Biology cliche

Okay. You’ve got nature—neurons, brain chemicals, hormones, and of course, at the bottom of the cereal box, genes. And then there’s nurture, all those environmental breezes gusting about. And the biggest cliche in this field is how it is meaningless to talk about nature or nurture, only about their interaction. And somehow, that truism rarely sticks. Instead, somebody’s got to go, and when a new gene is trotted out then when “firing off”, “determines” behavior, environmental influences are inevitably seen as something irrelevant that have to go.

From Robert Sapolsky’s article “A Gene for Nothing” in the book Monkeyluv.

The author also notes that the genome is called “code of codes” and the “holy grail” by un-sciency journalists.


My preferred method for eating has a name–maybe misapplied–but is also culturally debasing: eating with only a fork and using the side to cut/smash-through your food before spearing it. A survey calls that a “knork”, though it is in fact an actual product. I’m going to call my method “knorking”.

This week’s World Wide Words is on the Knork.

Cold Reading

Astrologers and psychics have known these tricks for years. The magician Ian Rowland, in his classic “The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading,” itemizes them one by one, in what could easily serve as a manual for the beginner profiler. First is the Rainbow Ruse – the “statement which credits the client with both a personality trait and its opposite.” (“I would say that on the whole you can be rather a quiet, self effacing type, but when the circumstances are right, you can be quite the life and soul of the party if the mood strikes you.”) The Jacques Statement, named for the character in “As You Like It” who gives the Seven Ages of Man speech, tailors the prediction to the age of the subject. To someone in his late thirties or early forties, for example, the psychic says, “If you are honest about it, you often get to wondering what happened to all those dreams you had when you were younger.” There is the Barnum Statement, the assertion so general that anyone would agree, and the Fuzzy Fact, the seemingly factual statement couched in a way that “leaves plenty of scope to be developed into something more specific.” (“I can see a connection with Europe, possibly Britain, or it could be the warmer, Mediterranean part?”) And that’s only the start: there is the Greener Grass technique, the Diverted Question, the Russian Doll, Sugar Lumps, not to mention Forking and the Good Chance Guess – all of which, when put together in skillful combination, can convince even the most skeptical observer that he or she is in the presence of real insight.

From Malcolm Gladwell via Bruce Schnier

Criticism of Civic Literacy

I’ve been reading up on Civic Literacy and so far I’m kind’ve disappointed with what I’m seeing and my own involvement in it as well:

Civic Literacy seems to be geared towards government and politics, as opposed to broad participation in communities and society—especially NGOs or other social groups. They seem to be based on what is an arguably outdated concept of American government providing broad social services. Apparently the Reagan and Gingrich revolution haven’t made it into the curriculum yet.

Also, it appears to be based a lot more around how the government works, as opposed to how to participate within government (and resultantly alter its operation) but that is a standard pedagogical issue.

Some links:

Creating Models

I’m taking Mathematical Models in Biology and we had an interesting problem in our last class. We were broken up into groups and asked to create a model around malaria infection. We received some information on mosquito behavior and lifecycles, infection rates and patterns, and effects. That was it.

The primary tenet of mathematical modeling is simplification. We quickly realized that when trying to simplify the process, we needed to know what information we wanted to gain from the model. The standard (and incredibly simple) SIR model, for example, answers the question “how many people will be infected at any one time?”, not necessarily, “how many will recover or die?”.

To put it into mathematical terms, if we’re going to reduce the number of dimensions (by simplifying), we want to make sure that the information we’re left with has useful meaning for the situation.

Which also leads me to thinking about reductionism and holism.


While it is undeniable that people who watch lots of vampire movies have nightmares with vampires, it is also true that people who work at UPS have nightmares about boxes (according to a former anthro teacher of mine who also once worked at UPS). From Wired’s Geekdad Blog

Chill Units

If you grow peaches for a living, you know all about chill units. They measure how much cold a plant experiences during a winter. And chill units are essential to a good crop of peaches. When plants go dormant at the end of summer, many of them have to experience a certain amount of time in cold weather before they can grow on schedule in the spring. If a peach tree doesn’t get enough chill units, it can’t respond promptly to the warmth of spring. It is still in a zombie-like dormancy, and it can only rouse itself after the spring gets even warmer.

From a Wired article on greenups , or when plants begin growing in Spring.

The John Hancock Building

The JHB was known as the “Plywood Skyscraper” after having faulty glass windows that would pop out during it’s construction in the 1970s.

Police were left closing off surrounding streets whenever winds reached 45 mph

Also interesting description of two 300-ton weights that sit on the 58th floor to damp swaying motions.

via wikipedia. Researched due to an article today about MIT suing Frank Gehry over the Stata Center.

Understanding Academia and Legitimacy Exchange

According to Fred Turner in From Counterculture to Cyberculture legitimacy exchange is…

…a term that refers to the process by which experts in one area draw on the authority of experts in another area to justify their activities.

and it follows interestingly with

As Bowker explains, “An isolated scientific worker making an outlandish claim could gain rhetorical legitimacy by pointing to support from another field–which in turn referenced the first worker’s field to support its claim. The language of cybernetics provided a site where this exchange could occur.”

The other term I took from the book is “network forum” in which individuals from different fields can meet and exchange legitimacy. Turner’s book gives the Whole Earth Catalog as a print example.