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

Friday, May 31, 2013

SCIENCE FRIDAY: The Future and You [Full link to blog for email clients.]

In a recent podcast of The Future and You, host Stephen Euin Cobb cited an outdated theory of memory formation and storage.  Rather than simply issue a correction, he sat down to talk with memory researcher Dr. Robert Hampson to discuss the current science of memory, as well as memory storage and structure.  This interview had enough material for three programs, so here is "Part One" of Memory, on The Future and You!

Stay tuned for more in June!

Monday, May 27, 2013

MONDAY FUNNY: A new comic [Full link to blog for email clients.]

I've just had my attention called to a new comic by Dante Sheppard.  The name is "PhD Unknown," ( and so far there's only one panel of content up so far - but Dante is promising "Fierce Creatures, Biology and Grad School."  Sounds like my kind of place.

I've been a fan of Dante Sheppard's "Surviving the World" ( for many years.  It's a simple daily comic with funny and pointed life lessons written on a blackboard.  The anachronism alone is worth it, but the observation about life, university, science and ... well, life, keeps bringing me back.

Happy Memorial Day to my U.S. friends and readers.  Lots of projects in the works.  Just this evening I recorded an interview with Stephen Euin Cobb for his "The Future and You" podcast (  We talked for nearly two hours, so it will probably be cut into a number of segments.  I'll post some links as those segments are aired. 

I'm also hard at work on my next nonfiction piece for Baen Books:  "A Terrible Thing to Lose" about science and a zombie apocalypse.  It's a companion piece for the release of John Ringo's Under a Graveyard Sky due for release in September 2013.  The article will likely run in August or September on the Baen Books website (

Enjoy the unofficial beginning of Summer, and stay tuned as I finish up the series on writing research grants and dig out more neat news from the world of brain science!

Friday, May 24, 2013

SCIENCE FRIDAY: Not the Walking Dead [Full link to blog for email clients.]

 After a wonderfully relaxing and much-needed vacation break, I've been trying to figure out which topic to tackle next in the blog.  I have a couple of installments left on the writing of research grants and plenty of science news articles that caught my eye... many weeks ago.  Thus I am afraid I am not quite current and up to date.

Then New Scientist came to the rescue.

New Scientist is a science news magazine based in the UK, and they have a great daily news feed with many interesting articles.  They are a high-quality magazine (and I'm not saying that just because they've interviewed me) because they have scientists with real communications skills writing about science.

Just a few minutes ago I received the following on my RSS news feed:   "Mindscapes: First interview with a dead man" (  To say that I was merely curious would be to deny the excitement and trepidation I felt - was this about near-death experience?  pharmacological states of "zombie-like" mindlessness?  Some other metaphysical mumbo-jumbo?

Of course not.  This is New Scientist.  Instead, I found a fascinating article about "Cotard's Syndrome" an extremely rare psychological disorder in which patients are convinced (despite evidence to the contrary) that portions of their body are dead or missing.   

I have mentioned in prior posts on amnesia and brain damage that there are syndromes of "Neglect" in which damage to sensory areas of brain lead a patient to "neglect" or ignore a body part and act as if it is not there.  Visual neglect causes a patient to ignore part of their visual field - to the point of not consciously being aware of objects in that portion of their field of view, even though they can still have emotional or reflex reactions to those objects.  Somatic neglect (i.e. applied to the body) can cause a person to "forget" that they have arms, legs, fingers, toes - until they become rather surprised to actually see them, or touch them with the limbs from the opposite side of the body.

"Neglect" typically results from stroke or head injury, and results from real damage to the portions of the brain that receive sensory feedback from the neglected body part.  Not so Cotard's syndrome, which is not associated with obvious injury.

The most profound and puzzling example of Cotard's Syndrome is detailed in the New Scientist article - "Graham" is a man who was convinced that his brain was dead, and he was merely an empty shell that was walking around.  Neurologists and psychologists believed that Cotard's was simply a manifestation of depression, and there may be some common origins.  However, Graham not only told told doctors that his brain had died after a failed suicide attempt, his body eventually started to show signs of decay:  He lost sense of taste and smell, his hair fell out, his gums blackened, and felt like he was simply going through empty motions.

Brain scans provided the first clue to what was really going on.  Positron emission tomography (PET) scans of the metabolic activity of the brain showed that the activity in the Frontal and Parietal Lobes were suppressed well below normal activity.  Within the brain, particularly the deep areas of the Frontal Lobe is what is termed by neurologists the "Default Mode Network" which is always active when an individual is conscious. The network is central to memory of self, personal history and awareness of surroundings.  Yet in Graham, those brain areas were more typical of a person in a coma or vegetative state - so yes, as far as activity was concerned, his brain was "dead." 

Eight years of psychotherapy and medication have returned Graham to the land of the living - and his brain scans show a return to more normal patterns - but this case, and others with Cotard's syndrome point out a fascinating linkage between the brain, the mind and the body.  Without a certain minimal activity of the Default Mode Network, Graham had no sense of self - exaggerated to a sense that that self was in fact dead.  With no psychological investment in life, his body started to show signs of death as well, manifesting the lack of involvement in the physical world.

We often joke about "Zombies" as brainless individuals (as opposed to mystical walking dead) but could a complete suppression of Frontal Lobe function really produce the Walking Dead of story and myth?  I'll be exploring these themes this summer in an article I am writing for Baen Books, and I'll link it here when published.

Until then - enjoy your weekend and don't let your brain wander needlessly!

Monday, May 20, 2013

FICTION: Past Midnight, The Thrilling Conclusion! [Full link to blog for email clients.]

[In our last episode, Sarah had finally had enough...]


The Diner went silent.

Sarah was standing in the middle of the dining room.  All patrons had stopped eating, drinking and talking.

"There's only one explanation for this.  MASON?"  she shouted.  But there was no answer.

"May'yam?"  A small voice asked.

Sarah looked down at the short, wizened man holding a *large* key ring.  She barely controlled her temper.  "Yesssss" she hissed.

"Ah've got th' Men's Room unlocked."  There was no answer.  Sarah continued to stare at him.  "Ah'm the *locksmith*" he pronounced it 'lahk-smee-ith'.  Still no response.  "Baen sent me?"

Sarah took a deep breath.  There was no sense in getting mad at *this* fellow. "I'm sorry.  Yes, you unlocked it.  What was the problem?"

"Well…" he paled, "Ah cain't rightfully say. Ah've seen some strange contraptions in mah lahf, but Ah hain't nevah seen one lahk this!"

"Oh. No."

With mutters of 'Rex' and 'Mason' and 'lunatic' the entire Diner tried to crowd into the hallway leading back to the restrooms.  There was only room for a few.  Speaker was closest, quickly followed by Sarah and Laura.  Being the *smallest* in the Diner, the locksmith, LabRats™ and The Drool also managed to squeeze in. 

It was a Plumber's Nightmare.  Pipes led everywhere.  Many of the configurations were simply impossible – that one just *couldn't* turn inside out and still keep the water inside.  The pipes were of many types: lead, copper, PVC, glass, plastic.  Where the liquid was visible it glowed in eye-hurting colors: bright purple-green, deep indigo-yellow, intense cyan-red.  Water dripped, pooled and ran all over the fixtures and floor. 

No one dared approach any closer, either.  Off to one side stood a Jacob's ladder, bright blue sparks climbing up the wires, then jumping into the air, only to ground out on the wet piping and run blue-white and crackling down to the floor.

There was a faint breeze blowing out from the apparatus.  There was a clear area in the center surrounding one of the stalls, and on the closed door of the stall was the diner clock that had once hung on the wall over the kitchen window.  The rapidly spinning hands were the source of the moving air.

The sparks stopped.  The water slowed to a trickle.  The colors faded.  The stall door opened and out stepped Rex Mason leading a man with white hair and long flowing white beard.  Normal for Rex, he didn't notice the audience and continued talking to the man as fast as possible:
"…and you should see the tanks – I just love the tanks – although yours needed more guns – you should definitely have more guns – did you know that if you have enough guns and you fire three adjacent guns you don't even need a motor? –  It's just like a rocket drive – fire the guns and the tank moves in the opposite direction – Newton's third law – did you know Newton?  – helicopters – I just *love* helicopters – although they need to go faster – you didn't need that corkscrew thingy – but it needed to go faster – you could have put guns on the ends of the blades! –fire the guns and it's just like rockets – rocket assisted helicopters – that's a great idea – and if we use just the *right* rockets I'll bet we could get the blades to go faster-than-light – FTL helicopters – and since the blades are going around in circles the vectors will all cancel out and there'll be no problems with causality – speaking of vectors I was looking at the Vitruvian Man and you definitely needed to draw more arms and legs – I mean you were on the right track, but if you want to make him faster and stronger he needs more arms and legs…"

Rex finally looked up and noticed the crowd. 
            "Hi Sarah! – look who I found – I told everyone I needed to find someone who appreciated my genius – I just needed another genius! – master da Vinci, this is Sarah – Sarah, this is Leonardo da Vinci – I'm sorry, I don't speak Italian, but isn't that a little bit like Portuguese? – Say hi to him in Portuguese, Sarah – I don't want him to think we're *strange* or something!"

Back in the crowd someone muttered "That boat has already sailed."

Sarah was visibly trying to calm herself.  Speaker offered a small silver flask and whispered, "it's the Oban 21." 

Sarah took a sip.  Then swallowed.  Then drained the flask.  In a tight, controlled voice she said, "Rex.  What. Have. You. Done?"

Rex beamed with pride.
"It's a Time Machine – I didn't have all of the parts I needed after Chris took off with my FTL ship, so I thought 'Time only flows in one direction, and water only flows in one direction!' –  If I could get the water to flow in several directions then I might get time to flow in several directions, too! – I worked all night on it – sorry about the Men's Room, but I needed lots of water and I knew Laura would never let me build it in the kitchen – so I thought 'Where can I find plenty of water and pipes – and I was just sitting here in this stall and it came to me – so I made all of this and then I installed the clock and made it go backwards but I needed electricity and I thought we had this old spark machine and it's kind of like lightning so I put it in here but it makes all of the pipes  act funny and you feel all tingly when the water runs backwards so I closed the door to keep the LabRats™ out and I …"

"Stop. Rex, you have to send him back."

"But Sarah!  He just got here!  It isn't Fair!  I just wanted someone who would understand my genius!"

"Rex!  He doesn't understand you.  He doesn't understand what you're saying.  He Doesn't. Speak. English!"

   "Oh, that's okay! – that's why I worked at night – Speaker's here – Speaker's here every night past midnight – I figure if he can talk to the LabRats™, he can talk to Master da Vinci!"
"Rex!  He has to go back!  Your machine has had too many side effects – I've got Musketeers and poets and English Royalty and even Vlad the Bloody Impaler running around the Diner.  It *has* to be put back!"

Rex's expression fell.  It was a terrible thing to see.  One minute, manic and with the brightest expression a human face cold hold, the next, it was lower than The Drool.  It was a shameful, wasteful thing to do, but it had to be done.

In a quiet voice Rex answered " 'kay."

"Rex.  All the way back – do you understand?"

" 's."

"No little windows in time, no cell phones to the future."

" 'kay."


" 's ma'am."

"Good.  Fortunately I *do* speak Italian." Sarah turned to da Vinci and spoke with him briefly, then Rex led him back into the stall, closed the door, and every stood back as the pipes gurgled, sparks jumped, and the clock began to wind backward.

"So what did you tell him?" Laura asked Sarah.

"She told him it was all a bad dream and that he should lay off of the pepperoncini and no more than one limoncello before bedtime!" Speaker answered with a wide grin.


It was past midnight.  Once Rex had returned and dismantled the machine, things had returned to normal.  Laura had cleaned up the kitchen, Dick and Eeyore returned to the Tavern for a nightcap, but not before sending over an unopened bottle of twenty-one year old Balvenie Portwood for Sarah.  The other patrons had gone home, leaving s2la at his laptop and a dejected looking Wolfie.

"Lifted it again?" asked Speaker.

"Damn right" said Sean. "and thanks again for the ride."

The rats had finished cleaning and were playing with the new floor.  They'd set the friction coefficient all the way down and were playing their own version of air hockey.  "Set it back, guys, time to pack up" called Speaker.

"Sure, Boss!" replied Ratley.

Once it was safe to walk on the floor the rats hopped back to s2la and found their places in the pockets of his vest and coat as he put on his calfskin gloves and top hat then picked up his walking stick. 

After locking the door, Speaker turned to Sean and said "One thing I've wondered, though…"

"What's that?"  Wolfie asked, donning a set of gleaming brass and glass goggles.  He settled into the plush passenger seat of Speaker's conveyance as the steam release valve hissed.

"Why did Rex think he needed *electricity*?"


[This concludes our "filler" entertainment.  Speaker and the Lab Rats' Guide to the Brain should be back later this week with the final 3 segments of  How to Write a Research Grant Proposal, More MONDAY FUNNY, and the newly renamed SCIENCE FRIDAY news and comment feature.  Thanks for your attention!]

Friday, May 17, 2013

FICTION: Past Midnight, Part the Fourth [Full link to blog for email clients.]

[Things are not right in the Diner:  Sarah's speaking backward, there's Musketeers in the back booth, and they're speaking in Blank Verse... and just what *is* The Drool?]    

The Drool was not happy.  The floor was too slippery, the Men's Room door was blocked, the Dinerite's were acting strangely, and The Bassett wasn't here yet.

The LabRats™ were here, though, and they were usually entertaining. Only Speaker seemed to understand them, but they took instruction well.  It was a bit too crowded for them to start cleaning the diner, maybe they'd start out back.  The Drool would follow along and watch. 

Under the direction of the biggest one – 'Ratley' is what Speaker called him – the rats pushed a wedge under the Ladies' Room door and moved a sign in front of the doorway.  'Closed for Cleaning.'  The sound of water, paper rustling, and brushing sounds came from within. 

Amanda came back and stood outside the Ladies' Room and stood tapping her foot impatiently.  The rats finished up and quickly got out of her way.  The Drool wisely slid over toward the Men's Room.  It Would Not Do to be caught outside the restroom door when one of the Diner's females came out.

There was such an intriguing blue glow coming under the door.  A couple of rats finished in the Ladies' Room and tried the Men's Room door.  When it wouldn't open, then moved on to the utility washroom – handicapped restroom back by the kitchen.  With Laura still rattling around in the kitchen, they wouldn't dare go in there yet.

The smallest rat, Ratface, came back and stood in front of the Men's Room door.  He leaned on the door.  It didn't move.  He looked under the door, squeaked a couple of times, then squeezed himself through the crack under the door and disappeared.  The Drool considered whether to follow.  Certainly if a small rat could squeeze under that door, The Drool could do so as well.  The blue glow, though.  Whenever things Glowed in the Diner, strange things happened.  Meanwhile Amanda came out and returned to the dining room.  Strangely, it hadn't taken her very long considering that she had changed into that long dress with the ruffed collar.

In a little while Ratface came back out and ran back to the rest of the cleaning crew.  At least The Drool *thought* it was Ratface.  He had trouble squeezing under the door, and his fur was more gray than black, but since Ratface went in, it could only be Ratface coming out.  Right?  The Drool thought about this for a moment, and never for a moment thought about the fact that it was *thinking*!


"Dom. Lunch."  Laura called into the intercom.  Whatever was happening out in the dining room, she knew she had hungry customers.  She had a complete menu ready to go.  Soup and sandwich for Sarah, Faux chicken enchilada casserole for Dom, waffles for Dick, bangers and mash for Kit, a burger and fries for Wolfie, croque monsieur for D'Artagnan, fish and chips for Elizabeth…

What? Who?

"Ratley, if you're going to be in my kitchen, get to work."

"Yes, Ms. Laura."

"You and the boys take this out to Table 1."

"Sure thing.  Ratso and Ratfink.  Table one.  MOOOVE IT!"  Two of the rats grabbed the tray and scampered over the counter.  "YouDirtyRat, get away from the soup.  RatsNest, you will NOT touch the silverware drawer!"  The big rat had the most *amazing* drill-sergeant voice.

"Right." said Laura.  "Before those two get back, go and take Speaker's order."  He had claimed his usual booth in the back and had his laptop open, doeskin gloves, brass goggles and ivory walking stick on the table beside it.  Ratley had to climb up onto s2la's grey felt top hat to catch his eye. 

Sean and Chris had finally returned, the chase having given way to hunger.  Sean was taking off the jacket of his customary zoot suit while Chris laid his plumed hat on an extra chair.  "Serving rats!  ORDER UP!" Laura called, ringing the counter service bell in the window.


"Yes, Dom?"  Laura hadn't noticed the trapdoor opening, or heard footsteps coming up from the dungeons.

"Why are the *rats* serving lunch?"  Dom asked, taking off her flying helmet, glasses and scarf.

"Well, they were here and nobody has seen the mini-onions. Why do you ask?"

"You don't find that unusual?"

"Nope.  Hungry?  Better grab a seat while you can."

More customers were coming in, and the dining room was getting crowded.  The LabRats™ were running all over, carrying menus, delivering trays… even The Drool had been pressed into service – clearing tables.  The Bassett had finally arrived and was seated opposite s2la, stroking his moustache and saying: "Tepes.  Not Teeps.  Not Tapes – 'Tseh-pesh', you idiot!"


Through the outside windows the day had turned to dull gray, neither dark nor light.  Looks like  rain, Sarah thought.  Drak and Robin walked in.  Strange to see the dragons *now*, since they didn't usually fly in the rain, but then again, considering the amount of flame a dragon could put out, there was no certainly no need to worry about mid-air collisions. 

"So how was the christening and launch?"  Drak asked the Chief Dragon Lady.

"Wonderful!" said Robin.  " 'Kitty Hawk' CVX 80 is a beautiful ship, and perfectly named."

"Yeah," agreed Drak.  "They couldn't exactly keep naming them after Presidents, could they?"

"Is that the new 'Prince Roger' book?"
"Uh huh.  'March to the Market.' Just released, I pre-ordered mine from iMazon five years ago. Ya gotta love Baen's advanced release schedules."

Ev joined them at their table. "I'm surprised they found the time."

"Well, after David finished 'Great-grand-children of Honor' and John finished 'Circumstantial Aldenata Palladin Wars', Toni told them she wouldn't pay them for any more books until they finished it, and it *still* took 10 years."  



[Hmmm, perhaps Sarah's had enough?  Tune in next time for the thrilling conclusion in which we hear... 
"Hi Sarah! – look who I found – I told everyone I needed to find someone who appreciated my genius – I just needed another genius! – master da Vinci, this is Sarah – Sarah, this is Leonardo da Vinci..."

See ya soon!]