Oh old board games

So I went home this weekend to see family and friends. Whenever my friend Mike and I get together, for some unholy reason we play Trivial Pursuit (the most aptly named board game ever). It usually starts off fun, but ends in me throwing pieces after I’ve missed my wedge question for Sports & Leisure or Entertainment for the 15th time. Though this time was special – I couldn’t find our new version of the game, so we had to settle for my parents’ ancient 1981 version. Just to give you some perspective on how hard that is for us, I was born in 1987, Russia was the USSR, and you have to differentiate between East and West Germany.

But what was the worst category? Science and Nature. Usually that’s my go-to subject, but the questions were so ridiculous I had to write some of them down. My four favorites:

Q: What’s the only mammal that can’t fly that can fly?
Me: …Are you kidding me?
A: Man
Mike: That sounds more like a joke than a trivia question.

Q: What sign of the zodiac falls between Nov 22 and Dec 21?
Me: What the hell?!?!?! Why is there an astrology question in SCIENCE and NATURE?!
A: Sagittarius (Unfortunately I knew it anyway, I was a big astrology buff back in the day…I know, we all have our shortcomings)
And then we proceeded to get FIVE MORE astrology questions throughout the game. I can only imagine how many there were total.

Q: Name the three Kingdoms of nature.
Me: Three?? Aren’t there like, five kingdoms? Damnit, old game.
Mike: Well, what are the five?
Me: Um…animals, plants, fungi, protists, and bacteria or whatever. Hm…what three would they say in 1981… I’m going to say Animals, plants, and bacteria.
A: Animal, vegetable, mineral
Me: What the hell?! Mineral isn’t even a living thing! (And upon further inspection, the five kingdoms were developed in 1969, so screw you Trivial Pursuit)

Q: What’s considered the most highly specialized mammal?
Me: …Well technically each mammal is highly specialized for the particular niche it evolved in. What the hell is this even asking?
A: The whale
Me: I hate this game

In conclusion, don’t play old versions of Trivial Pursuit unless you want to be frustrated, or you want a unique outlook on how far we’ve come in science in the last 30 years. Or you want to watch your scientist friends throw mini tantrums.

Judge refuses to dismiss National Day of Prayer case

From AP (short enough that I’ll just copy and paste the whole thing):

“MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A federal judge has refused to dismiss a lawsuit that claims the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled this week the case brought by the Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation can move forward with discovery.

A federal law sets the first Thursday in May as the day for presidents to issue proclamations asking Americans to pray.

Crabb says the nation’s largest group of atheists and agnostics faces a heavy burden in proving the tradition violates the separation of church and state. But she says it should have an opportunity to do so.

The Obama administration and National Day of Prayer Task Force filed motions to dismiss the case, but Crabb rejected them as premature.”

Great to see that a judge is at least willing to hear the case. We obviously haven’t won anything yet, but it’s a first step. I don’t see how you could possibly interpret a federal law proclaming a day of prayer as constitutional. It scares me a bit that the Obama administration was one of the groups trying to dismiss the case. Anyone know anything more about that? If that’s true, shame on you, Obama administration. They keep doing more and more stuf that makes me uneasy…

Human FOXP2 in Chimps – Ethical or not?

Jerry Coyne, one of my favorite evolutionary biologists who blogs over at Why Evolution is True, talked about the mouse FOXP2 experiment I mentioned the other day. He definitely took a bit of the wind out of my sails, since I had gotten pretty excited, but he’s probably more realistic than I am about this thing. However, one thing got to me:

“Of course the definitive experiment, swapping a human or chimp gene with the copy from the other species, and observing the result, is unethical.”

Noooooo! There goes my experiment.

But seriously. Forgive me if I’m just being a naive young scientist – I am but a lowly undergrad – but why would one argue that doing this experiment with a chimp would be unethical? He states it like it’s such an obvious black and white issue – “Of course” it’s unethical. But I would be more inclined to view it as a gray area. It’s highly unlikely we’d create apes who run around speaking French ala Michael Crichton’s Next. Many more genes than FOXP2 control the various brain and throat structures associated with human speech for us to see this happen.

Do we just have some special connection with chimps because they’re our cousins? If so it seems like we’re applying the Scala Naturae to our ideas of what’s okay to experiment on and what’s not (one of my big pet peeves). Fruit flies and mice are just lowly creatures, but a chimpanzee is too close to the “perfection” of humans to fiddle with. I know we experiement on chimpanzees – but why are those studies okay, yet this one wouldn’t be?

I’m not necessarily defending my half-joking experiment of sticking FOXP2 in chimps and seeing what happens. I’m just honestly curious what people think and the reasoning behind these ethics. There’s no “Ethics in Science 101″ class we’re all required to take (though there should be), so I love talking about this kind of stuff. What do you think? Is putting the human gene for “speech” into chimpanzees going too far? Where do we draw the line?

Evolving Robot Behavior

Yet another reason why science is freaking amazing. Swiss scientists have a population of robots, and they’re watching their behavior evolve. Each robot had LEDs and photodetectors, and its habitat consists of battery-charging “food” zones, and battery-draining “poison” zones. Their programming is initially random, and after they’ve traveled around their habitat a certain amount of time, the scientists turn them off and select the robots with the highest battery life. The programming from these robots gets combined and is used in the next generation.

Repeated enough times, and you start seeing trends. The robots “learn” to approach the food and stay away from the poison. Not only that, but you see the emergence of cheaters and helpers. Cheaters lure robots to the poison, only to go eat the food now that the other robots are busy being poisoned. And the helpers go stand by the poison and warn other robots with their blinky lights to not come near it.

How freaking cool is that? I for one welcome our new robot overlords. I just hope the equilibrium frequency for cheaters stays low.

Mice given human speech gene

Man, science is so cool. Stuff like this is why I’m a geneticist. The FOXP2 gene is considered the “language gene” in humans. People who have nonfunctional versions of the gene have a hard time controlling the fine movements in the face needed for forming words, and their areas of the brain associated with language are less active. FOXP2 is found throughout the animal kingdom and is associated with vocalization and song learning. It is also highly conserved – except in humans. While mice and chimpanzees have the same version of the gene, humans have two non synonymous mutations – that is, two different amino acids.

So what did these scientists do? They stuck the human version of FOXP2 into mice to see what would happen. No, the mice didn’t start talking like Mickey, but they showed changes in brain structure that is associated with human speech and had different ultrasonic vocalizations. Unfortunately we’re not fluent in Mouseish, so we don’t know if these mouse pups are suddenly speaking at a Shakespearean level, but it’s still pretty neat.

This is especially exciting because we kept coming back to this topic in my Eukaryotic genetics class. Our professor was telling us the above information about FOXP2. “What if you put a human FOXP2 in a chimpanzee?” a student asked. “I wonder what would happen.” Half of the class’s eyes twinkled with mad scientist glee (the half that will be researchers, not med students I assume). Our professor sort of laughed nervously. “I don’t know, have fun getting an ethics committee to accept that.” I turned to one of my friends and mouthed, presumably with an evil grin, “I’m gonna do it!!” and it turned into a running joke for the class. She’s the one who sent me the article. We haven’t been scooped quite yet, but almost!! I better get crackin’ on my talking chimp.

Wikipedia bans Church of Scientology

People using IP addressed owned by the Church of Scientology will no longer be able to edit Wikipedia articles. Apparently members of the church have kept trying to edit articles to be pro-Scientology, which goes against Wikipedia’s neutrality rules.

Ha.

Seriously though, Scientology creeps me out big time. It’s scary how much they try to control and censor anyone talking about their organization. People like to point out how it’s just a cult, but really, it’s not that much different than other religions – they’re just cults that have somehow become socially acceptable. Hopefully Scientology never reaches that point, but you never know…

And Japan fills in for Jennifer

I’m lacking inspiration at the moment – sorry folks. I’d like to blame the drugs, but I’m done with them and actually feeling great. I’m going home for the weekend, so maybe driving through rural Indiana will inspire me. Until then here are some videos from Japan that scare me and make me laugh at the same time:

Is a battle ever too hard to even bother?

I mentioned a couple of days ago that our student group was going to start fighting religious aspects of our public university’s graduation program (I didn’t get many comments, so I’m going to assume you all just sort of passively agreed with me). I sent out an email to our club for feedback, and I received a lot of great advice on who to contact, various things to consider, etc. Most of the feedback was positive and contained the humble comment that this was going to be a difficult battle. I’m fully aware of that, especially knowing Purdue. It’s an extremely conservative university, and it…well, generally ignores any student activism that takes place about its policies.

But I received one email that was a bit of a downer from a staff member at Purdue (who I know to be an atheist activist). He said the Provost would surely politely blow us off, promising to look into it but never speaking to us again. I thought, yeah, so what? I know it’s going to be difficult and we’ll have to deal with bureaucratic bullshit, but we know what to do. He then told me to not even bother, and to spend the club’s efforts doing projects we could actually succeed at.

Well boo on him.

At what point do we just sit down and shut up because doing anything would be too difficult? Because it would likely lead to failure? Even if we can’t get the obnoxious “Amen” singing removed, our fight is at least symbolic. We’re showing the university that we don’t agree with what they’re doing, and we’re showing others who agree with us that they’re not alone. I mean, you could have told all the Anti-Prop8 protesters to just go home, because judges obviously aren’t going to be swayed by some signs (well, hopefully), but should they have? No, I don’t think so.

I think this is a problem the atheist movement faces a lot mostly from the outside – people asking why we’re so angry, what’s the point, don’t we have better things to do? It’s just a bit disheartening when I hear a fellow atheist telling me “Don’t bother.” If we don’t bother, who will? If the national government wants to institute a time for prayer in school, do we just sit back and say “Well Big Brother is too strong. No way they’d listen to us,” and throw our hands up in the air? No, we try our damnedest to fight it.

I think this can all be summed up by one of my favorite quotes:

“Dark and difficult times lie ahead. Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.” – Albus Dumbledore

This club has waited two years building up our good reputation before attempting something that will likely piss off the campus. Now’s the time to do what’s right.

Not Cool, California

“California high courts upholds same-sex marriage ban”

California, I am very disappointed in you. You’ve been moved to the list of “Very Uncool States.” Yeah, I’m grouping you with the likes of Alabama and Arkansas now. How does that feel?

Sigh. At least they’re letting all the marriages performed before Prop 8 remian. I can’t imagine how horrible it would be to tell someone “Nope, your marriage doesn’t count any more.” Probably only a little worse than “Nope, you’re love doesn’t count enough to get married.”

Grumble grumble.

Tylenol 3 + Benzonatate = Crazy Iron Chef Sleep Walking

I guess the meds they put me on are extra special. I’m feeling pretty good today (only mild stuffiness and medium coughing now!) but I haven’t slept well in days. Why? I’ve had crazy pseudo-sleep walking experiences that keep waking me up. I say pseudo-sleep walking because I’m sort of aware of what I’m doing, enough that I can remember it, but I’m like a slave to my bizarre dreams. And what have all my bizarre dreams been about?

Iron Chef.

This is what I get for watching almost nothing but the Food Network since Wednesday.

I’ll basically dream about cooking some sort of recipe, then I find myself sitting up in my bed with my mind telling me to move around the room to finish cooking things. I’ve actually found myself molding my sheets into shapes, moving around to sit at my desk, and walking to the bathroom. The part that makes this hilarious and scary to me is that I’m conscious enough to know it’s ridiculous, but I feel like I can’t fight it. To give you an idea of how surreal this is, this is almost verbatim what has been going through my head:

Dream Jen: Ok you need to compare the two dishes, are they finished cooking?
Me: Two dishes? I don’t see food
Dream Jen: Come on, the cuban is to your left and the hamburger is to your right.
Me: *looks at bundled up sheets to her left and right* Oh, of course.
Dream Jen: Well you better finish cooking them
Me: But..but what am I supposed to do? I don’t have cooking supplies here
Dream Jen: Yes you do! Use your grill!
Me: *goes over and sits by desk and stares at it* This grill isn’t working right… I think it’s just a desk
Dream Jen: No, it IS a grill
Me: ..But….
Dream Jen: Why haven’t you chosen the best dish yet? What are you doing?
Me: I’m so confused =(
Dream Jen: Well it’s time for dessert. Go get dessert.
Me: *goes into the bathroom, where dessert is apparently held* Why am I in the bathroom? I don’t need to pee.
Dream Jen: The theme is religious cookies. Grab the ones with the crosses on them.
Me: Oh, ok *grabs some toilet paper* I think I’m going to go back to bed now…
Dream Jen: No! You can’t sleep until you finish your challenge! Pick the best dish!
Me: But this is just my bed sheet. Gahhh =(

Then I force myself to flatten out my entrées/sheets, sleep for two more hours, then repeat. This has happened the last two nights. Yeah, I think my mind is a little fucked up right now.

I shouldn’t be too surprised, since I used to do this as a little kid. In the middle of the night I would walk into my parents bedroom and ask for random stuff, they would just say “Go back to sleep, Jennifer,” I’d turn back to my room and sleep, and not remember a thing about it. My mom was always afraid I was going to sleepwalk and tumble down the stairs or something. I still occasionally do the weird sitting up in bed while still asleep thing (which I didn’t realize was sleep walking for a while), mostly when I’m stressed. It was never an issue until I got my first roommate my freshman year. She saw me doing it one night and she thought I was possessed or something, ahahaha.

But yeah, usually sitting up isn’t followed by a cooking competition. At least no one was sleeping next to me, or I may have tried to tenderize them.