Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen

I always cringe when someone calls me a Lady. That's Lady with a capital 'L', not just a synonym for 'female'. I know they mean it as a compliment. I know 'Lady-like' behavior is widely considered to be a good thing, especially in the South. It's something many women strive towards, and many men admire. But what, exactly, is a Lady?

In my mind, a Lady is calm, reserved, flawlessly polite, soft-spoken and demure. Nothing upsets her. She always wears a skirt and knows how to sit properly in one. She does not sully her hands with manual labor, but graciously allows others to manage such unpleasantness. She does not curse or spit or raise her voice or drink beer. She definitely doesn't think or talk about sex. She has strict notions of propriety which she enforces, though she would never raise a hand to anyone.

Basically, it's a concept I don't have much use for. Don't get me wrong, there are some things I like about it....I value courtesy pretty highly, and do my best to stay unruffled in the face of adversity. But I like speaking my mind and getting my hands dirty. I prefer doing things for myself, and I like helping people that need it. I hate stupid rules and I have no idea how you're supposed to sit in a skirt. Rather than having doors held open for me, I hold them open for other people. You know what that sounds like to me? A Gentleman.

'Lady' and 'Gentleman' are not simply feminine and masculine words for the same concept. A Gentleman fights for honor or for a cause. He is strong, intelligent, aggressive and adventurous. He always maintains control of a situation, and knows how to ride a horse and shoot a gun. He can spit and curse all he wants as long as it isn't in front of a Lady. The dichotomy in my own head is honestly pretty sexist...or it would be if I were applying these expectations to women and men, respectively. Really though, I don't see any reason why a little boy can't want to be a princess and a grown woman can't call herself a Southern Gentleman. The concepts these terms represent may be traditionally associated with one sex, what?

But these are just gender roles. Stereotypes, reinforced by tradition. By preferring to call myself a Gentleman rather than a Lady, am I just trading one set of archaic, pre-conceived notions for another? Is it more reasonable to adapt the concept of a Gentleman such that it is not limited to describing men, or to redefine the concept of a Lady such that it applies to a modern woman such as myself? Is there really any point in doing either, since these are just labels anyway?

These are deeper waters than I expected to tread when I decided to figure out why it bothered me to be called a Lady. Gender roles are interesting to explore, and important to question...especially if we are to achieve real equality. They are also deeply personal. I'm certain that my 'definitions' of what makes a Lady and a Gentleman are not universal. These concepts are established over time and are influenced by the way men and women are treated and portrayed, both in the media and amongst our families and friends. I imagine being raised in the South and reading a bunch of medieval fantasy had a lot to do with how I came to define these particular ideals.

Ok, so gender roles exist and they're perceived differently by different people. So any redefining that takes place would really be for my own benefit. While I certainly would like to inspire others to question and explore their own established gender roles, it's unreasonable to expect that changing the way I think will have any effect on how others think. The people attempting to compliment me by calling me a Lady will not know what it means to me...unless they read my blog, anyway. From that perspective, it seems more logical to change what 'Lady' means to me, since people are likely to keep calling me that. Plus it would save me having to explain all of this to someone when they hear me call myself a Gentleman.

Neither option feels entirely satisfactory, so I think I'll keep working on both. The concept of what it means to be a 'Lady' in modern society has to change with the rest of the world. Simply by being a strong, rational, intelligent, polite woman who holds open doors for people and refuses to keep her mouth shut I am changing that image. A little bit, anyway. Pre-existing ideals, such as the elegant princess and the chivalrous knight, should not be relegated to one gender by definition. That one is tougher to fight, because it involves getting people to realize that they are associating those ideals with a particular gender and question the logic of doing that. So I'll keep calling myself a Gentleman, even if it generates some odd looks and complicated explanations. Maybe it will get people thinking.

Chivalry is not dead by the way, it just stopped being sexist.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Mad Science on a Budget: Genome Sequencing

Originally published over at SiMF.

It’s hard to find good help these days. Minions come and go like valence electrons; as soon as you get one of them trained to handle the radioactive waste disposal they end up frying themselves with the Death Ray and you have to start all over again. What a waste of time! Get too many of them together and they start talking about ‘benefits’ and ‘occupational hazards’ and you have to dump the lot of them in the Acid Pit…and who is going to clean up that mess?!?

But imagine if you could screen potential minions for certain…desirable traits before going through the tedious process of hiring, training and eliminating anyone who knows too much? What if you could determine, from just a small sample of genetic material, whether your applicant has the right mix of ability, ignorance and lack of motivation to make the perfect minion? Have a look at their genome and see for yourself!

‘Hold on a tick!’ You may be thinking. ‘Genetic sequencing is a big plorking deal! The Human Genome Project took over ten years and cost a metric butt-ton of cash! I am suspicious of you and your claims.’

And what an informed consumer you are! When the Human Genome Project set out to map the genetics of Homo sapiens sapiens in 1990, the project was expected to take 15 years and cost around $3 billion dollars. They did it in ten (mostly). Sequencing technology continued to advance as the project went on, allowing the researchers to progress at an unanticipated rate. That advancement has continued unabated. The scientists working on the HGP broke the human genome up into chunks of DNA about 150,000 base-pairs long, sequenced the chunks, and then reassembled them into the complete genome. To put this into perspective, the human genome contains 3.3 billion base-pairs. Making things even more difficult, the human genome also contains more segmental duplications than any other mammalian species. These are basically sections of DNA that are nearly identical and are repeated over and over again. Imagine trying to put together a puzzle when you don’t know what the final picture will look like. Then imagine that a sizable chunk of the pieces you do have are identical and are repeated again and again throughout the puzzle. You could be missing pieces, or you may have duplicate pieces, and oh yeah…the pieces are the size of molecules and there are thousands of them. You can see why that might be a wee bit difficult.

But lo, the future is now! We have many advantages that were unheard of in 1990. Next generation, high-throughput sequencing techniques have been developed to produce thousands of sequences at once. And they do it cheaply! The cost of sequencing has plummeted in recent years, dropping from hundreds of millions in 2001 to thousands in 2010. Not only can we generate the puzzle pieces faster and at significantly reduced cost, we now have a picture to look at while we are assembling them in the form of the groundbreaking work performed by the HGP. This moves things right along.

But the HGP didn’t stop there! They have continued to sequence the genomes of other organisms, as well as collect information about the function of the genes identified in the human genome. This information is available to the public online through GenBank. The HapMap project collects differences between individual human genomes. Changes as small as a single base-pair, if observed consistently, could explain why patients react differently to the same medication or why one person is more prone to a certain type of cancer. If you know what to look for, you don’t even need to sequence an entire genome to diagnose a patient…you can just check for these specific sequences.

What? Oh, you don’t care if your minions are prone to diabetes or whether they might have an allergic reaction to your mind-wiping drugs? Well an intelligent customer such as yourself must realize that human traits such as personality, athletic ability and sexual orientation simply do not correspond to specific genes being present or absent. Our genetic make-up is a rather mind-bogglingly big and complex thing. Not only do the genes themselves matter, but when and how they are turned on matters as well, and so does how they are processed and translated into proteins. The proteins themselves, once generated according to the genetic blueprint, can be processed in several different ways and can also be involved in turning other genes on and off. And don’t get me started on the role of the environment! External factors can also affect how genes are expressed, really making it impossible to pin down a single element responsible for just about any one trait. Many human diseases, such as cancer and lupus, are generally the result of several small things going slightly wrong. Rather than having a single smoking gun, you have several different paths that lead you to the same place.

But the power of genome sequencing is undeniable! The potential as a diagnostic tool alone could dramatically affect medicine and how pharmaceuticals are administered. In terms of agriculture, it can revolutionize the way farmers select for specific traits in their crops. It can even make chocolate better! And as the cost of sequencing decreases and more data becomes available, who knows where it will take us? So you see why this is a prime investment opportunity. Why don’t you put away the Death Ray and we can discuss the figures over coffee?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Internal Consistency - Part 3: Astrology

As a skeptic, the truth matters to me. It's not enough for a belief to make me feel better, if it isn't true I'm not interested. Still, there are quite a few holdovers from my less skeptical days floating around in my brain. To resolve the cognitive dissonance created by valuing truth and associating myself with beliefs commonly dismissed as pseudoscience and 'woo' by the skeptical community, I've been writing about it. You can read part 1 and part 2 of this exercise as well, if you're interested.

With the recent brouhaha over the reported shift in the zodiac, this seemed like a good time to tackle my attachment to astrology. If being told that you've been reading the wrong horoscope all of your life wasn't enough to make you suspicious of astrology as a guiding force, you should really read Phil Plait's debunking of astrology as a whole. While there are many different types of astrology (Western, Chinese, Hindu, etc.), they all boil down to using the position of the Sun, Moon, planets and stars (though the position of the stars themselves are not relevant in Western astrology) to predict or explain what's going on here on Earth. As the various heavenly bodies move through space, they affect people and events in different ways. Astrologers chart this movement, which is considered to be predictive of events that correspond with it, and use it to write bits of pretty-sounding, generic nonsense for newspapers and gossip magazines.

Ok, so far so good. I'm sounding quite skeptical and scientific. But I never took the predictive power of astrology seriously, so it's not difficult to dismiss. It was the determinative aspect of astrology, the idea that the positions of the planets determine our personalities, that I was really involved with. Not only did my particular astrological designation (Capricorn, if you're curious) seem to describe me especially well, the idea that I could learn about myself and the people around me just by reading about their 'signs' was very appealing. Rigorous introspection? Taking the time to really get to know people? That sounds a lot like work. You're a Virgo, aren't you?

That's the crux of it, really. Taking determinative astrology seriously made me feel like I had this special understanding about people without having to put in any of the effort necessary to actually understand people. It was easy and fun and entertaining, and probably caused me to make a ton of stupid assumptions about myself and the people I knew. Looking at the concept now I'm amazed I bought into it for so long. Really? The positions of the planets on the day I was born is going to be what determines my personality? Not my genetics or how I was raised or the choices I make in life? Yeah the description for Capricorn sounds a lot like me, but honestly a lot of these descriptions could be about me...have you ever heard of something called confirmation bias?

So yeah, I feel like I've largely resolved the cognitive dissonance here. I am the only person or thing or heavenly body or whatever that gets to decide anything about who I am. I may have some overlap with the personality type described as a 'Capricorn', but that just doesn't mean anything significant. It's a little weird how attached I am to the idea of myself as a Capricorn, though. While I was writing this I kept trying to come up with some valid basis for the designation. Like the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator or something...though personality tests like that don't necessarily have a better reputation for scientific integrity than horoscopes. Fact is though, there are many things that make me the person I am...but none of them have anything to do with me being born in early January.

And now, for your entertainment, my collection of astrology-themed 'Light bulb' jokes.

How many Capricorns does it take to change a light bulb?
One, but it has to be her idea.

How many Aquarius does it take to change a light bulb?
One, but he has to use the latest technology to do it.

How many Pisces does it take to change a light bulb?
The light went out?

How many Aries does it take to change a light bulb?
One, but you'd better get the hell out of her way.

How many Taurus does it take to change a light bulb?
One, but he'll do it when he's good and ready.

How many Gemini does it take to change a light bulb?

How many Cancers does it take to change a light bulb?
One, but her therapist (or Mother) has to talk her into it.

How many Leos does it take to change a light bulb?
One, and a 'Halelujah!' chorus while he does it.

How many Virgos does it take to change a light bulb?
Four; one to get a ladder, one to unscrew the bulb, one to check the wiring, and one to clean up the mess.

How many Libras does it take to change a light bulb?
Maybe one to do it, and maybe one not to do it.

How many Scorpios does it take to change a light bulb?
None, they like it in the dark.

How many Sagittarius does it take to change a light bulb?
One, and eleven other signs to revolve around her.