1/30/2009 4:39:18 PM
“The problem with Super Bowl snacks,” Brandon Keim writes for Wired, “is that they're boring.” So instead of popping open a bag of Chex Mix and calling it a party this Sunday, take a culinary cue from a few molecular gastronomists Keim consulted. His suggested list of adventurous treats for the big game includes recipes for pizza pebbles, puffed sauerkraut, bratwurst puree, and beer ice cream in a pretzel crust.
1/29/2009 6:20:02 AM
Babies can follow a beat just days after birth, and they can notice when a rhythm pattern is disrupted, according to study results presented by Discover. Some scientists believe the ability to recognize steady rhythms, called beat induction, could be unique to humans. Some, including the study’s authors, also think it’s innate. Lead researcher Istvan Winkler suggests that a sense of rhythm helps newborns process and respond to repetitive baby talk, paving the way for language acquisition. If he’s right, our affinity for music may be a happy evolutionary accident, a byproduct of other essential learning processes.
Image by Kamal Aboul-Hosn, licensed under Creative Commons.
1/28/2009 2:37:23 PM
Technology is currently crying out for your attention. Twitter wants to know, “What are you doing?” Facebook is asking, “What are you doing right now?” There’s a good chance that your personal, work, and spam email accounts all have new messages waiting for you, friends or acquaintances may be inviting you to LinkedIn or Friendfeed, or maybe your cell phone is ringing. “Not long ago, it was easy to feel lonely,” William Deresiewicz writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education, “now it’s impossible to be alone.”
The technology demands constant attention, because that’s what people want. The “contemporary self,” according to Deresiewicz, “wants to be recognized, wants to be connected: It wants to be visible.” The websites offer visibility at no monetary cost, but users end up sacrificing their solitude, privacy, and, in some ways, the ability to be alone.
The technology has a spiritual cost, too. “Religious solitude is a kind of self-correcting social mechanism,” Deresiewicz writes, “a way of burning out the underbrush of moral habit and spiritual custom.” This kind of self-reflection is nearly impossible if people don’t quit tweeting, texting, and calling every once in a while.
The costs of constant contact become more extreme as technology improves. New applications for the iPhone and Google’s new G1 (which I bought 3 weeks ago), allow people to connect with Twitter, Facebook, and a host of location-aware applications at all times. Programs like WhosHere, Whrrl, and the dubiously named LifeAware give near-constant GPS-based updates to friends or strangers of where people are and how to connect.
Some of these location-aware applications go too far, even for tech enthusiasts. Mathew Honan, the man behind BarackObamaIsYourNewBicycle, explored the labyrinthine world of the GPS-based applications for Wired and found paradoxically, “I had gained better location awareness but was losing my sense of place.”
The flood of tweets, updates, and friend request can quickly become indistinguishable from real life (aka RL). The din can easily stand in the way of deeper thoughts and self-reflection. “In effect,” according to the Winter 2007 issue of n+1, “this mode of constant self-report can be summed up in a single phrase: “I am on the phone. I am on the phone. I am on the phone.’”
Image by Juhan Sonin, licensed under Creative Commons.
1/27/2009 9:40:52 AM
In his inauguration speech, President Obama promised that America will “restore science to its rightful place.” But what exactly does that mean? Several bloggers and columnists from around the web have weighed in on what the Obama administration can and should do to further scientific discovery and maintain the United States’ position as a leader in research and innovation.
In Seed Magazine, 49 Nobel Laureates wrote a letter outlining their plan for reinvigorating American science. The current economic bailout could represent “a vital investment in America's future,” the authors write, if some of that money goes to scientific projects and research.
Science education should be the focus for Obama
and his new secretary of education, Arne Duncan, according to Bill Allen at the Huffington Post. He calls for the support of both the government and citizens to make “America the country of the scientifically-literate and the mathematically-competent.”
Over at Princeton’s Freedom to Tinker blog, Ed Felton concentrates on the need for developing and strengthening cyber technology and security, as well as a bridge of communication between the government and scientific leaders in order to benefit both sectors.
As for Obama’s promise to use technology to improve health care, Scientific American interviewed Lawrence Baker (a professor of health policy at Stanford), who insists that “The most health care isn't always the best health care. Decisions about value is probably the key.” New developments are only part of the puzzle, using the right technology for the patient is another.
1/23/2009 4:25:38 PM
Hollywood heroes have an uncanny ability to outrun bombs. For the rest of us, it’d be helpful to know how far away we’d have to get from a nuclear blast to really be safe. The Ground Zero web application uses Google Maps to show the size of the damage caused by different nuclear bombs. Just search the map, hit the button that says, “nuke it,” and figure out how far you have to run. Or, if you’re like Indiana Jones, you could just hide in a fridge.
(Thanks, Very Short List.)
1/22/2009 1:56:43 PM
Bottled-up aggression sometimes needs an outlet. Sarah Lavely tries to provide a healthy one in her Smash Shack located in downtown San Diego. According to Psychology Today (article not available online), the company rents out concrete rooms, where clients can smash plates, glasses, or once-cherished mementos from relationships they want to forget. People can also buy plates and borrow Sharpie pens, to write out names or personal messages before they smash them. Some say that unleashed anger simply leads to more aggression, but Lavely points out that “Research has also shown that it’s absolutely critical to express emotions and anger, as opposed to shoving it down.”
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1/22/2009 1:17:59 PM
A new report from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine finds that the U.S. Military’s use of animals for medical training violates the Department of Defense animal welfare regulation.
“For the soldiers of the 25th Infantry Division, it must have been a gruesome experience,” the report begins. “Earlier this year, instructors with the division’s 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team shot a group of pigs at Hawaii’s Schofield Barracks. They then instructed soldiers to practice treating the animals’ wounds. In other combat trauma training courses, pigs are set on fire while still alive. The trainees’ task is to keep the wounded pigs alive for as long as possible.”
Read the entire report here.
1/22/2009 10:24:19 AM
It’s been 25 years since Apple introduced its first Macintosh computer, and even with an economy resembling a swirling vortex of failure, the company and its products are still going strong, according to the Wall Street Journal. To celebrate the Mac's silver anniversary, CNET put together a series of articles exploring the computer’s history and future potential, interviewing some of the project’s early team members, and asking readers to share their favorite memories of the landmark invention.
Image courtesy of Creek Hopper, licensed under Creative Commons.
1/20/2009 2:29:59 PM
American households are increasingly ditching their landlines in favor of cell phones, and that’s creating public health problems. The National Center for Health Statistics estimates that 17.5 percent of Americans own only cell phones, while another 13 percent rely on cell phones for most calls. The Washington Post reports that this shift complicates health research, making it harder to collect data that reflects the entire U.S. population, and, consequently, to accurately define public health problems and craft appropriate responses.
There are several reasons for this difficulty. For one thing, it takes more time to reach cell phone users, since federal law forbids researchers from using automatic dialers, the method used to connect with most landlines. People on cells are also less willing to cooperate with polls, perhaps because they have to pay for every minute they spend talking. In the end, researchers get fewer completed surveys from cell phone users. According to Scott Keeter at the Pew Research group, they finish one survey for every 9 cell calls, as opposed to one for every 5 calls to landlines.
Researchers are worried about this gap in information, because certain demographics are overrepresented in cell phone-only households—according to a Q&A chat accompanying the article, these include renters, young people, and Latinos. Researchers are testing different strategies to gather information from these groups, including reimbursing people for minutes spent answering questions and supplementing surveys with mail-in components. Some software developers are also addressing the problem, developing data-gathering tools meant specifically for wireless phones. One good example is EpiSurveyor, which was piloted late last year.
Image courtesy of Eric__I_E, licensed under Creative Commons.
(Thanks, American Journal of Bioethics.)
1/16/2009 4:25:33 PM
A new form of censorship has quietly crept over the internet. Though governments continue to pursue old-school forms of prior restraint, technology is quickly making the blackened-ink style of censorship obsolete. The new ways to restrict free speech don’t require killing information entirely, governments and private companies simply inconvenience and frustrate people away from information they want to keep under wraps.
The internet was meant to foster communication, and it still creates opportunities for vibrant free speech. At the same time, computer science professor Harry Lewis writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education that the internet’s “rapid and ubiquitous adoption has created a flexible and effective mechanism for thought control.” As people increasingly rely on the internet for their news and information, banishing something from the web means effectively striking it from the public consciousness.
Governments have already begun to influence internet usage inside of their countries to enforce social and political norms. Lewis writes that on the internet, there is already “no sex in Saudi Arabia, no Holocaust denials in Australia, no shocking images of war dead in Germany, no insults to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Turkey.”
China sits at the vanguard of this new form of censorship. The country’s famed “Great Firewall” is one of the most advanced information blocking tools in the world. Every savvy netizen, however, knows of proxy servers, encryption services, and other ways to skirt the firewall and find information that China doesn’t want its citizens to see. “The Great Firewall of China isn't impenetrable, “Jacqui Cheng reported for Ars Technica in 2007, “it just takes a little elbow grease and high Internet traffic to squeeze a few banned terms through.” That requirement of elbow grease constitutes the cornerstone of the new censorship.
Governments don’t have to censor all the information that comes into their country anymore, either. Censorship increasingly relies on one information bottleneck: Google. Jeffrey Rosen wrote for the New York Times that Google and its subsidiaries, including YouTube, “arguably have more influence over the contours of online expression than anyone else on the planet.” Governments and businesses now realize that banning information from Google means effectively censoring it from a massive audience of people, and they are developing strategies accordingly.
“To love Google, you have to be a little bit of a monarchist, you have to have faith in the way people traditionally felt about the king,” technology expert Tim Wu told the New York Times. After the Turkish government successfully lobbied YouTube to take down videos inside of Turkey that were deemed offensive, the Government tried to ban the videos worldwide to protect Turks living outside the country. These videos would all be available on websites other than YouTube, but with one website eclipsing all others for web videos, really, who would know?
In the United States, copyright laws are often invoked to frighten people into censorship. The Electronic Frontier Foundation reported that the McCain-Palin campaign, an unlikely advocate for internet freedom, claimed that YouTube “silenced political speech” after it took down campaign ads due to copyright violation claims.
YouTube general council Zahavah Levine responded saying, “YouTube does not possess the requisite information about the content in user-uploaded videos to make a determination as to whether a particular takedown notice includes a valid claim of infringement.” Because of that lack of information, the site often takes down videos first and examines the validity of copyright claims later. By the time videos are restored, especially in a fast-moving political campaign setting, the damage has already been done.
The website Chilling Effects documents many of these cease-and-desist letters in an attempt to combat some of the unnecessary censorship. The site was created in partnership with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a number of universities to help people understand their First Amendment rights and protect legal online speech. But with governments and businesses exchanging and learning from each other’s censorship tactics, the strategies to restrict free speech will likely grow more sophisticated.
1/16/2009 11:42:53 AM
Scientists at ASU in Tempe are developing a new kind of brain cell stimulation, one that uses ultrasound waves instead of internal electrode implants. The technology would eliminate the significant risks of surgery involved with implanting devices, making brain stimulation, which is used to treat a host of ailments such as epilepsy and Parkinson's, more widely available.
Another potential use for low-frequency ultrasound waves would be applied to those suffering head injuries.
“Imagine an infantryman rocked by an explosion or a football player knocked to the ground by a helmet-to-helmet hit," says William J. Tyler, one of the researchers. "Some sensor would detect that there was enough force generated for it to be a concussive event. [This technology] would slow the brain's metabolic rate, [limit the destructive chemical cascade], and prevent cell death.”
By keeping the ultrasound frequency and power low, sound waves penetrate the skull and cause brain cells to temporarily change polarity. That change causes them to release neurotransmitter chemicals, the result being stimulation of brain cells very similar to that caused by implanted electrodes. For those concerned that the waves will be used to enslave the human race (and you know who you are), fear not: The technology only works when extremely close to the subject.
Image courtesy of LorleiRanveig, licensed under Creative Commons.
1/15/2009 3:01:53 PM
Neuroimaging grabs headlines, but a recent study, highlighted in the New Scientist, questions the reliability of brain scan research, particularly when it’s used to make claims about human emotions and behavior.
Hal Pashler and his colleagues looked at more than 50 studies that used fMRI scans to link activity in specific brain regions to feelings. They argue that many of the studies—nearly 30—have inflated these correlations or created one where none exists. The problem has to do with methodology. Pashler’s team contends that for any given brain image, researchers should cross-reference two sets of scans in order to accurately judge the strength of a correlation. The studies they criticized relied on only one.
Not surprisingly, the scrutinized groups have already begun to defend themselves, but there’s more than scientific integrity on the line. Studies like the ones in question are already being treated outside scientific circles as fact. As both the New York Times and Justice Talking (pdf) reported, the scans been used as evidence in legal cases for years.
Image by Mikey G. Ottawa, licensed under Creative Commons.
1/15/2009 11:52:32 AM
Drinking too much coffee could make people hear voices or sense things that aren’t there, the BBC reports. The research doesn’t prove a “causal link” between coffee and hearing voices, but the study found that people who drink more than seven cups of instant coffee per day were three times more likely to experience hallucinations.
1/13/2009 12:31:28 PM
The Israeli-Palestinian war has spread to the Internet, where hackers loyal to both sides are “defacing” websites to spread information and photos from the battlefield, Jon Gordon reports for Future Tense.
Jart Armin, who Gordon describes as a “cyber warfare researcher,” says the hackers have been fighting since 2001, but recently stepped up their efforts by attacking websites in Europe. Palestinian hackers have been particularly active, says Armin, breaking into websites to post photos of dead or injured people. Turkish hackers have enlisted too, which could spell trouble, according to Armin, because they’re among the best in the world. One Turk claims the world record for bringing down 20,000 websites in a single hour.
Indeed, the famed Turkish hackers are already living up to their reputation. According to the Sofia News Agency, “Two websites maintained by NATO and the US Army have been defaced by the Turkish group Agd_Scorp/Peace Crew as a protest against the Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip.”
Photo by gutter, licensed under Creative Commons.
1/12/2009 4:05:40 PM
Burger King has inadvertently set a price on Facebook through their new “Whopper Sacrifice” application, according to Jason Kottke. Facebook users now can cash in on their virtual friendships by deleting 10 friends in exchange for a free Whopper. If the burger costs $2.40, that means each friendship is effectively worth $0.24.
That simple equation puts a number on a question that has plagued tech experts: How much is Facebook worth? There are 150 million users on Facebook, with an average of 100 friends. According to Kottke’s math, this places the overall value of Facebook at $1.8 billion, far lower than the $15 billon assumed when Microsoft invested in the company, but still a fair chunk of change. (For all the work, visit Kottke's blog post.)
The question of how much a Facebook friendship is worth, and who owns those friendships, could define the future of the social networking industry. The July-August issue of Technology Review profiled some of the innovative efforts to place value on social networking sites, and how some of those sites are leveraging social connections to actually make money. Though many assume Facebook to be one of the most successful companies on the internet, according to writer Bryant Urstadt, the company still hasn’t figured out how to use all their attention and social connections to create a real business.
1/9/2009 3:37:43 PM
Philosophers, poets, and writers have long known the dangers of city life. Now scientists know why. Neuroscience writer extraordinaire Jonah Lehrer writes for the Boston Globe that the simple act of being in a city “impairs our basic mental processes.”
Human minds struggle to keep up with the mental over-stimulation that’s ubiquitous in most cities. This can lead to mental and emotional fatigue in city dwellers.
The solution, according to Lehrer, is to spend more time in nature. Forests and sunsets don’t require the same neurological effort as the busy concrete jungle of cities. Spending time in nature, having an apartment that overlooks green spaces, or even looking at photographs of natural settings have all been found to have neurological benefits.
“Imagine a therapy that had no known side effects, was readily available, and could improve your cognitive functions at zero cost,” Marc G. Berman, John Jonides, and Stephen Kaplan wrote for Psychological Science. Spending time in nature has all these benefits, according to the study’s authors. The theory is called attention restoration theory, or ART, stating that mentally exhausted people can actually be rejuvenated by spending time in nature.
And if nature’s not readily available, you can try out the advice from Common Ground on beating “urban angst,” that Utne blogger Rachel Levitt pointed to.
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1/6/2009 2:29:50 PM
Forget aspirin: scientists at Oxford University are testing binoculars as painkillers. Their findings suggest that manipulating visual images of the body could help manage chronic pain, reports the Scientific American.
The researchers asked study participants to perform sets of movements using an arm that gave them chronic pain. During each exercise, the participants watched their hand through different binocular lenses. In one test, their hands were magnified to twice their size. In another, they were made to appear smaller. In each case, the subjects experienced greater pain as the size of their hands seemed to grow.
These subjective observations were buoyed by objective ones: Their fingers swelled more when perceived to be bigger.
The authors of the study aren’t exactly sure why the distorted images affect pain, but they hypothesize that the binoculars changed the subjects’ connection to their bodies. When their hands looked larger, they were more aware of owning them and thus felt pain more acutely.
Image courtesy of jlcwalker, licensed under Creative Commons.
1/2/2009 11:21:08 AM
Hollywood’s romantic comedies aren’t just innocuous cinematic tripe. They’re actually warping children’s minds (pdf), according to new research from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. The films, including Notting Hill and You’ve Got Mail are skewed portrayals of relationships with “both highly idealistic and undesirable qualities,” the researchers write, where romantic problems or transgressions “have no real negative long-term impact on relationship functioning.” The films tend to focus on the early stages of relationships, but the characters displayed emotions that generally develop over time, including deep feelings of love and emotional support. Adolescents sometimes use these films as models for their own relationships, which could lead to unrealistic expectations and disappointment.
In the book and film High Fidelity, the main character asks, “What came first, the music or the misery? Did I listen to music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to music?” For romantic comedy films, researchers may now have an answer.
Image from the film Notting Hill.
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