Friday, October 31, 2008
Proposition 8 is a gay marriage ban. I realize that sometimes propositions are confusing, because although you know what your position on an issue is, you may not realize how the proposition is worded, and thus whether you should vote yes or no. Since Prop 8 proposes to ban gay marriage, if you support gay marriage, you need to vote NO.
This proposition has nothing to do with religion or schools. It would simply treat some people differently under the law. Marriage outside of a church is a legal contract, and everybody, gay, straight, or anything in between, should have the right to be able to marry whomever they want (except, you know, minors).
Even if you belong to a Church that will not marry two men or two women, that is not the same as taking away somebody's legal right to marry. Taking away a legal right for one group of people is simply discrimination by the government. The churches across the country (not just California!) have pumped large amounts of money into the campaign say yes to 8, and this is overwhelming individual citizens and other groups saying NO to 8. It looks like the marriage ban may actually pass, and will in a way be decided by people who do not even live in California. So if you live in California, please vote NO on 8.
I have commented in previous blogs that I felt a bit guilty about getting married myself since not everyone is allowed to in most states. I thought it was fantastic when the California Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. In fact, our neighbor went to California to get married to his girlfriend in a joint ceremony with his sister and her girlfriend. While I originally and still do think that was awesome, as my neighbor pointed out, it's still not fair that his sister had to travel to California to get married instead of doing it at home in New Mexico. And now some people are trying to take away even that opportunity!
As a radio DJ said this morning, 15 or 20 years from now, we will look back upon this time as another stupid thing we did, like discriminating against black people. Voting NO on proposition 8 is an opportunity to end one form of discrimination in our country! Equal rights for all people. We all need to keep working to make this true. Vote NO on 8!
However, in (somewhat) happier news, one of the speakers at the Conference reported that a study has found a Bradley effect in only 3 states, but a reverse Bradley effect in 12 states. The reverse effect seems to come from Christian conservatives who won't admit to their friends or the pollsters that they would vote for a black man, and but then they actually do.
So I guess the upshot is that Obama's lead may actually be an underestimate. Not that I'm counting my chickens yet. In fact, I'll be lucky if I even get to vote, and I'll never forgive myself if I don't.
New Mexico requires you to apply for an absentee ballot. They say they need to receive the application by October 25th in order for everything to work on time. I mailed in my application on October 17th. They just mailed me my ballot on October 29th. Wednesday. Presumably through the Albuquerque post office, which is notoriously the worst domestic post office ever. So I'm assuming the best case scenario is that I receive my ballot Saturday or Monday and then send it via overnight fedex to the County Clerk, who has to receive it by 7 pm November 4th. In which case I will be paying a large amount for my right to vote. Worst case scenario is that I receive it on Tuesday or even later, in which case, I will have been basically disenfranchised. Way to go New Mexico!
In other news, today is Matt's first day of work. The company is actually so nice that when Matt proposed to start on Monday, November 3rd, they suggested that he come in for at least a few hours today so that our benefits can start tomorrow instead of December 1st. What a fabulous company! I am used to companies that try to cheat me out of every benefit imaginable. (Like the 401k match I never got. Although, I must say that while my 401k is in the tank, my New Mexico Retirement fund is doing smashingly! New Mexico did something right for once! Although Matt says he heard a news story that made it sound as if New Mexico just got lucky. Shocking!)
And in other, other news, we are signing a lease this afternoon. Hopefully I'm not jinxing it by writing about it first. It's high on the Twin Peaks, so a bit of a hike from the closest neighborhoods - The Castro and Cole Valley, but it was spacious, somewhat affordable, and comes with off-street parking, on-site laundry facilities, and a balcony. Also located on bedrock, so the lowest earthquake shaking in the City from the various shake maps I looked at.
And as further evidence that we now live in San Francisco, not New Mexico, Mayor Gavin Newsom was on some random radio station this morning. He and the DJs chatted about the Halloween festivities, why Proposition 8 (the gay marriage ban) is terrible, and how the Mayor's lack of a tie made it seem easier to undress him. Really! Mayor Marty was OK and all, but this guy seems fabulous!
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
I have made an exciting discovery while driving through the streets of San Francisco. (And believe me, I'll never do that again! Drive, that is. Hopefully I'll make another discovery one day.) The Green Chile Kitchen. It sounds a little uppity for New Mexican food and all, but maybe that was the only way the owners thought they could sell the stuff in San Francisco. I have my fingers crossed for tasty and hot green chile.
What are the odds that two different speakers would use this image during their talks at the same conference? Apparently neuroscientists are also big nerds who like to think they are cool and funny. I guess maybe they are...
Anyway, this concludes my science blogging for the time being. I hope you enjoyed reading about something besides me, me, me!
However, the tour totally inspired me! The environmental fluid mechanics lab is housed in the Jerry Yang and Akiko Yamazaki Environment and Energy Building, Stanford's new energy and water efficient building, so first we learned about and walked through some of the building's features. On the south side, the windows have horizontal fins which are topped with a light colored surface. Guess why? That's right, a high albedo will reflect light back into the room, but the less direct light makes it less fierce. The building self-ventilates and maintains a temperature range of 68 to 75, making the air comfortable and high in quality. The 4-story building features four 4-story atriums.
All wood furniture comes from bamboo. The cement floor contains high percentage fly ash. Landscape is watered with lake water, the building is double plumped so toilets receive non-potable water, and on and on. The building uses 50% less energy and 90% less potable water than a similar building of normal design standards would. And they're not yet using rainwater harvesting (they claim it's not cost effective yet), and owing to some strange political pressure, only 1/3 of the urinals are waterless. Apparently there are also a lot of code difficulties that make building green difficult.
The guy giving the tour noted that the biggest obstacle is human behavior change. For example, the building has to have lights so that people can work at night, but it is hard to get people to leave the lights off during the day even when there is plenty of natural light. Of course, the lights turn off automatically after 20 minutes of no use, but this doesn't help when there are constantly people around.
Another cool thing about the building is that it houses a wide variety of programs and departments. However, the building is not organized in that way; rather it is divided by area of study - freshwater, oceans, land use, etc. Truly interdisciplinary! The environmental fluid mechanics guy works on a lot of studies related to coral with biogeochemists and marine ecologists and all sorts of other scientists. He isn't just cooped up with other engineers all day.
Speaking of fluid mechanics, I enjoyed learning about other applications for it besides freshwater stream systems and aquifers. Ocean and estuarine dynamics sound really neat too. And getting to play with wave machines and corals? Also exciting! And doing research from a boat in Australia? Phenomenal! I guess I should have expanded my fluid horizons...
The building also houses the Woods Institute for the Environment, another intriguing multidisciplanary research, training, and education center. Also check out Stanford's Environmental Portal. I think I have found my future academic home.
Monday, October 27, 2008
Anyway, toxo normally functions in a life cycle between cats and rats. Toxo can only reproduce in cat stomachs, so they hitch on to rats and make the rats lose their aversion to the smell of cat urine, which causes rats to head on over to cat smells and become dinner in no time at all. Providing, of course, a route for the parasite into the cat stomach for all the reproduction that could be imagined.
Amazingly, Dr. Robert Sapolsky of - guess where - has found that in toxo-infected rats, everything else functions normally. They still maintain their other normal fears of open space; they basically function absolutely normally except for suddenly being attracted to cat urine. So the parasite targets precisely this one function - and scientists would love to have the targeting precision.
Turns out that toxo migrates to the rat brain and goes latent, but in the amygdala, which controls fear and anxiety, it causes neurons to atrophy and disconnects fear circuits. It blunts the stress related to cat odor. It actually switches the response to cat urine from fear to sexual arousal, increasing testosterone in male cats. Female cats actually prefer toxo-infected males, presumably because of the elevated testosterone.
What does toxo do to humans? Well aside from fetuses, it was assumed that it doesn't do much because it goes latent. However, one study showed that males show a slight disinhibition related to neuropsychological tasks of impulse control. And two indpendent studies found that toxo-infected humans are two to four times more likely to die in car accidents related to speeding. Apparently, the disinhibition leads to more reckless behavior. However, those 3 studies are the only ones in existence related to toxo's effect in humans.
What is the take away? Apparently, according to Sapolsky, who incidentally got lost on the Caltrain on the way to speak this morning even though he is actually a Stanford professor and the meeting was at Stanford, parasites are really cool. And, even if thousands of neuroscientists study processes such as this, a parasite will still know more than they do. Makes you wanna go hmmm.
The first study Shiv discussed relates to the current financial crisis. He designed an experiment where a participant is given 20 $1 bills. Each round, the player can invest $1 or pass. 50% of the time, the investment will result in $1 loss, and 50% of the time, the investment will result in a $2.50 win, or a gain of $1.50. So what is the optimal solution? Well, to invest 100% of the time of course. Shiv says most participants recognize this and will start the game at the 100% level. However, every time a player loses, the emotional experience in the brain creates negativity. This overwhelms any positive emotion. Slowly, participants' emotions "hijack the cognitive brain." Emotions cause a person to stop investing even though they know they should. Hence, part of the problem with our financial crisis. In a related note, lots of wins increases positive emotion which can lead to greed...
In another study, Shiv exposes a price placebo effect. We've all heard about the placebo effect in medicine, where patients get better when fed a sugar pill, probably because they believe it is a real pill. Well it turns out that when the sugar pill is more expensive, the effect is even stronger. In a study that won an Ignoble Prize, Shiv's research group showed that at least 60% of people in a study who were fed sugar pills and told they were pain killers said they had pain reduction. But 84% of people who received the "pain killers" at full market price had pain reduction. The others had received the "pain killers" at an enormous discount. Related studies also show that people like wine better when they are told it is $90 than when they are told it is $5. Even when it's the exact same wine.
Shockingly enough, not only do people report less pain and better taste with "expensive" products, they also actually experience less pain and actually prefer the expensive wine, as shown through fMRI. Some people speculated that this effect would not work with "real," objective diseases. In other words, cholesterol-lowering drugs or antibiotics would not be subject to this effect because the diseases they treat are not subjective as is pain.
However, Shiv believes, and is currently attempting to verify through research, that this is not the case. Here's why.
The research has shown that predicted utility influences experienced utility. Americans tend to associate low price with low quality. So the region in the brain that deals with pleasure prediction, the striatum, will send less dopamine to the region that actually encodes pleasure if the product is cheaper. Although the biophysical pleasure may actually be the same with cheaper and more expensive versions, the strong connection between the pleasure predictor and the pleasure encoder decreases the overall pleasure experience.
Even more interesting, low reward prediction caused by low price can actually lead to stress and the production of cortisol, which shuts of repair mechanisms in the body to focus on some perceived threat. Shiv believes this cascade of events will also make the price placebo effect very real for even antibiotics. He encourages doctors that when they prescribe a generic, they should make sure to tell their patients from their position of authority that the generic will be just as effective as the brand name. He thinks that this may help to reduce the price placebo effect. (I sure hope that my brain isn't telling my body that my generic birth control pills suck...)
My favorite study was the IKEA fruits of labor study. First Shiv discovered that products that come in hard to open packages are returned less frequently. Then he discovered that if someone else assembles your IKEA furniture for you, you are less willing to give it up. If you do it yourself, you actually like the furniture better.
Finally, someone has explained my non-rational attachment to my IKEA dining set, which was assebled painstakingly slowly by yours truly!
So what are the implications of all this? Shiv believes he exists to make people think in new ways. He hopes that people will use this knowledge for good, and amazingly enough, he does not do consulting! And he's a professor!
For example, Dr. Karl Deisseroth of Stanford can inject a light sensitive gene obtained from a specific type of one-celled algae into an animal brain and then use optical stimulation to make different circuits in the brain switch on or off. Unlike electrical stimulation, this optical stimulation can be targeted to a very specific neuron. This is especially important in the hypothalamus, where the neurons linked to very different but important activities intermingle. This is also the area of the brain associated with many psychiatric diseases.
One such psychiatric problem is narcolepsy triggered by rewarding arousal - food and social contact, for instance. Deisseroth showed a very sad video of a dog trying to eat, but falling asleep by the time it started chewing. This problem is very debilitating in humans, and is caused by a deficit in certain receptors.
Deisseroth has used the light sensitive gene and optical stimulation to trigger a wake state in lab animals. He hopes that this might lead to therapy for narcolepsy, and that the method could be used to address other psychiatric diseases by targeting other specific neurons. However, he cautions that there are ethical and philosophical issues involved. If the hypothalamus is the area of the brain that tells us what we "want," how much can we change what we want? Is "want" defined only neurologically?
Sunday, October 26, 2008
Nass went through a whirlwind of studies for us. Navigation systems can encourage safer driving if the voice is related to your emotional state. Happy people like a happy navigator, and well, misery loves company. Sad computer navigators can actually cause happy people to have more crashes.
When randomly assigned avatars and made to take math tests online, people with male avatars think they do better and actually do do better on the tests. No matter if those people are male or female. People with male avatars also try harder.
Robots can disagree with people in a productive way as long as their voices don't come from their bodies.
People would like the Microsoft Paper Clip much better and think it functioned better if it told you to send Microsoft an email when the help result wasn't useful.
Male German BMW drivers won't take direction from a female computer navigation voice.
Multi-media mulitasking involves brain function in ways that psychologists used to think was impossible. Women are better at mutitasking than men but like it less.
And the research goes on and on. It actually seems highly related to the implicit bias studies, but it is amazing how we ascribe some of these traits and biases to inanimate objects. Especially if they talk to us. Creepy.
Yes, the Bay Area is due for an earthquake. Yes, multi-story apartment buildings with garages on the bottom floor will be in real trouble. Yes, I'll probably be living in one of those.
And an organization called the 1868 Hayward Earthquake Alliance actually celebrated the fault's birthday - or rather the 140th anniversary of the last quake on the fault, which is also the average time span between major quakes on the fault. Those are some sadistic people.
And yes, at least one of the water districts in the Bay Area thinks it will take several years to get the water system back up and running. I also learned that earthquake codes (which don't apply to the ancient places we'll be living in anyway) are designed to keep people alive inside the building, but not to allow the buildings to be occupied after a quake.
So hey, mom and dad, get ready for us to move back in when our apartment falls down around us.
Through conjoint analysis tests, she has discovered that people will unwittingly give up $3400 salary (out of a $35,000 to $50,000 range) to have a male boss rather than a female boss. This goes for male and female respondents, including ones who state that no way, no how, do they have a preference for men over women.
She has found that doctors who are shown to have an unconscious bias against black people through Implicit Association Tests, actually prescribe fewer clot-busting drugs to their black patients than to their white patients. And again, these are often people who think racism is terrible.
Depressing? Yes. Surprising? I'm not sure. Although I am a bleeding heart liberal, sometimes I catch myself being more wary of black men on the street than white men, so obviously I have some internal association of black with violent. However, I firmly believe that all people are equal, and I would like to believe that I would not actually treat a black person differently than a white person. Maybe I am wrong.
Banaji has a website, https://implicit.harvard.edu/, where you can take these Implicit Association Tests and learn about your own unconscious preferences. You can either take demo tests or sign up to actually contribute to her research. I have taken two so far. In the U.S. Election 2008 test, although I showed no preference for black people over white people, I did show a slight preference for Obama over McCain. In a different test, I also showed a slight preference for thin people over fat people. Although, again, I think I am consciously aware of my prejudice towards less thin people. Which just goes to show that even though I know about it, I couldn't stop it.
Banaji hopes that in some way, taking these tests and learning about your unconscious biases may enable you to change your thoughts and behaviors. Research has shown that are brains are elastic, but it is not yet clear that they are plastic. In other words, although we can change them temporarily through some practices, the research is not yet positive that those changes can become permanent.
In other depressing news, these unconscious preferences are present in children at an early age. This information did surprise me, because I feel I was into my late teens before I actually developed some awareness of racism. I had been raised in a relatively Hispanic culture. I had friends who were black, but at the time I barely realized that. It wasn't until we moved back to Michigan and I started hearing jokes about Hispanics that I became keenly aware of racism. However, I think somehow this awareness has also led to my unconscious or conscious biases. And I'm sure I wasn't sheltered from racism when I was younger; I also realize today that my parents harbor some "isms" as well.
So what does this say about all of us? I'm not sure, but I hope this research will help us figure out how to change for the better. Interestingly enough, Banaji says Diversity Training is the worst thing a company can do. It actually results in more bias. Makes me think of the Office episode.
Saturday was mostly about the industry and business of writing, but today started the New Horizons in Science sessions, where they bring in researchers to spend an hour or so discussing their discoveries. When I first saw that this was in the program for 3 days, I couldn't imagine how bored I would be with three days of science sessions. However, this first day was fabulous! I thought I loved water, but I can't remember the last time I went to a water conference where all the topics were fascinating to me. Although the Carpe Diem Climate Change conference I attended in Albuquerque was pretty darn good.
So I realize many of you dear readers are not scientists, but I would like to spend a few blog posts sharing some of this great research with you. And hopefully the next day or two is just as interesting and entertaining.
It's been awhile since I've gotten so into a book that I couldn't put it down. It's been awhile since I really let myself enjoy a work of fiction. It's been a long while since I read a book over 500 pages.
The Brothers K flew well over my high bar. I have read David James Duncan’s book The River Why many years ago, I think when I used to actually go to the library. It was a nature book, something more typically up my alley, and it overflowed with beautiful words.
So I decided to venture into his other works, even though this particular book is fiction. (And I had no idea how many pages it was when I ordered it online. Tricky internet!) The chapters follow one family, the Chance’s, from when some of the children are yet to be born until the children are having kids themselves. “K” references strikeouts mainly, and some other things found in a definition in the middle of the book, and at least the first half of the book focuses heavily on baseball. The second half has a Russian lit flair, so you can see where the title comes from. Although I admit to not having read the original, The Brothers Karamazov, even though I adore Dostoevsky.
The book also features an excellent discussion on religion and spirituality, war and peace (not Tolstoy), mental illness, and some darker corners I will not reveal here. The beginning, when the children are young, really drew me in and kept me reading late into the night. I felt the middle lacked a bit of the simple beauty of words, but maybe I had just read too long. But the story picked back up towards the end, and I eagerly finished. And believe me, I am not one afraid of quitting books I don’t like. I don’t believe in that kind of suffering.
I highly recommend this book. It made me laugh, cry, grimace, smile, and everything in between. And although it is 600 pages or so, it reads easily, no struggle at all. I will certainly seek out more of his work.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
This past weekend, JD and I trekked down to San Diego and Temecula for the latest hydrology wedding. Where the temperature was under 50 degrees. Where I had to wear a Harley Davidson jacket. However, the wedding was absolutely beautiful.
Since everyone I knew was in the wedding, after dropping them off I went wine tasting with CR's husband. This was my first wine tasting experience ever, but I survived. And had some fun. Although apparently tastings in Temecula are not free. At any rate, of the three wineries we went to, Filsinger was my favorite. KR thought it was terrible, but then he was drinking reds and I was drinking whites. Despite the fact that the lady at Hart made fun of me for liking fruity wines (apparently she thinks all whites are fruity), I especially liked the fact that the whites at Filsinger were a bit spicy rather than fruity. After all, in general, I am a beer drinker.
The vintner himself was pouring our wines, and KR could not stand the history he gave me about each one. He was German. At one point he offered me a free bottle of wine if I could guess what music was playing, but unfortunately Bernie wasn't with me, so the classical music escaped me.
Maybe, just maybe, I will drink wine again in the future.
Sunday, October 5, 2008
Friday afternoon I headed to Muir Woods for an educators’ symposium, so I arrived about an hour early to have a little look-see. I did a two mile loop hike, apparently with everybody else in the world. I cannot remember ever being in a National Park that was so crowded. Also, as it turns out, being high up in the hills in the Bay area smothers you in fog and you can’t actually tell what time of day it is. Although I showed up at 2:30, I spent the whole evening thinking that it must be getting late. And let me tell you, the fog is rather disconcerting when you are driving home in the actual night and see absolutely nothing on the side of the road. Just one massive abyss.
Anyway, one of my favorite people, John Muir, once had this to say about the Monument named after him:
“This is the best tree-lover’s monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world.”
As Matt will happily tell you, probably more than once, I am not so much a tree lover. I am a mountain lover, a broad vista lover, a rocky coastline lover. Yes the redwoods are impressive, but what with the people and the dimness, I’d really rather be here at Golden Gate.
Also I had heard that the road to Muir Woods is terrible and, from more than one person, that you might actually get sick while driving yourself. I was relieved to find out that although a small part of it was comparable to the “scenic highway” to Silver City, at least it wasn’t 30 miles long.
Today I went for a walk by my office. Well, I meant it to be a walk, and I was dressed for and prepared for a walk, but it turned into a hike. Because of course if I see something tall in front of me, I have to get to the top of it. (Unless that something is, say, over 12,000 feet. Luckily this one was probably less than 1,000.) In around 5 miles, I didn’t even finish my water bottle! I tried to make myself drink, but I guess it’s just not the desert here.
The hike featured a better view of the stunning scene in which I work:
As well as views of the city, as displayed above. (Sorry about the terrible picture.)
And some extreme creepiness:
Usually I make fun of Matt for being scared of abandoned buildings, but this was freaky. The trail led up between two rows of barbed wire fence and into a gate, which I’m not sure was supposed to be open. I can’t imagine the Park Service thinks it’s a good idea to let tourists wander around in falling down buildings.
The wind was blowing remnants of building pieces around, the gate was swinging back and forth and squeaking, and a lone raven was hopping on and off one of the most decrepit structures.
Of course I went in anyway, because I had to get to the top of the hill. And there is something intriguing about the juxtaposition of nature and war.
Thursday, October 2, 2008
Yesterday evening I rode my bike uphill to my house, which took about 18 minutes, including the time spent on the side of the rode when, in the midst of shifting, my chain popped off and took the plastic thing with it, smashed into pieces along the road. Luckily I managed to get the chain back on, but I was in the middle of a very steep hill, so I decided to walk to the top rather than having shifting issues in the middle of the hill. I felt like such a wuss, as all the other bikers passed me and stared. So I also need to go to find a bike shop and purchase some Tri Flow to get my bike working properly, since I managed to leave mine in Albuquerque.
Finally, since my bike is in need of some minor maintenance and it was raining this morning, I decided to drive to work. My car wouldn't start. Luckily my roommate was home and had a jumper cable and he started me right up. However, he didn't know where any auto shops were, but I figured I should go to one right away or I might need another jump. So I decided to call somebody with internet access while I headed down to Sausalito to look for a shop. Matt was prepping for an overnight shift and I didn't want to wake him up, so I tried my sister who was apparently still asleep. So I had to turn to my mother, who is not terribly good at internet research. By the time she figured it out, I had already found a gas station with a service bay right on the main drag. I rolled in right as they were opening (8:10 AM!), and had my car back, with a brand new battery, in 30 minutes. It only cost me everything I have made in my first three days here...
I might just walk everywhere, but there aren't any pedestrians allowed in my tunnel.
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
But I can’t complain; it is amazingly beautiful here. I remember being in the city and staring across the Golden Gate at the bright green Marin headlands and thinking it must be nice over there. For some reason I never went. I was not one of the intrepid souls who pedal rented bikes over the bridge and down into Sausalito, or occasionally into the park. Luckily, I have been given a second chance, and now I can look across the bridge at the city, draped in fog, lit up at night, or maybe, one day, in full sun.
Here is my World War II era military housing set in the hills:
Here is my World War II era office building (the one in the back) that was supposed to be temporary:
Not bad, eh?
I still don’t have any pictures of the bridge and the city, as my camera died at an inopportune time. But I’m pretty sure my house is only slightly over a mile from the bridge. I had no idea I was that close.
I’ve also been to parts of Point Reyes as well, which is beautiful in a completely different way. I will try to get the camera out there in the near future as well.
Anyway, if you ever want to reach me I do have the internet and text messaging capability at my office. I am a 1-mile bike ride through a scary tunnel to the nearest location of cell phone service, so phone calls require planning ahead.
My housing is quite dirty, but my roommate is moving out, and if people want to come visit, I will think about cleaning it. Although I’m pretty sure most of the yuck is permanent…
I know New Mexico is beautiful and all, but if I had to choose…I think you know. And hopefully I’ll get my husband back soon!