Sunday, July 29, 2007

List update 070729

Recent list accomplishments: #6, #10, #41, #62, #65, #81, #84. Further progress has been made on #9, #13(6:20 a few weeks ago, since then I've slacked), #64, #69, #83, and #94.

At this point, I'm 210 days into the list, and should therefore have completed 21 items. At the moment, I've only completed 20, so I'm slightly behind. Still, there are several which are very close to being done (notably the form a committee one), so I'm feeling pretty good about it.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Annoyance at trolls

After reading some utterly revolting commentary on Brendan's site (note: revulsion is not at all due to Brendan, who has no part in the racist commentary. He merely takes free speech seriously, and held his nose while allowing awful trash to spew out of the mouths of trolls), I am once again struck by the ability for people to be misinformed on science and try to use it in defense of their ridiculous notions. There's a lot of flat-out incorrect information out there concerning the biology of race, and I just eventually decided that I should say something about it.

1) It is technically incorrect to argue that there is only one human race. For this one, I blame a lot of science fiction writers for referring to sentient aliens as alien races. This, I believe, has caused people to think that race means the same thing as species; I admit when I was younger I was under that impression as well. In reality, a biological use of the word race is akin to that of breed: it is a group of individuals sharing common physical characteristics which differentiate that group from other members of the greater population. To this extent, there are human races, as it is indeed possible for most people on sight to distinguish, for instance, someone whose ancestry 1,000 years ago trace primarily to Europe from one whose ancestors at that time lived primarily in Australia. How many human races there are is up for considerable debate, but there are physical characteristics which differentiate people whose ancestry lies primarily in different geographical regions.

2) The fact that we can distinguish primary racial background from individuals with relatively low levels of population admixture in their background does not mean that we can distinguish racial background based on blood samples. There are a small number of known biological characteristics which are significantly more common in individuals of one population or another, which allows for a greater probability of guessing "correctly", but these are still probabilities. For instance, beta thalassemias are a class of blood disorders characterized by mutations in the splice sites of the hemoglobin beta protein. These are much more common in areas of the world with malaria, and different versions of the disorder are more or less common in various regions. If you have a blood sample showing a beta thalassemia of one particular type, you can say that it's more likely to be from someone with ancestry in Greece than a random blood sample is, for example. We can also use markers on things inherited from just one parent--the mitochondria to establish the matriline, the Y-chromosome to establish the patriline--and therefore trace a small percentage of any individual's genetic legacy fairly accurately. But this is only true for a small fraction of your genetic background, and it remains important to point out that ~85% of human genetic diversity remains within populations, and only ~15% exists between populations (Rosenberg et al, Science 2002). At the genetic level, humans are remarkably not diverse.

3) That being said, it is indeed possible for forensic scientists to make a determination about some racial characteristics from skulls. Morphometric data from skulls of individuals with low degrees of genetic admixture have some degree of differentiation which has been attributed to natural selection, particularly in characteristic regarding breadth and depth of nose (for example, Roseman and Weaver, Am. J. Physical Anthropol. 2004). However, I will also say from personal experience having looked at casts of human skulls, to the untrained eye the only difference among anatomically modern human skulls visible without the use of calipers is that of the Inuit v. all others, due to a distinct difference in roundness of the skull.

4) All of the above is written primarily about those rare populations where many generations of ancestry can be traced to the same geographical region. Particularly in modern times, though throughout human history and prehistory, there have been waves of migration and conquest, with substantial genetic exchange brought about therein. One consequence of the slave trade was indeed a greater degree of mixing of genetic information from Europe and Africa, more within the Americas than in Europe or Africa themselves. People often forget that we in the US are in a country of immigrants, and one in which significant amounts of genetic mixing have been common for centuries. If you take a random genetic sequence from you and two other individuals in this country, one who shares your self-described race and one who doesn't, unless the most recent common ancestor is within the past few generations you are not more likely to group with the person of your race than the person from outside it.

The level of information and logical reasoning in the commentary is severely lacking, from people arguing multiple different points of view. As a few quick examples for those who don't feel like reading the tripe: Black people are the descendants of Cain, and the mark of Cain is his ugly dark skin, and Cain was born from the union of Eve and the Serpent so therefore isn't a descendant of Adam like all white people are (let's argue against that with, say, Genesis 1:4 "Adam lay with his wife Eve and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain"). Greeks have a lot of Black blood in them, black women and mixed race children are inherently ugly (let's go with, say, the fact that the woman the Western world has held up as the ideal of beauty for centuries was a Greek woman by the name of Helen. This, incidentally, lends itself to the wonderful unit of beauty, the miliHelen: the level of beauty required to launch a single ship). Or we have the assertion that north Africans ruled Europe for 700 years (um, really? When? And who were they? The Moors held the Iberian penninsula for about 8 years, but the only major conquering of Europe which lasted any appreciable length of time was Rome conquering almost everything else, but last I checked Rome was in Europe, not Africa. Africa did conquer Europe when our own ancestors moved in and displaced the Neaderthals, but that's not history so much as prehistory). Other such drivel abounds, and none of it's really worth my time debunking. But, as is my wont, I will go after some of the misstatements, lies, and misuse of science. Race is a complicated matter in both biology and anthropology. If you're going to try to make assertions about what these disciplines have to say on the matter, spend the time to actually read about it in reputable journals first.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Fun with insanity

I've not posted in quite a while. This is primarily due to the fact that I've been spending way too long in lab, grinding out data for the conference I'm going to next week. My poster's back from the printer today, so I'm set as far as that goes.

This leads me to my other form of insanity of late: Harry Potter.

It's long been known that I'm a fan of the series. I fully admit that I laughed at them until I became one of them. I've even been restructuring the end of my week in preparation for this. I have a copy reserved at my local bookstore, which I shall be purchasing at midnight. Shortly, I'm going to head over there and pick up a wristband, determining the order the books will be sold at midnight. Then I'll go home, have something to eat, maybe watch a movie I have on tape, and then head back out to the bookstore. I stayed up quite late last night to ensure that I won't get too sleepy to just read this in one sitting. I'm planning to make up some food this evening that can easily be eaten while reading, in case I get hungry.

I'd actually considered not going to a midnight release. The lead of the book over BitTorrent means that there are plenty of people who already know what happens. I have some concerns that some punk might decide it would be funny to show up to the bookstore and announce in a loud voice what happens, just to ruin it for everyone there. I may end up making use of my iPod to drown out the sounds of the crowd, just to avoid this possibility.

This all is somewhat insane. I'm a 26-year-old man restructuring part of my life in anticipation for a book whose intended target audience is teenagers. Fictional characters have become real enough to me that the death of a number of them would be enough to elicit an emotional reaction. And, yet, I recognize that this is in some ways the end of an era. I'm anticipating this book much less than I did the 5th or 6th book in the series, having begun my own reading of it shortly after the publication of the 4th. In some ways, I just don't want this series to be over. Sure, the books are great, and I really enjoy reading them, but a lot of the fun has been the discussing of the books with other fans. My college group got quite into the series as three of us all chose to read it at pretty much the same time, and our discussions of it prompted the others to read it as well--some because they thought it sounded interesting, others because they were sick of not knowing what we were talking about.

This is probably the last time in my life I'll be so eager to read a book that I plan on reading it the moment it's released. This is almost certainly the last time I'll worry about finding out about what happens in a book while making no effort to find out anything in advance. This book is the 7th year of Harry's life we've seen. The summer is also the 7th year since I've been reading the books. I must admit, I like the parallel.

I worry, as I've mentioned to friends over the past couple of years, that I'll be disappointed with the resolution. I'm trying my hardest to give Rowling the benefit of the doubt, but after the ending to book 6, I keep worrying that this will be Archetypal Video Game Plot. The Main Character and his Sidekicks will go on a Mystical Quest to collect the Numerologically Important Number of Magical Items so that they can Defeat the Evil Villain. I'm really hoping they don't leave off their final year at school and become dropouts in order to save the world, and I'll be annoyed if the kids manage to destroy all the remaining Horcruxes themselves in a year, when it took Dumbledore a year to track down the location of one Horcrux he already had a lead on, and the destruction of another one crippled him. Maybe it'll all turn out great and I'll be overjoyed. Maybe I'll be left wanting more. Maybe it'll leave me wishing the series had never been completed--kind of like how virtually everyone feels about the Matrix. We'll see. But, in the meantime, I have a book to read.