Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Shame on you, Susan G. Komen Foundation

The Susan G. Komen Foundation has halted all grants to Planned Parenthood totaling well over half a million dollars. These grants were used for breast cancer screenings.

Shame on SGK for putting politics ahead of their stated mission of fighting breast cancer.

Here are some suggestions of what you can do.

I just made a donation to Planned Parenthood, and I'm a starving grad student. What can you do to help?

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Weekly Links

Hooray for science!

Coughs, colds, and the "appealing but mistaken concept of boosting the immune system"
Erik Davis explains how there is no evidence that it's possible to generally boost your immune system. (Vaccinations, of course, can specifically boost your immune system's ability to fight off a particular virus.)

Five shots against global warming denialism
Phil Plait goes over current events in the fight against climate change denialism.

Why blocking roads can speed up traffic
Jesse Galef demonstrates the incredibly counterintuitive Braess' Paradox. It's actually possible to reduce traffic by closing off a connecting road. The math looks sound!

Okay, but how do touch screens actually work?
Great explanation of the various mechanisms for touch screen technology. I actually hadn't heard of the frustrated total internal reflection design, which allow for much larger touch screens.

FYI: How long-running is the longest-running lab experiment?
Eighty-five years as it turns out. A professor at University of Queensland set up a funnel of tar pitch to prove to his students that it was a liquid. So far, nine drops have fallen.

Aw, man

You may have read about how the Wall Street Journal published a climate change denial editorial signed by 16 scientists, while rejecting a climate change editorial signed by 255 members of the National Academy of Scientists.

Roy Grubb reveals the backgrounds of those 16 scientists who signed the WSJ letter.

You probably know where I'm going with this.

Yes, there are two electrical engineers, as well as an aerospace engineer on the list. Plus, one of the physicists works in optics, which actually makes him the one I'm most likely to come across at a conference.

Needless to say, the typical EE does not have any particular expertise in climate science. Aside from being a logical fallacy, I'm not even sure how the argument from authority is supposed to work when you quite clearly aren't an authority in the area. 

Friday, January 27, 2012


I, along with over 700,000 other people, follow George Takei on Facebook, and I was pleasantly surprised to see him repost this picture. Takei is a Buddhist, not an atheist, but it's still nice to see someone who's a fairly beloved public figure be willing to say something critical of religion.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Lena: A follow-up

The images in the post on Lena were from USC's Signal and Image Processing Institute's Database, which has most of the commonly used images for image processing work. Check out the miscellaneous section, where has images of people.

Notice anything?

There is one picture of a man, named "Man."

There is one picture of a man and a woman, labeled "Couple."

There are six pictures of women, three named "Girl" and three called "Girl (first name)." You can choose to work with Lena, Elaine, or Tiffany*.

So not only are we directly juxtaposing the word girl with the word man while talking about adults, but the gender ratio is quite skewed. The people doing the image processing are mostly men, and the subjects of the images are mostly women.

It really does give the impression that for a woman, it's easier to make a name for yourself in image processing by posing for a picture than by writing an algorithm.

*Looking at the Tiffany image also makes me think that Lena is not the only centerfold used in image processing examples.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Weekly Links

This story is too bootylicious for me
An Australian scientist names a "bootylicious" fly after Beyonce. Elle explains why this is messed up.

Ellen gives brilliant homeless girl totally deserved scholarship
If you read about Samantha Garvey, the Intel Science Fair semi-finalist who's currently living in a shelter, you'll be happy to know Ellen and AT&T have pitched in $50,000 for her college education.

Evil Little Shirts
Speaking of awesome teenagers, support the Jessica Ahlquist Scholarship Fund by buying your very own "Evil Little Thing" shirt!

Saturday, January 21, 2012


When you take an image processing class, you are likely to come across a few standard test images. This image of peppers is extremely common for basic processing.

It has nice bright colors and big blocky features, so it’s pretty easy to work with.

Then you’ll probably want to move on to something with much finer detail, like this baboon.

The high frequency components (small features) make this an excellent contrast to the peppers image. You’ll see how different filters and whatnot work when applied to small details as compared to the large objects.

But in real life, an awful lot of photographs are of people. So you’ll undoubtedly want to try these techniques you’re learning on an image of a person. And you will very likely use this one.

This is a great image in terms of trying different techniques. There are a variety of colors and textures. There are high spatial frequency components with the feathers in her hat and her hair. There are large objects (low spatial frequency components) with her face and her exposed shoulder.

But in the complete original image, she has a whole lot more exposed.

You are looking at Playboy’s Miss November of 1972, Lena Soderberg.

That’s right: a couple of researchers at USC back in the ‘70s were tired of the available test images and so scanned a recent centerfold. This image is now one of the most common images used in both image processing coursework and research. The industry, as I imagine you’re aware, is still predominantly men.

Let that sink in for a minute.

A female student taking an image processing class, surrounded mostly by male classmates and most likely being taught by a male professor, will learn how to do basic manipulations on an image taken from Playboy.

Now, I’m not trying to say that the use of this image is sexist in itself. For one thing, it’s not like it’s immediately obvious where the image came from, and you may be effectively forced to use the image if you’re trying to directly compare your work to someone else’s, and they used that image.

But that fact remains that a male-dominated field uses a Playboy centerfold as one of its standard images, and I find that to be incredibly problematic.

Women in STEM fields have made enormous progress in the last few decades. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have further to go. Where sexism in STEM was once a stab in the back, it’s now more like death by a thousand papercuts. It’s these countless tiny messages that seem like nothing to worry about when taken individually, but add up to clearly tell women that we don’t belong.

The Guerilla Girls have a poster that asks “Do women have to be naked to get into US museums? Less than 3% of the artists in the Met. Museum are women, but 83% of the nudes are female.”

It would seem that image processing has a similar problem.

Read more:

Images are from:

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Weekly Links


Stephanie Zvan discusses compliments, intimacy, and negotiating boundaries.

How to read a scientific paper

Chad Orzel does a great job laying out the format of a journal paper, as well as the different types of papers. I really wish I could have read this when I started grad school.

Mary Ellen Avery, premature babies’ savior, dies at 84

An awesome woman I had never heard of passed away recently. Dr. Mary Ellen Avery made a crucial discovery on why so many premature infants die from respiratory distress: their bodies don’t always produce the surfactant that full term babies do, causing their lungs to fill with foam. Her work is estimated to have saved hundreds of thousands of babies’ lives.

Hop, skip and a jump: remembering Hedy Lamarr

Another awesome woman was even more awesome than you might have realized. I actually was aware that Hedy Lamarr had a couple of patents for frequency hopping communications systems, but I never knew the whole story.

That Christian compassion
A fundraiser for Jessica Ahlquist

This story is really important. Jessica Ahlquist, a 16-year-old high school student from Cranston Rhode Island, sued her school over the presence of a prayer banner. She recently won her case, but is sadly facing enormous backlash from both her local community and the Internet at large. Please consider contributing to college scholarship fund for Ahlquist, linked above. Her bravery at such a young age astounds me.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The surprising significance of a restroom

The student machine shop at my undergrad institution had only one bathroom. For a very long time, it was a men’s room.

One of the career staff who ran the shop had a big problem with this. It bothered him tremendously that his male students could use the bathroom right there in the shop while female students had to go out into the hall and use the regular building restroom.

He himself was an older Japanese-American man, and said outright “As a part of a group that’s been discriminated against, I didn’t like having to tell the girls that they had to go out in the hall to use the bathroom.”

He went to the university to change the shop restroom to be unisex. After all, it would only need a lock and a new sign. But, as with anything involving a university and change, there were problems. The red tape wouldn’t end. One of the largest stumbling blocks was the presence of a urinal in the restroom. He eventually convinced the administration that the women using the machine shop were unlikely to come down with the vapors at the sight of a urinal, and eventually, the restroom was made unisex.

This is one of my favorite examples of being a strong ally. He saw discrimination against women, even if many people would have considered it a small issue, and he corrected it. He ensured that he was doing everything possible to make women feel like they belonged in the shop just as much as men did.

I can assure you that it made a lasting impression on this particular female student.


We have a bag of cuties (clementine or murcott mandarins) sitting in the fridge right now, and I crack up every time I see the tagline “Nature’s perfect fruit.”

Because, of course, we have Nature alone to thank for a small, sweet, easy to peel, and seedless orange.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Thoughts on a vaccine reaction

After experiencing a very unpleasant reaction to the pneumonia vaccine last week, I find myself with a little bit more understanding of where anti-vax parents may be coming from.

That is absolutely not to say that I agree with them or that I’m even a little fine with their decision not to vaccinate their children. But ultimately, we’re not just trying to win an argument. We’re trying to figure out how to get these parents to make the decision to vaccinate, and I think understanding why they’re reluctant to do so is crucial to attaining that goal.

Let’s start from the beginning.

The Student Health Center was deserted last week since undergraduates were still on break. I figured this was the perfect time to go in and get caught up on my vaccinations. I needed a Tdap booster as well as a pneumonia vaccine (PPSV) (recommended due to asthma).

The next day, the PPSV injection site went from normal “I just got a shot” pain to a small, red tender area. By the morning after that, the back of my arm was largely swollen, red, and painful to the point I couldn’t really use that arm. And on a fever and chills, and I was absolutely miserable. I had to miss two days of lab.

I like to think I’m a fairly rational adult. I can look at this situation and say, hey, although this hurts, it hurts a whole lot less than pneumonia. Vaccines always have a slight risk of side effects and I happened to be one of the unlucky few this time. But it was never life-threatening, which a case of pneumonia could be to someone with respiratory illness.

I imagine the whole situation would feel very different if I were a small child with a worried parent. Or if I were that worried parent, watching my child in pain because of a shot I made them get.

This is about the illusion of control. If you or your kid gets sick, it might seem like it was something that just randomly happened, and you had no control over it. If you or your kid gets sick because of a direct action you took, like getting a vaccine, it seems more like your fault. As though you personally caused that pain.

What I want these parents to understand is this: choosing not to vaccinate is an action as much as choosing to vaccinate is. If your unvaccinated child catches or spreads a vaccine-preventable illness, it was due to your actions just as much as if they had a reaction to a vaccine you made them get.

I don’t have the magic answers on how to translate this concept into an argument that will win over reluctant parents. But I do feel like I understand just a little bit more why they are so reluctant to start with.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Weekly Links

Here are a few links you might enjoy:

Suit against UCLA in fatal lab fire raises question of who is responsible for safety.
A UCLA chemistry professor is up on criminal charges following the death of a research assistant due to a lab accident. Janet Stemwedel always does a fantastic job discussing the ethics of science, and here she discusses the ethics of lab safety and the responsibility of a PI.

Male explorer revealed to be a female two centuries after being awesome
Eighteenth century French botanist Jeanne Baret disguised herself as a man to explore the world. A new plant is being named for her.

Call to censor flu studies draws fire
The controversy over whether the papers on creating "superflu" viruses should be published with full methodology sections calls attention to how we balance academic freedom and the spread of scientific information with public health and safety.

Anatomy of a winter break
It's so true.

In which I admit to bias
It's impossible to be perfectly rational and skeptical on all issues all the time. I agree with K.O. Myers that in situations with conflicting information, I'd prefer to err on the side of supporting a marginalized group.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Why EEs are often creationists: Part 1

If you followed the link from my last post, you'll know that the Salem Hypothesis states in part that
In any Evolution vs. Creation debate, A person who claims scientific credentials and sides with Creation will most likely have an Engineering degree.
Further, this behavior is noticed most of all in electrical engineers (EEs). Why is this? There are a number of reasons, but I think one in particular is pretty significant.

EEs don't generally take biology. Personally, as a PhD student close to completion, I haven't taken an actual biology class since freshman year of high school. I took two course related to life sciences in undergrad (a geology class on dinosaurs and a class on human sexuality), but both were purely for fun. Neither fulfilled a single degree requirement.

This is quite common. A thorough survey would be a bit excessive for a blog post, but let's look at the undergrad requirements of three top EE programs:  MIT, Stanford, and UC Berkeley.

UC Berkeley: EEs need 30 (semester) units of natural science, mathematics, and statistics. This must include 16 units of math, 4 units of a CS course on probability, and 8 units of physics. This leaves one more course, which could be biology, but I imagine is much more likely to be chemistry or the completion of the physics series. ("Electromagnetic waves, optics, relativity, and quantum physics" is actually quite important for EEs, to the point I'm astonished it's not a required part of the curriculum). I don't see anywhere else that biology can fit in.

Stanford: EEs must take 45 (quarter) units of math and science, specifically including about 28 units of math (with a few options on coursework) and 8 units of physics (with another 4 strongly recommended for some tracks: Reflection and refraction, lenses and lens systems; polarization, interference, and diffraction; temperature, properties of matter and thermodynamics, introduction to kinetic theory of matter." Once again, what's up with not requiring optics for EEs?) That leaves a few units to play with, which could be filled by biology, though I notice that none of the sample schedules, including that for the Bioelectronics and Bioimaging track, list it.

MIT: MIT is an exception. It appears that the University requires a biology class, so a specific requirement from the department is unnecessary. I suspect that very few other institutions have such a requirement, and this also implies that a person with any degree from MIT has had a course in biology.

Do I think all schools should be like MIT and require biology of all engineers? Not necessarily. The number of worthwhile fields to study is enormous and undergraduate engineering curriculums tend to be jam-packed with units already. A biology course isn't necessary to understand upper-divison EE courses, and general education requirements should rightfully focus more on arts, humanities, and social sciences.

My point is simply this: when some idiot claims to be a scientist supporting creationism and it comes out that they have a EE degree, know that they most likely did not take any coursework in biology. A degree in EE gives you no more inherent training in biology than a degree in English does.



I hope to use this blog as a counter-example to the Salem Hypothesis. It concerns me that my field in particular (electrical engineering) is known on the Internet as being particularly prone to creationism and other anti-science positions.

Who am I? I am a PhD student in Electrical Engineering, as well as a progressive feminist skeptic. I plan to write on topics related to engineering, science, feminism, and skepticism.