Wednesday 25 August 2010

Ep 135: Why do I sneeze at the Sun?

Do you sneeze at the Sun?

I do. My brother does. Both my parents do. In fact, we are a family of Photic Sneeze sufferers.

The Photic Sneeze Reflex (PSR), also known rather ridiculously as Autosomal Dominant Compelling Helioophthalmic Outburst (ACHOO) Syndrome (how long do you think it took researchers to figure out that acronym....) is a dominant genetic condition affecting around 10% of the population. When a sufferer moves from a region of darkness to a region of bright light - for instance, walking outside and looking at the Sun - multiple sneezes occur. Research into the disorder has yet to explain either its mechanism or an evolutionary reason for why it occurs. One theory is that there is a "short circuit" in the brain, with the stimulated optic nerve somehow triggering the sneeze reflex.

Professor Louis Ptáček runs the Laboratories of Neurogenetics at the University of California, San Francisco. The aim of the lab is to study familial disorders with strong genetic contributions, and thus localise and identify genes that cause human disease. Other conditions in which he is interested include migraine and epilepsy, and an intriguing condition whereby certain sounds cause seizures. He considers PSR to generally be a midly annoying condition, unless you are a combat pilot, where sneezing at the Sun could indeed be life threatening.

I had a really interesting chat to Louis about PSR, and I've left the recording a little longer than usual, as we were really able to explore some fascinating ideas involved with PSR - it was a great chat. Listen in to this show here (or press play below):

Other interesting write-ups of PSR include neurotopia and Scientific American.

This topic came in as part of my call for questions for Science Week, so thanks @lisushi for the question! I'll be putting up more blogs and podcasts to answer the other questions that came in over the next few weeks.

Breitenbach RA, Swisher PK, Kim MK, & Patel BS (1993). The photic sneeze reflex as a risk factor to combat pilots. Military medicine, 158 (12), 806-9 PMID: 8108024 

Langer N, Beeli G, & Jäncke L (2010). When the sun prickles your nose: an EEG study identifying neural bases of photic sneezing. PloS one, 5 (2) PMID: 20169159 

MADIGAN, J., KORTZ, G., MURPHY, C., & RODGER, L. (1995). Photic headshaking in the horse: 7 cases Equine Veterinary Journal, 27 (4), 306-311 DOI: 10.1111/j.2042-3306.1995.tb03082.x

Songs samples in the podcast:
The Steve Wilson Band 
"Stare At The Sun"
from "Sideshows And Fairytales"
Buy at iTunes
DJ Smiths vs Markanera
 "Watching the Sun Goes Down"
from "Watching the Sun Goes Down"
Buy at iTunes
Alexis Cuadrado 
"Bright Light"
from "Puzzles"
Buy at iTunes

Sunday 22 August 2010

What if we decided election winners using the Big Brother voting method?

This weekend, Australia went to polls in the 2010 Federal Election.

Elections make for some fascinating number analysis. As readers from a while back might remember, I love the statistics of elections. Australia has a preferential voting system, whereby voters list the candidates by order of preference. As opposed to the first past the post system used in Britain, the winner is not decided by who receives the most primary votes, but rather who is the most preferred candidate. Sometime soon I will write a post on the various voting systems used worldwide - see Plus for a great introduction to various voting methods - but for today we ask the question, what would happen if we used the Big Brother voting system?

Big Brother, for those who have been living under a rock, is a TV show in which around 15 house-mates are watched around-the-clock by TV cameras, which broadcast the show live to viewers who, at the end of each week, vote someone out of the house until there is only one contestant left. What if, instead of voting in political parties, we voted out the parties we didn't like?

Let's run an example on my local electorate, Grayndler. At the time of writing, the primary vote distribution looked like this (~70% of the total vote has been counted):

Name Party Votes
James Michael Cogan Socialist Equality Party (SEP) 849
Pip Hinman Socialist Alliance (SAL) 879
Alexander Dore Liberal Party (LIB) 16691
Anthony Albanese Australian Labor Party (ALP) 32406
Sam Byrne Greens (GRN) 17633
Perry Garofani Australian Democrats (DEM) 851

Total 69309

Under the current voting system, it looks like the Labor Party may win the seat, although there is still some uncertainty about this as Liberal party preferences will mostly flow to the Greens, meaning that on preferences there is some small chance that the Greens will win the seat. But what about under our new Big Brother system?

To test out this system, we need to make a few assumptions regarding preferences. We have no idea how voters listed their preferences - whilst, for instance, most Greens voters will preference Labor over Liberal, and many Socialist Alliance voters will preference the Greens over Liberal, I simply don't have the data. Anecdotally, many voters follow party "how to vote cards", meaning that they order their preferences how their favoured parties tell them. So let's assume, for the sake of this analysis, that every voter does this. Taking the party preferences from their senate preference flows list, we see that the parties list their preferences in the following way:

1 2 3 4 5 6
Socialist Equality Party (SEP) SEP GRN SAL LIB ALP DEM
Socialist Alliance (SAL) SAL GRN ALP SEP DEM LIB
Australian Labor Party (ALP) ALP GRN DEM SEP SAL LIB
Australian Democrats (DEM) DEM SAL SEP GRN ALP LIB

It was difficult to come up with the SEP list of preferences as they have three preference lists for the Senate and didn't actually make any effort to order the other parties in terms of preference but rather simply numbered their preferences down the page according to where the parties were written on the ballot. Weird. I suspect that because of this I have their preferences incorrect, but this is simply a worked example so don't hold it against me!

Let's now cross to Gretel Killeen at the Big Brother house.....

Week 1:
After battling it out with a number of pointless challenges and staying up late because they had nothing else to do, the first eviction saw an overwhelming majority of voters evict the Liberals. Using the vote table above and counting up the number of times a party was put as last preference on the ballot, the number of votes for eviction were as follows:

Week 1
Socialist Equality Party (SEP) 0
Socialist Alliance (SAL) 16691
Liberal Party (LIB) 51769
Australian Labor Party (ALP) 0
Greens (GRN) 0
Australian Democrats (DEM) 849

Week 2: 
A dancing-doona between the two socialist parties was the highlight of week 2. With no Liberals to evict, most voters had to turn to their second least-liked party. The Socialist Alliance pulled in an extra 32406 votes - for those playing along at home, these are all the voters who put Labor at number 1 on the ballot box and the Liberals at number 6, whilst the Socialist Equality Party, the ALP and the Democrats also picked up extra eviction votes. It's time to go....  Social Alliance.

Week 1Week 2
Socialist Equality Party (SEP) 017633
Socialist Alliance (SAL) 1669149097
Liberal Party (LIB) 51769-
Australian Labor Party (ALP) 0851
Greens (GRN) 00
Australian Democrats (DEM) 8491728

The following weeks saw an attempted turkey-slap by Labor on the Greens and an impressive Bum Dance by the Democrats. However, in the final week of the show, The Greens took out the seat of Grayndler using the Big Brother eviction rules.

Week 3Week 4Week 5
Socialist Equality Party (SEP) 66730--
Socialist Alliance (SAL) ---
Liberal Party (LIB) ---
Australian Labor Party (ALP) 85135175-
Greens (GRN) 0017542
Australian Democrats (DEM) 17283413451767

75% of voters preferred the Democrats to be evicted in the final round.

There are other ways in which one could run a Big Brother-style election and generally these methods would be likely to find the least offensive, rather than most preferred, party. I'd love to see this method run across the whole parliament!

Tuesday 17 August 2010

Is the Taliban training monkeys to fight in Afghanistan?

Sometimes you gotta love the internets. A story recently popped up that the Taliban was training combat monkeys to fight wars in Afghanistan. The original popped up on the Chinese People's Daily Online (I caught this story on and opened with:

Afghanistan's Taliban insurgents are training monkeys to use weapons to attack American troops, according to a recent report by a British-based media agency.

It doesn't actually identify the British-based agency, but continues:

Reporters from the media agency spotted and took photos of a few "monkey soldiers" holding AK-47 rifles and Bren light machine guns in the Waziristan tribal region near the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.... According to the report, American military experts call them "monkey terrorists." ... The emergence of "monkey soldiers" is the result of asymmetrical warfare. The United States launched the war in Afghanistan using the world's most advanced weapons such as highly-intelligent robots to detect bombs on roadsides and unmanned aerial vehicles to attack major Taliban targets. In response, the Taliban forces have tried any possible means and figured out a method to train monkeys as "replacement killers" against American troops. 

The report suggests that the monkey killers will arouse Western animal protectionists to pressure their governments to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and that the CIA trained monkeys to kill in the Vietnam War.

What a wonderfully weird, and bogus, story!

The photo of the terrorist monkey at the heart of this story (above) was found by Jeff Schogol at to be photoshopped and Live Science went out and asked some actual scientists (gasp!) whether monkey terrorists were possible - they said no...

You can watch CNN's video of the saga here, view some pretty funny comments and images over at fark, but for the best coverage, check out the Taiwan Animated News version below. I can't understand a word of it, but you really don't need to. Make sure you stick it out till the hilarious animation.