5/29/2009 6:40:15 PM
Who knew Colonel Mustard and Miss Scarlet could help robots navigate mine fields? Matt Palmquist reports in Miller-McCune that the classic whodunit board game inspired engineers at Duke University to create an algorithm that combines the treasure hunt nature of the detective game with aspects of minesweeping, and it has been overwhelmingly successful at beating experienced Clue players even. The findings suggest robots might be able to use it to locate mines more quickly and efficiently because the success of the algorithm rests on “its strategy of selecting movements and optimizing its ability to incorporate new information, while minimizing the distance traveled by the pawn,” according to a lab director at Duke. Frankly I can’t quip a better conclusion than Palmquist’s summary, “In other words: It was the robot, in the library, with the minesweeper.”
Miller-McCune won an Utne Independent Press Award this year for its superb science/tech coverage.
Image by katherine lynn, licensed under Creative Commons.
5/29/2009 6:10:52 PM
The new issue of Imbibe gets inside an interesting debate among coffee connoisseurs: Is aged coffee any good?
“Here’s the first thing to understand,” writes Rivers Janssen for the Portland, Oregon–based magazine of all things drinkable (article not available online). “Aged coffee does not refer to roasted coffee that sits around for weeks, months, or years, either in or out of a vacuum-sealed bag. That’s nothing more than stale coffee, and it will inevitably taste flatter with each passing day.”
In other words, aged coffee does not happen by accident (or, perhaps more accurately, neglect); those who partake often compare it to fine wine. The term, Janssen writes, “generally refers to green, unroasted coffee that professionals intentionally store in a warehouse for a longer-than-usual period in order to tease out certain flavor characteristics while muting others. . . . A coffee that’s high in acidity but with a good body for espresso, for example, might lose some of that acidity after a year of aging, giving it a more balanced flavor.”
Doug Welsh, the vice president of coffee at Peet’s Coffee & Tea, explains to Janssen why he’s a devotee (Peet’s has an aged Sumatra on its menu, which you can sample if you live in California, where the coffee-shop chain is based, or in a handful of other states):
“I like the grape-to-raisin analogy,” he says. “A lot of coffees start out grape-like, especially in their freshness on the palate, their brightness, their sparkle and even their acidity. . . . During the aging process, however, all of those flavors concentrate, just like the sugars concentrate in a raisin or prune. And there’s a fullness of flavor and body that goes along with that.”
Other roasters disagree, of course, pointing out that by the time our coffee makes its way to our cups, it’s already at least a few months old. Ryan Brown, the coffee buyer for San Francisco’s Ritual Coffee Roasters, “opposes storing beans any longer than necessary,” Janssen writes.
“My perspective is that there’s a disconnect between the way coffee can taste and the way it does taste to consumers,” explains Brown. “[Coffee tastes different] when you’re tasting it at origin, when it’s fresh and it hasn’t deteriorated yet, as compared to the way the same coffee usually tastes when it arrives here.”
Image by DeusXFlorida, licensed under Creative Commons.
5/29/2009 5:28:16 PM
Solving the nation’s transportation woes will take some big ideas, but it doesn’t hurt to think “small” in this case. GOOD magazine picked the brain of Audrey Dussutour, whose countless hours of ant-studying (and even sabotaging) taught her that the tiny travelers are über-skilled when it comes to avoiding traffic jams.
Dussutour chose ants to study because aside from humans and termites, they’re the only other species that aren’t just unidirectional, meaning: All other animals just flow in one direction, without inbound and outbound traffic. Ants are at an advantage because of their size, cooperative nature, and lack of rules. They move intuitively, but yet all follow a similar intrinsic code—giving the right of way to load-bearing ants and those with no space to move—which allows them to move faster collectively, even if it takes a little more time for each individual. They also are flexible and change routes when crowding starts, showing self-organized cultures can function efficiently (and often faster) then those with bosses making laws to instill order.
So what can urban planners learn from this? Dussutour says: Just remove the rules and it would work. I’m kidding, but if you look at videos from the south of Asia, Thailand, or India, sometimes traffic doesn’t seem to have any rules, but it works very well and has a very nice flow. It is like bikes and trucks, and pedestrians. It looks scary from our point of view, because we are not used to that. But if it looks like it works, why interfere?
5/27/2009 11:40:57 AM
Marketers from some of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies have begun hyping their drugs on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. Pfizer, the company behind Viagra, already has 1,239 fans on Facebook, and AstraZeneca, makers of Prilosec, has 822 followers on Twitter. Kerry Grens of the Scientist dropped in on a conference designed to help big-pharma marketers understand the benefits and pitfalls of social media.
The pharmaceutical information being spread on the internet has begun to push the bounds of legality. “Currently,” Grens writes, “the FDA has no guidelines explicitly addressing adverse event reports on networking sites like Facebook.” If a commenter complains of an unintended side effect, for example, drug makers might not know whether they’re legally obliged to look into the case. And, if enough people complain of “black tongue” or “anal leakage,” Facebook might not look like such a great marketing tool after all.
5/26/2009 12:50:01 PM
The vast array of sex science available since the 1950s has demystified sex. Many Americans can now talk about it with their doctors and Bob Dole can speak freely about “erectile dysfunction” on television. Researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson “helped clear away much of the shame and myth that had perpetuated a communal ignorance about human sexuality,” Drake Bennett wrote for the Boston Globe. Today, that research has lost touch with its humanity, according to many researchers, promoting the "medicalization" of sex.
At its worst, they warn, [sex science] is pushing us into a sort of sexual arms race as people engage in sex acts that hold little interest for them, partake of a growing pharmacopeia of sex drugs, even get formerly unheard-of cosmetic surgeries to measure up to a fictional sexual ideal.
Researchers often reduce sex down to its most basic, physical elements, viewing intercourse in terms of function and dysfunction, rather than idiosyncratic preferences. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the marketing of Viagra. Many people swear by the drug’s regenerative properties, but Bennett writes, “the benefits of Viagra and similar pills have to be balanced against the fact that they have made our sex lives seem like something that can - and should - be fixed with a drug.”
The media hype surrounding Viagra promotes the all-too-common view that “sex is a zero-sum game, a win-lose athletic performance, measured entirely by the ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of the arousal-intercourse-orgasm sequence,” Michael Metz and Barry McCarthy wrote in the Jan-Feb issue of Utne Reader. A more healthy view of sex is one that changes depending on the couple. “The challenge,” Metz and McCarthy write, “is to stop clinging to the ‘perfect intercourse’ model and replace it with positive, realistic expectations of oneself, one’s partner, and one’s relationship.”
The overly medicalized science isn’t just misguided, it also prevents helpful work from being done. Bennett quotes Amy Allina, program director at National Women's Health Network, saying, “We don't really know - and this is a timely one - how unemployment affects a couple's sex life.”
Scientists are now proposing a new, more “humanistic” model of sex, according to Bennett, that respects the idiosyncrasies of people and their relationships. Looking beyond the physiological, sex science could promote a more healthy view of sex as it functions inside of relationships.
The sex science so far may be promote a sterile, medicalized view of sex, but “it sure is entertaining,” according to Mary Roach, the author of Bonk. In a talk to TED, Roach explains some of the most interesting observation in the history of sex science, including this one by Alfred Kinsey:
Cheese crumbs spread before a pair of copulating rats will distract the female, but not the male.
You can watch that video below:
Source: Boston Globe, Utne Reader, TED
5/22/2009 10:17:49 AM
The baby translator WhyCry was invented to help confused parents decipher their children’s cries. It may end up doing more harm than good. The $100.00 device analyzes pitch, rhythm, and volume of cries to help parents figure out the child’s needs with a reported 98 percent accuracy. It shows one of five icons, corresponding to one of the five reasons why babies cry: They’re usually either stressed, sleepy, annoyed, bored, or hungry.
When a parent figures out what the child needs, a bond is created between parent and child. WhyCry may be able solve the problem, but it could hurt the parent-child bond. According to Psychotherapy Networker, “a parent’s voice is critical in establishing an empathetic bond between parent and baby,” and the WhyCry device could take that parent’s voice out of the equation. “WhyCry may tell parents what their baby needs,” according to the article, “it may also interfere with their instinctively empathetic vocal response.”
Source: Psychotherapy Networker
5/21/2009 3:02:05 PM
Do Facebook users get lower grades than non-Facebook users? The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Ohio State University doctoral student Aryn C. Karpinski surveyed 102 undergraduates and 117 graduates and found that the GPA’s of non-Facebook users were higher than their Facebook-loving peers.
Karpinski’s findings immediately generated controversy from fellow academics, who questioned her methods and Karpinski readily acknowledges that she cannot prove a direct correlation between Facebook use and poor academic performance. Instead, she argues that her study proves the need for further research on this issue.
“I completely acknowledge the limitations of my research,” she says. “What I found is so exploratory—people need to chill out.”
Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education (article not available online)
Image by avlxyz, licensed under Creative Commons
5/21/2009 2:53:22 PM
If you need a tool in Santa Rosa, you get in touch with Dustin Zuckerman. He's a junior college librarian by day. The rest of the time he's running the Santa Rosa Tool Library from his apartment. Make editor Dale Dougherty writes about Zuckerman's project:
Zuckerman set up his lending library by purchasing circulation software used by small libraries ... "It's good to think like a librarian in setting up a tool-sharing service," he says ... Users register online with their driver's license or ID to borrow a tool. There are no fees for borrowing, but you have to sign a borrowing agreement ... More women than men use his lending library, including a handful who have little experience with power tools. He spends time giving each person a tutorial in how to operate the tools, and provides goggles and earplugs, plus a hard hat, if needed. "I'm not an expert on tools," he says. "I just try to learn the basics so I can pass it on."
A list of tool lending services in three countries and 15 American states lists the Berkeley Tool Lending Library, which opened its dopors in 1979, as the pioneer.
image by Lachlan Hardy. Licensed under Creative Commons.
Source: Make (article not available online)
5/18/2009 4:56:12 PM
Digital technology has lowered the cost of production to the point where giving things away for free has become a legitimate business model. “Once a marketing gimmick,” writes Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired and author of The Long Tail, “free has emerged as a full-fledged economy.”
The problem with this “freeconomy,” Andrew Orlowski writes for the New Statesman, is that eventually, someone is going to have to pick up the bill. Anderson and Wired are both pushing a techno-utopianism, according to Orlowski, that mixes “manifest destiny and opportunistic hucksterism.” For many years, and two economic busts, the message worked. Now, Anderson’s new book Free isn’t meeting with rave reviews, and Wired (like many magazines) is struggling to survive. Orlowski writes:
“So, perhaps the Wired era is over, departing like a snake-oil salesman at a medicine show who—having poisoned the town—can’t leave quickly enough”
Sources: Wired, New Statesman
5/18/2009 3:22:00 PM
What is the point of babies? They’re almost entirely dependent on other people for survival, so much so that they appear to be an evolutionary hindrance, rather than a benefit. Alison Gopnik, author of The Philosophical Baby, thinks she may have found the answer. In an interview with Seed magazine, Gopnik explains that “children are like the R&D department of the human species.”
There may be a tradeoff in the human mind between learning something and applying it, according to Gopnik. Adults are better able to apply knowledge, but babies are better suited for learning and imaging.
Watching children play in imaginary worlds, many scientists have assumed that babies are not as intelligent as adults. In fact, “Children have a very good idea of how to distinguish between fantasies and realities,” according to Gopnik. “It’s just they are equally interested in exploring both.”
Image by Mia Mae, licensed under Creative Commons.
5/15/2009 5:57:42 PM
On their own, ants are pretty dumb. It’s not their fault: Their tiny brains don’t allow for a lot of intelligence. Taken together, however, ants are some of the most evolutionarily successful animals on the planet. They account for an estimated 15 to 20 percent of the biomass of all the land animals on earth. And they didn’t get that big by making a lot of mistakes.
“Individually they’re totally incompetent,” ant expert Debra Gordon told Radio Lab, “but as colonies they do great things.”
Scientists are questioning how such an individually unintelligent animal could make so many correct decisions collectively. Though ants have a queen, the queen doesn’t order around her subjects. In reality, they exhibit an amazing ability for nonhierarchical, collective decision making.
They way ants, bees, and some fish naturally make decisions, according to Susan Milius writing for Science News, is “all about quorum.” The animals will often send off little scouts, acting individually, who report back to influence the groups as a whole. Some ants have been observed throwing other ants over their shoulders and dragging their fellow ants off to build consensus for ideas. Eventually, with individual persistence, collective decisions are made.
How those decisions are made represents one of the biggest mysteries in science, mathematician Steve Strogatz told Radio Lab. In nature, order can simply materialize from disorder. Strogatz points out that scientists (and Creationists) grapple with the question of how this happens, but still don’t understand.
The collective decision making occurs in humans, too, in ways that are little understood. “Human groups deciding as a whole have scored spooky triumphs,” Milius writes. In one test, people were asked to guess the weight of an ox. Individually, every guess was way off. Together, the median of the guesses was within 10 pounds of the correct weight of 1,198 pounds
If humans are able to exhibit such accurate collective decision making, how could the stock market and the real estate crisis go so horribly wrong? The problem, according to Stephen Pratt of Arizona State, is that ants don’t have a stock market. “If they did,” he says, “we could rely on them to have figured the whole thing out.”
Image by Dino, licensed under Creative Commons.
5/15/2009 1:32:46 PM
Most dollhouses scenes don’t feature miniature corpses hanging from ropes or life-like blood spatters evoking a crime-scene feel in each room. Most probably aren’t used by police officers, either.
The latest issue of Baltimore’s Urbanite features a handful of hidden secrets lurking in the Charm City, which includes a 60-some-year-old collection known as the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. Michael Yockel writes, “In naming her creations [Frances Glessner] Lee invokes a police dictum: ‘Convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.’”
All told there are 18 tiny, gruesome dioramas, which are used in seminars to school police in forensics and solving murder cases. Too bad Jimmy McNulty and crew didn’t have these.
The Urbanite is nominated for a 2009 Utne Independent Press Award for its social/cultural coverage.
5/12/2009 4:33:25 PM
When Netflix offered $1 million to anyone who could help them suggest movies better, thousands of teams from hundreds of countries signed up for the challenge. Netflix uses a program called Cinematch that recommends movies to its customers, designed to keep the customers renting movies and paying money. If people could create a program that would suggest movies 10 percent better than Cinematch, that team would win $1 million from Netflix.
One team at AT&T Labs came particularly close to that goal and wrote about the competition for the latest issue of IEEE Spectrum. The team members combined a number of different search methods to create a program that was 8.43 percent better than Netflix’s. That’s wasn’t enough to win the $1 million dollar prize, but Netflix was also offering a $50,000 prize to the team that came the closest.
Programs like these are capable of “finding something out about us that we ourselves can't even figure out,” writer Clive Thomas told the WNYC show On the Media. They also run the chance of perpetuating narrow-mindedness by suggesting only media that people are sure to like, without any of the mind-expanding media that people might aren’t sure to enjoy. People’s friends, rather than computers, are still better able to suggest media that might not be as enjoyable, but is still important.
Computers may be able to explore the “impenetrable mystery at the heart of our predilections,” according to On the Media’s Brooke Gladstone, but they aren’t able to change those predilections without the help of a few friends.
You can listen to that interview below:
Image by Urthstripe, licensed under Creative Commons.
Sources: IEEE Spectrum, On the Media
5/12/2009 4:27:08 PM
How we think about memory is about to change. Psychologist Alain Brunet, who works at McGill University and the Douglas Institute in Montreal, is conducting clinical trials in which participants take propranolol, a blood-pressure drug, after writing about a traumatic experience, reports Technology Review. This exercise seems to “weaken” the emotional strength of the memory, without disturbing any details. Six months after participating in a trial, one Canadian soldier suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) no longer qualified for the diagnosis.
Brunet’s research has to do with unlocking the secrets of how memories are stored, specifically proving the concept of memory reconsolidation. If Brunet is correct, when we recall a memory, it has to be packed away into the brain anew—and during that process the memory is malleable. If this is true, it opens up a bevy of possibilities for the treatment of PTSD, as well as other anxiety disorders and addiction.
There are some concerns that Brunet could be opening the proverbial Pandora’s box, but the psychologist isn’t fazed. “Brunet points out that he is trying to bring PTSD patients’ memories into a normal emotional range, not blunt their power altogether,” Technology Review senior editor Emily Singer writes. “He doesn’t think that using propranolol to render these memories bearable would create any unique potential for abuse as a way to dull the regrets, fears, and embarrassments of everyday life; people already use alcohol and drugs for such purposes.”
Source: Technology Review
5/7/2009 4:42:33 PM
You can never be prepared for what you find on the irreverent pages of VICE. The current issue (Technology-themed) houses one of the magazine's tamer efforts, in which correspondent Jason Crombie introduces readers to the staff’s newly-invented sport: Sabersegging—which is exactly what you’d think it is—wielding a light saber while atop a Segway. An activity reserved for true nerd enthusiasts.
Crombie documents his training, both at a Jedi academy with lightsaber enthusiasts and with a colorful Segway guru fond of the ladies (and even a little Segway S&M if you can believe it). After learning to lock, rebound, and follow-through, Crombie mounts-up to battle his Jedi teacher. The experience is perhaps best viewed. Lucky for us, here it is:
Image by kevindooley, licensed under Creative Commons.
5/6/2009 3:09:05 PM
Ten million billion ants, 60,000 papers on the genetics of the common fruit fly, the weaponozation of at least 18 arthropod-borne diseases, and one skinned frog. In the books section of The Guardian, science writer PD Smith offers a titillating roundup of bizarre facts from the history of animal and insect experimentation—and leaves you with a reading list.
, licensed under
5/6/2009 3:07:04 PM
Writing for the online magazine Greater Good, Dacher Keltner explores the evolutionary roots of embarrassment and explains how our pink cheeks can actually help us. Keltner, a psychologist who studies positive emotions, writes: “We may feel alienated, flawed, alone, and exposed when embarrassed, but our display of this complex emotion is a wellspring of forgiveness and reconciliation.”
The simple elements of the embarrassment display I have documented and traced back to other species' appeasement and reconciliation processes—the gaze aversion, downward head movements, awkward smiles, and face touches—are a language of cooperation, they are the unspoken ethic of modesty. With these fleeting displays of deference, we navigate conflict-laden situations—watch how regularly people display embarrassment when in close physical spaces, when negotiating the turn-taking of everyday conversations, or when sharing food. We express gratitude and appreciation. And, with deflections of attention or face-saving parodies of the mishap, we quickly extricate embarrassed souls from their momentary predicaments.
Studying embarrassment does seem sort of fun—at least, for the researchers who are charged with inducing said embarrassment. “In perhaps the most mortifying experiment,” Keltner writes, “participants had to sing Barry Manilow's song ‘Feelings’ using dramatic hand gestures—and then had to watch a video of their performance surrounded by other students.”
(Congrats to Greater Good on their 2009 Utne Independent Press Award nomination for social/cultural coverage!)
Source: Greater Good
Image by Symic, licensed under Creative Commons.
5/6/2009 1:25:28 PM
Modern society actively bombards the human consciousness, allowing the most primitive and consumption-oriented parts of the brain to take over, John Naish writes for the Ecologist. People are tricked on a base level into “feeling beset by famine and poverty, despite the abundant sufficiencies around us.” These feelings of need push people into buying, eating, and using resources, often without thinking rationally.
Beyond foods and cars, the human brain is wired for conceptual consumption, too. The quest for more experiences can lead people into choosing more unique or interesting experiences over more pleasurable ones, according to PsyBlog. When faced with a choice between a consistently pleasurable ice cream flavor (say, chocolate) or a more interesting but clearly less tasty one (say, bacon), many people will choose the bacon-flavored ice cream, knowing it won’t be as good. A similar theory is employed to explain why people prefer horror movies over a good comedy.
The problem is that marketers and advertisers know how to stimulate the primitive parts of the human brain to prod people into more consumption. That drive is having a devastating effect on the environment, according to Naish, as people irresponsibly consume natural resources in a Sisyphean effort to quiet the irrational parts of the brain.
There are, however, plenty of exercises that people can use to stimulate the higher-functioning, more rational parts of the brain. Naish suggests that society tap into the psychological need for social belonging to nudge people toward more responsible consumption. Some solutions are far more simple than that, too. Naish cites research showing that “pausing between deciding to buy something and taking it to the check-out dramatically increases the chance of a no-sale.” Simply taking a breath or walking around the block before making a purchase can help bypass the more irrational part of the brain and encourage more responsible and conscious consumption.
, licensed under
Source: The Ecologist, PsyBlog
5/1/2009 1:32:44 PM
While we've all got public health campaigns on the brain, we might as well enjoy the aesthetics of it all. The University of Kansas Medical Center hosts an online gallery of vintage Chinese public health posters with translations. Stay healthy!
Terrible disease of the diphtheria
Send patients to the hospital as soon as possible
Take inoculation before getting infection
Terrible disease of meningitis
See the doctor immediately when having severe headache and fever
Stay away from crowds
(Thanks, Cee Bee)
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