7/31/2008 3:39:57 PM
The human ability to speak evolved from talking fish, according to new research from Cornell University. In fact, LiveScience reports that speech skills in all vertebrates, including birds, dogs, and humans, can be traced back evolutionarily to the neural circuitry found in fish.
Many fish can still talk today, including the midshipman fish, whose males will emit grunts and hums to communicate with others. A video of that is available on the LiveScience website. Male midshipman fish will hum in order to attract other mates. “Female midshipman dig it,” LiveScience reports, “and they only approach a male's nest if he makes this call.”
7/31/2008 1:41:43 PM
Medical treatment and 12-step groups have been the traditional routes to recovery for people addicted to alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. But new approaches toward substance abuse suggest that breaking the cycle of addiction might be too complex for science to handle.
Some scientists are testing to see if addiction can be fought with anti-stress pills, Melinda Wenner reports for the Scientific American. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health and University College London administered a stress-reduction drug to highly anxious recovering alcoholics, which reduced their craving for a drink, especially in times of high stress. The study is inconclusive in determining whether stress medication could help alcoholics long-term, but represents another step forward in efforts to treat addiction with pharmaceuticals.
On a cultural scale, public health officials are looking to health advisories as a way to stem the tide of addiction. Science Daily reports that excessive drinking can lead to an increased risk of metabolic syndrome—a combination of disorders including heart disease, obesity, and high blood pressure. One study, published by the Centers for Disease Control, suggests that emphasizing the heart disease link could discourage people from drinking excessively.
Others have looked to “do-it-yourself” cures as a way out of addiction without the professional help. According to another article in the Scientific American, eminent social psychologist Stanley Schachter sparked controversy in 1982 when he concluded that addicts who successfully broke their habits without professional treatment or self-help groups were just as likely to recover as those who sought professional treatment.
One of Schachter’s explanations for his findings was that these “D.I.Y” recoveries were more effective than those who sought outside help, because the first group’s dependencies were not as severe as the latter’s. Schachter also concluded that many of these former addicts were able to resume moderate use of alcohol and drugs without abusing them.
The study antagonized treatment professionals who adhere to a disease model of addiction—where nothing short of total abstinence constitutes recovery—as well as researchers who questioned his methods. Skeptics were quick to point out that definitions vary for concepts such as addiction, treatment, and recovery, and affected the possible interpretations of studies like Schachter’s.
The controversy echoes the prevailing belief among addicts and recovery experts that addiction manifests in different ways among different people, and no two people’s addictions are identical. Though science can help combat substance abuse, the elusive and nebulous nature of chemical dependency—its complex emotional, psychological, and physiological ramifications—suggests that the plight of some addicts might always lie just out of science’s reach.
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7/29/2008 3:57:19 PM
Learning to juggle can have measurable effects on a person’s brain in just seven days, according to new research published in the PLoS One science journal. The study called for 20 volunteers to learn 3-ball cascade juggling, and hooked them up to a brain scan to watch for changes in gray matter. After just 7 days of training, the test subjects’ gray matter in the occipito-temporal cortex had changed. According to the study’s authors, “[n]either performance nor exercise alone could explain these changes.”
The blog Mind Hacks reports that the study’s authors were careful not to specify whether the changes were caused by more neurons, or whether existing neurons had grown in size. It was, however, “an interesting example of rapid 'neuroplasticity', the ability of the brain to adapt structurally to new situations.”
7/29/2008 12:34:31 PM
The American Medical Association is under fire for its recent decision (word document) to advise against home births. Doctors, midwives, feminists, natural family planning proponents, and even Ricki Lake are all upset with the intrusion.
Childbirth is a natural part of life, writes Dr. Vijay Goel for The Health Care Blog. It’s been around longer than hospitals have. So why is the AMA advocating against home birth, a practice that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics, only one percent of women choose? The AMA’s resolution “appears to be based more on turf management than evidence,” writes Goel, “...especially when evidence exists that the process is safe for low-risk mothers.” Condemning home birth is another medical attack in the battle between women and doctors over childbirth in the United States.
Restricting all women to hospital or birthing center delivery, like encouraging unnecessary cesarean sections, is prompted by “junk science and further reduces the credibility of our once proud profession,” writes Goel. Doctors elsewhere would disagree with the AMA’s decision, points out Jennifer Block, author of Pushed: The Painful Truth About Childbirth and Modern Maternity Care, writing for the Los Angeles Times. Block quotes a British National Health Service handout, which states: “There is no evidence to support the common assertion that home birth is a less safe option for women experiencing uncomplicated pregnancies.”
For more on the ideas and issues surrounding home births, read “Drugs, Knives, and Midwives” and “A Tale of Two Births” from the March/April 2007 issue of Utne Reader.
Image by Big Ben(Gaijin Bikers), licensed under Creative Commons.
7/28/2008 4:32:06 PM
The radioactive cooling pools in the former Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine are actually hotbeds of life for fungi. According to Cosmos magazine, this newly discovered fungi is believed to be feeding on the toxic radiation that pollutes the area. Nuclear chemist Ekaterina Dadachova believes the organisms may hold secrets to new food sources for astronauts or crops for food-starved regions.
This discovery wouldn’t likely surprise to Paul Stamets, author of Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. In a talk for the TED conference (video available below), Stamets laid out his vision of how the fungi could fight disease, change the way people think about pesticides, clean up oil spills, and even help solve the energy crisis. Stamets suggests that humans should join together with mushrooms, helping them grow, and harnessing their surprising power to help, quite literally, save the world.
Image by alfonsobenayas, licensed under Creative Commons.
7/28/2008 11:07:46 AM
Here’s a shocking statistic for recent law school grads taking bar exams this week: Psychotherapy Networker reports that “while only about 3 percent of students enter law school depressed, about 30 percent graduate depressed.”
7/28/2008 10:50:59 AM
Always good for an erudite chuckle, McSweeney’s recently published a list of “Physical Theories as Women” by Simon Dedeo, reimagining the forces governing our universe as women.
Our dating history, as told by Dedeo, and our knowledge of physics begins with Newtonian gravity. It's the most basic theory and, as such, our first high-school girlfriend.
Later on we encounter general relativity, “your high-school girlfriend all grown up. Man, she is amazing. You sort of regret not keeping in touch. She hates quantum mechanics for obscure reasons.”
Last on the list is string theory, who is “off in her own little world. She is either profound or insane.”
I won’t even try to make a joke about physics geeks having bad luck with women, because this list makes the point so much better.
Image by immugmania, licensed by Creative Commons.
7/24/2008 12:48:46 PM
For years, big, expensive converted minivans have been the norm in transportation for wheelchair users. Environmental responsibility hasn't always been the biggest priority. Luckily, a Hungarian company called Rehab Ltd. has developed the Kenguru, an electric car designed specifically for the disabled.
The vehicle has no side doors; instead the driver rolls in through a rear hatchback and over an automatically lowering ramp. The car is 85 inches long and 61 inches wide and has a range of about 35 miles at a top speed of 25 miles per hour.
Unfortunately, the vehicle hasn’t made it stateside yet, but it’s getting closer. Kenguru UK in England is launching this summer, and the company plans expansion to the U.S. in the near future, according to Green Car Journal.
Image courtesy of kengurucars.com.
7/23/2008 3:25:56 PM
A synthesis of all things linguistic, Language Magazine is page after page of worldwide news, technologies for improving language acquisition, and resources for anyone who values communication. The latest issue features news about Portugal’s decision to change its national language to the Brazilian Portuguese, anecdotes from Spain, France, and Belgum, and a back page by Richard Lederer, author of several books celebrating the complexities and humor in language.
An article in the July issue, “Xpert sez txt is gr8 4 language,” considers Professor David Crystal’s research on text messaging as a new language style. Concluding that text messaging enhances and enriches language skills, Crystal “called it an ‘urban myth’ that school work was riddled with text speech, and said in fact students knew when to use it in the right context.”
Formerly known as the American Language Review, Language Magazine could be mistaken for a strictly academic publication. Though some articles are geared toward language teachers, many more are endlessly useful for those considering learning or improving proficiency of another language, which—to put it simply—most people could stand to do. Whether that language is French or Spanish, or a rare dialect known to only a few hundred folks, there is a laundry list of resources to be found between these pages, including recommendations for study abroad locations, program specifications, and news about language-learning software to help ease your journey toward language enlightenment.
7/22/2008 5:05:45 PM
For the car-deprived among us (like me), Google Maps was once a frustrating application. Getting directions involved being directed down highways and making rough time estimations based on how long a trip would take in a car. As if they knew what I was thinking (and maybe they do...) Google has begun offering walking directions on Google Maps. Now I know that it would take approximately 17 days for me to walk from Minneapolis to Manhattan. Maybe now I can stop agonizing over the best route on the way to the office every morning.
7/22/2008 3:59:37 PM
The internet seems to have the ability to turn regular people into sniveling children. Maybe that’s why “Baby’s First Internet” works so well. The nursery rhyme by Kevin Fanning combined with the delightful illustrations by
7/22/2008 1:44:33 PM
Jean Piaget defined “object permanence” as the awareness that objects still exist even when they are no longer visible. It seems to be mere common sense; it’s what makes peek-a-boo so boring to anyone who can tie a shoe. Infants’ lack of object permanence explains why they sometimes believe that you can't see them when they closes their eyes: out of sight, out of mind.
Or is it “out of mind, out of sight?” Common sense gets scientists only so far, Joshua Roebke points out in a recent article for Seed. The age-old, almost clichéd question of whether or not we create the world just by looking at it is receiving renewed attention from a group of scientists in Vienna. Passé? Maybe. But they’re actually getting somewhere.
Basically the scientists, including Anthony Leggett and Anton Zeilinger, are testing to see if the polarization of light exists before it’s measured. If it does, then reality is real. If not, then the way that humans view the world is called into question. Of course, there are no simple answers yet. To really understand what's going on in the lab, you’ll need to read the article. And even doing so will probably still leave you baffled. Words like “quantum,” “realism,” and “nonlocal hidden variables” are tossed around, seemingly assuming that we all took advanced physics within the last year.
Scientific theories that rub rough elbows with doctrine or dogma will always come full circle back to interpretation and ideology. But unlike controversial theories including the big bang or Darwinian evolution, the "Reality Tests" described in the Seed article aren’t a matter of history. The reality they test is here and now: the color of our couch and the physicality of our sons and daughters that are, well, threatened.
Take that, Piaget.
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7/22/2008 12:50:57 PM
Visual learners can thank Wordle, a site that creates word clouds from text or RSS inputs, for making the printed word a little more palatable. The images made by Wordle are part mutated magnetic poetry, part narcissistic blogger temptation (see Utne Reader Wordles below!).
Here's a Wordle image made from the article "It's Not a Gay Thing..." from the July-August issue of Utne Reader.
And here's Albert Einstein's book, Relativity: The Special and General Theory:
More practical Wordle users could get news updates, suggests Jeff Jarvis of BuzzMachine.com, with word clouds created from an entire edition of a newspaper to show readers the day's top stories. The website Capitol Words provides a similar word watch for the U.S. government, highlighting the top term discussed in Congress each day. According to the site, Congressional conversations this month focused on “energy” (July 8), “Bosnian” (July 11), and “intelligence” (July 16).
(Thanks, 3 Quarks Daily.)
7/21/2008 5:51:17 PM
“Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) today embarked on an historic first-ever visit to the Internet,” satirist Andy Borowitz joked on his website. In an effort to pull the headlines away from Barack Obama’s trip to the Middle East, Borowitz wrote that McCain, surrounded by reporters, visited “Weather.com and Yahoo! Answers, where he inquired as to the difference between Sunnis and Shiites.” Borowitz did not mention any plans of visiting, as Sen. McCain once said, “a Google.”
7/21/2008 5:04:39 PM
The chances of a disastrous misdiagnosis run high when doctors use race to prescribe treatments. Drugs designed for specific races, like the highly publicized drug BiDil, work on the assumption that some races require different treatments from other races because of genetics. Science Central News reports that medical experts are questioning that assumption, saying that doctors should focus on individual—rather than racial—genetic variations.
The first drug designed specifically for one racial group and approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was BiDil, a medication designed for African Americans to combat congestive heart failure (CHF). Beta-blockers are commonly used to treat CHF, but studies have shown that BiDil is a more effective treatment for many African Americans.
The problem, according to Science Central News, is that “those studies were based on people’s self-described race, rather than their actual genetic makeup.” When doctors put too much faith in those studies, ignoring genetic variations inside the African American community, there’s a strong chance that patients wouldn’t get the medications they need to combat the potentially fatal disease.
The motivation behind racially specific prescriptions may have more to do with business than health, according to Utne Reader’s November-December 2007 issue. The article points out that FDA approval of BiDil gave the drug’s producer, NitroMed, a 20-year patent on the medication, giving them a monopoly over the drug’s market. So whether or not the drug works better for African Americans, NitroMed will retain their monopolistic control until the year 2020.
Issues surrounding the drug also play into an ongoing argument over the role of genetics in modern racism. Nobel Prize winner James Watson, who helped discover the double helix, set off a firestorm of controversy last year when he claimed in the Sunday Times that black people might not be as genetically predisposed for intelligence as white people. In an interview for the Root, Henry Louis Gates Jr. sat down with Watson to express some of his fears about the role of genetic research in the future of racism.
Gates walked away from the conversation with an illuminating and frightening conclusion:
That the last great battle over racism will be fought not over access to a lunch counter, or a hotel room, or to the right to vote, or even the right to occupy the White House; it will be fought in a laboratory, in a test tube, under a microscope, in our genome, on the battleground of our DNA. It is here where we, as a society, will rank and interpret our genetic difference.
Image from the Library of Congress.
7/11/2008 11:44:51 AM
Pringles snacks may be many things—addictive, fattening, salt vessels—but a high court in Great Britain has decided that they’re not potato crisps. The Pringles manufacturer, Proctor & Gamble, successfully argued in court that the snack food has a "uniform colour" and a "regular shape" which "is not found in nature" and is also only 42 percent potato, and therefore is not a potato crisp, the BBC reports. Potato crisps are taxed at a higher rate in Great Britain, so the decision likely will save Proctor & Gamble millions of dollars. It could also make consumers think twice before consuming all that maltodextrin and dextrose that make up some of the other 58 percent of the crisp.
(Thanks, Inky Circus.)
7/10/2008 1:35:04 PM
Privacy experts panicked last week when a federal judge ordered Google to turn over sensitive information about its users to Viacom. The New York Times reports that some believe, “the video viewing habits of tens of millions of people could be exposed.” Viacom asked for the information to assist in a $1 billion copyright infringement lawsuit against Google’s video sharing site YouTube, but the case is sure to have larger implications than a few illegally posted videos.
Some privacy advocates have called attention to the inevitable flaws in Google’s system of collecting private data. Writing for Computer World, Jaikumar Vijayan asked, “what is Google doing collecting and retaining all that data in the first place?” According to Vijayan, the company is clearly trying to improve targeted marketing campaigns, but users should be skeptical of any company that keeps such a huge cache of personal information.
There is one way that Google could get back into the good graces of some privacy advocates. If they’re being forced to turn over all the personal information to Viacom, TechCrunch suggests that Google should simply produce it in dead-tree paper form. The information they’re ordered to turn over is estimated at about 12 terabites—enough to fill up the Library of Congress. Printing it all out wouldn’t be eco-friendly, but it would definitely slow down Viacom’s efforts to parse the info.
UPDATE: What does 12 terabites of data look like? Neatorama breaks it down: 2,615 DVDs or 5 billion single-spaced typewritten pages.
7/2/2008 12:36:32 PM
As online technology becomes increasingly prevalent and sophisticated, a common meme has emerged that the Internet is a democratizing force, spreading knowledge to previously under-informed segments of the global population, and giving a voice to the disenfranchised. Meanwhile, hysterical television personalities warn us that the Internet is a debauched hellscape rife with sex offenders and invasions of privacy.
Writing for AlterNet, Annalee Newitz says, nuts to all that.
Three Internet falsehoods that refuse to die, according to Newitz, are 1) it’s free; 2) it knows no boundaries; and 3) it’s dangerous. Her refutations of the first two myths are particularly important because they address problems of limited online access by low-income populations and those living under censorship.
Read the piece to learn why these myths are untrue but so very persistent. Then, perhaps Newitz can determine once and for all whether the Internet is actually rotting our brains.
7/1/2008 5:27:27 PM
When I first came to work at Utne Reader, I hid my occasional trashy-food indulgences from the other staffers—smuggling clandestine bowls of orange-dye-laden, mushroom-soup-spiked macaroni & cheese casserole out of the kitchen. (I’m from Wisconsin. Sometimes I just can’t help myself.)
It was so not necessary. Turns out, Utne Reader staff people are adventurous eaters, devotees of organic, local, and fairly-traded cuisine, as well as bold gastronauts in the weird, kitschy, and gross domains.
I present to you a vending machine discovery made this Tuesday afternoon by our intrepid librarian and crafty research editor: Red licorice rope, stuffed with a viscous Sweet Tarts goo, stuffed with crunchy Nerds.
Ladies and gentlemen: The turducken of the candy world.
7/1/2008 4:25:42 PM
Clichés are often the refuge of people who don’t know what they’re talking about. This is patently clear when people cherry-pick words from psychology. PsyBlog has compiled 30 of the most hated psychobabble phrases, including the following:
1. “He’s totally projecting.”
2. “I’m stuck in denial.”
3. Calling someone “bipolar”
4. And my favorite, “I get really OCD about cleaning my kitchen”
The problem with most of these phrases is how often they’re misused. Being moody isn’t the same as being bipolar. And keeping a clean kitchen doesn’t mean a person has obsessive compulsive disorder.
7/1/2008 10:52:32 AM
“Are you concerned about internet addiction?” a woman asked a panel of internet entrepreneurs, including Craig from Craigslist, at the National Conference for Media Reform.
“No,” the panel answered resounding. Of course they weren’t concerned. The business models for companies like Craigslist depend on people with internet addictions.
Many in the media, however, fret that the internet is rotting people’s brains. In the cover story for the latest issue of the Atlantic, Nicholas Carr argues that Google is making human knowledge more superficial. Once upon a time, people spent hours poring over enormous novels, but today people just skim headlines. “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words,” Carr writes. “Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
In spite of the neo-luddite undertones of his argument, Carr makes some interesting points about how the medium of information changes the wiring in people’s brains. Socrates once believed that the written word would lead people to forget more information, since people tend to forget what they aren’t forced to remember. Carr writes, “Socrates wasn’t wrong—the new technology did often have the effects he feared—but he was shortsighted.”
Other writers have taken a more hysterical tone, lamenting the effect of the internet on culture. In the book The Cult of the Amateur, Andrew Keen called the digital revolution, “ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule… on steroids.” In a point-counterpoint for the Guardian, Keen wrote that the internet produces the “dumbing-down of culture.” Since publishing his 2007 polemic, Keen admitted to the Futurist that he’s “more optimistic now,” but still sticks by his argument that the Web 2.0 is bad for society.
Railing against technology’s interminable advance seems like tilting at windmills, but now is a good time to consider the internet’s effect on human knowledge. Writing for the Boston Globe, Drake Bennett calls attention to the enormous influence that Google has over people’s intellectual lives. Since Google has emerged as the dominant search engine, the website has become the primary way in which people organize the internet. Bennett quotes Greg Lastowka, an associate professor of law at Rutgers, who wrote, “Google's control over 'results' constitutes an awesome ability to set the course of human knowledge.” Even if that knowledge is making people smarter, and not more stupid, handing control over that information to a single company—albeit one with a mantra of “don’t be evil”—can be dangerous.
Image by Jason Cumberland, licensed under Creative Commons.
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