Friday, 30 October 2009

Invading Soviet Canukistan

I've long been suspicious of Canada. After all, how could a country so big, with cold weather be so rotten at Hockey? Just look at the last time they came even close to the Stanley Cup. That just smells plain fishy to me. What's worse, they never told the Queen to take a hike like the US did. I think conflict between the US and Canada isn't just innevitable, but desirable. Let's finish what the country started in 1812! Luckily, there are already military plans in the works for our invasion of Canada... albeit from the 1930s.

We're coming for you, maple leaf loving jerks!

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Substance Abuse

Sometimes, It's hard to explain how things are around the state. I've been asked to describe how living in the state is/works to someone who is considering taking a job, here, in treating addictions and abuse issues. She'd come to the conclusion that based on the number of job offers she recieved, Alaska has serious substance abuse and domestic violence issues. I won't say Alaska doesn't have those problems, and they're not serious, but the number of jobs metric is deceptive - part of the problem is we can't retain (or in many cases, get) doctors, PAs, therapists, etc. to move to the state. If you want a job in this economy, consider being a Nurse in Alaska. God knows we need it, and there's no shortage of positions available up here.

It's also hard to explain that the nature of substance abuse is different. Supposedly (and this is second hand information, so don't quote me on it) studies show that most teens in the states who abuse alcohol do so with cheep beer. Here, anecdotally, teens are more likely to use RR, Thunderbird, or bucket. Bucket is a solution fermented in a bucket. It tastes disgusting, but it'll get you drunk. We also have high levels of inhalant abuse. I don't know about in Fairbanks, but I'm guessing the good access to pot keeps huffing lower. This is pretty uncommon in the states, because this information really surprised some people.

So here's a post by a PA who lived in Bethel for a short period. They actually do a very good job discussion the problem with inhalant abuse in the vill, and its long term consequences.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

MHC and stinky t-shirts.

I'm going to talk about human behaviour and evolution here. Remember my disclaimer! Don't commit the is-ought fallacy!

Go ahead. Go smell your significant other. I'll wait! Back. Smell good, don't they? Unless they're splitting wood, or something. Even then, I bet they smell better to you than anyone else while splitting wood.

This isn't a coincidence. Human mate choice is governed by quite a bit, and part of the `goal` is to mate disassortatively. That is, you don't want to mate with close relatives. Part of what helps you avoid inbreeding is MHC. Wait, isn't MHC the thing I mentioned earlier to help your immune system? It's the same! It also helps you pick mates. Versatile, eh?

We suspect MHC because of a few experiments. The first, by Wedekind et al. in 1995, had men wear t-shirts for two nights without washing. After that, the t-shirts were sealed in bags, and were presented to a number of women, who were to asked to rate the smells. Wedekind and colleagues collected the questionnaires, and some DNA from both the men and the women, to find out which type of MHC they had. They found that the women rated men with different MHC types as being more pleasant.

People were resistant to this study, because of the long-held wisdom that MHC was for the immune system only. Eventually, the study was replicated in Brazil by Santos et al. (in 2005), except using sweat directly instead. Critics cried that sure, there might be an inclination, but surely other factors weigh out in the final mate choice. Well, we have reason to believe these turn into actual matings - Ober and colleagues analysed marriage patterns in Hutterite  communities and concluded that people tended to marry individuals with different MHC types.

Interestingly, MHC also seems to predict fragrence preference in perfume Milinski and Wedekind found that MHC type predicted the type of fragrance people preferred for themselves. This predictive power didn't hold over to preferences for partner fragrance. But this is, in a way, expected: for self, perfume is advertising one own MHC complement. For others, it doesn't matter what MHC they have, so long as it's different from your own. 

Humans aren't the only critters who tend to marry/mate this way. Mice (Potts et al. 1991) tend to do that, as to Fat-Tailed leamurs (Schwensow et. al 2007), and fish such as Three-spined sticklebacks (Reusch et al 2001). There are many other species that have been studied, and this pattern found - though others where it hasn't. It's important to note the magnitude of the mate selection bias varies among species to levels difficult to detect.

It's worth noting that finding MHC disimilar mates is not a hard thing to do. If this was just to keep offspring MHC diverse, it'd probably be easier to pick an individual at random - they've got a low probability to be MHC similar. All human groups have a large amount of MHC diversity, and it's been well conserved through most human lineages. Truly, the only purpose this could serve is to avoid mating with those similar to ones-self - such as close relations. Today, avoiding inbreeding might seem trivial, but you don't have to go far back in human history to have a situation where two individuals don't know how related they are to eachother, because of incomplete genealogical knowledge. If you're a ground squirrel, life is even harder, knowing who your family is!

But if you're a ground squirrel, how are you reading this blog?

It's interesting to think that this is all going on without our being aware. Aside from some researchers, I don't think anyone out there is thinking, "Gosh, this person is right for me, because their MHC is clearly quite different from mine!" This is all going on inside our nose and brain without us even being aware of it. This is just one of many things we smell, but aren't quite completely aware of - the more we learn, the more it seems we're some of the worst judges of why we do things!

Bonus points to anyone who recognizes the movie clip. :)

Monday, 26 October 2009

PLBs in the DNM. RLY.

Sad but true:
If they had not been toting the device that works like Onstar for hikers, “we would have never attempted this hike,” one of them said after the third rescue crew forced them to board their chopper. It’s a growing problem facing the men and women who risk their lives when they believe others are in danger of losing theirs.

Technology has made calling for help instantaneous even in the most remote places. Because would-be adventurers can send GPS coordinates to rescuers with the touch of a button, some are exploring terrain they do not have the experience, knowledge or endurance to tackle.
This story makes me mildly angry, because we rely on this stuff to get us out of really dangerous messes. The one day I have to actually activate a PLB, I don't want the guys on the end wondering if I'm just some jerk from the states who forgot to bring his toothbrush. I wish there was a way to punish people for non-emergencies...

Locus of Control

You might think Biologists look down their noses at Psychology. Well, you'd be mostly right. There's a lot of snobbery when it comes to other fields of science. Like, Physicists think they study the one true science, and everything else is just derived from their reality. Economists see most systems in an economic light, and question why other people just can't see how things work.

But I like Psychology, and I've taken a couple of courses in it. It's everything you didn't know about yourself - we're actually quite terrible at knowing why we do most of the things we humans do!

Recently, I started reading a bit on the Imposture Syndrome - it's where you feel that you've got to where you are by faking it. It's a big problem in Academia, where you're constantly surrounded by very smart people, and it makes you feel like you're the dumb person in the room who got in because of some sort of mistake. A related phenomenon is that you're more likely to seriously question your own work, and give other people a pass because you underestimate your own expertise.

A related thingy is the idea of a Locus of Control. It is a measure of how much control you think you can exercise in your life. People with a low score mean they think anything they do or don't, accomplish or fail to accomplish, is purely on their own head. That is to say, you think you can control whether good or bad things happen to you. A corollary of this is that when bad things happen to people, people with a low score tend to say they brought it on themselves. They also are more likely to assume their actions will be successful

On the opposite end of the spectrum are people with an external locus of control. The perceive the ones' advancement (or problems) as being due to things outside their control. You didn't get that promotion? It's because you weren't lucky, or there's grift in the system. Or something was fated. The view is more of life blowing them around to wherever they are.

There's suggestions that one's locus of control is derived from experiences in the family. Based on this, it shouldn't be surprising that culture is somewhat predictive of whether one has an internal or external locus of control - though, it's a weak prediction. Arabs, for example, are slightly more likely to be `fatalistic` (not my words!), and therefore score as having more external control.

There's a cool little questionaire that you can take online from a psych proffs' webpage, where you can find out whether you have a more internal or external locus of control. You can find it here. When you take it, just follow the instructions, and if you find one you can't decide on, pick the least worst of the two. For the curious, I scored as having a weakly external locus of control.

Friday, 23 October 2009

So long as you've decided...

Sadly, I haven't time for a proper post this morning. But I'd like to share something that popped up via slashdot:
Professor Ariely describes some experiments which demonstrated something he calls “arbitrary coherence”.  Basically it means that once you contemplate a decision or actually make a decision, it will heavily influence your subsequent decisions.  That’s the coherence part.  Your brain will try to keep your decisions consistent with previous decisions you have made.
The author goes on to describe how even basing an initial decision  on random data (in this case, the last two digits of their soc. number) strongly influences subsequent decisions. It goes back to the whole cognitive bias of `Well, it doesn't matter if you made a bad decision, so long as you made a decision.`

Thursday, 22 October 2009

The next big project

I was talking to a guy last night, he he'd said that with advances in materials, they can run hovercraft year-round, even in the interior. I was surprised. And then he tells me apparently they'd been running them up on the slope for a while now, in colder-than-Bethel temperatures. Why doesn't anyone tell me these things!

Part of the reason why I've been thinking about hovercrafts so much is I've begun drafting out my next project. While building my kayak, I started dreaming about building a larger boat - not much longer (my kayak is ~17ft), but wider and with a deeper draft. I'd rolled around projects the whole time I was building the kayak, and talked to some pro-ship builders who were generally supportive. I've even go as far as to begin researching, before doing - a novel idea, for me! I found a shipwrights manual from ~1910, reprinted in the 40s, that I've found incredibly interesting.

However, I've recently run into a bit of a jam. It turns out that since the 1910s, federal regulations governing powered boat safety have got incredibly complex. I hadn't read half the required paperwork, and I'm already feeling incredibly overwhelmed. I almost feel like I need someone who's done this before to hold my hand through all the regulatory work! So while I have a lot of drafting ahead of me, if I'm going to make this project work, I need to spend even more time learning the legalities of boat building.

Interestingly enough, the only legal requirement for a hovercraft is that it have a flashing light.
Maybe it's time to bone up on my aluminum welding? ;)

Monday, 19 October 2009

Don't poke an angry bear.

Believe it or not, I wasn't born espousing my point of view. It took me a while to become an annoying, opinionated jerk. And despite what my aana thinks (love you!), I don't always share it. ;)

This morning, I read a bit of one-sided, mean-spirited reporting from what I normally consider a reputable news source. I'll keep the subject matter vague, for reasons that I'll quickly make clear. But suffice to say it's something I care about.

Normally, I'd write a letter to the editor expressing my vague consternation, and if I was really upset, I'd place a call as well. But in this case, the story is about something I've always felt unsafe opining on. People who take the same stance as me, in my position, have a history of facing retaliation. Or worse. It's not the vague sort of threat you get from being, say, a staunch Libertarian in a Green Party neighbourhood (or anything like that).

It's easy enough to write an anonymous letter to the editor. However, those are frequently ignored. If not outright trashed. And I do have a name that I do occasionally use for signing up for things, so if get letters intended for my faux-ego, they get tossed before I even go inside my home.

But what responsibility do I have to stand up for my convictions? Surely using a pen name is somewhat disingenuous. Surely I should stand up for what I earnestly believe to be the truth. I've no problem facing down animal rights nutters and terrorists when it comes to standing up for my field, etc. Why not here?

Sadly, I think I'll sign with a pen-name. It's the cowardly way out, but I suppose that's how I'm feeling this morning.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Racism, obviously, is dead.

NEW ORLEANS – A Louisiana justice of the peace said he refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple out of concern for any children the couple might have. Keith Bardwell, justice of the peace in Tangipahoa Parish, says it is his experience that most interracial marriages do not last long.
"I'm not a racist. I just don't believe in mixing the races that way," Bardwell told the Associated Press on Thursday. "I have piles and piles of black friends. They come to my home, I marry them, they use my bathroom. I treat them just like everyone else."
In my experience, the words "I'm not a racist" is usually followed buy some incredibly racist comment. The full story is here. Oh, it should go without saying that this is flamingly illegal. It's not even close to being slightly legal. It's not even legal if you squint at it after a few pints, and it's dark, and you have pinkeye, and you left your glasses at the bar.

It's pretty damn illegal.

I know, now that we have a black president, racism is obviously dead.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Lower Yukon Fishing season in summary

  • King salmon harvested in 2009: 316
  • Annual average of kings harvested in the 10 years before 2009: 35,027 
  • Summer chum salmon harvested in 2009: 170,272 
  • Annual average of chums harvested in the 10 years before 2009: 63,341 
  • 2009 value of Yukon commercial fishing (summer chums and kings) for the fishermen: $556,256 
  • Annual average fishery value to fishermen for the 10 years before 2009: $2.3 million 

The summary Stats from The Tundra Drums. Here's the original source. There's not much positive spin you can put on it. The monetary value is almost exclusively from chum salmon - 20k of the 2009 sum is from kings.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

The other-other-hoverround.

How cool would it be to have an arctic-ready hovercraft? That is simply too cool! And asteroid hunting! My inner 10-yearold is going to hyperventilate. I don't know much about hovercraft, but I'm betting that it can't run year-round. Which is a shame, since having a single vehicle that you could use in both the summer and winter would be too neat.



Tuesday, 13 October 2009

"So we've rediscovered the Ivory Billed Woodpecker. So what?"

We welcome the recent announcement by the conservation partnership BirdLife International that they have launched a "global bid to try to confirm the continued existence of 47 species of bird that have not been seen for up to 184 years" (see But there are pitfalls, as the recent history of 'rediscoveries' has shown.

One of the species on BirdLife's target list is the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), a bird that was prematurely alleged to have been rediscovered in 2005. This seemingly improbable reappearance provoked intense debate within the scientific community about the veracity of claimed sightings and, more generally, about what represents sufficient proof of continued existence (or extinction). Accusations of 'faith-based' ornithology resulted, increasing scepticism among politicians and policy-makers that conservation organizations are often too willing to put public relations before scientific rigour. [...]

Some people really know how to get my attention.

I've been kicking around this idea for a while, too, though not as eloquently. The authors of the opinion piece make their case that even if we re-discover species living in the wild, the discovery means very little unless there's a minimum viable population. I would have taken a different tact, saying the quest to re-discover these species burns through vast sums of critical conservation money; money that would be better spent on species who are a little more accessible.

I do see a small amount of scientific utility in this, though - extinction rate is sensitive to what we a) declare a species and b) an and can't find. It's hard to talk about, say, Giant Squid demographics without being able to look at them (or otherwise detect them). So how hard we try to look for relictant populations influences our measure of current extinction rate. To get an accurate measure of the current extinction rate, it makes sense to apply copious effort.

That said, these expeditions are expensive. They're multi-person, multi-year affairs frequently requiring access to remote areas by specialist personnel. If you can't hear the dollar signs ring up as you read that last sentence, you should get your hearing checked! The price on the knowledge that a species isn't totally extinct, but instead a hairs-breadth away from extinction, is very massive, and surely that money could be used to keep other species from getting that far-gone to begin with.

Ladie et al. Caution with claims that a species has been rediscovered. (2009) Nature 461, 723

Monday, 12 October 2009

Smoking Nooks.

Anyone else catch the Nanooks on TV? I caught both the U of M game and the Mercyhurst game, and neither was pretty for the other team. Where UAF had a shaky power play before, both times special teams managed to capitalize on the single man advantage and puts some pucks in the net. It almost makes me feel good about the season.

I wish things looked so good for my other team, the Red Wings. They're solid as a rock; a strong mix of old skill and new talent. Except for that one tiny bit - except for the guy in front of the goal, Ozzy. And that person is pretty important. Last season he was pretty lacklustre, and this year it looks like a repeat.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Gambling on your grades?

I got this link from Marginal Revolutions, an economics blog with multiple authors. There are markets in everything. Including, apparently, gambling on your grade:

While hanging out together one Sunday afternoon, I mentioned to my friend Steven Wolf that I had an exam the following day and that if I were to study I was sure to get an A. (At the time, I was a student at University of Pennsylvania.)  But I was enjoying my Sunday afternoon, and I told Steven that I had no intention of studying. That's when, in order to provide me with motivation, we made the following agreement: If I got an A on the exam, he would give me $100, and if I didn't get an A, I would give him $20. Steven and I quickly realized that lots of other students might like this kind of motivation.  To that end, we began developing what is now Ultrinsic Motivator Inc. - Jeremy Gelbart is company that offers you a chance to buy class insurance, speculate on your grades, and other organized and legalized forms of gambling. I'm of mixed feelings on this. I do recognize that college education is a massive investment, and investments deserve insurance (Car, Home, Health...), so why not education? On the other hand, this makes me feel a bit uneasy. What do you all think? I'm curious to hear your two cents.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Bear Story update

While it's hard to prove that someone shot from the highway, it is very easy to demonstrate someone fired a gun in a federal closed to firearms.

Difference between Anchorage and Fairbanks #293

In South Central AK if you legally and lawfully harvest a brown bear in the view of others, and it's news in the Anchorage Daily News.

In Fairbanks, if you do the same, it's an average day on Chena Hot Springs Road.

All joking aside, the bit about shooting from the road is devilishy hard to prove. Unless there's video of the men shooting from the road, or a trooper witnesses the event himself, it's just the word of a very upset wildlife viewer against two hunters. If there were multiple parties who saw it, a DA might have a case. Though, again, it's hard to weigh the testimony of a group who is (understandably) upset that the bear they were watching was shot right in front of them, as they have incentive to lie.

Another problem comes from differing expectations as to fair-chase. Fair-Chase is the idea that a human shouldn't have an undue advantage over the animals they're trying to catch. Expectations vary wildly from rejection that any fair-chase is possible (typically from people who oppose hunting on moral grounds), to people who put a high burden on the hunter (e.g., rifled hunts are unethical, but bow hunts aren't), to a whole mish-mash of what hunters consider acceptable equipment (ATV okay? High powered scopes? Electronic predator calls?). There are a whole group who reject the idea of fair chase entirely, arguing that it is a hold over from European trophy hunting; that if you're hunting for food, no advantage is less acceptable than the alternative (i.e., not getting the food).

With the increasingly urbanized nature of America, the more strict interpretations of fair-chase will probably win out in the long run. The morays are definitely shifting towards stricter ideas of what acceptable human-game interactions are. That's not to say that moral interpretation is the more correct one, but more to say that in the future, it will probably be viewed as the most correct thanks to the changing moral zeitgeist.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009


Here's some things I've been keeping my eye on, in bullet point:


Public Drinking Fountain

Monday, 5 October 2009

Pie in the sky, and sonar stations.

The Susitna Dam is back in the news again. Any bets on which gets finished first? The Susitna Dam, or the Road to Nome? My project to build a Trolly Car line all the way to Hooper Bay is currently ahead of them both, when I kicked around some dirt this morning on the way to the outhouse.

On an unrelated note, Anderson's scheme to give away free land to revitalize their community seems to have failed. Who would have thought that giving free land to random people wouldn't work...

A while ago, a bunch of fishers in Marshall staged a fishing protest against the subsistence closures. A bunch of other people in other villages did it too, but they didn't publicize the fact. The Feds finally ticketed someone - the only person they couldn't ignore, who was a VPSO. Word is around the water cooler that they really, really want this year's cluster**** to go away. Days like this, I'm glad I don't do anything with fish.

Friday, 2 October 2009

2009 Ig Nobels are out!

The 2009 Ig Nobel Prizes are out! They celebrate research of questionable veracity or utility - you know, the stuff the Nobel Prize committee rudely ignores. My favourite study is the recipient of the Ig Nobel Peace Prize. They were awarded it for determining whether it is better be smashed on the head with a full bottle or an empty bottle in a bar brawl.

Are full or empty beer bottles sturdier and does their fracture-threshold suffice to break the human skull?

Stephan A. Bolliger, Steffen Ross MD, Lars Oesterhelweg, Michael J. Thali, and Beat P. Kneubuehl PhD
Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine
Volume 16, Issue 3, April 2009, Pages 138-142

Beer bottles are often used in physical disputes. If the bottles break, they may give rise to sharp trauma. However, if the bottles remain intact, they may cause blunt injuries. In order to investigate whether full or empty standard half-litre beer bottles are sturdier and if the necessary breaking energy surpasses the minimum fracture-threshold of the human skull, we tested the fracture properties of such beer bottles in a drop-tower.

Full bottles broke at 30 J impact energy, empty bottles at 40 J. These breaking energies surpass the minimum fracture-threshold of the human neurocranium. Beer bottles may therefore fracture the human skull and therefore serve as dangerous instruments in a physical dispute.

Keywords: Breaking energy threshold; Beer bottles; Blunt head trauma

So remember. If you're going to get in a bar fight, pick a fight with a person who's been drinking for quite a bit. Ooops! I originally said just started, but that'll get you glass shards in the brain.