Friday, July 4, 2008

A Day For Big BIG Explosions

Happy Independence Day! (and, may I add, I'm glad to be back to my blogging routine!)

As I write this, the night's first fireworks are exploding around my home. Yes, today is the day that pyromaniacs dream of all year long, when they legally get to set off explosives and display them for all to see. Cool.

Oh yeah, and it's the country's birthday. Yada yada yada.

Actually, being hyper-patriotic, this day means a great deal to me. My flags are out, and I'm thinking about those I consider to be national heroes: people like my niece who are fighting for, or have fought for, our country's national interests and safety (though, may I add, the war in Iraq has little perceivable interest for our country in either regard), and people who are exercising their right to freedom of speech and democracy, like myself, by publicly opposing our President in his attempts to tear down those rights (or the separation of church and state, or his trampling of people's right to privacy, the Geneva Convention, environmental consciousness, etc etc).

But I digress. Let's get back to the intoxicating topic of things that go BOOM in the sky.

Last Monday, June 30, was the 100th anniversary of the Tunguska Event:

http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2008/30jun_tunguska.htm?list1101046

Yes, a century ago in 1908, just after 7 AM in the Tunguska wilderness of Siberia, a massive meteor exploded several kilometers above the surface, releasing the equivalent energy of 185 Hiroshima bombs, leveling 800 square miles of forest.

Now THAT'S fireworks!

Due to the remote location and the state of science and communications of the period, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about the explosion. Enough gaps, at least, to lead to the occasionally wacko interpretation as to the cause of the event, everything from mini-black holes to UFO's (see my previous blog post on one, HERE, which also talked about how one of the meteorite fragments had gone missing from storage). Personally, I'll stick with the scientific explanation.

So I hope you've taken the chance to go outside to eat a hot dog, drink some brew, and set off some sparklers, bottle rockets, fountains, and other assorted explosives to celebrate the founding of our great nation. And while you're at it, ponder how, a century ago, one particular explosion lit up the sky from Siberia strong enough to read newspapers at midnight in China and be read by sensitive barometers as far away as England.

Happy 4th of July!


Image taken from HERE.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Where The Heck Have I Been?

Geez! Where the heck have I been for the last couple weeks?

No, I haven't given up blogging. I was on a business trip, then my wife was sick, then I was sick, now we are simultaneously: a) having wood floors installed in half our house, b) stripping wallpaper and repainting our dining room, and c) repainting our master bedroom.

It's enough to drive an angry lab rat crazy! Ever tried living in a construction zone – with two small children – while sick? It ain't fun, and it's just barely begun. (My blogging pal, Maggie, at Mind Moss, can attest to this, having gone through this last year!) It's enough to make me howl at the moon.

So please stay tuned. Lots of good stuff to write about, but it may be as much as a week before I get back to my usual blogging schedule.

In the meantime, there will be a fantastic full moon on June 18th. This is a solstice moon, meaning that the moon will be full around the time of the summer solstice (on the 20th), which means that the moon will be hugging the horizon.

This makes the moon appear unnaturally large and spectacular, an optical illusion known since ancient times but nonetheless wonderful to behold. Here is a link that explains it:

http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2008/16jun_moonillusion.htm?list1101046

So, in a couple nights, go outside and enjoy the early summer night and its nice, full moon. I'll try to join you, but there's a good chance I'll be sniffing paint vapors while tip-toe-ing around the half-installed bamboo flooring.


Image taken from HERE.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Sure, But Which Gene Helps Her Remember Everyone's Birthday?

Last week it was announced that, for the first time, the full genome of a woman had been sequenced:

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-05/nofs-lss052708.php

The lucky gal was Dr. Marjolein Kriek, a clinical geneticist at Leiden University Medical Centre in the Netherlands, where the study was undertaken. This was not only the first sequence of a woman, but also the first of a European.

The sequencing had taken six months, reading over 22 billion base pairs (the "letters" of DNA for you non-science types out there), but had been run in-between other experiments. If it had been run straight through, it would have taken only 10 weeks. Typical. Once again women get second billing! Go on, you female lab rats! Throw down your test tubes and burn your bras! I'll only gawk a little.

The first human sequence, as you may remember, was completed in 2001 using the combined DNA of several people. The next was that of Jim Watson, co-discoverer of the DNA double-helix structure. "Gene hunter" Craig Ventor was next. The final two were of Yoruba African men (I didn't know about those two, but now I'm curious).

In the words of the principal scientist of the study (as quoted in the article), "So it was time, after sequencing four males, to balance the genders a bit”. He smiles: “And after Watson we also felt that it was okay to do Kriek”.

Get it? Watson and Crick? Discoverers of the structure of DNA? Ha ha! Ha. ha. (sigh). Scientist humor….

Now that they have sequenced the X chromosomes of a female, the researchers say they are better able to study X chromosome variability.

That's well and good. But what I'd really like to know is which genes control that desire and ability of women to schedule everything. Or to coordinate their blouse with teal pumps. Or how to have a conversation on their tiny cell phone while simultaneously wiping a child's runny nose, stopping another child from climbing the bookcase, and writing up a report for their high-pressure career.

Yeah, that's right you sexy Dutch chicks, I've got your number (or at least the number of base pairs), and I've got a little Jean Gnome for you to "sequence". Giggity giggity.


Image altered from HERE.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Science Tattoos!

For many years I have wanted to get a tattoo. I've balked at the price and at the lack of seemingly decent tattoo parlors around where I live, but I've decided to go ahead with what I can find.

And what kind of tattoo am I getting? A flaming skull? A heart inscribed with my lovely wife's name? Pictures of my kids? "Momma"?

No, of course not. I'm a scientist, after all. It's got to reflect my scientific interest (no offense to Mom, my wife, my kids, or skulls, thank you).

I am choosing to have permanently inked into my left upper arm the image at left. It is the first critter I studied, while as an undergrad. I studied the Cottonwood Borer beetle's reproductive anatomy and behavior in GREAT detail. Yes, not all science is for the betterment of mankind, but I found it fascinating, and still do. The beetles are about 2 inches long from the front of their head to the tip of their butt (though the antennae are longer). That little research project (which also involved learning some pretty detailed and traditional procedures and instrumentation) led to years of entomological research, then toward a career in biotech. The beetle isn't exactly colorful, but the story behind it means a lot to me. Sadly, we never published the work.

And then yesterday I came across this amazing blog dedicated to nothing else than documenting science-themed tattoos, imprinted onto scientists who study those topics:

http://carlzimmer.typepad.com/

Absolutely fascinating! People have sent him pictures of their tattoos on everything from evolution to zoological anatomy, subatomic particles to mathematics, computing to ecology.

Some of my favorite examples from those pages include THIS one, THIS one, THIS one, THIS one, and THIS one (but it is so hard to choose!). Enjoy!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day '08

Today is Memorial Day in the United States, when we remember and recognize all those men and women in uniform who went into harm's way for our country (whether the war was justified or not) and, in many cases, gave the ultimate sacrifice to protect our nation's interests.

Right now, the giant American flag that was presented in my grandfather's memorial service is hanging in my bay window, completely covering the glass there. Grandpa served aboard a supply ship in the Pacific during World War II, but came home safely. My great uncle fought in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II Europe. He came home, too. I also had a step father who served in the Korean war. A fall from an icy tank injured his back, but he came home. He never really recovered from his back injury, but he had a far harder time dealing with the mental wounds of war. And my lovely young niece is, right now, patrolling the edges of Sadr City in Baghdad. She is shot at often, and the risk of being killed by bullet, mortar, or roadside bomb is very real. I am lucky that none of my relatives has actually died while at war. Let's hope it stays that way. She comes home in August, just before her 23rd birthday.

But the danger doesn't end when they walk through that door to their good ole home. A recent study found that 1 in every 5 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD):

http://www.physorg.com/news127650186.html

That's 20% of returning veterans. Of those who seek treatment, only about half receive "minimally adequate" treatment.

The biggest effect of PTSD is depression, with suicide as the worst outcome. According to the Pentagon's own assessment, soldier suicides are five-fold higher than before the wars began, and currently that rate is at its highest ever since the start of the war (SOURCE). At least five soldiers commit suicide each day. That means that the number of suicides may soon outpace the number of combat deaths.

In a recent phone call, my niece commented on how surreal it is, fighting there in Baghdad, where you drive around in a big city, like any big city, where there are cars and people walking around, except there you can expect to be shot at at any moment, and everyone you are supposedly fighting for wants you gone and may be conspiring against you.

This isn't the war my grandfather and great uncle fought, or even my step father. Those we were liberating wanted us there.

So as you enjoy your day off, going boating, cooking hot dogs with the fam, reading blogs by liberal scientists, or simply gathering around the home entertainment system to watch this week's episode of American Gladiator, give a thought to those who have fought for your country, and another for those who are fighting for their lives right now.

Hang in there, my niece. I'll see you soon. Though this holiday is meant to remember our soldiers who have died, my flags fly for the living heroes, too, and one day soon this unjustified war will be over.

Addendum: On a closely related note, May 17 was Armed Forces Day, a day where we celebrate all that our combined armed services do for us (and, I might add, a holiday which is practically unknown or ignored outside of miltary circles, as far as I can tell).

Image taken from HERE.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Keeping Yourself Pale May Also Make Coral Reefs Pale

I love the smell of cocoa butter. It sends me immediately into daydreams of hot, summer beaches and cool water.

If that statement seems odd to you, then you are either old and forgetful or younger than 25, or were too much of a lily to go outdoors.

Back when I was a kid, running around mostly-naked on the beach during summertime, the word "sunscreen" meant a wide-brimmed hat. I would slather Coppertone on myself. That rich, mildly-chocolate smelling yummy lotion infused with cocoa butter seemed an excellent means by which I could saut̩ rotund little body to a beautiful tan in no time without sizzling to a crisp in the mid-day Southern sun. SPF values were something like 2 or 4, which meant that drenching myself with Coppertone only protected me four times longer from imitating a beet, which I did often. Anytime now I expect skin cancer to crop up and remind me why my grandma carried an umbrella (which she called a "parasol") to shade herself when she went outside (and with good reason Рshe developed skin cancer in her elder years).

But by the 80's, the term "suntan lotion" was gradually being replaced by "sunblock" or "sunscreen", until now you never hear the term "suntan lotion". HERE is a good discussion about the change in terms.

Is it wrong of me to be wistful? Maybe it's because I live in the Northwest, where it's too testicle-shriveling cold most of the year to lay around nearly naked absorbing photons, but I just don't hear about people trying to get tans anymore. Everyone's too busy coating themselves with sun-repelling chemicals. I miss being brown.

Besides, this picture illustrates how "artistic" you can be with your melanoma-inducing love of sun (see THIS page for information on the artist).

Oh, sure, sure, I know all the arguments. Skin cancer = bad. Pale = good. Love the skin you're in. No one wants to look like an alligator by the time they're 45. Even I use Coppertone Sport sunblock, with SPF 15, and my children, who are dark-complected African-Americans, get coated with Baby Blanket sunscreen, SPF 50+.

But before we pat ourselves on the back for being health-conscious and educated about the potential dangers of UV radiation, let us consider a recent study that shows that sunblock lotions washed off of our sweaty, body-surfing bodies are contributing to the bleaching of coral reefs:

http://www.physorg.com/news130762664.html

Yes, in addition to the effects of global climate changes like increased UV radiation, increasing water temperatures, and rising water levels, plus industrial pollution, which endangers some 60 percent of coral reefs, some 10 percent of reefs are also at danger to being bleached by dangerous by-products produced when sunscreen breaks down. 78 million tourists who visit these reefs each year may gawk at the incredibly diversity of fishes and corals, but they are also releasing some 4000 to 6000 metric tonnes of sunscreen into that water. Researchers demonstrated that even small doses of sunscreen can bleach coral reefs within 96 hours of application, probably by stimulating viral infection of the coral.

No, I'm not advocating giving up the sunscreen. But maybe my grandma had the right idea. Let's not rely completely on painting our bodies with chemical sunscreens. Bring a parasol. Or at least a beach umbrella. But I still recommend getting out from under it enough to get some Vitamin D and maybe darken your skin enough to hide the veins. Ew!


Image taken from HERE.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

One Hell Of A Toothpick

Try to guess what the next three things have in common:

1. Last night I shoved a small, plastic stick with a wad of cotton at the tip into my ear canals and scraped out loving chunks of brown-yellow wax. It was nice to hear clearly again.

2. Today I go to the dentist to have my bi-annual tooth scraping and (bloody, painful) reminder to floss more often.

3. I plan to spend my supposed recession-deflecting economic band-aid of a stimulus package on something that makes me ignore the catastrophic national debt and economic recession.


Yes, you likely have already received a large sum of money from our government who, in their infinite wisdom, has waged an unjustified war that has cost the average American family $20,900, promoted big oil to record profits and record prices at the pump (the cheap stuff was $3.92 / gallon in town today!), and allowed fiscal irresponsibility to lead us into a recession. But, hey, even though it has cost each family dearly, they'll throw a trifle thousand bucks or so back at ya to spend on that new HD TV or, you know, buy the medicine that grandma needs because our failing healthcare system let her down. Thanks for the money, Dubya. It'll pay off about 1/8th of the average family's credit card debt. No need to invest it into our educational system, for instance, or social security.

Some folks suggested new and exciting ways to spend your stimulus package. Mark Morford had some good ideas (like buying one share of Google stock, filling four tanks of gas, or saving for the massive bonfire celebration to be held on 1/20/09).

Personally, I think a better way to blow your stimulus package would be to follow the lead of a wealthy Spanish galleon captain from the 17th century: a toothpick / earwax spoon made of solid gold:

http://www.comcast.net/articles/news-general/20080519/Florida.Artifacts/

Divers recently unearthed from the sands of the Florida Keys a 3-inch long personal grooming device made of solid gold which has a toothpick at one end and an ear wax spoon on the other end (see picture). This is the latest find of years worth of searching for a fabled lost galleon, the Santa Margarita, which was sunk during a hurricane in 1622. So far they have found bars of gold, a lead box filled with pearls, and gold chains, but have yet to find the ship. This golden toothpick / earwax spoon has an estimated value of around $100,000.

Are you as horrified as I am that such a thing exists as an "earwax spoon"? Ew! And to have a toothpick at the other end! Double ew! Don't mix up one end from the other! You're likely to get a mouth full of yummy ear wax or a pierced eardrum with gingivitis.

But, hey, isn't it really just a status symbol? This little tool was apparently worn on a necklace. Wearing it on your neck, you would be proclaiming to the world, "I can afford a golden toothpick and you can't." You would also be proclaiming, "I have such bad earwax and tooth plague that I have to carry a special tool around my neck at all times to deal with it." But who cares? You're rich! Women will want to lay you no matter how horrible you look, just for a chance to get their own golden earwax spoon.

So, please, run out and get a golden earwax spoon / toothpick of your own. According to our government, it will help the economy. Sound economics.

Now that's picking your teeth with style!



Image taken from HERE.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Not Your Usual Computer Bug

Last winter our house was infested with ants. More specifically, by "sweet-eating ants", little red buggers that love nothing more than to get into any remnant of sweet foods left in your kitchen, like un-rinsed pop cans, sugar bowls, glasses that had held juice, and sugary cereal boxes. Trust me, when you have two small children with two working parents and precious little time to clean anything thoroughly, there is PLENTY for these f*ckin' ants to eat, anywhere in the house. Trust me, we fought them long and hard.

And then one evening my lovely wife told me she had found a "highway" of ants traveling down our bedroom wall and into a pile of clean laundry I had not put away for, oh, two weeks or so (did I mention that we have precious little time to clean anything thoroughly?) on the night stand next to my side of the bed. Shaking my head and wondering why, in the name of E.O. Wilson, these little insects could possibly be attracted to my horribly unfashionable garments, I marched into our bedroom, found the line of ants, and proceeded to dig through the pile of clothes looking for some half-eaten Pot-Tart my kids may have sequestered there. In my rummaging, I accidentally knocked my digital alarm clock off the night stand.

When the clock hit the floor, it positively exploded with ants.

Aghast, I grabbed the clock and, ignoring the army of ants running up my arms, put the clock outside so the little monsters would freeze in the winter air. After shaking them off of my body, I went back to the bedroom and proceeded to slap and stomp to death about a zillion of them next to my bed (I'm exaggerating. It was only half a zillion).

Then I took a big Ziplock, placed the alarm clock in it, and put the sealed alarm clock into my freezer overnight. By the next morning, this little nest of ants was dead. I shook out the dead ants as best as I could, then tentatively plugged the clock back in, half expecting a fiery short circuit, but the clock has worked fine ever since. No doubt there a hordes of dead ants still inside. I can still see one inside the faceplate. Eventually we got an exterminator to control the infestation.

HERE is a rather entertaining video where some ants made a nest in some poor sucker's computer mouse!

This is nothing new. Having once been an entomologist, I've noted news stories off and on over the years of ants forming nests in breaker boxes and various appliances, even computers. No one is sure why ants can be attracted to electricity.

Lately a news story has been going around about an invasion of "Crazy Ants" in the Houston area:

http://www.physorg.com/news130001024.html

News videos: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lyLfSemVM3Y

These species of ant (scientifically named Paratrenicha species near pubens) are only about the size of a flea and race around in a seemingly random manner, thus the name, and are native to the Caribbean and the southeast of the U.S. This invading population, however, seems more rampant than the others, having apparently arrived in Texas by way of a cargo ship. A fellow by the name of Tom Rasberry, an exterminator, has been leading the charge in popularizing this invasion (and, apparently, generating much more business for himself. He was recently hired by NASA to guard the Johnson Space Center against the ants) and has even gotten his name attached to them, as many media outlets are reporting the species common name as "Crazy Rasberry Ants". Not only are the ant colonies spreading, but they have been shorting out electrical devices in the area, including fuse boxes and computers (see picture).

They are resistant to ant sprays, have multiple queens per nest, and spread quickly.

The good news is that they eat fire ants. If you've ever been stung by fire ants, as I have, you'll be happy to hear this. Texas is overrun with fire ants (another introduced ant species that shorts out electrical boxes, I might add).

So the next time you have an ant infestation in your home, and you can't find the nest, check your electrical box, appliances, laptop, and your frickin' alarm clock, especially if you're in the Houston area. There may be a different sort of computer bug living in there!


Image taken from HERE.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

My Liquid Lunches

No, I haven't been going out to the bar at lunchtime.

As you can see in the margin of this blog page, I have been dieting lately. I've lost over ten pounds and over four inches off my belly. Yay me! Of course, I was as handsome as a lab rat could be beforehand, but now I'm a slimmer, healthier rat. How have I done it? Nightly exercise (one reason I haven't been writing as much lately), lower portion sizes, and calorie restriction.

In particular, my lunches typically involve drinking a Slim-Fast shake. Chocolate. 190 calories.

Now, I went into this little endeavor of drinking my lunch with the sort of enthusiasm typically reserved for National Guardsmen headed to Iraq, and drinking my lunch each day sounded about as fulfilling as trying to defend Hillary's chances of getting the Democratic nomination. And yet, I was surprised how well these shakes sated my appetite. They are high protein and high fiber, but low calorie. A recipe for success.

What's more, they are creamy and whipped with air. Whip it, baby! Whip it good! It turns out, according to a recent study, that this is a major factor in making a diet shake work well:

http://www.physorg.com/news130069235.html

Bulking up food with water and gas extends that food's ability to satisfy an appetite for one or two additional hours. Whipped milkshakes were a good choice. But not just any gas will do. Carbon dioxide, apparently, doesn't work. Darn, there goes my Pepsi diet!

Unfortunately, the article doesn't specify which gases are best. Let's hope it's not the kind that comes out the other end.

So, tomorrow at noon, I'll pop open another cold one, drink it before the whipped air escapes, and watch my beer belly melt away.

Slurp!


Image taken from HERE.

Friday, May 9, 2008

When Cremation Isn't Gross Enough

How much thought have you given to what will become of your corpse?

Oh sure, sure, we try not to think about such things. Death is a thing better not dwelled upon. But let's face reality. Eventually we're all worm food, in one form or another.

My paternal grandma was convinced that burial was the only option. A thoroughly religious and superstitious woman (is there really any difference between the two?), she believed that cremation was the Devil's work, that somehow by being cremated you were inviting eternal damnation in a lake of fire. Of course, she also believed that having a beard meant that you were hiding something, and she always distrusted daylight savings time so much that she kept at least one clock with "the correct time" all year round. I loved her dearly, but you have to admit she was eccentric. What would she think of me now, I wonder, being an atheist, an advocator of cremation, hairy like a rat, and adhering to that daylight savings time conspiracy?

Yes, Grandma thought a lot about her corpse. She had everything arranged. The cemetery plot was purchased, and she visited it now and then. She had purchased a headstone (unfinished, of course). She even had a funeral home on stand-by. It was that way throughout my youth, and she reminded me of it often. If she could have dug the grave ahead of time, she would have.

It's good to be prepared.

Personally, I'd prefer my body be laid out in state, with thousands of mourners shuffling by to look at my handsome face, then be buried in a massive and overly-expensive granite tomb with my most famous quotes chiseled into the side of it…. But since that isn't likely to happen, I guess I'll just donate my organs and have the rest of me cremated. (Lake of fire! Lake of fire!)

Of course, there are other options to burial and cremation. There's the ancient and (thankfully) extinct Native American practice (in some areas) of simply putting the body up on a wooden platform to rot in the wind, or the Tibetan practice of chopping off the limbs and tossing them to the winds for vultures to feed on, or (my favorite), the Viking burial in a burning ship at sea (now that's a way to go!).

Now there's a new option: Dissolving your body in lye:

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080508/ap_on_sc/dissolving_bodies;_ylt=AhxAi5B3goY5EidSQI1hMoSs0NUE

Yes, that's right. Dissolving corpses is no longer reserved for lunatic murderers. Now a couple of medical centers (The University of Florida in Gainesville and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.) are using a special "pressure cooker" filled with lye, at 300 degrees F and 60 pounds of pressure per square inch, to literally dissolve the body away – a process known to chemists as alkaline hydrolysis, which has been used for years for disposal of medical waste and dead animals. Now a New Hampshire mortuary is wanting to buy one of those "pressure cooker" tanks.

The resultant human-goo is a "coffee-colored liquid [that] has the consistency of motor oil and a strong ammonia smell." Umm, appetizing! Need a cup of java, anyone? This liquid, which is now sterilized, is then poured down the drain.

I repeat: poured down the drain.

So if you're living in Gainesville or Rochester, give that water of yours another sniff, eh? If you drink it, does that count as cannibalism?

This whole body-processing thing dredges up visions of Charlton Heston running through the streets of a crowded, dystopic future New York yelling, "Soylent Green is made of people! People!"

Personally, I'm not as horrified by this rather macabre method as I thought I would be. I'd be dead, after all. It's technically sanitary, doesn't fill up otherwise wonderful sunny meadows with depressing graves for ghosts to putter around in, and you don't have to find a place in the rose garden for your Cousin Ralph's ashes. Just fill the pressure cooker, insert the lye, press a button and Voila!, your beloved is turned into gravy. Just be sure to flush twice.

And as for my Grandma, she died at a ripe old age, and she got the burial she always imagined for herself, in that grave she had prepared, and with the gravestone she'd bought so far ahead. But we deviated in one minor way from her well-laid plans. She had wanted a closed casket, believing herself too ugly to view. But I have to say, when I viewed her laying there, she was more radiant and beautiful than I had ever seen her in life. You can't get that with alkaline hydrolysis.


AP photo taken from HERE.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Another Flighty Invention

A couple days ago, a Mexican (yes, Mexican) aerospace company announced designs for a new strap-on helicopter backpack:

http://www.physorg.com/news128929559.html

From the article:

Technologia Aeroespacial Mexicana (TAM), the company behind the Libelula strap-on helicopter, explains on its Web site how the device is powered by two hydrogen fuel canisters. Tiny rockets at the tips of the helicopter´s rotor blades take the place of a tail rotor, a component which couldn´t be safely attached to a human body. According to the company, the Libelula would be the lightest helicopter in the world, so light that it could be strapped to a person´s body with a carbon fiber corset.

Wow. Nifty. Gee whiz…. Yawn.

Several times a year, some enterprising inventor comes out with yet another far-out but over-played transportation device that, like its predecessors, is too expensive, too unsafe, often untried, and simply not marketable. Take, for instance, the most recent car that can turn into either a boat or a submarine (the sQuba car), or yet another flying car concept that was announced not so long ago.

Yeah, it's neat, but even if the Libelula helicopter backpack works (and it is still just a concept, I will remind you), it's really just a novelty. Hell, it would take some convincing just to get me to travel by motorcycle (four wheels is a LOT safer than two!). Getting me to strap a hydrogen fuel tank to my back, then take off with a loud engine and whirling blades just inches from my sensitive little head, is a whole other thing. Hey, while you're at it, let's make it even more unsafe and add some potentially-explosive rockets to the blades. Oh, I guess there already are.

It's an interesting commentary on the workings of the world that most people have trouble understanding how to hook up their stereo systems or operate their digital cameras, but we'll give any schmuck a license to drive a half-ton SUV at ramming speed down the freeway. I don't trust most drivers to keep me from becoming one with their hoods, so it should be no surprise that giving them a helmet with a couple of spinning 3-foot, potentially-decapitating blades and explosive rockets and hydrogen fuel isn't a concept I endorse. Call me snobby, but I'd like to keep folks on the ground and leave the flying to licensed pilots.

As for the personal-helicopter idea, I'll leave you with a link to a video of someone who has already built a similar contraption:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f09_yvcASLM

Here's another one:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wd99ziWFF7Q&feature=related

Yes, you, too, can experience the miracle of flight with the new Libelula helicopter backpack, able to leap tall buildings and border walls with a single bound. Just watch out for those power lines, amigos, or those blades will be chopping more than air.


Addendum: For a slightly less explosive and death-defying option, consider the "Mosquito" personal helicopter: http://www.realtechnews.com/posts/1878.

Image taken from HERE.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Not Your Usual Hobby

It's amazing what people do in their spare time. Some folks collect stamps, or go hiking, or, hell, do cross-stitch. Whatever. Something to make life a little more interesting. I write fiction. Some folks go further, doing something to change the world. I'm campaigning for Obama, for instance.

And then you get the weirdos. Consider a historian named Dee Brecheisen, for instance. What did he do that was so weird, you ask? Was he a snake charmer? Fire eater? Duct tape artist? Sock collector?

No, no, nothing like that at all. Those things would be too normal. No, Mr. Brecheisen collected civil war-era mummies and showed them off at home:

http://www.comcast.net/news/articles/general/2008/04/08/Soldier.Remains.Exhumation/

Or, more accurately, he was a grave robber of century-old burial sites.

Union troops had been stationed at Fort Craig, in New Mexico, in the 1880s to guard against Confederates and Indians, but the fortress had been abandoned and the location of its graveyard lost. Until, that is, Brecheisen found it, some time in the 1970's or '80's. Since then he has unearthed some 20 graves and stolen their contents, bodies and all.

But that's not the most disturbing thing. Apparently, at least some of these bodies and their possessions were displayed in his house. One historian friend of Brecheisen's, a guy named Don Alberts, visited the house 30 years ago and saw there the full mummified remains of an African-American Union soldier, "with patches of brown flesh clinging to facial bones." Did the friend DO anything about this? Did he report it to anyone? No.

Brecheisen: "Over here you can see my authentic collection includes a musket, a belt buckle, and, oh, the rotted remains of a corpse I dug up in the desert."

Alberts: "Oooh. Lovely. That's perfectly normal."

Brecheisen: "And next I'll show you my collection of Civil War hats…."


The skull of the soldier eventually wound up being stored in a brown paper bag.

When asked why Alberts hadn't reported his pal's macabre and illegal practice, he simply replied, "I didn't want to get a friend in trouble."

Goody for you, Don.

Sadly, Brecheisen recently died. All of his other "mementos" have been auctioned off by the family (apparently they didn't have any qualms about selling off body parts and stolen burial items, either).

Personally, I hope Brecheisen gets dug up a hundred years from now and displayed in someone's living room – and his head winds up in a paper bag.

It's good to have hobbies.


Image taken from HERE.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Anti-Youth Device

I once had a chemistry professor who hated kids, including his college students. I first met Dr. Kopper just before the start of my freshman year, during a "pre-orientation" trip where he was one of the faculty chaperones. I happened to walk by when he was confessing his lack of ability to relate to the students to another faculty member and wishing he hadn't come along. Loser.

Well, Dr. Kopper would fully appreciate a device called the Mosquito (see picture), which has the sole purpose of chasing away youths by emitting a horrible, high-pitched whine at a frequency that people under 20 can hear, but people over 30 cannot:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mosquito

That's right. If storeowners or old grumpy men don't want young people loitering around ('cuz, you know, all young people are up to no good!), they turn on the mosquito and the horrible shrieking chases the kids away. At 17.4 kHz at 85dB, folks older than 30 have lost just enough of their hearing by then that they can no longer hear it. Ingenious. Heck, we don't need young people around. We LIKE being old at heart, right?

The inventor of the product, Howard Stapleton, has sold some 4000 units of the device since he first tested it in 2005. Mostly in the U.K. From the very beginning, though, the product faced protests and bans. Nonetheless, it is still legal to use in most places.

Now it is facing yet another legal proceding:

http://www.physorg.com/news128273220.html

When some grumpy child-hater in Brittany, France, mounted a unit on his house, some people around the neighborhood got sudden headaches, and children ran past the house holding their ears. I can just see some old guy laughing at them through the blinds.

The guy claimed to have mounted the unit after being the victim of vandalism. But now he's being sued by community members for using an "illicit sound weapon".

Personally, I'd rather have an anti-old fogie device.

Of course, teens being who they are, have turned this "mosquito alarm" to their advantage. They have created a ringtone on their cell phones at the same frequency. Thus, their phone can ring, but only they and their fellow students will hear it, and the teachers will not, and they can use the phones during class without the teacher knowing. Clever. They've even incorporated the sound into music so that only young people would "get it".

Damned kids! Get off my lawn! Where's my Mosquito….


Image taken from HERE.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Happy Earth Day! (Unless You're A Polar Bear)

I’d hate to be a polar bear these days.

My family recently went to the nearest zoo, where my young kids had a great time watching the very large polar bears frolicking in their pool, chewing on things like giant soccer balls, children’s play structures, and even a mannequin (!). The highlight for the kids, though, was watching the bears back up to the pool like a delivery truck and deposit there hot steaming piles of poop or streams of bright yellow pee. Eww! Great fun.

On this glorious Earth Day, where we concern ourselves with the well-being of our environment and animals, and the wild relatives of those two less-than-sanitary zoo animals, let us pause a moment to consider the plight of the polar bear.

In short, they are dying because the arctic ice is receding due to global warming (at a rate that surpasses even the most extreme models that scientists had predicted less than a decade ago). Polar bears require sea ice to hunt for seals, where the bears hang out at seal breathing holes and then ambush the blubbery animals. Yum! Without the sea ice, the bears starve. For the first time in centuries, as you may have heard, polar bears are being found dead due to starvation, and there are even reports of cannibalism.

Since this was discovered, a few years ago, environmental groups have been pressuring the Bush administration to take action to protect the polar bear and to reduce global warming through legislation. Not surprisingly, the President is less than interested, stalling protective status for the bears, moving forward with increasing off-shore drilling rights in polar bear habitat, and doing the usual oil-industry friendly activities that belch forth lots of carbon emissions. This despite his supposed change of stance toward Global warming.

Now those environmental groups have taken their appeals to the federal court system:

http://www.truthout.org/issues_06/031108EA.shtml

These groups are now suing the Bush administration to force them to protect polar bears under the Endangered Species Protection Act. From the article:

“The Endangered Species Act listing process for the polar bear due to global warming was initiated with a scientific petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, NRDC, and Greenpeace. In December, 2005, these groups sued the Bush administration for failing to respond to the petition. As a result of that first lawsuit, in February 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that protection of polar bears "may be warranted," and commenced a full status review of the species. A settlement agreement in that case committed the Service to make the second of three required findings in the listing process by December 27, 2007, at which time the Service announced the proposal to list the species as "threatened." By law, the Service was required to make a final listing decision within one year of the proposal. The decision is now more than 2 months overdue.”

“To date, the government has received approximately 670,000 comments in support of protecting the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act, including letters from eminent polar bear experts, climate scientists, and more than 60 members of Congress.”


Gee, what’s a polar bear to do? They can’t all live and poop in cushy zoo pools, can they?

Happy Earth Day. Now take a hike, and if you get cold, just think how much polar bears would like it to stay that way.


Image taken from HERE.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

How Many Farts Does It Take To Make A Tornado?

Apparently, not many. That is, if you do it at just the right time and place.

This week, Edward Norton Lorenz died:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2008/04/18/db1801.xml

Why is this notable? Because Dr. Lorenz is an early researcher in Chaos Theory who came up with a mathematical principle called the Butterfly Effect.

What is The Butterfly Effect? No, I'm not talking about that singularly horrible B sci-fi movie made a few years ago, or its even worse sequel. I'm talking about the mathematical theory that very small changes early on in a system, such as "the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil" could lead to extreme repercussions later in that system, such as "a tornado in Texas."

Lorenz was a meteorologist (and previously an Army Air Corps weather forecaster during WWII) who was trying to use mathematical models to make long-range forecasts of wind currents. One day back in 1961, Lorenz ran a computer simulation that he had run before (using one of those early, building-sized computers) and got a completely different result than he had the first time. Very surprising, since he had thought everything had been entered exactly the same. It turns out that this time he had rounded the number 0.506127 to 0.506, a 0.1% difference.

Some people would shrug that off, re-enter the correct number, and continue on with their work. I've known lab rats like that. But Lorenz was among the few who could see this result and realize the great significance of it. What he had stumbled upon was proof that very small changes, like a seemingly minor increase in temperature or wind speed and direction, could cause profound weather deviations down the line, perhaps in a totally different part of the world. This factor was dubbed the "Lorenz Attractor."

For example, if you start a ball rolling at the top of a hill, but it is at only a very slightly different position, it will likely wind up at a very different position at the bottom. Or if a seagull flapped its wings at just the right time and place in Brazil, the change it created in the wind could lead to a tornado in Texas (to use his examples). These sorts of things have been demonstrated in simulations again and again, including with the newest supercomputers. The movie "It's A Wonderful Life" illustrates this principle, in a more sappy, cultural manner (I cry everytime when George Bailey's brother makes that toast at the end!).

So, let me see if I understand: if a plaza full of Germans eating Octoberfest sauerkraut, brautworst, and beer suddenly let loose with a cloud of warm gas (from whichever end you choose), the sudden change in heat and wind could cause a cascade of events that leads to winds that rip across the Atlantic and belch up a hurricane that ravages America?

Damned Germans. I knew it! They caused Hurricane Katrina!

That's it! I'm throwing out my laderhosen.

Of course, those "Lorenz Attractors" can prevent devient weather, too.

And as for Dr. Lorenz, he led a very active life, with many awards, scholarly papers, and academic achievements, most of which seem to revolve around the later refinements of his initial discovery. You could say his personal "Butterfly Effect" was his own discovery of the Butterfly Effect, if that makes any sense. His Butterfly Effect theory has led to a better understanding of seemingly random events that can drastically change our weather – more important now than ever with global warming – and has been used in science fields far beyond meteorology.

He was an avid sportsman, even into old age. But cancer finally claimed him a few days ago, on April 16. He died at home in Cambridge, with family, having finished yet another paper only a week before. He was 90 years old.

Thank you for your contributions, Dr. Lorenz. And I'm glad to hear that your death wasn't a chaotic one. I just wonder what that last breath of yours did to the weather.


Images taken from HERE and HERE.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Bush's New Stance

I'm shaking my head right now, and that's never a good sign.

Yesterday, President Bush announced in a press conference that halting global warming was a priority for his administration and urged other nations to develop measures to fight climate change:

http://www.comcast.net/news/articles/general/2008/04/15/Bush.Climate/

Please excuse me, I need to run to the other room so that my laughter doesn't shatter the computer monitor and my tears don't short-circuit the keyboard.

Is he feeling okay? Is the prozac finally kicking in, or did another pretzel go down the wrong way?


This is the man who coined the term "junk science" to describe his opinion of years of tedious and well-formulated scientific findings from thousands of researchers all over the world who came to the conclusion that man-made pollutants were changing the world climate. The man who refused to include the United States, the world's worst polluter for carbon emissions, in the Kyoto Treaty. The man who put oil profits ahead of environmental legislation, and even put oil industry notables into key positions overseeing our nation's environment.

So far we've seen seven years of big-ass SUVs on the roads, a war over oil fields, huge cuts in research funding for areas of environmental studies and alternative energy sources, and record-smashing profits for oil companies. When Bush took office, a gallon of regular unleaded cost between $1.40 and $1.60. When I filled up my car a few days ago, at $3.50 a gallon, it cost me nearly $50.

And now, after years of melting glaciers, state-sized chunks of ice breaking off Antarctica and the arctic ice sheets, the opening of the fabled Northwest Passage in the summer for the first time in history, starving polar bears, bleaching coral reefs, and worldwide tours by one notable but very geeky ex-vice-president-turned-Nobel-laureate, our nation's Denier-in-Chief has suddenly changed his tune?

Hell, I'm glad Bush is finally acknowledging what the rest of the world's science community considers obvious, but how could we possibly take him seriously? It's too little, too late, especially for a lame duck who is drowning in scandal and oil.


Image taken from HERE.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Don't Touch My Cola No Matter How Thirsty You Are

Here's a question for you: If you were really thirsty, and there was an ice-cold six-pack of your favorite soda that was seemingly abandoned in your work lunchroom refrigerator, would you help yourself to a can? What if no one else was in the building? What if the six-pack had been left untouched in there for weeks? Is it really stealing if no one seems to care if you take them? I have to confess, I'd be tempted.

What if, instead of a six-pack of pop, it was a plate of $1 bills?

I probably wouldn't touch them.

I once did some backpacking in the wilderness of Idaho a couple of sweltering summers. Just before leaving for a one-week hitch into the woods, with a forty-pound pack on my back, I left a six-pack of ice-cold cokes in the fridge of the bunkhouse where I was staying. By the time I got back, lean and sweating and ready to collapse, all of the cokes were gone. I was pissed off! No one confessed to this dastardly crime.

Here's another one for you: If you had to choose between making someone suffer quickly or slowly, which would you choose? Let me put it another way: When you take the band-aids off your kids, do you do it slowly or do you rip it off? I'm more of a "rip it off" kinda guy.

An Israeli researcher at MIT named Dan Ariely is exploring these very sorts of scruples:

http://www.physorg.com/news127399170.html

He argues in his new book, "Predictably Irrational", that these seemingly irrational decisions people make about ethics is actually predictable, and he has tests to show it. The examples I gave above were two of the sorts of questions. The book has been on the New York Times bestseller list since February 19.

His results, in a nutshell: People start out with good intentions, but life experiences lead them to cheat just enough to get away with it, or to make irrational decisions that seem to justify their mindsets, often in a predictable and economically-driven way.

I think we'd all like to think we are very ethical people. I do. But if it's a hot, hot day in the middle of summer, there's a wet six-pack of cola sitting in that fridge, and the owner of that coke has been gone for a week, wouldn't you reach out for a cold one? You can pay him back later, right?

Go on. Take a sip. I won't tell. They'll never know it was you ….


Image taken from HERE, stolen without conscience.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Insert Foot In Mouth Disease

If your government is working on a highly-contagious virus that could threaten to wipe out massive numbers of cattle and other hooved animals, wouldn't you want it to be done in some location far, far away from other cattle? Say, a remote island?

Well, that's been the case for the last 50 years. Plum Island, out on the Long Island sound, has been the main research facility for Hoof and Mouth Disease (also known as Foot and Mouth Disease), for America, as well as Mexico and Canada (see picture).

But now the Bush Administration wants to move the facility to a mainland location:

http://www.comcast.net/news/articles/general/2008/04/11/Animal.Disease/

Oh, but hey, our government must surely take all the reasonable precautions. I mean, being a contagious cattle disease that, if released into the general bovine population would spell the needless slaughter of hundreds of thousands of cattle, won't this new facility will be located in some wilderness far beyond the reach of cattle farms? Right?

No, actually. According to a recent Congressional hearing on the topic, each of the five sites that they are considering, according to the article, are within range of between 132,900 and 542,507 cattle.

But they'll be careful. They'll have all the safeguards. Or will they?

It was revealed in that congressional hearing that the Plum Island facility, considered to be one of the nation's foremost top-level containment units, has had numerous accidents and releases of virus, one of which infected cattle outside of the facility in holding pens. Hoof and Mouth disease is so contagious that it can travel on the breath of worker, on their clothes, on their cars. In 2002, a simulation showed that an outbreak of the virus could potentially infect tens of millions of cows, leading to widespread food shortages, rioting, and a 25-mile-long trench to bury all the slaughtered cows.

The poor cows that get this disease experience painful mouth sores and hoof blisters that swell and burst, then can become infected. Eeesh. And I thought my occasional canker sores were painful.

And why are they moving the facility? Fear over being able to protect Plum Island against terrorists. Hillary Clinton was one of the ones who voiced this fear. Control of the island was recently put in the hands of the Department of Homeland Security. I tell you, with all the over-reaction to terrorism (two wars, illegal wiretapping, data mining, waterboarding, screenings at airports, etc etc), I'd say the terrorists have succeeded in their goals of disrupting the American Way. Let's not make it worse, shall we? And, may I add, I am a little leary of decisions about human and animal health issues that seem driven more by politics than science.

Now, I have a great deal of respect for Hillary (although I'm voting for Obama), but I am FAR more afraid of our government's inefficiency and the potential for mistakes by my fellow lab rats than I am of any zealous bin Laden followers.

Get real, Bush. Let's keep the virus off-shore.


Image taken from HERE.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

It's Time My Children Went Deaf

I've decided my children need to be deaf. Tomorrow I'm going to ruin their hearing forever.

No, I'm not kidding. I'm not sure how I'm going to do it, though. Ice pick to the ear drum? No, too bloody. How about playing Iron Maiden at volume level ten on my stereo system, shoving their tender little ears up to the speakers. No, that won't work. They won't stay still long enough. I know! I'll take them swimming and give them a serious case of swimmer's ear, then pack their ears with ear wax harvested from my own auricular orifices via ear candles. Yeah, that's the ticket. That way it will seem "natural", and I will only be accused of neglecting to take them to the doctor as their ear drums swell and burst.

Are you horrified yet? Has our bombed-out, economically-depressed, Paris Hilton-ized culture not yet ruined your sense of ethics and numbed you beyond gross fear and loathing? No? Is it just because I'm talking about maiming my children?

Ah, but wait! If they were deaf, my little 2 and 3 year old babies would be part of a fantastic subculture of deaf people, able to learn the mysterious ways of sign language, and partake in a rich milieu of disability-turned-sense-of-self with their other deaf friends. Why, they would have an "identity".

You wouldn't think this could happen in the modern world, right? Not if the sensible government of England has its way.

A couple in the United Kingdom wants to have the right to purposely choose an embryo, through in vitro fertilization, which is deaf like them:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/7287508.stm

That's right. This couple wants to purposely choose an embryo that, like them, will have a genetic profile that indicates it will be deaf. Says the husband (who has the unlikely yet gustatory name of Tomato Lichy): "The core issue is that the government is saying deaf people are not equal to hearing people," he told the BBC via an interpreter. They are "profoundly grateful" to have a deaf child already. Now they want another one.

It's eugenics in reverse.

What bugs me, though, is that Mr. Tomato Lichy is assuming that a hearing child would not be able to be a member of her father's deaf subculture.


I've blogged on this in the past, a little more than a year ago. Now the UK is likely going to pass the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Bill, which, among other things, would make it illegal to purposely choose an embryo with a disability. The tiny minority of deaf people who, like our friend Tomato, actually wish to select a child like them will have an even harder time making their diabolical wish come true. They are calling it discrimination.

Oh, but please don't get me wrong. I know deaf people have a subculture. I can respect that. I even tried to learn American Sign Language once, and I've had friends who were legally deaf, but none of them ever expressed a wish to have children who, like them, would never be able to hear the bus bearing down on them, or the bear leaping at them in the woods, or the latest slaughtering of your favorite elevator music by star wannabes on American Idol (I'm not sure which of these is really the worst way to spend an evening).

Careful, you English Lords. You tread a fine line there regarding how you define "disabled" or "unhealthy". Sure, deafness seems an easy thing to label as disabled, but how "disabled" is disabled? Would having a gene for heart conditions count? Cancer? Irritable bowel? Acid reflux? And just because there's a genetic profile, the body doesn't always pay attention to it. Having a bad gene only increases your chances.

Is my purposeful deafening of my children really any different from dooming a child-to-be to a life of silence, just to satisfy its parents' sense of self? Would that embryo have any more say than my kids would?

Hmm. On second thought, maybe I won't ruin my kids' hearing. I'll wait and let them do it to themselves in their teen years, with whatever future form of iPod ear speakers are being used at that time. They'll just have to wait for that marvelous subculture that Tomato Lichy and his reverse-eugenics friends love so dearly. How heartless and cruel of me not to understand.

And as for Mr. Tomato's next child, I feel sorry for the baby if she isn't deaf, whatever way she comes into the world.


Image taken from HERE.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Disappearing Car Door

Do you tire of the same old car doors? Those bulky, swinging slugs of metal? Why, it's so last century! Are your rich friends struggling to keep up with your techno gadgets? Have you ever had the desire to make your expensive luxury vehicle look even more like a Star Trek shuttlecraft?

Now a company called Jatech has the answer for you – the Rotary Drop Door:

http://www.disappearing-car-door.com/

Step out of your car in style as you pull up to your friends, then your car door slides smoothly downward, folding underneath the car so that you can step out like a pimp and bask in their awe.

The link above has a really cool video of the doors in action. Jatech basically retrofits already-existing car designs by removing the factory-made doors and replacing them with a design that folds down and under the car body, thus they seem to disappear.

Sure, Delorian sports cars may have had those cool wing-like doors, but they never really caught on, did they? The new Lamborghini Murcielago LP640 has doors that swing upward and forward. Nice, but like the Delorian, you'd better have high ceilings in your garage. Same goes for the Ferrari Enzo, which takes up even more room. And then there's the Hungarian-made Kenguru, which only has a back hatch (and room for only one wheelchair-bound driver!). But this is the first car door design that is made to "disappear" into the car body that I know of.

Jatech doesn't reveal the cost of retrofitting your vehicle for their rotary drop door design, but I'm wondering how many Smart Cars, for instance, you could purchase for the same cost (each Smart Car starts at about $11,000).

And what benefit is this amazing miracle of auto design? Oh, sure, the makers say in their little video that it "saves on parking space" by removing the need for space for a swinging door, that it prevents car-door "dings", and that it makes getting in and out of the car more convenient. But let's face it, having this way cool design is just plain kick-ass, gets lots of looks, and gets you that much closer to getting laid.

Cool.


Image taken from HERE.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Earliest Audio Recording (But Not The Grooviest)

When you learned in grade school about Thomas Edison, you probably had to memorize a list of significant inventions he came up with: the electric light bulb, direct current distribution of electricity, the motion picture camera (or "kinetograph"), and other marvels. But one that he is famous for is the phonograph, back in 1878.

You remember phonographs, right (a.k.a. the record player)? I mean, yeah, you have to be, like, over 35 or so these days to have actually heard one, and most of us over that age have records stored somewhere but no longer have an actual turntable to listen to them. Believe it or not, I actually have a record player. Yes, I like Disco. No snickering, please.

For those who are too young, records are those plastic discs that turn around and around and play your parents' and grandparents' oldies-but-goodie songs from the 70's and before (that's the 1970's, thank you, not 1870's), only Edison's were made of tin and were in the form of a cylinder. Later inventions made cylinders out of wax (played on a "graphophone"), and then discs made out of zinc (played on a "gramophone") and other materials, before plastic was invented.

Yesterday the world's first audio recording was revealed to the public, previously unknown until recently re-discovered in February at the archives of the French Academy of Sciences in Paris by an organization known as First Sounds, then converted to sound by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory:

http://www.physorg.com/news126017185.html

The recording is of "Au Claire de la Lune", and was recorded on paper that had been coated with soot. The sounds were inscribed by a needle into the soot by an instrument called a "phonautograph" (see picture), by Parisian inventor Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville, on April 9, 1860, 17 years before Edison and his phonograph.

Here you can hear the ghostly, warbly, 10-second recording: http://www.firstsounds.org/sounds/. Most likely it was Scott's daughter singing.

HERE is a touching modern rendition of the song, sung by a father and his baby daughter.

The funny thing is that Scott, as I understand it, couldn't actually listen to the recordings he made. They were merely made and then submitted to the French patent office, then stored. It's a miracle they still exist.

Cool enough. I think I'll mark this discovery by listening to one of those grooved (groovy?) plastic discs on my own phonograph tonight: Donna Summer. I love to love you, baby!


Images adapted from HERE and HERE.

Friday, March 28, 2008

I'm Losin' It

Now that my vacation is over, and the in-laws have left (fled?) the guest bedroom, I have moved the exercise cycle back in. My intention is to lose weight.

Okay, you can stop rolling your eyes and thinking, "Great, another stupid weight loss story." The Angry Lab Rat blog isn't about weight loss, and you can rest assured that this will be one of only a very few blog posts on my personal weight loss attempt until I either succeed in my goal or give up completely. The exception is that, in the margin to the right on this blog site, I will keep an update of my progress, for those who are morbidly interested (or morbidly obese). Additionally, I will be joining a number of coworkers in the attempt, though we will surely be doing things differently from each other.

Now, I'm not the sort of guy who is obsessed with weight. In fact, I really don't mind the fact that I'm short, fat, and hairy. Aren't all rats? But now I'm hoping to be short, not-so-fat, and hairy.

This attempt at weight loss has happened before. Back in February 2003 I was 231 pounds with a waistline of 48". My liver enzyme readings were high, suggesting I had Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (yes, that's its real name!), a potential side affect of, you guessed it, being a fatty. I cut my serving sizes in half, generally ate better food, and, most importantly, exercised rigorously at least 15 minutes every day, no matter how tired I was. No special diets, no calorie-counting, and no fads. The only special thing I did, at the beginning, was get some idea of the nutritional value of what I was eating in order to insure I wasn't going to starve or go deficient in protein and vitamins. Over the course of 8 months, this technique led me to lose 23 pounds (to 208) and almost 8 inches off my waist (to 40.5") (click on the graphs). Most importantly, I have pretty much kept off the weight, even to today, though I've been slowly creeping back upward over the years without any real exercise, but my liver readings have been normal ever since. I was very hungry at first, but then I was fine, and I have generally maintained my eating habits.

It is an interesting coincidence that just a couple days ago the results of a very thorough study found that being a fatty around your belly around 40 years old significantly increases your chances of having Alzheimer's and dementia in your senior years:

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/23800703/

This correlation is apparently independent of other common health issues, including general weight problems (other than belly fat). According to the article, if you lie down on your back on a flat surface and then have someone measure the height of your belly, and that measurement is greater than 9.8 inches, you are at risk. I tried it. I'm somewhere just above 10 inches.

The researchers are unclear why having belly fat affects the brain later in life, but I think I have the answer: Your brain really is in your stomach! No wonder food is such a motivator!

So wish me luck in my weight loss endeavor. You can keep tabs in the margin of my blog. Hopefully I'll be successful, making me even sexier than I already am, and less likely to be senile in my old age.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Mind-Meld With Your Wii

I'm mid-way through my vacation with my in-laws and thought I'd pop onto the computer for a bit to send some digitized brainwaves your way.

One of the highlights of this vacation is my wife's birthday. This year I got her a Nintendo Wii. You know, the game system that everyone is raving about, with remote controllers that you use to play with that have little gyroscopes in them so that your arm movements are captured and transmitted to your video characters. You can do all sorts of amazing things, like play tennis, bowling, sword fighting, and so forth by simply moving your arms and controllers. You can also accidentally throw your controllers through your TV. And if you're like me, you might be tempted to throw them across the room when you can't get the console hooked up correctly. And why is it named "Wii"? Probably because of the high-pitched noise you make as you shell out $300 bucks for the console and an additional $30-50 for each game.

I haven't yet gotten the chance to play this marvel of technology, but I'm looking forward to it. It took me an entire month to get the damned thing, since they are sold out everywhere. In order to get it, I basically had to stake out the department and video stores where they are sold, like some sort of noir detective, waiting for the latest shipment to arrive and then madly rushing in within an hour or two to grab one before hordes of teenagers got theirs. Well, something like that, anyhow. You practically have to bribe the store workers to hold it for you as you drive frantically through traffic to get to the store to pick it up.

This physical interface with the computer is a relatively new thing for the gaming industry. But now a number of companies are rushing in to one-up Nintendo by introducing not a physical interface, but a mental one. One, called Emotiv Systems, is nearing release, probably this year. That's right, control your video character with the power of your mind, using the Emotiv Epoc Neuroheadset:

http://www.physorg.com/news124723221.html

Do you remember Mindball, which I blogged on over a year ago? That was a system where two players sat across from each other controlling a ball using only their mental power of relaxation, using a helmet that read their theta waves. The more mentally relaxed or meditative you were, the more you were able to move the ball and beat your opponent.

This new system from Evotiv goes further, incorporating biofeedback readings such as EEGs and alpha waves (your state of relaxation), EMGs (muscle movement), ECGs and GSR (measuring heart rate and sweating), and possibly near infrared spectroscopy for blood oxygenation, all in a really kick-ass, futuristic mind-reading helmet (see picture). Excellent.

And what can you do with this nifty little device straight out of Neuromancer? So far Emotiv has developed an adapted version of a Harry Potter video game where players use their biofeedback to lift boulders and throw lightning bolts.

Other company's working on this include EmSense, NeuroSky, and Hitachi.

So for my lovely wife's next birthday, I may find myself staking out the department stores again, this time trying to find a way to snag a mind-reading device for the Wii and make more high-pitched pained sounds at the cash register.

Oh, my dear Nintendo, let us mind-meld! My mind to your mind. My thoughts to your thoughts…..


Image taken from HERE.

Monday, March 17, 2008

When Life Needs Porpoise

My in-laws are coming to visit. Well, by "coming to visit", I mean that my wife and I and the kids will be joining them at an ocean-front condo here in the same state for several days, then we'll all come back to stay at our place before going yet somewhere else for a few days at yet another condo. Lots of traveling in a week's time.

But it's cool. I mean, even though I live just an hour or so from the ocean, I haven't actually gone to visit the ocean for nearly two years (yeah, believe it!) due to work and kids and stuff. And I get along great with my wife's family. I can't wait.

The really cool thing is that we've seen whales along the coast. We've missed the peak migration time this year, but you never know, maybe there'll be a few lame stragglers wondering why their pals have gone off and left them. Yeah, I relate to the geeks of any species.

I can hear it now. Some poor whale out there, swimming along the coast, saying in its sing-song echoing voice:

"Hey, guys, where'd you go? There's some really cool Euphausia pacifica swimming around near the surface. Guys? You wanna go back to my place and play some D&D?"

Of course, it'd be just my luck if the whales get beached by Navy sonar tests or something while I'm there. "Look, son, a majestic behemoth of the ocean! Let's marvel in its beauty and the sadness of its predicament. Now be a good boy and get the dynamite."

Even if a whale does get beached, though, it may do to have some dolphins around.

Dolphins have been known to help humans in trouble, but now a recent report suggests that one dolphin led a whale and its calf to safety after they had repeatedly beached themselves:

http://www.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/asiapcf/03/12/nz.whales.ap/index.html

Moko, a bottlenose dolphin known for befriending humans in New Zealand (see picture), came to the assistance of a pygmy sperm whale and its calf. Human rescuers had tried to save the pair only to watch in despair as the whales were beached again and again on a sandbar. They were contemplating euthanasia for the whales, when the dolphin came in and showed the whales how to escape the sandbar back out to the open ocean, leading the way.

After the heroic dolphin led the pair to safety, Moko returned to the humans at the beach and played with them.

Now that's interspecies cooperation!

Makes ya feel like leaping and chattering, don't it? Throw that porpoise some anchovies, for cryin' out loud!

So I'll keep my eyes open for any whales and dolphins on our little vacation. In the meantime, buy some dolphin-safe tuna and think of the whales you may have saved.

And if you do see any beached whales and there aren't any dolphins around, just promise me you won't be like THIS JERK.


Addendum (3/24/08): It turns out the gray whale migration is in full swing, still. The cows and calves are currently moving up the Oregon coast. The vacation has gone well, but now my in-laws have come down with colds. Ugg.

Image taken from HERE.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Number 200

Today I celebrate my 200th post on The Angry Lab Rat. Yay, me. I’m certain you read this with a mix of joyful glee and scientific exuberance as, once again, I bring you enlightenment about science weirdness and news, downloading my brain to your otherwise virginal computer screen.

Okay, fine, maybe it’s not so virginal. And maybe you’re actually thinking, “Has it really been 200? Damn, I’ve got to find something else to read!”

Ah, my fellow readers, please be aware I sacrifice greatly to bring you this source of wisdom. Typically I write and publish late at night when I should be happily dreaming, squeezed between cats and my lovely wife on a bed that’s really too narrow for my wide girth plus various other mammals. And maybe I should instead spend the time coming up with new and exciting ways to provide for my family by, you know, actually earning money for my writing, and buying things like flowers with it.

So I leave you with this cartoon from the very interesting blog site and mind of Wellington Grey (a science teacher in the UK). I’ll keep on posting if you keep on reading!


By the way, my lovely wife does read my blog....


Cartoon taken from HERE.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Crap Fountains And Biosolids On Your Food

Just north of my little town is a cow farm. Every time I drive past the place I hit the little "recirculate" button on our car so that no outside air can get in. The stench is positively wretched almost any time of the year. During the winter (which I call the "rainy season" because of the climate here), the smell is somewhat tolerable as long as you drive too fast, but the cow dung is nice and soggy and fermenting. During the summer, though, the smell is overwhelming as the cow turds ripen in the heat.

And then there is a nightmare even worse than the usual nasty stench: several times in the spring and summer, all that cow crap is liquefied and pumped out over the neighboring agricultural fields in an ungodly fountain of sh*t, turning the crops dark brown with a rain of feces.

Oh – my – God! Now say with me: Ewwwwww!

Now, I know what some of you are thinking. You're thinking, "Oh, get over it, Lab Rat! It's just fertilizer in liquid form. You're a biologist. You know the value of poo for growing plants."

Fine! But I just want to say for the record that the typical cow dung fertilizer is first allowed to compost. Thus the harmful bacteria and parasites are neutralized, along with most of the foul smell.

But then I came across this wretched article, which informs me that it has been perfectly acceptable – nay, encouraged by our government! – for farmers to use human sewage and industrial sludge to fertilize their fields!

http://www6.comcast.net/news/articles/science/2008/03/06/Sludge.Poisoned.Land/

Are you f*cking kidding me?!! Has the world suddenly gone upside down? You mean to tell me that I've been eating food that has had my neighbor's crap sprayed on it? If you've ever seen my neighbor, you'd be shaking as hard as I am!

Apparently this policy has been in effect for 30 years. I'm very disappointed in Jimmy Carter!

From the article: "About 7 million tons of biosolids – the term that waste producers came up with for sludge in 1991 – are produced each year as a byproduct from 1,650 waste water treatment plants around the nation. Slightly more than half is used on land as fertilizer; the rest is incinerated or burned in landfills. Giving it away to farmers is cheaper than burning or burying it, and the government's policy has been to encourage the former."

HALF?? That's 3.5 million tons of wastewater sludge on our crops!

In addition to the risk of carrying human disease, bacteria, and parasites, the sludge has been found to contain dangerous levels of arsenic, thallium, other heavy metals, and PCBs. Plus the drugs you flush down your toilet when they expire. I shudder to think what else. Anything that can be pollutants of our waterways.

The article mentions a recent court ruling where a dairy farmer sued the government for poisoning and killing his cows, which had fed on plants fertilized with this raw sewage and sludge laced with heavy metals and PCBs. He won his case. The judge in the case said that, in addition to using questionable data for their actions and policy, "senior EPA officials took extraordinary steps to quash scientific dissent, and any questioning of the EPA's biosolids program."

Yes, this is America. Not China. Not some third world nation. Not the sewage-filled tenements of some late-night plea for helping poverty-stricken families in Latin America "for just pennies a day". No, this is the USA, where industry reigns supreme over the health and welfare of our Twinkie-eating obese citizenry. Heck, using sludge on fields is a win-win situation, right? I mean, the EPA gets to claim that they are cleaning up our waterways, and farmers get a free source of fertilizer. Wow! Genius!

The sad thing is that the product of all this a-maizing arsenic-laced miracle of modern agriculture is food direct to your supermarket, and milk from poisoned cows. Heck, it's the "cycle of poo". Once you've eaten your thallium laced food grown in crap-sprayed fields you can take a dump and start the process all over again.

Sure, the victim in that lawsuit had cows that died, but how many other cows aren't dying, but instead are merely passing along their PCB milk to you and me and our kids?

So the next time you pour yourself a glass of chocolate milk or put a pat of butter onto your ear of corn, take a quick sniff and think twice about its source. There may be more than chocolate in that glass of yours, and the yellow of your corn may hide little physiological timebombs.

As for me, the next time I drive past one of those fountains of sh*t, I'll be wondering if it truly is cow manure that's being sprayed, as I had thought, or crap from the farmer himself!


Image taken from HERE.