Quoth the Raven
the personal blog of a newly-fledged biomedical informatician, about anatomy, computers, life, or just anything she finds interesting that day
Monday, April 21, 2008
Thursday, April 17, 2008
Mathematics and Social Justice: Robert Moses and Radical Equations
I'm reading a wonderful book by Robert Moses about the Algebra Project, a movement to empower young poor children of color by giving them resources to develop the mathematical skills they need for success and opportunities in the larger society. It's a welcome contrast to so-called "liberal" do-gooder tools like Richard Cohen, who apparently think discouraging young women from learning technical skills is somehow a desirable accomplishment.
I've just started the book--it's my bus reading--so I don't have a lot to report yet, but the roots of this project reach back to Moses' involvement in voter mobilization in Mississippi during the Civil Rights movement. He strongly implies that it's a straight shot from the one movement to the other; I am looking forward to how he connects the dots, and perhaps there are direct lessons that Pwof Ansanm can apply from his work to teacher empowerment in Haiti.
I just learned of the death of one of my old mentors, the one who gave me my first professional chance. It's shocking to have been out of touch so long that it took the news several years to reach me; ever since hearing it, I've felt like I've been punched in the stomach, although we haven't seen each other in many years.
I've been seeing this overnight walk event advertised a lot on buses lately; I'm seriously considering whether I could get ready in time for it or not.
UPDATE, 22 April: I can't get ready for the event in the time remaining, and meet all the commitments I have in the meantime as well. A better plan is to commit to doing this event next year instead, and to prepare properly for it between now and then.
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
When I met Mr. thalarctos at a dinner party at the Center for Urban Horticulture lo so many years ago, we were studying at the same summer intensive language program--I was studying Khmer, and he was studying Vietnamese--so I remember making some throwaway joke about a supposed Vieto-Irish language connection (nerdy jokes that require a whole lot of specialized knowledge to be even mildly funny, if that much, my specialty: this particular pun hinged on the fact that the word for "cow" is "bó" in Irish Gaelic, and "bò" in Vietnamese). Then I proceeded to spill a glass of red wine all over the notes he was supposed to sing from with the gamelan later that night--the lyrics were in Sundanese, a language he does not know, so he needed his crib sheet for the performance. From lame humor to full adrenaline panic in less than 60 seconds.
After that inauspicious start, it's a wonder he would still speak to me, much less that we hit it off so well we've been together the 15 years since then. The Center for Urban Horticulture is no longer there in the same form, having been intentionally firebombed, burnt down, and rebuilt in the meantime. And I just learned of another unexpected British Isles-Southeast Asian linguistic parallelism--convergent evolution, rather than homology; in neither case am I positing some grand overarching language family or anything: just two interesting coincidences in how people thousands of miles away from each other arrived independently at similar constructions.
I learned the following from a commenter over at Pharyngula, Dan S.:
And amusingly, one reading of the name of that most famous wandering Geatish hero, Beowulf, has it as 'beo' (bee) + 'wulf' (wolf) - that is, bee-wolf, i.e. bear, in Old English.
"Bee-wolf" for bear: that's cool! I would expect that people would know what a bear was, but there is also a taboo about speaking the bear's name to avoid attracting the attention of such a dangerous animal. So in Finnish:
In the Kalevala are evident traces of arctolatry, bear-worship, once very common among the tribes of the north, Otso, the bear, according to Finnish mythology, was born on the shoulders of Otava, in the regions of the sun and moon, and "nursed by a goddess of the woodlands in a cradle swung by bands of gold between the bending branches of budding fir-trees." His nurse would not give him teeth and claws until he had promised never to engage in bloody strife, or deeds of violence. Otso, however, does not always keep his pledge, and accordingly the hunters of Finland find it comparatively easy to reconcile their consciences to his destruction. Otso is called in the runes by many endearing titles as "The Honey-Eater," "Golden Light-Foot," "The Forest-Apple," "Honey-Paw of the Mountains," "The Pride of the Thicket," "The Fur-robed Forest-Friend."
"Our word karhu (bear: describes a hairy fur of the bear, a shaggy creature) was not allowed to say out loud. That is why there are many euphemisms in Finnish language, which were used when one wanted to weaken or hide the fear towards the bear. Kontio (bruin) describes the way the bear walks. A certain stress was used when Se (it), Itse (self), Hän (he) was said. Metän elukka (beauty of the forest), Otso (the apple of the forest) etc. are usually appropriate code names. When one wanted to flatter one might say Jumalan mies (the man of God), Suuriherra (mighty master), Mesikämmen (lazy honey-pawed one), Mesikkäinen (honey-eater). Words like Kouki, Kouvo, Metsän- vaari (grandpa of forest), Tätinipoika (the son of my aunt) are reminders of the belief that a man and a bear are related to each other. When adults intimidated children by a bear it was called Pöppö, Mörkö (bugbear), Mönninkäinen or Kurko."
The Russian "медведь", "honey-eater"; our own "bruin". "the brown one"--these are also examples of the same naming taboo.
So is "bee-wolf" another example, or is it simply a very old attempt to describe one animal in terms of another, better-known, one? After all, if you want to avoid invoking dangerous animals by calling their names, you could do a lot worse than to start with striking "wolf" from your vocabulary, not that humans are always 100% consistent of course. I don't know whether "bee-wolf" is simply a first pass at description, or whether it's an example of name taboo, but I do know I've seen that construction before:
"bear" = some other familiar carnivore + honey aspect
In Old English, apparently, it's "bee-wolf" (at least, according to one reading); in Khmer, it's "honey tiger": klaa kmoom (I really need to get Cambodian up and running on this machine]. And the "honey tiger" most familiar in Southeast Asia is none other than our old friend, the sun bear:
(this is Fong, at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, sleeping in a position he likes.)
Saturday, April 12, 2008
Double dumbass on me
(my friend Lisa says all the answers to life's questions are found in Star Trek, after all...)
So I'm making progress with getting over my phobia about biking, but it's still hard to get started on any particular day. Once I get going, I'm fine, but convincing myself to go is the hurdle.
Today was a glorious spring day around Seattle (too bad it isn't going to last), and the perfect day for biking. Mr thalarctos and I biked all the way down to Redmond, and for once, I took the lead on the trail downhill. I'm sure I broke my land speed record, but I can't prove it, since I managed to hit the button on my speedometer that turned off the speed display.
Anyway, I was booking down the trail, and, it being the first nice day in a while, there was traffic for a change on the trail. One guy was struggling up the steep hill I was sailing down, and right before we passed each other, he swerved into my lane. I was sure I was going to hit him, and it scared the liver out of me. I screamed at him, but that didn't get all the adrenaline out of my system; I was still shaking for quite a while afterwards.
But I have to admit that, despite his sucky biking, I'm madder at myself than at him. When I don't have health insurance is not the right time to take chances for no reason, for one thing. And for another, by trying to push through my developing phobia, I actually scared myself worse. I won't let this get me off the bike again, like the time I was hit, but I think the bravado of trying to face down the fear by pushing the limit down the hill is a tactic that is no longer serving me well.
Wednesday, April 09, 2008
The only problem with public transportation is the public
You know how everyone who wants to believe in psychic powers tells a similar story about a "friend of a friend" who had such a strong feeling of impending disaster that he or she got off a plane right before take-off, and the plane went on to crash, killing everyone on board? Confirmation bias much? Because I have that same feeling of impending disaster every single goddamn time I fly, and I haven't been in a plane crash yet.
The majority of mentally-ill people are not violent, and are much more at risk than posing a risk. Still, I'm not the one to make that call. Ever since the Reagan era, the mentally-ill have been dumped out of facilities onto the street, and not getting the care they need. It sucks, and it's just one more reason I'm not taken in by all the Reagan-worship that seems to be going around. The people who do work with mentally-ill patients, in spite of chronic underfunding, understaffing, and all-around under-resourcing, are heroes in my book.
So I was at the Transit Center today, waiting for my bus home, and I sit down on a bench, barely even registering that there was a young guy sitting on the other side. I'm just sitting there, minding my own business, when I hear a question, "Do you ever think other people hate you?"
"Uhh, no," I said, turning and noticing the guy for the first time. He was almost trembling with intensity of some kind, whether neurochemical, pharmaceutical, or what, I really couldn't tell. But clearly he wasn't really looking for an answer, because he kept going with the "yes" answer he wanted from me, rather than the actual "no".
"Do you ever wonder why?" he asked, his eyes boring into mine.
"No," I answered again, beginning to regret my choice of seat, and turning away in the hope of bringing the conversation to an end.
"Do you ever wonder whether people will miss you when you're gone?" he asked. Well, that was it. I had had a long, tiring day, traveling around taking care of a bunch of errands all over Seattle by bus, and I was NOT in any mood to play social worker. It would not surprise me a bit to learn the young man was paranoid schizophrenic, and this may well have been a cry for help; I don't know. I do know that it was starting to creep me out. I said firmly, "I do not want to have this conversation with you now," and got up and moved to another seat. From there, I saw him accost a man walking by, who just looked bemused and kept on walking.
My bus arrived, and to my dismay, he got on first, and headed for the very back seat. I sat down right by the driver, but I couldn't shake the feeling of anxiety this whole thing was giving me, especially since I saw him staring at me from the back of the bus. I decided, screw this, there's always another bus, so I told the driver I was going to take another bus, and added, sotto voce that the guy was making me very nervous, and why. She thanked me for telling her, and opened the door to let me off. It's the only time I've ever given into this feeling; normally, I just wait for take-off, and fill a prescription from Dr. Merlot as necessary.
This time, I went over to the other side of the transit center, and awaited an alternative bus. When it came, about 15 minutes later, my original bus was still sitting there. As we pulled past it, I saw that there were now three police officers on board talking to the driver.
I hope the young man will be ok, and I hope he gets help. Frankly, though, given how we deal with our mentally-ill, I really doubt it.
Tuesday, April 08, 2008
Pushing through the fear
1. Getting back on the bicycle again, and biking down to Redmond on wet roads. Mr. thalarctos managed to break his humerus and rotate it half out of the shoulder joint crashing on a wet road once, and I've been a little phobic ever since getting hit at a nearby intersection. So I made myself ride in the rain today, even though it was a little scary. Normally, I hit 25 mph going down the trail; today, I kept it to 15. I learned something today--once you're cold enough, you forget about scared. But I have to admit it was nice when I got down to the trail by Marymoor/Bear Creek, and saw the rain falling on the slough. It made up for all the phobia, and then some.
2. Making the sale--talking to potential donors, lenders, and purchasers about money. I was raised not to talk about money, nor to know very much about it at all. But in order to have the life I want, I am going to have to be independent and entrepreneurial, which means getting past those anxieties, and talking to people about money: donating to support my research, lending to get my continuing education business started, and buying products and services. I did a lot of that today, and it wasn't easy at all. But I hope/think that tomorrow, it may not be quite so hard as it was today.
Sunday, April 06, 2008
Mother Bear's Day fundraiser
I already have four guests committed to attend, and I've finished the invitations.
I'm so looking forward to it!
Probably, though, in expressing appreciation to the donors, I should keep the talk more on conservation, and less on the specific biology. Not everyone is as immured to biological detail, and able to eat while discussing the finer points of secretions, and I have to remember that when eating with friends.
I say all those bio courses for my PhD "minor" burned out my decent-conversation receptors; Mr. thalarctos says I never had any to begin with.
(Emma, Ruth, if you're reading this, stop! Wait until your packages arrive this week before reading any further, 'k? :)
Finished my first pair of bear earrings ("bearrings") tonight. These are learning pieces, so I'll give them as gifts to friends.
Terry brought the golden bears back from the bead show in Arizona a few weeks ago. I'm using the colors pink, blue, and yellow because of what they mean in reproductive cycle cytology--pink is acidophilic cells, blue is basophilic cells, and yellow is keratinized.
Also, since we want baby bears, not to lock them into rigid sex roles or anything, but pink and blue are well-established baby colors, too. So the colors of the beads in these bearrings have a lot of symbolism.
Tuesday, April 01, 2008
Vindicated by the creationists
heh. PZ already took this article apart, but it had an additional twist that particularly interests me. The entire article (excerpts below) is here, but if you care at all about your brain cells, you might think twice about clicking that link.
So a little backstory first: my partner Dorothy and I are writing a textbook on research literacy--the ability to understand the scientific method and to read journal articles--for people who don't have a great deal of science education. By focusing on the important concepts, and connecting the dots in a user-friendly way, we think we can communicate the power and wonder of science to a non-traditional audience.
However, we have a challenge in our book--because we're using real medical research articles, they're all over the place in terms of jargon, and our readers can't be expected to know all the terms in the articles we quote. At the same time, a one-time use of a specific jargony term in an article that we're citing for the purpose of illustrating another scientific principle entirely doesn't seem to us to merit an entire glossary entry on its own. What to do? We can't just ignore them, because that will break the flow as the reader is distracted, so we have to address them somehow.
We actually have found a solution that we're very pleased with, but I don't know how specific I can be here. Since it's one of the features the marketing team is using as a point to promote the book with, I shouldn't mention it until I'm sure it's ok to do so. I can, however, say that I am pleased with the balance we're striking between supporting the reader, furthering the pedagogical goals of the book, and doing so without either unduly interrupting the flow of the book or dwelling too much on matters that are, in reality, only peripheral.
Here, however, is how not to solve that problem, courtesy of the *cough*scientists*cough* at the Institute for Creation *cough*Research*major hairball*cough*:
In an article titled "Squid Reflects Creation Evidence"--clearly a deliberate shot across PZ's beak--Frank Sherwin, M.A. displays a very odd view of the audience he is writing to.
The reflectins seem to be unique to squid, coded for by at least six genes (specific DNA segments). In addition, researchers have found that the Hawaiian bobtail squid efficiently uses an exclusive bilobed ("two-lobed") light organ to its advantage.
So I'm a creationist reading this--thanks for explaining that "bilobed" means "two-lobed". That was actually rather user-friendly, as far as it goes. Now, however, what's a "lobe"?
A species of bioluminescent bacteria called Vibrio fischera
Thanks again for explaining that "bi" = "two". Now what does "bioluminescent" mean?
in the light organ receives nourishment from the squid. In return, the bacteria secrete a tracheal cytotoxin designed to control the development of the light organ.
That "bi" explanation was real helpful--now, what's a "tracheal cytotoxin"?
It's a very unusual and highly specific audience that, as Mr. Sherwin seems to believe, needs "bi" explained, but is cool with "cytotoxin", etc.
This cytotoxin is a small segment of the deleterious bacteria that causes whooping cough in humans.
You mean that a Vibrio bacteria (cholera's cousin)'s toxin is somehow a small segment of a Bordatella pertussis bacteria (different genus entirely)? Woo-hoo! It's a miracle! (I'm guessing that M.A. was *not* in microbiology...)
But perhaps the toxin served a more useful function, as we see in the squid, prior to the introduction of sin into God's creation, which led to the Fall and the current curse under which creation groans (Romans 8:22).
And perhaps if my aunt had balls, she'd be my uncle.
Ok, I'll grant that was a little on the rude side--but as the non-traditional science students in my classes demonstrate, even non-scientists can learn to tell the difference between a testable hypothesis and sheer speculation. They can also learn to recognize cherry-picking (happy symbiotic bacteria and squid = evidence for a loving God; just be sure not to look over there at the parasitic wasps whose larvae eat caterpillars alive from the inside out. That might not reflect so well on a loving God as the creationists would want to have it.).
To conclude, not only is biophotonic design evidence for a clearly seen creation (Romans 1:20), but the Hawaiian bobtail squid in particular provides the creation scientist with a possible original benign function for disease-causing bacteria. Truly, God's creation declares--and reflects--His glory (Psalm 19:1).
As Mr. thalarctos predicted, in light of the Proteomics scandal where some researchers tried to sneak the soul into the mitochondria (and cover it up with a whopping dose of plagiarism in addition), and the article somehow got past peer review and into the epub of the journal, the creationists are going all micro on us these days. The next few years should be interesting as they try to push this.
As the non-traditional students are showing, however, not every non-scientist is going to fall for this tone-deaf simulacrum. A lot of students are actually coming to learn about science late in life, and--even more important--showing real mastery of the concepts. There's no reason anyone of any class, nationality, sex, religion, or so forth should have to settle for Potemkin science, and the ridiculousness of bothering to define "bi" for the audience, yet leaving all the other technical terms as is, shows both Sherwin's disconnect from and his contempt for his audience. They deserve better treatment than that from someone who claims to "teach".