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Saturday, July 31, 2010

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My first Ride

The Mystical Path of Scientific Understanding

Reading and understanding the latest papers is a crucial part of being a scientist, but it's not something that we're ever taught to do, explicitly, as part of a scientific education. You take classes on genetics, and then maybe you become a grad student and you start doing genetics research: but there are no classes on reading genetics papers. It's something you pick up as you go along, if you're lucky.

But reading a paper isn't one single skill: as you learn more about a particular field your understanding of the published literature tends to progress through certain stages. At least, this is my experience. Like all such "stage models" what follows is a simplification, but it's something I think I'd have found useful to have been told when I was starting out.
Stage 0 : Huh?

You don't even understand what the paper is about. If I were to somehow find myself reading a paper on quantum chromodynamics, I would have no idea what it was trying to say, let alone whether it was right.

How to tell if you're at this level: The title has you stumped.
Next comes the most dangerous stage:
Stage 1 : Oooh!

You understand the paper's conclusions, but that's it: you don't get how the authors arrived at them, or how they relate to anything else. My understanding of chemistry is at this level: if someone claims to have found a new way of synthesizing some molecule, I know what that means, but I have to take the result or leave it: I can't criticize it, and in order to know how important the result is and what the implications are, I only have the author's word.

How to tell if you're here:
you struggle with the Methods and the Results; you rely on the author's summary of their findings in the Abstract or the Discussion. The Introduction is all new to you.
How to get here: read a textbook until you grasp the basics of the field.
This is dangerous, because a paper could be completely wrong, and you wouldn't know - yet you know enough to be mislead by it, and to think you understand it. Incidentally, this is the stage inhabited by most journalists and politicians

These next two stages don't really come in any particular order. 2a does not necessarily precede 2b (it's just the one I chose to write about first.)
Stage 2a : Hmmm.

You understand the paper's conclusions and its methods, so you're able to judge how strong the argument is. If I were reading about a new cancer drug, and learned that had passed a large randomized controlled clinical trial, I'd be fairly confident that it works. Whereas, if I read that it had been "tested" in one patient (a case study), I'd be skeptical. I don't know anything about cancer drugs but I do know about clinical trials.

How to tell if you're here: you're comfortable reading the Methods and the Results.
How to get here: Read the Methods sections of papers in the field. If you don't understand the terminology, find a textbook or a review paper dealing with methods.

Stage 2b : Oh, interesting...

You understand why the authors decided to research this stuff, because you understand the specialist background literature about this sub-topic. You can judge important the research is and what the implications of it are. Note that the Introduction and the Discussion are meant to serve to explain all this context for the benefit of people who don't have this level of understanding of the topic, but in fact they're often either poorly written or actively misleading, so you can't rely on them.

How to tell if you're here: you find yourself either agreeing with, or criticizing, the Introduction and the Discussion.
How to get here: read recent review papers about the field. Textbooks are unlikely to be up-to-date enough, or detailed enough, to be of much use. Just remember that every review paper offers a different slant so make sure you don't just read one and take it as gospel.
Finally, we come to the highest stage, the moment of Enlightenment, saroti, Nirvana...
Stage 3 : Aha!

This is what happens when you have both of the previous kinds of understanding - you see what the authors did and why they did it. This is more than the sum of its parts, because it allows you to evaluate whether they chose the most appropriate way of answering the questions they set out to investigate. You can think up a better way of doing it, or design interesting follow-up work.

This is the stage at which you stop seeing papers as communications from a mysterious other world, and see them as something written by people much like yourself - which, or course, is what they are.

For example, if I were to read a paper using fMRI to study whether a new antidepressant raises dopamine levels in the brain, I'd be able to say that while that's an excellent question, fMRI is unable to show this directly, whereas PET can, so it's probably a better option; but they probably chose to use fMRI because it's a lot cheaper than PET and much less hassle.

How to tell if you're here: you pretty much know what the full paper is going to be like from the Abstract alone; you probably don't bother to read the whole thing.
How to get here: Get to 2a and 2b.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Left Hand of Obama

Voters in the 2008 Presidential election didn't have a meaningful choice. Whichever box they ticked, they were voting for a lefty.

Yes, Obama and McCain are both sinistral, a rather unlikely occurrence since just 7-10% of adults are left handed. Netherlands-based neuroscientists Casasanto and Jasmin decided to make use of this coincidence to test the hypothesis that people tend to make "good" gestures with their dominant hand and "bad" ones with their off-hand, in a new PLoS paper: Good and Bad in the Hands of Politicians.

They analyzed the final televised debates from the '04 and '08 elections, in which the candidates discussed various topics, both positive i.e. their own policies, and negative i.e. their opponent's Vietnam War records, choice of running-mate, and association with dodgy preachers. They also examined the gestures that the speakers made to accompany their positive or negative points, and recorded which hand they used. George W. Bush and John Kerry are both right-handed, by the way.

Here's what they found:
Both lefty candidates tended to use their left hands for good gestures and their right hands for bad ones, while the right-handed showed the opposite pattern. The data also reveal some interesting facts about the overall number of gestures: Obama had a hands-off approach with only 119 gestures in total, while McCain was gesticulating all over the shop (259). Bush and Kerry, however, were essentially equal (192 vs 193). Maybe Kerry's one extra gesture was just one too many for the electorate, thus costing him the Presidency.

Anyway, does this prove that we use our dominant hands to make "good" gestures - supporting the notion that we unconsciously associate positive ideas with our dominant side of space, and negative ideas with our non-dominant side? Well, this study includes a large amount of data: it is, statistically, very likely that Obama really does tend to use his left hand over his right hand for positive gestures, i.e. this is unlikely to be due to random chance.

But does this mean that there's a correlation between handedness and good-gesture-lateralization? We actually only have 4 data points relevant to that question: Obama, McCain, Kerry and Bush. We have a lot of information on each of those people, but there are only 4 independent sets of data.

Suppose that everyone has a hand-they-use-for-good-gestures, and that it's 50/50 whether it's left or right - that is to say, suppose it has nothing to do with your general handedness. Clearly, there's then a 50% chance that any given person's good-gesture-hand will match their handedness, just by coincidence. There's a 1 in 4 chance that, for any two people, both will have a match; it's 1 in 8 for three people and 1 in 16 for four people. Which implies that there's a 1 in 16 chance that these results would have happened purely by chance.

Maybe we need to look back to the Clinton / Dole debates to get some more data...

ResearchBlogging.orgDaniel Casasanto and Kyle Jasmin1 (2010). Good and Bad in the Hands of Politicians: Spontaneous Gestures during Positive and Negative Speech PLoS ONE

The Girl Behind The Blog....Tala

Sitting down over afternoon tea with Tala (gorgeous little lemon tarts, in case you are interested) in her London apartment, is like sitting down with any other beautiful, talented, fashion-loving 19 year old student. Um, except when she lets slip that her mama is the face of Nina Ricci for the Middle East (cue squeaks of delight from me! I met Lina Samman briefly outside the Christian Dior show in Paris in March when I first photographed Tala), she has interned at Grazia, Tom Ford (positively swooning now), freelanced for the Dubai-based online magazine Savoir Flair, she has been featured in Harper's Bazaar Arabia earlier this year, she lives between London and Dubai, and she blogs daily at MyFashDiary no matter where she is in the world (current location: Tuscany).Oh, and she is a full-time student at London College of Fashion studying fashion promotion. And she is impossible not to like (she gets extra scooby snacks for those lemon tarts :))

So where does she get her beauty and style from? Her parents are Syrian but Tala was born in the US, and moved to Dubai when she was just a littlie. After a few more squeaks of encouragement from me, I discovered that Tala's mama, apart from being the Nina Ricci brand ambassador, is one of the most stylish women in Dubai. Which would explain Tala's London wardrobe: peppered amongst the American Apparel, Zara, Topshop, Office, Reiss, H&M, Acne purchases are pieces by Alexander Wang (handbag), YSL (trib pumps and handbag), Balenciaga (handbag and sunglasses), Fendi (handbag), Chanel (handbag), Hermes (Birkin), Mulberry (Alexa),most of which she "shares" with Lina (sort of like a timeshare scheme for handbags and accessories!)

After oohing and ahhing over Tala's jewellery, make-up and sunglasses collection (as well as the little mood wall where she keeps all her invites, thank you notes etc), we went outside to take some photographs. And despite the attentions of passing motorists (I am still recovering from the lascivious stares of one particularly creepy older gent who crawled past us in his car), Tala was a dream to shoot. I think the second photograph from the top captures Tala the best: warm, caring, down-to-earth and with an utterly infectious smile :)
Tala's denim shirt is from Topshop, hat from Sonia Rykiel, black wedge boots from Office and cocktail ring from YSL. In the photographs below her skirt is from American Apparel and her shoes are the sublime YSL pumps. I can't remember where her lace top is from- I will find out for y'all.

p.s. You can click on the collages to make them bigger.

Amsterdam Fashion Week....Sheer+Denim

It wasn't just models who were wearing heels in Amsterdam: I saw so many girls riding bikes wearing sky-high heels! I wonder if it will catch on in London as our new cycle hire scheme launches tomorrow morning at 6am.

Amsterdam Street Style....At the Cafe

It was my first afternoon in Amsterdam and I was sheltering from the rain in a really cute little cafe (no, not a coffeeshop*;) near my hotel (the brilliant College Hotel) when I spied this girl having an espresso with her boyfriend. As she got up to leave I asked if I could take her photograph. Unfortunately it had started to rain more heavily so in order to keep her dry (nothing worse than asking a person you have just met to stand in the rain so you can take their photograph), I kind of accidentally stood in the dedicated bike lane (well, one leg was in it anyway!). Now, if any of you have been to Amsterdam you will know this is a very, very, VERY bad idea. Almost everyone in Amsterdam rides a bike, and they ride pretty fast (I know, cos I tried to catch up with a few girls on bikes to take their photograph and failed miserably). And those bike lanes, I came to realise, aren't just for your treadly: they are for scooters, mopeds and I even saw a little motorised "car" puttering along one! So after getting yelled at by an irate woman on a scooter (quite rightly- I did a bad), I took this photo. It is a bit blurry but that was a combo of the rain, my shock at realising I was in the middle of peak-hour biking traffic, and that I had nearly ended up squished on my first afternoon in Amsterdam!

*if you are looking for places to go for fab espresso in Amsterdam, best to google espresso rather than coffee shops otherwise you will end up with a list of places to go for something rather a touch stronger than the coffee bean :) I can recommend Stumptown Coffee Roasters who are from the US but have a super cool pop-up cafe on Albert Cuypstrat, home of the oldest street market in Amsterdam. Apparently a deal was struck with the owners of the space (a creative agency) whereby the Stumptown crew would make coffee for them, in return for use of the space for 3 months. Brilliant!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Interview - Fashion designer Kenzo-A shares fashion, punk and gothic as rituals

For Kenzo-A, dressing up is some kind of an act of ritual, a kind of recognition from one’s inside self and one’s external appearance, and obviously a link between one’s self and the tribe one’s belongs to or claims. Therefore, it’s quite naturally that this fashion General looking-like designer, named his brand Rituals, a brand on the fringes of gothic and punk fashions. A designer for who it’s not his first attempt, as during his collaboration with the company Sexy Dynamite London, he launched the brand Stigmata, which with the opening of a shop in the famous department store Laforet, has earned him a reputation on the Nippon territory.

How would you describe Rituals? If there is any concept behind Rituals, what is it?
I see dressing up in one’s favorite clothes as a kind of rituals. It’s a ritual to turn yourself into something that reflects your inside self. That is like turning into a God-like creature rather than just an evolved ape. That’s why I named my brand Rituals. The Rituals’ style is based on goth / punk background but I don’t want to just copy and reproduce the historical style. I’m more in love with the avant-garde creativity and the deep keen worldview and the free spirit of the goth / punk culture. I’d rather develop an original style carrying on the spirit itself.

How did you start your own activity?
When I was working for the clothing company called Sexy Dynamite London as a designer, I started a goth fashion brand called Stigmata under their umbrella. Then we had some disagreements on directing Stigmata. They wanted me to make cheaper products for beginners but I didn’t want to compromise in my art. Also, I wanted to link my activity as a musician but the company didn’t really like it. You see, I can’t divide the two. They both are about how I see the world. I want my audience to enjoy them both as a whole. So I quit the company and started my own to have more freedom in creation.

Has it been difficult then?
Yes, It was difficult starting up because Rituals didn’t have a recognition as big as Stigmata so we had to work hard to spread the name. Also Rituals was more expensive than Stigmata so most of the young customers couldn’t afford it. And for that, many retailers who sold Stigmata were afraid to stock Rituals. Plus, the big economical depression hit Japan on the day we had our first exhibition and the whole situation surrounding the industry was changed right then. It was difficult to sell expensive clothes. I had to find the point where my creativity and the customers’ budget meet. That was a challenge. Today, Rituals has gained more recognition and more customers who understand that the price is right for what it is so the situation is a lot better. But the economy of this country is getting even worse so the business is still difficult.

Where can we usually find your brand?
We have our shop in Hamamatsu. In Tokyo, you can find it in Kera Shop in Marui One in Shinjuku. Several shops all over Japan carry it. From overseas, you can see on our web site. Unfortunately we don’t have a good system for purchasing from overseas yet but we are working on it. We’ll be wholesaling to shops outside Japan soon.

Who is the typical Rituals customer? If there’s an archetype, could you describe him/her?
I’d say probably goth kids are our main customers. The goth kids that are more into edgy style than the elegant-goth or the goth-loli which are better known by the main stream in Japan. I see some visual-kei fans and mode fashion fans wearing it too. And from any other scenes, people who like dark alternative fashion are our customers.

Do you collaborate with other fashion designers?
Not really yet. Except with PureOne Corset Works, we design to match each other’s products sometimes. And usually in fashion shows, we feature each other. I’m talking to a few other designers about collaboration but we are only talking so far.

You design both women and men clothes, and also have some unisex creations. Is there any genre that you prefer and why?
I don’t care about gender when it comes to designing. You see, when I design, I create an imaginary world in my head and portrait the people in it. So it’s natural for me to design clothes for all genders.

Regarding to your design for woman clothes, you seem to be more inclined to girls with a strong personality than the "kawaii" (1) type. Could you develop?
I think I do design “kawaii” type clothes too though. But I guess they are just “kawaii” in my standard and that’s probably not common. Like I said, I just portrait the characters in my imaginary world and they just happen to be what you call “girls with strong personality” maybe.

Rituals price are not for everyone, we’re far from fast fashion but not yet in high fashion. Could you describe what is the in between and how and why it must exist?
The bottom line is, I make clothes that I think are cool. And to make them, it costs that much. So the price line is not necessary for marketing purpose but more for creativity purpose. And there are people who relate to my taste and would save up to buy it and enjoy it. Simple as that.

You participate into night events. Are these night events a good way to promote your brand?
Yes, it is very effective to gain recognition in the underground scene. Plus, we don’t have our own shop in Tokyo besides the shop booth at these events so it’s not only good for promotion but also for the actual business.

Is it important for your creative activity to be, hang out with people like you?
Well, I think people who understand and agree with what I think it’s cool are my own tribe. It’s important to know who they are and what they are into for the marketing purpose. If you are specifically talking about the people from the underground scene, it’s like a small village, we help each other out. And among the people I hang out with, there are so many creative minds and unique personalities. Hanging out with them is an important source of inspirations for me. But above it all, it’s fun to party with like minds. Fun is a very important factor for my life.

Is there any other type of fashion you have interest in?
I’m interested in art in general so yes, of course! I am especially interested in tribal / ethnic fashion. I’m fascinated by how deep it is rooted down in our soul just as any other tribal / ethnic arts.

Is there anyone you would like to work with? Another designer? Some artist?
Too many to list here but since I am more of a designer and a director, I’m interested in working with workman type creators right now. I mean seeing my design made into a product by hands of a hardworking expert is always so exciting.

Tokyo has a strong image about a forward fashion? What is your opinion as a Japanese national?
I have never looked at it from outside because the time I lived outside Tokyo is ages ago so I can’t really say anything but I guess what’s making Tokyo fashion seem so forward is its influence from manga / anime. You see we grow up surrounded by all these manga characters everywhere so it’s very natural and very unavoidable to be influenced by them. Yet again, I can’t really say it in comparison with other places though.

Is there any way (better or not) to promote Japanese fashion oversea? Of course, everyone takes snapshots and it is a good promotion for Tokyo fashion. But is there any other way we could help Japanese fashion to develop?
Fashion always comes with the culture it’s related to. Especially underground fashion is usually strongly connected to the music and the club scenes. So exporting music along with the fashion would be a very powerful combo. Just like how the visual-kei culture has been spread out. I think that’s one of the ways. And what we don’t have a lot right now is ways to sell the products to overseas. If there is more web mall kind of thing that sells Japanese indie fashion to overseas, that will be a huge help.

Any special word for our readers?
Thank you very much for being interested in Tokyo culture. Tokyo’s street underground cutting-edge cultures haven’t been paid attention so much by the world like today. That is encouraging the creators and artists out here. Our culture might be strange to you and that might be why it’s fresh to you right now but when you’ll have a better idea about it and it’ll be less fresh anymore, I hope you’ll find its real value. I hope the Tokyo culture will survive the ending of this fad and be accepted as a real thing just like any other. So please, keep your eyes on it and enjoy! Again, thank you so much.

Interview & Pictures by Valerie Fujita

Kenzo-A is also the lead vocal and guitarist of the band Gabriels Stiletto (ex Gadget)
(1) Kawaii is a Japanese adjective meaning "cute" but in the origin was meant to refer to round and small things. It is now used to say from things but also animals and even people (mostly girls) that they look cute and adorable. As the word in Japanese means more than simply cute, a lot of foreigners into Japanese culture took the habit to use that word instead of saying cute in their own language, and that's why we are using it it here.

Monday, July 26, 2010

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