Friday, October 5, 2012

The Psychology of that one line in Call Me Maybe

So, like, I heard this song the other day. It was by this indie band called "Carly Rae Jepsen." You've probably never heard of them.

Actually *removes hipster glasses* while most of the appeal of "Call Me Maybe," the song that dominated the summer of 2012, comes from its earnest simplicity, there is one line in the lyrics that has some real texture to it:
Before you came into my life, I missed you so bad
This line captures something universal and not at all trivial, the way that our memories of past emotions are reshaped by our current knowledge.

The thing is, we tend to think of ourselves as objective observers. We trust that our perceptions bear a one-to-one correspondence to the world around us. But the information that actually makes it from the outside world into our brains is much more limited and impressionistic. Our brains construct most of the details based on expectations about how the world works.

As William Wordsworth, the Carly Rae Jepsen of his time, wrote:
                            Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye and ear, both what they half-create,
And what perceive;
While this perceiving-and-creating is a good description of our perceptions, it is even more true of our memories. When we attempt to recall how we felt about something in the past, it might feel like we are accessing internal CCTV footage, what we are actually doing is more like reconstructing those feelings on the basis of crayon sketch by a drunk three year old.

For those of you without drunk three year olds at home, what I mean is that there are a lot of details that need to be filled in. In the case of memories, one of the places we go for these details is our understanding of the world in the present.

Here's an example. In one psychology study (citation below), participants were asked to predict how they would feel if their team lost the Superbowl, and they were all like, "OH MY GOD THAT WOULD BE THE END OF THE WORLD!!!!11!1!!!" But then, when their team actually did lose the Superbowl, they were like, "Whatevs, dude."

That's maybe not too surprising, but the interesting thing is that when these people were asked to recall how they predicted that they would feel, they tended to remember feeling like it would not have been that big a deal. That is, their recollection of their emotional state in the past was anchored to their emotional state in the present.

Similar results were found for studies on the 2008 presidential election, satisfaction from completing a major purchase, and how much they would enjoy eating jellybeans, depending on the order in which jellybeans of different flavors were eaten.

While "recall of predicted hedonic sequence" sounds like a totally awesome study, in a hookers-on-mars-with-three-boobs sort of way, this study was actually about eating jellybeans.
In "Call Me Maybe," there are a couple of different ways to interpret the line "Before you came into my life I missed you so bad." One possibility is that Carly Rae is, in fact, a time traveler from the future. At the age of twenty four, she met her one true soulmate. Unfortunately, he was ninety-six years old and was unable to keep up with her sexually. So, she traveled back to the year 2009, and then waited for her ripped-jeans Adonis to show up in her life on that hot and windy night.

A second possibility is that her emotional state after having met this guy colored her recollection of her emotional state in the time before she met him.

Here's that video of the US Olympic Swim Team lip-syncing "Call Me Maybe." While you're watching it, I want you to try to remember how invested you were in the outcome of the Olympics back in July and August. Then notice how little you care about the Olympics in retrospect. Now, recognize that while you think you were all, "Olympics, Schmolympics!" at the time, you were actually all "USA! USA! That Ryan Lochte boy seems nice!"

Don't you feel dumb?

Don't own it? Here it is on iTunes.  Buy It!! icon

Meyvis, T., Ratner, R. K., & Levav, J. (2010). Why Don't We Learn to Accurately Forecast Feelings? How Misremembering Our Predictions Blinds us to Past Forecasting Errors. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 139 (4), 579-589 : 10.1037/A0020285

Thursday, October 4, 2012

How much growth does Romney need?

So, among the things that Mitt Romney said last night were these:

1) His policies will create 12 million new jobs

2) He will not support any tax cut that increases the deficit

3) He will, in fact, eliminate the deficit, which he claims is a moral issue

He pointed out (correctly) that there are basically three approaches that you can take to balance the budget. You can increase taxes, you can cut spending, or you can grow the economy.

And when I say "grow the economy," I mean, put in place policies that increase the number of jobs.

Also, when I say "grow the economy," I throw up in my mouth a little bit, because, ugh, seriously, "grow the economy?"

Whereas Obama argued for a balanced approach, involving a combination of spending cuts, tax increases, and growth, Romney seemed to be arguing for a growth-focused approach.

Well, Howard Hill, a retired investment banker, did a little back-of-the-envelope calculation to ask how much growth would be needed to eliminate the 1.3 trillion dollar deficit.

He finds, assuming that Romney cuts the top tax rate to 28 percent (which he has argued you need to do, you know, so that the job creators can create jobs), and assuming that this leads to the creation of 12 million new jobs, those jobs would have to pay an average of $433,333 per year.

Alternatively, if we assume that the new jobs will pay an average of $40,000 per year, then to cover the deficit, you would need to create 162.5 million new jobs, which is about 12 million more jobs than the current total civilian workforce.

The point is, even if you give Romney the maximum benefit of the doubt, and buy into the tax-cuts-equals-job-creation argument, there is just no realistic way to tackle a significant portion of the deficit with job growth alone.

Of course, the thing that Hill does not explicitly consider is increased tax revenue from increased salaries from existing jobs. For example, if Romney's plan were to create 12 million new jobs, each of which paid $40,000 per year, and the salaries for the existing 154.6 million jobs were to increase by $40,000 per year, that would do it.

And, everyone could buy a pony.

So, maybe Romney wants to increase the minimum wage to $27 an hour?

Which brings us back to our original point. There is no realistic way to tackle a significant portion of the budget deficit through growing the economy. *hurk*

What Mitt Romney and Creationist Debaters Have in Common

So, what do Mitt Romney and Creationist Debaters have in common? Lactose intolerance, you say? Emetophilia?

No. I mean, maybe. What do I know?

What I'm talking about here is the debating technique that Romney whipped out last night during the debate. As pointed out on this Daily Kos diary, Romney was implementing something called the "Gish Gallop," named after Creationist debater Duane Gish. Here's a step-by-step guide for those of you who want to try it at home:

  1. Lie
  2. Lie
  3. Lie, lie, lie
  4. Lie some more
  5. Exaggerate
  6. Obfuscate
  7. Say one thing that contains a sliver of truth
  8. Lie
  9. When your opponent tries to respond, shout them down and lie.
  10. Declare victory and party with your dressage horse (See what I did there? Gallop? See?)
The basic idea is that you bury your opponent under such an overwhelming deluge of lies that they don't even know how to respond. 

Or, as Urban Dictionary describes it:
1. Gish Gallop
Named for the debate tactic created by creationist shill Duane Gish, a Gish Gallop involves spewing so much bullshit in such a short span on that your opponent can’t address let alone counter all of it. To make matters worse a Gish Gallop will often have one or more 'talking points' that has a tiny core of truth to it, making the person rebutting it spend even more time debunking it in order to explain that, yes, it's not totally false but the Galloper is distorting/misusing/misstating the actual situation. A true Gish Gallop generally has two traits.
1) The factual and logical content of the Gish Gallop is pure bullshit and anybody knowledgeable and informed on the subject would recognize it as such almost instantly. That is, the Gish Gallop is designed to appeal to and deceive precisely those sorts of people who are most in need of honest factual education.
2) The points are all ones that the Galloper either knows, or damn well should know, are totally bullshit. With the slimier users of the Gish Gallop, like Gish himself, its a near certainty that the points are chosen not just because the Galloper knows that they're bullshit, but because the Galloper is deliberately trying to shovel as much bullshit into as small a space as possible in order to overwhelm his opponent with sheer volume and bamboozle any audience members with a facade of scholarly acumen and factual knowledge.
In a debate on the morality of America's Founding Fathers, a Gish Gallop might look like this:
"Sure we think that they were good folks, but did you know that Washington not only had more than 100,000 slaves, but he also staged gladiatorial games and made them fight to the death? He also ran a network of opium dens and used his gladiators as couriers to deliver opium all over the 52 states. In fact Washington's opium smuggling got so bad that the British had to step in which caused the Opium War that led to the Revolutionary War and John Locke's famous statement that he had to be given the liberty to smoke opium, or he'd prefer death. That also points out another problem, in that most of the Founding Fathers were part of Washington's opium cult and Ben Franklin's most harmful invention was actually a process to purify the active ingredient in opium and inject it. That's right, Ben Franklin invented heroin! What's more, by the time Andrew Jackson was president the US government was so full of drug addicts that they created a soft drink that was just a way to get cocaine into their systems. Don't believe me? It was called Coca Cola because it was a cola with cocaine in it. Go look it up and you'll find I'm right, coca cola really did contain cocaine!"

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

God has 4095 parameters

So, over at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense, there is an explicit phylogenetic test of Evolution versus Creationism. With the help of the Akaike Information Criterion, Evolution wins!

Note, however, that this argument works in this specific form only for the Judeo-Islamo-Christian concept of God. Buddha is a Bayesian.

Read about it here.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Genetical Book Review: The Mapmaker and the Ghost

So, remember when not all kids books were about teenage wizards and sexy vampires? Well, it turns out that, if you know where to look, you can still find books like that. Enter The Mapmaker and the Ghost, by Sarvenaz Tash.

[Disclaimer: Sarv is a friend of my wife's. They got to know each other through the fact that both are in the New York area, and both had their debut middle-grade novels come out this year. If you are concerned that this may color the objectivity of this review, may I refer you to the Genetical Book Review's premise and guidelines.]

The Mapmaker and the Ghost is a story that I would say is of the same general flavor as something like From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. The setting is very much our world, and the adventure is on a human scale. In the Mixed-Up Files, a girl and her younger brother run off to the museum, and get caught up in a quest to discover the provenance of a statue. In Mapmaker, a girl (Goldenrod) and her younger brother (Birch) find adventure in the woods at the edge of town, and get caught up in a quest to find a legendary blue rose.

The Mapmaker and the Ghost, by Sarvenaz Tash. Want to buy it already?
Settle down there, sparky! Purchase links will be available at the bottom of the post.
For kids, I think, the human scale makes the story directly relatable to their own lives. At least, that seems to be one of the things that our kid loved about the book. (He was nine at the time he first read it, and has reread it multiple times.) The concerns that the characters have, about curfews and money and permission to go past a certain point in the street, etc., seem to resonate with the experience of childhood in a way that very few authors pull off.

Of course, as in any good adventure, there are exciting things that happen that go well beyond what most children actually experience. But those events have an emotional impact that derives from the realism of the novel. I mean, saving the world from the most evil villain of all time is, of course, exciting, but evading the gaze of a security guard can actually be even more emotionally tense and exhilarating, because it is a situation that a young reader can really embody.

Also, there's a gang of semi-feral kids with names like "spitbubble" and "snotshot," a mysterious old lady, a secret lair, and, of course, a ghost.

The book is appropriate for ages 7 through probably about 12. The main character is a girl, but the novel is strongly gendered, and will be engaging for boys and girls. (If you have a son who thinks that they should not read a book like this because it is about a girl, you should definitely buy it, thump him over the head with it, and then watch him enjoy it anyway.)

Now, on with the science!

As I mentioned, the central quest in the novel is the search for a blue rose that blooms in the woods at the edge of town once every fifty years. This is a big deal, because, you know, roses aren't blue. When you find a rose that is actually blue, it's blue because it has been dyed blue.

A few years ago, a Japanese company called Suntory made news when they produced the world's first non-dyed blue rose. They managed this through genetic engineering, taking a gene from a pansy and inserting it into a rose. [Insert juvenile and inappropriate joke here.]

Now, you're probably looking at this rose and thinking that you have to be pretty colorblind (or have a job in Suntory's marketing division) to call this "blue." Fair enough, but, that's the state of the art at the moment.

Suntory's "blue" rose, which, while lilac a best, is still pretty cool. As an aside, we could also interpret this as an example of what linguists call "collocational restriction," where the term "blue" has an idiomatic meaning in the specific context of the phrase "blue rose." In this case, it might be interpreted as "bluer than a rose normally is," much as "white coffee" is not actually white, but is at the white end of the distribution of coffee colors. (Image via Wired)
Here is Figure 1 from the publication of Suntory's work, which shows the biosynthetic pathways responsible for plant color. You don't find blue roses in nature because roses lack an enzyme in the pathway on the far right, which means that they lack any delphinidin-based anthocyanins.

Anthocyanins are the primary chemicals responsible for 
The gene that the researchers inserted into the rose is the one indicated by F3'5'H in the figure. This enzyme (flavonoid 3',5'-hydroxylase) is normally absent from roses, which is why they lack the bluish pigments.

Although only one blue rose cultivar has been brought to market (The Suntory "Applause" pictured above), they actually did the transformation with a bunch of different cultivars. Here are a few examples (from the same paper).

In each panel, the flowers on the left are without the F3'5'H gene, and the ones on the right are with it.
If you read Japanese (or trust Google Translate), you can check out more information at Suntory's dedicated blue-rose webpage, which features topics such as "Legend," "Brand Concept," and "Applause Wedding" (new!).

The authors note that there are various things one could imagine doing to make roses even bluer, including tinkering with the pH, getting other pigments in there, etc. How easy these next steps are going to be is less clear, though. It's hard to tinker without breaking stuff. Perhaps genuinely blue roses will continue to be the symbol of unattainability, and limited to great kids' books.

Katsumoto, Y., Fukuchi-Mizutani, M., Fukui, Y., Burgliera, F., Holton, T. A., Karan, M., Nakamura, N., Yonekura-Sakakibara, K., Togami, J., Pigeaire, A., Tao, G.-Q., Nehra, N. S., Lu, C.-Y., Dyson, B. K., Tsuda, S., Ashikari, T., Kusumi, T., Mason, J. G., & Tanaka, Y. (2007). Engineering of the Rose Flavonoid Biosynthetic Pathway Successfully Generated Blue-Hued Flowers Accumulating Delphinidin Plant Cell Physiol., 48 (11), 1589-1600 DOI: 10.1093/pcp/pcm131


Buy it now!!

What's that? You say you want to buy this book? And you want to support Lost in Transcription at the same time? Well, for you, sir and/or madam, I present these links.

Buy The Mapmaker and the Ghost now through:


Barnes and Noble icon


Alibris icon

Winning! Scientists drink the most coffee

So, Dunkin' Donuts has completed what is apparently their annual report on coffee consumption in the workplace (I always wondered what Dunkin' Donuts did). Guess who won . . .

That's right, scientists win, just like we win at everything!!!!

Marketing / PR Professionals? Losers!

Education administrators? Please!

Human Resources Benefits Coordinators? Wait, that's its own category?

Check out the infographic from I heart coffee.

Book Review Upgrade: Links!!

So, one of the features here at Lost in Transcription is the Genetical Book Review, where I review books . . . genetically! I cover both fiction and nonfiction. When reviewing fiction, I focus less on the book itself, and more on some interesting science related to the book. (Although I will try to give you a sense of what the book is like, so that you can decide if it seems like something you want to read.)

As of today, the reviews also feature links, where you can buy a copy of the book and support your favorite New-Jersey-based evolutionary-biology-and-poetry blog at the same time.

What? No, not that blog. This blog.

You'll find four links at the bottom of each review: Amazon, Barnes and Noble, indiebound, and Alibris. That means that you can indulge your own bookstore preferences, at least as long as your preferred online bookstore is Amazon, Barnes and Noble, indiebound, or Alibris.

Here are the reviews that I have posted to date. More are in the pipeline, and will be coming out soon!

Posts from The Genetical Book Review:


Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides.

White Cat, by Holly Black.

The Postmortal, by Drew Magary.

The Mapmaker and the Ghost, by Sarvenaz Tash.


The Psychopath Test, by Jon Ronson.

The Half-Life of Facts, by Samuel Arbesman.

Happy Birthday, Tiffany!

So, I'd like you to cast your memory back to the summer of 1987, when America's Greatest President™ was still eating jelly beans and slipping slowly into dementia. When Bob Saget was still just Danny Tanner, and America's Funniest Home Videos were fated to a life of obscurity, festering in America's Closets with America's Acid-Washed Jeans. When shopping malls were not yet cesspools of crass consumerism, but were rather utopian community gathering places, where a young a young songstress could pursue her dream. Not a dream of fame and fortune, but a simple, noble dream of sharing her gift with the world.

Happy Birthday to Tiffany Renee Darwish, who turns 40 today. Here, for your viewing and listening pleasure, is Tiffany, singing her signature cover of Tommy James and the Shondells' "I Think We're Alone Now."

[Need to own this? Buy it from iTunes! Buy it!]

Also, there's this

Monday, October 1, 2012

Support the Manhattan Project National Park

So, you know how congress is always gridlocked because no one can ever agree on anything? Wouldn't it be nice if we could find something that everyone could agree on, so that we could chalk one up in the win column before the end of the current congressional term?

Well, here's something. A bipartisan bill in congress would have created a National Park to commemorate the Manhattan Project, which was responsible for the development of the first Atomic Bomb during World War II. Unlike most National Parks, this one would be a multi-site park, including Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Hanford, Washington.

Robert Oppenheimer an Leslie Groves at Trinity Site, in southern New Mexico, after the first atomic bomb test. (Image via the Santa Fe New Mexican). Oppenheimer later said that the test prompted him to recall this line from the Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." Edward Teller later said that the test prompted him to start singing "We Are the Champions" by Queen.

This should be a no-brainer for bipartisan support, right? I mean, Democrats love spending money we don't have on frivolous things, and Republicans love to celebrate killing people in other countries, right? It's a win-win!

I'm being facetious, of course. If you actually pay attention to politics, you know that Republicans also love to spend money that we don't have, and that Democrats also love killing people in other countries, which makes this a win-win-win-win!

Okay, but to be actually serious, this park would be a great thing. Whatever your position on nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, there is little question that the Manhattan Project represents one of the most important scientific and technological developments of the twentieth century, and one that completely transformed the world. A National Park dedicated to the project would create a space in which the context and all of the implications of the project could be discussed and remembered. The good stuff and the bad stuff are both a part of our history, and it is vital that we remember all of it, and how it all fits together.

Unfortunately, due to the incredible pile of dysfunction that is our current congress, the bill received more than 50% of the votes in the House of Representatives, thus failing to pass. You probably thought that crap only happened in the Senate, right? Somehow this relates to the bill's coming up during a "suspension of house rules," during which a supermajority is required to pass bills. It also has to do with Dennis Kucinich being a sanctimonious jackass and misunderstanding what the point of such a park would be. You can read about it at geekosystem, in a post that features a number gems like this:
While the Act handily made the simple majority that usually means passage for a bill, it fell 53 votes short of the supermajority and failed. Thus, for the time being, a cartoon avatar of it will be forced to sit on the steps of the House of Representatives, looking dejected and hoping for a chance to explain the political process to passing children.
Question: if there was a suspension of house rules, how is it that no one ran up and gave Kucinich a wedgie?

There's still a chance that the bill could come up again before this congress calls it quits, so call your congressperson and tell them to vote for the thing!


Disclaimer: one of the groups that has been pushing for the creation of this park is the Los Alamos Historical Society, the current president of which is one Ron Wilkins. My relatedness coefficient with Ron Wilkins is 0.5, and my patrilineal relatedness is 1.0.