Unrelated to all that, 7/4 edition

Statistical poetry

Outliers we dread,
But luckily they’re few.
When no one is looking,
We know what to do.

Is it time to redraw the map of the brain?

Lesion mapping is a fundamental tool of modern neuroscience. By observing the particular symptoms (deficits) people develop after suffering damage (lesions) to particular parts of the brain, we can work out what functions those various parts perform. If someone loses theirhippocampus, say, and gets amnesia, you might infer that the function of the hippocampus is related to memory – as indeed it is

The problem is that the shape and location of brain lesions is not random – some areas are more likely to be affected than others, and the extent of the lesions varies in different places.

What this means is that the presence of damage in a certain voxel may be correlated with damage in other voxels. So damage in a voxel might be correlated with a given deficit, even though it has no role in causingthe deficit, just because it tends to be damaged alongside another voxel that really is involved.

Could you describe colors to a blind person?

On green: “Green is very springlike, it’s very, ah, leafy, so if you imagine tree leaves and what not. I always imagine that’s how green feels. I like green because they say it inspires creativity, so if you thought of a really creative moment in your life, that’s what green looks like.”

On gray: “The thing that makes me think of gray is the smell of rain on asphalt.”

“Okay — I was going to say, cotton candy. I don’t think it feels pink or blue to me. It feels gray. Like cotton balls.”

“Some people think gray’s hard, though, like metal.”

The difficult bequest: a history of the Smithsonian

The Americans didn’t ask for Smithson’s charity, and neither were they glad to receive it. Congress had more pride than greed, and the unexpected gift rankled: not only was it that of a reviled Brit, but a Brit who dared demand he be acknowledged in perpetuity. Moreover, it was earmarked for a purpose Americans never would have chosen themselves. Smithson’s patronage was condescending — nothing more, one Congressman surmised, than a rich man’s bid for immortality. Even John Quincy Adams, the bequest’s most passionate advocate, refused to venerate Smithson as a magnanimous patron. It was Adams who kicked up a fuss when investors were allowed to squander the funds (later replenished by the US Treasury) and Adams who protested that a national farm didn’t meet Smithson’s stipulations. In private, however, he concurred that James Smithson was probably insane.

Women in science: A temporary liberation

In Britain, where the suffragists and violent demonstrations had failed, the First World War persuaded the government that women belonged in the polling booth as well as the parlour. “Oh! This War! How it is tearing down walls and barriers, and battering in fast shut doors,” enthused a female journalist in 1915 in the Women’s Liberal Review. By 1918, women had helped Britain to victory by making drugs, explosives, insecticides, alloys, electrical instruments and other essential laboratory products, and by carrying out research, running hospitals and teaching students.

An entire bacterial genome discovered inside that of a fruit fly (old, but still good)

For months, the same thing happened and as frustration settled in, Dunning-Hotopp and Clark realised that the fly’s cells had no livingWolbachia in them. The immigrant genes kept on turning up because they were actually part of the Drosophila genome and Clark eventually found them on the second chromosome.

Astonishingly, they found that almost all of the bacterium’s genes had been transferred across. The insert is about the right size, and when Dunning-Hotopp and Clark tested for 45 genes spread throughout the Wolbachia‘s genome, they found 44 in the fly.

Zoo animals and their discontents

Dr. Vint Virga likes to arrive at a zoo several hours before it opens, when the sun is still in the trees and the lanes are quiet and the trash cans empty. Many of the animals haven’t yet slipped into their afternoon ma­laise, when they retreat, appearing to wait out the heat and the visitors and not do much of anything. Virga likes to creep to the edge of their enclosures and watch. He chooses a spot and tries not to vary it, he says, “to give the animals a sense of control.” Sometimes he watches an animal for hours, hardly moving. That’s because what to an average zoo visitor looks like frolicking or restlessness or even boredom looks to Virga like a lot more — looks, in fact, like a veritable Russian novel of truculence, joy, sociability, horniness, ire, protectiveness, deference, melancholy and even humor.

The branching process of Bridson’s Poisson-disc sampling algorithm

More beautiful algorithm visualizations from Mike Bostock:

And finally, don’t mess with Donald Duck (1936):


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