4/30/2008 3:32:16 PM
History has shown the evolutionary costs of inbreeding, creating royal families with high rates of hemophilia and other diseases. In some cases, however, researchers have found that mating with kin can have evolutionary benefits, Ewen Callaway reports for Science News. Yes, diseases can be more easily passed down through generations, but beneficial adaptations are more likely to be passed down, too. In fact, to avoid some of the negative connotations of the word “inbreeding,” Cornell University ecologist Kelly Zamudio has coined a euphemism: “genetic complementation.” George Michael Bluth would be proud.
4/30/2008 12:40:24 PM
Bacteria called enterococci found in raw-milk feta cheese have proven effective in fighting food poisoning, ScienceDaily reports. In other forms, enterococci will cause hospital infections, but some strains are able to kill disease-causing bacteria. Researchers hope to harness the bug, offering an alternative to more synthetic preservatives. So next time you wander into a sketchy restaurant, passing by the dirty chef who smokes as he cooks, make sure to bring your own feta cheese.
(Thanks, BioEd Online.)
Image by boltron, licensed under Creative Commons.
4/29/2008 3:34:14 PM
Obsolescence is the bane of the tech-consumer. When you’re trying to upgrade the old laptop, it’s not uncommon to find out that Apple or Microsoft doesn’t make that part for your system. So instead of spending a few bucks on a new toy, consumers end up shelling out the cash for a whole new computer.
When individual people are dealing with obsolescence, it can hurt the pocket book. When the US Air Force struggles with the problem, it can have “sweeping, potentially life-threatening consequences,” Peter Sandborn writes for IEEE Spectrum. The US government is constantly playing catch-up, Sandborn writes, either stockpiling old parts right before the manufacturer quits making them, or replacing whole systems to keep up with the times. Sandborn sketches out some ways the government can get in front of the curve, and anticipate obsolescence in a more cost-effective way.
4/22/2008 2:26:40 PM
Physics are clearly not the only factor at play when a piece of toast falls on the carpet, jelly-side down. Many assume the probability of the bread landing jelly-side down is directly proportional to the price of the carpet. In actuality, price is not the determining factor. The real reason why the jelly would be attracted to the carpet, according to Iva P. Aitchdee in the science humor magazine the Journal of Irreproducible Results (article not available online), is the color contrast between the carpet and the jelly.
If the color of the carpet, no matter how expensive it is, were to match the color of the jelly, then foodstuffs would have no attraction to the carpet. If, however, the carpet were moderately expensive and white, grape jelly would be inevitably drawn downward. “Toast has no motivation to land face-down on expensive carpet,” writes Aitchdee, “if that carpet will not be ruined in the process.”
4/22/2008 1:32:55 PM
When Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull hits theaters next month, viewers will marvel at the crystal skulls sought by the celluloid archeologist. The skulls are based on similar artifacts that appear in a number of world-renown collections, including the Smithsonian and the British Museum, sometimes attributed to pre-Columbian, Aztec, Toltec, Mixtec, or occasionally Maya origin. Unfortunately, according to Jane MacLaren Walsh writing for Archeology magazine, the skulls are all fakes.
Nearly all the crystal skulls are 19th-century fakes, according to MacLaren Walsh, including one that “is said to emit blue lights from its eyes, and has reputedly crashed computer hard drives.” As disappointing as the truth may be, MacLaren Walsh probably knows best. The crystal skull owned by the Smithsonian is currently sitting in a locked cabinet in her office.
4/22/2008 12:42:32 PM
If your idea of advanced textiles is SmartWool and CoolMax, prepare to be dazzled. The photogenic experimental textiles featured in Azure promise clothing that does much more than heat or cool efficiently.
Some of the designs are more imaginative than functional. For example, the fabric of the Philips Design Bubelle dress is embedded with sensors that respond to the wearer’s temperature, moisture, and heartbeat—and changes color accordingly. Another fanciful garment is the Hug Shirt by CuteCircuit. It uses Bluetooth technology to recreate a hugger’s temperature, heart rate, and hug pressure and relays that information to a recipient.
Other designs are more practical. For those who prefer their protective gear sleek, D3O is a useful material for mountain biking, skiing, and snowboarding. Made from specially engineered molecules, the material bends and folds under normal circumstances. Upon impact, it hardens to protect the wearer. Many other garment advances have been made to meet medical challenges. Virginia Tech’s Hokie Suit monitors a person’s gait and may help those prone to falling, like the elderly and people with multiple sclerosis.
4/21/2008 3:55:57 PM
The urge to spy on others has been around since the dawn of man. In fact, it’s been around longer. Researchers at the German Primate Center in Göttingen have found that male monkeys will eavesdrop on other monkeys having sex. The idea is that males want “to make sure they don't miss out on the fun,” Catherine Brahic writes for the New Scientist.
Today, tools for eavesdropping are more sophisticated. Great Britain, for example, is home to at least 4 million security cameras. The civil liberties organization Liberty estimates that the average Londoner is captured on camera 300 times each day. Plans are in the works to emulate London’s surveillance infrastructure in New York. And the Bush Administration, infamous for keeping secrets, engages in warantless spying on US citizens.
Public outcry against these state surveillance tools has been minimal. The Bush Administration’s resolve to skirt the courts when spying on citizens has even been praised by a number of right-wing commentators. Hal Niedzviecki writes for the Walrus, “Surveillance, no longer a symbol of totalitarianism, is seen as a helpful tool in our never-ending ‘war’ against an amorphous enemy who can appear anywhere, anytime.”
Culturally, Western acceptance of surveillance goes deeper than tacit acceptance of government spying. The erosion of American civil liberties has coincided with a boom-time for Facebook, blogs, corporate “rewards” programs, and other voluntary sacrifices of privacy. A new trend, according to Niedzviecki, is “lifecasting,” that is, people broadcasting their entire lives over the internet. On Justin.TV, for example, viewers can watch every excruciatingly mundane moment of San Francisco resident Justin Kan’s life.
Such wanton disregard for personal privacy signals to some that younger generations don’t care about privacy. That’s not exactly true, according to Daniel Solove, author of the book The Future of Reputation. Solve told me that concepts of privacy are simply changing: Younger generations no longer expect the “privacy of secrecy,” since that has become an unreasonable expectation. They assume that governments and corporations will invade their privacy. All they want is to know how their information is being used.
According to Solove, young people want their private information to be spread to specific groups of friends over Facebook, or to specific companies through corporate rewards programs. When tech-support hotlines ask for names, addresses, and phone numbers, many people are more than willing to give up that kind of information. Niedzviecki calls it “surveillance with benefits.”
What younger generations don’t want is for their information to be used in ways that they don’t expect. When Facebook installed the “News Feed” application, enabling users to see changes in their friends’ Facebook pages, users revolted. More than 280,000 users joined “Students Against Facebook News Feed (Official Petition to Facebook).” A similar revolt occurred when Facebook installed the application Beacon to use social networking information for corporate advertising.
Facebook successfully weathered both user revolts, and today the company claims 70 million active users. With every step, users are being conditioned to accept progressively greater invasions of privacy. Many users have learned to like it. “Over the past twenty years,” Niedzviecki writes, “ubiquity has become acceptance, and acceptance has become adoption and adaptation. We’ve adopted the logic of surveillance and adapted its goals and methodologies to everyday life.”
That adaptation manifests itself in the idea of the “attention economy.” Most users don’t pay any money to Facebook, but the company is worth an estimated $15 billion. The price tag reflects how much people pay attention to Facebook, and in today’s information-saturated atmosphere, that’s worth real money.
Ordinary people have accepted this logic, and have begun to apply it to their own lives. Bloggers realize that most of them won’t make money directly from their blogs, and reality television isn’t exactly a springboard to a steady career. Yet people spend countless hours working on blogs and trying out for reality television. All this for the chance to get people’s attention.
The idea that attracting the attentions of others is a goal in and of itself could help explain why people submit to surveillance so readily. If you accept that “Smart Shopper” and “Customer Loyalty” cards are designed to give consumers “rewards,” a little surveillance isn’t such a bad thing. If people’s attentions to your blog or Facebook page are a good thing, then there’s no problem with organizations monitoring your internet usage. And if the government’s goal is to protect you, then there’s no problem with sacrificing some antiquated notions of personal privacy. After all, everyone likes to be noticed.
Image by Abraham Del Pozo, licensed under Creative Commons.
4/15/2008 2:20:25 PM
The Dog Poop Girl got famous when her dog pooped on the subway and she neglected to clean it up. The Star Wars Kid made it big after he filmed himself reenacting a light saber fight from the movie Star Wars. These normally mundane activities would have been quickly forgotten, were it not for the promotional power of the internet. After a cell phone photo of the Dog Poop Girl and a video of the Star Wars Kid were found on the web, these two people’s places in pop culture lore were enshrined forever.
Using examples like these, Daniel Solove, an associate professor at the George Washington University Law School, explores the balance between the right to privacy and the freedom of speech in his new book The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet. After reviewing his book for the January-February issue of Utne Reader had a few questions I wanted to ask him. To read the entire book for free, click here, and listen to the podcast by clicking on the "Listen Here" link below.
The Future of Privacy: Listen Here
4/14/2008 11:11:50 AM
The best medicine against the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) may lie in the blood stream of one of the most ancient animal species on the planet: alligators.
Due to millions of years of fighting and wound infliction in harmful microbe-ridden environments, alligators have developed powerful immune systems enabling fast recovery with no infection. Researchers at McNeese State University in Louisiana have extracted active proteins from the reptile's white blood cells that have been found to kill a host of bacteria, fungi, and viruses, reports Cosmos Magazine. The potent antibiotic peptides in these blood cells were exceptionally effective against HIV, destroying most of the virus upon exposure.
Although there are still plenty of challenges in developing medicines from alligator blood (the peptides are potentially toxic to humans), there is a chance that some derivative of the reptile’s blood could wind up on pharmacy shelves in about ten years.
4/14/2008 9:38:59 AM
The internet has a problem. In fact, it has many problems. Media reformers fear an encroaching corporate takeover, temperance advocates lament the abundance of pornography, and my computer has spyware. In the latest issue of the Boston Review, Jonathan Zittrain writes that spam, spyware, and other kinds of computer malware could get so bad that consumers will give up the “generative” qualities that made the internet great. Instead of adaptable and corruptible personal computers—able to generate new applications, both good and bad—Zittrain writes that the future of the internet could be more closed, less adaptable, and more like a kitchen appliance than a tool for creation.
As evidence of this locked-down future, Zittrain, the author of the newly released book The Future of the Internet, cites a very cool but very inadaptable gadget: the iPhone. Users can’t download new applications to the iPhone without Apple’s approval. In fact, if people try to change the iPhone too much, Apple has threatened to turn their phones into $400 paperweights dubbed the “iBrick.” The wild popularity of the iPhone, according to Zittrain, proves that consumers want more locked-down products to avoid the scary world of spammers and bad code.
The problem with this argument is that it’s wrong. Zittrain uses hyperbole and bad psychology to exaggerate the threat posed by spam. In a response to Zittrain’s essay, also in the Boston Review, Richard Stallman cites the fact that 25 percent of iPhones have been altered and unlocked. That means at least one fourth of iPhone users have bought the product in spite of how locked down it is, not because of it.
Hidden inside Zittrain’s essay lies one idea that’s nothing short of dangerous: He suggests turning over greater control to AT&T, Verizon, and other telecommunications companies. He writes, “Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can also reasonably be asked or required to help” in the fight against spam. That would mean turning over more control to the telecom companies, and allowing them to discriminate between good users and bad users. If history is any guide, ISPs don’t always use their power and control for the good of the internet.
The argument for turning over control to the ISPs sounds a lot like the Bush Administration’s argument for the “War on Terror”: There are bad people out to get you, so you should trust the people in charge. Zittrain uses the word “generative” like many use “freedom”: the freedom to create new programs and new code. The spammers want to take away your freedom, so let the ISPs protect you.
Zittrain even advocates a nightmare scenario for media reform advocates. He writes, “code might be divided into first- and second-class status, with second-class, unapproved software allowed to perform only certain minimal tasks on the machine.” This sounds suspiciously like the “tiered internet” many fear is the end of net neutrality.
“Bad code is an inevitable side effect of generativity,” Zittrain writes. And on this note, he’s right. Spam and malware will always be with us, just as bad people will always want to do bad things. The solution, however, shouldn’t involve turning over control to Verizon and AT&T. Spyware, spam, and malware need to be dealt with. Just leave the telecoms out.
Image adapted from photos by Dylan Oliphant and David Monniaux, licensed under Creative Commons.
Do you agree? Disagree? Discuss this story in the Utne Salons.
4/11/2008 2:42:53 PM
Covet the British genteel wit. It can make even techno-gadflies sound delightful. “The Nice, Polite Campaign to Gently Encourage Parliament to Publish Bills in a 21st-Century Way. Please. Now.” That, reports the London-based New Statesman, is the “civic hacker” group MySociety’s subtitle to its Free Our Bills campaign. The idea is to bring crusty old parliamentarians up to tech-savvy speed by having them publish their bills in XML format rather than HTML. The shorter acronym stands for eXtensible mark-up language (take that hypertext mark-up language) and allows for all kinds of dynamic fun for readers scanning legislation. New Statesman explains:
... it could turn its two dimensional bills into glorious three-dimensional structures, incorporating information about who proposed them, who amended them, when they did so, and what other bills and acts of parliament each piece of proposed legislation refers to. Crucially, they could let outside bodies, such as MySociety, extend the XML schemas in order to build services around the bill-making process that would make it easier for the average citizen to get a handle on what on earth it is that parliament does all day.
What sort of services could MySociety offer? It could email you every time a bill mentions something you've told the site you're interested in. It could tell you how your MP is interacting with a bill as it travels through the legislative process. It could create Wikified bills that allowed people to leave notes and comments. These are just the things MySociety has thought of already: the beauty of its suggestion is that it would open the door to anybody who wanted to innovate around the way parliament publishes information, to bring citizens closer to the way parliament makes laws.
Now if we could just get MySociety to whip up a snazzy slogan that will make Americans care about net neutrality.
4/11/2008 2:28:31 PM
Have you ever wondered how you’re going to die? Unless you intend to take matters into your own hands—and you’ll have to move quickly to ensure a falling anvil or piano doesn’t get you first—you’ll just have to wait and see. If you're considering gambling with your life, check out the National Safety Council’s website, where you’ll find Vegas-style odds for nearly every cause of death imaginable.
*Spoiler alert: Your lifetime odds of dying from a falling anvil, or some other falling object, are one in 1,335. That’s far from a long shot, so watch out.
Image by Adrian Sampson, licensed by Creative Commons.
4/10/2008 5:05:01 PM
The name Columbus is often associated with discovery, and with good reason. A 16th Century Italian anatomist named Renaldus Columbus (no relation) is credited with discovering the “seat of a woman’s delight”—also known as the clitoris.
In 1559, Columbus claimed “that he had identified a female appendage that would ‘throb with brief contractions’ during sexual intercourse, causing a woman’s ‘semen’ to flow ‘swifter than air,’” according to the Smart Set.
His findings were wrought with controversy, however. Gabriello Fallopio (the tube guy) claimed ownership of the discovery. Fallopio may have been telling the truth, too, but his work on the subject wasn’t published until 1561. Others have argued that knowledge of the “little hill” (from the Greek “kleitor”) dates back to the second-century A.D. Greek Empire.
4/9/2008 9:29:54 PM
We’ve come a long way since the earliest version of the home pregnancy test. In 1350 BCE, Egyptian women tried to figure out if they were pregnant by urinating on wheat and barley seeds, according to A Thin Blue Line, a website set up by the National Institutes of Health. If the seeds sprouted, it was thought that she was pregnant. In the middle ages, European “piss prophets” analyzed urine to determine various health conditions, including pregnancy.
In the last few decades, the home pregnancy test has become increasingly accurate and commonplace. The website features a detailed timeline of the home pregnancy test, and cultural analysis of it, which includes a history of references to the home pregnancy test in TV shows and advertisements.
4/9/2008 5:39:28 PM
Sitting at a stoplight, in the middle of a horrible day, I learned the power of laughter. I was angry and rushed when I noticed a toddler in the car next to me throwing an epic temper tantrum. The scene shouldn’t have been funny, but as she writhed and twisted in her booster seat and kicked at her dad's back, I inexplicably began to laugh. Then she started heaving stuff at her dad’s head—the typical junk found in parent-mobiles: toys, shoes, sippy cups, broken dreams, and lost libidos—and my laughter turned hysterical. Just like that, my day went from bad to good, at the expense of a child’s tears and some poor sap who probably hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in three years.
The human capacity for laughter has been a matter of scientific study and debate since Aristotle, who claimed the ability to laugh is what makes us human. New York Public Radio’s Radiolab recently aired a can't miss episode examining laughter’s origins and its place in our lives. Besides offering a host of interesting facts and conversation-starters concerning laughter, the episode itself offers plenty of laughs. Jokes are cracked and rats are tickled, all in the name of science.
Photo by majorvols, licensed under Creative Commons.
4/9/2008 4:08:49 PM
Creative solutions to complex problems are often hiding in plain sight. Sometimes, all an organization needs is a fresh pair of eyes. And if one set of fresh eyes is good, given the evolution of communications technology, a million sets are exponentially better.
Enter InnoCentive, a Wiki-style research and development site that rewards people for creative problem solving. Corporations and nonprofits can post mathematical, economic, and scientific problems on the site, offering a cash reward for the best solutions. For example, a tableware manufacturer is soliciting a written proposal for lightweight, chip-resistant ceramic plates. The reward for the best proposal is 20 grand, and anybody can weigh in with a solution. Given its low-risk, high-yield equation, the InnoCentive model of R&D has nearly endless crossover potential into other markets. It may even signal a significant change in the way corporations approach problem solving.
4/1/2008 4:00:53 PM
Scheduling playtime in 45-minute increments seems strict, but the New York Hall of Science playground for preschoolers, featured in Landscape Architecture (article not available online), demands it. So families and school groups dutifully follow the rules and sign up. The playground was originally designed for teenagers, but the recently added preschool portion of the 10-year-old recreation area lets four-year-olds learn through play about fluid mechanics, acoustics, hydrology, and color theory. The preschool area is a garden-like environment of trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses that transitions gently into the park beyond. A wavy line of benches provides a permeable barrier and parental vantage point between the areas for younger and older children. Unlike most play spaces, the Science Playground aims to inspire children, not pacify them with pre-made parts that minimize litigation fears. But freedom comes at a cost, as the park comes with an entrance fee, on top of the fee that families must pay to enter the museum.
4/1/2008 12:04:12 PM
For people who’ve wasted too many migraine-inducing hours staring at optical illusions (like the old and the young woman, or that darn elephant) the special music issue of New Scientist offers some respite. One article features five examples of effective auditory illusions, which offer insight into how the brain processes music and other sounds. The auditory mind tricks are less painful and easier to figure out than their optical cousins, but no less interesting.
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