Saturday, March 14, 2009

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Assumptions: Quote of the Day

Godel says you have to assume shit; physicists just give an explanation for why it is brown and smelly.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Snow Days are for Lazy Wusses

President Obama would like for you to all grow up and deal with it. "It" in this case is the weather. Quit being lazy, suck it up, clear your roads and get to work.

... Obama said he wanted to make an unrelated comment to the press. In a slightly amused tone, he noted this his daughters' school, Sidwell Friends, was canceled today because of a snow and ice storm that hit Washington.

The suburban schools systems and many private schools in the region were closed today and the District public schools opted for a delayed opening because of the sleet and freezing rain that made some roads and many sidewalks treacherous.

"Because of what? Because of some ice?" Obama said to laughter around the table. ...

He concluded by saying: " ... I'm saying that when it comes to the weather, folks in Washington don't seem to be able to handle things."

In the meantime, half of the graduate students in my department were here this morning for Coffee. We even talked about science for forty minutes, in a way that didn't resemble Lord of the Flies at all. No one else has shown up yet.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Books about Kitties: Dewey and Cheezburgers

The Winter Solstice is quickly approaching, so I know you're looking for gifts for the special people in your life. Lots of people like both kitties and books, so here are two book reviews of recently read kitty-themed books.

Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron:

On a cold winter night in 1988, someone dumped a small kitten into the book slot at the library in Spencer, Iowa. Naturally, the cat was dubbed "Dewey" and subsequently adopted by the library. Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World, while nominally the story of this apparently adorable cat, also tells the story of the librarian, Vicki Myron, who was Dewey's principal steward for the next 18 years. OK, I confess, I got this book nearly two months ago, from the publisher for free in exchange for reviewing it, no less. I had it read less than two weeks after finishing it, but I just couldn't review it. I was already having a fairly difficult month (why do you think I haven't been blogging like I used to?), and then here comes this book that I think is going to be chock full of adorable stories about a cute kitty being cute in a library. So I read it. And, sure enough, there are lots of funny stories about Dewey being a kitty, but there is also a lot about what corn-growing Iowa was like in the 1980s and 90s ... and about the ordinary yet difficult life of Myron herself, and how like many pets since humans have started having pets, Dewey somehow made everything a little bit better. The writing is straightforward and unpretentious—it's really just a librarian talking about her cat—but as the book is a quick read (and enjoyable, once you've located your box of tissues), it's sure to be a good gift for anyone who likes stories about cats or libraries.

For something more upbeat, here's a review of I Can Has Cheezburger?: A LOLcat Colleckshun with more words in the review than in the entire book, by probably an order of magnitude:

It's great having a hardcopy of lolcats (years from now this will still be a conversation starter, whether it lives in a bathroom or on a coffee table), and I was majorly looking forward to receiving my solid dose of happiness-in-book-form in the mail. As expected, it is pretty entertaining, but as other reviewers have noted, it seems that somehow the funniest lolcats were not selected for the book. (Of course, there's no selection which would not engender this kind of response from some group of people, but even though I'm one of Those People who check several times a day [I bought the book, this shouldn't be surprising, OK?], there were several picture/caption combinations in here that made me just go, "wtf? I don't get it. At all.") The bigger complaint that I have with the book, however, is the presentation: it could do with being a tad bigger, and having some space around the pictures. As is, it is sometimes difficult to tell immediately whether or not the two facing pages are one big lolcat or two completely unrelated ones, and the result is a bit of information overload (and not in a good way, unfortunately). There are several pages on which the presentation is really well done; some space around the picture, a cute little (unrelated) drawing. A few pages are "instruction manuals" or "classroom styles," teaching cats what such terms as "invisible" and "in ur" mean. (Though, again, these pages suffer from the page-size issue.) It's nice to see, in these cases, a presentation which isn't merely "paste picture from int0rnet into book."

Regardless of all these complaints, this LOLcat Collekshun is still a book of lolcats, and any fan of the meme will be happy to get a copy for Christmas or a birthday or a "just cuz." Srsly.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Book Review: Autism's False Prophets by Paul Offit

I recently received and read Autism's False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and The Search for a Cure by Paul Offit through the ScienceBlogs Book Club. Offit first details the history of various attempts at defining the cause of and curing autism, focusing the most on first the MMR vaccine and then thiomersol (which contains mercury), which is contained in many vaccines (though not MMR).

In general I found this book interesting and educational (all I knew going in was that the "vaccines cause autism" nonsense was both quackery and dangerous), and I recommend it to anyone interested in the so-called controversy—there is no controversy as far as the science is concerned—as well as for the book's interesting discussion on the interaction between science and the public via the media. People distrust science and its authority figures all the time; usually this just leads to ignorance, but in the case of "let's not vaccinate our kids" it can lead to death. Which isn't cool.

Summary: Autism's False Prophets begins by offering a pre-vaccine history of autism and attempts to cure it. A pattern is established: people come up with some desperate theory, put a lot of time and effort and money in trying to "cure" their children, some of the "cures" wind up doing severe damage, parents move to next theory. Then enters the vaccine theory, which is actually two-fold. It begins in England with Andrew Wakefield announcing that the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine increases rates of autism; he's even got an (unsupported) idea as to why this should be the case. (People seemed to not mind that he's had it out against MMR since the 1980s.) Meanwhile, as the MMR-autism link isn't able to be reproduced in independent studies and Wakefield is exposed as a fraud, a panel in the US realizes that the amount of ethylmercury in vaccines (used as a preservative, which makes the vaccine both cheaper and safer to use) is higher than the amount of recommend safe-levels of methylmercury. Spurred on by parents who have decided that their kids got autism after getting their vaccines (most austism symptoms become the most apparent about a year or so of age, right around when kids get many of their vaccines, so the emotional causal link isn't unsurprising), the panel figures that there isn't any harm in being cautious. So they announce that while there isn't any reason to be afraid, they will be looking into the situation. And all hell breaks loose.

Offit traces this aftermath right up to the Omnibus Autism Proceedings, a huge court case of thousands of parents claiming that vaccines caused autism in their children; the court's decision is due out early 2009. Offit then discusses how this controversy is a classic example of fear, scandal, and headlines driving the media narrative more than responsibly informing the public of the facts: the scientific case showing no linkage between vaccines and autism has actually been established for some years now. But, Offit argues, the public equates going online and reading what shows up on a Google search with scientific literacy, and our culture likes to buck authority, and so the result is kids dying of measles. The book closes with a short look into what actually does cause autism (it's genetic), and how a few parents of autistic children who know vaccines weren't the cause—and who don't like having their children referred to as "mad," "damaged," or "soulless"—have been responding to this whole fiasco.

Review: In general, I liked this book and found it easy to read. However, there were several stylistic points which were downright annoying. (I get the impression that while the author did his job, the editor did not.) First, there are several simultaneous storylines weaved throughout the text, yet as the story is not always told chronologically, it's difficult to keep any of the dates and the relative orderings of different "plots" straight. In this same vein, the book is written with the understanding that vaccines do not cause autism, but often the story is told like it is a story, a thriller: the case against vaccines-cause-autism isn't made strongly and irrevocably until well into the book, so someone could easily read halfway and think "zomg! conspiracy!!!" Also, as this is a book talking about how important believing the scientific consensus is, I would have appreciated it if the end notes listed at the back of the book were actually marked in the text itself. The organization of the book is also somewhat shaky, causing some interesting points get a bit buried in the text. For example: if vaccines-cause-autism really is this big conspiracy, then how come the scientists, etc. supposedly perpetuating this conspiracy vaccinate their own kids? Or that kids absorb more methylmercury from breast milk and baby formula than from vaccines in their first few months of life anyhow, a fact which is just mentioned in an off-hand kind of way in the middle of some chapter.

The two chapters towards the end of the book on science and the media and how the general public portrays science were both interesting and elucidating. I can't come up with solutions to these problems, but Offit at least lays out the issues well.

Monday, September 15, 2008

More Outliers from the Mass–Metallicity Relation

Last week, my second paper on outliers from the mass–metallicity relation showed up on astro-ph. In the first one, which I described here, was on the low-mass high-metallicity outliers from the relation; I described in that first post more about what this so-called "mass–metallicity relation" thing actually is. We concluded in that paper that those galaxies must be running out of star-forming gas, and thus nearing the end of their star formation.

In Paper II, we are looking at the other corner of the mass–metallicity plane: massive low-metallicity galaxies. (Yes, it is easy to get tongue-tied in this game.) Most of the 42 galaxies in our sample look like this:They are very blue and what we astronomers called "disturbed." That's fancy-talk for "they've been playing rough with their neighbors and so their gas and stars have been all moved around so they look morphologically... disturbed." The key here is that simulations have shown that as galaxies interact, gas from really large scales will typically get drained into the centers of the galaxies. As it turns out, this large-scale gas will generically have a much lower metallicity than the gas originally at the galaxy center, so the large-scale gas inflow will effectively dilute the central gas. Relative to the amount of time we can expect for the star-formation to continue, it won't take very long for this new gas to get re-enriched by metals formed during the star formation itself, so we can expect for these luminous low-metallicity galaxies to be relatively rare.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Book Review: Halima Bashir's Tears of the Desert

Over the weekend I read Tears of the Desert: A Memoir of Survival in Darfur by Halima Bashir.

Tears of the Desert details the life of Halima Bashir, a doctor who grew up in Darfur and now lives in the UK. Her story is told in a straightforward manner: how she grew up and how her family and village were important to her, how she went to school and enjoyed it and eventually went on the medical school, how war crept into her life until it became un-ignorable and eventually destroyed her life, her home, her family, and how she finally escaped from Sudan and managed to put together a new life in England. It most places—even the childhood stories—the story is riveting (which, unfortunately, also means that some of the explicit statements of foreboding come across and cheesy and unecessary). The storytelling is also often unexpectedly hilarious; I found myself laughing out loud quite a few times.

As a personal accounting of the history of the Darfur conflict, Tears of the Desert is a powerful story of how innocent lives are completely torn asunder. Bashir has lived through things that most of her readers cannot possibly imagine (yet, of course, as the book is written in the first person, we the readers know that, she at least, has survived). Her story thrusts raw emotion into the too easily glossed-over refugee and death statistics streaming out of the region. However, I found the book almost too insular at times; for example, the only year explicitly stated (aside from in the short epilogue), is the date of Bashir's birth: 1979. I was constantly adding and subtracting to determine approximate dates, and so as an actual history Tears of the Desert unfortunately falls a little short and does not serve well as an introduction to the Darfur crisis, and I fear that in ten to twenty years this fact will make it an even more difficult read. Likewise, no map is offered and only a brief description as to the underlying cause of the conflict and why the UN is doing little to stop it is given in the epilogue.

Regardless, a reader who first spends half an hour reading about the Darfur situation online should have plenty of context in which to set this book, and Tears of the Desert provides a far more personal and accessible accounting than anything the internet (or most anywhere else) has to provide.

Tears of the Desert will be on sale in the US on September 9, 2008.