Star Trek Trivia

Geeks Who Drink recently held a nation wide Star Trek Pub Quiz. I have made no secret of my love of Star Trek, so this seemed like an awesome opportunity. Unfortunately my regular trivia team was all unavailable, so I opted to go up to Portland alone and try and find a group that would have me, and fortunately I was welcomed onto an awesome team.

The crew

The intrepid crew of Team Screw the Ocampa

After a hard fought 8 rounds, and two tie-breakers, our team, Screw the Ocampa, was victorious! Curious to see how our team compared to the rest of the nation, I pulled the results from 27 other venues across the USA that were running the same quiz, which you can check out here. Of the 324 teams that competed, our team ended up with the 8th highest score in a 7-way tie for 14th place, putting us in the top 2.5% of the nation! The highest score came from a team out of New York, New York, which scored 85 out of a possible 88 points, and had the great name, There are 4 lights!!! While New York City may have been the venue with the highest score, the location with the highest proportion of high scores (>75%) was Tempe, Arizona, but they only had 6 teams competing. The city with the most teams was Austin Texas, but no team from that city scored better than 75%.

Fill in the rest of this caption later

The number of teams and distribution of top scores across the participating cities.

One of the hardest things about trivia, aside from the questions, is coming up with a team name. With 324 teams, there was a great selection of team names that were inspired by The Original Series (Spock On), The Next Generation (House of Picards), Deep Space Nine (My Nagus), Voyager (There’s a right way, a wrong way, and Janeway), and even Enterprise (Day TRIPPers)! There were some common themes amongst the names, with the most popular team name variant being anything to do with Red Shirts (e.g., Red Shirt Revenge, Red Shirt Insurance Policy, Redneck Redshirts etc.) which showed up 15 different times. The next most popular theme for a team name had to do with character names. No doubt the recent passing of Leonard Nimoy helped inspire some of the 11 different team names that featured Spock (e.g., Rock out with your Spock out (x2), Spock’s Beard (x2), Spock Stars etc.). Tied with Spock at 11 team name inspirations was Wesley Crusher (e.g., Shut Up Wesley (x8), The Wesley Crushers (x2), Wesley Crusher Sweater Collection etc.). Rounding out the team name mentions were Tribbles (10), Kirk (8), Picard (7), Pon-Farr (6), Gorn (6), Borg (5), Riker (5), Worf (5), Janeway (5), and Darmok (5). The majority of the team names play off general Star Trek Universe references, but there were quite a few names from other franchises, including Han Shot First (x2), This is the Place for the Stargate Quiz?, and my personal favorite Millenium Battlestar 5. 

The futuristic utopia of Star Trek promotes community, inclusiveness, and infinite diversity in infinite combinations. For me, being able to walk onto an established team and be so welcome, truly exemplifies that the ideals of Star Trek are thriving in its fandom, LLAP.

Receiving the traditional Klingon welcome greeting from Kaolin son of Kiln, who when not killing it at trivia also does Klingon karaoke.

Receiving the traditional Klingon welcome greeting from Kaolin son of Kiln, who when not killing it at trivia also does Klingon karaoke, check out Bon Jovi’s Dead or Alive in the original Klingon.


The Fault in Our Stars of Science

Much has been made this past week about James Watson’s intention to auction off his Nobel Prize, which he was jointly awarded for his part in the discovery of the structure of DNA. The act of auctioning off a Nobel Prize is normally cause enough to raise a few eyebrows, but in this case the reasons and the person behind it take those eyebrows to another level.

First some context, Watson is a great scientist and his contributions to science helped bring about the field of modern genetics. Watson is also a bit of a jerk. Until recently the most glaring example of this would be first his treatment of fellow scientist Rosalind Franklin (he and his collaborator, Francis Crick, used her data and failed to appropriately credit her at the time), and his description of her in his bestselling 1968 book The Double Helix as a haggy, naggy, old maid caricature. From the book;

By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities. Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not. There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents. So it was quite easy to imagine her the product of an unsatisfied mother who unduly stressed the desirability of professional careers that could save bright girls from marriages to dull men.

This is just one example of Watson spouting some biased and ignorant statements, ideas, and notions. Watson is a bit of a provocateur. He has made remarks to the effect that fat people don’t get hired because they lack ambition, and noting that “Whenever you interview fat people, you feel bad, because you know you’re not going to hire them.” He has also lectured on how sunlight (and darker skin) is the source of the “Latin lover” libido, claiming a biochemical link between exposure to sunlight and sexual urges, and noting “That’s why you have Latin lovers, and you’ve never heard of an English lover. Only an English patient.” Time and time again, Watson has been given a pass on these behaviours because of his impressive scientific resume, and these comments have been chalked up to his penchant to stir the pot. Those close to him wouldn’t call him racist or sexist, merely insensitive. But that changed in 2007, when in an interview with the Times of London, to promote his book, Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science, Watson made some unfounded and racist remarks. Some of the highlights include, “all our social policies [regarding Africa] are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really” and for his hope is that everyone is equal, he counters that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.” The fallout from those comments (and perhaps from the sum total of all those previous comments) led to Watson retiring from his position at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, New York (he still holds the position of chancellor emeritus), and being fired from the boards of many companies. Watson has stated that his being ostracized has led to his income plummeting, and becoming an un-person in the eyes of the scientific community.

Back to the auction, Watson hopes that by auctioning off his Nobel Prize, he will not only get the income he needs, (he intends to donate some of the money to schools, but also to buy a David Hockney painting), but also re-enter public life. It is important to note that Watson did immediately apologize for his remarks, noting in his apology that “I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said,” and has since insisted that he is not racist in a conventional way. Francis Wahlgren, the Christie’s auctioneer who is handling the sale of the medal, has said to the Financial Times that he is confident the medal would fetch the $2.5 million reserve, and does not expect Watson’s previous remarks to affect the sale. He notes that “There are a lot of personalities in history we’d find fault with – but their discoveries transcend human foibles.”

It is that statement that gives me trouble. Does past performance give you a free pass in the present? I have seen this before, where revered scientists take missteps later in their careers. Jane Goodall plagiarizes her latest book;  E.O. Wilson doesn’t think math is important, other Nobel Laureates like Lynn Margulis have drifted away from good science in her late career. In the case of Watson, his behaviours tend to get written off as less being an arrogant bigot, and more of an enthusiastic if misguided old man, who does not quite understand that people won’t always take his provocative remarks as innocently as he intended. Can we excuse bad behaviour/science/thinking from scientific heroes just because they are old and have done great things? Can we separate the legacy of the scientist from the legacy of the person (or that of Dr. Huxtable from Bill Cosby?). It troubles me to think that Watson’s legacy may be more about being racist than about being a great scientist, but I am also troubled by his racist remarks. To help make sense of this dichotomy, I look to Richard Feynman, not for advice, but as an example.

One of many Feynman quotes beautifully illustrated

One of many Feynman quotes beautifully illustrated

Richard Feynman’s legacy, which is quite impressive and full of anecdotes, has been reexamined in the light of his “casual sexism” and disrespectful behaviours towards women. Feynman has a certain celebrity about him in the pop-science community, his quotes frequently show up in Twitter streams and inspirational posters, which are just beautiful, and he is revered as a hero to some. But few heroes can survive scrutiny unscathed. They all have flaws, by virtue of being human. At Galileo’s Pendulum, Matthew Francis points out that hero-worship blurs those flaws, leveling them: truly nasty aspects of a person’s personality or behavior become on par with little quirks and eccentricities. In that way, we justify our worship. Over at Mathematigal, the author makes a great point about examining the legacy of Feynman, which easily applies to many other of our heroes, “Feynman did amazing work, it’s true. Talking openly about the uglier aspects of his life doesn’t diminish that. But glossing over his reprehensible behavior towards women, or trying to explain it away, alienates those of us who have had to struggle with that same behavior from our own friends and colleagues.” Speaking of explaining it away, there is even a Feynman excuses Bingo Card;

Excuses that get thrown about when discussing Feynman's

Excuses that commonly get thrown about when discussing the less savory aspects of Feynman’s legacy

Through all of that, what can I say. I still admire the work of James Watson. I have waited in line for an hour to meet Jane Goodall, and would do so again. I still want to have a drink with E.O. Wilson. I will still be filled with awe when I read a Feynman quote or think about the Challenger investigation. I know that the scientific heroes that I hold in high regard are not perfect, and while that does not diminish their accomplishments, it does make me a bit sad and disappointed, which is all too often part of the price of hero worship.

As I reflect on these scientists, Watson in particular, and their legacies there are a couple of thoughts that I can’t get out of my head;

Get in Line

In my opinion, the enjoyment of music festivals and other large events, can come down to your experiences with lines just as much as with the line-up; you line up to get to the festival grounds, you line up to get your entrance bracelet, then line up to go through security, then line up to get your drink tickets and reusable mug, then line up to get drinks, then line up to get food, then line up to use the porta-potties, and repeat as needed. And at each one of those lining up (or queuing) opportunities, this will invariably happen.

(from Reddit)

I am a staunch believer in sticking with the decision I have made, even when I see other lines moving much more quickly, and it turns out that regardless of which line I choose, those other lines probably are faster. This cruel fact comes from the work of queuing theory. Work in queuing theory has shown that having people line up in a number of separate lines with several different servers (like at the grocery store) is significantly slower than having one long winding line with multiple servers (like at the bank).

But as is often the case, science doesn’t always translate into practice, and in this case the obstacle is ourselves. Given the choice between a slow-moving short line, and a fast moving long one, even if the wait times are identical, we tend to choose the short line. No doubt part of this is that we like to feel that we have a certain level of control and choice over our wait time, and that we can beat the system, we can’t. Also the perception of a long line is often enough to scare us off and discourage us from even participating in the line, a behaviour queue theorists refer to as balking, which has slowed the adoption of single line systems by many businesses.

There are three factors of human behaviour/psychology that trump the science of queuing theory and help explain why we choose the short line: 1) we get bored when we wait in line (fun fact: Americans spend ~37 billion hours each year waiting in line!), 2) we hate it when we expect a short wait and then get a long one, and 3) we really hate it when someone shows up after us but gets served first. These factors can result in “queue rage” which can last for weeks after the incident, (I am still fuming about missing 3/4 of the Arkells show while waiting in line at the Sleeman Centre well over a year ago), and even result in violence. The first factor is overcome in grocery store queues by having impulse items, magazines, and other distractions available, because even though we are still waiting we perceive occupied time as being shorter than unoccupied time, basically, time flies when you are reading tabloid headlines. The second factor can be overcome with posted expected wait times. We tend to be more patient when we are given an idea of how long we will be waiting, however this can backfire if the wait times are longer than advertised (more queue rage). The third factor really should support the widespread adoption of a single line, as it is fair and ensures a first come first served approach. But for as much as we hate it when people in other lines who showed up after us get served first, we also really love it when we show up late and get served first.

23andMe and Grams

Last year for my grandmother’s 97th birthday, I got her a 23andMe genetic testing kit. Granted it may have been an unusual gift, but I thought it would provide some interesting information about our ancestry, a subject close to my grandma’s heart, as well as some insight into her health and maybe even my own. When I gave her the kit, my Grams (as well as most of my family) was a bit confused by what it was. I learned that she wasn’t even sure what DNA was, let alone what I would want with it. Grams was a bit hesitant to give a spit sample, but agreed to it, as long as she could do it in private without people watching her. With the sample collected I sent it off to the lab, where it was processed as below, and then waited for the results.

Once the results were in, the fun part began and I was able to start exploring. The first results I looked at dealt with her health (this service has since been discontinued due to a ruling by the FDA, more on that here, and here).

Grams' health risks of note.

Grams’ health risks of note.

Thankfully there weren’t too many surprises or causes for worry in the results, although slightly higher odds of macular degeneration and Alzheimers are worth taking note of. In addition to the health risks, there was also a results section on how Grams would be expected to react to certain drugs. Again not too many surprises, for most drugs she would have a normal response, however the results reveal that she is likely a fast metabolizer of proton pump inhibitors and caffeine, and that she has increased odds of responding to beta interferon therapy. The test also reported on any inherited conditions that my grandmother might have, and fortunately of all the conditions scanned (e.g., phenylketonuria, usher syndrome, Tay-sachs disease, and maple syrup urine disease) she does not carry the required genetic variant. The only variant that was present was for hemochromatosis, but the results suggested that Grams is not at risk of having higher levels of iron in the body, but may pass on the mutation to her children. This was the first result that I read that hit a bit close to home, whenever I donate blood, I always have very high iron levels, and now I believe I have a bit of an understanding as to where some of that comes from, thanks Grams!

Some of Grams' predicted traits.

Some of Grams’ predicted traits.

The health results also includes a section on certain inherited traits that you might expect to have. Some of the surprising results were that my Grams’ would be expected to have the muscle performance of a sprinter, which is something quite fun to imagine.  23andMe also has some fun with the results, and they are able to turn your DNA into a musical melody. The melody is created by using 4 musical elements, key, rhythm, pitch, and timbre. The key of the melody is determined by the maternal haplogroup, rhythm is derived by eye color and height, pitch by ear wax type and photic sneeze response, while timbre is chosen by the user. You can listen to the sound of my Grams’ DNA here.

The kit also provides some interesting information about my Grams’ ancestry and possible relatives. So far, 23andMe has found 995 DNA Relatives (17 of whom are 2nd-3rd Cousins, 573 are 4th cousins, and 405 are 5th cousins or distant relatives). We have always known she is Scottish and the results confirm her Northern European ancestry.

Percent of my Grams' DNA that comes from Northern Europe, (FYI her maiden name is McPhee)

Percent of my Grams’ DNA that comes from Northern Europe, (FYI her maiden name is McPhee)

While the Northern European bit was as expected, the percent Neanderthal came as a bit of a surprise. Turns out 3% of my Grams’ DNA is from Neanderthals, which is pretty high, and pretty cool!

My Grams' DNA is 3% Neanderthal

My Grams’ DNA is 3% Neanderthal

This weekend my Grams turns 98, when she was born DNA research was in its infancy and it would still be another 40 years before the structure of DNA would be uncovered. I think it is amazing that she has lived through so much. She is a wonderful mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and all around amazing person. Happy Birthday Grams!

Me and my Grams

Me and my Grams

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Round Up Ready: Jolene Edition

This post is going to be a bit different from the usual fare, but hopefully enjoyable none the less. I am not sure what it is but the Dolly Parton and the song Jolene have seemingly been popping up a lot lately. Last week I was watching the PBS American Masters special Johnny Carson: King of Late Night, and it featured a clip of that famous interview with Dolly Parton. Earlier this week at trivia one of the questions was about the name of the first cloned sheep, the name of course was Dolly, as a tribute to Dolly Parton (note: if you are looking for the connection, the clone was derived from a mammary cell). Then today on CBC Radio 2 Drive with Rich Terfry, he had a segment called Junk in the Trunk where he looked back at the history of Dolly Parton and her split from Porter Wagoner and how that led to the amazing songs Jolene and I Will Always Love You. That same story has also been brilliantly told by Drunk History, as seen in the clip below (thanks for the tip Paddy!)

The song Jolene is quite beautiful, and NPR recently did a story on the song. The song is fairly simple, it only has 200 words, and a lot of those are repeated. But as Dolly herself notes in that NPR piece it is the very simplicity, along with the song’s haunting melody, that makes the character of “Jolene” and indeed the song itself, so memorable. Perhaps a true measure of how great a song really is, is to look at how other musicians respond to it. Jolene is quite loved by many musicians, and has been covered and interpreted many times over, including but not limited to Alison Krauss, Olivia Newton-John, Miley Cyrus, Mindy Smith, The Cast of Glee,  The Sisters of Mercy, and my personal favorite The White Stripes who, as you can see below, have made the song a staple in their sets.

While all of those covers are pretty great, they just can’t live up to the original, even when that original is slowed down by 25%

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Gentle Breezes, Tree Sneezes, and Tornadoes

When I was growing up, my family participated in the Children of Chernobyl program. One hot summer afternoon my dad mentioned how nice the breeze was, and one of the Chernobyl kids then recited an English poem they had learned back in Belarus that mentions breeze. He then asked “what is breeze?” The best answer we came up with was that a breeze was just a small, little wind. But really, what is wind?

Achoo! Source.

Achoo! Source.

Robert Krulwich explains wind in a very simple and beautiful way,

Think of a patch of ground on a sunny day. Sunshine pours down. The air gets warmer. Along comes a cloud, not a big one, but big enough to cast a shadow. The air in that shadow cools a little. Now we’ve got a difference: cool air is sitting next to warm air — and the air that’s warming up is getting lighter. The air that’s cooling down is getting heavier, and as the warmer air rises, the sinking cooler air slips in to take its place. That slipping in? You feel it as a gentle push against your cheek; that’s the beginning of a breeze. Breezes, blustery days, wind — all come from warm and cool air slipping, sliding, tumbling, like kittens at play, across the earth.

This description is quite lovely, but remember that the same temperature differential between warm and cool air that causes that gentle breeze, can turn ugly and cause a deadly tornado.

An eastward advancing cold front is to blame for the recent tornado in Moore, Oklahoma where 24 people were killed, and 377 injured. This pocket of cold air ran into warm air from the Gulf of Mexico. The cold front caused the warm air to rise, since it’s less dense, creating thunderstorms that have in turn spawned tornadoes. The wind/supercell thunderstorms that caused the damage was strikingly visible from space, and the normally serenereal-time wind map looked quite different that day. The Atlantic has an excellent backgrounder on this disastrous tornado.

Tornado tracks over 61 years. Source.

Tornado tracks over 61 years (1950-2011). Source.

Oklahoma falls in the region known as “Tornado Alley“. Interestingly the region of Tornado Alley shifts northward over the course of the year. In December, January, and February, the bulk of tornadoes have been centered on south and south-central states like Mississippi, Texas and Kentucky. In peak tornado season—March, April, and May—the southern states are still affected, but the reach of the tornadoes has extended north and west. By June, July, and August, most of the tornado activity is happening in states like Michigan and Minnesota. Because of its unique location in the alley, Oklahoma gets more tornadoes than any other state.

This recent disaster is yet another reminder of how powerful and destructive nature can be, and that it is important that we continue to study natural disasters, so that we can better mitigate their damage in the future.

Round-Up Ready: San Francisco Edition

Catch of the day at New May Wah market

Catch of the day at New May Wah market

My recent “all quiet on the cyberfront” has been due to commitments to getting ready for a trip to San Francisco for a conference on flame retardants (more on that later). In the mean time, here is a quick summary of some of the highlights of my time in San Francisco, as experienced through a sensory overload and guided by my second cousin Mary, who is celebrating a birthday today, Happy Birthday Mary!

The Smells

Spilled beer and fish at the Hyde Street Pier, the exotic smells of New May Wah Market, and the distinctive odor of The 38 Geary Bus, there is no shortage of interesting aromas in the City by the Bay.

The Tastes

A lemon tree grows on the grounds on Jacuzzi Winery

A lemon tree grows on the grounds on Jacuzzi Winery

The freshness of all the food really stands out, be it the backyard meyer lemons, the asparagus, caught that day sushi, Yuubi Japanese Restaurant, the amazing local beer Lagunitas Beer, and the wines of Sonoma valley, specifically the Jacuzzi Winery, with its knowledgeable and friendly staff.

The Feels

The photoscopes, or original moving picture show booths, with colorful content

The photoscopes, or original moving picture show booths, with colorful content at the Musee Mecanique

It is always good advice to be careful about what you touch, but at the Musée Mécanique touching and playing with all the coin operated fortune telling booths, games, and photoscopes is encouraged and awesome. The California Academy of Sciences has a stricter touching policy, but is still very cool and definitely worth a visit, particularly for the planetarium.

The Sounds

The sounds of the city, like the roar from The Giants Game, are quiet once you enter Grace Cathedral, although it is difficult appreciate the quietness when all you can hear in your head is The Decemberists Grace Cathedral Hill.

The Sights

There are so many great sights in San Francisco; Muir Woods, Lands End, Bay Bridge at night, Golden Gate Bridge at anytime. These iconic images have been featured in many movies and television.

The Golden Gate Bridge at night, with planes and stars overhead

The Golden Gate Bridge at night, with planes and stars overhead

Top 5 Movies/TV Shows Based in San Francisco

  1. Full House
  2. The Rock
  3. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
  4. Homeward Bound II: Lost in San Francisco
  5. Star Trek (see next page for a nerdier breakdown of San Francisco in Star Trek) Continue reading