Daily Archives: November 7, 2007

Interesting Science News

I’ve been driving all day and I’ll be teaching all night. I so wish I could write about each of the following very interesting stories:

Key to False Memories Uncovered from PhysOrg.com
Duke University Medical Center neuroscientists say the places a memory is processed in the brain may determine how someone can be absolutely certain of a past event that never occurred.[]

PCs Could Run Multiple Operating Systems from PhysOrg.com
(AP) — Tired of Windows? The next generation of laptops may let you jump from one operating system to another to play movies, surf the Web or read e-mail.[]

(Note: You can do this now with a multi-boot system. But why not just run one good OS, like, say, LInux?)

Kitten-cuddling mice explain the science of smell from PhysOrg.com
Japanese scientists have created genetically-modified mice that, shorn of their ability to sense dangerous smells, will even snuggle up to a kitten, according to a study released on Wednesday by the journal Nature.[]

Direct gaze makes you more attractive from PhysOrg.com
Looking directly at someone makes you more attractive to them according to research published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, today (Wednesday 7 November, 2007).[]

This one, I will absolutely return to at a later time:

When animals evolve on islands, size doesn’t matter from PhysOrg.com
A theory explaining the evolution of giant rodents, miniature elephants, and even miniature humans on islands has been called into questions by new research published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.[]

Tech Jargon

Did you ever wonder what a “foo bar” is? Or a kluge?Me neither.But if you ever meet someone who does, point them to the Jargon File. It is an entity … a kind of database … that was started back in the 1970s with continuous updating and maintenance since. It is just geekizoid technobabble jargon, not other jargon. You can find it here.There are other versions of it available, including one in a tar ball, but interestingly, there are no Diff files. You can also FTP it here.

Boo Hoo Yahoo

I’ve always been annoyed by Yahoo. The Yahoo, as in the on-line computer thing, not the Yahoos, which are also annoying.Years ago, a small group of us ran a discussion list that was at the time the most heavily used discussion list in the area of Human Evolution. It was a good list. It had many of the top scholars on it. Brace, Wolpoff, Sarich, Harpending, Delson, lots of others regularly contributed, and a much wider range read it. Ann Gilbert, a frequent commenter on this site, can attest to this, as she was a regular contributer there as well.Jacques Cinq-Mars, one of the organizers of that forum, has subsequently developed a new forum called Palanth, so the tradition continues.One of the reasons that Jacques felt the need to create Palanth was because of what Yahoo did to us. Continue reading Boo Hoo Yahoo

Minnetonka School Board Elections

Bill Wenmark, a member of the Minnetonka School Board who supports the teaching of Intelligent Design in High School Cirriculum was ousted in yesterday’s election.Bill sent me an email that included a note to his constituents, and he and I have been discussing the possibility of me posting it here. Now that the election is over, I doubt that will materialize. In any event, he sent me the email to clarify his position on ID, and I’ll pass my interpretation of that on to you. He can certainly add comments to this if he feels more clarification is in order.My understanding is that Bill Wenmark’s position is no longer to see ID taught in the biology classroom. Good idea. The earlier efforts to do so led to great difficulty. A school board that insists on this strategy is opening their district … over which they have stewardship … to serious and expensive legal difficulties.Mr. Wenmark does, however, believe that ID should be taught as a current social controversy in social studies. This is something that I deeply disagree with. This is a little like saying that social studies must cover the “bigfoot exists” vs. the “bigfoot is fake” controversy, even if it is not covered in biology classes.Yes, it is a current social controversy of more import than the Bigfoot issue. So it could be taught in social studies, but it should not in any way be required. In this way, as well, I disagree with the National Council for the Social Studies, who suggest that this controversy can and maybe should be taught in the schools (in Social Studies) and suggest ways to do it.As I wrote about here, this is simply leaving an opening for the Wedge Strategy of the Intelligent Design movement.

Athletes are more likely to be gay

[Reposted without revision from gregladen.com]This is obviously true, and i’ve been saying this for a long time. And I’m not talking about the butt-slaps and sharing chewing tobacco and stuff.To a certain extent, digit ratios seem to be a reasonable indicator of the kinds of hormonal environment in which a person develops in utero. It turns out that the indicator of homosexuality is the same as the indicator of athleticism, only turned up even more. In other words, a certain kind of hormonal environment in which a male fetuses develops can result in a higher likelihood of that person growing up to be an athlete. But if that hormonal “conditioning” is turned up a bit more, you get a higher likelihood of that person being gay. How strong is this effect? Well, it’s statistically significant but not large. Is it genetic? That is not at all clear. How does this work with women? That’s not clear either.Anyway, from this we can speculate that there should be a higher percentage of gay-osity among athletes than among other men. And now there is some new information that supports this model.

A study of former high-school American Football players has found that more than a third said they had had sexual relations with other men.In his study of homosexuality among sportsmen in the US, sociologist Dr Eric Anderson found that 19 in a sample of 47 had taken part in acts intended to sexually arouse other men, ranging from kissing to mutual masturbation and oral sex.

There is, as always a twist:

The 47 men, aged 18-23, were all American Football players who previously played at the high school (secondary school) level but had failed to be picked for their university’s team and were now cheerleaders instead.

Like George Bush, right?[source]

Toddlers and Robots

Turing’s Toddlers: As far as I know, no computer has ever consistently fooled an adult human into thinking it is sentient. But it apparently the case that toddlers can be tricked into accepting a small, cute machine as a fellow toddler:

Computers might not be clever enough to trick adults into thinking they are intelligent yet, but a new study shows that a giggling robot is sophisticated enough to get toddlers to treat it as a peer.An experiment led by Javier Movellan at the University of California San Diego, US, is the first long-term study of interaction between toddlers and robots.The researchers stationed a 2-foot-tall robot called QRIO (pronounced “curio”), and developed by Sony, in a classroom of a dozen toddlers aged between 18 months and two years.QRIO stayed in the middle of the room using its sensors to avoid bumping the kids or the walls. It was initially programmed to giggle when the kids touched its head, to occasionally sit down, and to lie down when its batteries died. A human operator could also make the robot turn its gaze towards a child or wave as they went away. “We expected that after a few hours, the magic was going to fade,” Movellan says. “That’s what has been found with earlier robots.” But, in fact, the kids warmed to the robot over several weeks, eventually interacting with QRIO in much the same way they did with other toddlers.[source]

Here’s a video showing the robots and toddlers in action:

Green light for teaching creationism in public schools?

[Repost with minor modifications form gregladen.com]image.jpg width=”250″/>As indicated in a press release by the National Center for Science Education, the National Council for the Social Studies has released a position statement on Intelligent Design.

…There have been efforts for many decades to introduce religious beliefs about the beginning of life on Earth into the science curriculum of the public schools. Most recently, these efforts have included “creation science” and “intelligent design.” Following a number of court decisions finding the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in the public school science curriculum to be unconstitutional, there have been efforts to introduce these beliefs into the social studies curriculum….BackgroundThe American Heritage Dictionary (2007) defines intelligent design as the “belief that physical and biological systems observed in the universe result from purposeful design by an intelligent being rather than from chance or undirected forces.” Attempts to introduce this doctrine, originally termed “creationism,” then “creation science,” and most recently, intelligent design,” into public school curricula have been found unconstitutional in state and federal courts….These decisions have struck down state attempts to interfere with the teaching of evolution in the public school science curriculum….Because federal courts, to date, have ruled against the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in the science curriculum, an approach called “critical analysis” has been introduced to get around these decisions. This approach seeks to incorporate what the courts have ruled to be religious belief into the public school curriculum by contending that public schools should take a critical view of the theory of evolution. In this critical view, particular attention is to be focused on any uncertainties in the fossil record as well as what are contended to be examples of “irreducible complexity.” This view then introduces intelligent design as an explanation addressing these uncertainties.This “critical analysis” approach to teaching intelligent design has attracted political support in several states and districts. It was a motivating force behind former Senator Rick Santorum’s unsuccessful attempt to include a statement that evolution was a controversial scientific theory into the original No Child Left Behind legislation. It has also figured prominently in the much-publicized battle over the treatment of evolution in the Kansas science standards. In Ohio, the state board of education has suggested that although a critical analysis of the theory of evolution with the teaching of intelligent design should not be put into the science curriculum, “social studies appears to be a good fit” (Columbus Dispatch, September 2002).Rationale for RecommendationsSocial studies may, at first glance, seem to be a better fit for this approach to teaching intelligent design, but the same constitutional issues arise whether religious beliefs are taught in science or in the social studies curriculum. While the social studies classroom is the proper forum for the discussion of controversial issues, educators should be wary of being used to promote a religious belief in the public schools. This unintended outcome can be the result of teaching students that a scientific controversy exists between intelligent design and the theory of evolution when, in fact, no such controversy exists.Teaching about religion in human society is an important component of many social studies courses (see the NCSS position statement “Study about Religions in the Social Studies Curriculum,” revised and approved by the Board of Directors in 1998). However, teaching religious beliefs as the equivalent of scientific theory is not consistent with the social studies nor is it allowed under the First Amendment. Evolution is a scientific theory subject to testing by the scientific method. In contrast, religious teaching based on the existence of a supreme being does not allow for the scientific processes of hypothesizing, gathering evidence or questioning as they are based on faith, not scientific observations or experimentation.Nonetheless, social studies may have to contend with these issues because of local or state mandates. The curricular recommendations that follow allow for substantive discussion of the issues surrounding intelligent design, while avoiding First Amendment problems. Most significantly, these recommendations prevent the social studies curriculum from being a repository for intelligent design instruction in the public schools, while still allowing students to analyze the political, legal, and historical issues involved.Teaching RecommendationsPrior to teaching about intelligent design, social studies teachers should check their district?s policies related to teaching controversial issues and teaching about religion. There are a number of ways in which social studies teachers might introduce the issues surrounding intelligent design in their curriculum. The following recommendations examine the issues from a social studies, rather than a religious, perspective.* Constitutional perspective: …* Historical perspective: …* Sociological perspective: …* Anthropological perspective: …* Public issues perspectives: ……© Copyright 2007 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.

This is a partial reproduction of the original statement. If you are a teacher or school administrator, you obviously will want to read the entire document, here.I disagree with their recommendations, or at least, think something should be added. It is part of the strategy of many pro-creationism groups to bring in creationism as a sort of “innocent bystander” in a broader discussion, but once it is in the classroom, it is easy for a teacher who wants to teach creationism to do so. The teacher can keep the actionable information … handouts, words written on the boards, other teaching material … within “legal limits” but allow or even encourage the conversation to go places it should not go. Given the fact that a significant percentage of teachers in public schools are, in fact, creationists, I think this is a dangerous and potentially ineffective policy.No, it is not true that the NCSS has given the green light to creationism in schools. But Creationism is a Boston Driver on Mass Ave at 4:00 AM on a Wednesday morning … where red lights are only vague suggestions. They will, I promise you, take advantage of, and even be encouraged by, this policy statement. Expect trouble.

British Colonialist Archaeology: More of the same?

[A repost from gregladen.com, unmodified]There is a ceremonial burial in Britain .. ceremonial because it has some red stuff smeared on bone … that has now bee dated to a few thousand years earlier than previously thought (to ca 25,000 years old).

Age of earliest human burial in Britain pinpointed from PhysOrg.com
The oldest known buried remains in Britain are 29,000 years old, archaeologists have found – 4,000 years older than previously thought. The findings show that ceremonial burials were taking place in western Europe much earlier than researchers had believed.[]

Some have suggested that this is evidence that ceremonial burial may have been invented in Western Europe rather than elsewhere. Let me tell you why that is an overstatement.1) “Ceremonial burial” is redundant. Never mind those absurd theories that for the first several tens of thousands of years people buried their dead to get rid of the smell, and not for ritual reasons. It is reasonable to assume that those that buried their dead did so for “ceremonial” or “symbolic” (whatever term you like) reasons. Today, there are people who have “ritual” behavior but who do not bury their dead. Thus, the link between burial and ritual behavior or symbolic capacity is arbitrary and not very useful. In other words, I question the premise of the question: “When did ritual behavior begin” in relation to burial per se.2) There is nothing special to separate any “gracile” population from another with respect to brains and behavior. So, if we find several instances of ritual activity associated with gracile Homo sapiens, the best guess for the minimum age for the beginning of that activity may be the beginning of the visible evidence of that species. This is highly conjectural. Archaeological evidence for a particular behavior that is concentrated in the later period of Homo sapiens would not suffice for such a conjecture. For example, the earliest evidence for the practice of agriculture is about 10,000 years old, so it would not be reasonable to argue that agriculture was a common practice before that. But, if there is evidence of a behavior linked to “ritual” scattered throughout the paleolithic. This evidence is expected to be rare to begin with, so a scattering with no clear demarcation in time could be reasonably thought of as evidence for this behavior being a species typical trait for gracile Homo sapiens. The question then arises: Do we see this behavior emerge at the origin of this species/subspecies, or does it develop shortly thereafter, or is it a behavior that existed in some for prior?3) There is specific evidence of ritual behavior some connected to burial prior to 25,000 years ago. Kebara has a Neanderthal skeleton that is a burial. Yes, it is true that some researchers have suggested that this is not a burial, but they are in my opinion wrong about this. We can discuss this at another time if you like. For now, I’ll just say that Kebara is a nearly complete skeleton, with only a few bones missing some of which (the lower legs/feet) were clearly removed by previous excavators using crappy excavation techniques, and the head removed probably in antiquity, some years after the burial itself happened. (One mastoid process of the skull is intact, the rest of the cranium gone). This burial is about 65,000 years old.In Southern Africa and elsewhere there are a number of other objects with red stuff (ocher) spread on them, or that otherwise suggest symbolic/ritual behavior, dated to roughly the same age (at least in terms of order of magnitude) as Kebara.There is evidence that gracile Homo sapiens existed at just under 120,000 years ago in Southern Africa, and there is evidence of other “modern” behaviors, in terms of food gathering and lithic technology, dating back much farther in time.So, in my opinion, the new British date is cool, but it is primarily a moderate yet important adjustment to the existing data set. It does not change our thinking about anything except the local sequence for Britain.

A Fungus Among Your Follicles

I think this is a great teachable moment:

Scientists complete genome sequence of fungus responsible for dandruff, skin disorders from PhysOrg.com
Scientists from P&G Beauty announced that they successfully sequenced the complete genome for Malassezia globosa (M. globosa), a naturally occurring fungus responsible for the onset of dandruff and other skin conditions in humans. Results of the genome sequencing are published in today’s online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.[]

I mean, think about it. Kids in biology class have a hard time relating to size and scale. You can show them stuff in a microscope, but that is not really a tiny thing, is it? I mean,a microscope is like a funny looking TV that you’ve got to get really close to in order to see something that, compared to real TV, is rather boring.But to think about the idea that Malassezia globosa … a species of fungus … is a tiny invisible thing you never knew was there, living on your head, causing your dandruff, and that it has a whole genome … over four thousand genes.I think what works with this is the following: Tiny things visualized in microscopes or on computer screens have a tininess making them invisible, and a bigness (the microscope, the computer screen) making them visible. But the dandruff causing fungus has an intermediate size scale that we can relate to because we can see it, scratch it, brush it off our shoulders … the actual dandruff flakes.Hey, if you are a teacher, try it out in class and see if it works!