Archive for the 'Hot Pants! Haaah!' category

¡Rumba buena y guaguancó!

Sep 20 2010 Published by under Hot Pants! Haaah!

This weekend I spent a whole day doing actual labwork, a rare occurrence. A student had left the lab and the reviewers of her paper wanted more experiments. Since most of my current lab crew is newish or absorbed in other projects, I figured that the fastest way to turn the paper around was for me to do the experiments myself. I was actually pretty excited –most people in my lab have families to tend to, and thus there's usually no one around on weekends– which means I had the lab to myself and could blast music while I worked. I had a lot of fun listening to The Clash, Coltrane and Monk at Carnegie Hall (awesome recording), and Celia Cruz ¡Aaaazúcar! And I got a ton done.

I think that listening to music is key to doing good bench work. It passes the time and you actually get to sit and listen to music. When I was a grad student, my lab had very eclectic musical tastes. One grad student she only seemed to like Bon Jovi, another he ranged in tastes from 70's stadium rock (e.g. Rush) to Hawaiian slack-key guitar and bluegrass. My PhD advisor had a thing for Tori Amos and some band named Veruca Salt (like my favorite character in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). The British postdoc was always blasting some type of techno/rave music and the German postdoc liked Pink Floyd and some new-agey sounding thing that I never figured out what it was. I was on a Latin Jazz kick, and of course JamesBrown. Hot pants! Haah! The unspoken rule was that whoever got there first in the morning could play whatever they wanted until someone else would commandeer the lab stereo when the person left the room. While not everybody liked everyone else's music, we all expanded our musical horizons and tolerated whatever. But there was always music on and things were more or less groovy. There was occasionally some trouble though. Once, the Bon Jovi-lovin' student got into a kerfuffle with the older Russian technician. The student kept accusing the technician of coming in early in the morning and hiding the power cord of the stereo. The technician said that she did not want to listen to any more of this "jungle music." Apparently after she retired they found a bunch of power cords hidden away in a drawer.

In my current lab things are very different. If you walk in there on any given day when folks are working it is eerily quiet. Everyone is doing their thing, listening to their own iPods with their earbuds on, oblivious to everyone else. My very first postdoc would blast Black Sabbath or play her guitar while doing electrophysiology, but other than that, now it's pretty quiet. I can see how listening to iPods solves the problem of deciding what music to play, but it also cuts down on conversation and you don't get to know yur labmates through their music. One weekend I walked in the lab and one of my postdocs was blasting Chinese pop music, complete with electric violins, heavy synthesizer and some guy belting it out in Chinese. Embarrassed, he quickly turned it off when he saw me. I kind of wished that he hadn't.

In any case, I leave you in the good hands of the lovely Celia Cruz:

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Tics and Superpowers

Aug 25 2010 Published by under Hot Pants! Haaah!

A few months ago an article came out stating that in certain tasks, individuals with Tourette's syndrome show superior "timing control". Meaning that they were better at predicting certain time intervals than the non-Tourrete's control group. This article received a bit of media attention as well as the attention of a couple of science bloggers, here and here.

One thing that tends to pop out when the media or blogs report on these sorts of articles is the tendency to ascribe some kind of genius superpower to people with certain neurological conditions, maybe perhaps to make them more interesting or exotic. Think of the character Dustin Hoffman plays in the movie "Rain Man", or the dude that plays Rachmaninoff in "Shine". In both blog posts about the timing control study, there's a mention of US soccer team goalie Tim Howard, who has Tourrette's, and they seem to imply that this superior timing control is what makes him such a good goalie. First of all, while Tim Howard is a decent goalie, there are plenty other goalies just as good or better that don't have Tourette's, and plenty of people with Tourette's that would make terrible goalies (myself included). Speaking from personal experience, as someone with Tourette's, I have a terrible sense of timing. I suck at videogames. When I try and play an instrument, my lack of a sense of rhythm makes me sound terrible. I bad at most sports. I'm uncoordinated. I know I am just a single example, but this idea of people with Tourette's having superior cognitive control and awesome timing powers just does not ring true.

If I were to characterize my sense of timing, I would rather characterize it as odd and irregular. I read somewhere that jazz musician Thelonious Monk had Tourrette's. I don't know if this was true, but if you have ever seen a video of the dude performing you can sort of see it. His music definitely has an odd sense of timing which to me rings more familiar. And that's maybe why I like James Brown. I often find myself with the random urge to scream "Haah!"  or "Hot Pants!" in the middle of a faculty meeting, or "Pop-Corn!" during a seminar. In the book "Motherless Brooklyn" by Jonathan Lethem, the main character is a detective with Tourette's syndrome. While for the most part I think that Lethem got the essence of the disorder wrong, and the character is mostly a caricature, there's one bit that I think he got right. The main character loves the song "Kiss" by Prince. I have to agree that the tempo, timing and changing cadence of the song definitely has a tic-ish quality to it that somehow resonates with my odd sense of timing. So no, unfortunately I am not endowed with awesome superpowers, but at least I can say I have interesting musical tastes.

On the other hand... maybe I should exploit this. Maybe I can cultivate an aura of an exotic twitchy genius who will rule the world with his superior cognitive control and impeccable timing. Hot pants! Haah!

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Takin’ it to the bridge…

Jul 09 2010 Published by under Hot Pants! Haaah!

As if I don't already have enough to do. But of course I can't help myself, any reason to procrastinate and not do my work is always a welcome activity. I figured that maybe by writing a blog I could at least have my procrastination sessions be somewhat more productive. Plus I have been looking for alternative ways of communicating what I do with others. As a working scientist I have plenty of chances to communicate with my colleagues and students in my classes, but I feel like I it is hard to tell other people about what I do and why it is meaningful. I've been thinking a lot about communicating science recently and thinking about ways to do it effectively, what is sometimes referred to as 'outreach'. But outreach implies that there is a separate sphere where scientists exist and secretly conspire to destroy the world, and then there is everyone else. But the truth is is that scientists are not a separate piece of humanity and science is a job like any other, with its trials, tribulations and insecurities. Scientists do live in the so-called real world. Some of us have families, others play music or sports, drink. Some are thin, some are fat, some are honest some are not. So why is it that any time I meet someone and tell them that I'm a scientist they either tune me out or say something like " That is so cool, you must be some sort of genius. I was never good at math. Have you made any great discoveries yet?" Clearly some type of disconnect. And I think part of the problem is that people don't now what we do on a daily basis or how scientific progress works, or who are the people doing science. I, for one, do not consider my intelligence to be particularly high, and the amount of math that my research requires is basically at the high-school level.

Another thing I've observed is that when you read about science in popular magazines and blogs, you only hear about what is deemed to have a certain amount of wow factor - something that can be narrowed down to a "fun-fact" that can be then repeated at cocktail parties or at your elementary school kid's classroom. Most science is not like that, in many cases the impact or importance is not obvious, and for someone to appreciate it would require more than the 5 minutes they might be willing to give you. Hopefully, this blog will serve to clear some of these misconceptions, to bridge some of these gaps. To explain the day-to-day workings of the job of being a scientist and educator and how we balance this with our non-scientific lives. And hopefully to get some folks interested in science, to help them develop some tools to evaluate claims that are heard on the news about how your dry-cleaning can kill you or whatnot. I will try to tell you a bit about what being a scientist in a university is like, about how science gets done and what are some of the challenges I've faced in my job. Hopefully I will also write about actual science, and try and convey some of the excitement I feel when I go to work every day.

Why the blog title? Well the bridge metaphor is obviously fitting, but that's not the real reason for the name. Being a big fan of James Brown, in the middle of the song "Like a Sex Machine", as it is reaching one of its many crescendos, the rhythm steadies and he banters with the band - "Are you ready to take it to the bridge?", meaning the bridge of the song, "Can we take it to the bridge? Take it to the bridge...ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR...", and the the band bursts into this funky guitar riff which just makes you want to pee in your pants with joy. It is one of my favorite moments in music, you just can't beat that. It's fucking awesome. So whenever I feel like things need a change in rhythm, when a little more is needed, I always think of taking it to the bridge. When I was a graduate student I used to love the fact that my intracellular amplifier, a piece of equipment I used  to record electrical activity from brain cells, had an operating mode which was called Bridge Mode, and to turn it on, there was a large green button that said "BRIDGE" on it. So it always made my day when I was doing an experiment and got to "take it to the bridge."

So that's it, hopefully someone will happen upon these shores, stay a while and listen to what I have to say. And hopefully you, my readers, will contribute to the discussion and comment, comment and comment.

Here's some inspiration:

James Brown Sex machine Olympia 1971
Uploaded by Funkadelika. - Music videos, artist interviews, concerts and more.

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