Sunday, June 26, 2011

Teachers Are Us

It's nearly 2AM here in Missouri and I'm on vacation. I thought I'd have a better chance to write something up but, like on so many occasions, life intervened. Even so, a couple of things have crossed my desk recently that deserve comment. I only have the cognitive power to talk about one of them and then only briefly.

I spoke a while back on the cognitive leap that signifies modern humanity. (See here.) There have been a lot of thought about the physiological evolution of human cognition. But I've been thinking for a while now it was an idea that got us started and not some magical genetic change.

For the first 120k years or so Homo sapiens sapiens was a round we pretty much did as we always did: hunt, eat and reproduce. Then, around 80k years ago things started popping. This is, of course, open to discussion. Some authorities have suggested it was a gradual thing that happened. Others think it was more dramatic.

Then, about 80k years ago, we changed our tool kit to more complex stone tools-- flaked stone tools and the like. Researchers at Lund University, in Sweden, have analyzed the cultural requirements to maintain that level of technology: finding of materials, trade for the materials, retention of the skills, teaching of those skills, etc.

They suggest that to maintain these skills required significant cultural advancement. Imagine a genius figuring this out and then the tribe getting behind it. Evolution takes advantage of what's there and by that principle the rudiments of culture had to have been in existence to be selected and modified by both cultural evolution and physiological evolution.

Not only did we make our tools, our tools made us. (Article here.)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Tragedy of the Commons Revisited

I talked about the Tragedy of the Commons way back here, here and here. The continuing tension between short term individual interest and long term collective interest is at the heart of American problems. It's at the heart of world wide problems.

Turns out there are some recently discovered variations on the problem. (See here.)

There may be hope for us yet.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Citizen Science

I've been subscribing the Scientific American's Citizen Science blog. This is a blog describing ways that labs need observers for specific project. Often, there needs to be an aggregate of observations that are beyond any one researcher or lab. This is, and always has been, the role of the Citizen Scientist. Now, with the internet, people have a great opportunity to volunteer.

Here are a bunch:

Beespotter: Observer the pollination activities of honey bees and bumble bees.
Global Amphibian Blitz: world wide census of amphibian species.
Stardust @ Home: Use the powerful mechanism of the human brain to detect comet particles in aerogel.
The Great Sunflower Project: Bee pollination study attempting to discover the cause and process of bee decline.
Citizen Sky: Observe a long lived eclipse in the constellation Auriga.
The Lost Ladybug Project: Where have the native lady bugs gone? Science wants to know.

This is real science. These are real projects. You can help.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Kaiju Big Battel

Some sociological phenomena need no explanation. Check out the video first, then the website.



Sunday, June 19, 2011

Welcome to the End Times

Here are two good analyses of the Wisconsin Supreme Court decision and the decision itself.

Analysis 1, Gin and Tacos
Analysis 2, Rick Ungar

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Understanding is Overrated

Just when you thought you understood parenthood: here.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Slime Mold

In an anti-caturday post, P. Z. Myers put up some beautiful film of fungi growing. See here.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Jann Wenner is My Hero

This came across my desk recently. First, it's a reference to a Rolling Stone article that goes into terrible detail about the financial crisis. Hint: Goldman-Sachs is not the victim here.

Second, it's a discussion as to why such an incisive and enlightening article would appear in Rolling Stone.

The Rolling Stone articles are here, all by Matt Taibbi:
Wall Street's Bail Out Hustle
The People vs. Goldman-Sachs
The Great American Bubble Machine

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Periodic Table of the Videos

Here's something fun: The Periodic Table of the Videos. A video for each element.
Enjoy. Discussion by Nobel Intent is here.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Now You Can Dial

Here's the proper instructional video to use your dial telephone. Don't take a chance. Do it right.

Courtesy of Gin and Tacos.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Human Handedness

(Picture from here.)

My son showed no preference in handedness when he was young. He drew, threw and caught equally well with either hand. However, when he started to write we did suggest he pick a hand to use rather than switch between them. He chose his right hand.

Later, when he wanted a baseball glove, I asked him which hand he wanted to throw with. He picked his right hand.

In both cases, he said the reason he wanted to use his right hand was it was the same hand used by most of his friends.

These days he is preferentially right handed. I think this is mostly because he doesn't want to take the time to bring his left hand up to speed. When we've played catch and he tried it, it took a little time for him to make his left hand do as well as his right but he was able to do it eventually. When he started to learn how to juggle this came up again: juggling as an incentive towards ambidextrocity.

This got me to thinking. Why are humans predominantly right handed, anyway?

The human population ranges between 70%-90% right handed. Handedness is one of the few behaviors that appears to be uniquely human. It has significant impact on human culture-- tools, doors, cabinets, electronic interfaces are often oriented around handedness-- the power switches on power tools are oriented as to be near the right hand.

There are some advantages to hand choice as opposed to handedness. In some forms combat, boxing for example, you present one side for weak short distance (but protect) strikes keeping the stronger string in reserve. You can see this in boxing films. The left hand is often held up for jabbing but the strong strike comes from the other hand coming up and driving from the hips. The strong strike is vulnerable as it uses the whole body motion while a jab uses only the power of the arm. Similarly, a handed tool has some advantages. That switch has to go somewhere. It has to go next to a hand for safety's sake and it's expensive to manufacture something that fits both sides.

Handedness is ancient in humans. There's evidence (see here) that the precursors of Neanderthals were right handed. It's likely ancient humans were as well. Certainly, right handedness seems to persist across time and culture. Another article (see here) compared medieval English villagers with modern Canadians: both were right handed.

Given that a hand choice might be advantageous, why the right? Is it just cultural-- some common cultural trait that has come down to us over half a million years?

Well, there is some evidence it's genetic.

Some years ago there was a study done on families that had an inherited form of dyslexia. The study was, in part, to determine if there was a handedness to the trait. In the course of this study, LRRTM1 (Leucine-rich repeat transmembrane neuronal protein 1. See also here.) was discovered to be associated with handedness. One variant increases the odds of being left handed. It also slightly increases the odds of schizophrenia. But I'm not going to go there.

(My own feeling about the genetic basis of handedness is that it's a developmental derivation of cryptic mutations but that's another topic. You can read about cryptic mutations here.)

In the brain things are reversed. Nerve impulses come in from the right side and cross over to the left. The left side of the brain controls the right hand and the right side of the brain controls the left hand. In a brain that is genetically entrained to be handed on one side we would expect some differences between the handed side (left, usually) and the non-handed side.

Here's where it gets really interesting.

One of the areas that are asymmetric in the two sides of the brain is Broca's Area, an area of the middle outside of the brain. The BA on the left side of the brain is involved in both language and speech production as well as perception. It also contains mirror neurons-- neurons that not only fire for a specific activity originating in the subject but also activate when the subject perceives the same activity in another.

Handedness and Broca's Area don't have a simple relationship. According to Wikipedia's article on brain asymmetry: "Although 95% of right-handed people have left-hemisphere dominance for language, only 18.8% of left-handed people have right-hemisphere dominance for language function."

One idea about the origin of human language is that it derived from primate vocalizations. However, Broca's Area, or the equivalent area, is not involved in monkey vocalization. That role is occupied by another area of the brain. (See here.) In monkeys, the Broca's Area homologue is involved in controlling manual gestures. It also has mirror neurons.

Left brain/right brain asymmetry is known in chimps-- chimps show handedness, though it does seem as fully expressed as it is in humans. But Broca's Area, or its corresponding location, is also not involved in vocalization though it does have considerable mirror neurons. (See here.)

It also turns out that gestures themselves have a handedness that appear to be related to speech. (See here.) A lab in France studied "oscillatory movements" to "audiovisual stimuli" in the "speech frequency". I think they were creating rhythms that corresponded to speech patterns. What they found was the processing of these rhythms were processed on the same side as the speech dominant side of the brain.

Returning back to chimps: the mirror neurons in the "Broca's Area" of the chimp brain fire upon perception of communicative signaling. (See here.)

But like anything else in biology, the heritage of the animal is a big determining factor. What sort of specializations occur in the brains of non-primates? Or even non-mammals?

When there is preferential processing on one side of the brain across a statistically significant portion of the population it is called lateralization. Lateralization has been shown in fish, frogs and other non-mammals. (See here.)

Experiments with pigeons (see here) suggest that at least with birds preferential visual processing can be environmentally caused.

In mice, this has been induced. Mice have very sophisticated sensory systems located at the base of their whiskers. A lab in Switzerland bred mice with an asymmetry in those systems and created a population of either left handed or right handed animals depending on the breed. This is, I think, analogous to the preferential processing induced in pigeons I mentioned early. Sensory system input triggered preferential processing in the brain. In these cases an induced environmental change, originating from either outside the organism or inside the organism, caused an adaptive response.

I did find an interesting article on preferential use of the right side in prey manipulation in terns. (See here.) It was interesting for three reasons: 1) it was handedness across the population similar to left-right handedness in humans, 2) it showed how difficult it might be to detect handedness in a non-primate species and 3) the right side was preferred.

A lab in Italy performed a test of lizards and found they, too, showed a preference for taking prey from a single side: the right. (See here.) There's even handedness in the coiling pattern of snakes. (See here.) Ornate dragon lizards here. Fish here and here.

Now, this is not handedness in the way we think of it in humans since it was caused by an external influence. But there are many examples where evolution took advantage of a flaw and turned it into an asset. I went looking and sure enough I found it here.

A lab in Germany looked at asymmetrical vision and attempted to find out if it was adaptive. It turned out that asymmetrical vision was superior to symmetrical vision. Pigeons with more asymmetrical vision were better at discriminating grain from grit than pigeons with symmetrical vision.

So: lateralization occurred early in vertebrate history. It took various forms, some environmentally induced, some heritable. In primates it was strongly associated with manipulation of objects. In chimps it was associated with signaling gestures.

Then, this paper showed that human gesture handedness followed language processing organization. In other words, preferential hand usage aside, the utilization of gestures aiding communication followed the side where the language processing occurred.

As to how we became left brained speakers?

We talked to the hand.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

New PhD Movie

I've been following Jorge Cham's comic "Piled Higher and Deeper" for some time. Then, it suddenly started... updating... really... really... sloooooooowly.

Turns out he's working on a movie. See the preview here.

I'm excited about this fall.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Ann Coulter Demonically Befouls Herself

I'm not going to bother reviewing Ann Coulter's Demonic. Chauncy DeVega does a much better job than ever I could right here.

I'm not surprised Coulter's screaming is full of bile, shrill and crazy. There's a lot of it going around these days.

I'm surprised anybody reads her.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

News from BVC

Book View Café Releases Shift by Chris Dolley

Shift (Science Fiction)
Chris Dolley
May 31, 2011
$3.99 ebook
ISBN: 978 1 61138 067 5

A near future SF mystery thriller with a touch of out-of-body horror.

A serial killer with multiple personalities. An astronaut who returns from higher dimensional space a changed man. And an unlikely detective who has to get into the mind of a killer ... the hard way.

Astronaut John Bruce was the first man to pilot a ship through higher dimensional space. Two years after his triumphant return, a second John Bruce appears—as a new personality of Peter Pendennis, an imprisoned serial killer with multiple personalities. The doctors are skeptical, until he asks to see Louise Callander, the astronaut's former girlfriend, and reveals things only the real John Bruce could know.

Hyperpsychologist Nick Stubbs is brought in to investigate. According to the latest research, the mind doesn't just inhabit the physical three-dimensional world. It projects into the higher dimensions and if Bruce's brain had been inadequately shielded when he'd entered higher dimensional space...

Could a part of his personality have been torn away? And somehow attached itself to a new host? Nick's initial scans of Pendennis's brain are unlike anything he's seen before, but before he can continue, the killings start. Soon Nick and Louise are on the run, from the police, and the killer, but how can they evade a murderer who appears to be able to walk through walls?

And there's an added problem. Astronaut John Bruce—or is it Mr. Hyde?—just happens to be running for President.

Chris Dolley has been a computer consultant, a pioneer computer games designer, an amateur detective and once, as a teenager, freed a small country. Now he lives with his wife and a large collection of animals on a farm they renovated in the Normandy-Maine Regional Park.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Sarah Palindrones

I don't think Sarah Palin lies-- what she says is too strange and wrong to just be a lie. But I do think you can always tell when what she's saying is incorrect: her lips are moving.

The latest is Paul Revere. Colbert said it best here.

Picture from The Matrix For Real.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Moving of the Mighty Mississippi

Here is a terrific discussion and image of the meanderings of the Mississippi River. This river's a rover.