Friday, August 31, 2007

Read These!

Evidently, today is BlogDay. The tradition of the day, as I learned from Mark at BlogFish is to alert readers to new ideas and new people. Here are some of the blogs I like to read and a few short reasons why.

BlogFish is a reliably good source for ocean news and surfing videos.

Adventures in Ethics and Science presents the musings of a professor with two PhDs (Chemistry and Philosophy), and if you are lucky those of her young children (called sprogs).

The Anterior Commissure satisfies your fix for sexy science.

Drugmonkey always has well-thought advice about two things that are probably more linked than we care to admit: controlled substances and grant-writing.

The World's Fair is where I head for inspiration on how to infiltrate my career with creativity and concern for social justice.

Tangled Up In Blue Guy is an atheist, pro-science, unapologetically liberal blogger who grew up in a small town. Check out his blog - even if you aren't those things.

Not So Extinct

I was one of many who lamented last month's echo of a proclamation in January 2007 that the Baiji, or Yangtze River Dolphin, was 'most-likely extinct.' Well, it seems like I should have respected the principle of scientific uncertainty a little more than I did. ScienceBlogger Zooilogix has posted a report that a Chinese factory owner filmed the dolphin on August 19, and a science daily article provides more details. One question I have is whether a private citizen's siting counts against the 50 year clock needed to announce 'definitive extinction.' I think the consensus is that this will merely delay the inevitable. I'll still stand by my opinion that the great leap forward set the environment several steps behind.

But this situation is a good case study of how scientists tend to choose their words carefully whenever certainty is concerned, but that this care is forsaken by mass media reports of the studies. The international commission charged with monitoring the status of the river dolphin used the phrase, "functionally extinct" to describe the baiji's plight. This followed a 6 week expedition at the end of 2006 to search for the dolphin. Another expedition in July made the same conclusion, and that two 'exhaustive' searched yielded no sightings was evidence to reinforce the original claim. "Functionally extinct" is a term that Wikipedia defines as
The population is no longer viable. There are no individuals able to reproduce, or the small population of breeding individuals will not be able to sustain itself due to inbreeding depression and genetic drift, leading to a loss of fitness.
A good example of this is Lonesome George, the Galápagos Abingdon Island Tortoise, who is that species one known surviving individual, but is going strong as a 70 year old who can look forward to a 120 year lifespan.

Functionally extinct in the case of the baiji could mean isolation by dams or population dispersement in murky water or genetic inbreeding leading to loss of fitness. There is, in other words, a chance of slim to none that the species will recover to a sustainable population. If population biologists use the same criterion we use in biomedical science, slim means less than 5%. What concerns me is when public media (and bloggers outside their field) uncritically take 'very sure' to mean 'definitive.' That sets up situations like this one where those same media outlets (or worse, anti-science interest groups) can point to an outlier or other counterexample and say, "See, those scientists don't know what they are talking about!"

I still want an answer to my question above concerning the 50 year rule, but we all should question how it is that the practice and language of science can be better represented by the media.

Carbon Footprint: SUVs vs. Cows

I am glad to be able to link Dr. Free-Ride in today's carbon footprint entry - mostly because today is a 'get your dissertation talk ready' day. She follows up (probably unknowingly) on my entry last week about cow farts with a well thought-out post comparing the switch from an SUV to a compact car with switching from meat to veggies for protein. In reality, she is responding to an interesting but scientifically uncritical analysis of the situation recently printed in the NYTimes.

Thursday, August 30, 2007


Are you in Seattle, tonight: August 30, 2007 and looking for something to do? Come to the opening of an assemblage art show I have three pieces in. The gallery, like this miniature Wunderkammern, is open for curious wondering...

Gratiaedonatus oriens

COCA at Shilshole Beach CLub
6413 Seaview Ave NW
Seattle, WA 98107

Come celebrate the completion of my doctoral dissertation draft. The COCA gallery is open to the public every Thursday evening from 5PM to Midnight. View this and my other pieces on my home page.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Open Access

Some of the bloggers over at ScienceBlogs have been chatting recently about open access publishing. It's no surprise that bloggers (we write for free) think that open access is a good idea, if not absolutely required. I think that Tara's and Bora's entries are the most illuminating: both in content and Bora's in sheer volume. Check them out so that you can build your arsenal of talking points.

And by the way, the next time YOU publish, consider using one of the 2814 open access journals available for submission. I put a link to the directory of open access journals down in my sidebar, too.

Not Too Late

If you are reading this real time, which according to my Sitemeter, means there will be 3 or 4 of you, here is the information about when to view tonight's lunar eclipse from the West Coast. Click on the image below for all sorts of information.Other time zones stats are here. What a great chance for a break. And there are no clouds in Seattle right now! I'll see how my new nifty little point and shoot digital camera holds up to a mooning.

Thank Bora for the link!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Hooray Stem Cells!

We've known about it for more than a year. After all, it took that long just to get through peer review. But now that it's in the local papers and on NPR, I bet the Murry lab gets a little taste of sciencelebrity. Carol Ostrom of the Seattle Times wrote an accurate account of the Laflamme et al paper to be published in September's issue of Nature Biotechnology, but livened up the story with some juicy tidbits. Here are some of my favorite lines from the Seattle Times article: referring to attempts to get cells to survive after injection,
Finally, they hit on a "pro-survival cocktail" of chemicals plus applying heat to the cells to make them behave.
By the way, this is the area of the report most connected with my research: I make cells behave. I also appreciated,
"We're pleased to be able to provide an example of something that can be done with embryonic cells that can't be done with adult stem cells," Murry said.
For those of you outside of the cell transplantation for cardiac repair field, that's a little barb at a competing group whose leader's name rhymes with 'prepare to reverse ya.' Finally, there is the obligate:
To make the breakthrough, Chuck Murry and his colleagues used the so-called "presidential lines" of stem cells. Those cells are generated from a group of embryos that had already been destroyed before the Bush administration limited research on embryonic stem cells... Murry hopes someday to work with newer lines that would be more suitable for human transplantation.
So you can be a scientist and an advocate for science at the same time! So Chuck... you'll probably be too busy today with interviews and such to read my dissertation draft, huh?

Special props to Justin Reedy who authored the press release on this story, an adaption of which can be read in full on ScienceDaily.

Update 9AM August 27: It's a good thing I saved this screenshot for posterity... Alberto Gonzales' resignation is hogging all the headlines!!!

Catalogue of Curiosity

"Bird Skulls" 2005-2007
9” x 6” Mixed media: Wood, glue, oil paint, bird skulls, gloss
David Francis

Several more pieces from the Inquiry as Collecting show are up on COCA's website. The show runs from August 30 to September 27 at the Shilshole Beach Club. I'll be at an artists' reception this Thursday evening from 5 PM to 8 PM. I understand that food will be available from the club at cost (but I do not know what that is...)

Dissertation Introduction

If I am doing this right, I just passed a major milestone in the composition of my doctoral dissertation: I wrote the first paragraph. Saving it for the end - the academic cherry on top of the ice cream called a PhD - helped me keep focused on the prize. I haven't been able to 'blog my thesis' like another stem cell researcher and blogger, so this is all you're going to get, or all you have to put up with.
In the United States, cardiovascular disease accounts for nearly 2 of 5 deaths, and each year, one million people experience a heart attack [1]. If a patient survives a heart attack, the heart recovers by replacing dead cardiac cells with a non-contractile scar. No innate regenerative capacity been identified for mammalian hearts [2-4], and no intervention to reconstitute myocardial function by muscle cell repopulation after injury has been approved for clinical use. Cell grafting is an attractive approach to restore cardiac function in the infarcted heart. Recent studies have identified several cell types that form living grafts in the heart, many of which have been shown to improve cardiac function [5-10]. Clinical trials with cells implanted from skeletal muscle or bone marrow are currently underway [11,12] even though major barriers for successful clinical success – graft integration and cell survival – still exist. The fibrosis that rapidly isolates the grafted cells from the host myocardium [13] is a prominent physical obstruction that can interfere with graft distribution and survival as well as electromechanical coupling. We have identified that genetic knockout of the matricellular protein, thrombospondin-2 reduces graft-related scarring. Apart from fibrosis, cell grafts face a basic challenge of survival [14]. If cells successfully engraft into the injured heart, about 90% of them do not persist three days after injection [15]. Immense increases in graft cell survival are needed if cell-based cardiac repair is to become a reality. In order to investigate potential treatments for myocardial infarction, we evaluated the regenerative capacity of mammalian cardiac tissue, identified an intervention to improve engraftment of cardiac cells and developed tools to improve the survival of embryonic stem cell derived cardiomyocytes injected into the heart.
Hopefully that is intelligible. It was written shortly before the timestamp on this entry...

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Ruminate On This...

goats on campus, originally uploaded by tom_robey.

Currently at a cost of $750 per day, a herd of 60 goats is eating ivy, blackberries and assorted other goodies along the southeastern most section of Ranier Vista on the University of Washington campus. There's gotta be someone out there that knows if this is cost effective, better for the environment or hilarious...

8005 Sand Point Way NE

The third piece I am contributing to next month's group show at COCA is the one that most closely follows the tradition of Wunderkammern.

8005 Sand Point Way NE
Wood, Glass, Collected Natural Specimens
16"x 12" x 8" (free standing, open)

Every natural item in this box was collected in my apartment, on the grounds, or very nearby. The items are arranged in accordance with a tradition of wonder cabinets: shelf position follows the 18th Century conception of hierarchical classification. Each item on the left column relates to air; items on the right are tied to the ground. Every slide is numbered and labeled. Viewers are encouraged to inspect items closely and return them to the proper shelf. For my web viewers, I have included some small images of selected shelves. All of the slides can be seen at my flickr account or (eventually) on my webpage.

That the "shelves" are not permanent and the labels are written in pencil permits this to be a continuous work of art, completed only after one permanently vacates the premises.

As I will be traveling to Anacortes, Spokane and Fairbanks for school this year, I am thinking of making a cabinet for each address.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Carbon Footprint: Electronic Statements

This week, my tip for greener living is brief. Consider paying your bills online or use automatic deductions to reduce the paper use and the gas needed to deliver the outgoing mail. Depending on your municipality and bank, you can pay electric, water, cable TV, phone, credit card, association fee, newspaper, insurance, mortgage, and internet provider bills using automatic deductions from your checking account or credit card statement. We save several dollars a month in postage and maybe an hour of work each month. Some agencies still send statements in the mail; the only difference is that the statements now say “Do not Pay. Automatic Deduction.” Several agencies will et you sign up for a electronic statement, further reducing the paper needed. Trees are saved from the paper mill so they can do their jobs of providing shade, absorbing solar heat and cleaning the air. Furthermore, there is less demand for paper, which reduces manufacturing energy. Try to remove yourself from bulk mailing lists and keep a recycling bin next to your front door so that junk gets diverted immediately to the circular file.

Thanks to Evelyn the Envelope for agreeing to pose for this week's clip art.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Organizing Students: Names

Have you ever encountered a distant acquaintance, not know his or her name, and been flattered that she or he remembered yours? Calling people by their names is something we humans as social beings appreciate. For many of us, remembering names is really hard. Is it possible that scientists are worse at this than other professions. We do spend a lot of time by ourselves in hoods, at benches and in front of computer terminals...

Keeping people involved in a student group requires relationship building. If the group is to persist, some of the most important relationships are vertical. The leaders need to be familiar with other members, because the new members may be tomorrow's leaders. Chances are good that the new members already know the leaders' names. They are after all sending the emails and standing up in front. This is why it is incumbent on the student leaders to make an extra effort to know members' names.

I am consistently embarrassed when I forget names; I am no expert. But of the many techniques you can find in self-help books, here are the tips that work for me.
  • Repeat the name in conversation with the person when you first meet him or her. This cements the verbal imprint.
  • Tie the person's name to one particular characteristic: academic department, advisor's name, molecule of interest, distinctive facial feature all work for me.
  • Refer to this person when you talk to others: "The other day, Telemachus Brown was telling me about his interest in the psychology of parental absenteeism."
The more reinforcement, the better. Hopefully your brain won't then lock up when you see this person next. Particularly if you have worked closely with this person (you know who you are!) for years...

Maintaining a good relationship with future leaders is critical to your student organization's sustainability. It may sound obvious, but having your name known is important to people. When it comes down to it, you want a place where people know - people are all the same; you want a place where everybody knows your name...

This post is sponsored by the Forum on Science Ethics and Policy.

Organizing Students

Some readers are already familiar with my primary extra-curricular activity during graduate school. The Forum on Science Ethics and Policy (FOSEP) is a very active group of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows at the University of Washington who organize events on and off campus that increase dialogue about science and society in Seattle. I've been involved with FOSEP since I read a little article in Nature (needs subscription) in the fall of 2004, and since October '04 have been one of the group's directors. My involvement as a FOSEP leader is the primary reason I recently received a nice award from the UW Graduate School. FOSEP will very likely be the most career influencing element of my graduate school experience, although maybe the PhD will be nice, too.

Some of my FOSEP highlights include meeting Bill Clinton's Science Advisor Neal Lane, and picking his brain about science policy, organizing a symposium at the National AAAS meeting that included a presentation by Duncan Dallas, founder of the Cafe Scientifique movement, and planning a controversial presentation about the Kitzmiller v. Dover School District intelligent design case. None of these opportunities would have been possible without a well organized team of graduate students.

Tonight, I participated in the last leaders' meeting in my capacity as FOSEP director. In the course of the meeting, I realized that three years of leadership trial and error have resulted in a pretty comprehensive playbook for organizing and motivating a highly functional student group. Student organizations face many of the same tasks of other groups, but have added complexities of volunteerism, rapid member turnover, a lack of permanent space, funding needs and challenging schedules.

One of FOSEP's newer directors, Maris Lemba, suggested I catalogue my tips and tools on this blog. It just so happens that in the last week, three other people (at the UW and elsewhere) have inquired about recommendations I have about science outreach or student group organization. So thanks Maris! Over the next few weeks, I will be posting some of my tips. They will all be categorized under the label, "organizing students." I've put a special link on the right side panel, too. That way, if you want to periodically check back to see my latest additions, they will be easy for you to find.

What are the topics you can expect? They will range from practical to self-help.
  • Nurturing Membership
  • Raising Money
  • Personal Leadership Development
  • Networking on Behalf of Your Group
  • Planning a Good Event
  • Getting People to Attend Your Good Event
  • Going Out On A Limb
  • Using the Media
  • Protecting Leaders From Burnout
  • Outcomes Assessment
  • Interpersonal Skills
  • Running a Meeting
  • Having Fun
Out of respect for everything FOSEP has taught me (and to try and get some of you interested in FOSEP) each of my posts will feature a little FOSEP logo to refer you to their web page. Don't hesitate to ask questions or post comments, either. Especially all you FOSEPers and FOSEP alumni out there.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007 Ads

If you do not block banner ads with your browser, you will occasionally see a GoogleAds link for a website called on my banner at right. A few weeks ago, I modified my review of the Arctic Tale movie for listing over there. I wanted to see what would come of it. Today, I got an email from the Helium company indicating that my review is on their front page. Now, I don't know whether this is a privilege or a ploy, but sure enough, in the center of the page, under Movie Reviews, there's my article. (Currently right next to a piece about asthma.) Helium's Google ad claims that writers get paid, but I am still not sure how that works. Visitors to my review probably need to click on ads or something. Head on over there to check it out. I am not sure how long it will be on the front page; after it cycles through, you can read the Arctic Tale review here or there.

Framing Food Consumption

Kate at the World's Fair made a nice post yesterday about how we choose our food. She outlined five reasons why we eat what we do. They are money, taste, nutrition, time and source. Her post got me thinking, and I made a comment over there that I think is succint enough for cross listing here. Disclaimer: this is not the most polished of posts; I have not done much background reading on this issue.

I think there is another consideration that could be added to her list, but it probably overlaps some of the other categories, particularly nutrition and source. I call it the body as a temple consideration. The body as a temple is a reverence or awareness of self that connects what you eat with who you are. (Really though, it's just a highfalutin way of saying, "You are what you eat.") I'll get back to my use of religious language, but the concept as I envision it is subscribed to in large number by decidedly secular communities, especially among the co-op rich, collective-friendly, granola mentality of the Pacific Northwest.

Joking aside, I think that the philosophy of consumption, whether it ranges from puritanical teetotaling to vegan/organic to conscious indulgence is governed by more than just social or economic factors. Food consumption can provide a window into the self.

As far as the religious connection is concerned, I think that there is room for this topic to be framed for religious communities in a similar way that climate change/global warming has been. For example, a good number of Christians (even fundamentalists) have adopted global climate change as an important issue of creation stewardship. Some of these people might not 'believe' in evolution and cast askance looks at Science, but none-the-less have adopted many of the same strategies to forestall global warming as the most outspoken environmentalist groups. If, as I believe is a goal at the World's Fair, we are to elevate the conversation about food choice, consumption and calorie origin, it might be worth the while to identify ways to involve the body as a temple concept as a tap into the organization and energy that certain Christian movements have.

Finally, I probably do not need to remind you that the body as a temple is not a new idea. Blessed food has a thousands of year history in Abrahamic traditions, and is so ubiquitous it is not given a second look in markets and pantries. Many Eastern traditions have similar prescriptions. I think this could be a very useful idea for discussions on the topic of food.

What do you think about this idea? It may not even be new as I have presented it, but if it isn't, why do you think we have not heard more about it?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Is Spokane Far Enough?

“Then take a handy oar and go on until you come to men who know not the sea nor eat food seasoned with salt, nor know purple-cheeked ships or handy oars, which are the wings of ships... When another wayfarer shall meet you and say you have a winnowing-shovel on your glorious shoulder, then fasten the handy oar in the earth and offer fair sacrifices to lord Poseidon.”
Odyssey: xi.121-30, xxiii 268-76

I won't be heading to Spokane until January, and these paddles don't exactly look like the wings of ships, but I'm going to stick to this the metaphor.

I recently came across these photos from two years ago when three of us from the Murry lab commuted via Lake Union to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center for a stem cell seminar. The best part was that we left the canoe in the visitor parking lot. Yue and Jonathan wanted to carry the canoe, so I was in charge of them not running into telephone poles, cars, etc.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Seattle Colors

My second piece for exhibition in the upcoming group show at Seattle's Center on Contemporary Art is "Seattle Colors."
Seattle Colors
Wood, Glass, Northwest Native Berries
9" x 7" x 2"
"Seattle Colors" is a reflection of some of the social and political tendencies found among Seattle's human residents. The berries were collected all within Seattle's municipal boundaries, and often were located an arm's length from bus shelters I frequent. Berries are from left to right: hawthorn, mountain ash, snowberry, red alder, oregon grape and salal.

The piece will not retain its color unless the perishable material is periodically replenished. Such interaction with the piece reminds me that peace and tolerance are not static sentiments, and that different components can arrive at the same outcome. (Different berries are available at different times of the year.)

Two common uses of rainbow symbolism and the motivation for this assemblage are the Pride and Pace (peace) flags. A third use of the rainbow flag, by the worldwide co-operative movement, also finds friends in Seattle.

My other pieces are viewable at Nature, Reordered.

Meet Some Carnies

Here are some good carnivals for this week. Check 'em out if you have some time.
Happy Monday!

UW Email on your Palm

For the one or two readers out there that happen to own Wi-Fi enabled Palms, wish to collect email from the University of Washington server, and have not set that up yet, the UW Computing and Communications Department has a step-by-step guide on their website just for you! Other Wi-Fi enabled devices can be set up from this page.

This is the first in what may be a series of posts related to my adapting to the technology used by medical students.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

"Christian Faith and Reason"

Around the time the anti-evolution Creation Museum opened back in May, I stumbled upon a new magazine called Christian Faith and Reason. The publisher has an interesting idea: collect scientists, politicians, people of faith, and - really - anyone interested in reasonable discussion about issues related to Christianity to
provide in depth analysis on the most critical matters of faith in a manner that is both intellectually honest and consistent with Christian faith.
Science is an important voice in such analyses. You are thinking, "But I thought science and rational thought contradicts faith." Some of us (25-45%, depending on the survey) scientists don't think that at all. From the Christian Faith and Reason statement of beliefs,
We believe the Bible was divinely inspired, but that it must be interpreted using the faculties of human reason which God bestowed upon us.
The main way I employ the faculties of human reason is with science. I think that providing communities of Christians with a publication that provides multiple perspectives about controversial topics is a great idea especially if science is invited to a legitimate position around the table. And by multiple perspectives, the editors do not just mean all types of Christians: there were atheist and Muslim contributors in August's edition. From the magazine's statement of purpose,
We seek to provide a marketplace of ideas from all sources, especially those which challenge our viewpoint. Our thoughtful responses to those challenges will lead the sincere skeptic to consider the possibility of choosing to believe in God and the message of Jesus Christ.
This represents a moderately evangelical mission, but I appreciate the tolerance embedded in this invitation to contribute. And contributors the magazine is seeking; if after reading the online version, you wish to submit an article, visit this page. The areas covered the most so far have been science (mostly topics in evolution), atheism and topics related to Islam. The fledgling publication has had two online editions and just printed an August edition. I have signed on to contribute scientific articles for the next year, but (importantly for me) will not be responsible for others' content. You can read my primer to stem cells in this month's edition.

I would be interested to know if you think the articles up at this point live up to the ideal of intellectual honesty. It would also be interesting to know how folks respond to the more assertive claims made in a few of the articles - no matter what your background.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Final Exam

For those paying attention, there is a change of venue for my dissertation defense.

Reducing Fibrosis and Cell Death in Transplanted Cardiomyocytes
Thomas E. Robey
September 13, 2007
3:00 PM
Hitchcock Hall 132

The previous room had only 48 seats. This auditorium has
150 fixed folding tablet-arm chairs (12 are left-handed).
So feel free to bring your friends! Also of note are the following amenities in the room:
  • Boothlet (HCK 132A)
  • Carpet (as shown)
  • Chalk Board - 31'3"
  • Ethernet
  • Motorized Screen - 15'x20'
So bring your wireless devices. If my presentation is too boring, you can surf the internets. Maybe you can read my blog!

Carbon Footprint: Cow Farts

Carbon dioxide is not the only culprit in global warming. There are other gasses responsible for insulating the atmosphere, and some of them could be reduced by curbing meat consumption.

You may not know that the international meat industry produces 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Sure this calculation includes CO2 released in the shipping of feed and stock, feed crop fertilization and farm machinery operation, but you probably did not know that livestock contribute to global warming in an entirely different (if more natural) way. Some of the global warming from farming comes from the methane released by cattle and the nitrous oxide in manure. It seems Ronald Reagan was right about cow farts.
About 30 percent of the methane in the atmosphere results from microbial action in animals' digestive tracts. This prompted Ronald Reagan's dismissive comment that humans couldn't be held accountable for global-warming gases (of which methane is the most potent), because the most significant source is bovine flatulence.

As contemporary critics noted, however, Reagan overlooked the fact that animal husbandry has vastly increased the number of cattle, making cow farts very much a human-influenced commodity.
Methane has a warming effect 23 times as great as that of carbon, while nitrous oxide is 296 times as great. So not only is reducing meat consumption better for the average American's health, good for watersheds and important for balancing grain for human consumption with feed for animals, it reduces the demand for flatulence-prone livestock.

Group Show at COCA

I will have three pieces in a group show in Seattle later this month. The show is titled Inquiry as Collection: Wonder Cabinets, Collage, Assemblage. This opportunity emerged from a course I took at the Pratt Fine Arts Center last month; more background is available elsewhere on this site. From the press release,
Inquiry as Collection is an exploration of the ways in which contemporary artists deploy strategies of collecting in both two- and three-dimensional works. The exhibit also demonstrates the resurgence of interest in Renaissance "curiosity cabinets," known for their often idiosyncratic combinations of art and science.

Running from August 30, 2007 – September 27, the show is curated by David Francis, Instructor in Diverse Disciplines at Pratt Fine Arts Center in Seattle, who previously curated Shard at CoCA, which Regina Hackett described as “bustling with originality and strangeness.” Francis had previously curated archaeological artifacts for history exhibits.

The show centers on the work of six artists who studied Wonder Cabinet aesthetics in a class taught by Francis at Pratt earlier in 2007: Mary Ann Henderson, I-Pei Lin, Clare Livingston, Jodi Reid, Thomas Robey, and Nan Wonderly. In the same way that Renaissance “Wunderkammern” blended art and science, the box constructions of these artists reveals their diverse backgrounds: Henderson and Robey are scientists; Lin comes from a Design background; Livingston’s parents ran a museum; Reid and Wonderly are artists from Lake Chelan and Seattle.
The show's opening reception is August 30 from 5:00 to 7:00 PM at the Shilshole Beach Club in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood. The club is also open to the public every Thursday evening until September 20.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Chris Mooney at YearlyKos

UW's Forum on Science Ethics and Policy is bringing ScienceBloggers Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet to give their Speaking Science 2.0 talk in Seattle on October 5. Mooney is on a book tour for Storm World. He also recently participated in the YearlyKos Science Blogging panel in Chicago. The talks were televised on CSPAN and posted to YouTube. Chris has embedded his full talk from that event in three clips up over at his blog. Some of these same topics will probably turn up in the October 5 talk in Seattle, but don't let that keep you from turning out for their free, live and in person presentation at the Pacific Science Center.

UW Stands Up for Science

A few weeks ago, University of Washington researchers issued a press release that they had found evidence that exposing very young children to educational videos actually decreases vocabulary development. From the Seattle PI story (adapted from the press release),
Overuse of baby videos may slow the growth of vocabulary among babies 8 months to 16 months old, but didn't have an effect on children from 17 months to 24 months. There is no reason to panic, researchers said, because babies are resilient, and there isn't evidence that videos cause permanent damage. The study didn't examine the effect of videos on older children.
After checking out the original paper, I concluded this is a very fair representation of the findings. I even made a mental note about the findings should I ever have young children. This news tidbit also came in handy during last weekend's NPR show, "Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me!" That's the typical science news release cycle.

Science to Press Release to National Syndication to Local Coverage to Useless Trivia.

Did the cycle end there? Well... I'm still writing.

It turns out that the researchers used that popular DVD series, "Baby Einstein" as their experimental group. Guess who makes "Baby Einstein." Your favorite multimedia conglomerate, Disney. (News Corporation is your other favorite.) What did Disney have to say about this?
Baby Einstein said its products were designed to spur interaction between parents and their children, not as solitary experiences. "The entire Baby Einstein DVD collection is specifically designed to promote discovery and inspire new ways for parents and babies to interact -- such as clapping, pointing to objects and verbally interacting with their baby," the company said in a statement.
Okay, fair enough. But have you seen the packaging for these videos? That message must not have made it through marketing.

Fortunately for us, Seattle PI reporter Paul Nyham has done a great job following this story. Disney was not content to let some scientists hurt their sales, so what happened next? Strong-armed threats of course! Nyham describes Disney's actions here, but for the full effect, read Disney's letter. Unless you are in no mood for whiners. Disney makes a few minor points, but seems to have misinterpreted the right that scientists have to disseminate knowledge. Furthermore, the study was published after careful peer-review. Sure peer-review has its issues, but one of the best things about it is that it is free from corporate meddling. That's more than the US government can say about how drugs are approved and health guidelines are established!

As an advocate for scientific citizenship, there is no question where I stand on the importance of disseminating science. I am still critical of the press release mechanism for announcing science news, but right now, that's what we've got. As long as researchers have integrity in writing releases and reporters do some amount of background work, the system kindof works. So I was pleased to hear that the University of Washington decided to stand up to Disney's thugs. From a new PI report,
The University of Washington refused to withdraw a press summary of research on baby videos on Thursday, rejecting claims by Baby Einstein owner The Walt Disney Co. that the statement misrepresented the underlying research. "The researchers find no inconsistencies between the content of the news release and their paper. They believe the release accurately reflects the paper's conclusions and their commentary," UW president Mark Emmert wrote in a letter sent to Disney CEO Robert Iger.
If only the UW would stand up to the RIAA and refuse to release private information about students to the multi-billion dollar recording industry.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Post Wrong About Stem Cells

There is still a long way to go to educate the public about embryonic stem (ES) cells. In yesterday's Washington Post election blog, John Solomon (a Post staff writer) made a blatantly false statement about ES cells. He wrote,
Many religious conservatives, including President Bush, oppose the scientific use of embryonic stem cells because the cells often come from aborted fetuses.
Right... Does a journalist have to be a science writer to check his facts? Here is the truth of the matter: Embryonic stem cells NEVER come from aborted fetuses. They are derived from 5-day old blastocysts generated in the context of in vitro fertilization clinics. This embryo has never been in the uterus, and is a ball of about 100 cells. A correct replacement sentence could be: Religious and other conservatives object to ES cell use because they cells taken from a structure that occurs 5 days after fertilization.

I wonder how widespread this misconception is.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Clear Skies for Farmers

Clouds form over native vegetation, but not farmland?

An article in today's Science Times alerts us to a situation where clouds regularly form on the native side of Austrailia's rabbit proof fence, but not on the side with farmland. These pictures, if truly representative, are striking!

The satellite view at right is of the southwestern corner of the island continent, near Perth. The beige ground, as in the air surveillance photo above, is cropland; the green is outback scrub. (From the information in the images, I presume the vantage from the plane is looking south.)

According to the article, the reasons for this phenomenon are not definite, but I'd put my money on the effects of dark vegetation absorbing heat in the day and 'releasing' it at night when it can combine with moisture in the lower atmosphere. The clouds shown in the photos are low level cumulus beneath higher cirrus clouds. Cumulus clouds often progress into cumulus congestus, and these can bring rain showers or thunderstorms if conditions favor growth into the fearsome cumulonimbus.

This could have considerable impact on the study of how agriculture impacts precipitation patterns.

Want to learn more about clouds? I recommend the Cloudspotter's Guide, published by the Cloud Appreciation Society.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Karl Rove Resigns!

Read the exclusive article and editorial in the Wall Street Journal.
Maybe tonight, I'll get a good night's sleep.

non se·qui·tur (nŏn sěk'wĭ-tər, -tŏŏr') n.
1. An inference or conclusion that does not follow from the premises or evidence.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Book Review: The Top 10 Myths About Evolution

A catchy title matched only by the cuteness of the cover. The first time I saw this book, I thought: "Oh no! Not more pseudoscience nonsense." Don't you worry, readers. It's not at all like that.

The Top 10 Myths About Evolution by Cameron M. Smith and Charles Sullivan is part evolution apologetic and part “Myth Busters” science writing. You'll not find any new arguments about the evolution debate if you are familiar with the controversy, but the short book does frame the discussion in a particularly accessible manner. Scientists who find themselves defending evolution to non-scientist Christians will find several useful historical vignettes, scientific points and rhetorical tools in this short book. The arguments against evolution are presented fairly, but it is clear that the intended reader is sympathetic to scientific perspectives.

Smith is an archaeologist and Sullivan is a college writing instructor. Ten Myths emerged from an article co-written by the two in Skeptical Inquirer. Published by Prometheus Books, Ten Myths is not particularly targeted to theist scientists – rare off-hand remarks are mildly derogatory of Christian fundamentalism – but it does not take much patience on behalf of the reader to extract the authors’ salient points. Criticisms of religion are balanced with a critique of naturism.

Smith and Sullivan cite in the introduction several reasons why the American public is confused about evolution. Public misunderstanding and ignorance of science is the result of poor science education and a paucity of good science programming in the media. The power of myth – here defined as explanatory story-telling – increases in influence in the context of poor background knowledge. In this context, it is most problematic for the authors when religious texts are used to provide scientific answers about the natural world. Ten Myths combats the misunderstandings of evolution in concise ten-page arguments that are for the most part freestanding.

The ten myths are presented in a logical order. The first chapters address the history of evolution (Survival of the Fittest, It’s Just a Theory, The Missing Link); next are surveys from a philosophy of science perspective (Evolution is Random, Nature’s Perfect Balance); the last chapter group identifies where evolution science and religion clash (Creationism Disproves Evolution, Intelligent Design is Science, Evolution is Immoral). Some of the sections clarify facts and history, while others present more difficult ideas. In the latter case, it sometimes feels like the conflict is oversimplified. Perhaps those chapters could beeffectively expanded in the context of a college 200-level defense of evolution course.

To satisfy the authors’ goal to provide a handbook that dispels myths about evolution, the chapters are well annotated with an extensive index that will help the reader return to a particular argument long after the initial read. The bibliography for each section is good, but not comprehensive. This is a short read (the body of the book consists of 120 of the 200 bound pages), and each chapter has a clever illustration of the myth to be debunked. This book is inexpensive and could be a useful resource for believing scientists wishing to better engage fellow Christians on the topic of evolution, or could introduce students or other individuals to some of the basics of the evolution debate. Folks with a good knowledge of evolution will have encountered these arguments before, but perhaps not in as a concise form.

The Top 10 Myths about Evolution by Cameron M. Smith and Charles Sullivan. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007. 200 pages, index. This review was written for the journal of the American Scientific Affiliation called Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith.

Public Comment on Medical Marijuana

Have you opinions about medical marijuana? The State of Washington is seeking comments from the public on two questions:
  1. How much is a 60-day supply of medical marijuana?
  2. How should patients who qualify under state law to legally possess the stuff actually acquire it?
This information will be used in Chapter 69.51A RCW, as passed by Washington State citizens as I-692 in 1998 and amended by the legislature in 2007. Learn more about the request for information, and if you have an opinion, post it here. The frequently asked questions section for this issue has a nice description about how this comment period works.

Note the targets for these weblinks: "www dot Doh! dot Wa? dot gov"

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Out Campaign

Those of you who read science and liberal political blogs have probably encountered a new symbol in authors' sidebars of late. Scarlet A's have been popping up all over the web. What do these red letters mean? Simply, the A is a symbol of solidarity for atheists and represents a call for atheists to make a more vocal contribution to the public conversation.

You might expect that I would - as a Christian - object to this campaign, or otherwise be put on the defensive by it. If you made that assumption, you'd be wrong. I think the Out Campaign is an admirable effort to unite a community of Americans that have been too quiet and too persecuted for too long.

My conversations with atheists about science, politics or religion are as interesting and meaningful to me as discussions on the same topic with Christians. In many instances, my agnostic and atheist friends are more likely to be open to thinking about new and different ideas. In the kinds of discussions I like to have about science, society and social justice, it doesn't matter what people believe in. It matters that they are respectful, honest and open to conversation.

As Richard Dawkins writes in his introduction to The Out Campaign,
Atheists are not devils with horns and a tail, they are ordinary nice people. Demonstrate this by example. The nice woman next door may be an atheist. So may the doctor, librarian, computer operator, taxi driver, hairdresser, talk show host, singer, conductor, comedian. Atheists are just people with a different interpretation of cosmic origins, nothing to be alarmed about.
With this, I strongly agree. Too many conversations among Christians (and other people of faith) involve categorization of atheists as militant haters. Even if names aren't used, there are underlying stereotypes of inferiority, immorality and other unfounded categories that atheists are crammed into. I resent it when as a Christian, I am labeled as homophobic, misogynistic and irrational just because other vocal Christians are these things and base their reasons for being so on a book I find illuminating.

Clearly, I will not be putting the "A" on my sidebar. But you won't find me shrinking from or picking fights with the website owners that that display that red badge of courage. If you want to display the A, head over to PZ Meyers' Pharyngula blog. He has provided code to help intrepid atheists come out.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Carbon Footprint: Food Miles

Today's carbon footprint column is short and sweet. Food miles is still a new concept for do-it-yourself environmentalists, so is worth another spin. Buying from markets and fruit stands makes for tastier meals, connects you to your environment, and is healthy for the local food industry. But if its the food miles you want to figure out, read these:
  • A New York Times opinion piece by James McWilliams defines food miles.
  • Benjamin Cohen at The World's Fair expands on the concept with an insightful analysis.
Have a nice weekend. I recommend you find some local sweet corn.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Baiji: RIP

Extinction occurs in the modern era not with a bang, but a whisper.

The Yangtze River Dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer) was declared "functionally extinct" in December 2006, but was confirmed today as fully non-existent after a second six-week search found no animals. Technically, the Baiji can't be classified as extinct until 50 years after the last sighting, according to the standards of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Is the Great Leap Forward to be blamed for the first vertebrate extinction in half a century and the first ever cetacean (whale or dolphin) extinction due to human influence? The ultimate cause of death can be attributed to pollution, dams, overfishing, and boat traffic. That sounds like good old 'progress' to me. Your local news will report several tragic deaths tonight. Why won't this be one of them?

Millions of Years Couldn't Prepare You for a Century of Progress

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Open Access Tissue Engineering

Are you curious about the field of tissue engineering? This fall, you have the opportunity to take a course on the subject from your own home. This opportunity is not affiliated with Sally Struthers or the International Correspondence School. The course is offered online by a joint program of Harvard and MIT.

HST 535: The Principles and Practice of Tissue Engineering will be available starting in September, and will be viewable by webcast for half a year. That means you get curriculum and video of the course. The website even says that,
during the lectures, questions can be e-mailed to the Course Coordinator.
MIT has opened its curriculum to the public for the past several years. Using a platform called OpenCourseWare, anyone from around the world can take MIT courses. Well, not exactly. As a resource to "educators, students and self-learners around the world," anyone with an internet connection can dial up the MIT site for course materials from subjects ranging from planetary studies to urban planning and literature to biological engineering.

From the OCW site, MIT OCW:
  • Is a publication of MIT course materials
  • Does not require any registration
  • Is not a degree-granting or certificate-granting activity
  • Does not provide access to MIT faculty
I can see motivated undergraduates, interested (and maybe retired) citizens, faculty working on new curriculum, science outreach workers, students at smaller colleges, and anyone needing broad information about a specific topics and even busy graduate students finding this resource useful. Perhaps those with the most to benefit from this program are students in developing countries. In fact, MIT OCW's stated goals are to:
  • Provide free, searchable access to MIT's course materials for educators, students, and self-learners around the world.
  • Extend the reach and impact of MIT OCW and the "opencourseware" concept.
This second objective is a noble one. Long regarded as the premier science and engineering university in the world, it is an important statement that MIT is making curriculum resources open to all. Because of its reputation, MIT is probably the only entity that could pull off an attempt to change the way information is available to the interested public. At first, there were some complaints about this policy. What are MIT students paying for if all of the course material is free anyway? The answers are in the caveats above: OCW users have no access to faculty and no record of enrollment.

Can secondary (and tertiary) education really be boiled down to networking and credentialing? I'll wager that the majority of OCW users either passively watch the material or look for specific answers or resources before moving on. Without cramming for exams and office hours to make sure sure you 'get it,' this material is by no means a complete course of study - it is merely another resource. Albeit a free resource from a prestigious institution.

This tissue engineering course however seems to contradict one of OCW's central points. That Professor Myron Spector is available for questions could be his own choice. Maybe this is his way of connecting with the public about science. I like the sound of that.

Open access as a route to citizen scientist.

There's an idea. Can open access (courseware, journals, software, etc.) effectively distribute the building blocks of the ivory tower to the masses and in so doing increase the role of science in society? We shall see.

Web Page

I just re-vamped my personal web-page. It's not much to look at right now, but has potential. Potential that will have to sit tight until the PhD thing is taken care of.

Thanks for reading, Mom!

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Carnival of the Blue III

Want to catch up on this month's ocean news? Rick over at Malaria, Bedbugs, Sea Lice, and Sunsets put together a nice collection of essays, musings, and observations about oceans. It's Carnival of the Blue III. Cruise on over there at your coffee break.

Carnival... Cruise... Don't worry if you missed that one. I'll use it again.

Medicine 2.0

Web 2.0 is the name for the user controlled distribution of content on the internet. It's a broad term that includes now-common elements of the web like wikis, blogs, social networking platforms and personal broadcasting (like YouTube and podcasts). A contingent of health care provider bloggers contribute to a regular online conference (called a carnival) to share ideas about how web 2.0 could change health care. Head over to The Health Wisdom Blog for the latest Medicine 2.0 carnival. My contribution features the Who Is Sick service, a site where anyone can self-report symptoms. I ask whether this will help providers and public health folks understand current contagious illnesses, or will it confuse efforts to understand cold season epidemiology? Other entries highlight using the virtual world SecondLife to teach chemistry, and the danger of using the physician's online tool UpToDate too much.


Today's Seattle Times ran a feature on Alaska Senator Ted Stevens. His son Ben has been involved in corruption scandals, and the FBI recently raided Ted's home as part of some investigation involving fisheries and oil lobbyists. The very best part of this story comes in the article's second to last paragraph. Some of the flurry of bills passed before the Senate session concluded are full of topics loaded with irony.
Ted Stevens spent the week in Washington, D.C. On Thursday, he voted in favor of a Senate ethics-reform bill. On Friday, he sponsored a resolution to protect the Arctic waters from overfishing should global warming make harvest possible there.
Wow. In case you didn't get that,
he sponsored a resolution to protect the Arctic waters from overfishing should global warming make harvest possible there.
By the way, hematite is one type of iron ore. As with my other posts, all puns are intended. (lode-ed with iron-y...)

Friday, August 03, 2007

Dems' Energy Plans

A Daily Kos blogger has posted a nice comparison of the energy policy proposals from the four Democratic front-runners for the presidential nomination. Each improves on the present policy, but I can't help but notice how the candidates with the best name recognition are the most anemic on details...

Carbon Footprint: Compact Fluorescence

When I saw this New Yorker cover over at The World's Fair, I knew I needed to use it for a column about compact fluorescent bulbs. This week is the perfect week for it. Not only did I renew a few fixtures in my apartment this morning with CFBs, King of the Nerds (who last week was promoted to represent all of science in a column called Dear Science) offered Seattle's lighting Luddites fuel for the anti-conservationist fire. (Warning: while Nerd is a gentleman and refrains from profanity, his newspaper's readers are/do not, so beware of following that link!)

The question here is whether Americans are willing to pass up on incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescent ones. The cons for switching include:
  1. The strange light looks funny, buzzes, gives me headaches, and induces seizures.
  2. If I break the bulbs, I'll inhale mercury and turn into a drooling idiot.
  3. Power in the Northwest doesn't come from carbon anyway, so why bother?
  4. All of my fixtures are three-way switches or dimmers.
  5. I can't throw my old CFBs in the trash. What a drag!
Here are my quick responses to these:
  1. Go buy a new bulb (not that one you got free from the power company in 2000) and try it out. You will be impressed by its silence and light quality.
  2. The Nerd writes,
    While new compact fluorescent bulbs are voluntarily limited to five milligrams of mercury each, as little as a tenth of a milligram per square yard will make you seriously ill.
    Note to copy editor: please change 'will' to 'could.' Even 'could' is too strong a word. Seriously ill was probably caused from direct ingestion or inhalation of the entire quantity prepared in its most bioactive state. (Feel free to chime in if you can clarify this!) For reference, 5 mg is 1% of what mercury thermometers contained. Yes there IS mercury, so you should follow these instructions in the rare event that a bulb breaks. The Nerd also insinuates that CFBs throw off UV light. Read that part carefully: UV is like a catalyst for the light that actually comes out. When was the last time you got sunburned in the office? As far as the drooling idiot is concerned, I'm not sure if new bulbs could fix the Nerd's questioner.
  3. We do use water to fuel our consumptive power habits, but what about all of those folks in Wyoming or Michigan that burn coal? If we don't use our extra power here, guess who we sell it to?
  4. Contrary to popular opinion, there are CFBs rated for dimmers and three way switches.
  5. In the United States, use this helpful guide to find out where your bulbs should be disposed of. In Seattle, go here or here.
As far as the pros are concerned, by replacing 5 of your most commonly used bulbs with CFBs you can reduce electricity consumption, lower your power bill by about $60 a year and diminish your carbon output by 500 pounds a year. This is all for changing a bulb that should last 10 years.

Don't forget that you can also turn off your compact fluorescent lights when they are not in use!

Thursday, August 02, 2007

When I Grow Up...

...I want to be a medical student.

Since the hell that I hear is third year medical school looks to me right now more like Elysian Fields (Odyssey 4.563), I decided to share with you the specifics of my clinical training schedule. Assuming my committee releases me from my current servitude on September 13, I will conduct the next academic year learning medicine in the following places.
  • Oct 1-Nov 9: Pediatrics; Children's, Seattle, WA
  • Nov 12-Dec 21: Family Medicine; Anacortes, WA
  • Jan 7-Feb 29: Internal Medicine; Sacred Heart, Spokane, WA
  • Mar 3-Mar 28: Internal Medicine; Harborview, Seattle, WA
  • Mar 31-May 9: Surgery; Spokane, WA
  • May 12-Jun 20: Ob/Gyn; Fairbanks, AK
  • Jun 30-Aug 8: Psychiatry; Seattle, WA
I'll be applying for a carbon footprint waiver for all of that traveling... Fortunately, my wife and I will be in the same city (but not the same hospital) for all but 6 weeks of this adventure.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

An "A" for Zed

Remember the flurry and fury in the blogosphere last month when Rajan Zed delivered a Hindu prayer to open the Senate on July 12? A highly rated YouTube clip, a top viral video, and thousands of news articles later, Zed humbly recounts his experience for us in a guest article to the Washington Post.

Let me add my sentiments to the long list of well-wishers: Thank you for bravely continuing your prayer for understanding in the ugly face of intolerance.

Carnivaling Liberally

The Richmond Democrat is hosting the 44th Carnival of the Liberals, where my piece about the intrigue surrounding outgoing Surgeon General Richard Carmona is featured. Thank the host by visiting the site. In the process, you can read nine other articles about liberalism, patriotism and human rights.

And while I am handing out referrals, please check the latest Annals of Science by B.R. Cohen at McSweeney's. This installment features two things near and dear to my heart: mouse guts and coyotes.