Friday, December 29, 2006


Eccentricity is not, as dull people would have us believe, a form of madness. It is often a kind of innocent pride, and the man of genius and the aristocrat are frequently regarded as eccentrics because genius and aristocrat are entirely unafraid of and uninfluenced by the opinions and vagaries of the crowd.
- Edith Sitwell

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

I was recently seduced to the Electronic Dark Side and bought an iPod.
Now I have a direct circuit into my brain feeding me not only music
but podcasts (and podbooks, ohmygodno!). I still want a flash drive
for my brain......

I listened to a weekly update from SEED on the train this morning
which included the excerpt below. I know this topic has surfaced
before, so here's the 'latest':

Go In With a Bang
Athletes need energy. They need fire. They need power. They need, um,
spunk. And plenty of athletes hope to build their supply by abstaining
from sex for days, weeks or months before a big sporting event.
According to scientists, however, a little pre-gaming may not be such
a bad thing. Some studies indicate that sex may raise testosterone
levels and therefore actually help performance on the field.[3]

Italian professor of endocrinology Emmanuele A. Jannini says three
months of abstinence can cause testosterone to drop to children's
levels, which is probably none too helpful in maintaining the
aggression needed for boxing or football. Sexual activity also doesn't
leave participants drained of their vigor: A roll in the hay usually
only costs 25 to 50 calories per person [1], fewer than the calories
in a single Oreo cookie.

In women, sex produces a neuropeptide that can block pain for up to a
day, allowing female athletes to play through muscle pain[2]. So start
your warm-ups early, kids. Science knows best.
(source: National Geographic News)

[1] I disaggree with this assertion (energy expenditure per 'roll in
the hay'). I am devilishly curious about the sample pool from which
these data and statistics were derived. Obviously a pool of
conservative elderly........

[2] This reference to a gender dimorphic response is intriguing.
Parallel with my interest in that topic, I will see if I can track
down this information.

[3] A few recent studies coming out of the psychology field suggests
that not just any type of sex may have the same effects. Two recent
studies suggest that coitus induces a more robust physiological and
psychological response than either oral or masturbation. (one measured
ability to cope with acute environmental stress, the other examined a
few select hormones - which they had analyzed a greater selection)
(for quick summary of the latter: Fun with Brains. )

Recent literature also demonstrated that sex can mediate and moderate situational stress response for up to 24 hours after the sex act. That I don't find newsbreaking. We all know that sex raises endorphins and other 'feel good' hormones and neurotransmitters. It even relaxes muscles.

So women who claim to have headaches to abstain from sex can't use that as an excuse anymore. Sex can actually alleviate or dispel headaches.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Storms Within

Take me
Cauterize my bleeding heart
Cover my silence with your mouth
My breath is yours
Your taste is mine
As you lose yourself
Inside me.

The gap
The chasm widens deeper
Always reaching
And pulling back
Afraid to give each other
Echoes of yesterday foul
Our todays.

Not embracing
Fear dictates the tempest
The emptiness inside us
Fleeting whispers
Tentative words
Storms reflected in
our eyes.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

My First Law

A friend suggested I post my Laws. So I shall.

First Law:
Where there's a positive, there is a negative.

Everything operates in systems; everything is a trade-off. My first law parallels one of the most basic laws of nature: the conservation of energy. It cannot be created or destroyed. It simply flows from one system to another in a variety of forms.

As British scientist and author C. P. Snow interprets the First Law of Thermodynamics [1]:
"You cannot win (that is, you cannot get something for nothing, because matter and energy are conserved)."
This of course precludes its sibling, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, addressing the direction of that conservation. Again, in the words of Snow:
"You cannot break even (you cannot return to the same energy state, because there is always an increase in disorder; entropy always increases)."
Natural proccesses that involve energy transfer go in one direction and that process is irreversible. Steven Hawking explains it thusly using time as an example: when time moves in a foward direction and one breaks a cup of coffee on the floor, no matter what happens, in our universe, one will never see the cup reform. Cups are breaking all the time, but never reforming.

Another parallel is Newton's Third Law of Motion: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Forces always involve interactions and they always come in pairs - equal and opposite action-reaction force pairs. Examples of this law abound in nature: the wings of a bird push air downwards. In turn, the air reacts by pushing the bird upwards.

Thus the Tao of physics, the yin and yang. Yet it is not a simple Descartian duality for which there is an invisible division. Opposites are always in motion, transitioning from one to the other; it is the complementation of natural proccesses.
The natural order requires complementation between the harmonious rule of order and a continuing respect for the fertility of chaos. Order needs to be at all times suppliant and responsive to fertile transition so that new order can emerge from the natural ferment of chaos.
Our reality is a paradoxical complement of our subjective consciousness and the physical universe. That physical universe is itself a paradox of relativity and quantum uncertainty in which the future and the past become lost in probabilities. The description of physical reality is no more and no less than a narrative told about the stabilities and correspondences of our conscious experience.

Thus the philosophy that attempts to understand the fundamental nature of all reality, whether visible or invisible; it seeks a description so basic, so essentially simple, so all-inclusive that it applies to everything: metaphysics.

This is the First Law. It is the Tao.

Quantum physics will always be controversial, it hinges on the metaphysical thus it is almost like trying to describe God.

Know Thine Enemy.....

...and you will know yourself. Are we our worst enemy? We don't have to be.

No, I think we are all bozos on this bus of life [1].
“Imagine a universe in which your feelings, thoughts, and memories are not your enemy. They are your history brought into the current context, and your own history is not your enemy.”
- Steven Hayes, psychologist

[1] Referencing Firesign Theater's last
(1971) 'early' production , I Think We Are All Bozos On This Bus. For the underlying meaning of the reference, visit this website for the CD liner notes, especially those written by Phil Austin.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Who's Weird?

I never set out to be weird. It was always the other people who called me weird.
-- Frank Zappa, to The Baltimore Sun, October 12, 1986

Monday, June 19, 2006

Darwin's Challenge on Sex and Selection

And a challenge for all of us to think outside our boxes.

Joan Roughgarden, a Stanford University biologist, challenges classical Darwinian sexual selection theory with her book Evolution's Rainbow and paper, "Reproductive social behavior: cooperative games to replace sexual selection," published last February in Science. She and co-authors propose an alternative model based on game theory to replace Darwin's Venus and Mars sexual selection theory. The classic model of men want sex and women want to cuddle pervades our culture and perhaps it dictates our biology and what we are without questioning if it is the only valid model.

But what about the prevalence of 'aberrant' sex? Horny women, bi- and homosexuality, and polygamy.....Oh my!! Unquestionably branded as aberrant sexual behavior in human culture, it is not uncommon in other species. The current issue of SEED lists 450 species, as a matter of fact. Raising various mammalian specimens myself (rats, mice, dogs, cat, sheep, horses, rabbits...) over a lifetime, I questioned the omnipotence of the classical sexual selection model based on observation of these species, including our own.

Roughgarden's paper expectantly caused a disturbance in the arena of biologists with a barrage of rebuttals and letters to the editor (see link below) and elsewhere. While Roughgarden proposes to replace Darwin's classical theory, perhaps expanding upon it would be more productive and reflective of the real world.

In a discussion appearing in SEED of Roughgarden's proposed model and the controversy*, author Jonah Lehrer aptly writes:
"Roughgarden's cataloging of sexual diversity has challenged a fundamental biological theory. If Darwinian sexual selection -whatever its current variant- —is to survive, it must adapt to this new data and come up with convincing explanations for why a host of animals just aren't like peacocks."
Time for all biologists to step outside their box for a moment and consider Roughgarden's points.

* The Gay Animal Kingdom, online article and in the June/July 2006 printed issue.

Abstract for Roughgarden et. al. paper and listing of published rebuttals in Science .

Friday, June 16, 2006

Science Idol: the Scientific Integrity Editorial Cartoon Contest

Here's your chance, all you budding cartoonists!

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) birthed a brainstorm for a contest to speak out. Using satire in the form of cartoons, contestants are invited to take meaningful pot shots at the current US administration's track record on science. Aptly named "Science Idol", contestants can make fun of the administration's attempts at control and distortion of science.

Two categories allow amateur and professional cartoonists to submit their entries which are due by July 31, 2006. Twelve finalists will be selected by celebrity judges and these will be judged by the public for the winners.

For more information on entries and prizes, visit the UCS website.

I hope Gahan Wilson submits an entry.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Blog cloning

In the spirit of yin and yang, I have two blog sites. Thinking back to little more than a year ago, this activity began reluctantly as an experiment recommended by a friend to help me overcome a bad case of writer's block. Being a freelance writer, such an obstruction can be deleterious to not only supplemental income but the mind. Writing is like singing, painting, dancing, and telling stories: it is a form of expression of the heart and soul. When a writer has writer’s block it is akin to “I have no mouth and I must scream”. *

My problem is I can't type fast enough or access to a medium is unavailable when needed the most. I am waiting for technology to develop a flash drive that can be inserted directly into the brain and to which I can download my thoughts, remove later and upload to my computer. Reading the weekly science and technology news, that may happen soon; I'll be the first to volunteer testing a prototype.

The experiment simultaneously succeeded and backfired. Writer's block is gone and my writing expression has evolved and blossomed. I've published several works since then, even delving into other genres under a pseudonym (don't ask; I'm not telling). Unfortunately deadlines continue to hover over me and I'm just as much a procrastinator as before. The two books I am working on still progress at a snail's pace.

My passion is life, although what you mostly read here in these two blogs are two special passions: science and riding motorcycles. In some ways the two are similar: journeys into the unknown. Both science and riding involve destinations, technology and processes. Yet a component of both many don’t consider is the journey; the journey of discovery. That is an important common denominator and a recurring feature that winds its way in and around these blog posts. (Did the word ‘cloning’ in the title give you a clue?)

Because the motorcycle posts have become more frequent, I decided to devote a new blog site to them: Meanderings on Two Wheels. Over time I will be moving the bike and riding content from the original blog site (Whose Reality is This?) to the newer bike site. I will leave some of the original bike posts where they were originally posted, but not all. As I move them I will post an update in the bike site. Otherwise they will be hidden in the archives. If any code monkeys out there know how I can add a function to a side bar for recently added posts independently from the date, help would be appreciated. Until then, watch for notices of posts moved from this site.

Recently moved:
My Zen of Motorcycle Riding
April's Fool Day

* Short story by the same name by science fiction and commentator Harlan Ellison. Be forewarned if you read this story; it is highly emotive and powerful. It may birth nightmares.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

If I Were Head of State: Due Parte

I would proclaim and enforce a fee of a dime for every vehicle turning and not using their turn signal. I suspect the national deficit would be eliminated in one year.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Snot Rockets

I have of late spent most of my rare time at home mowing the flora on my five acres of Solitude in Central Texas. Thanks to modern technology and Sears, a tractor with a 48" mowing deck is my saviour. Despite my raging torment of unattaching and removing the deck to extract a wayward rope that had entwined itself around the blades, and then putting it all back together, I love my mower. Mowing the property serves as a relaxing activity while I play patterns and games with the terrain, mower heights, tractor speed and the obstacle course that I live on (thorny mesquite bushes, pond, etc). The challenge of mowing a pattern that is as efficient as possible is akin to a chess game. I lose sometimes.

A major obstacle is my allergy to grass pollen. Those tiny misshaped granules that help procreate the many species of grasses wreck havoc on my immune system. The little mast cells that are the soldiers in the first line of defence in the mucus membranes bombard my nose, eyes and skin with histamine, setting off a cascade of mucus production.


Membrane cells secrete that viscous sticky stuff called 'mucus', chock full of proteoglycans, salts and enzymes that trap and degrade small foreign particles and agents as a protective mechanism. Yet, a hypersensivity to certain allergens such as grass pollen can elicit mucus production like no tomorrow and the nose becomes a running faucet. In that instance, it becomes less of a friendly 'protective' evolutionary function and more a nuisance and downright pain in the nose. It rightly earns the name: 'snot'.

This leads to the question: What does one do when he/she encounters an attack on all fronts by enemy allergens and the battle wages to the point where you can't keep up with the mucus production by snuffling it back up your sinuses?

Well, the old remedy that all outdoorsy people are familiar with: the 'snot rocket'.
Just aim well.

I read the following this morning in my recent issue of New Scientist in the section: The Last Word, where readers submit questions which are answered by other readers. Here it was; the 'snot rocket'.

Is it coincidence a human finger fits exactly into a human nostril. If not, why does my mum tell me not to do it?

Your mother may not approve, but there is a way to clear your nose without sticking anything inside it. It's called the "snot rocket". Just push against the side of one nostril to close it off, take a deep breath, close your mouth and exhale as hard and sharply as you can through your other nostril. You'll be amazed how fast the contents shoot out. Just make sure you tilt your head away from your body to avoid peppering yourself.

Nose-clearing tactics like the snot rocket mean there is no life-or-death reason for the co-evolution of digging digits and large, inviting nostrils. After all, nose blockage is easily managed by breathing through your mouth. In fact, a blocked nose is really only a problem if something gets lodged near your nasal bones, where it is dangerously close to your brain. That is a region where human fingers are too podgy to be of any use. A rather thrilling story of a primatologist, some tweezers and an engorged Ugandan tick comes to mind.

Sexual selection might have favoured the relationship of finger to nostril if, say, females in the Pleistocene preferred mating with males who picked their noses, or if males and females picked each other's noses in a courtship ritual. However, that would be taking reciprocal grooming a little far.

So we must conclude that, yes, it is mere coincidence that your fingers fit so nicely into your nostrils. I doubt the made-for-each-other argument is going to change your mum's opinion of rhinotillexomania. I suggest you demonstrate the snot rocket instead and see what she says.

Holly Dunsworth, State College, Pennsylvania, US

Note: I recall commenting to a close friend once "You know how close and trusting we are when I can pick the buggers from your nose." Better all out of the nose than half out........

...and A View to the Sky

For all you fellow astronomy nerds out there, especially those with telescopes, here's your chance: Comet 73P. In 1995 this comet unexpectantly broke up into at least 58 pieces. Earlier part of this week, many pieces will have passed within 12 million miles of our planet. This is only 30 times as far away as our moon, thus the closest comet within the last 20 years.

A meteor shower is expected to be seen between May 19 and June 19 of this year as Earth passes through the edges of the comet's tail. The largest and brightest fragment (called Fragment C), and thought to be the main bulk of the comet, may be visible to the naked eye in dark skies. Fragment B, the next brightest comet fragment, may require binoculars.

You can read more about the history of and expected passing of Comet 73P's remains at the Comet Chasers website.

Wow, what a treat: a recent full moon and now comets!

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

View From the Table

I am an outlier amongst my own gender.

A bookstore-aholic, I often find solace in the bookstores amongst the book and magazine racks and the cafes. Once inside, like a lion scoping its prey, my focus is automatic and efficient, stratigically directed to those areas of the store that give me instant gratification. Gods forbid anyone who is in my way.

I head first to the science magazine section and peruse my favored magazines, New Scientist, SEED and American Scientist. Scanning the covers, one or two seem to magically appear in one hand before I move on. The first two are unquestionably worth perusing, even though I subscribe to the first. Odd that; the current issue adorns the store racks sometimes days before mine arrives in my departmental mail box.

Next, on to the motorcycle magazines. This is a hunting activity for they are rarely grouped by category of bikes or riding. Considering the variety of publication releases, from monthly, bimonthly to quarterly, finding good reading material has become a game of hide-and-seek and "What's on the stand today?" or "Where the hell is it now?". This time, I chose a British bike rag on the advice of a fellow adventure rider:

"If you really want to learn about the bike world, read the European rags. Bikes and riding are a way of life there. Here, bikes are recreation and show."

He's right. The real 'meat' of riding motorcycles is in Europe and Asia. Bikes and scooters are often the sole transportation of many people there. Riding for sport and pleasure is a close second. It's a very different perspective and grasp of being mobile there. It makes me wish I could live and move amongst them.

After plucking one, two motocycle magazines, I turn on my heel and head out of the magazine racks, glancing at the woodworking and homebuilding rags. Ah, the latest issue of Fine Homebuilding. Instantly plucking that issue, I round the corner and head into the cafe. Nodding a "Hello" at the clerk behind the counter and finding a table near the windows, I stack the magazines in the order of interest for the evening: homebuilding at the bottom, two science rags, a Texas riding issue, and the British bike rag on top. After spending an entire day entrenched in science, including reading papers on the train home, I crave a brief respite.

Returning to my table with a sandwich and a tall ice tea, I eat slowly and look around me. Two tables are occupied by women: two girls of college freshman age at one, two middle-aged women at the other. The two younger girls are chit chatting, leafing through celebrity rags with pictures of glamor men and women adorning the slick colored pages. They appear to be critiquing them judging from their fingers pointing at the figures on pages. I reminds me of the plastic paper people with stick-on and take-off clothes that kids play with.

The two older women are reading Cosmos, Home Journal and Good Housekeeping. Pages filled with "How to lose that fat butt in 6 days" or "How to keep the sex alive in your marriage", interspersed with magical decorations for home, husband and family. Here, cut this out and hang it on your wall and your life will be fulfilled and happy. All this interspersed with an hour-long discussion on what color to paint the dining room, who to hire to mow the lawn, and "Oh, by the way, did you hear about Isabel......"

I can't help but notice that I'm shaking my head, not understanding how such things can captivate their attention and time and grateful that my life is empty of similar occupations that could be better utilized contemplating Stephen Hawking's recent proclamation of multi-universes and reality existing in the eye's of the beholder. Or the many roads I want to travel on my bike.

I look down at my own table and I see magazines that reflect a very different pool of interest and past time than these other women. And I wonder how I ended up so different from others of my own gender. Yet quite satisfied with who I am.

In the line to pay, an older black man behind me strikes up a conversation:

"You know, in a moment, this moment will be gone. Forever gone."

After a moment's thought, I reply "Yes, but then there will be a new moment to replace the one that is gone."

[nodding] "Mmhmm.... That is right. And then another moment will replace that one, too."

"Yes, and then another and another. And all those moments replaced will be memories."

"Yessah, and some of those memories may stay, some may be lost. "

"Very true.
And new ones will appear to replace those lost."

"Mmmhmm. Now I wonder if you will remember this conversation after several moments."

Smiling broadly, I reply, "Yes, sir. I will remember this conversation in several moments and for many more after that. And remember this: 'No matter where you go, there you are'."

"Hmm... yes, I like that. Well, young lady, you have
yourself a good evening. Yes, I like that...."

Now where else can you go and talk metaphysics to strangers but in a bookstore?

Monday, May 01, 2006


"When a shepherd goes to kill a wolf, and takes his dog to see the sport, he should take care to avoid mistakes. The dog has certain relationships to the wolf the shepherd may have forgotten."
- Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Thursday, April 27, 2006

We Are All Monkeys

Or more accurately, apes.

One of the most brilliant media commentaries on just who we really are: The Monkeys
..... are us.

"Attention! There are monkey boys in the facility!!"
(anyone know this movie reference? )

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

In the Age of Politically Correct

I watched with trepidation this Age blossom and pollinate over the last twenty-plus years. Now its seeds are growing all over the world. In several places, it has become a noxious weed.

Even the term ‘Politically Correct’ has been deemed politically incorrect. It’s “offensive’. I still haven’t quite determined who is offended by it and why. But I am astute enough to note the furrowed eyebrows and tight lips when it is mentioned.

Mick Hume, an editor of spiked online of the UK, aptly coined it “The Age of Intolerant Tolerance”.

“The pattern goes like this. Tony Blair says that we have to meet the extremist threat by 'championing our values of freedom, tolerance and respect for others'. Then his ministers announce new plans to criminalise 'indirect incitement' of terrorism, along with tougher proposals to outlaw 'incitement to religious hatred'.

The government must have a different dictionary than I do. Mine defines tolerance as 'broad-mindedness' or 'permitting free expression of views one does not share'. In the Whitehall Newspeak edition, however, tolerance appears to mean the opposite. In order to defend our tolerant society we apparently have to ban views that most people do not share. Welcome to the age of intolerant tolerance.”

Hume’s new label is apposite for this growing weed. The UK is not the only fertile soil for its growth. Pervasive here in the US, it permeates through every faction of our society, even in science. And our government condones or secretively encourages it, as long as it is to their advantage.

How do we turn the tide? Start with yourself, your neighbors, coworkers, friends, newspapers, local societies and committees. Start with the grass roots. Prolific, strong and healthy grass eventually chokes weeds which dwindle down to form a balanced ecology. And the pasture thrives.

“We need to tolerate the 'free expression of views one does not share', in order that we can sort out the truth in the open, instead of trying to bury difficult issues beneath a pile of bans. Let everybody freely express their views - and let us all have the freedom ruthlessly to question, criticise and interrogate everything that is said, about everything from religion to race, from suicide bombings to British values. Now more than ever we need freedom of speech for a frank and 'broad-minded' debate about the sort of society we live in and where it is heading.”

Reiterating a quote from Voltaire:

“'Think for yourselves, and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too.”

Too bad we have forgotten how to think for ourselves.

If I were Head of State.......

  1. Everyone would be permitted to voice their opinions. That’s what they are: opinions. If they offend you, debate them intelligently, learn to filter them, or pull your head into your shell.
  2. Everyone will have the right to make wrong decisions. Learn from the consequences. Or be eliminated from the gene pool.
  3. Everyone is not created equal. We are not clones. Deal with it.
  4. There will be more than two political parties. There are more than two ideologies; let’s have better representation.
  5. All science funding will be deposited into a central fund and disseminated based upon merit, not on sexy biotechnology. The Good Ole’ Boy’s Club will be replaced by representatives from qualifying committees and societies.
  6. Science journal impact factors will be negative numbers only.
  7. Birth control will be distributed free and without discrimination.
  8. A Stupidity Test will be a mandatory component of marriage licenses. Applicants that fail will be required to complete a high school diploma and classes in “How to Be a Functioning and Responsible Human Being” before reapplying.
  9. A requirement of living with a potential spouse for two years must be satisfactorily fulfilled before applying for a marriage license. Applicants must also prove an established household income.
  10. Separation between religion and state will be strictly enforced. There is no debate.
  11. I reserve the right to add more to this list.

Monday, April 24, 2006


Ending yesterday's ride, I rode up the ramp on Red into the shop, turned off the engine and sat in the saddle for a long moment.

Removing my helmet, I told my friend Chris that I find more and more as I ride that I don't want to get off. His smiling eyes and face reflected a knowing understanding.

While reading* on the train this morning, I came across a passage that explains it all:

"Being on the machine seems more natural than being off it."

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,
by Robert Persig.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Ghost Riders in the Sky

Nothing is as impressive and electrifying as, well, a Texas electrical storm. Lightening between the clouds on the horizon teases with a hint of impending powerful elements or titillates the visual senses with a tame lightshow. Close observation of the swiftly moving clouds may reveal the direction of the storm, but they can deceive as well as promise. Winds can suddenly shift, temperatures plummet, and barometric pressure swing wildly as a storm passes near or approaches.

I awoke in the middle of the night to a strong palpable smell of moisture and earth in the air. Arising from bed I watched lightening dance between the blue-black clouds in the northwest horizon. The still air and the haunting contrast of darkness blanketing the ground with the subtle flickering of light in the clouds presented a surreal world around me. Silence betrayed the distance of the storm and I returned to my slumber.

I was awoken again later in the night by a furtive wind, sneaking through the open windows and rustling the curtains. Lying in bed I pondered if my guest was an edge of the storm passing by or a harbinger of elemental fury. As if deliberately answering my questions, sudden gusts of wind shook the house and whipped through the windows. Anything light enough in the house and in the wind’s path scattered the floor like fallen soldiers beset by an army of omnipotent invisible beings.

Jumping from my warm bed, I was greeted by relentless and imbricating lightening and thunder, the light flashing all around me like strobe lights. Streaks of lightening seared through my vision, superimposed on the ground and the sky as if they were umbilical cords. I struggled against the wind to close the windows in the direct line of assault, leaving the opposite windows open to delight in the elemental fury upon me.

Standing in the middle of the house with the onslaught and fury of wind, rain, thunder and lightening surrounding me, electricity crept up my body, my skin tingled, my heart pounded harder with every close clap of thunder. Lightening strikes were close enough to deliver a luminance brighter than daylight albeit in a fraction of time and space. I felt like an immortal in a vortex of Nature’s chaos as the elements engulfed my senses.

As quickly as it descended, the storm passed me by. A gentle cleansing rain was left behind to clear the air and quiet the senses and heart. With a rhythmic and soft pattering on the windows and roof, I returned to a deep sleep and dreams.

Sure enough, Nature’s wild horses left me a reminder of their presence in the morning. I suspected during the night several strikes of lightening were close. Sure enough, the circuit board in my truck was blown.

Ah well. Horses leave behind roadside apples. Wild horses riding on the storm can leave behind mementos, too. Shit happens.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006


First Scatology, now Buttology.
What's next? Penisology? Hmm......

Rear Admirable
David Holmes, a psychologist at Manchester Metropolitan University, insists that a good bum is key to attractiveness, and he's devised a formula that describes the ideal female buttocks. According to Holmes, maximizing (S + C) x (B + F)/T - V makes for gluteal greatness. S is overall shape of the bottom, C is circularity (how spherical the butt is), B is resilience to bouncing and wobbling, F is touch firmness, T is skin texture and V is the vertical ratio or "pertness." Holmes added that a hip to waist ratio—waist size divided by hip size—of 0.7 is ideal for framing a woman's posterior.

Holmes found the formula by getting 2,000 British women to rate their own bottoms. In the shape category, those with a "trodden doughnut" got only one point, whereas those with a "small peach" scored the maximum five points. After compiling all the factors, a total of 80 points was labeled "perfection," whereas booties earning fewer than zero points were told to "stay indoors." But don't fear, saggy bottom girls, Holmes writes, "Failing all else, confidence and good conversation can sometimes distract attention, if not compensate for a 'bum deal' in the buttock lottery."

"Borrowed" from online Seed Magazine, New and Notable

The Honesty Meme

I came across a passage in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig that was an echo from my own past.

A brief converstaion between Pirsig's son, Chris, and he:


"What should I be when I grow up?"

I don't know what to say. "Honest," I finally say.

I recall asking my father the same question. I clearly remember his response:
"Whatever you want to do, whatever you want to be. But always be honest to yourself and to others."

I've tried hard to do just that, Dad. I've changed my mind a few times, but at least I'm honest about that.

If my daughter reads this, I want to tell her the same: always be honest with yourself and with others. And follow the path that has heart.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

"Paranoia strikes deep.......

.....into your heart it will creep. Starts when you're always afraid. Step out of line, the Man comes and takes you away."

A flashback from the '60's. Yet history has a nasty habit of repeating itself.

The event of 911 evoked a rekindling of community, cooperation, altruism and cohesiveness amongst not only a city but a nation. It even expanded globally.

For a short time.

Then we 'reacted'. Since then, our country has degenerated into a nation of paranoia and fear in the guise of 'patriotism' and 'right'. Without an honest definition of each. In essence, the terrorists were successful. Look around you; read the papers, watch television, watch and talk to people. We are all afraid of ghosts. Mostly our own.

I mourn what we have lost, what we have become and what we could be.

The following is a small example that trickles down like acid rain on marble:
As a researcher in the medical field, disposable sterile scalpels are used in our labs for grossing tissues. I called to order a box of disposable scalpels from one of the largest scientific vendors in the country that has supplied most of the medical research and hospital labs here for years. Their reputation is impeccable.

I was informed that they were suddenly prohibited from shipping disposable scalpels by the federal government. They were waiting for 'approval' and I was encouraged to call back in 7-10 days. Two weeks later when I called to place the order, I was informed that the responsible federal bureau still had not released an 'approval' to ship disposable scalpels. With detectable frustration and apologies, they could offer no prediction of when that approval would be forthcoming.

I called another vendor that sells and ships medical supplies and was greeted with the same scenario.

We have become a nation of fear. We are afraid of ourselves.
We see ghosts and they don't even know they are ghosts.

Mad Scientists and Coffee

Early (very early) morning coffee with a few colleagues in the departmental office can be enlightening. We pondered several hypotheses of the origins and transmission of prion diseases (also known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs) for you pathologists) and how we can use that to control the deer overpopulation. We hypothesized that if deer cannibalize themselves a form of deer 'kuru' and chronic wasting disease (also associated with prions) would restore a population balance.

Tangenting into predictions of what life form will exist the longest on this planet, I posited that microbes will sit in their little habitats giggling at the extinction of the Big Two-appendaged Macrobes. Face it: humans are built 'wrong'. We don't excel at anything, but we are good, albeit slow, adaptionists. Regardless, we can't mutate fast enough to our own self-induced evolving habitat. Nor do we seem capable of seeing that we are destroying everything that gives us life on this planet. Perhaps our species will succumb to the same basic premise of habitat overpopulation dynamics and we will eat each other and die from kuru like the deer (anyone remember the movie Soylent Green?)

Contemplating the ultimate cure for all pathogenic illnesses, we narrowed it down to mucus membranes. Most pathogens gain passive entry into our body via our mucus membranes: our gut, mouth and nose. It provides moisture, nutrients, and an ideal cradle to multiply. Thus, we posited, if we don't eat, drink or breathe, we won't have to worry about getting sick! It is logical.

However, like good scientists, we need to test the hypothesis. We need more data. Our methodology is simple and falls within a NIH budget: duct tape. Now getting it beyond the ethics committee may be a problem.

Ah, the challenges of being a scientist......

Saturday, April 15, 2006

My Zen of Motorcycle Riding

I have a motorcycle. I like to ride it. It takes me places in a way nothing else can, except for my horse. But my horse is getting old (like me), we can’t ride on public roads and he can’t travel as fast as a motorcycle. Similar to riding a horse, riding a bike is all about the journey; the destination is only one part of the whole. I often find that once I’m ‘there’, I want to get back on again and go.

Horses have names, so does my bike: Red (Red Sonja). Just as every horse has the same basic anatomy, and motorcycles share similar mechanical concepts (power system, function, etc), they all express an individual personality. Red and I are becoming well acquainted; I learn something new about it and myself every time I ride. We both have personalities and I am still learning to mesh mine with Red’s. Every time I add or change something on Red, we go through another meshing.

After the first few times I rode Red, I realized this is not just a machine. Well, rationally, it is a machine, in that it has moving parts, burns combustible fuel and expels waste; it gets hot and cold, and something occasionally breaks that needs repair or replacing. But to really ‘know’ my bike, to truly become ‘one’ together, I have to learn how all the parts of the bike work in synchrony just like my own body. I realized at some point in time I would need to learn how to maintain and fix things myself. Moreso, I want to fix things myself. I have to learn how, what and why. Like knowing anything else, it’s a process.

I posed a question to an online motorcycle group on which I participate and it generated slight confusion. I received answers that created more questions, and even more answers. But that’s the process of learning about anything. Rather than knowing only the effect, I want to learn the cause(s) as well. Invariably, peeling away one component reveals another, and on and on until a system is pieced together. In reality, there is usually more than just one answer, more than one way to go from point A to B.

Now, I approach this endeavor the same way I do working with biological questions. Identify the components and their functions. Examine all the small parts at the molecular level. Sort them according to function and location, and ask how they interact with each other, either top down or bottom up. Then ask how that system and its components, interact with other components outside that system. This is the “system” comprised of sub-systems. How they all work together is like a symphony. When all the instruments are tuned and their sounds mesh, you hear and feel beautiful music: it’s ‘right’.

My question to the group was: how does wind affect gas mileage? Realizing that it was a complex question and there would be several answers, sure enough many factors affect gas mileage. The style in which one rides, the intrinsic components of the bike (engine, transmission, power, fairings, etc), and environmental elements. I targeted one element: how does altitude affect engine performance? Of course, what I was asking was a physics-based question (ultimately everything is reduced to physics). So I learned about air density, humidity, temperature, fuel ratios and altitude.

Regardless, all of these factors influence gas mileage: Wind, altitude, gas octane, engine components, bike design, road surface, temperature, style of driving (e.g. commuting versus long-distance open road). And experience. I explained to my fellow riders that as a novice and a scientist, I want, no, need to know the concepts, the fundamental theories of parts, how they work alone and in synchrony, and why. Then I can add my empirical data, experience on the bike under different conditions, to the basic fundamental knowledge and concepts, and ultimately I am able to alter the behaviour of the bike and my riding.

Being aware of all of these components when you ride allows you to feel all of it in synchrony: the wind, temperature, altitude, fuel combustion, speed, road surface, and so much more. But rather than be overwhelming, it all becomes a part of you and your bike together. Does it detract from the beauty and enjoyment of riding a bike? Only if you let it. On the contrary, it can enhance the sensation and pleasure of riding. Your bike becomes more a part of you and you a part of your bike.

It is my ‘zen’ of riding.

Thursday, April 13, 2006


The truth knocks on the door and you say, “Go away, I’m looking for the truth,” and so it goes away. Puzzling. – Robert Pirsig*

Time for a Walkabout

Every so often we need a change. We become so caught up in our own small box of existence, hurrying most of our time away, losing grasp of what is important to each and all of us. We repeat the same day-to-day routine, a monotony that becomes shallow yet comfortable for most. It’s as if we become robots on automatic pilot. Then at some point in our lives we wonder where all that time went and sorry that it is all gone. We can’t go back to regain it.

Familiarity is comfort to most; it is ‘safe’, reassuring and relatively risk-free. We tend to shy away from risk and strangeness. Yet the world is full of wonderful strangeness. And what makes this world so hard to see is its usualness. Familiarity can blind you, too.

We accumulate new information and experiences every day, sometimes it is overwhelming. Our perspective tends to become more narrow and smaller housed inside our little box of comfort. We become the center of the cosmos and familiarity shrink wraps us inside the nucleus of our own ego. Our ‘I’ is a small parasitic microbe that only moves to provide for our immediate physiological and psychological needs. In time we become bored with our own little box and find ways to fill the empty spaces as we implode inside ourselves. We become disconnected with others and our environment until the robot is nudged out of autopilot. And malfunctions. We become dehumanized.

Robert Pirsig wrote*:

You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you're always in a compartment, and because you're used to it you don't realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You're a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame…… On a cycle the frame is gone. You are completely in contact with it all. You are ‘in’ the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.

Metaphorically our lives become like the compartment of a car: the passive observer, too busy to talk to each other, passing life by outside without really touching it, experiencing it. By the time we stop to look back and wonder where it went, it’s too late. This is a dead end.

The Australian adolescent aborigines (and many other indigenous peoples) go walkabout for weeks or months as a rite of passage. I often refer to go walkabout when I travel without a planned itinerary or even destination. It is all about the journey, not the destination.

When the spirit falters, when we find ourselves questioning, confused, or need to break the cycle of familiarity, go on a walkabout. At times I use a walkabout to break the distractions of my ‘box’ of life, or when life throws me a curve ball that hits me square in the heart. Sometimes the surroundings of silence and space allow me to hold and direct the construction of my thoughts. Other times it is the strangeness of the environment and the people that break down the walls of my box and allow me to expand outside again, refreshing my perspective.

Invariably, walkabouts give me the clearness and fortitude to open the door when Truth comes knocking.

* Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. By Robert Pirsig.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Mounting Evidence for the Noodly Appendage of Flying Spaghetti Monster

Debate continues on the validity of God, Flying Spaghetti Monster, Intelligent Design, and non-belief.

Evidence for the existence of Flying Spaghetti Monster, or beings created in his image, were discovered last year. Long noodles were found under ten feet of sediment during an archeological dig in NW China. The noodles are believed to be 4,000 years old.

Are these ancient noodles the ancestors of our modern noodles? The biological composition of the 4,000-year-old noodles suggests that modern noodles evolved over time and perhaps China was the epicenter of their origin. Was the creation of these noodles spontaneous or do they also have a predecessor? Perhaps they were created in the image of the divine Noodly Appendage or serve as an example of spontaneous creation.

Additional evidence is needed to prove that the noodles found at Lajia are the ancestor of either Asian noodles or Italian pasta. "But in any case, the latter is only documented two millennia later," Lu said.

Combined with this discovery, additional research presents empirical evidence in support of Flying Spaghetti Monsterism. Researchers report spontaneous generation of a new species of pasta: Noodleus doubleaous. In lieu of an acceptable explanation, the authors conclude that observed results were guided by the hand of an intelligent designer.

Doubters may refer to their popular Belief-o-matic for consultation on their Belief du Jour in this matter.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Miss Information

If we reduce life, and nearly everything in existence, to the most common denominator, what do we have?

DNA information is transmitted through RNA, transferred to ..........proteins......cell signaling.....adaptation..... on and on. Read a paper, watch TV, bombardment by your fellow Infomation Perpetuators; we are all information carriers and transmitters. Some should be eliminated from the Information Pool.

There are many genres and species of Information. Even genders.

In today's world of modern technology and its ability to rapidly propagate, we have a skewed gender population of Infomation: Miss Information.

When Miss Information rolls down hill, she balloons, sprays everywhere and the repercussions extend exponentially.

Here is a critique of Miss Information dressed innocently as 'education.'

"How stuff doesn't work"

Pharyngula, the mind of PZ Myers.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

April's Fool Day

I woke up this morning with a warm naked body next.....

Oh wait, that was a dream.

Got out of bed greeted by humid warm air blowing through all the window curtains, chirping birds outside the windows, the smell of moist Texas air. The sun hiding above the laden fog and clouds with a hint of later sunshine and heat. Wear a tank top under the jacket today; it's going to be a humid toaster.

The smell of freshly made coffee mixes with the moist breeze in the house and I see my horse outside grazing, stark black against the blended green and brown terrain. The barn roof drips condensation which the ground absorbs quickly. The cows next door meander contentedly.

After throwing water on my face and donning top and pants, I gather a change of clothes, shampoo and toothpaste, top my thermal mug with coffee, and pack the laptop accessories into the padded backpack. We've got miles and miles and days away ahead of us.

Grab the keys on the way out the door and greet the silver FJR waiting outside under cover like a trusty steed waiting for its master. Checking it over, stuffing the hardbags, and strapping the backpack onto the back rack, my leg swings over to straddle the seat. Sitting down in that comfortable sheepkin-cushioned saddle, shift into neutral, turn the key and push the start button. The sound that makes you go hummmmm.....

Sit for a while enjoying the peace and quiet while the Silverado between my legs warms to a purring idle. Smiling, the jacket is zipped up, the helmet is on and strapped, gloves envelope my hands and we ready to roll. Right the bike, push up the kickstand, shift down and roll the throttle. We're off.

Taking the country road curves slowly this morning, making our way to the highway heading south. Got a long day with ribbons of road ahead. No need to push it until the urge arises to crank the throttle open for a gazelle-like sprint. No cars in sight, no lights, no horns. Only the open road ahead and behind, going somewhere through space and time. Right now, there's only me and my steed. And right now, that's all that I need.

April Fool's Day and wishful thinking.

For those who can, have a good safe ride today.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Wasabi Receptors Unite!

Woohoo!!!!! A ‘wasabi’ receptor!!!

Harking back to a discussion with a colleague from India, we debated the merits and preferences for tasting ‘heat’. By that I mean hot peppers and wasabi. Our preferences were the converse: he preferred peppers and I, wasabi. We also agreed on a similar tendency in that while exhibiting a high tolerance for our preferred ‘heat’ generator, we had a relative high pain sensitivity and intolerance for the other.

We debated that perhaps tolerance may be a function of conditioning: his typical diet incorporated foods prepared with copious amounts of ‘high octane’ peppers. Whereas I tend to prefer Asian foods that are traditionally accompanied by wasabi, or even smearing wasabi on other foods such as ham or even eggs. However, living in Texas, I also eat a fair amount of the typical Southwestern fare often doused with hot peppers. Regardless, I haven’t been able to overreach food with a rating of one by the Scoville chile heat index (100-1,000 Scovlille Units), except for an occasional exploration of a meal that may rate a two if accompanied by plenty of neutralizing chips and iced tea.

The magic ingredient of chili peppers that endows that heated kick is capsaicin, a oily substance found in the veins of a wide variety of peppers. Capsaicin delivers a burning and painful sensation in the mouth and on the skin due to its interaction with sensory neurons. The chemical binds to receptors, classified as TRPV1, that are also stimulated by heat and physical abrasion. When stimulated, these receptors permit ions to pass through the cell membrane and the neuron ultimately signals the brain. The result is the sensation of burning.

Typical of the negative feedback control by most receptors, chronic exposure to capsaicin depletes the neuron of neurotransmitters, leading to a reduction in pain sensation and neurogenic inflammation (a process called ‘desensitization’). After capsaicin is removed and following a short refractory time the neurons recover. This may explain why people who traditionally eat food containing hot peppers have a higher degree of tolerance.

Nevertheless, this does not explain why the differential tolerance, and intolerance, of chili peppers and wasabi. The pain-associated chemicals in wasabi, a Japanese horseradish, are similar to those found in hot mustards: isothiocyanates. The wonderful sinus clearing vapors of wasabi are the primary contrast to the heat of hot chili peppers. Yet both produce painful sensations in the mouth and on the skin when topically applied, exciting sensory nerve fibers.

Whereas hot chili peppers titillated my colleague, I covet the rush through the sinuses and tearing aftermath of wasabi. Both of us exhibited a greater degree of sensitivity (and dislike) for the other source of painful sensation. Could the sensations and tolerance be more than just dietary conditioning? I ventured to posit that perhaps there is a receptor for wasabi!

A recent study in Cell now reports that different receptors are involved in the pain sensations of capsaicin and mustard thiocyanates. While both receptors affect neurons on the pain pathway, TRPV1 receptors are associated with capsaicin and TRPA1 receptors with other plant chemicals specifically found in garlic and various mustards. This implies that they segregate at the molecular level yet elicit similar physiological overlapping responses (irritation and inflammation).

Belonging to a group of neuron receptors in our skin, and on our mouth and tongue, they are part of our natural defense system. Transient receptor potential (TRP) ion channels are like molecular thermometers that detect temperature, mechanical abrasion and irritating chemicals. They help us sense temperature and irritants through the skin and, as we can attest, in spicy and hot foods. Even volatile odors, as evidenced by eating wasabi and the mucus membranes in the sinus cavity and lungs. Ultimately, a message is sent to the brain: “Danger, Danger!” In fact these irritant chemicals are a component of the plant’s natural defense system.

On the other hand, both capsaicin and mustards are used in alternative medicine as topical ointments to relieve pain. Applications to the skin are left on until the area is numb. This is induced by overwhelming the local neurons and depleting their neurotransmitters that create the painful sensation and blocking neurogenic inflammation. Another medicinal use that I discovered serendipitously is to clear the sinuses of mucus from upper respiratory infections.

Alternatively, I just plain enjoy the rush of that volatile wasabi up through my nose and sinuses. You can keep the capsaicin, though.

So, yes, Dr. Sri; there really is a ‘wasabi’ receptor after all.

Cell, 124: 1269-1282, March 2006. TRPA1 mediates the inflammatory actions of environmental irritants and proalgesic agents. Bautista D, Jordt S, Nikai T, et al.

Dear Dairy (No. 3)

This has to be one of the most brilliantly created advertisements I have ever encountered:


And if there is any question regarding the sleep-inducing power of milk? It is highly efficacious.
(tryptophan + carbohydrates = serotonin -----> zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz......... sleeeeep)
I've also noticed an effect on dreams (or dream recall, perhaps both)


Friday, March 24, 2006


Solid phase water encased my windshield this morning,
What planetary constant allows this absence of heat?
Driving into the sunrise admiring hues of blues, violets, and reds
Resisting the urge to vaporize the car in front hogging the passing lane.
Adhesions ripping apart while stretching
my recovering left foot.
Vision rudely disturbed by a large white splat deposited by a flying bird.
My head is drawn away from fragments of last night’s dreams
By the uplifting taunting whine of an electric guitar on my stereo.
Notes take me higher lifting me out of the morning haze
As I ponder finding a windshield that belongs on my bike.
Looking forward to the next morn, after donning warm gear,
Throwing my leg over humming metal, sitting deep in the saddle,
Feeling that infusion of adrenaline, balance it with zen,
Pull face shield, shift down, roll the throttle, and lift off.

The sun is shining and it is Friday.

This is good.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Time Machine: Journey One

During a visit to the National Museum of Natural History and Science (New York, NY) years ago, I was awestruck by the display of creatures that roamed this planet before we were ever a gleam in evolution’s eye. Always captivated by the giants who preceded us, I commented to my companion during that visit that if we had time travel I would be one of the first to volunteer to go back and be an ‘Observer’. When prodded what I would like to see or do if I had once chance to go back in time, I couldn’t respond (perhaps for the first time). Too many events flooded my mind.

During the three years ensuing that visit, I have pondered that question again and often: What would I do, where and when would I go, and what event in time do I want to see? This is a series of responses to that question. Sorry, Mark; life is not that simple to provide one answer.


Spring is here in Texas; it is the time of flowing pheromones and nature’s drive to reproduce where ever it can. Two and four-footed creatures are on the move to seek a mate, or just mate. As I drive down country roads I see and smell that little black and white furry bugger that isn’t so cute: skunk. Occasionally I wake to the malodour of Pepe Le’ Pew, such as this morning. Having been a victim at close range many years ago, suffering a direct hit, I still have an associated cringe and and clenching of the stomach, along with an almost reflexive attempt to block the smell and taste of skunk perfume.

This morning I was awoken by a strong skunk presence, enough to incite me to jump out of bed and clang the bedroom windows shut. Glancing out one window, I saw my arch enemy returning my gaze below with what could be interpreted as a “Heheee…gotcha” expression.

During my drive to town with a slight scent of skunk lingering on my clothes, I contemplated going back in time to find the ancestor with the culprit scent gland before it mated with the scentless ancestor of our modern skunk and removing it from the evolutionary chain.

The skunk family Mephitidae (derived from Mephitis, Latin for "bad odor") comprises of 11 species in four genera. Nearly all carnivores have scent glands, but they are especially enlarged in skunks and relative families, with skunks taking that enlargement to an extreme. Rather than a duct like it’s close ‘cousins’, the skunk scent glands at the base of the tail has a nipple. The glands contain approximately 15 cc of a yellowish, oily liquid. With highly coordinated muscle control, the skunk can aim and direct the spray as far as 15 feet and spay up to six times in succession. The only relief is that it takes up to 10 days to replenish the supply of liquid after full discharge.

The odoriferous liquid contains various thiols (sulfur compounds) and thioacetates (salts of sulfur compounds). The principle compound in skunk musk is butyl mercaptan, similar to the popular laboratory compound mercaptoethanol used to cleaving disulfide bonds in organic solutions (to this day I cannot go into a lab without cringing at the smell of mercaptoethanol). Being sprayed in a direct hit can cause temporary blindness, nausea, convulsions, loss of consciousness and burns of the skin.

To neutralize skunk odor, the thiols have to be changed into compounds that have little or no odor. This can be done by oxidizing the thiols to sulfonic acids. Common oxidizing agents are hydrogen peroxide and baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and are mild enough to be used on pets and yourself although it may change hair color. For clothes and inanimate objects sodium hypochlorite solutions (liquid laundry bleach) works well.

Skunk Evolution

Scent glands are ubiquitous throughout the class of mammals and serve as a form of olfactory communication. Distinctive and long-lasting smells are distributed in urine, sweat, or released by rubbing. These scents are deposited on the ground, on territorial boundaries, on offspring or mates, or their habitats. Yet the skunk has evolved to use their scent glands as a defensive weapon. Tail up, point, aim and shoot. Anyone taking a direct hit can attest to burning eyes, gagging, inability to breathe and rubbing any exposed skin to rid thyself of the noxious semi-viscous fluid and its aerosols.

What ancestor provided this adaptive trait? The oldest fossil identified as a skunk was discovered in Germany and dates to 11–12 million years ago. However, genetic data indicate the family originated about 30–40 million years ago. Research traces the evolution of the skunk from some of the earliest ancestors of modern carnivores and as members of the superfamily containing those of otters, badgers, and weasels, raccoons, and red panda. It is suggested that the origin of the skunk lineage occurred in the Oligocene approximately 40 million years ago (about 30 million years before the appearance of the first recognized fossil).

At some point in time, a weasely mammal sauntered up to a close relative and whispered in its ear “Hey baby, I have a secret weapon. Want to see it work?” Thus the lineage of the cute little furry buggers avoided becoming someone’s dinner. And they multiplied, with the semi-viscous stench dictating survival and adaptation.

I wonder if they had scent gland firing ranges for practice.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Dear Dairy (No. 2)

A recent quote by Jose' Mourinho, manager of Chelsea Football Club, when explaining why the team's soccer pitch in London is 'not as bad as it looks':

"Sometimes you see beautiful people with no brains. Sometimes you have ugly people who are intelligent, like scientists."

I am a scientist. Ergo, I am ugly. But I am intelligent and have a brain. Oh, woe is me.

However, my contribution to the reproductive success of intelligence genes has been, shall we say, limited by a matter of choice. Mine. Yet when I flip through the television channels and see the plethora of beautiful bodies with empty craniums, I feel guilt over my contribution to the 'reverse evolution' of our species. My selfish lack of interest in 'Bringing Up Baby' won over my patriotic duty to propagation of average appearance coupled with an intelligence factor that probably equals that of several TV starletts combined. That puts me at least with a positive quotient.

Can I still be sexy even if I have a brain? I don't need anyone's approval for that.
My pitch isn't bad either.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Fun with Brains


I want to change my field and be a brain researcher.

They get to do all the cool stuff. Like sticking the heads of five people into a machine (functional magnetic resonance, fMRI ) that scans their brains while they watch twenty commercials aired during the Super Bowl. The researchers’ intents were to gauge what type of a reaction they had, and the anatomical areas of the brain that were affected.

Commercials produced variable responses and in different areas of the brain. The so called ‘reward-centers’ (ventral striatum and the orbitofrontal cortex) in the brain showed activity during some ads. In response to other ads, the visual and auditory regions, or areas that contain “mirror neurons” were responsive. The latter are neurons that fire in an animal’s brain when it performs a task and also when the animal observes the same action performed by another animal like itself. They ‘mirror’ the other animal’s behavior and thus this activity is indicative of empathy.

Their qualification of a ‘good’ ad or a ‘bad’ ad was less objective and questionably interpretive. A ‘bad’ ad was interpreted by activity only in the visual and auditory areas, usually short-lived. On the other hand, ‘good’ ads were interpreted by responses of longer duration in the brain’s reward and empathy centers. However, I question the qualification of their terms ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

The complete analysis shows that the best ads are the Disney/NFL ad and the Sierra Mist ad,” Marco Lacoboni says, referring to the theme-park and soft-drink commercials. “In the Disney ad, NFL players ecstatically repeat ‘I am going to Disney’. I can see how this ad can elicit strong empathic responses.1

The scientists considered the Disney commercial a ‘good’ ad. Now I challenge you to find a handful of fathers in a sample pool of 100 that with sincerity and honesty admit they look forward to and love going to Disney, spending a month’s salary in a few days, fielding hundreds of screaming kids, and maneuvering the traffic and crowds. Perhaps the reward-centers and empathy were confused with internally muffled terror and anxiety of memories and anticipation of repeat visits. Is that really a ‘good’ ad, Docs?

Another commercial depicted a woman playing football with other women but that also somehow advertised beer. The fMRI revealed that the mirror neurons fired in the brain of a female subject, indicating empathy. I wonder if it was more related to woman player’s clothing, hair and physique than actual play moves (“OhmyGod, how could she wear that and get it dirty?”). The same commercial induced activity in the reward-centers of a male subject’s brain. That makes sense: beer and women. What better rewards than that?

Now here’s the best one: put a handful of men and women in the lab and turn them loose on erotic films. Then instruct them to masturbate or engage in intercourse to orgasm. Take blood samples and then give them a questionnaire to fill out. 2 I would love to be a fly on the wall in that lab or in the offices of the researchers and staff.

Although I could have predicted the rise in prolactin both after masturbation and intercourse, I was surprised at the degree of increase (400% !!) after intercourse compared to masturbation. What this means, fellas, is that you had best prepare for a long refractory period after intercourse. In other words, you’re done for awhile.

Dopamine is released during arousal (and foreplay), which intensifies erections – harder and for longer duration. Prolactin is a dopamine antagonist, it’s dopamine’s ‘yang’ so to speak. Typically, dopamine levels plummet right after orgasm, following the spike in prolactin. So you can see why prolactin and dopamine are a feedback loop for erections and orgasms. I suspect prolactin also is connected to the post-orgasm oxytocin release, the ‘bonding’ hormone. (Yes, guys, you have response that, too.)

But why the large disparity in prolactin levels after intercourse and masturbation? Perhaps the answer may lie in other sensory input: tactile stimulation, smell, increased anticipation, all the physical and psychological stimulation that accompanies intercourse between two humans (gender not withstanding). Perhaps examining changes in other hormones and neurotransmitters may shed a clue. I mean, if you’re going to bother them before and after by taking blood samples, you may as well make the most of the test samples and assay for a cocktail of chemicals.

Or scientists could just read the Kama Sutra for research insight. Although no blood samples were used to test hormone changes when it was written, the astute power of observation recorded many ‘tricks’ to prolong pleasure and achieve multiple orgasms. Though not properly ‘peer reviewed’ by today’s standards, I suspect the use of such techniques down the centuries provides valuable evidence.

Maybe I really need to move on from investigating skeletal muscle proteins……..

  1. “Brain scans reveal power of Super Bowl adverts.” news service, 07 February 2006.
  2. “Sex with a partner is 400% better”. From New Scientist Print Edition. 22 February 2006. Also, Biological Psychology, vol 71, p 312.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Music Movies

Putting my headphones on, I listen to Jeff Beck’s “Angel (Footsteps)” from his Who Else! CD, and all of a sudden………..

The road unfolds before and under me as I ride my motorcycle. I smell and taste the changes of scents in the air, the dry grass, the tarmac and the volatile phenols of the roadside shrubs, moisture from the creeks. Changes in temperature as I ride through shadows and sun influence the smells and pressure. The wide reaching horizon continuously opens and beckons me on, broken infrequently by mesa table tops. The straight road is interrupted only by the continuous changes in life on both sides of me as if I was a movie film. I can feel the road rolling under me and I am a living projectile on a trail of notes and rhythm of turning tires.

Then I see outside the window a large and perfectly formed globe, partially lit by a hidden gargantuan ball of seething fire. Moisture-laden white clouds swirl and hover over sections and barely discernable continents surrounded by crystal blue. As I float free from gravity and gaze out the window I watch solar panels expand outside like unfolding wings against the deep blackness bespeckled with unexplored planets and moons. The wings are lit and reflect the blinding brightness of the sun’s light

I am immersed in cool blue-green water breathing canned air and surrounded by fish of all sizes and unimaginable shimmering colors. I am a visitor in this world of water, surreal color, fins and gills, waving green plant life, a human off land visiting the progeny of my old ancestors. My air bubbles follow the gentle rocking movement of the water and I undulate like a fish as I swim and cavort with them, like a fetus in amniotic fluid.

My brain pulls back, changing momentum and tone with Beck’s “Suspension” from the You Had it Coming CD……

I feel the strong back of my horse under me and between my legs as we canter in the field, darting around the trees. The united rocking movement of both our bodies rhythmically covers the ground, feeling each hoof strike as a part of us both yet feeling as if we were suspended momentarily in air. Both exhilarated at the freedom of the canter and the silent physical communication and trust between our bodies.

I am back on the bike, riding through hills and limestone outcrops. The rumble of the engine as it climbs the hills and maneuvers the turns and matches the thump of the heart beat in my chest. I can taste the damp evening air and feel the coolness on my skin. And the giant red orb of the sun dips into the western sky, flanked by painted clouds of pink and lavender. Into the west horizon I ride on a sting of fading notes……..

Sunday, February 12, 2006

I Am a Lizard

I realized I am a lizard, a dog, a rabbit, a human, and a monkey, not necessarily in that order. What do all these vertebrates have in common? Parts of our brain that function the same and associated behaviors.

An audible alarm on my computer announces incoming email. After months of email correspondence with a long-distance lover, with emails arriving throughout the day, I discovered that I was Pavlov’s dog. I became so conditioned to that email notification alarm that it would elicit an instant response of excited and pleasurable anticipation. I found myself smiling at the sound of it; our emails, encompassing a myriad of topics beyond personal matters, were interesting, enjoyable and sometimes playful. I even woke from a sound sleep upon hearing the alarm. There I was, Pavlov’s dog salivating and wagging my tail in the anticipation of his emails every time I heard the alarm emit from my computer.

Named after a Russian psychologist, Pavlovian conditioning is an example of procedural memory, or a memory that is not consciously perceived. For example, Pavlov’s famous dog was repeatedly shown food and soon started to salivate in anticipation of eating. Pavlov then rang a bell before he showed the dog his food, and repeated this sequence numerous times. Eventually the dog started salivating when the bell rang before the food appeared, and even in the absence of food. The dog was conditioned to associate the bell ring with the probable arrival of food. This conditioning does not require a subject to make a conscious association between the two stimuli.

After a traumatic and emotional termination of the relationship and emails from him ceased, that email alarm elicited a very different response. Emails from other sources continued to arrive with the email alarms sounding loud and clear in the house. My immediate reaction the first time was that old Pavlovian conditioning strongly overlaid with a stress response: fight-or-flight. My heart raced, my skin broke into a sweat, muscles tensed and my gut clenched. I froze in the kitchen ready to cry, fight or flee. For a nanosecond in time I was a dog and a lizard. Then my conscious awareness saved me from running out of the house.

What occurred was an automatic reaction to conditioned memories and memories of emotions. The Pavlovian pleasurable anticipation was replaced immediately by an overwhelming stress response consisting of physical manifestations and emotions. The extent of that second response kicked my conscious awareness in enough to comprehend what had just happened. After that realization and an exclamation of “Holy shit!” I knew I needed to change the audible alarm of my email notification.

Perhaps the curse of a scientist is knowing the course or cause and effect of even the most mundane occurrences around us, but unable to stop or avoid many of them. I recognized immediately after my entire brain processed this course of reactions that my lizard brain was stronger than I thought. I laughed with an image of my tongue flicking out to catch a fly. And then shut off the audible email notification on my computer.

What did occur here? A signal from the environment activated different parts of my brain that are prepared to respond according to preset or unconscious schema. The immediate emotions and feelings were a response to innate and preconditioned processing by parts of my brain, whereas the awareness of the feelings resulted from another part of the brain that modulates the former. But where’s the lizard?

Before I continue, I will address a few terms here. Emotions are a collection of responses. They are automatic physiological manifestations, such as spontaneous facial expressions, changes in heart rate, and a queasy stomach. They are unconscious or pre-conscious and programmed in our brains. Feelings go beyond the emotions because they are complex interpretations that image the emotions or responses. Only when the core consciousness is aware of the entire set of the afore phenomena can we know the emotions: feel the feelings. Consciousness is not needed for the early responses, but to know that I have a feeling the process of consciousness is required in the aftermath of the processes of the emotions and feelings.

Lizards and humans

Certain behaviors are pervasive across all vertebrate species. Fear is a perfect example; it helps us stay alive. The way our body responds is similar to the way other animals act when they are afraid. We have an evolutionary fear system that detects danger and responds to it in an autonomic way. When an animal senses danger, the fight-or-flight response is automatic: it automatically startles or freezes. Other physiological responses occur, such as changes in blood pressure and heart rate, blood rushes to the skin, sweat, breathing quickens, and nerves in the stomach cause the gut to constrict. This is the classic stress response experienced when a mouse sees a cat or we see a snake. It is a process of unconscious emotional reactions; they can be innate or pre-conditioned.

Let’s take a look at the pathway involved here in evolutionary terms. In the early 1970’s, neurologist Paul MacLean proposed three evolutionary levels of anatomical and functional brain development. The core of our brain –the brain stem and cerebellum- is the oldest of the three areas. MacLean coined it the ‘reptilian’ brain, first appearing in fish nearly 500 million years ago. It developed in amphibians and advanced in reptiles ~250 million years ago. The reptilian brain controls vital body functions such as heart rate, breathing, body temperature and balance. It reacts aggressively and autonomically in the interests of self-preservation.

The next layer is the early mammalian brain (paleomammalian) and contains most of the limbic system. First appearing in small mammals about 150 million years ago, this region includes the olfactory portions, the hippocampus, hypothalamus and the amygdala. The latter is an important component of the limbic system and is a central axis in the emotional circuitry of the brain. It records memories of behaviors and their consequences (emotional memory). Thus reactions are more complex and varied than those of the reptilian brain.

The most advanced portion of the brain is the neocortex (neomammalian) which began its expansion in primates ~2-3 million years ago. It is the large convoluted bulk of the cortex and mediates the emotion of both the reptilian and the paleomammalian limbic system by cognitive functions. The dual hemispheres of the neocortex are responsible for the development of human language, abstract thought, imagination and consciousness. Its flexibility has almost infinite potential for learning abilities. It is also the ‘hungriest’ part of our brain, requiring a large portion of our daily circulating glucose for full function.

Although these three parts of the brain do not operate independently of each other and have numerous interconnections through which they influence each other, sometimes the quick and dirty system of the reptilian and limbic parts of the brain allow us to act first and think later. Evolution and conditioning do the thinking for us, sometimes freezing first, then run, fight, jump or hold still. The neocortex also processes the stimulus, but it takes a bit longer. Its not needed for some of the emotional learning, such as that involved in the fear system. So we can have emotional reactions to something without knowing what we are responding to. This is the unconscious processing of emotions. But we need the neocortex for the higher-level perception that distinguishes and rationalizes the feelings about the emotions.

Recent studies with humans subjects conditioned with sound and mild shock showed that the human brain operates basically the same way as the rat brain, or the brains in dogs, rabbits, cats, primates, birds and lizards. To quote neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux*:

In this sense, we are emotional lizards. We’re running around with an amygdala that’s designed to detect danger and respond to it. Obviously that’s not all there is to an emotional reaction, but it’s the way the emotional reactions get triggered. This system is very efficient, and it hasn’t changed much in terms of how it works. What has changed, of course, are the kinds of things that will turn it on, the things that humans have learned to respond to that have the same effect on us that seeing a cat has on a rat.”

What occurred in my kitchen that day was a complex series of emotions and feelings. The sound of the email notification triggered a conditioned response based on emotional memories (pleasurable anticipation) but were immediately followed and overwhelmed by more recent conscious (memories about the emotional memories) and unconscious emotional memories associated with shock and stress. This triggered my autonomic and endocrine systems which caused me to freeze, my heart rate to race, my body to break out in a sweat and to gasp. Then my neocortex kicked in and processed all this with a resounding self-aware “Holy shit!” as I realized the intensity and complexity of my responses and feelings. I laughed at the magnitude and quickness of this process, exclaiming outloud “I am a lizard!” and decided to change the email notification sound on my computer.

* LeDoux, J. 1996. The Emotional Brain: the mysterious underpinnings of emotional life.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Full Face Helmets and Gills

I'm going riding this weekend. Dragged out the gear (where's my gloves?!?), shoved Left Big Foot into a boot (horse riding boot; won't fit into anything else) to test fit, made sure I can still fit into my HFD overpants (they're looser on me now than when I bought them), brushed off the leather jacket, and...... ohmygod: my helmet. I have a full face modular helmet. I'll be hypoxiated!!

So I have decided to dip into my primordial DNA, pull out some methylated gc regions and tweak some expression. I'm going to grow gills. Well, fresh air gills.

If a full face helmet aphyxiates me* with my own CO2, I can either choose to not wear a helmet or grow plants inside my helmet, which would use the CO2 for photosynthesis and export O2 for my use. I could try and grow stomata on my skin, the little openings on the surface cells of plants that allow gases and water to pass. But then I have openings for that already. And I think I'm a bit too removed on the evolutionary tree.

Thus I will attempt to reverse recapitulation that occurs in early embryonic development (within the first couple days/week) and grow gills to their full development. I'll have to ask a frog.

"Excuse me, Mr. Frog. When you were young, you had gills. Then as you left the larval stage and turned into a frog, you switched to using your lungs. Would you mind telling me how you did that so I can reverse the process? And don't tell me someone kissed you....."

Mr. Frog: "No one kisses me; they think I'll give them warts. Now, to answer your question, human; I suggest you catch a few of them there toddelerpoles and ask them. I just wake up breathing with these danged mucus sacks."

Hmmm......somewhere there is a molecular switch that causes metamorphosis, when toddlerpole gills are replaced with lungs, and when the gill slits of a human embryo dissapear. Now if I can reverse that switch, I can regrow those gill slits, hopefully below the bottom of my helmet, and breathe from those. Thus avoiding hypoxia or aphyxiation in my helmet which covers both my nose and mouth.

On the other hand, hypoxia makes for great hallucinations.

So, y'all have a great weekend, enjoy the road and the sun, and wear your helmets.

* "From the Land of the Obviously Stupid" Canyon Chasers website.