Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Tales from the Genome

Check out my new course overview page and enroll! It's a class that has something for everyone and promises to be a lot of fun.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Return

It's been far too long. I'm breaking the silence with an update about a new course I'm working on through Udacity. It's called Tales from the Genome and it's going to be an awesome adventure into the biology of DNA, identity, and health. Below is a reprint of a post about the course that I wrote for the Udacity blog earlier today.

(DNA, the genetic code of life)

DNA is the organic software of almost all living things, and each individual cell is the hardware on which this genetic software is run. This amazing code, DNA, is the subject of one of Udacity’s newest courses launching this fall, Tales from the Genome: Adventures in DNA, Identity, and Health. This is an introductory course that will teach you basic genetic principles, regardless of your academic background. Together with the personal genetics service 23andMe, we will explore the biology of the most important code in your life: the human genome.

Most Udacity fans already appreciate the beauty of code, and most of you are likely to be far more expert at understanding and manipulating computer code than I am! (Although I am pleased with my progress so far in CS101). Still, I am continually surprised by how unfamiliar people are with their own personal genetic code wrapped up inside every cell of their body. Long before transistors, binary code, or the Internet, mother nature built her own coding system for all life on our planet. This code of life, billions of years in the making (Carl Sagan would be proud), is far messier, more dynamic, exceedingly more robust, amazingly more efficient, and absolutely more imperfect than man-made code.

Tales from the Genome will give you a taste of this complexity and begin to reveal exactly how much code is necessary to run a whole human body:
  • Just as there are two possible values in binary code (0 and 1), DNA (the code of our genomes) has four possible values (A, T, G, or C).
  • A single line of DNA code is always paired with another that can be inferred from the first: you may have heard of this before, DNA is almost always two strands that pair together in a regular way (the double helix).
  • One copy of the human genome is 3 billion pairs of code letters, so 6 billion actual code letters total; and each cell has two copies of the genome, so that’s 12 billion letters per cell.
  • Approximately 50 trillion cells in the human body means that you have approximately 1 yotta of DNA code letters. That’s 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 letters of code! If we think of one letter of DNA code representing one bit of information in computer code, then that’s equivalent to about 100 zettabytes of hard disk space. That’s more than 10 billion times more information available on today’s 2 Terabyte hard drives!

Somehow all of the DNA you have is wrapped up and organized inside your cells (and it doesn’t just sit there)! It is actively read all the time, even while you eat, sleep, and poop; every cell is reading different parts of the code, which makes that cell unique and allows it to do its job as a skin, stomach, blood, or brain cell. There are thousands of different cell types working together to make up who you are: one conscious being with specific traits and desires, a singular intelligence and personality.

But at the root of it all, you are a giant conglomeration of cells all meticulously reading the genetic code to keep you alive and functioning, forming the basis of all of your traits. Tales from the Genome will show you how to connect your genome to your traits and reveal what it really means to be human. We will explore the personal stories of people living with a variety of traits, from lactose intolerance to dwarfism to breast cancer to bipolar disorder. We will learn about how the genetic code controls these traits and what impact these traits have on individuals, their personal relationships, and society at large.

When you sign up for Tales from the Genome you will acquire a basic understanding of how this organic code of your genome is turned into flesh and blood. To hear more about the course and get updates on its launch in the fall, visit the overview page and click “Take the Class” to enroll. I hope you will join us on the adventure, and maybe you will find out the secrets your genome holds.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Shit Gay Couples Say

Despite being un-creative here on my own blog lately I have been creative in other ways, such as directing, producing, and editing an amateur addition to the "Shit ____ Says" videos. Two of my friends wanted to create a "Shit Gay Couples Say" video ... and after a couple weeks worth of work I give you our fashionably late video:

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Goodbye, Christopher

News-wise, living on the west coast is difficult. All the TV shows, news programs, and political punditry is geared for an east coast time zone, so I feel like I'm learning about news after everyone else; unless of course something happens later at night. Unfortunately that has happened tonight, and just about an hour ago I found out that Christopher Hitchens has died from complications related to his esophageal cancer. He was only 62.

While in many places and to many people he is known for his literary and political writing and polemic, I have always loved him for his vigorous fight against superstitious believers. For some years now, it's been my dream to meet Christopher Hitchens - he fought tirelessly for human rights and for freedom from the tyranny of religion. He was a superb debater and had a wit matched by no one. It is sad to know that he is no longer with us to fight the good fight, but he lives on in his writing and in those of us who choose to carry the banner of science, skepticism, and critical thinking.

Almost every time I've seen a video of Hitchens he was smoking or having a stiff drink of whiskey. So tonight, this drink is for you. We'll miss you, Christopher.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Christmas is Not Christian

One of my friends on Facebook posted this video, and I thought that I would re-post it here. It's a little overzealous in its explanation, but it has plenty of great points to make about some facts concerning the Christmas holiday ... namely that most everything about Christmas has nothing to with Christ or Christianity. Essentially pagan practices centered around a pagan holiday were adopted to be part of Christianity starting around the 16th century - but many of the traditions of Christmas time are unoriginal and date back to practices long before Jesus was around. Check out some of the points and leave any interesting comments you might have:

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Because He's a Dick

Debating creationists and intelligent design (ID) proponents is a sort of hobby for me. One of my favorite things to do is find the logical inconsistencies in their argument and point it out to them to see what new maneuvers they will try to get out of the intellectual trouble.

The geniuses over at Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal webcomic have nailed it with a spoof on the well-known argument from design by the 18th century theologian William Paley. You can find the comic here, or see it below:

THE CHRISTIAN ARGUMENT: The world must be designed (by the Christian God). In the same way that you would look at a watch and clearly see all the parts could not have been made and put together by 'chance', so our world runs as intricate and perfectly as a watch, therefore there must be a designer (the Christian God, of course).

THE PROBLEM: The seemingly 'designed' world is full of sickness, death, oppression, tyranny, and disasters that do not discriminate based on race, sex, or religion. Horrible things seem to happen to people across all economic backgrounds and social classes. This indicates an indiscriminate God, a capricious deity, who randomly punishes humans for any whim. The only way this could be consistent with a deity that is also responsible for designing the world is if that deity is a dick. This is highly incompatible with a loving, personal Christian God.

THE ATHEIST RESOLUTION: Instead of supposing that there is a designer and that he's a dick (which is actually far more believable than the Christian version of a designer who actually cares about people), atheists simply (and correctly) challenge the notion that there is any interventionist, designer, or creator at all. It's not necessary, and our world does not need a creator. In fact, many have argued that the world is poorly designed in many ways, suggesting that there could not have been any overseer in the process.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Supplement Infographic

There's a lot of "woo" out there, especially when it comes to dietary supplements. Someone shared a great website with me that helps to cut through all the noise of company propaganda and get to the real issue of whether certain supplements do what they claim to do. This website at InformationIsBeautiful has done a great job at organizing the existing data for taking supplements and displaying it in an interactive chart so that you can see what works and what doesn't - and guess what? The majority of supplements out there don't make the cut.  Figures.

Take this screen shot from one of the latest editions of the chart:

The Y-axis represents whether or not the evidence is strong for the supplement in question. By simply scrolling the mouse over the circle you can see what the target effect is - for example, in the image above, the evidence is strong that garlic is good for lowering blood pressure.

The size of the circle around the supplement ID represents its popularity in Google's search engine. Green tea, folic acid, and vitamin D show the most hits, whereas peppermint oil, devil's claw, and melatonin show the fewest hits. The cool color of these circles represents strong evidence - the brown color indicates that supplement does not have much evidence for or against it, and continued surveillance is important.

Now let's look at what didn't make the cut:

Well, well, well - royal jelly, despite the many late night TV ads that have been put out, is probably one of the biggest flavors of snake oil out there. It bottoms out along with wheat grass, chamomile, papain, and certain anti-oxidants for having no effect.

The next time you see a commercial promoting the ingredient of some supplement for a desired effect, check this chart out to verify the claim - most likely the commercial is over-reaching its claims, and could even be distorting the data. If you want to read the science, just click on the circle the website directs you to peer-reviewed published articles that support the claim or refute it.

It's good to be in the know.

Monday, August 22, 2011


As I've said in other places, I'm an agnostic because of science, an atheist because of probability, and an anti-theist because of religion. No one affirms my last position more clearly than Christopher Hitchens:

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Episode 33 is up!

The 33rd episode of Pascal's Bettors podcast has just been uploaded, and this time there's a special godless guest interview with the new Director of Development at American Atheists, AJ Johnson. Plus we have some interesting news items, discussions, and a short (but interesting) ethics corner. Give it a listen! Remember that you can download or play from the website here, or subscribe to us on iTunes.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Mr. Deity's Opposition

My how the Deity has grown ... grown to be despised.  See how Lucy Fair Angel gets sucked into the narrative as the bad "guy" - it even has references to all the skeptical brouhaha about sexism that has been going on recently!