Friday, August 31, 2007

The big bucks keep rolling in!

I'm headed out of town for the long weekend. I just thought I would thank the readers of this blog for providing me with spending money. I've attached here the receipt for my earnings from the ads on this blog. Since the beginning of the Conspiracy Factory, back in the beginning of the year, together we've earned $13.40. Blogging pays just slightly worse than my day job as a post-doc extraordinaire...

Well, it's a good thing I'll be earning $50,000 shortly for this blog, because AdSense just isn't doing it for me. Happy Labor Day weekend, all!


Friday beautiful science


Today's Friday beautiful science comes from the Xenbase, a database of information for Xenopus workers. Xenopus is a pretty well-known model organism that is used to study embryology, because it's easy to work with and the fertilized eggs are enormous. Note how after fertilization the cells divide and divide without growing. Very cool. There's a bunch of other cool movies over there. Go check them out.


Thursday, August 30, 2007

A comment for Uncommon Descent (this is not a blog post)

I've been hanging out wasting time at Uncommon Descent the last couple days. What can I say, I'm a sucker that way. I'm writing a paper, and I hate writing papers. During my last period like this I wasted time at Red State, trying to convince them that they weren't understanding how science works when they said that global warming was a conspiracy.

So, I've been banned at Uncommon Descent, and I can't address the stuff I see directly. (And actually, my answer, though true, would also get me banned). So, I'll address a post here. It's a short post, so I'll reproduce it:

What if we DID find irreducibly complex biological features?

[by] Granville Sewell

In any debate on Intelligent Design, there is a question I have long wished to see posed to ID opponents: “If we DID discover some biological feature that was irreducibly complex, to your satisfication and to the satisfaction of all reasonable observers, would that justify the design inference?” (Of course, I believe we have found thousands of such features, but never mind that.)

If the answer is yes, we just haven’t found any such thing yet, then all the constantly-repeated philosophical arguments that “ID is not science” immediately fall. If the answer is no, then at least the lay observer will be able to understand what is going on here, that Darwinism is not grounded on empirical evidence but a philosophy.
I actually think this is a fantastic question, that every ID advocate ought to ask themselves. Really, it's a fabulous question, and shows the barest inkling of starting to understand how science works: "What if we DID find irreducibly complex biological features?". What would that mean? The answer? Nothing. It wouldn't tell you anything. And here's why:

You can't ever base your hypothesis on your failure to find something. Let's rephrase "finding irreducible complexity" to "failure to reduce the complexity". If you fail to reduce something into divisible parts there are two easy reasons why:
1. They truly are indivisible. Bingo, presto, intelligent design has supporting data!

2. The person (people) currently looking at it aren't clever enough or lack the tools to properly divide it.
How do you tell the difference between these two possibilities? You can't. We refer to this in science as an answer that is uninformative. Sure, you've failed to divide something further, but what does that mean? That's why "irreducible complexity" isn't really a useful metric, and if the intelligent design movement is truly serious about science, they will abandon this metric as a measure of whether or not something is designed.

You can't base the test of your hypothesis on an uninformative answer. Just like I can't base my understanding of bacteria based on my failure to find a particular bacterium. You have to base science on positive outcomes (otherwise known as informative outcomes).
If the answer is no, then at least the lay observer will be able to understand what is going on here, that Darwinism is not grounded on empirical evidence but a philosophy.
I give the lay observer a little more credit than that. Understanding uninformative outcomes isn't the easiest thing in science, but it is an important thing to understand. If I base my cosmological hypothesis on the fact that there isn't a planet that shares our orbit, I'm not really making a very good hypothesis. You have to have tests that will give informative answers. Uninformative ones are the ones that are "consistent" with your hypothesis, but don't prove or disprove anything. And the "irreducible complexity" sadly falls into that category.

Thank you,
Granville Sewell, for asking an honest and important question about the intelligent design hypothesis. I hope you will also now treat this issue of "irreducible complexity" honestly, as well.

EDIT: However, one might ask, Granville Sewell: Why would you ask a question of Intelligent Design doubters on a site that bans Intelligent Design doubters?


68th Skeptics' Circle

The 68th Skeptics' Circle is up at Aardvarchaeology. Go take a gander.


I've been banned!

I love doing science. One of the reasons why is that I can talk to a Nobel prize winner the same as I talk to the post-doc I share a bay with. Ok, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but I can talk to the head of my department the same way. Here's a hypothetical exchange amongst some scientists in the lab (I used to work with Mrs. Factician, so I'll include her here:

Factician: You know, I think you're full of s*it. You can't possibly prove X and this is why...

Dr. Z: No, you're looking at it wrong. If you interpret it in Y fashion, and consider the results of Dr. Q then it demonstrates something completely different.

Mrs. F: But what about the possibility of beta? You haven't considered beta.

Dr. Z: Oh, that's right, we hadn't considered beta. We would have to do experiment omega to rule out beta.

Factician: No, no, no! You're totally on drugs! Look. Check out my recent results. They fit completely with beta and with Y and I've even included the results of Dr. Q!

Mrs. F: Oh. He's right.

Dr. Z: No he's not. He still needs to do experiment delta to rule out the delta possibility.

Factician: Oh. Frack. He's right.

Mrs. F: Oh yeah. You *do* need to do delta.

Factician: Ok, but I'll bet you delta shows this...
You get the idea. Now let's look at how a conversation goes between a few intelligent design advocates at Uncommon Descent:

Scordova: We think an intelligent designer did it. And it's not important who the intelligent designer is. And let's all be polite to the motherfrackers that have come here spewing vomit from the evolution boards. Be nice everyone!

Intelligent design advocate #1: I agree. An intelligent designer did it.

Intelligent design advocate #2: I also agree.

I.D. advocate #3: I agree.

Factician: Wait, but the data show that all life on earth uses the same building blocks. Doesn't that suggest that we all have a common ancestor? Wouldn't you predict some life to be different if a designer did it? You know, showing some of his design flair?

I.D. advocate #1: No. God did it.

Factician: Wait, that's not an argument. There's no data...

DaveScot: BANNED! You're not welcome here!

I.D. advocate #2: I agree.

bornagain77: Their snide comments probably come from years of brainwashing in the Darwinism doctrine and the arrogant and mistaken assumption that they can’t possibly be wrong.

Note, that last comment is a verbatim quote. I used it to preserve the irony.

Incidentally, I was banned at Uncommon Descent last night while I slept. I woke this morning with one tear running down my cheek... [/sarcasm]

Thanks to ERV for the open invite to play at Uncommon Descent. Too bad they cut playtime short...


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

I'm gonna be rich!

The Conspiracy Factory is about to become $50,000 richer! That's right, it's a no-lose, money-making proposition that I've come upon, and I daresay that I'm a little reluctant to share it with you, dear readers, for fear that you'll beat me to the punch...

Ok, I'll share, but keep it a secret, will you? I just recently became aware of a $50,000 challenge. All I have to do is demonstrate the following:

Alive & Well will present a cash award of $25,000 to the first person to locate a study that provides us with the missing scientific proof that HIV tests are accurate. To celebrate this important finding, Alive and Well will donate an additional $25,000 to Heifer International, a unique charity working to end hunger in the developing world by using a holistic approach to building sustainable communities.

The missing evidence we’re looking for is a study published in a peer reviewed medical journal that shows the validation of any HIV test by the direct isolation of HIV from the fresh, uncultured fluids or tissues of positive testing persons.

Since no HIV test directly detects HIV itself, and since the tests currently used to diagnose HIV infection rely on surrogate markers such as antibodies or genetic material, a study should exist somewhere in the published medical literature which shows that at least one type of surrogate test for HIV has been validated for accuracy by the direct isolation of HIV itself from people who test antibody, RNA or DNA positive.
Okay, I'll confess, I don't know what the heck "Since no HIV test directly detects HIV itself" means, so I've written this letter to ask for clarification. Here is the e-mail that I sent to today:
To Whom It May Concern:

I am a humble pseudonymous blogger. I am deeply interested in collecting your $50,000 reward. However, I confess that I don't entirely understand the rules of your contest. Given that it's been a few months since you offered this challenge, and presumably no one has collected, I am a bit concerned about what the "catch" is, so to speak.

What are the exact rules in this contest? Who will judge whether or not I have proven your demand? Obviously this is the most important question, as an interested observer could prevent me from collecting the $50,000, even if I present reasonable proof.

I look forward to hearing from you, and look forward even more to collecting my half of the $50,000 (and to distributing the other half to the charity Heifer International).

Best regards,

What do you think? Am I going to be rich?


Animal rights activists.

Dear Animal Rights Activists,

As a demonstration of your lack of hypocrisy, please print this out and sign it, placing a copy of it in your wallet should anything happen to you and you are brought to a hospital unawares.

This post brought on by a discussion over at Pharyngula about animal rights.


Monday, August 27, 2007

Elsevier is protecting us. Really.

So, I'm a big proponent of open access publishing. Note the PLoS emblem in the top right corner of my blog. Open access means that the journal either 1) doesn't require subscription fees to access articles. or 2) doesn't require subscription fees to access articles after a certain amount of time has elapsed. It only seems fair. The public funds the vast majority of studies that are published in academic journals, they should have access to them.

All but one of my publications are in open-access journals. I've felt pretty strongly about this for a fairly long time.

How do open-access journals operate in the absence of subscription fees? Well, this is how PLoS operates:

It costs money to produce a peer-reviewed, edited, and formatted article that is ready for online publication, and to host it on a server that is accessible around the clock. Prior to that, a public or private funding agency has already paid a great deal more money for the research to be undertaken in the interest of the public. This real cost of "producing" a paper can be calculated by dividing your laboratory's annual budget by the number of papers published. We ask that—as a small part of the cost of doing the research—the author, institution, or funding agency pays a fee, to help cover the actual cost of the essential final step, the publication. (As it stands, authors now often pay for publication in the form of page or color charges.) Many funding agencies now support this view.
So they charge the people publishing. And really, this is a very small fraction of the cost of doing research.

Well, as you might imagine, companies that make their money off of subscription fees are rather upset by this new model. After all, Elsevier, a large academic publishing outfit, made £196 million (~$394 million US) last year, a 27% operating profit (off of £721 million revenue) made from subscription fees. There is real money at stake here. Just as a note of comparison, the NIH budget for 2006 was approximately $29 billion US. I'm not suggesting all of Elsevier's money is coming from the NIH, but as a comparison, $1.4 billion US spent on journal subscriptions - just to Elsevier - compared to $29 billion of research dollars. This is a significant percentage of the research pot.

So, what is poor, poor Elsevier to do? Hire a PR firm!"
We're like any firm under siege," says Barbara Meredith, a vice-president at the organization [American Association of Publishers] "It's common to hire a PR firm when you're under siege."
Woo! Sounds bad! And what did the PR firm create?


An astroturf organization, made to look like they're watching out for the quality of research. It's a pretty funny website.
Myth:American consumers have a right to free access to articles their tax dollars fund.

American taxpayers do not fund peer reviewed research articles; they fund some of the research that is used in those articles.
Yep, so they should have free access to that work. And British citizens should have free access to British work. And Zimbabweans should have free access to their work. And I'm sure the good citizens of Britain and Zimbabwe won't mind sharing their work with Americans. Do you see where this is going?

Myth 2: Peer review costs publishers nothing - referees do not charge for their work.

Scholarly publishing involves far more than volunteer referees and printing. Non-profit and commercial publishers invest hundreds of millions of dollars every year managing and coordinating the work of millions of authors, editors and reviewers, and vetting millions of submissions through an independent peer review process. Publishers then also assume the responsibility and costs associated with bringing peer reviewed articles to the attention of other scientists and the news media, including the editorial staff that coordinate multiple revisions, extensive proofreading, layout, design, publishing, distributing and archiving of articles.
Yep, so you get scientists to volunteer to do the hard part, then you make a 27% profit laying out the data with pretty fonts. Sounds fair to me!

The stupid part in all this is that this lobbying organization is treating scientists like fools. (Quite clearly). Who do you think is going to read the PRISM materials? Cancer patients? Nope, it's going to be scientists. And it's going to piss us off just enough to finally send a grand F__k you to those publishers who have so insulted our intelligence. Mark my words. This is a lobbying effort that is going to bite Elsevier (and other publishers) in the ass.

Thanks to Tara who reminded me of how pissed off I am about this...


Friday, August 24, 2007

Friday beautiful science

You need to click on this photo to get the true majesty of it. I think we can separate the respect of a destructive storm from the awe of a beautiful photo of Hurricane Dean taken by NASA:

This image of Hurricane Dean arriving at the Yucatan is a combination of observations from NASA and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) satellites. The clouds, including Hurricane Dean, were observed by a NOAA geostationary weather satellite (GOES-12) at 2:45 p.m. local time in Belize (on the Yucatan Peninsula) on August 20. The land surface is a summertime image from the NASA Blue Marble image collection. Hurricane Dean fills the western Caribbean, and the outermost bands of spiraling clouds are already brushing the coasts of the Yucatan in the west and Cuba in the north.
My condolences go out to those who have lost friends and family in this terrible storm.


Thursday, August 23, 2007

Denialist comedy!

Nope, it's not Tim Slagle.

I've been following a few different conspiracies over the last week, and they've inspired me to show another video. Firstly, I've been following the HIV deniers over at Aetiology. I've also been following the intelligent design folks' new movie efforts. It's been some time since I spent any time following the anti-global warming folks, or the second-hand smoke is healthy folks. It's interesting, that all of them boil down their arguments to "everyone is suppressing the truth, no one is allowed to think our thoughts, just think for yourself, this is an issue of freedom". Sometimes, the sheer volume of bulls*@t that one wades through is becomes rather depressing.

So here's a lighter version of denialist, conspiracy theorist tripe:

(taken from Thank You for Smoking)


Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Beware the genetically modified cheese!!!

Do you enjoy cheese? On pizza? In a Greek salad? As a crumbly bit of Stilton cheese served with a glass of port?

I love cheese. Cheese was my son's first word. "Chee!" he yells when we enter the cheese section of our favorite grocery store.

Cheese is a pretty cool food. As a microbiologist, I'm fascinated with the way it is made. First we take a whole lot of milk. Milk is rich in a protein called casein, which is dissolved in the fluid of the milk. If you treat milk with rennet, the rennet cuts up the casein protein into smaller chunks that expose hydrophobic parts of the protein. So it precipitates. That is, it comes out of solution and sinks to the bottom of the solution. Cheesemakers call this precipitate curds (and the remaining liquid is called whey). This beginning bit is the same for almost every cheese on the market (yes, even that awful American cheese). The curds are the raw ingredient that all cheese is made from.

Back in the day, rennet came from calf stomachs. (If you want to get an enzyme that breaks down milk products, what better place to look than something that eats milk?). It was a byproduct of veal production. But as you might imagine, getting rennet from calf stomachs is rather expensive (if also a little grisly). So people started to look for substitutes. Most of the substitutes don't work as efficiently or as rapidly as the rennet enzymes from calf stomach preparations, so in the early 1980's, some molecular biologists cloned the rennet gene and expressed it in yeast. Egads! Now, you can make cheese without having to chop up calf stomachs (or calves)! As of 1999, more than 60% of cheese made in the U.S. used this genetically engineered rennet. No doubt by now it is considerably more.

So shouldn't we be excited? This is a win/win/win situation. We get cheaper cheese. Nobody needs to chop up calves. The yeast used to produce the enzyme has been safely used to make bread, beer and wine for millenia. Safe! Cheap! Calf friendly! But due to the unpleasant public relations issue of being a genetically-modified product (cue thunder), most folks keep this a guarded secret. Take this home cheesemaking website:

Liquid Chymostar Classic - 2 oz. This is a high quality rennet, originating from animal sources, but containing no animal product.
Indeed. This has to be recombinant, but they are careful not to say so. Why not be proud? Well, perhaps to prevent the fearmongers from stopping by. So the next time you're enjoying a pizza, know that it's very likely that no calves were carved up to produce your cheese. That it was produced in a manner that is safe. And that you have modern molecular biology to thank for it.


Michael Shermer on the Colbert Report

Despite the risk of becoming a Stephen Colbert fansite
I post below the interview below of Skeptic Magazine editor Michael Shermer:

Colbert is becoming the cool place to be for skeptics.


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Enemies of Reason, Part 2

Enjoy. Part I is here.


And you thought the post-docs in *your* lab were old...

Not to make any grad students cry, or anything, but...

This is an advertisement for the AAAS and the National Post-doc Association. They're actually trying to appeal to post-docs to join their organization. Check out how old they look. That woman in the back left? She could be 50. The woman in the center is at least 40. The guy in the red shirt is the only one who looks remotely the right age, and he's 30 if he's a day. And this is the organization that's supposed to be watching out for post-docs. Yowza. They're a little tone-deaf, if you ask me...


Monday, August 20, 2007

John Tierney, pseudo-intellectual

This is in the New York Times science section:

Until I talked to Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University, it never occurred to me that our universe might be somebody else’s hobby. I hadn’t imagined that the omniscient, omnipotent creator of the heavens and earth could be an advanced version of a guy who spends his weekends building model railroads or overseeing video-game worlds like the Sims.

But now it seems quite possible. In fact, if you accept a pretty reasonable assumption of Dr. Bostrom’s, it is almost a mathematical certainty that we are living in someone else’s computer simulation.
How is this novel? Is it different from being a brain in a vat? Or Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy (circa 1641)? Or Zhuangzi's Butterfly (circa 4th century BCE)? And since when is philosophy a science? But we continue...
Dr. Bostrom doesn’t pretend to know which of these hypotheses is more likely, but he thinks none of them can be ruled out. “My gut feeling, and it’s nothing more than that,” he says, “is that there’s a 20 percent chance we’re living in a computer simulation.”

My gut feeling is that the odds are better than 20 percent, maybe better than even. I think it’s highly likely that civilization could endure to produce those supercomputers. And if owners of the computers were anything like the millions of people immersed in virtual worlds like Second Life, SimCity and World of Warcraft, they’d be running simulations just to get a chance to control history — or maybe give themselves virtual roles as Cleopatra or Napoleon.
Ahh... gut feelings. The basis of no science. Can we move this garbage to the fashion section?
If simulations stop once the simulated inhabitants understand what’s going on, then I really shouldn’t be spreading Dr. Bostrom’s ideas. But if you’re still around to read this, I guess the Prime Designer is reasonably tolerant, or maybe curious to see how we react once we start figuring out the situation.
Ahhh, the experimental test. God let me say it, therefore he's caring and understanding.
Then again, maybe the Prime Designer wouldn’t allow any of his or her creations to start simulating their own worlds. Once they got smart enough to do so, they’d presumably realize, by Dr. Bostrom’s logic, that they themselves were probably simulations. Would that ruin the fun for the Prime Designer?
Please, please, please. Just because something *can* happen, doesn't mean it *is* happening.

Make the stupid stop! It's hurting my brain!


Harun Yahya owns the internets

(yes, this really is a picture of the mighty Harun Yahya - or at least his wax double)

Given that I've written about my experiences with Harun Yahya before, I feel obligated to post this. From Pharyngula:

Unbelievable. Adnan Oktar, aka Harun Yahya, the Turkish crackpot creationist, didn't like the fact that his critics wrote mean things about him … so he applied to a Turkish court to have all Wordpress blogs blocked. And the court accepted his argument, and no one in Turkey has been able to access anything from for a day or two now.

Man, I was once mooned on the freeway by a guy in a Chevy. Does this mean I can get Chevrolet to recall all of their cars in the state of Minnesota now? That would sure teach him.

That fanatical nitwit wrote in to wordpress to brag about his accomplishment and demand that blogs that offend him be shut down, such as this one, and by the way, he'd also like all these blogs censored:

Let's make sure they all get some publicity, shall we?

And let's not forget this little bit of advice:

P.S. Here's a way to get around the block — you can still read and post to Wordpress blogs in Turkey if you use OpenDNS. Spread the word.


Saturday, August 18, 2007

DNA could happen to you.

I'm rather a fan of Stephen Colbert, and have posted his videos before. Below, Stephen Colbert brings his spin on DNA. Enjoy.

via Respectful Insolence.


Friday, August 17, 2007

Friday beautiful science - it's ME! I'm beautiful!

This is an MRI of my head, taken this past Monday. Very cool photo. I have a complete movie of the different thin sections of my head, which look very cool, but I didn't have time to go through and block out my identifying information from each slice, so instead I present just one slice.

Don't worry, that notch in the top of my head is just where I cut out my name and SSN, and it took part of my skull with it. Hopefully nothing's wrong in there, I'll find out next week...


Thursday, August 16, 2007

Quote of the day

"Cocaine in my sodas, heroin in my cough syrup, amphetamines sold as diet pills... mmm... I sure do miss those carefree days before the FDA!"



67th Skeptics' Circle

The 67th Skeptics' Circle is up at Bronze Blog. Go take a gander.


Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Friday beautiful science - On Wednesday!

I missed last week's Friday beautiful science. Between doctor's appointments and being strung out on prescription medication, I couldn't even get my s*#t together enough to post a photo. So I'm doing two this week. One today, and one on Friday. I found today's at Bad Astronomy. This is a photo of the star Mira, found 400 light years from Earth. Here's Phil's description:

Mira is definitely wonderful, in the sense of evoking wonder. And now we have found out it’s even more amazing than we thought. Most stars near the Sun orbit the center of the Galaxy at roughly the same speed, but some are faster than others. Mira, it so happens, is plowing through this local region of space at about 130 kilometers per second (about 80 miles per second). There is gas and dust out there, a thin haze floating among the stars. As Mira screams through this fog, the gas it is ejecting as it convulses is blown backwards, leaving a long tail behind it — imagine running down the street with a smoke bomb in your hand and you’ll get the idea.

Now take another look at the image at the top of this page. Mira is on the right hand side, and is moving left to right. The long tail of ejected material is incredible — it’s 13 light years long! It has taken Mira 30,000 years to move this distance, which means that the material in the left hand side of the tail was ejected 30 millennia ago. If you look at the location of the star itself, you’ll see a parabolic arc in front of it; that’s the bow shock, where Mira’s ejected material is slamming into the material between stars (called the interstellar medium or ISM).

He also describes how the material for Mira will be involved in creating new solar systems. Very cool stuff, head over there and read it. Now.

For full resolution photo, go here.

NASA includes a timeline on the age of Mira's tail:


Enemies of Reason

The first episode of Enemies of Reason is up at Google Video. You can watch it below:

Hat tip to Bad Science.


Consider the life of a young scientist...

ERV makes an interesting suggestion to budding, young scientists. Spend some time after your undergraduate degree in a lab, prior to going to graduate school. On the surface, I agree with this suggestion. Few undergraduates have any idea of what life is like in a lab, and it's lower pressure to start out as a technician in a lab, than to start out as a graduate student. And really, having more information about a career path before you embark is a great idea.

But let's consider what the career path of a scientist looks like:

In the 1960s and 1970s, it was common for a molecular biologist to spend 4-7 years in graduate school. Often they would get a job upon completion of their graduate degree. That put them into their mid to late 20s when they were earning sufficient money to support a family, buy a house, and live the "normal" American lifestyle.

In the 1980s and 1990s, it became much more common to do spend a few years as a post-doctoral fellow, prior to accepting a permanent position. Post-docs work for 4-7 years in a lab, prior to accepting a permanent position. They are essentially graduate students, in the sense that they rarely have any supervisory responsibilities. They do the exact same work as a graduate student, but for slightly more pay. They are typically (though not always) more skilled than the graduate students in the lab, as they have a graduate degree under their belt, and several years of experience. And they can hope to get a real job some time in their early to mid 30s. Indeed, currently:

The average age at first R01 grant is now 42, up from 34 in 1980. Looked at another way, in 1980 nearly 25% of R01 grants went to researchers younger than age 35; today that figure is 4%.
This is an indication of how old a scientist needs to be before they're in any kind of stable position (if scientists can ever be said to be in a stable position). And it's only going to be worse for the folks ERV's age who will have spent even longer working at temporary positions prior to going to graduate school.

Now, in 2007, many students are entering graduate school with a year or two as a technician under their belt. It is becoming much more common for this, and many graduate schools won't take students that don't have lab experience (whether that is as some sort of research project as an undergrad or as a technician). So the newest crop of students entering graduate school can expect to add 2 more years to their studies prior to entering a permanent position, and earning a real salary.

Keep in mind here, I understand completely that most scientists don't go into science for the money (or the fame, or the power, or the fast cars and the chicks). We go into it because it's fun as hell. I love being a scientist. But scientists who want to have a family, or do things outside the lab, have a great difficulty doing it prior to their mid-30s. For guys, that's fine. We can continue to create sperm well into our dotage, but women who want families have a tough time. Those people who try to have children while being a post-doc or graduate student know how difficult it is.

My wife and I are both post-docs. We are barely able to pay for our mortgage (on a small house, and it's cheaper than rent), our daycare fees (by far the largest single expense in our life) and our other monthly expenses. And we don't live in a city like Boston or San Francisco, where post-docs get paid the same as we do, but live in even more obscenely expensive conditions. If we have a second child, we can't afford to be post-docs any more. The cost of daycare for two children is considerably more than my salary. Thirty years ago, I would have found a permanent position by now. But today, it is de rigeur to spend years as a post-doc. I know several people in faculty positions at large medical schools who spent seven years or more as a post-doc prior to taking their position.

This is a large problem. Larger than any one post-doc or graduate student (or post-bac technician) can solve. But it's something to think about when embarking on a career in science.


Sunday, August 12, 2007




Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Taking wagers

Evolution News & Views; these are the folks who say of their own blog:

The misreporting of the evolution issue is one key reason for this site.
They do that job admirably, misreporting evolution in every post.

I'm taking bets, here. How long will it take them to misrepresent this fascinating story from the Los Angeles Times:
Surprising fossils dug up in Africa are creating messy kinks in the iconic straight line of human evolution with its knuckle-dragging ape and briefcase-carrying man.

The new research by famed paleontologist Meave Leakey in Kenya shows our family tree is more like a wayward bush with stubby branches, calling into question the evolution of our ancestors.

The old theory was that the first and oldest species in our family tree, Homo habilis, evolved into Homo erectus, which then became us, Homo sapiens. But those two earlier species lived side-by-side about 1.5 million years ago in parts of Kenya for at least half a million years, Leakey and colleagues report in a paper published in Thursday's journal Nature.
The original Nature paper is here (subscription required).

My bet is it will take Evolution News & Views fully 18 hours from when this blog post is up to misrepresent this story. Anyone?

EDIT: Not sure what time zone his post is in, but if it's in the same time zone as my server (which I think it is) it was almost 24 hours. Blech.


Greased lightning! or my own personal biomedical experiment

I've been fairly quiet lately, mostly posting interesting quotes and comics, and I thought I would say why (only because part of the story is interesting). First, the boring part (do I know how to write a catchy lead-in, or what?). I've had a bit of writer's block. I've been working on a post that I think is pretty important to what I've been doing here, but I've been completely unsatisfied with the way it's turning out. I wanted to have it ready several Skeptics' Circles ago, but haven't gotten it quite right yet. Until I get the post out of my head.

The more exciting reason is that I've been sick. The illness that struck me is sort of cool from an academic sense, but really no fun to be intimately involved in. I was recently diagnosed with a neuralgia (I have to wait to get the full diagnosis - I still haven't seen a specialist yet). Neuralgia's are kind of cool, because of what they are:

The mechanisms of neuropathic pain are complex. Injury to peripheral nerves leads to hyperexcitability of peripheral nociceptors (peripheral sensitization). This in turn may lead to functional changes in central neurons that receive input from these primary afferents, causing central sensitization, which leads to further pain intensification (2). Pain evoked by nonnoxious stimuli may result from abnormal cross talk (ephaptic transmission) between axons. Decreased descending inhibition and sympathetic nervous system changes may also contribute to persistent nociceptive activity.
What this basically means is that for a variety of reasons, regular nerves that sense touch can either become hyperstimulated or they can cross-talk to other nerves that normally aren't stimulated. The result?
Neuropathic pain is usually described as burning, shooting, or similar to an electric shock. In many patients, it has a constant component on top of which appear paroxysms of shooting pain.
That certainly describes it for me. It's rather like what I imagine being hit by lightning would feel like. Except that it happens over and over. At its worst, it happens every five seconds (makes blogging tricky). At its best, it's happening several times a day. Which means when I'm ordering a latte, I can gasp and twitch a little, making the barista look at me a little funny.

How do they treat it? Anti-convulsants. Apparently there are similarities between epilepsy and neuralgia that result in inappropriate neuron firing. So physicians exploit this similarity to treat the disease. I'm currently taking gabapentin, which makes me feel a little drunk. Also makes blogging a little tricky, but here we go.

I also get to have an MRI, which I'm pretty excited about. If I can get a copy of it, I'll post it here later, so everyone can see my brain. In the meantime, I'm loving my gabapentin, and looking forward to seeing a neurologist. If the results are interesting, I'll keep you posted. Also, I'm going to try to keep working on the posts I've been trying to write, but I hope my (few) regular readers will forgive my absence.


Tuesday, August 7, 2007

On forgiveness

Peter Medawar’s dismissal of the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s confused teaching on evolution: “He can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he took great pains to deceive himself.”

From The Times Online.


Sunday, August 5, 2007

Me! Me! Me!

From Opus.


Friday, August 3, 2007

Purge the heretics!

An interesting quote from Denyse O'Leary of Uncommon Descent. Make of it what you will:

"If you attend a church, synagogue, mosque or whatever, Darwin Day sounds like a great way to find out which clergy should take early retirement. Just catch them promoting it."
Purge the heretics!


Friday beautiful science

Today's Friday beautiful science comes from the AKARI satellite, launched by the Japanese Space Agency. From their website:

The infrared astronomy satellite AKARI started the regular observations in May 2006. In the last one year, AKARI has carried out the All-Sky Survey observations to map the entire sky, as well as thousands of pointed observations of selected targets. Here we show the beautiful images constructed from the AKARI All-Sky Survey data; The entire sky in the mid-infrared light, the far-infrared image of the constellation Orion and the Milky Way, and the far-infrared image of the Cygnus-X region.
This photo is a composite of many thousands of images. The line running through the middle of the photo is the Milky Way.

Sadly, the satellite is nearly done its mission. It was designed to last for 550 days, and has nearly run out of liquid helium (which helps keep its sensors cool).

I'm pretty excited about this photo, and have already had a print made which I'll frame this weekend and hang in my living room. I hope you like it as much as I do.


Michael Behe vs. Stephen Colbert

Only Stephen Colbert can truly make someone look like an ass by agreeing with them. Here he spends 5 minutes agreeing with Michael Behe, while Behe trots out all his canards that have been dealt with elsewhere.

EDIT: Quote of the night:

Colbert: So, you think you're Darwin's Einstein?

Behe: No, but...


Thursday, August 2, 2007

66th Skeptics' Circle

The 66th Skeptics' Circle is up at Denialism Blog. Go have a gander.