probably make Islam look violent and xenophobic with the same tools — just as one can with the bible. But the point for me is that, as all readers of such texts do, he’s finding what he’s looking for. This is a nice counterpoint to the mainstream Western presentation of Islam.
Michael Berube, International Professor of Danger: Sadness
Again, just read this. For those who don’t already read MB, his son Jamie has trisomy 21 (Down’s Syndrome); Prof Berube’s writing about Jamie is truly extraordinary.
One Good Thing: letter to alex and chris
Wow. Just — wow. Go read this. Holy shit. *shakes head* Holy shit.
zmachine_sandia_big.jpg (JPEG Image, 2400×1586 pixels)
Sandia’s Z machine has produced plasmas that exceed temperatures of 2 billion degrees Kelvin — hotter than the interiors of stars. No one quite knows how. The linked picture shows the machine firing, but I assume that’s not how it looks at max power.
Those with thick accents need not apply?
MN to join ND, TX, and PA in outlawing foreign TAs. Right, because Merkins will never have to talk to any damn furriners after they leave school. What country is this again?

linklog archive, aka my Ma.gnolia account

Friday Poetry Blogging (late edition): Kutti Revathi

I keep forgetting FPB, but today’s Poem of the Week email both reminded me and provided me with material.
Kutti Revathi is a Tamil poet who says of her work, “People always ask me why I do not write poems about societal concerns and issues, as though attempts to bring about inner renewal and inner transformation were not acts of social concern. I use my language only to loosen the fetters that have bound and shrunk a woman’s body.”
The link goes to a brief introduction and links to four poems; my favourite of the four (trans. N. Kalyan Raman) is below, but do read them all.

Breasts are bubbles, rising
In wet marshlands
I watched in awe — and guarded —
Their gradual swell and blooming
At the edges of my youth’s season
Saying nothing to anyone else,
They sing along
With me alone, always:
Of Love,
To the nurseries of my turning seasons,
They never once forgot or failed
To bring arousal
During penance, they swell, as if straining
To break free; and in the fierce tug of lust,
They soar, recalling the ecstasy of music
From the crush of embrace, they distill
The essence of love; and in the shock
Of childbirth, milk from coursing blood
Like two teardrops from an unfulfilled love
That cannot ever be wiped away,
They well up, as if in grief, and spill over

linklog 060312

Since I had to ditch, I’ve been looking for a replacement online bookmarks manager. Furl is useable but poorly designed and unresponsive to feedback, Spurl is better but clunky (I don’t like their folders+tags system), Simpy is good but the RSS feed didn’t work and there were some uptime issues. I’m not sure why I didn’t just mail Otis (Simpy’s developer), since he seems pretty keen on feedback and improvement. I may go back to Simpy yet, but for now I’m sticking with Ma.gnolia. It’s got all the basics down, and I got a good response when I sent mail, and it gives me a way to put up a sidebar like all the cool kids have. Only I’ve decided not to do it as a sidebar, but rather as regular “linklog” entries — so that readers can comment on whatever I link, and so that it will all show up in my RSS feed. For now I’ll use Magnolia’s linklog widget, but when Feed Digest opens signups again I’ll also try the RSS-to-html method, because Magnolia’s feeds show tags and include thumbnails. I’ve also added my public Magnolia account to the sidebar, so without further ado:

Link Log (powered by Ma.gnolia)

Displaying RSS Feeds
More than I will ever understand about RSS feeds.
A Golden Age for a Pinup – Los Angeles Times
Sad and sweet article about Bettie Page in her retirement. Never mind Ellison’s blather about golden means, the photo-touchup guy has it: she looks like fun. Crime Fighting Ticket Cheats?
The St Louis metro is an honor system — and everyone cheats. Eric Miller has some interesting observations about the Broken Windows theory, and (what seems to me) a smart practical solution to the case at hand.
Nautilus-Fiberarts | Home
Nautilus Fiberarts – Katazome by Karen Miller
One Foot In | Alice Domurat Dreger
Member at Bioethics Forum. Likes penises.
Google Answers: Red States / Blue States
Why are Republicans red and Democrats blue? Turns out there’s not much reason or design behind it.
under the fire star: Timepass
This sort of thing is one of the reasons I read Nancy. “Timepass”, what a charming coinage. : How to discover asteroid impacts
Emilio decided to have a look at the new Kebira impact crater on Google Earth. Then he decided to go hunting for others; pretty soon he’d discovered what appear to be two previously-unknown members of the Aorounga impact line.
ScienceDaily: Manchester Scientists Create New Bio-gel For 3D Cell Culture
3D bio-gel for cell culture; may be an early step on the long road to grow-your-own organs.
Largest-ever galaxy portrait is awesome | Science Blog
The image of spiral galaxy Messier 101 (the Pinwheel Galaxy) is a composite of 51 images, collected for various purposes and mined from the Hubble archive. Messier 101 is about twice as big as the Milky Way and some 25 million light years away; it covers an area about one-fifth the size of the full moon in the constellation Ursa Major. It contains at least a trillion stars, of which maybe 100 billion physically resemble our Sun. If you go outside and look at it tonight, the light striking your eyes will have started its journey at about the same time as Antarctica was breaking away from Gondwanaland.
GeoWhen Database – Geologic Timeline with Stages
Handy chart for when you need to know your Jurassic from your Devonian.
Wetsuit helps Third World women survive complicated childbirth | Science Blog
A neoprene suit can save the lives of women suffering from obstetrical hemorrhaging due to childbirth, which accounts for about 30 percent of the more than 500,000 maternal deaths worldwide each year due to childbirth, nearly all in poor countries. The mechanism is amazingly simple: the suit provides pressure to prevent blood from pooling in the lower abdomen and extremeties, mitigating the most immediately lethal effects of shock.
ScienceDaily: Smallest Triceratops Skull Ever Found Provides Clues To Dinosaur’s Growth
Cuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuute! – The World’s Toughest Coffee Cup
Now *this* is science. The winning design doesn’t look to me as though it would be particularly tough. – Mom’s Genetics Could Produce Gay Sons
The pattern of X chromosome inactivation appears to influence the sexuality of male offspring. The lead scientist (Sven Bocklandt, UCLA) has it exactly right regarding the “it’s not a choice” vs “we could cure it” views of the possible genetic underpinnings of (homo)sexuality: “I think if there’s ever a time when we can make these changes for sexual orientation, then we will also be able to do it for intelligence or musical skills or certain physical characteristics — but whether or not these things are allowed to happen is something that society as a whole has to decide. It’s not a scientific question.”
Baby’s helping hands
This is encouraging for those of us who (want/have to) believe in the possibility of human improvement: “Felix Warneken and Mike Tomasello found that children as young as 18 months willingly helped complete strangers. ‘The results were astonishing because these children are so young – they still wear diapers and are barely able to use language,’ says Warneken. ‘But they already show helping behaviour.'”
The APC tumor suppressor counteracts beta-catenin activation and H3K4 methylation at Wnt target genes.
Does APC/Wnt play any role in cell cycle entry repression of MYC? From the abstract: “beta-cat recruits Pygopus, Bcl-9/Legless, and MLL/SET1-type complexes to the c-Myc enhancer together with the negative Wnt regulators, APC, and betaTrCP. Interestingly, APC-mediated repression of c-Myc transcription in HT29-APC colorectal cancer cells is initiated by the transient binding of APC, betaTrCP, and the CtBP corepressor to the c-Myc enhancer, followed by stable binding of the TLE-1 and HDAC1 corepressors” – Immortal Styrofoam Meets its Enemy
Pseudomonas putida can convert styrene oil, made by simply heating polystyrene, into polyhydroxyalkanoates — from which can be made biodegradable cutlery, plastic film, and so on.
BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | New rodent is ‘living fossil’
Laonastes aenigmamus is the only known representative of the otherwise extinct family Diatomyidae.
slacktivist: Filtered Camels
I’d never heard this “interpretation” of the camel/needle parable — viz., that the “eye of the needle” referred to an actual gate through which a camel could, just barely, pass. It is, of course, bullshit, but that it persists speaks volumes.

Evolution of a media circus.

I guess everyone has now seen the story of the Turkish siblings who walk on all fours. If not, the media version is here (BBC story here), and this is a followup in which the whole affair begins, predictably, to degenerate into a circus. I say predictably because there was a strong whiff of rat about it from the beginning. The Turkish researcher who “discovered” the family, Uner Tan (see also, pdf), wants to name the syndrome after himself before the ink’s dry on the initial descriptions. He’s got one article in the mainstream journals, at the Int J Neurosci (subscription only and my library doesn’t take it, if anyone reading this could send me a pdf I’d appreciate it); this is the abstract:

The author has discovered a new syndrome with quadrupedal gait, flexed head and body, primitive speech, severe mental retardation, and mild cerebellar signs with a disturbed conscious experience. This syndrome was exhibited by 5 of 19 children from a consanguineous family. The pedigree demonstrated a typical autosomal-recessive inheritance. The genetic nature of this syndrome suggests a backward stage in human evolution, which is most probably caused by a genetic mutation, rendering, in turn, the transition from quadrupedality to bipedality. This would then be consistent with theories of punctuated evolution. On the other hand, the extensor motor system causing a resistance of the body against the gravity may actually be subjected to evolutionary forces. This new syndrome may be used as a live model for human evolution. An accompanying video clip for this article is available as a downloadable file accompanying the official online version of International Journal of Neuroscience. To access it, click on the issue link for 116(3), then select this article. A download option appears at the bottom of this abstract.

I find the idea of a single mutation driving human evolution backwards from bipedality to quadrupedality literally incredible1. It gets better — Prof Dr Tan has also published an article (pdf) in Neuroquantology, which bills itself as “An Interdisciplinary Journal of Neuroscience and Quantum Physics”. Here’s that abstract:

The recently discovered “UNERTAN SYNDROME” consists of quadrupedal gait, severe mental retardation, and primitive language. This syndrome can be considered as devolution of human being, throwing a light into the transition from quadrupedality to bipedality with co-evolution of human mind. The genetic nature of this syndrome supports the punctuated evolution during transition from quadrupedality to bipedality. In light of Tan’s psychomotor theory, accentuating the major role of the motor system in human mind, a new theory was suggested for the human evolution. Namely, the unique behavioral trait of man, the emergence of the habitual bipedality with Homo erectus (1.6 million and 250.000 tears ago) may be coupled with a resistive mind, which forced man to stand up against the gravitational forces with consequent success in tool making and hunting, using free hands for survival. The second stage in the evolution of modern human beings may be coupled with the emergence of language (circa 40.000 years ago), playing a major role in the origins of human mind.

Oooo-kay then. Enter Nicholas Humphrey and John Skoyles of the London School of Economics Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science and Roger Keynes from Cambridge, who published an LSE “discussion paper” (pdf) (read: no peer review) on the family. According to that publication, “Tan contacted NH and JS, and together we visited the family in June 2005”. Together, it seems, with a BBC documentary team; the film is scheduled for UK release next Friday. The Humphrey et al. dp is actually better than the Tan paper; in particular, it gives the lie to the latter’s claim of “primitive language” by pointing out that all the affected siblings in fact speak Kurdish, though with difficulties. Nonetheless, it (the dp) smacks of the late unlamented Empire:

The local villagers laugh at and tease them. Because of this, the females tend to stay close to the house, but the male sometimes wanders for several kilometres. He helps raise money for his family by collecting cans and bottles, which he carries home in a pouch made from his shirt, held by his teeth. He is remarkably agile. We watched him moving easily across rough terrain in search of collectibles. While he searched ahead, his hands anticipated the contours of the rocks, so that he placed them deftly without looking down. He was able to run ahead of us, carrying his mouth bag — while at the same time, to show off, he kicked one of his legs in the air (Fig. 2d).

Far worse than that, though, informed consent apparently consisted entirely of the following:

The father of the family signed a statement in Turkish which was explained to him by Defne Aruoba. In this statement he consented to his children undergoing medical and other tests related to research on their quadrupedal gait, said he understood that all information of relevance to their welfare would be shared with him, and acknowledged that he had no objections to the research being published. He signed a further statement for the BBC, consenting to film and photographs of his film of his family being broadcast.

The second story above explains what’s wrong with that:

“I’m suspicious all over the place,” said Arthur L. Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics in Philadelphia. He said such a deal should have been pre-reviewed by one of the ethics panels that research institutions appoint for such purposes.
Humphrey wouldn’t say whether that occurred. His two co-authors in the research project didn’t answer emails.
Payments to research participants are normal, Caplan said, but must be vetted to ensure they’re neither unfairly small, nor too large: “You’re not supposed to bribe people into being subjects.”
He added that participants should have advocates to advise them of their rights and the risks, such as the possibility that they might become subjects of a media circus. Humphrey’s paper says a friend advised the family.
Michael Kalichman, director of the Research Ethics Program at the University of California, San Diego, wrote in an email that this sort of transaction generally “wouldn’t be right in terms of the protection of research subjects and it certainly wouldn’t be right in terms of the sharing of research knowledge.”

Caplan is right to be suspicious, it’s dodgy as hell. I hope some very pointed questions are going to be asked of the LSE about what sort of ethical oversight they provide their researchers.
There’s one more paper available, this one from the Institut für Medizinische Genetik and published in the J Med Genet (abstract here, I could get the full text of this one). Mundlos’ group show that the affected siblings’ disorder maps to chromosome 17p, and — on the flimsy basis that other heritable syndromes involving cerebellar hypoplasia do not result in quadrupedal locomotion — speculate rather loosely about the evolution of bipedality. The authors themselves note that while the brain malformation is fully penetrant, two of seven affected walk upright, and that “we cannot exclude that early and sufficient treatment might have altered the outcome in the affected”. It seems much more likely that the observed quadrupedal locomotion is a means of compensating for the cerebellar defect than a reversion to an ancestral state. There may be more clues to this issue available when the defect is more finely mapped — we could, for instance, compare the affected gene/s between humans and other primates. The atavism hypothesis, however, will probably remain untestable since the affected gene/s are most likely to be involved in brain development and to not vary informatively between humans and other primates. That’s a safer and saner prediction than “reverse evolution” (a stupid name that implies the existence of an identifiable “forward” direction), but it doesn’t sell as well.
I wasn’t going to blog about this, being content with a few comments at 3QD, but then Carl Zimmer removed his post about it. Carl pointed to the story I linked above, which contains some back-and-forth between Tan and the LSE researchers about the ethical implications of payments made to the family. In comments, Humphrey objected, calling it “empty gossip”. Carl pointed out that in fact it was the accusation of a professional colleague, not gossip, and raised other reasonable points, to which Humphrey apparently declined to respond in public. Here’s Carl on his decision to delete the post:

Dr. Humphrey and I have been exchanging some email since then, from which I’ve gathered that some people–including some reporters–have misread what I wrote. They’re under the impression that I reported ethical and financial hanky-panky going on. In fact, I was pointing out some ambiguities that raised my concern. When Dr. Humphrey provided me with information clarifying the situation, I immediately posted it. But that apparently has not prevented some people from carelessly misreading my post. I believe that serious ethical issues must be considered whenever scientists work closely with television productions. But I do not want to be involved in the spread of this sort of damaging misinformation, even passively. Given how things have devolved, it seems like tacking on additional explanations is not going to rectify the situation. So I’ve decided to delete my discussion of the topic. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s the best I can think of.

That, then, is the actual point of my entry — I wanted to comment on Carl’s post, but I didn’t think he’d appreciate my tone. I’ve provided the background above so that I can put it here:
Carl is not responsible for other people’s misreading of his commentary, which I found eminently reasonable and which was not in the least unclear or confusing. I wish he hadn’t deleted it, as I don’t think it did Humphrey disservice, let alone damage. Moreover, few regular media outlets will give Humphrey the right of reply. Though I applaud Carl’s concern for journalistic ethics, I think he is being too careful of the reputation — or rather, the thin skin — of someone who is discovering that the spotlight into which he eagerly scrambled is not always as much fun as he’d thought it would be.
1 It’s not impossible, but if it turns out to be true my own amazement will be such good sauce that I will enjoy my helping of crow.


Twins Remee and Kian had, according to the article, about one chance in a million of turning out that way (I mean different colors, not cuter’n kittens). Both parents (and, pace the article’s rather stupid headline “Black and white twins”, both little girls) are mixed race. Via jwz.