Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Joss Whedon on Mitt Romney

Go and enjoy this.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Idiots on Parade

These people regulate your government's approach to science. They range from the competent to the silly to the malicious. Ars Technica discusses it here.

Here they are: the members of the 112th congress House Committee on Science and Technology


  1. Ralph Hall, Texas, Chairman: doesn't believe in climate change. Thinks it's a hoax concocted by climate scientists for lots of money. "I'm really more fearful of freezing. And I don't have any science to prove that."
  2. Jim Sensenbrenner, Wisconsin, Vice Chairman: blocked the Animal Fight Prohibition Act. Known climate denier.
  3. Lamar S. Smith, Texas: Voted against Science and Technology Funding, Human Cloning Prohibition and Stem Cell Research. (See here.)
  4. Dana Rohrabacher, California: Voted for STEM Jobs Act. Voted against Science and Technology Funding.  (See here.)
  5. Roscoe Bartlett, Maryland: Actually believes in the concept of peak oil but federal student loans are unconstitutional.
  6. Frank Lucas, Oklahoma: Voted for the Stop the [Supposed] War on Coal Act. Voted for STEM jobs. No More Solyndras Act. Against Science and Technology funding. (See here.)
  7. Judy Biggert, Illinois: Voted for Science and Technology Funding. For Stem Cell Research. Yes on letting FDA regulate tobacco products.
  8. Todd Akin, Missouri: Rape apologist.
  9. Randy Neugebauer, Texas: Called Bart Stupak a "Baby Killer." Voted against Science and Technology Funding, Human Cloning Prohibition and Advance Research. Voted for STEM jobs. (See here.)
  10. Michael McCaul, Texas: Voted for Science and Technology Funding. (See here.)
  11. Paul Broun, Georgia: Tea Party Loon. Thinks Obama is a socialist and wants to establish a Marxist dictatorship in the USA. Thinks science is composed of "lies straight from the Pit of Hell."
  12. Sandy Adams, Florida: Defeated in primary and not relevant after January. Voted for the Stop the [Supposed] War on Coal Act. Voted for STEM jobs and No More Solyndras. Go figure. (See here.)
  13. Ben Quayle, Arizona: Son of Dan Quayle. Lost the primary so the madness will finally stop. 
  14. Chuck Fleischmann, Tennessee: Voted for the Stop the [Supposed] War on Coal Act. Drill baby drill. Doesn't think manure is a pollutant. Thinks NPR is bad. (See here.)
  15. Scott Rigell, Virginia: Doesn't believe in climate change. No on EPA regulating green house gases. Likes the Ryan budget and so can't do math. Wants to terminate NPR. (See here.)
  16. Steven Palazzo, Mississippi: Doesn't believe in climate change. No on EPA regulating green house gases. Likes the Ryan budget and so can't do math. Wants to terminate NPR. (See here.)
  17. Mo Brooks, Alabama: Thinks Democrats are socialists. Likes prayers in public schools. Thinks manure isn't a pollutant. Likes the Ryan budget and so can't do math. Wants to terminate NPR. (See here.)
  18. Andy Harris, Maryland: Thinks manure isn't a pollutant. Likes the Ryan budget and so can't do math. As a physician he ought to know better. Wants to terminate NPR. (See here.)
  19. Randy Hultgren, Illinois: Steve Palazzo clone. (See here.)
  20. Chip Cravaack, Minnesota: Trusts mining company to keep MN water clean. You don't need to know any more. (See here.)
  21. Larry Bucshon, Indiana: Coal instead of cap and trade. Doesn't believe in climate change. Manure's not a pollutant. Likes roving wiretaps. (See here.)
  22. Dan Benishek, Michigan: Likes roving wiretaps. Likes the Ryan budget and so can't do math.  Wants to terminate NPR. (See here.)

  1. Eddie Bernice Johnson, Texas, Ranking Member: Yes on stem cells. Approves EPA regulating greenhouse gases. Approves endangered species. Likes NPR. Yea on Science and Technology Funding. (See here and here.)
  2. Jerry Costello, Illinois: No on stem cells. Pro life. Bar EPA from regulating green house gases. No on raising CAFE standards but yes on Kyoto protocols. Go figure. (See here.)
  3. Lynn Woolsey, California: Wants to control carbon emissions.  Approves EPA regulating greenhouse gases. Likes NPR. (See here.)
  4. Zoe Lofgren, California: Yes on Science and Technology Funding and Human Cloning Prohibition.  Approves EPA regulating greenhouse gases. Likes NPR. (See here.)
  5. Brad Miller, North Carolina: Barred EPA from regulating greenhouse gases. Yes on tax incentives for renewable energy. High on pre-environment votes. Likes NPR. (See here.)
  6. Dan Lipinski, Illinois: Not so great. Right leaning Democrat. (See here.)
  7. Donna Edwards, Maryland: Fairly good environmental track record. Voted for Science and Technology funding. Not much else known. (See here.)
  8. Ben R. Luján, New Mexico: Interested in renewables. Prohibit some research on great apes. Likes NPR. Not much about him. (See here.)
  9. Paul Tonko, New York: Prohibit some research on great apes. Likes NPR. Voted against Ryan budge so can understand basic arithmetic. (See here.)
  10. Jerry McNerney, California: Pro-choice. Wants sustainable energy plan. High conservation ratiting. Online database of science and math scholarships. (See here.)
  11. Terri Sewell, Alabama: Pro-choice. Invest in green manufacturing jobs. Barred EPA from regulating greenhouse gases. Likes NPR. (See here.)
  12. Frederica Wilson, Florida: Pro-choice. Wants EPA to regulate greenhouse gases. Voted against Ryan budge so can understand basic arithmetic. Likes NPR. (See here.)
  13. Hansen Clarke, Michigan: Pro-choice. Wants EPA to regulate greenhouse gases. Likes high speed rail. Likes NPR. (See here.)
  14. Suzanne Bonamici, Oregon: New in town. Not much known. (See here.)

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Consideration of Works Past: Parzifal

Parzival was written by Wolfram von Eschenbach right around 1200, plus or minus a decade. It was inspired by Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval. It's the story of the knight Parzival (or Perceval) and his search for the grail. Troyes did not complete Perceval. von Exchenbach completed it for him but by creating a wholly separate work.

I came to Parzival by way of my father.

Dad was raised a Southern Baptist and it preyed on him most of his life. In the last decade or so he discovered Joseph Campbell. Campbell gave him the metaphorical tools to pull himself out from under his oppressive upbringing. Like any good evangelist, Dad taped the Campbell lectures (The Transformation of Myths Through Time) and sent them to me. I listened to them.

Joseph Campbell could really tell a story.

I was struck by the Arthurian knight romances. Ygraine and the Green Night. The stories of Gawain. Arthur pretty much left me cold. But it was the Parzival story that struck me between the eyes. I went out and read it. Read it again. It has had a strong effect on my work ever since.

This is an extremely compressed recounting of the story and leaves out all of Gawan's part which comprises half the book:

Parzival is the son of a great night. Said great knight abandoned Parzival's mother and in return Parzival's mom decides that Parzival will never be a knight at all and retires to a country estate. Eventually, Parzival meets knights and goes to Camelot not as a knight but as a country buffoon. He leaves there and eventually ends up with a knight named Gurnemanz who teaches him all he knows. Parzival is such a wonderful student that when he makes ready to go out in the world Gurnemanz offers him his daughter. Parzival doesn't take her. He decides that whatever love he gets will be earned.

He goes out in the world and meets and falls in love with Condwiramurs-- her love is earned. They marry but shortly afterwards Parzival goes to seek word of his mother.

Parzival wanders a bit and eventually ends up at the castle of the Grail King-- the king entrusted with the Holy Grail. The Grail King is terribly wounded and in terrific pain so that he could neither "sit nor stand nor lie." Parzival is moved to ask him what ails him and offer condolence and compassion. But Gurnemanz had always told him not to ask questions. So he doesn't. He wakes up in an abandoned castle and thinks it might have been dreams or spirits, not realizing he has failed the test and the adventure.

Parzival returns to court and in conversation it is revealed to him that he was to ask an unspecified question of the Grail King and that was the source of his failure. But this doesn't deter him from making a name for him and becoming a candidate for the round table. He is at the height of his powers. Noble. Good. Married with children. He is possibly the strongest and most noble of the knights. Then a messenger from the Grail King comes to him and states he has no honor. Parzival is struck by this and leaves the round table.

He wanders the countryside doing good but alienated from God, his wife and his colleagues. Ultimately, he meets the hermit Trevrizent who guides him towards God and penitence. Parzival vows to complete the adventure he failed. Trevrizent doesn't believe this can be done. It could be flying in the face of God to do so. Nevertheless, Parzival undertakes it. He has several adventures (along with Gawan's wild ride.) and ultimately again encounters the Grail King, offering him compassion which cures the Grail King's wound. Parzival is reunited with his wife and children and becomes the Grail King himself.

Parzival is an astonishingly modern story. It's one of the few "coming of age" stories that deserves the term. A modern coming of age story might stop with marrying Condwiramurs. Or make the Grail King some sort of tyrant that is then overthrown by Parzival. I'm going out on a limb and term these "coming of manhood" or perhaps "coming of sexuality" stories. They are stories of people who clearly leave childhood behind but then they embrace a childhood fantasy fulfillment and call it adulthood. They stop short.

That's when Parzival downshifts and really gets going.

It's the difference between finding your destiny and finding your place. A person's destiny is the goal shaped for him by fate, his bloodline, his genetics. A person's place is where they choose to put themselves. I argue that Parzival's destiny was to be the finest knight of the round table-- which he abandoned. His place, where he decided to put himself with his wife and children, his job, was to be the Grail King.

So many "coming of age" stories involve revolution and war of some sort: Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, etc. But these are wish fulfillment stories. It is the fervent hope of every child becoming an adult to change the world. For that matter it is the hope of us all. But every one of us must find our place in the world, by choosing the table where we sit, the job we perform, the people we love. Most of us will never change more than a small piece of the world but it should be our piece of the world to change. A piece we have chosen. Parzival did not win his place by war or cunning but by the inherent risk of kindness.

Parzival had a huge effect on my writing. It completely changed the nature of story I wanted to write and what stories I thought should be written. It's the reason I think King Kong stops at exactly the wrong spot: Kong's death. Kong should not die because in killing Kong we can declare him dead and discard him. But if Kong lives then we must confront him. He must change us and we must change him. I even wrote a story about that but of course it can't be sold for copyright reasons.

Many stories in SF and fantasy are transformative. Something happens in the story that transforms the society. It could be a revolution, a war, etc. Many stories in SF and fantasy conform to the unacknowledged forms of coming of age stories. This isn't just fiction. Many of the real life stories that underpin the media such as reality television, celebrity reporting, religious instruction and politics are forced into the same sort of transformative narrative. I don't know if this reflects Calvinist America, Western European Culture or modern mass media. The child fulfillment metaphors surround us.

Which makes, in my opinion, the Parzival story so important. It is not about changing the whole world. It is about deciding on who you are, what you're going to do and doing it in spite of its effects on the world. It's about getting married, going out there and getting a job. It's about doing good work when your heart's not in it. It's about being away from those you love because you have a hint that you're doing the right thing but it's far from certain. It's about failing and not whining about it but going out there and try again.

Occasionally you see Parzival break through into modern stories. Mike Mignola's Hellboy was offered the crown of England as his destiny in a battle against the damned. He refused the crown and took on the damned himself. It costs him his life.

It's in the Star Wars movies. Not their execution-- Lucas doesn't have the nerve of a salamander. He knows the metaphor. He used it and then broke it.

But it still glows through like microwave background radiation. In The Empire Strikes Back Luke is forced to confront Vader and fails. Fails miserably. Fails and nearly takes the entire revolution with him. Fails with a wound that cannot be healed-- the amputation of his hand. Yet he yearns to redeem his father who has so horribly injured him. Yearns enough to attempt it again in The Return of the Jedi even though it nearly kills him and does kill Vader. It is compassion that saves him and not strength of arms.

Then, of course, Lucas destroys it by adding Ewoks and showing everybody happy in Jedi Heaven. If I had been scripting the movie the Ewoks would have been cannon fodder to the last man and the final scene would have been Luke torching Vader's body and saying good-bye. Jedi Heaven on the cutting room floor. No. Burned.

Parzival is a coming of adulthood story. It's what we need. Sadly, it's not what we usually get.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Brain Size Redux

My Dad told me a story once. He was taking calculus and the professor had put up a particularly nasty equation. The professor looked at it for a while and then said he ought to be able to derive that. Forty sweaty minutes later he had done so, washed the chalk from his hands and left the room.

I remembered this when It was pointed out to me in a recent political discussion that one should put up or shut up. I got to thinking about my last post whining about some bad science in the context of human narcissism. The example was an unfortunate paper that made some poor conclusions on SAT scores based on the difference between brain size between men and women.

Well, could I do better? In the memory of that long dead professor I resolve to try.

Always go to first principles. In this case what is bigger between men and women?

A quick look at the literature gave me this little gem of a paper by Eileen Luders. (See here.)

The brain size issue is actually a bit more complex than at first glance. Yes, men have, on average, brains about 13-15% larger than women. Women, for that matter, have more gray matter volumes than men. Gray matter is composed of cell bodies. White matter, the other component, is composed mostly of axons and glial cells. If this were a telephone system, the gray matter would be the switchboards and the white matter the wires. And if you get this metaphor then you're as old as I am.

Luders and her colleagues took an interesting approach. They compared a collection of brain images of men and women that were the same size-- it turns out that there is an overlap where men of small brains and women of large brains have comparable sizes. They also compared the smallest brains of women to the largest brains of men.

Their results were interesting. First, there were differences in total brain volume between men and women across the total sample. But when the comparison was made between men and women who had brains of the similar size no significant differences in total brain volume. However, there were differences in specific gray matter ratios. For example:
"...our findings of increased GM concentration in the left posterior superior temporal gyrus. Given that parts of the superior temporal gyrus are involved in language processing, one could speculate that the observed larger GM volumes in females are associated with women's superior language skills."
To be entirely fair there were no indications mentioned in the article where regional gray matter ratios showed greater for men then women. That's pretty one sided and suggests there might be more to the story. In addition, these were studies where only brain size, volume and regional distribution were compared. There was no indication of body size in the data which is where the original size differences were noted. If the brain volumes of a man and a woman are compared as the same size and the man is five feet tall and the woman is five foot nine, that's significant data. Remember, the original data was a proportional comparison of brain size as related to body size. Further there is no comparable data referenced in the paper to living non-human primate species.

Let's presume Luders' paper is correct-- I have no reason to doubt it. Let's also presume Schoenemann's work, the source of the data in my previous post, is also correct. This gives us a state where brains of equivalent size are of equivalent volume regardless of sex. It also gives us a brain mass difference that is beyond what is expected from body mass difference.Again, we first have to think about the data.

The first question involves the methods of the two works. One study compared brain volume and the other compared weight. Could the sex differences disappear if equivalent measurement techniques were used?
Possibly. I suspect it unlikely. That would suggest to me a more fundamental difference in brain structure between men and women and Luders' paper suggest that though there are significant differences in brain gray matter between women and men they were not on the order of 3% of total mass. That's a lot.of grams.

We can also look at the difference in samples between the two studies. Luders' paper used brain scans of living men and women. Scheoneman's work used post mortem brains. Could there be a difference between the way men and women's brains reacted to preservation.

This is a really good question and I don't have a good answer for it. Tissues do react differently to preservation. However, Luders' work again didn't show a lot of structural differences between men and women and I think we could presume that gross biochemical differences, at least on the order of tissue differences, between the brains of men and women would show up before now.  So, again, I'll say unlikely.

That leaves us with a significant difference in brain sizes between men and women, relative to body size.Why? Brain tissue is extremely expensive. We can't use Luders' paper for this one: she didn't find anything that was significantly larger in men's brains compared to women's. We're back to speculation.

Well, I'm a science fiction writer. Speculation is what I do best.

I keep going back to the chimp data. We can make all sorts of cognition comparisons between men and women but that number (human 3%, chimp 4%) is astonishingly similar. It suggests that whatever the reasons for brain size difference between men and women they're likely the same for chimps. It's not language processing or SAT scores. It's something much more fundamental.

Well, one idea that leaps to mind is that we're wrong in how we're evaluating brain size/body size relationships. We're presuming a linear proportion. I.e., if the body is 10% bigger we're expecting a 10% bigger brain. It's possible that the proportion (at least in the great apes) is non-linear. Instead of y=mx it's y=x**m. This could probably be modeled across primates and determined. But that is not this day. Besides, I'm and SF writer. A simple mistake in proportion would never get me a story.

While I was working on this post another idea suggested itself to me. Let's think about sex at a very basic level. You have two animals that are looking out for their own survival. It may not be in the interest of their personal survival to have a sexual encounter. However, it is in the interest of their species survival that the sexual encounter occur. Think spiders. A male spider that is coming to mate with a female has to signal to her that he is not prey otherwise he might get eaten. There is a tension between individual needs and species needs.

Think of chimps and humans-- unfortunately, I have to neglect bonobos because I don't have any data. The male of both species needs aggression to achieve dominance. The male must also turn off that aggression be able to cooperate with other males and be able to get a mating opportunity. There is aggression in chimps towards females but you don't get alpha status unless you can get the females to accept you and that requires a greater repertoire than just beating them over the head. Could the extra brain tissue in males (both chimp and human) be required to inhibit aggression?

There could be some fruitful research here. Do the bonobos have a similar proportional difference? Baboons are aggressive when they're trying to enter a new band. They're trying to get noticed by the females. As soon as they are they change behavior to gentle supplication. (See Shirley Strum's book, Almost Human, which I'm hopefully not misremembering.) Is there a brain difference there?

Regardless, as I said last time there are brain differences between men and women but they are long standing and don't have a lot to do with modern life. Luders' work says, to me, that they are greatly outweighed by the similarities.

I hope I derived the hell out of that equation.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Republican Neuroscience

Decode DC has a good analysis of the language used by Republicans. If you've wondered why the candidates always refer to the "failed stimulus plan" or "Obama didn't create any jobs" (see here for actual facts) listen to this.