company of three, black peppermint tea

Tag: biology

by cloudier

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knowledge is perspective

by cloudier

How to think about science and becoming a scientist

A lot of what is frustrating and off-putting about science at first, including working in the research lab, is the same thing that’s frustrating and off-putting about math: to really enter the conversation you have to have the vocabulary, so there’s a lot of memorizing when you start. Which is just obnoxious. But it doesn’t take too long, and if you start interning in a lab early, then the memorizing feels justifiable and pertinent, even if you feel initially more frustrated at a) not knowing the information and b) not knowing how to apply it. If you don’t get into a lab, however, it’s just hard and pointlessly so (even though it isn’t).

(Virtually all fields have this learning curve, whether you realize it or not; one of Jake’s pet books is Daniel T. Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom, which describes how people move from no knowledge to shallow knowledge to deep knowledge. It’s bewildering and disorienting to start with no knowledge on a subject, but you have to endure and transcend that state if you’re going to move to deep knowledge. He says that he’s climbed that mountain with regard to writing, which makes writing way more rewarding than it used to be.)

Once you have the language and are able to think about, say, protein folding, the way you would a paragraph of prose, or the rhythm in a popular song, science takes on a whole new life, like Frankenstein’s Monster but without the self-loathing or murder. You start to think about what questions you can ask, what you can build, and what you can do—as opposed to what you can regurgitate. The questions you pose to people in your lab will lead to larger conversations. Feeling like an insider is nice, not only because it’s nice to belong, but because you’ll realize that even being a small part of the conversation means you’re still part of the larger discussion.

This is really important. Knowledge about a particular subject is mostly learning the vocabulary because this entails an understanding of how the major concepts in a subject link together.1 Jargon is unavoidable in most subjects because plain language is often too inefficient for communicating ideas. It is unfortunately a massive barrier that prevents laypeople from comprehending the ideas presented in new research – let alone understanding its implications – that can also alienate them in the same way that slang alienates people.2 These two factors, in addition to the media,3 is probably what leads to the entitlement and anti-intellectualism4 that fuels climate skepticism and the idea that autism is linked to a vaccine.

The willful ignorance that results from the lack of comprehension of how much a person doesn’t know and the emotional investment they make in their ideas prevents these people from acquiring the skills to assess their own beliefs simply because it’s emotionally painful.5 This is why I believe that it’s important to increase both the breadth of one’s knowledge as well as the depth required for financial sustenance. It’s also why I don’t particularly like it when people say ‘jack of all trades, master of none’: this implies that when I’m learning about a subject that comes under ‘breadth’, it’s displacing the time I spend learning about my field of specialisation.6 This isn’t necessarily true since I don’t spend the entirety of my waking hours learning.

An almost irrelevant comment on the aphorism ‘Knowledge is power’: No it’s not. Power usually means social or economic influence. Sure, you can acquire that influence with leveraged knowledge, but you can also acquire it by, say, being born in the right place at the right time. Let me propose an alternative: ‘Knowledge is perspective’. There are always things that people of a certain profession know that most people don’t, and it is attached to a certain way of looking at life – a perspective which involves focusing on certain aspects of the world we live in that all end up affecting the way we live. For example, immunology focuses on the microscopic immune system, which has effects that spill into macroscopic life, whereas macroeconomics focuses on the behaviour of national and global economies, with effects that again spill into everyday life. The idea that every field is reducible to maths might be true,7 but it’s a bit silly since there are important and relevant patterns that emerge with each level of magnification.8

If you’re logged into WordPress, I think that black bar at the top is going to make all the links for the notes hit one line too low.

  1. Becoming a professional, however, also involves acquiring relevant skills.
  2. As usual with slang, the special vocabulary of hackers helps hold places in the community and expresses shared values and experiences. Also as usual, not knowing the slang (or using it inappropriately) defines one as an outsider, a mundane, or (worst of all in hackish vocabulary) possibly even a suit. All human cultures use slang in this threefold way — as a tool of communication, and of inclusion, and of exclusion.
  3. Seriously, anyone who reports anything related to science in the media should be forced to get a degree before they publish one word. This kind of fuckery costs lives.
  4. Intellectual Humility: Having a consciousness of the limits of one’s knowledge, including a sensitivity to circumstances in which one’s native egocentrism is likely to function self-deceptively; sensitivity to bias, prejudice and limitations of one’s viewpoint. Intellectual humility depends on recognizing that one should not claim more than one actually knows. It does not imply spinelessness or submissiveness. It implies the lack of intellectual pretentiousness, boastfulness, or conceit, combined with insight into the logical foundations, or lack of such foundations, of one’s beliefs.
  5. I don’t mean to say that all professionals should be trusted, always. They’re human so they will make mistakes and sometimes people without any training will be able to find gaping holes in their ideas. However, these are people who spend a much larger proportion of their life thinking about the topic at hand – it is still most likely that they’ll know better than a layperson.
  6. Which, er, doesn’t exist yet. Biology might come close since it’s the only subject where I’ve really gotten a hold on that basic vocabulary. Speaking of which, the HSC does a shitty job of teaching that; NQE training is much better.
  7. xkcd is still awesome.
  8. I think this is the idea behind the name ‘Patterns in Nature’.

/end actual content

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gender binary

by cloudier

Intersex: Causes

A person’s sex is usually determined entirely by the chromosomes you end up with:

The common pathway of sexual differentiation, where a productive human female has an XX chromosome pair, and a productive male has an XY pair, is relevant to the development of intersexed conditions.

During fertilization, the sperm adds either an X (female) or a Y (male) chromosome to the X in the ovum. This determines the genetic sex of the embryo.[92] During the first weeks of development, genetic male and female fetuses are “anatomically indistinguishable,” with primitive gonads beginning to develop during approximately the sixth week of gestation. The gonads, in a “bipotential state,” may develop into either testes (the male gonads) or ovaries (the female gonads), depending on the consequent events.[92] Through the seventh week, female and male fetuses appear identical.

At around eight weeks of gestation, the gonads of an XY embryo differentiate into functional testes, secreting testosterone. Ovarian differentiation, for XX embryos, does not occur until approximately Week 12 of gestation. In normal female differentiation, the Müllerian duct system develops into the uterusFallopian tubes, and inner third of the vagina. In males, the Müllerian duct-inhibiting hormone MIH causes this duct system to regress. Next, androgens cause the development of the Wolffian duct system, which develops into the vas deferens, seminal vesicles, and ejaculatory ducts.[92] By birth, the typical fetus has been completely “sexed” male or female, the hormones and genital development remaining consistent with the genetic sex.

This process screws up sometimes:

The final body appearance does not always correspond with what is dictated by the genes. In other words, there is sometimes an incongruity between genotypic (chromosomal) and phenotypic sex. Citing medical research regarding other factors that influence sexual differentiation, the Intersex Society of North America challenges the XY sex-determination system‘s assumption that chromosomal sex is the determining factor of a person’s “true” biological sex.[93]


example 1: congenital adrenal hyperplasia

The most common cause of sexual ambiguity is congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), an endocrine disorder in which the adrenal glands produce abnormally high levels of virilizing hormones.

In people without a Y chromosome (i.e., XX), this can range from partial masculation that produces a large clitoris, to virilisation and male appearance. The latter applies in particular to Congenital adrenal hyperplasia due to 21-hydroxylase deficiency, which is the most common form of CAH.

Individuals born with XX chromosomes affected by 17α-hydroxylase deficiency are born with female internal and external anatomy, but, at puberty, neither the adrenals nor the ovaries can produce sex-hormones, inhibiting breast development and the growth of pubic hair.

example 2: androgen insensitivity syndrome

People with AIS have a Y chromosome, (typically XY), but are unable to metabolize androgens in varying degrees.

Cases with typically female appearance and genitalia are said to have complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS). People with CAIS have a vagina and no uterus,cervix, or ovaries, and are infertile. The vagina may be shorter than usual, and, in some cases, is nearly absent. Instead of female internal reproductive organs, a person with CAIS has undescended or partially descended testes, of which the person may not even be aware.

In mild and partial androgen insensitivity syndrome (MAIS and PAIS), the body is partially receptive to androgens, so there is virilization to varying degrees. PAIS can result in genital ambiguity, due to limited metabolization of the androgens produced by the testes. Ambiguous genitalia may present as a large clitoris, known asclitoromegaly, or a small penis, which is called micropenis or microphallus; hypospadias and cryptorchidism may also be present, with one or both testes undescended, and hypospadias appearing just below the glans on an otherwise typical male penis, or at the base of the shaft, or at the perineum and including a bifid (or cleft) scrotum.

example 3: 5-alpha-reductase deficiency

The condition affects individuals with a Y chromosome, making their bodies unable to convert testosterone to dihydrotestosterone (DHT). DHT is necessary for the development of male genitalia in utero, and plays no role in female development, so its absence tends to result in ambiguous genitalia at birth; the effects can range from infertility with male genitalia to male underdevelopment with hypospadias to female genitalia with mild clitoromegaly. The frequency is unknown, and children are sometimes misdiagnosed as having AIS.[95] Individuals can have testes, as well as vagina and labia, and a small penis capable of ejaculation that looks like a clitoris at birth. Such individuals are usually raised as girls. The lack of DHT also limits the development of facial hair.

example 4: persistent Müllerian duct syndrome

The child has XY chromosomes typical of a male. The child has a male body and an internal uterus and fallopian tubes because his body did not produce Müllerian inhibiting factor during fetal development.

There’s another list of these here.

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by cloudier

Doing it tough, far from a typical Australian income

In The Australian’s piece, a couple on $200,000 a year (who admit they pay only 18 per cent tax) complain that they may be forced to get a nanny if their childcare subsidy is reduced.

Now, The Australian itself has called for reductions in ‘middle-class welfare’, so either the editors have changed their mind, or they have a misguided sense of what constitutes a middle income in modern Australia.

I don’t doubt that the family featured in The Australian’s story genuinely thinks they’re more-or-less typical, but they’re wrong. We all tend to judge what’s normal, or typical, with reference to those we work and socialise with. This leads the poor to underestimate the wealth of the rich, and leads the rich to overestimate the wealth of the poor. It also means that a lot of us tend to think we’re ‘middle class’ when we’re not.

Andrew Leigh (before he was an MP) wrote a great little paper on the effect that this misperception has on our public debate, called ‘The Political Economy of Tax Reform in Australia’. In it, he argued that:

Opinion leaders [do] not properly appreciate the distribution of income in Australia. For the most part, the taxation rates applying to most politicians, journalists, business executives and think-tank staffers (and indeed, to academic economists) are not those that apply to the average voter. In all these professions, six-figure salaries are common. Yet only 4.5 per cent of Australian adults have an income that exceeds $100,000 per year, and only 1.5 per cent have an income that exceeds $150,000 per year.

(The paper is from 2006, so the figures are a little out of date, but the principle hasn’t changed).

Leigh also, correctly, notes that “reporting of ‘average’ income in Australia focuses on a measure of earnings which is not that of the typical voter”. Journalists often use average weekly ordinary time earnings for full-time adults (AWOTE) as a measure of a typical income. This is misleading for several reasons.

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by cloudier

13-episode long anime. fucking awesome.

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