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:

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: 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:

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:

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:

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!

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.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

You And Me And Baby Makes Four

Okay, here's a little tidbit that's sure to get the giddy mad scientist in me excited and ready to rev up the plasma balls and Tesla coils, break out the microscope, and start doing bizarre and rebellious things with human reproductive systems.

Oh, and I might add before I start the meat of this blog post, let's be sure to clear the room of any neoconservative types, please. We wouldn't want any fundamentalists thumping their leather-bound holy books (why are the covers always black?) and ruining our scientific parade. I mean, really, if they get a whiff of what's going on in the hallowed halls of biology these days they might just, you know, insist that we keep living with our God-given diseases and disorders.

Now, having gone through six years of infertility treatments prior to the adoption of our two wonderful children, I can tell you with a certain degree of authority that there are some pretty unnatural yet clever ways of making babies that don’t in any way involve sexual intercourse. The most simple of these is artificial insemination (where the father – um, how should I say this? – "collects" his semen, and the concentrated "man-soup" is put into the female at just the right time and in just the right manner). If that fails, in vitro fertilization is an option (you know, "test tube babies", where eggs are surgically collected from the female, put into a Petri dish, washed with live sperm, and grown for a few days before being put into the mother's uterus). Yeah, we went through all that. Several times.

But reproductive biologists have gotten pretty good at the art of manipulating eggs, removing and even transplanting nuclei (where the DNA is located) between eggs, and adjusting the environment around the developing embryos. In fact, there's this little technique called Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT) which has bioethicists all in a tizzy, where you can remove the nucleus from an egg and replace it with the nucleus of an adult human, thus potentially cloning a person. Sounds like science fiction? Not at all. We can do it right now. We just don't. Because, like, that would be way too close to the plot of a bad B movie. And we wouldn't want to, say, remove stem cells from the embryo (which, at that point, looks more like a beach ball than a little human with a beating heart) and actually save lives.

Well, now some researchers are reviving the SCNT method.

But wait! Before you start shaking your head and calling up your Pentacostal buddies (I have one, too) and alerting FOX News, the new SCNT technique isn't for cloning purposes or harvesting stem cells or creating mindless replicas of Hitler or anything. Instead, this is a novel way to keep the potential child from developing mitochondrial disorders. And how do they achieve this lofty goal? By involving two mothers and one father!

Your typical egg is composed of a single nucleus that, once fertilized with sperm, has DNA from both the mother and father. The egg also has mitochondria, which are teeny-tiny structures that provide energy for the cell. Mitochondria also have DNA, but that DNA is solely derived from dear ole Mom. When the child grows up, he or she will have that Mom's mitochondrial DNA in every cell of their body, and none from Dad.

But if Mom's mitochondrial DNA is defective, harboring mutations that lead to a variety of diseases, heretofore there has been no way to prevent it from being passed to the child.

Using SCNT, though, researchers can remove the fertilized nucleus from the original Mom's egg and place that nucleus into the egg of another woman, whose nucleus had been removed. "The Other Woman" would have normal mitochondrial DNA. Thus, the resulting child from the fertilized egg would have the nuclear DNA (which make us who we are) from their traditional mom and dad, and mitochondria from woman #2. Voila! One father and two moms = healthy baby (and a bizarre family tree).

Wow. That gives a whole new meaning to the term "ménage tois"!

Image taken from HERE.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Goodbye To The Master Of Dungeons

When I was in fourth grade, my mother gave me a new game. I remember it well. I thought this was a strange game, since it had no board, no colorful pieces, or anything electronic. It was a game where you were supposed to play pretend, but you didn't dress up or run around. Instead you looked at maps and rolled dice, and you were supposed to talk all the way through it. And you couldn't play it alone.

The game was Dungeons & Dragons.

"How very odd," I thought. But the dice were all sorts of odd shapes, you played a character that interacted with and fought mythological beasts, and there were all sorts of complex rules and statistics to deal with. Even the cover of the box was fascinating, with a picture of a dragon on a pile of golden treasure, about to engage in battle with a wizard and an archer.

The budding geek in me was instantly hooked. I quickly found a neighbor kid to play with, then other friends, and by the time I was a teenager I was a pro, spending all-night D&D sessions with friends and pizza and laughter, populating our imaginations with elves and dragons, dwarves and warriors, wizards and kingdoms. The fantastic world I created for those games became the fantasy world I write fiction in today.

If you are an American under the age of 40 and work in some technical field, I'd say there is a higher-than-average chance that you enjoyed this game in your youth. And, if so, there are pretty decent odds you still play it when you get a chance, or some other role-playing game or video game spawned by the revolution that game created.

And it is all due to the vision and creativity of two men, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, in 1974.

Sadly, Gary Gygax died today.

The article says that he died at home, in Lake Geneva, and had suffered a number of ailments. He was 69.

But I prefer to believe that his hit points ran out. He may have been at 100th-level, but you only have so much armor class to go around!

When Gygax and Arneson developed the game, they drew upon some previous wargaming experience and merged it with role-playing, a heretofore psychological technique of imagining yourself in someone else's shoes to better understand their way of thinking. Except instead of pretending you were your dysfunctional relative, you instead imagined yourself as a heroic medieval fighter or wizard. Cool!

Derided by evangelical fundamentalists as the spawn of Satan, or heralded as the King of Geeks by teenage boys with glasses, Gary Gygax was certainly the father of role-playing games, giving birth to an entire class of games and game systems.

More importantly, though, he has inspired several generations of children with the power of imagination, the effects of which have certainly gone beyond the realm of medieval role-playing and into the innovative spirit they carried into their careers, as I have.

He hosted role-playing games right up to January of this year. He is survived by his wife, six children, and seven grandchildren. Hopefully they are enjoying their patriarch's legacy as much as I did.

So, Gary, thank you for your inspiration. It's been fun.

In his own words, "Games give you a chance to excel, and if you're playing in good company you don't even mind if you lose because you had the enjoyment of the company during the course of the game." (source)

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to unsheathe my +8 Pen of Creativity, strap on my Armor of Imagination, and go do some fantasy writing. And, yes, there will be elves involved!

Addendum (3/7/08): On an almost-unrelated note, check out this webpage for the “Goblin Defense Fund”:

Addendum (3/9/08): Cartoon: Gygax versus Death:

Image taken from HERE, where you can also find a great interview.

Ice Worms

Yesterday my little 2 ½ year-old darling girl was watching a cartoon series called Caillou. Suddenly she started trembling, watching the TV with wide, fearful eyes. I looked up, wondering what bloodshed my child was watching, only to see – a cartoon worm.

Yes, my little girl is "all girl". She loves anything pink, dresses, hair styles, and playing tea party. Sigh. This is the daughter of two biologists!

So, given her fear of worms, I will have to avoid places where worms tend to be found – compost bins, forest floors, rainy lawns, glaciers.

Yes, glaciers!

Believe it or not, there is a species of worm that lives exclusively in the ice of high mountain glaciers. Mesenchytraeus solifugus, better known as "ice worms", are found only in glaciers of the American Northwest. They have been found on at least 20 glaciers, between Alaska and Oregon. They will only venture a few meters into the snow around a glacier, and never beyond. How they were distributed between distant glaciers is a mystery.

Science website:

A great video from Oregon Public Broadcasting's "Oregon Field Guide" episode on Ice worms:

Scholarly Paper: HERE

Sounds like something out of science fiction to me. These little buggers bore through the ice by excreting some sort of gunk from their head, rising to the surface at dusk and through the night, then descending downward in the daytime. They don't freeze solid despite living in ice. Instead they "boost their energy output" to stay warm. Above 40 degrees F they die. Below 22 degrees they freeze. They eat mainly algae, but also bacteria, fungi, or just about anything that will fit through their tiny, tiny mouths. In some areas, at dusk, they are so numerous that you can't help but step on them. Their life cycle is still a mystery.

Eesh. Don't go making any snow cones up there!

So the next time you make it up to the mountaintop glaciers of the Great Northwest, keep an eye out for dark squiggly critters in the snow and ice. I know my daughter will!

I'll leave you with "The Ice Worm Song", a song played during the Northern Manitoba Trappers Festival in The Pas, MB Canada: