Brain Scan Reveals Cultural Differences

Magnetic resonance imaging

I’ve just finished writing a news article for the SpectroscopyNOW.com MRI ezine and wanted to expand on some of the implications of the work here. The item describes the results of recent research that purportedly show differences in how born-and-bred Americans differed from immigrant East Asians tackling a simple visual test based on displayed sequences of boxes and lines.

The functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study looked at differences in activity between 10 Americans and 10 East Asians while they carried out that task. Apparently, they found significant differences depending on whether or not the volunteers were working out the solution to the task based on individual lines or the lines in the context of others. The volunteers were also asked to complete a questionnaire about their cultural attitudes. The research doesn’t intend to imply that either group did better or worse than the other, this is simply about different regions of the brain lighting up during the task and whether that might be correlated with differences in cultural heritage.

It’s interesting work and the researchers claim to have shown for the first time that a person’s cultural upbringing and the extent to which one identifies with those cultural influences can affect brain activity patterns when faced with a specific task.

In the current study, however, the researchers seem to make the rather sweeping generalisation that American culture values the individual and so emphasizes the independence of objects from their context, while East Asian culture tends to emphasize the collective and the interdependence of objects based on context. This, they say, explains why they see such a big difference in brain activity between the two groups of volunteers, the Americans focusing on the individual aspects of the task and the East Asians seeing the collectiveness of the boxes and sticks in the sequence.

My first thought while writing the news item, was whether or not their initial assumptions about cultural stereotypes remains valid in an increasingly globalised world. Do Americans focus on the individual and do East Asians think more in terms of society as a whole? More to the point the study was carried out with just ten individuals from each culture. Yes, those two groups may have different attitudes and aptitudes, but are those results statistically significant?

How random was the choice of the ten East Asians. Apparently, they were people coming to the USA to live! Does that make them “typical” of their fellow countrymen? I would suggest not at all. People who leave their home country are often very different from their stay-at-home counterparts in attitude and outlook . Perhaps these ten individuals had a very different cultural attitude to their former countrymen. Indeed, what if by virtue of their wishing to emigrate to the USA had coloured their whole outlook and notions of their own culture. Maybe they carried out the task in a way they hoped would be more American, or conversely, maybe they tried to be more East Asian to help the researchers. Similarly, who’s to say anyone taking part in such experiments behaves as they normally would given that they’re stuck in a noisy MRI machine being put under pressure to perform.

fMRI is a powerful tool. The burgeoning list of results it generates grows day by day and I will continue to report them for the ezine assuming they are worthy of reporting. The present results are intriguing, but I do feel that they are stretching the perceived prowess of fMRI a little too far. To my mind, there is an enormous gulf between demonstrating some difference in brain activity while a a few individuals carry out an esoteric task and correlating that with alleged cultural differences, especially given the circumstances of those who are supposed to have essentially polarised outlooks.

PaperID – An Open Source Identifier for Research Papers

As a journalist, I receive a lot of press releases that cite “forthcoming” papers. Depending on the publisher one can usually find the paper in a pre-press state on their website. However, it’s often the case that the DOI does not go live at the same time as the embargo expires on the press release, and so I might legitimately publish an article about the research I cannot use the DOI as the reference and must use the direct URL for the paper. Unfortunately, some publishers then move the paper when the paper publishes, so the link I used ends up broken.

Moreover, this cannot be useful for authors themselves in that a paper that does not make the grade at the International Journal of Good Stuff and ends up being resubmitted to the Parochial Bulletin of Not So Good Stuff will gain a different identification code along the way.

Will Griffiths on ChemSpider was recently discussing the possibility of an OpenURL system. I think we could go one step further.

A simple standardized way of generating a unique identifier for each and every paper that would be transportable between different phases of the publication process from submission to acceptance and publication, or rejection and resubmission elsewhere, would be a much better way of registering papers. The identifier would be created at the point when the final draft is ready to be mailed to the first editorial office in the chain, perhaps based on timestamp, lead author initials, and standard institution abbreviation. It could be the scientific literary equivalent of an InChIkey for each research paper.

There would have to be a standardized validation system, so that authors were sure to be using the right system, but that could be established relatively painlessly through the big institutions, be networked and have cross-checking to avoid duplicates. And, of course, be open source, open access.

The possibilities are endless, PaperID would create an electronic paper trail from author through preprint, in press, to online, and final publication. It might even be back-extended into the area of Open Notebook Science and equally usefully into archival, review, and cross-referencing.

DOI is useful most of the time OpenURL sounds intriguing, but PaperID could be revolutionary.

No Spies Under My Bed

Computer spy

Currently, the only truly effective way consumers can stop the collection of their personal data when shopping is not to use the internet, to be paid and to pay for everything in cash, and to hide their money in their mattress.

More seriously, most of us will continue to use web services despite privacy concerns. You can try to opt-out of marketing schemes or reconfigure your web browser to reject advances from sites that offer cookies or install spying applications. However, most such rejections will prevent you from trading on most e-commerce sites altogether. So, cookies will crumble, there’s no two ways about it if you want to shop online or use web 2.0 interactive sites. You can, of course, use software to delete those cookies as soon as you’re finished your interaction with the site and so gain a little privacy and prevent the sites tracking where you went after you left when you visit a second time. But, either way, they’re going to get lots of useful information while the cookie lasts.

There is no single solution to preventing the increasing erosion of personal privacy on the Web, says Madan Lal Bhasin of the Business School SungKyunKwan University in Seoul, South Korea. Writing in the latest issue of the International Journal of Internet Marketing and Advertising (2008, vol 4, pp 213-240) he describes how new e-commerce technology has increased the ability of online retailers and others to collect, monitor, target and sell personal information about their customers to third parties.

Countless companies across the globe are doing just that in ways that were not dreamed of before the advent of the Web. Moreover, the emergence of so-called social media web 2.0 sites, such as MySpace and Facebook has led to a new generation of privacy issues that go beyond those seen with conventional e-commerce websites.

As such, online consumer and web user privacy is becoming an ever keener focal point among cyber activists as well as among governments and regulators. That said, when it is the governments themselves losing and abusing the personal data of millions of taxpayers (see recent UK news), then the notion of any government protecting one’s privacy becomes absurd. Nevertheless, in the long-term, finding a balance between absolute personal privacy and the smooth operation of commerce and social sites in cyberspace poses a significant challenge.

Bhasin and colleagues point out that are grave dangers for corporations that collect and use personal information, ignoring privacy legislative and regulatory warning signs. Indeed, such abuse could prove to be very costly not only in terms of putative fines from regulators but also through loss of business among customers increasingly aware of their privacy rights. In the worst-case scenario it is not beyond the realms of possibility that a company abusing standard privacy etiquette to the extreme could collapse should word spread and users boycott the site or mount retaliatory attacks of their own against the company’s web servers. Regardless, many companies can and do repeatedly flout the complex rules and regulations that govern privacy in the US, Europe, and elsewhere.

Technology that protects consumer privacy must work without stifling e-commerce. It must somehow be foolproof and be entirely transparent to end-users. Unfortunately, no such technology yet achieves this. There are countless personal software products, such as anti-spyware programs, cookie cutters, anonymous proxies, and other solutions, such as Firefox plugins like NoScript (which blocks all scripting on a website) and AdBlockPlus (which blocks advertisements). These can reduce the chances of private data being sucked from an individual’s web browsing habits.

However, there are hundreds of such programs each with a slightly different purpose. The field is heavily fragmented and many users are not only unaware of these programs they are also generally unaware of the existence of spyware and cookies. An additional problem arises when novice users having heard rumour of spyware, download tools without taking advice. There are well-known legitimate tools available. There are many instances of malware surrogates of those tools that often rank higher in the search engine results pages and so are more prominent. Installation of such rogue programs can result in deeper privacy compromises than the user hoped to avert.

Similarly, software that encrypts, deletes history files or shields your computer from apparently benevolent, but potentially malicious, applications is available but many users are again unaware of the issues intrinsic to using cyberspace and so do not use such programs. Rogue versions of every kind of protective software exist to exploit the novice user.

Legitimate e-commerce and web 2.0 sites have transparent privacy policies. These sites and others may also use online seals of trustworthiness and browser certificates that demonstrate credibility. However, such statements and badges are only useful if the companies that display them adhere to the underlying principles. Any company could wear a badge of honour, and yet even large, well-known companies do not necessarily comply fully with their own privacy policies and they allow trust certificates to expire. something many users simply ignore without realising the implications.

“Unfortunately, there is no ‘single’ solution to stop the erosion of privacy in cyberspace – no single law that can be proposed or single technology that can be invented to stop the profilers and spies in their tracks,” Bhasin re-asserts. He concludes that, “The battle of privacy, of course, must be fought on three fronts – legal, political and technological – and each new assault must be vigilantly resisted as it occurs.” Whether or not individuals will ever have the weaponry to win the battle is a different matter, we can try, but I suspect the only truly private approach is that bundle of cash stuffed in your mattress.

Most Commented Posts on Sciencebase

Most Commented Posts on Sciencebase

If you have ever wondered what gets people chatting on the Sciencebase Blog and why the site has now almost reached the 5000 passed the 3000 newsfeed subscriber point, then you might like to check out this selection of recent posts that, according to a neat little WordPress plugin are the posts with the most comments. Actually Alex King’s Popularity Contest can do the same thing.

It makes for interesting reading, not least because it reveals just how diverse the posts are that catch your interest. You can see a selection of the top-commented posts compiled in January 2008 below.

Some posts obviously pique the curiosity of school students working on science assignments, others reach out to those interested in new avenues of research in medicine, and yet others touch the raw nerves often exposed in the evolution-creation debate. Some, like the Lego and the mp3 player items simply entertain and provide a little education at the same time.

I may make this a regular feature, so watch out for an update soon and
don’t forget to click the titles that catch your eye most and leave your own comments to help keep the debate rolling along.

Spammatical Errors

Akismet traps spam

I usually ignore the comment spam folders on this website as per my own advice. Occasionally, however, I will scan them quickly. I do so if a regular reader has commented and has emailed to say that their comment is yet to appear. Legitimate words do sometimes get caught in the Akismet netting. I can then add the individual to the filter whitelist and approve the comment.

Spam comments usually come in one of a few limited types. The first is the straightforward nonsense list of random lewd keywords, Rx ingredients, and messages pertaining to the impossible enhancement of various organs, and it is not to Messrs Hammnond nor Henry Willis and his Sons to which I am referring here. The second type is the bizarre one-word message saying: “Cool!”, “Nice,” “Sorry,” and “Interesting”. When you first see this kind of message, they may give a blogger a little ego boost (about 0.000003154%). But, after the 10,376th you begin to doubt their sincerity, especially as they are usually accompanied by links to lewd keywords, Rx ingredients and the enhancement of various…you know the rest.

Anyway, there is another kind of comment spam and that is the kind that resembles a genuine comment but then lets itself down with a stupid link to a dumb site. It’s usually a brief sentence or phrase. Sometimes it will be an entirely random string of words, presumably scraped from an online text, but occasionally it will seem to actually be attempting to engage in a conversation via a blog’s comments.

You might see phrases like: “Hi Guys! What Your Site Powered By?” and a link to some expensive software, “My brother Tom’s been working real hard all year, but he’s struggling to make ends meet. How do you think he could improve his credit rating?” and a link to a credit card site, or perhaps “Let’s keep in touch we can help each other with sites,” and a link to some unknown web hosting company. Even bizarre queries such as “What effects did katrina on mississippi?” with an insurance link appear every now and then.

Of course, at this stage in blogging history, most bloggers recognise these messages as detrimental to their sites as, once again, they will have the enhancing, Rx and lewd keyword links built in. But, it’s the unusual style in which some are written that intrigues me. I don’t think it says anything much about the psychology of spammers, especially those that are nothing but spewing bots, nor about anything deep taking place in English lessons. They are intriguing in how sophisticated might be the phrasing let down by a slip of syntax or grammatical integrity.

For instance, a recent commenter was able to construct the following quite complex sentence: “Your website is beautifully decorated and easily navigated.” and yet they blew it with their second line: “I have enjoyed visiting the site today and visit again,” which unfortunately doesn’t parse. Similarly, “Some nice article here. thanks for it.” Not only starts a “sentence” with a lower case “t” but there is a serious mismatch between the quantities discussed.

Admittedly, some of the less exact grammar comes from spam originating in parts of the world where the native tongue may not be English. Personally, I would be useless at spamming in Portuguese, Mandarin, Hindi, or any of a few dozen other languages. I could probably scrape through with a spam in French, German, Italian, or Spanish, although I’d have to have an international lewd word dictionary to hand to do so.

In the following comment spam, there is almost subtle use of the word “seldom”, but it lies in stark contrast to the quality of grammar in the rest of the phrase: “This is really fresh idea of the design of the site! I seldom met such in Internet. Good Work dude!”

An easy target is this comment, which appears repeatedly: “I’d prefer reading in my native language, because my knowledge of your languange is no so well. But it was interesting! Look for some my links”. Yes, if that one had escaped Akismet and I’d approved it I can just imagine readers dashing off to look for those links, which, you guessed it, pointed to some great insurance deals on organ enhancement drugs.

18 Handpicked Online Periodic Tables

Periodic table tattoo

Where online do you turn, when you are looking for a periodic table?

The domain name PeriodicTable.com – reveals a superb online periodic table with an obvious website name and the option to buy a poster printout.

For more on what Periodic Tables mean and their underlying formulations check out Periodic Table Formulations by Mark Leach

Berkeley nuclear chemist Mitch Garcia who runs ChemicalForums.com, would, as would many other chemists turn straight to Mark Winter’s Web Elements this seminal online PT has become the guide to elemental discoveries and has been in existence almost beyond living memory (in net-years). However, he also points out that there is more nuclearcentric PT on the Lawrence Berkeley Lab site that provides all the decay properties for all the isotopes.

An interactive PT aimed squarely at NMR spectroscopists is offered here and with a click tells you how many isotopes for each element and whether or not it is NMR active. A click of the arrow then spells out the spin, abundance, quadrupolar moment, and typical relaxation time information.

If you are after pretty PT, then the slightly overblown version from the Royal Society of Chemistry is nice enough at Visual Elements.

A single site offering a conventional PT in six different languages (English, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Spanish) can be found at LennTech.com.

The American Chemical Society has an interactive PT, although I’m not entirely sure what makes it any more interactive than any of the others. It too is available in different languages, however, including Chinese, English, French, German, Japanese, Russian, and Spanish.

On the other hand, there is something about the Dynamic Periodic Table that gives it the edge on the word interactive in that there are various sliders and tabs that allow you to alter the way the Table is displayed depending on the elemental properties you wish to study. It is even available in Swahili for those chemists south of the Sahara.

It was inevitable that I’d have to mention the ubiquitous Wikipedia, which under the chemical jurisdiction of Martin Walker also provides a straightforward PT for the masses. In fact my good friend Michael Engel and several other practicing chemists point out that they invariably stop off at Wiki for elemental information and if that fails simply Google what they’re after to find the data.

If you are looking for yet another interactive periodic table, then try this one from designers TouchSpin. Originally, it was referred to as portable, perhaps it could be saved to your PC or a USB stick, but there seem to be no references to this now. Anyway, a much more obvious way to make a PT portable is simply to print it (colour or b&w), what you gain in tangibility you lose in interactivity of course.

If you want interactivity and portability then the Periodic Library will slip into a tiny space on your Windows hard drive taking up a mere 264 kilobytes or thereabouts. The website shows a PDA in its iconography but doesn’t specifically mention a PDA version.

To combine your penchant for coffee table books with your love of periodic tables turn to the infamously offline wooden periodic table, which is not only a period piece by definition but metaphysically the absolute zenith in coffee table information repositories.

A rather staid but internationally renowned PT is that found on the IUPAC website. Given that IUPAC ultimately decides on the names of the elements this has to be the place to go for absolute elemental knowledge.

Anything but staid, is the real cutting edge in online periodic tables, the Second Life PT from Andrew Lang and Jean-Claude Bradley [no relation] of Drexel University sponsored by ACS.

There are, of course, hundreds if not thousands of variations on the Periodic Table theme, many of them cranky beyond belief, others tailored for specific groups of scientists such as physicists and geologists, others in 3D that attempt to show more information than conventional flat Tables, and yet others that are not so much PTs as simply entertaining. The obviously named AllPeriodicTables.com provides yet more information and conventional online version of the interactive PT. This one has an environmental bent.

For more on the philosophy underlying the periodic table take a look at the work of Eric Scerri.

If you’re interested in how the chemical elements were named, then this etymology of all the elements is rather useful.

If I’ve overlooked an online periodic table you find particularly useful in your research field let me know in the comments.

Cooking Pizza During Your Lecture

We’ve all sat through lectures, talks, and symposia that went on too long, some of us may even have been guilty of overrunning! Blogging chemist Andrew Sun was worried about this problem and hunted across the Internet in search of a countdown timer that could be run on one’s desktop to alert a speaker to the time they have left. Unfortunately, while there are many timers available online, most of them are either less than serious or else relate to cooking pizza and boiling eggs. He wanted something a little more dignified, that would not look out of place in a scientific symposium and wouldn’t embarass him in front of his Professor.

So being as intrepid a scientist as ever there was, Sun decided to write his own application to do the job for him so here is LectureTime courtesy of Dr Sun ready for free download. The LectureTime readme file) is here.

You can read more about the tool on Sun’s blog here. Please give it a try and let us know how you get on or if you have any problems in the comments box below. Of course, you can still use LectureTime to boil an egg or cook pizza, just don’t do it during your lecture!

Google Science Dot Com

The web domain http://research.google.com is set to become a repository for terabytes of open-source scientific data. It’s like a billion-fold expansion of the virtual GDrive available to GMail users with a neat little hack. According to sources, “The storage will be free to scientists and access to the data will be free for all.”

Apparently, Palimpsest (project codename) was actually previewed at the Googleplex Science Foo camp in August 2007 but, according to Wired magazine, has actually missed its original launch date this week. The Google graphic associated with the project appears to have a charicature of Einstein in the oo and an =mc2 after the e, but that’s just a little injoke. Ha Ha.

Two data sets that will sit nicely in the storage space are Hubble Space Telescope data and images from the Archimedes Palimpsest, the 10th century manuscript that inspired the Google dataset storage project in the first place, says Wired.

Nano News is Good News

Gray goo nanobots

The research of Arpad Putzai about a decade ago in which he fed genetically modified potatoes to rats and purportedly observed deleterious effects, kicked off the whole anti-GM movement in the UK. In a recent Guardian interview with Pusztai, his current position on the subject is probably best summed up by an early quote from the interview:

“We’re eating things that we haven’t eaten before, and I challenge anyone to be able to predict what will be the consequences of this, particularly the consequences for our immune system.”

One might argue that today we are consuming thousands of things that were not available to ancestors from bananas and kiwi fruits to chocolate truffles and skinny café latte mochachino with marshmallows and sprinkles. Excess and overindulgence aside, our bodies seem to cope immunologically with a huge range of foodstuffs that are newly available in terms of the evolution of our enzymes.

Indeed, it was Bruce Ames, of Ames test for cancer causing fame, who pointed out that every day the DNA in every cell of our bodies is exposed to thousands of putatively harmful agents and those or mainly from the natural products of the natural environment. So, why should a few GM potatoes engineered to ward off insect larvae without the use of pesticides be any different?

While we may not be adapted to the specifics of GM crops our bodies do seem able to cope with novel foods. Moreover, we are still evolving (just look at the enzymes we have that cope with cow’s milk and alcoholic drinks that apparently occurred only once we became an agricultural species 10,000 years ago. The same argument might be applied to the advent of nanoscience. However, are the lessons science should have learned from the public relations debacle sparked by Pusztai’s revelations ahead of peer review being ignored again as the nanotechnology age dawns?

Nanoparticles and nanocomposites are essentially any substances that exist as collections of individual entities in the size range of 1 to 100 nanometres in diameter. So at least an order of a magnitude bigger than atoms and molecules. The biggest molecules, proteins, some supramolecular structures and the fullerenes all fall below this range, although they almost overlap with the smallest of genuine nanoparticles. Conversely, nothing bigger than a hundred nanometres, a couple of hundred at a push, can be described as nanoscopic, rather at the micrometre scale you are looking (with a microscope) at microscopic particles. So the fullerenes are not nanoparticles and neither are the kind of microscopic particles of asbestos that are known to cause serious health problems. Nanoparticles are in between these two extremes.

Nanotechnology is, of course, an entirely different simmering pan of aquatic chordates than GMOs. Although saying that we have co-existed with organisms that are genetically modified throughout evolution as well as particles that just happen to be in the size range 1 to 100 nm.

Nevertheless a whole field of nanotoxicology has emerged over the last three or four years and a forthcoming special issue of the International Journal of Nanotechnology (IJNT, 2008, vol 5(1), pp 1-160) will cover many of the issues as well as reporting on various recent studies into the safety or otherwise of nano materials. Among the themes are investigations into the putative effects of nanoparticles on the human lung, blood serum, and epithelial cells, as well as reports covering how to design safety into nanotechnology, and developing a risk management framework. There is certainly a need to monitor the emergence of nano, in terms of occupational, environmental and consumer risks.

Whereas Pusztai’s results published a decade ago triggered a public relations catastrophe from which UK genetic scientists have yet to recover, it doesn’t seem that nanoscience and nanotechnology are going down quite the same road in terms of media scare stories and public anxieties.

As with GM there is huge potential in this burgeoning field of discovery. “Nanomaterials offer tremendous societal benefit,” says cell biologist Thomas Weber of Pacific Northwestern Laboratory, guest Editor of the special issue of IJNT “from improving medicines to everyday items such as automobiles and aircraft or your favourite fishing rod.”

Unfortunately, the tabloids have latched on to the concept of a “grey goo” produced by myriad self-replicating nanobots of which K Eric Drexler warned in his nano-pioneering 1986 book The Engines of Creation, but that is probably an impossibility. Such nanobots are themselves likely to be many decades away and will because of the laws of supply and demand be all-but self limited. It is interesting that the cosmetics industry learned the public relations lesson very quickly, however, quickly discarding the nano label from products that contain liposomes, for instance, before consumers began worrying about their face turning to grey goo.

PNL’s Weber is well aware of the potential for a public relations crisis when it comes to nanoscience. “There are diverse types of nanomaterials being produced with unknown toxic potential,” he says, “This combination requires responsible stewardship by the scientific community over this rapidly developing field to enable maximum benefits while minimizing negative outcomes.”

“Advances are being made on various fundamental scientific aspects of the toxicity of nanomaterials as well as on rapid-screening tools to assess toxicity,” explains SK Sundaram, also at PNL, and a guest Editor on the IJNT special issue, “These advancements will help in enhancing the public awareness and dispelling many myths in this field, we hope.”

Despite the imaginary notion of a ubiquitous grey goo, the relative lack of tabloid media interest may be due in part to the diverse and esoteric nature of nanoscience. Whereas anyone might imagine some kind of monster GM tomato, it is rather difficult to visualise the scale of nanoparticles and of what they are composed, let alone how such particles might behave.

Quesnoin from Tropical Paris

A newly discovered diterpene quesnoin with a novel ring structure, bridged by a single oxygen atom, has been isolated from 55 million-year-old amber from the Eocene geological period by Akino Jossang and colleagues at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris.

According to a report in Chemistry World, Jossang said that, “It is very difficult to isolate pure known compounds in amber, so to discover a new structure was unexpected and exceptional.” The biosynthesis is intriguing but whether or not the quesnoin has any potential applications is a different matter.

The compound is related to one from a tree found today only in the Amazon rainforest adding to the weight of evidence that Paris was once a tropical region. Anyone who has spent an August there will know how that might have been.

Spinneret host Tony Williams tells me that he used the new ChemSpider manual deposition scheme to add this new compound to the database. “We are about to rollout the ability for anyone to deposit structures on ChemSpider. This one took me 5 mins…about 3.5 of that drawing the structure!” The entry description includes the DOI of the original paper and links directly to it.