Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Phineas Gage

Phineas Gage with the tamping rod that was driven through his head

Phineas Gage was an unfortunate man, but it's an ill wind that blows no good. His brain injury, sustained in 1848 when a tamping iron blew through his skull, left him alive but changed his personality.

Below is a digital reconstruction of his injury, showing what parts of his brain may have been affected by his accident. For more details on Gage and the reconstruction, check out this Guardian article by Mo Costandi. Even if it's not entirely accurate, it's still a beautiful graphic.

Phineas Gage’s Connectome
In 1848, railroad worker Phineas Gage had a 3.5-foot, 13 pound tamping iron blown through the front of his skull in a construction accident. Hell of a way to start your Wednesday (yes, I checked). He survived.
The story of Phineas Gage is now the stuff of legend, taught to first-year neuroscience students around the world. How did this man survive a rod through the frontal lobe? Doctors that wrote of him later spoke of extreme behavioral changes, a man who was “. . . fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows”. 
Unfortunately, the legend of Phineas Gage’s post-injury brain is largely exaggerated, or at least based on rather thin evidence. But still, he was still a changed man, even if not in the extreme ways his legend suggests.
UCLA’s Jack Van Horn has reconstructed a model of Phineas Gage’s connectome. In the image above, the lower left image shows the “connectogram” of 110 healthy right-handed males, the major highways and byways between brain regions (the brain stem is at 6 o’clock, left and right hemispheres at 9 and 3 o’clock). The lower right image shows the connections that were likely disrupted by the iron spike through Gage’s frontal lobe.
Mo Costandi has a great write-up that you should check out. We now have a map of the damage to Gage’s brain. But do we really know any more about his supposed behavioral changes? Thanks to the exaggerations and sideshow mentality of those who studied hm while alive, likely not.
BONUS: Be sure to check out Robert Krulwich and Carl Zimmer moderating this debate on how much stock we should put in the connectome.
(via Neurophilosophy blog)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Creation of Beautiful Things

I am not a Luddite who believes that e-books are not "real" books. I own an e-reader and love it, though I also read traditional paper books, listen to audiobooks (gotta love the Jeeves and Wooster series by P.G. Wodehouse - bally stupendous!), and I compulsively read articles on the web. I am always reading, writing, and encountering art.

But sometimes I see things that make me recognize all over again how lovely traditional books can be, and the things they do best. Below is an example of a physical book, engineered to be a work of art. Click the picture for a larger version.

It is a 17th century British "trick" poem "I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail." The video below explains the genre and shows the book and the poem being read.

I don't just love this book because it is beautiful. I love it for what it does with language, which is what all great poetry does with language. It makes us look closer, think more deeply, and imagine extraordinary things.

This book could have been animated on a computer very easily. Printing physical copies was an incredibly complex challenge (read the publisher's blog here for the story). What is the value of human determination to create lovely things that serve no purpose but to delight? I don't know, but it's my favorite aspect of human beings and keeps from becoming discouraged by the ugly side of things.

For other ambitiously intricate books, check out Jonathan Safran Foer's Tree of Codes here, and The Night Life of Trees here.

Found via Brain Pickings.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Sounds of Spring

Tom Lehrer sings with such cheerful sadism. I love this tune and the way he sells it!

"Murder them all in laughter and merriment!" I mean, come on. LOL was coined to cover these kinds of videos.

Lest you think Lehrer was only a sadist, he was also a mathematician. He combined his love for science and his skill with music to create this gem:

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A Vision of the Future

We know that not all visions of the future offer comfort.

This one, from game designer Jesse Schell, could be the basis of a credible near-future science fiction universe (dibs on the idea - though I suppose it's partly covered by the YA novel Feed by M.T. Anderson). It could be enabled by the weird tech glory of Google's new virtual reality glasses.

Found via TED Talks.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

"I Never Knew That!"

Except, I did.

Growing up in the Christian church, the language of evangelism is spoken from the pulpit. The phrases are usually direct quotations from the Bible, and reference specific theological ideas. Which of course, makes them what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called the habitus.

An example of habitus is the scene in Inglorious Basterds where the English spy betrays himself to the Germans by using the wrong three fingers to order drinks. It's how the "in crowd" recognizes you as an outsider, because for that group, the gestures and language are as natural as breathing.

I find myself shying away from using these terms because to me they sound fake. Though I believe in the concepts they refer to, I've heard them used so often that they feel like glib and easy ways to discuss difficult or profound truths.

This video is amazing. It was created by the Bel Air Presbyterian Church, and I love when Christians can poke gentle fun at ourselves.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

State Home for Manic Pixie Dream Girls

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, it's a common trope of movies and television. If you think of the characters played by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's, Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown, Natalie Portman in The Garden State, and Zooey Deschanel in everything, then you've got a good sense of what she's like.

The term was coined by Nathan Rabin of the TV AV Club in his review of Elizabethtown in 2007.
(For a list of films starring the MPDG, see the TV AV Club's list here.)

To properly understand the nature of the MPDG (and for a hint of the scorn heaped upon this type by feminists), check out this short explanation by Anita Sarkeesian (whose series discussing Tropes vs. Women at Feminist Frequency is great, though as a Christian I have problems with her discussion about Mystical Pregnancy - but more on that later).

Two folks at NPR discuss this trope, mentioning my personal favorite Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby.

Jezebel calls the MPDG the "Scourge of Modern Cinema" and I'm inclined to agree.

Writer Sadie Stein dubs her "The Amazing Girl", though she targets real-life women who fit the stereotype, particularly the famous muses of history, who is "the Romantics' ideal of the pure and naturally innocent woman, a creature morally inferior to men but capable of spiritual perfection -- in short, a childlike vessel for the projection of masculine ideals." Basically, the MPDG is the modern muse.

I had read the Jezebel article about a year ago, but hadn't thought about it much after that. However, I recently volunteered to do a consumer survey at a local movie theater. I was asked questions about my movie viewing habits, watched a trailer, was asked questions about my response to the trailer, and then asked to watch the trailer again, followed by more questions. (It took longer than I thought it would.) It was an interesting glimpse into the very intentional marketing done to attract moviegoers via trailers. The film was called Ruby Sparks, and you can see the trailer I watched below:

It bothered me that not only is Ruby the perfect MPDG, with literally no private existence of her own, but that she is also literally created by a man and can be manipulated by him at will. She comes into being to fulfill his needs by pulling him from his funk. Does she have her own needs? Is she allowed to?

Part of the problem with MPDGs is their lack of personal dreams - much less ambition. They exist to be shallow characters whose effervescent quirkiness brings joy to the life of a man. Everything they do is darling, as cute as a basket full of puppies and kittens. But they lack power, they exist for the pleasure of men, and they're basically adorable little dolls. Everything a feminist dislikes. (Although I love Hepburn. Katharine, not that twit Audrey with her stupid accent.)

Ruby Sparks is the quintessential MPDG, and I kind of hate her. (The movie theater most likely showed that trailer to me because I'm a young woman, though I realized during the survey that I never see anything without explosions on the big screen anymore. It seems a waste of money if nothing blows up.)

But here, to refresh your palate, is a brilliant send-up of the type, created by Natural Disastronauts. Enjoy!

Found via The Society Pages.


The fearsome sexuality of women:

Eurovision Winner, 2009

Norway's Alexander Rybak and his song "Fairytale"

A song my brother and his roommates listen to with only partial irony. Pretty sure they love Rybak and his eyebrows of steel.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Lotte Love

Lotte Time Lapse: Birth to 12 years in two minutes. This is an extraordinary work of dedication and love by a Frans Hofmeester, a filmmaker who has been documenting the life of a young daughter. He then created this film:

Via curiosity counts.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Manly Men

All of these men are mansome - because they're also hilarious. This is one documentary I must see.

Via curiosity counts

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Hyena Men of Nigeria

This is a fascinating article about a group of people in Nigeria: