Culture Nature

Hypergraphia for Poetry in an Epileptic Patient

I got this link from somewhere – Bookslut, maybe? – but anyway, it’s a letter to The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences.

An epileptic patient “complained of being driven to write poetry. For 5 years, he experienced words as ‘continuously rhyming in his head’ and felt the need to write them down and show his writings to others. He did not talk in rhyme, write excessively in nonrhyme, or read poetry. The patient had not had a preoccupation with poetry until age 53 when he had the subacute onset of behavioral changes with irritability and anger.”

The brain really is peculiar. The fact that someone with brain damage would experience words rhyming in his head is remarkable but, given the extensive brain area devoted to language recognition and formation, makes some sense. The need to write it down and show it to people is what strikes me as most interesting. It suggests that the brain isn’t just exhibiting some kind of linguistic tic, but that the stimulus is somehow acting on his whole concept of poetry, including the associated ideas that you write it down and show it people.

Nature Other

The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

Booby Henderson, the founder of the Church of the FSM, has produced a book, The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. He has decided to use the profits towards buying a missionary pirate ship to spread the word. There’s a petition you can sign to try and persudade the US government that the Church of the FSM is a real religion and deserving of tax-free status.

I actually think that the whole FSM thing is a bit annoying. It’s somewhat amusing, and the phrase ‘noodly appendage’ is a fine addition to the language, but the more it goes on, the more it becomes a satire on religion, rather than a focussed argument against the teaching of ID in schools. I have no objection to people satirising religion, but given the high percentage of church-goers in the US, the anti-ID movement needs to win over moderate Christians. Trying to be the calm voice of reason seems a better way of doing that than mocking people’s sincere beliefs.

Even more annoying, for me, is that the FSM idea doesn’t even stand up in the first place. In Henderson’s original letter, he basically said that he had an alternative explanation for life, and if they were going to teach non-scientific theories in school, his theory was just as good as ID. But the whole point of ID is that it is creationism stripped of the scriptural references as a way of getting around the consitutional separation of church and state. Once you strip away the scriptural details of FSMism – the noodliness, the heavenly beer volcano, the pirates – what you’re left with is the assertion that life was created by an intelligent designer. It’s not an alternative to ID – it *is* ID. What the satire really needs is an alternative explanation for how life came to be – however ridiculous – not just a different version of the same thing.

And yes, I do know that I’m too literal-minded for my own good.


First, name your rock.

This story appealed to me.

Nature Other


A post at we make money not art made me laugh.

Culture Nature

Mutants and the Dutch

I recently read Mutants by Armand Marie Leroi, which is a book that uses mutation as a way of understanding the development of the body. It’s interesting but quite medical; I have a pretty high tolerance for stuff about chemical pathways, gene mutations, hormones and so on, but I still found all the polysyllabic chemical names tended to make my eyes glaze over.

Lots of interesting snippets along the way, though. For example, the chapter about growth mutations had to distinguish them from ‘normal’ variation, whether racial or environmental. Apparently, young Dutch men now have an *average* height of six foot – which makes them taller than famously genetically tall people like the Masai and the Dinka. Almost more strikingly, in Holland there is no longer any correlation between young people’s social class and their height. That is certainly not true in the UK, and I find it an incredibly impressive advertisment for Dutch social policy.

Nature Other

Orientalism and crying wolf

This blog-post on the Hwang debacle kind of annoyed me. As is probably obvious from what I said in the comments section. The relevant part of the post is this :

It sounds like there was nothing in the paper that should have given Hwang Woo-suk away; doubtless he faked the data to be believable. But check this out (from the San Jose Mercury News):

“Hwang chalked up much of the success to South Korean government support and dedicated researchers working around the clock. He also credited his workers’ dexterity with chopsticks; stem cell researchers visited from around the world and rushed back to their labs to try the new technique.”

ARE they kidding?? Are they KIDDING? What next, “We just cultured the cells in kim-chee and they grew like mad!”?

Evidently westerners are so dense about Asian cultures that they figured this guy was doing a scientific version of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-style kung fu, using secret Asian powers involving chopsticks. This is deeply ridiculous. “So THAT’S how those brilliant Koreans accomplished their scientific research! They have special dexterity with chopsticks!” Once again:

“…stem cell researchers visited from around the world and rushed back to their labs to try the new technique.”

The chopsticks technique.

[some stuff about the Sokal hoax, which is an interesting enough subect in its own right but not what I’m interested in here]

The Sokal Hoax, while obnoxious, provided the humanities with an urgent motive for some much-needed self-scrutiny, including a few brilliant articles by one of my heroes, John Guillory (“The Great”).

Similarly, it might be time to check, in a public way, why scientists around the world were willing to believe that dexterity with chopsticks was the secret answer.

I’m all for making people’s biases and prejudices explicit, but this kind of thing just undermines any serious attempt to do that. I agree that the quote above reflects badly on the San Jose Mercury News, but that’s no big surprise, since science reporting in the media is so consistently poor. Of course the media love the chopstick quote – in a story which they know they have to cover but which they don’t believe their readers are going to understand, it’s the one human detail they can latch onto. I would speculate that Dr Hwang said it for that reason, since he seems to have enjoyed publicity.

But it’s ludicrous to suggest that the world’s working embryologists and geneticists were so beguiled by Orientalism that a comment about chopsticks was the reason they accepted Hwang’s claims. Hwang was one of the most highly respected and successful people in the field. Why on earth wouldn’t his claims be taken at face value?

There’s no shortage of real racism and stupidity in the world. Insisting on seeing it where it isn’t just reduces your credibility.

btw, if anyone wants to read the original Hwang paper, it’s available here. Personally I found it completely incomprehensible.


Actually, thinking about it, what really annoyed me is the bizarre idea of how the scientific community works implied by the post. Considering it’s attached to accusations of credulity and denseness about other cultures, there’s a certain amount of pot/kettle to it.