Why biologists shouldn’t be poets

Three Ninjas: what is it that proteins do?
Three Ninjas: they react w/ enzymes or something?
Three Ninjas: and proteins need to folded in a very specific way to interact with the right enzyme?
Three Ninjas: or…am i all mixed up?
Me: enzymes are proteins
Three Ninjas: oh
Me: Proteins do…everything
Three Ninjas: but if two people are an amazingly good fit for one another you could say they are like
Three Ninjas: proteins
Three Ninjas: folded just the right way
Three Ninjas: to
Three Ninjas: do something
Three Ninjas: ???
Me: there are enzymes that react with things, or structural things that hold the cell together, or things that act as signals, or things that regulate how other proteins are made or how much of them are made
Me: Well
Me: An enzyme binds a substrate
Me: Which is usually not a protein, but can be
Me: if you want to get really tecnical, an enzyme and a substrate that are an amazingly good fit would actually be really bad
Me: That’s what toxins are
Me: They bind to enzymes better than the right substrate
Me: So much better that they never unbind
Three Ninjas: i think that may not be the metaphor i’m looking for.
Me: So the enzyme is put out of commission
Me: Enzymes work in that they bind briefly, do something to the substrate, and then release it
Me: :P
Me: #overanalyzation
Three Ninjas: but proteins have to be folded into a very complex and specific shape to do their job though right?
Me: Yes
Jason J Brunet: GOOD ENOUGH
Me: rofl
Me: Goddamn musicians
Three Ninjas: :-)




And of course I think scientists can be equally good at creative pursuits (heck, I’m an artist too!). We just make very nerdy, scientifically accurate metaphors. Here, have a haiku:

Our love’s like poison
inhibiting an enzyme
I only want you.


…You should see the ode to fruit fly breeding I wrote for my creative writing class.

Goddamnit, Ohio

Yep, my rage isn’t directed at Indiana for once. The Ohio House of Representatives approved three anti-abortion bills yesterday.

The most controversial piece of legislation, known as the “heartbeat” bill, would prohibit the procedure after a fetal heartbeat is detected. Another ban targets late-term abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, and the third bill would restrict insurance coverage for abortions.


The heartbeat bill, which still would require the Senate’s approval, would give Ohio one of the most restrictive laws against abortion in the country. Heartbeats from inside a womb can be detected as early as six weeks of gestation. The bill does not have an exception for rape or incest.

Six. Weeks. Some people are just figuring out they’re pregnant then, let alone having the time to make the decision to have an abortion, find a place to go, take off time from work to travel there… There’s no sugar coating this. This is Ohio’s attempt to outlaw abortion outright. And having no exceptions for rape or incest is just despicable.
Ohioans, don’t let this pass in the Senate. Write, email, and call your senators now and support a woman’s right to choose.

Help a godless nerdy Seattleite!

You may remember my friend Jason, better known as his musical persona Three Ninjas. I’ve linked to his music before, since he frequently does nerd-core rap with skeptical, godless themes. That’s in addition to electronica and…hell if I know what to call it, I’m not a music person. But it’s badass.
How badass is it? It’s so badass that 20/20 is coming to Seattle to film him doing a show Wednesday night. And it would be awesome if his show was filled with other skeptical, godless nerds. So if you’re not doing anything, come to the Skylark Cafe in West Seattle at 9pm. I’ll be there!

Here are some of my favorite Three Ninja songs! See if you can catch my cameos:

<a href=”http://threeninjas.net/track/skeptical-featuring-jen-mccreight”>Skeptical (featuring Jen McCreight) by Three Ninjas</a>

<a href=”http://threeninjas.net/track/my-dick-is-kind-of-big-featuring-jen-mccreight”>My Dick Is Kind of Big (featuring Jen McCreight) by Three Ninjas</a>

<a href=”http://threeninjas.net/track/wallingford”>Wallingford by Three Ninjas</a>

How big are the health benefits of circumcision?

When Dan had me on as a guest of the Savage Lovecast, one of the questions I fielded was on circumcision. I knew that circumcision had been shown to reduce HIV infection rates in at least one study, but I also knew the reduction wasn’t that huge. And frankly, that’s all I knew about the research, so I didn’t want to assert any more. I hadn’t read the paper, so for all I knew, it could have it’s flaws.

Turns out it does. PZ explains:

Now Salon has followed up with an article that suggests that circumcision may actually have some health benefits. I am not impressed. They cite a couple of incomplete epidemiological studies in African populations for HIV infection, and they come up with some astounding figures: a 50-60% reduction in infection rates. Wow, with that kind of advantage…sign me up.

However, these are deeply flawed studies. None of them were completed: they all abandoned the protocol and stopped the research as soon as preliminary results gave them positive values. This is like shooting craps and announcing that all your dice throws were practice…until you get a good roll, and then, yeah, that was the real deal. That one counts.

They all overstate their results. That 50-60% reduction was in relative rate, in comparison across the two groups. The actual calculated protection in absolute terms conferred by circumcision was a 2% reduction in the likelihood of infection. That doesn’t dazzle me, either, and given that the studies were terminated when they got their best results, I’m not persuaded.

And finally, give me a plausible mechanism for how circumcision would achieve these remarkable gains. Tell me how it is supposed to work. If it’s something to do with hygiene, it seems to me that better sex and health education should have the same or better effect than lopping off bits of skin.

Again, the jury is still out. So don’t be using this questionable study in the name of “science” to justify chopping off foreskin. And frankly, it would take a lot more than a 2% benefit to outweigh the concerns of autonomy in my mind. That’s not even touching on the fact that most people do it thanks to religion (which is bollocks ) or “tradition” (which is also bollocks).

And while I’m against circumcision, I’m also with PZ on his final paragraph:

I also say as I always have that I oppose circumcision, think it is a pointless and petty bit of suffering to put children through and ought to be discouraged, but I also don’t think it’s as hideously damaging as the obsessive nuts want to claim. Also, in the context of the original post, I consider it a prime example of selfish privilege to invade discussions of female genital mutilation, which does cause serious sexual and medical problems, with demands that we pay more attention to the lesser concerns of males getting lightly scarred penises.

What he said.

The godless periodic table of elements

Ungodly News has concocted a cute custom period table featuring prominent atheists. Visit their site for the large version.Somehow I got in there (godless element Bh, down in the lanthanides). And obviously PZ is at the top of his column, because we all know he has a more difficult time bonding with others. Or something.
A failed joke about electronegativity. My blog has hit a new low.

Context matters

Rebecca Watson recently made a video about a situation that made her feel very uncomfortable at an atheist conference.

tl;dr: At 4am after a night of drinking with conference attendees, Rebecca said she was going to bed. A man followed her to the elevator, and once in the elevator, invited her to his room. This made her very uncomfortable. To spell it out for you, a potentially inebriated man sneaking off to follow you and only propositioning you once you’re alone and unable to escape sets off red flags, even if he was totally benign and had the best intentions in mind.

And this is all sort of ironic, especially since Rebecca had just given a talk on sexism and making women feel welcome.

Unfortunately, Rebecca is receiving some shittacular comments about how she’s hypersensitive and oppressing male sexuality, and how men are the real victims here because they can’t flirt without seeming like sex crazed rapists. I get the same sort of comments whenever I make similar observations. So I want to spell it out very clearly:

I am not anti-flirting. I am not anti-finding a significant other. I am not anti-casual sex. Hell, I’m single and incredibly interested in finding someone who’s also interested in atheism and skepticism. I’m trying to flirt and find a significant other when I go to events (I plead the fifth on the casual sex part).

But context matters.

Do not come up to me right after I give a talk on communicating skepticism and tell me a perk of my presentation was that I’m easy on the eyes.*

Feel free to say I’m cute when I’m rocking my black cocktail dress at Penn Jillette’s party at TAM 9.

Do not interrupt an intellectual discussion on diversity in the atheist movement with a unrelated sexual joke.*

Feel free to tell raunchy jokes when I’m having a beer at post-talk social. I’ll join you.

Do not reference my looks, boobs, or sexiness when introducing me for a talk or panel, especially when you would not do so for the male participants.*

Feel free to say you think I’m attractive in casual conversation and tweets, especially if it’s in addition to my intellectual accomplishment. I fangirl over people too – it’s okay.

Do not make numerous comments about my looks in an intellectual blog post that happens to contain a photo of me that’s not meant to be sexy.*

Feel free to comment away when I post photos from my Skepticon pinup calendar. You have the green light.

Do not follow me around the Skepchick party insisting that I drink your bottle of whiskey, after repeated “No thank you”s.*

Feel free to approach me or offer me a drink if you’re okay with the chance that I may not be interested. Sometimes I am!

And finally – if you miscalculate the context of the situation, if you accidentally make someone uncomfortable, if you come off as a creep but you really just had a brainfart and said something incredibly stupid and unintentionally demeaning – it’s okay. It happens. We’re human. It doesn’t mean you’re an evil misogynistic beast, even if we publicly discuss it so others can learn from your mistake.

But recognize said mistake, apologize, and learn from it.

*Yes, all of these “Do not”s have actually happened

Picking on myself

I couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I was checking out UW’s mental health clinic, mainly because I wanted to facepalm at the Traditional Chinese Medicine/acupuncturist screener. I wanted to explain why I was going, for two main reasons:

  1. I don’t want people to worry about me, especially since it’s not that bad. I know I concerned a lot of people, including some who emailed me personally, so I wanted to let them know I was okay.
  2. Mental health has a lot of stigma attached to it because people are so embarrassed to admit anything is wrong. And frankly, it’s silly. We don’t tease or shame people for having bronchitis or cystic fibrosis or other physical ailments. And hell, mental health is still physical – the brain is an organ, not some disembodied spiritual puppet master. If we don’t mock people for being deficient in insulin, we shouldn’t mock them for being deficient in serotonin.

I was especially motivated by JT Eberhard’s bravery in so openly discussing his struggles with anorexia on his blog. So I want to do my part in breaking down that stigma, and talk about why I was going.

I don’t pick on myself. I pick at myself.

Dermatillomania, Compulsive Skin Picking, BFRB (Body-focused Repetitive Behavior). There are a lot of names for it, mainly because it’s only recently being recognized, and no one knows quite how to categorize it. It’s part of the Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Spectrum along with classical OCD, anorexia, body dysmorphic disorder, hypochondria, and Tourette’s. It’s very closely related to the more well known trichotillomania, which is compulsive hair pulling. But instead of plucking hairs, I peel at the skin on my fingertips and lips.

It was weird when I finally realized there was a term for what I’ve been doing since I was a little kid. But it was even weirder when I read the description of the disorder. It was like a stranger has been secretly spying on me when I read this article:

What I am referring to is not the kind of little bits of rough nail or cuticle that everyone picks at or bites from time to time, nor is it the occasional blemish that people might squeeze or pick. These nail-biters continually bite their nails past the nail bed and their cuticles until they bleed and are constantly walking around with red, sore, and sometimes infected fingers. Those who pick their skin compulsively have their faces and bodies covered, at times, with red sores and scabs known as acne excoria, a self-inflicted skin disorder that resembles acne. The smallest pimple or blemish must be opened and picked at or squeezed, either with the fingers or another implement such as tweezers, needles, pins, toothpicks, etc. Numerous scars are often the result.

It’s funny. These particular examples sound gross and extreme to me because they’re not my particular tick. But what’s become normal for me is probably bizarre to all of you. I pick at the skin on the pads of my thumbs and fingers, and at my lips. It starts with a bit of dead skin that many people would pick off. But my problem is I can’t stop. You know how little kids like to put glue on their hands, let it dry, and then peel it all off? It’s the same fun – except I’m pulling off skin that’s not ready to come off.

Sometimes I go too deep, or go too far, and I’ll bleed. The result is bright red, scarred thumbs that look miserable and hurt to bend, or bruised and chapped lips that I perpetually blame on the weather. It’s clear that it’s a compulsion. You’d think the first time I made myself bleed I’d stop, right? But I’ve done it probably hundreds of times, and most of the time I can’t even stop while I’m bleeding – the job has to be “finished” until everything that can be removed is.

Why? The article gets it right again:

Another similarity between these problems and trichotillomania is that they seem to happen when people are in one of two modes. Some do it in an automatic way, as if they are in a trance and not really thinking about what they are doing. Usually, they are involved in some other activity at the same time such as reading, talking on the phone, working at the computer, watching TV, etc. For others, the deliberate picking or biting is their main activity at the time, and they will frequently interrupt other activities to engage in it.

There is also a strong commonality seen in the various purposes behind these three problems. At the most basic level, they satisfy an urge. Many report an almost uncontrollable feeling of needing to do them. Pulling, picking or biting also seem to deliver a pleasurable or relaxed sensation. When sufferers feel stressed, doing these things has a kind of soothing effect on their nervous systems, and reduces levels of stimulation. On the other hand, when they are bored or inactive, they seems to provide a needed level of stimulation to the nervous system. This probably accounts for why so many people who dislike doing them find it so hard to stop. It simply “feels good” at the time, no matter what the consequences.

If I’m stressed, I pick. If I’m bored, I pick. Sometimes I don’t even realize I was doing it until the damage is done. And worse, sometimes I realize I’m doing it, and my mind is screaming “Just stop!” and I can’t.

And as time goes by, it gets worse. Not in intensity, but in scope. The more I peel, the more the skin around the edge gets weak – so I then have more stuff to peel in the future. Which means what used to be a little pink spot near my thumbnail has crawled almost to the base of my thumb.

So that’s why I went to get help. I want to stop before my whole hand is a scarred mess, or before I take a chunk out of my lips that won’t grow back. I wanted to stop feeling ashamed when people asked what was wrong with my thumb (A paper cut? A blister? A skin disorder? Who was I kidding?). I wanted to stop freaking out about someone noticing it in a photo or when I shook their hand.

But I couldn’t do it with willpower alone. And I couldn’t do it with friends yelling at me to stop – that just made me feel even more terrible, which ironically would make me pick more. Though I did find a trick to stop picking at my nails – I cut them very short. Forgetting to bring nail clippers on a speaking trip is a tragedy for me.

But an unexpected upside to all of this? I get to geek out about the science behind it.

I know, always the nerd. But it’s intriguing. There’s a good sign this is genetic, which is also true in my family. And the hypotheses behind it are interesting:

Some have theorized that there may be that the same out-of-control grooming mechanism in the brain underlies them all. My own theory is that there may be some type of dysfunction of a brain mechanism that regulates levels of stimulation within the central nervous system, and that these behaviors represent an attempt to control these internal stimulation levels externally. People seem to pull, pick, or bite when they are either overstimulated (due to stress or excitement) or understimulated (due to boredom or inactivity). Many similar behaviors can be observed in animals who are kept in confined or unstimulating environments, or who live in stressful conditions.

The latter theory is supported by the fact that anti-depressants often successfully treat dermatillomania, though little research has been done on it yet. But if anyone ever wants a genetic sample, they know were to find me.

So, that’s that. I’ve always been wary of putting something out there that people can use as ammunition to show how crazy I am (or atheists are, or feminists are, or evolutionists are, or…). But it’s worth putting it out there to make all the other “crazy” people realize they’re not alone.

And come on. If someone wanted to call me crazy, they already have plenty of wacky things I’ve said or done.

“Wealthy, Handsome, Strong, Packing Endless Hard-Ons”

Greta Christina has a fabulous post over at AlterNet on “The Impossible Ideals Men Are Expected to Meet.” It’s a must-read. Not just because everything Greta writes is a must-read, but because it illustrates how sexism also hurts men. Which I’ve said a billion times before, but apparently not as eloquently since people still think I’m a hyper-sensitive libido castrating feminazi spider monkey.
Yeah, I didn’t get the spider monkey comment either, until I did a bit of research. Apparently the spider monkey mating system consists of females approaching the males! How utterly backwards. Those goddamn feminist monkeys.

Miss USA contestants on evolution

Beauty pageants, along with Hooters restaurants, are on my list of Things I Wish Would Drop Off The Face of the Planet. They desperately attempt to market themselves as something more than a superficial patriarchython by including a talent portion (“Look, I can play the piano mediocrely!) and an interview on a hot button issue. But listen to how the contestants answer “Should evolution be taught in schools” and you’ll see education and intelligence is not how you become a state representative (if you can stomach the whole video):

The thing that kills me is how many people think evolution should be taught just because people need to be exposed to different opinions. No, it should be taught because it is true. Graabbaelaelkeellele!!!

The upside to all of this? One of the few very-pro evolution contestants was the winner, with this response:

I was taught evolution in high school. I do believe in it. I’m a huge science geek. [...] I like to believe in the big bang theory and, you know, the evolution of humans throughout time.


Maybe there’s some hope after all. Though I don’t blame these women in particular. The US is woefully uneducated when it comes to evolution – they’re just a product of our culture and terrible science standards.

EDIT: Miss Vermont wins at everything (13:00 in):

“I think evolution should be taught in schools because not everybody necessarily has the same religious background, and it’s important to have scientific facts about the world. And we do know that evolution exists, even on a small scale like with people, and with bacteria that are becoming resistant to drugs and what not. So, might as well learn about it.”

Hope!