Archive for September, 2008

Thank god for the clarity of Simon Cowell

Clay Aiken came out of the closet this week. Big wow. The fact that a celebrity coming out of the closet (in Clay’s case, an invisible closet) still warrants a splashy front page of People magazine declaring, “Yes, I’m Gay” is disappointing, although it’s clearly an intentional nod to the truly groundbreaking coming out of Ellen Degeneres on the cover of Time Magazine (“Yep, I’m Gay”). I just hope they don’t have to do it again and again when Ricky Martin, Anderson Cooper and Tom Cruise decide to face facts. I do think it’s great though that there’s a gay celebrity out there who isn’t hot at all. Kind of lowers the bar a bit for all us real people out here.

Of course American Idol host Simon Cowell can be trusted to cut the shit and say exactly what the majority of America is actually thinking about this news “bombshell”:

“Wow. That’s a shock. It’s like being told Santa Claus isn’t real. Unbelievable. Good for him. If he said it, it’s the right thing for him. … I don’t think anyone cares. Let’s face it. It’s 2008. You know. Who cares?”

Thank you Simon.



Today for lunch, I decided to figure out what it means to be ticklish. I’ve always been curious about it. I’m not super ticklish, but I can remember more than one time laughing so hard from tickling that it hurt. Over the last few days, I have been thinking about laughing and thought about writing about the biology/anatomy of laughing but it just became too big of a story for the amount of time I had today. So tickling it is.

First of all, there’s two kinds of tickling: knismesis, which is the weird ticklishness you get when someone lightly strokes your skin, or a bug is crawling on your skin, and gargalesis, which is the full-on crazy ticklishness most people have in their armpits and soles of the feet. Gargalesis is also my new favorite word. Although the sensations are similar, the mechanisms behind them seem to be very different.

Knismesis is theorized to be a serve as a protective function of the skin, alerting the organism that something foreign is on the body. The sensation is mediated by neurons that mediate pain and neurons that mediate touch, so in cases where one type of nerve modality is damaged or removed, ticklishness can still remain although in a weaker sense. In general, this type of tickling does not result in laughter. You can induce the knismesis response in yourself if you lightly rub the roof of your mouth with your finger. Careful when you do it though, it’s kind of intense. This type of ticklishness has also been well-documented in animals, and widely studied in cats.

Gargalesis is similar to knismesis in that the same neurons seem to be activated in response to the “heavy tickling” stimulus as were activated by a “light feather” stimulus. However, it is different from knismesis in that it is found only in specific sites of the body. The most common sites are the armpits, soles of the feet, sides of the torso and ribs, neck and knee. Gargalesis is also different from knismesis in that it is generally not possible to induce the response on yourself. I think that’s pretty obvious to most people. When you wash your armpits in the shower you don’t laugh hysterically. At least I don’t. However, the issue is more complicated than that. In studies where subjects used a joystick to operate a tickling robot on themselves, researchers found that the subjects did not laugh in response to tickling. So, even though the tickling stimulus was coming from somewhere else, simply anticipating the stimulus is enough to dampen the response. The cerebellum seems to be the source of this cancellation of self-produced gargalesis. Conversely, if subjects were blindfolded and the tickling robot was operated by someone else, they would respond with laughter as though they were being authentically tickled by a person (so it’s not just that the robot sucks as a tickler). I tried in vain to find an image of the tickling robot used in these studies but I’m not sure it exists on the web, so until I find it, I’m going to assume it looks like this:

So what’s the use of gargalesis? There are several popular theories but no one knows for sure why. One theory suggests that it is a defense mechanism, since most of the commonly ticklish areas are areas of particular vulnerability to injury during hand-to-hand combat. The reflexive pulling-away that most people get during tickling would be a boon to survival. Another theory suggests that maybe the ticklish spots developed in utero and were used as a means to reflexively orient the fetus’ body correctly in the womb. Yet another theory posits that tickling is in fact rooted in the need for social connection and rough play during early development. The laughing and smiling reflex to tickling serves to encourage the tickler to continue.  Most people’s first experiences with tickling are with their mothers, maybe ticklishness is a way to enhance the mother-child bond. Of course at the end of the day, these are only theories and no one really knows for sure why it exists.

It is interesting that gargalesis is much less common amongst animals, and has only been well-documented in humans and a few primates. Recent work though has shown that rats can be tickled and even laugh an ultrasonic laugh (~50Hz) that can only be heard with special equipment. Apparently the rats go totally bananas, rolling around and playing, in fact actively begging to be tickled. Bearing that need for an ultrasonic listening device in mind, who knows what other animals are laughing, tickling each other, and developing complex relationships without our awareness. Certainly bonding is no unique thing to humans, so that would tend to fit the bonding theory of tickling’s origins.

After all of this exploration, I hope that this enlightens your view of what it means to be human and I haven’t ruined for you the simple pleasure of getting tickled. 🙂

Blakemore SJ, Walpert DM, Frith CD (1998). “Central cancellation of selfproduced
tickle sensation”. Nat. Neurosci. 7:635-40.

Panksepp J, Burgdorf J (2003). ““Laughing” rats and the evolutionary antecedents of human joy?“. Physiol. Behav. 79 (3): 533–47.

Selden ST (2004). “Tickle”. J. Am. Acad. Dermatol. 50 (1): 93–7.

Fun Facts About Pepper

I like pepper. And I don’t mean Sandy Denton of Salt n Pepa. But I really don’t know anything about where it comes from, what the different kinds are, etc. At least I didn’t until 10 minutes ago when I started a procrastination-induced research project on the topic. Here are my findings.

Pepper is a little round berry from the pepper plant (Piper nigrum), which is a flowering vine with big, deeply veined leaves. It can grow in a pot or in the ground provided winter temperatures stay above freezing. To make those darling little berries into peppercorns, you start by briefly cooking green unripened berries in hot water to break down the cell walls, which will accelerate the drying process. As it dries, the fruit part of the berry shrivels around the seed giving it the peppercorn its dark, wrinkly appearance. To make white pepper, you let the berry soak in water for a week and the flesh of the berry decomposes, leaving only the white seed. Green peppercorns are similar to black peppercorns, except the unripe berries are made to stay green by chemicals or freeze drying.

The different colors of peppercorns have different flavors/aromas due to their different composition. The “heat” of pepper comes from a chemical called piperine which is found in both the seed and outer fruit, so both white and black peppercorns are hot. The heat factor of piperine is about 1% of capsaicin, the chemical that gives chili peppers their heat. The outer part of the berry contains a variety of terpene compounds that mostly contribute to the aroma of pepper. Thus, black pepper, which retains the outer dried berry flesh, has a more aromatic quality than white pepper. Green peppercorns taste more like black peppercorns, but with a supposedly “fresher” or “fruitier” flavor. I’ve never had one, so I’ll have to trust the folks at

These flavor and aroma compounds are very sensitive to light and air, so once a peppercorn is ground, it will soon lose much of its heat and aroma. This is why pepper mills are often used at the time of cooking or consumption to get the most flavor out of the peppercorns.

Incidentally, bell peppers and chili peppers are not really related to “pepper” other than that they are all plants. Bell peppers were misleadingly called peppers by Columbus when he found them in the New World, because at that time pepper was a very expensive and highly valued spice.

Props to wikipedia,, and for their fun fact resourcefulness.

McCain camp declares war on folksy language

The McCain-Palin publicity machine has launched an all-out media blitz against Obama and his use of the colloquial aphorism “you can put lipstick on a pig; it’s still a pig.” I am huge fan of colloquialisms as a way to make an abstract point visual and immediate, so I consider this a war on some of my favorite words. If John McCain takes away my “lipstick on a pig” then who’s to say he won’t take away “you can’t polish a turd” or one of my personal favorites, “you can call a piece of shit a birthday cake, but you can’t make me eat it.”

This debate is stupid and intended to keep voters from focusing on the issues. That McCain’s anger is totally insincere goes without saying. He and probably just about every other politician has used that exact phrase to make him or herself seem like a “real person,” and of course there are numerous recorded examples now circulating of McCain using the phrase even to describe Hillary Clinton and her health care policy. What’s hilarious is that Barack Obama used the phrase in reference to John McCain and his supposed “change” from Bush administration policy, not at all in reference to the much-maligned Sarah Palin and her well-documented lipsticks.

This war on words is done for me. For future reference McCain camp – don’t even think about touching “the cat’s pajamas” or “that’ll go over like a fart in church.” Please feel free to comment below if you have colloquialisms you’d like to declare as off-limits to the McCain campaign’s war on words.

My thoughts on the Sarah Palin media frenzy

I think it’s pretty cool that a woman is on a major campaign ticket this year.  I’m happy when I get to see the world and society evolve in my lifetime.  I watched some of Palin’s RNC speech last night – only the highlight reel, I can’t tolerate the endless applause breaks of those big venue speeches.  She’s a funny lady for sure.  She’s got a good sense of sarcastic timing that a speechwriter simply can’t create for you.  But for all the effectiveness of her attacks on Obama and the Democratic party, I can tell you one thing that she isn’t is inspiring.  Somehow I figured that the woman who would break through this barrier in the Republican party would have to be larger than life, someone who even the most sexist and repellent of old, white, republican men could appreciate. To me she just seems like another lady in power – smart, slick and totally self-aware.

I watched a lot of the Hillary Clinton speeches during the primary season and I’ll tell you I had a totally different response.  Hillary wasn’t quite as effortlessly beautiful or sassy, but I really felt inspired by what she had to say.  I believe that she had substance over style.  A lifetime of work, her heart and mind devoted to changing the world.  She had power and authority in her words – she did seem larger than life to me, and obviously to so many others who either endlessly adored her or vilified her.  Ultimately the Hillary phenomenon wasn’t undone through any fault of her own, she just got steamrolled by a much larger phenomenon that appealed to many more people in a slightly different way.  Hillary Clinton appealed to me as an intellectual.  Barack Obama kind of appeals to me in an intellectual way, but much more as a leader of a national spirit – something that is much easier for anyone in this country to tap into.

Leaving all personal politics aside, I don’t feel even a fraction of that excitement about the possibilities of Sarah Palin being the number 2 governmental official in this country.  She just doesn’t seem as deeply motivated, not as willing to throw herself down on the tracks for the United States.  Maybe I feel this way because I didn’t know she existed a week ago and maybe my feelings will change over the next couple months.  In the meantime, I would suspect that if you asked anyone on the street whether they would like to see Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin in the white house, everyone’s most passionate feelings, positive or negative, would be about Hillary.  You either love her or you hate her.  As far as Sarah Palin goes – meh, she’s alright I guess.