News:

NOTICE: Posting schedule will be irregular throughout the summer. Tentative schedule: irregular:

Monday FUNNY - The GUIDE Wednesdays - SCIENCE Fridays (News & Comment).

Headings:
The GUIDE: Posts from "The Lab Rats' Guide to the Brain"
FUNNY: Science and Lab Humor, etc.
NEWS: Neat stories about Science in the News
COMMENT: Opinion and Science in the News
NEAT STUFF: Interesting science pages and neat links
REVIEWS: Book reviews of fiction and nonfiction
FICTION: Original short and serialized stories

Monday, October 24, 2011

Monday Funnies

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I'm back!

Sorry, but *someone* seems to have broken the blog.  I can only log in from home, and not from any of my computers that also do work-related material.  I have narrowed the problem down to virus/malware filtering which seems to think the site may have content problems.  In the next few days I will be trimming content and comments to see if I can find the problems and get back to regular posting.

Enough of that!  This is Monday!  It's supposed to be Funny!

Today's lab-related humor comes from Brant Parker Johnny Hart's The Wizard of Id.


I frankly had forgotten the lab-type humor that Parker and Hart (and later Brant Parker's son Jeff) often injected into the strip.  The Wizard is cast in the role of scientist, with often bizarre lab subjects, such as Ratso, above.

The Wizard of Id is also the source of one of my favorite explanations of the discrepancy between athlete and academic salaries: "No one ever bought a ticket to see a scientist!"

Go search the comic out, find the books, search through old newspapers and archives.  It is worth the effort.

Enjoy!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Monday Stuff

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Guest Blogging Courtesy of K. Mata - the Goddess of Lab Rats!

This blog has commented before about medical marijuana and medicinal cannabinoids.  Here's an article about what it's creator calls "A Good Drug Gone Bad." The link is to a story in the LA Times about the creator of JWH compounds, major ingredients of 'spice' and other synthetic marijuana products sold until recently in gas stations as incense.   It should be stressed that the scientist creator did not distribute this drug.  The formula was lifted from the lab and form publications.  It is manufactured and sold from China as "plant food."

I've included the first few paragraphs below...
  
http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-killer-weed-20110928,0,2646834.story

Scientist's research produces a dangerous high

John W. Huffman created synthetic marijuana for tests on lab animals. His formulas ended up in the hands of head shops, which have created substances that can lead to seizures, hallucinations and convulsions.

September 28, 2011, 3:46 p.m.
Reporting from Sylva, N.C.—


John W. Huffman is a bearded, elfin man, a professor of organic chemistry who runs model trains in his basement and tinkers with antique cars. At 79, he walks a bit unsteadily after a couple of nasty falls.

Relaxing on his back porch in the Nantahala National Forest, watching hummingbirds flit across his rose beds, Huffman looks every bit the wise, venerable academic in repose.

But this courtly scientist unwittingly contributed to the spread of "designer marijuana" so potent that the Drug Enforcement Administration has declared some of what he created illegal.

Huffman's years of scientific research at Clemson University on the interaction between drugs and brain receptors led to so-called fake marijuana with effects far more powerful — and dangerous — than garden-variety marijuana. "Spice," "K-2," "Skunk" and similar products made using the chemical compounds he formulated have surged in popularity in recent years.

That prompted the Drug Enforcement Administration in March to temporarily list "stealth marijuana" products containing three cannabinoid compounds invented by Huffman as Schedule 1 drugs illegal to sell or possess.

Some interviewers and critics have blamed Huffman for turning an entire generation onto "monster weed."

"It's become a royal pain in the rear end," Huffman said the other day, reflecting on the unwelcome attention his research has received. "I had a TV station in Moscow accuse me of trying to poison America's youth."

In that interview, live on Russian radio, he said, his responses seemed slow because of a satellite delay — so slow that the questioner accused him of smoking his own creations.

In a separate conversation, a BBC interviewer "basically asked me when I stopped beating my wife," he said. "They accused me of creating all these horrible drugs."

But Huffman laughs as he describes emails assuming he has created a super form of medical marijuana or has profited by designing lucrative marijuana substitutes. "We were not. It was all just basic science," he said. To counter misinformation, he and Clemson have devised a boilerplate statement describing his research and warning against consuming synthetic marijuana.

That hasn't stopped alert entrepreneurs from using Huffman's formulas, published in scientific journals. Their products, often sold as "herbal incense" and smoked like traditional marijuana, can produce seizures, hallucinations, tremors, paranoia, convulsions, high blood pressure and rapid heart rate, say emergency room doctors.

Poison control centers have received 4,500 calls over the last two years from people using fake marijuana, according to the American Assn. of Poison Control Centers.

Read more at: 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Value of Repetition...

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In my guest Blog for Sarah Hoyt last Thursday (Oct. 6 - ) I discussed the value of looking toward the future as a Lab Rat - knowing that as long as conditions remain the same, repeating our past actions is valuable - but the moment conditions change, too much "memory" in the form of repeating past actions, can be detrimental. 

I stated:
"A popular saying among some groups such as the Baen Barflies is that insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.  Likewise, insanity is doing different things and expecting the same results.  Yet sometimes we have to change strategies in order to get a better result, as in the transformation from traditional to indie publishing.  I’m not an “insider” to this phenomenon, but I certainly  recognize the signs and symptoms from behavioral psychology."

There were many good follow-up comments to the blog, and I wish I had been able to engage in the responses and replies.  Unfortunately, most took place while I was at work, and it was a particularly busy day.  However, one comment merits a response here.

"David"  
quote: Likewise, insanity is doing different things and expecting the same results

I take issue with this, there are frequently many different ways to get to one result. some ways may be more efficient than others, and it’s usually true that if you are picky enough the results are not ‘identical’ (after all, the process you go through has side effects), but if you are looking for ‘equivalent’ results there are frequently many ways to get to the result.
David and I have had some give and take on other issues in other forums, but that is immaterial.  However, I take issue with David's comment.  Granted, equivalent results can be obtained, but the same results never are.  Most importantly, how we learn and behave is significantly altered by the approach we take to obtain a result.

I will forever remember the example taught in my first lab psychology/animal behavior course:

A rat is placed in a cage with a levers.  If the animal pressed the lever, it heard a tone and received a food or liquid reward.  My professor, as a student, was training his rats and had one that would never purposely press the reward lever.  The rat would bump up against it, rear up and sniff the cage top and lean against the lever, latch onto the cage top and fall on the lever, but never reach and press the lever.  Now this is normally a very easy behavior to train to the rat.  The instructor for that course suggested a barrier be placed in the cage, such that the lever was at the end of a corridor, and the rat could not "accidentally" bump the lever. Rats are naturally curious and will usually explore under those conditions.  Unfortunately the animal chose to climb over the barrier, stepping on the lever on its way down.  If the barrier was removed, the rat would not press the lever.  My professor told us he tried for weeks to teach the rat the appropriate response - his other rats learned it in 5 days, but this rat could not learn it in 5 weeks.

So, why did that happen, and what's the "punch-line" for this column?  Well, to teach a rat, you need consistent conditions so that there can be an association between the action and the outcome.  In this case, the rat obtained an equivalent result - the food reward - but it never learned to associate deliberately pressing the lever with the outcome.  To that rat, it was the act of climbing over the barrier that resulted in reward - it obtained food mysteriously whenever it explored, but never learned that it could produce a reward as a consequence of its own actions.

A corollary to this example is something I see quite often when teaching students:  They train a rat to perform appropriately when the time delay between action and reward is negligible, but as soon as the delay is increased, the animal performance deteriorates.  To fix this, the student decreases the delay, then makes the trial easier by eliminating one or more choices, then they try adding cues, then changing the reward - often all at once or on successive days.  What this means to the rat is that it never has a stable context in which to learn the appropriate responses.  We can teach animals and humans to do many things as long as there is a stable context - Action A results in B - during the learning phase.  We can even teach them to be flexible and learn new mazes, as long as we introduce consistency in the learning/relearning phase.

Alvin Toffler called it "Future Shock" - the inability to cope with rapid change.  Deprived of enough stability to learn the rules, some people never learn how to deal with change.  What distinguishes the lab rats - and people! - who can cope with change is that they have in fact learned  a few basic rules of how to respond to changing context.  Most importantly, they learn just how important those "picky" differences are.

So, I argue that there are in fact a few ways to get equivalent results.  However, each different method teaches different rules - and if we keep changing the rules, nothing can be learned.  Its one reason why rote recitation used to be taught in school - and still is in professional schools.  Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say "... insanity is: constantly changing the rules, but nevertheless expecting the same results."  On the other hand, I stand by my original statement.

We can learn a lot form Lab Rats.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Guest Blog on "According to Hoyt"

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My friend Sarah A. Hoyt has been blogging about the craft of writing as well as changes to the traditional models of publishing that are on the horizon.  Yesterday she wrote "In the Future we're all Ducks" (http://accordingtohoyt.com/2011/10/05/in-the-future-we%E2%80%99re-all-ducks/) referring to the manner in which Disney's Donald Duck character seems to go from job to job in each episode - one time he's a beautician, next time he's a janitor in Uncle Scrooge's bank.  The fact that Donald seems to switch between jobs doesn't seem to matter to him. [By the way, Sarah, my wife reminds me that despite this seeming lack of care, Donald is never truly satisfied!]

Sarah goes on to talk about how we can learn from Donald and improve our skill set by learning things we would not previously consider.  For myself, I always thought I'd be a scientist or a surgeon (or a jet pilot, but I was asthmatic and didn't have the eyesight).  Computers other than the huge government behemoths didn't exist, but as they were developed, I considered that I might be a programmer.  Little did I think I would become all three - I am a scientist who performs surgical procedures in the lab as needed, and I program most of my own analyses.  I never really thought that much about being a writer, but here I am working on both nonfiction and fiction for the SF market.

But back to Sarah's post, I argued that we are not Ducks, but Lab Rats.  I started to lay out my logic, and Sarah said I should just write it all down and guest-blog it for her.  Incidentally it also gives her a bit of a breather since she has been out of town for two weeks and needs to get some things done before getting back to writing.

So head on over at According to Hoyt, and read my guest blog - Not Ducks, but Lab Rats (http://accordingtohoyt.com/2011/10/06/not-ducks-but-lab-rats/).  It's a story of behavior and flexibility, and the sad consequences of lacking behavioral flexibility.

Enjoy!