Thursday, July 23, 2009

My body is a wonderland (and an ecosystem)

A friend just sent me this posting from Marginal Revolution on a very unique bug I had heard but not read too much on, called Toxoplasma. This parasite is pretty widespread in the vertebrate world, where it was first described to alter the interaction between rats and cats. Basically, the bug lives in the guts of cats, and then gets pooped out into the cat's feces, which are then eaten by rats, and the bug in turn infects the rat hosts. In order to complete the circle of life, though, the bug has to get back into the cat, and it achieves this not apparently very easy task by altering the rat's neurochemistry: it makes the rats less averse to risk, which in turn makes the rats more likely to be eaten by cats, thereby getting Toxoplasma back to its rightful place in the cat's gut. Pretty cool from a community ecology/evolution.

The kicker, though, is that Toxoplasma also lives in humans (lots of humans), and according to recent work, may have the same effect on us it does on rats: Individuals infected with Toxoplasma were six times more likely to get into a car accident than non-infected individuals. Just another reminder that the complex stuff we call a human may be a bit more like an entire ecosystem than just one organism.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Who was charged with possession of drug paraphanelia?

Great find: - you get pictures of different, real perpetrators from police mug shots, and you have to pick which perp committed which crime. Fun for all ages! Also, just really interesting to see your own tendencies and thought processes about the physicality of crime. My best streak so far is four in a row.

I found this on Sociological Images, which has a ton of other really interesting stuff which is worth checking out.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

truth as approximation

I just finished watching Obama's speech at the correspondents dinner. First, it's very refreshing to have a president that is circumspect and confident enough to be able to poke fun at himself and his administration. The picture of Obama sitting down for a conference with Captain Hook I thought was particularly tasteful.

But I actually thought the best moment was towards the end of the speech, around 15:25 in the youtube video, when Obama was addressing in a fairly serious manner the state of modern media and their importance in society, etc. When listing a bunch of other values, Obama said "we look to you for truth, even if it's always an approximation," which was followed by a burst of laughter in the audience. Despite the laughter, I had the feeling that it was not actually intended as a joke, and the audience just sort of didn't get it. Either way, though, I think it highlights what a monumental shift we've had from the last man in charge. I mean, recognizing the heuristic difficulties of truth prediction is something of a far cry from "the axis of evil."

Friday, March 27, 2009

The end is nigh...for real

Oh my fucking god, they finally made a robot with a living brain. Seriously, it's a physical robot attached to a living brain, that grows new neural connections and learns about its environment, built by Kevin Warwick, who is apparently totally insane. Once again, we should have seen it coming.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Pope is not a scientist

Overall, I would say the science of public health is probably not the Catholic Church's strong suit:

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Wisdom in the Age of Schizophrenia

I apologize for the delay in posts for those 3 or 4 of you devoted readers there are. This is a post I've had stewing in my head for a while and am finally getting around to writing down a few preliminary words about.

I've been spending a lot of time thinking about, or more precisely being vexed by, what I perceive to be the shifting and kind of unsteady landscape of knowledge in our modern world. I'm thinking about things kind of across the smorgasbord, from facebook, twitter, and the blogosphere overloading us on connectivity, to cheaper and faster genome sequencing and biotechnology, to the impossibly complex abyss of the financial system. As I immerse myself more and more in this world (for better or for worse), I have a deeply ambiguous feeling about its effects on me, and by extension our modern society. On the one hand, it seems incredibly cool and also incredibly important that knowledge is being democratized. On the flipside, though, I can't help but feel that something, some element of depth of understanding, is being lost in the face of all of this complexity, and this is what I'm trying to wrap my mind around. As a beginning to what I intend on making a series of posts, I just want to bring up a few issues I've been thinking about as of late.

1. Is wisdom a meaningful idea anymore? It seems to me that one of the classical distinctions between wisdom and simple knowledge was that wisdom entailed some sort of intuitive understanding, where knowledge implied simply learning or retaining a piece of information in your brain. Does this have any meaning for us when the things that we are trying to "intuit" are multi-dimensional, microscopic, or beyond the scope of our senses? Is evolutionary computation, which I've talked about a bit before, an example of how we can incorporate the "wisdom" of our decision making into much smarter thinking machines than our own minds?

2. What should be the role of emotion in our decision making? Without going in too deep into details of emotional decision-making theory, it seems pretty clear to me that developing emotions is really important in our ability to cleave through the complexity of the world and ignore some decisions that don't really need to be made. If nothing else, it's a useful filter. In the face of so much information, how is the role of emotions going to change, since in my experience, emotions (at least those involved in decision making) develop slowly, something which seems to be at odds with the current pace of information processing and gathering.

So, just stew on those for a while, and I'll be back with more thoughts soon!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

DIY cells

After watching by this talk by Juan Enriquez, which i highly recommend, I followed up on something he mentioned in his talk that I found kind of amazing. Specifically, Enriquez was talking about the rapid development in the field of engineering cells. In particular, there's been a lot of focus (most conspicuously by bioentrepeneur Craig Venter) on being able to engineer unique living cells that are stripped down to the most basic possible genetic machinery, and this has turned out to be a very promising field. So, the site that I followed up on was this: The Registry of Standard Biological Parts. What a spectacularly mundane name for such an amazing thing. As Enriquez described, it's basically radio shack for cellular engineering. It's a list of "parts," or bits of cellular machinery with very specific functions, with a list of who you can get them from, so that people can put together new cellular machines. Really eerily similar to an electronics catalog...