NOTICE: Posting schedule is irregular. I hope to get back to a regular schedule as the day-job allows.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

UPDATE! [Full link to blog for email clients.]

Entschuldingung! Excuse me, and pardon my sudden departure and hiatus.

Preparation for the trip turned into chaos right about the time I made the last post.  Therefore I had no time to complete my last review, nor prepare much filler for the time I have been away.  There were several grant and manuscript (and administrative tasks to do before departure, but once on the road, I've been in meetings a lot of the time.  We had an excursion to Germany's Black Forest on Wednesday:

On a clear day you can see Switzerland, France  and of course Germany from a top Belchen in the Black Forest.  Then on Friday the meeting was over, and the LabRats and I headed for Basel, Switzerland, but stopped at Breisach am Main to view the cathedral.

Then on to Basel where of course we had to visit the Rathaus (town hall)...

...and buy some Swiss chocolates.  I seem to be missing a pair of LabRats, anyone seen them?

I'll try to get back onto schedule this next week.  See you then!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

NEWS: A couple of Announcements [Full link to blog for email clients.]

OK, a couple of brief announcements:

First, the Operation Baen Bulk fundraiser was a resounding success, we reached our goal of $2000 within 16 hours, and closed the donation window at 26hrs with a whopping $2851.33 in donations. If you donated because of this link, I thank you.  If you're wondering what I'm talking about, see Friday's blog (7/13).

Second, I have a couple of book reviews to run.  Next up, WIRED - which is a book a Neuroscientist can read without cringing!  I'll run that review on Wednesday.  If I can manage to get some more written, they'll go on Friday.

However, after that, I will be off at a professional meeting.  Unfortunately I do NOT have any filler planned, and unless I get a great idea that does not require me to do much writing, I'll have to put the blog on hiatus until August 1.

So the final announcement is that I hope you enjoy the blog.  Send me suggestions, ideas and requests, and I'll try to fill them.  Sometimes I get inspired while traveling, and I can write and post some travelogue material, but it will be at least Tuesday (7/24) before I can get anything posted on the trip.

Thanks for reading, and I'll be back before you know it!

Friday, July 13, 2012

NEWS: Operation Baen Bulk [Full link to blog for email clients.]

This is a fundraising effort with which I am involved.  I have written before of my enjoyment of Science Fiction books by Baen as well as the support by Baen fans (The Barflies) of our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is a new fundraising effort to send supplies to the unit of a fellow Baen fan currently deployed to an ammo supply dump in Afghanistan.

Here's what we are about:

WHAT  is Operation Baen Bulk ??

OBB is a different kind of support for the troops. Instead of focusing on individuals, we support entire UNITS, by finding what they need, or want, and can't easily or quickly get while deployed. . .and get it to them. In LARGE quantities. Think of it as the Warehouse Club approach to Soldier Support: we use the power of buying and shipping in bulk, to maximize the stuff delivered to our troops, out at the pointy end of the spear, and minimize things like waste, shipping costs, etc. And in the process, generally deliver a lot more to the individual soldier than normal "CARE Packages" do.

WHO is Operation Baen Bulk ?
Operation BAEN BULK started in the fall of 2009, when one of our founders got a 90-day layoff notice, and moved into the Layoff Pool.  With nothing to keep him busy, he corresponded with a few deployed GIs, and noticed that while they had individual requests, there were a number of things they mentioned their entire outfit needed or wanted.  And he needed a project to keep me sane while looking for a job with the economy going south.

And thus, was BAEN BULK born: a bunch of SF fans, all of whom read the military SF that Baen Books published, pooled our money and resources to insure the ZombieKillers (a training detachment somewhere in Afghanistan) could have some Christmas Trees and good coffee.  And him being kept busy and productive (and yes, he did find another job.  A BETTER job, in fact. . . )

Since then, we've provided for the oddball requests and creature comfort needs of several deployed units. . . and now, we're trying a bit of a crowd-sourced model for raising funds, with achievement tiers so as soon as a threshold is reached, items will be ordered and sent off to the Ammo Dawgs. . .

HOW do we do it ??

First, we get in touch with an individual at a given unit. We talk to them, and find out the specific needs and wants of the unit. Then we find the best buys we can find to deliver those wants. We then raise the funds, and when we get enough, we order the stuff, and send it to the troops. This year, Operation Baen Bulk has partnered with to host the campaign. 
So, you want to help. . .what do YOU do ???

This one's easy. You go to our campaign at You make a donation, using a major credit or debit card, or PayPal. We consider those pledges until we hit our tipover point of $1,000.  Once we pass the "tipover" point, we start shipping stuff to the troops.  We'll keep collecting donations until the scheduled end of campaign, or we reach our goal of $2,000.  If we exceed our goal by 25%, we'll close down the donations, because we want to be honest with where the money goes.  Don't worry, if we have that much support, we'll find another unit to support and do this all over again!

The next step. . .is up to you. We've been doing this for three years. We'd love to have you join us. . .

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The GUIDE: Mirror Neurons [Full link to blog for email clients.]

Some time back, when I lamented the fact that I had essentially written all that I intended for my book "The Lab Rats' Guide to the Brain," I asked readers for suggestions for topics.  Little did I know that it would start a chain of topics that has added a whole new chapter to the book.  On the other hand, it has provided an opportunity to explore many new topic areas of interest to me - and I hope of interest to readers as well.

Mirror neurons are neurons - mainly in prefrontal lobe, but may also exist in parietal lobe - which respond not just to planning/performing an action, but also when observing that same action by others.  The location of these neurons is important, as I will discuss later, but right up front I need to state one huge caveat.
So far, mirror neurons have only been identified in nonhuman primates (NHPs) - that is, in monkeys.  Very few studies can record neurons in human brain, and that only when probing for the damaged areas in brain of epilepsy patients.  Any "discovery" of mirror neurons in humans is inferential from imaging, limited in number, or in brain that is known to not be normal.   
OK.  With that out of the way, what are mirror neurons?  How do they work? What do they imply about how we learn and perceive others?

First, mirror neurons were first observed in the 80's/90's in rhesus macaques.  It should first be noted that rhesus monkeys are true monkeys, not Great Apes (gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, bonobos) which show human-like intelligence.  Second, the ability of monkeys to learn by watching varies with species.  Clearly Great Apes learn by watching, but most monkeys learn by doing.  In 1992, researchers at the University of Parma, Italy, were recording neurons in the "ventral premotor" area of the frontal lobe.  They specifically targeted neurons which responded to the motor act of picking up a piece of food and bringing it to their mouths.  Surprisingly, those same neurons also responded when one of the human experiments picked up a piece of food.

To explain a bit more background - the premotor are of the frontal/prefrontal cortex is involved in planning of complex muscle and limb movements.  Researchers can record neurons in motor cortex that signal movement, but neurons in premotor cortex respond before such movements begin. Much the same as sensory association cortex combines fine details of sight and sound into pictures or melodies, the premotor cortex specializes in combinations of movements which constitute an action.  As I implied earlier, it is important that mirror neurons have been found in parietal lobe near the association areas for senses and the frontal lobe near the "association" are for movement.

One of the most profound implications of mirror neuron function is in the copying of facial expression.  babies - whether human, ape or monkey - tend to copy the facial expressions of people around them.  Researchers have identified mirror neurons that control the muscles of facial expression, thus implying that we "learn" facial expression by first copying it.  Again, this is important because premotor cortex is involved in planning movement and does not require muscle activation to do so.  Thus even just "thinking" about movement activates neurons in premotor cortex.  So mirror neurons may have a significant role in "practicing" or "rehearsing" movements that mimic observed movements - such as facial expressions.

So what is the purpose of mirror neurons?

Ah, here we get into controversy, for many of the "roles" hypothesized for mirror neurons cannot be inferred from monkeys, we cannot record from the brains of great apes, and we are very limited in what we can observe or record from humans.  Many of these theories must wait for confirmation and testing until we have sufficient evidence of human mirror neurons, but here are a few:
  • Mirror neurons help us learn by mimicry - this one is easy, and likely true based on current evidence.
  • Mirror neurons are essential for developing a sense of self-identity and the external world (i.e. self vs. nonself) - this one is harder to judge, and gets into many of the same metaphysics as the mind-brain problem - but again, there is merit to the theory.
  • Mirror neurons create empathy - like the previous item, this is somewhat abstract, but based on functional imaging results which show increased activation of the presumed "mirror system" in humans with increased empathetic responses - it may in fact account for ability to read "body language."
  • Mirror neurons help us learn language - this one is more of a stretch.  The mirror systems can assist in developing speech and even vocabulary, but would do nothing for the development syntax and meaning.
  • Mirror neurons are impaired with autism - much of this theory relies on the above four items being true and measurable.  The idea that autism results from "broken mirrors" is highly contested and way too simplistic to explain the complexities of the autism spectrum.  Impaired connectivity goes much further to define autism (see Autism Update blog).
  • Mirror neurons are responsible for what we think of as the Mind - Again, this is quite metaphysical (see A Problem of Mind and Brain blog) and there is little way to prove or disprove it.  If Dr. Travis S. Taylor's quantum theories are correct, the presence or absence of mirror neurons would have absolutely nothing to do with The Mind.  [On the other hand, they might also explain how mirror neurons work!]
As a combination of all of these points, consider the following - we watch a small child climb up a counter to reach into a cookie jar for cookies.  From this we presume: (A) the child is hungry, (B) the child is motivated, and (C) the child is probably not supposed to have the cookies.

Why do we think all of these things?  What is our basis for the presumption?  Well, first, we know from our own motivation, that if we were reaching for cookies, it would be because we were hungry.  Second, the cookies were placed out of reach of the child, yet the child knew where they were and endeavored to reach them.  Finally, the fact that the cookies were placed out of reach was likely due to parent, babysitter or guardian deliberately placing them out of reach.

In other words, we infer motivation of others from our own motivation. We see the action, mimic it with our mirror neurons, and run that rehearsal of events through our "minds" to recall similar contexts when we reach (or reached) for cookies.  Thus it very well may be the case that without mirror neurons we could learn and would not be able to infer motivation or understand the actions of others.

Pretty heady stuff - and all because of "monkey see, monkey do" neurons!

Monday, July 9, 2012

REVIEW: Redshirts, by John Scalzi [Full link to blog for email clients.]

At DeepSouthCon, I was at a table full of people who were asked by Howard Tayler if we had read John Scalzi's Redshirts yet. 

When I responded that no, I had not read it, he recommended I do so. As near as I can recall, his recommendation was this: "If you are expecting a humorous novel about a bunch of low-ranked people on a starship that keep getting killed off when they go off on missions, then you won't be disappointed.  However, the story is about so much more... and hit has a lot to say about how we, as writers, create and treat characters."  [Note:  This is from the man who named a character "Der Trihs" in his webcomic Schlock Mercenary.  I ended up reading 3-4 books worth of the comic before I realized that Der Trihs was Red Shirt spelled backwards.] 

So I bought Redshirts and read it.  I am a Kindle reader, so I bought the ebook, the hardback is available here. I'm not an Amazon affiliate, so you might want to go to and click on the Amazon link from there and send a little cash in the direction of a great webcartoonist.  Don't like Amazon and want to support brick-and-mortar stores?  Try Uncle Hugos science fiction bookstore. [If the fact that the SF store is named "Uncle Hugo's" and the mystery store is named "Uncle Edgar's" doesn't ring any bells, look up the names of the annual "best novel" awards in each genre.]

Yes.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I've been a science fiction fan since before the original Star Trek.  Yes, I watched the original run on TV - I'm that old.  I was never a "Trekkie," I don't have a uniform shirt, Spock ears or a phaser.  (I do have a model of the original communicator - it's a voice recorded, and was a gift.)  Serious fans preferred to be called "Trekkers" although I didn't really qualify as that.  I went to a few comic book shows and had the chance to hear and meet Nichelle Nichols, James Doohan and Walter Koenig.  I do know and speak the language of Trek fans and have used the term "redshirt" in casual conversation.
As such, I really enjoyed the book.  It pointed out the particular problems and plot holes of weekly TV scripts as part of a seamless story by a writer who has in fact been part of a weekly SF show.  I can't tell you too much about the book, but my favorite line was:
“I mean that you and I know that in this universe, God is a hack,” he said. “He’s a writer on an awful science fiction television show, and He can’t plot His way out of a box."

Scalzi, John (2012-06-05). Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas (p. 136). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.
This is part of that "so much more" mentioned by Howard Tayler. Scalzi pokes fun at Star Trek-like plots, SF "gimmicks," actors, writers, producers and Hollywood.  All of this wrapped around the humor of the story.  The humor is always there in the background, but there are serious parts to the story as well - maybe not too serious, but kind of poignant and nice.  I particularly liked the message sent by the three "codas" at the end.   Again, not to give too much away, the "codas" involve people and story possibilities that are peripheral to, but affected by, the main story.  In many ways, the codas redeem everything else in the story.

So, buy, borrow or rent (but please don't steal, writers deserve their royalties) this book!  If you don't, you may find yourself redshirted in a future life.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

July Filler [Full link to blog for email clients.]

Fair warning, July will be a month of interruptions for me.  I will be traveling the latter half of the month and likely interrupted quite a bit in the first half.  I will try to have material to post on MWF each week, but there may need to be filler or even a hiatus toward the end of the month.

Note also that I *have* figured out how to migrate the blog to its new home, I just haven't had time to set everything up.So as of now, the blog move will likely take place in August.

Friday, July 6, 2012

COMMENT: Not enough scientists? [Full link to blog for email clients.]

A friend recently sent me this article and asked my opinion.  The premise of the article - "We Don’t Need More Scientists—We Need Better Ones" is that rather than a shortage of trained scientists, what we really have is a shortage of good scientists.  The article quotes a medicinal chemist named Srinivasa Ramanujan who delivered the controversial title statement.  Interesting comments, and it turns out I've met the guy - in passing, and I doubt he'd remember me, but it was in the context of medicinal chemistry.

He’s right.  Kind of...

I have had many students come through my classes and lab as undergraduates and graduates.  Some were brilliant, some not so, and many in between. [And no, I am not referring to anyone currently or even recently in class or lab!]  The not-so-brilliant ones are unfortunately likely doomed to a life in a job where someone else tells them what to do, with never an original thought (which was, of course, their failure in my classes).  The danger of the less-than-brilliant scientist is that they have no sense of why they might be doing something so utterly wrong as to invalidate the science they’ve been directed to perform.  On the other hand, maybe they’ll be flipping burgers.

The brilliant scientists, however, also have no guarantee of success in the field.  Brilliance that translates into great ideas (and funding, and publications) often goes unrewarded, and can lead to burnout, disillusionment and a departure from scientific research.

No, it's quite often the middle group, the not-quite-brilliant-but-neither-are-they-clueless students who work hard at their research who most often achieve great things and advance the field of science. Off hand, I'd say that "good" scientists blend both brilliance and hard work.
"Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration"  - Thomas Alva Edison, c. 1902
Current NIH funding is this way as well – the science lobby insisted in the 90’s that the NIH budget needed to be doubled in order to promote more research, good, bad or ugly.  So Pres. Clinton signed into law a doubling of NIH budget that took 10 years to accomplish.  Within 5 years (at 1.3-1.4 x the original budget, the number of applications and requests for funding had increased more than 2-fold.  By the time the budget increase was completed in 2002, the applications for that doubled money was more than 5 times what it was in 1993.  Five times the grants cannot share twice the money without someone suffering.  When I got my first grant award in 1994, NIH was funding 24% of applications.  Now they pay 7%.  This means the good has been swamped by the average, or even the mediocre in funding as well. The only solution is to keep trying, and to keep working...

"Everything comes to him who hustles while he waits" - Edison, c. 1908
I have trained 5 students & postdocs in my career – although I have been co-advisor to several others – my boss has trained well over 20 – including those coadvised with me.  That means that between us, we have produced at least 12 replacements apiece.  While science and technology growth of the 70’s-90’s warranted that replacement rate, the current research climate is more appropriate to a 4-5x replacement rate, given that about 20% go into industry, 20% into related medical/science fields, and 20% drop out of science completely, 5x replacement would double the size of the field every 30 years, a much more sustainable growth rate.

In many ways, it is similar (although not as bad) as humanities and “___-studies” majors in which the student or trainee rate should be less than 1x per professor (i.e. 1x to replace at parity, or preferably <1x to get rid of this blight on academia).

Yes, we need more scientists, but as stated, we need good scientists - hard-working, self-motivating and creative.  On the other hand, what we really need is to train everyone to be a better science-minded citizen.  Then maybe it would be a lot harder to pass off politics and manipulation as legitimate science!   

"Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up" - Edison, c. 1887

Thursday, July 5, 2012

BONUS: DeepSouthCon video #1 [Full link to blog for email clients.]

First video up:

First contact panel - or as we called it:

"First Contact: Now being served at the crab shack"  (also known as The Great Sushi Conspiracy).

Panelists: Howard Tayler, Travis S. Taylor, Stephanie Osborn.  Moderator: Tedd Roberts.


Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Review: 1776 [Full link to blog for email clients.]

Today is America's Independence Day.  While in recent years my family has taken to watching modern films such as Will Smith's "Independence Day", a much older tradition was watching the classic musicals "1776" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy." I have a few prominent memories of July Fourth celebrations from my youth - complete with community carnivals, concerts and fireworks.  I remember being glued to the TV watching the Tall Ships in 1976, listening to the Boston Pops, and seeing the fireworks over the National Mall. I also remember lots of sunburn.

However, one year my family planned a long weekend at a rented condo on (North) Padre Island, Texas.  We planned to spend time on the beach, on the water, and in the sun - alas, it rained the whole time.  So we sat inside, watching old movies.  "Yankee Doodle Dandy" was the first time I had seen James Cagney in any role other than a tough-guy gangster.  For those not familiar with the movie, it tells the story of musical performer/producer George M. Cohan - a name as historically associated with patriotism music as Philip Sousa.  Born to a vaudeville family, young Georgie was performing on stage since the age of 8, and went on to compose, act, perform, direct and produce musicals and songs such as "Give My Regards to Broadway", "The Yankee Doodle Boy" (i.e. the titular "Yankee Doodle Dandy"), "Over There" and "You're a Grand Old Flag." The first two songs debuted in a show named "Little Johnny Jones" which was the second feature of our Rainy Fourth Film Festival.  Cohan loved America, and it shows in his productions.

One of the most amazing things I learned from Yankee Doodle Dandy was that James Cagney got his own start in vaudeville as a song-and-dance man, and thus identified quite well with playing Cohan.  Check out both movies, but in particular, Yankee Doodle Dandy.  It showcases a cross section of nearly 40 years of American history in stage and screen. 

At the ripe old age of 12, I was able go to the movie theater by myself, and one of the first movies I saw on my own was "1776."  I was fascinated by this portrayal of events surrounding the writing and signing of the Declaration of Independence.  While I knew the movie (and the Broadway musical) took some liberties with actual historical events, but I did not realize until much later how much it represented the realities as well.  Writers Sherman Edwards and Peter Hunt carefully researched the historical records as well as personal writings of the members of the Continental Congress to artfully (yet reasonably accurately) relate the debate surrounding independence for the original 13 American colonies.

This particular movie has remained a favorite - being the first movie my wife and I rented (and then bought), and one of only a few movies I have viewed in theater, VHS, DVD, MP3 soundtrack and restored director's cut DVD.  In a real-life connection to the movie, I once sat in an airport bar with a group of people conversing with actor Ken Howard, who played a young Thomas Jefferson in 1776.  Upon discussion of his favorite roles, I mentioned 1776, and received an appreciative nod and a caution not to reveal too much of our mutual ages!

So, for this July Fourth, I recommend a trip into American History via movie musicals.  You might just find yourself humming along!In the immortal words of G. Cohan: "My mother thanks you. My father thanks you. My sister thanks you. And I thank you."

Monday, July 2, 2012

NEAT STUFF: Brain Awareness Videos [Full link to blog for email clients.]

Last year, the Society for Neuroscience sponsored a contest for (mostly) students to create videos that promote awareness of the brain, neuroscence, function, diseases and disorders.  I stumbled across the site while looking up some information for our local pBrain Awareness Council.  This site lists the award winning videos from last year, and I'd like to link and promote two in particular:

The first place winner - The Treasure Hunt - consists of a young person reciting a poem about setting off in search of "what happened to Grandpa's words" after the grandparent suffered a stroke with lasting aphasia.  The video is quite charming, told from the perspective of a child, yet containing very accurate and understandable science.

You can view the video here, and it's easy to see why this was the overall winner for last year.

The second place video (at right) is quite fun, and presents a brief overview of brain structure and function as a hip-hop song.  Sorry, Keith, but this one just might displace Pinky and the Brain's "Brainstem" as my favorite brain song!

Third place was taken by a claymation-style entry: Synaptic Plasticity.  I may just have to borrow this one for teaching, it's a great illustration, although the neurons I illustrate don't usually look that happy!

The rest of the video entries are here and there is some very good work in the list.  The 2012 contest is under way, with the deadline in about a week.  Once the new videos are posted, I'll write about them for a future NEAT STUFF entry.

Until then, in the words of "Brain Brain":
"Take care of your brain, 'cause it's all that you've got - you'll live a happy life, and what's better than that?"