I’ll huff, and I’ll hurricane puff…

As an architect (or at least, a former student of architecture) I have an interest in new ideas people have about building.  Ok, mostly I am interested in residential building.  Corporate and industrial structures have little interest for me – they’re less structured to adapt to people.  I find the robotized warehouses of parts not made for people distinctly claustophobic and wrong, despite the fact that they may be highly useful and space efficient.  So – with my intense people-scale residential interest – I was delighted to see a new hurricane house testing project on a massive level.  Of course, it’s aptly named The Three Little Pigs Project.  Never say they don’t have humor in Canadia.

But what is most interesting with the project – outside of its name – is its process.  They’re taking their time figuring out exactly why a hurricane collapses a building, and how.  The ultimate goal is still prevention and building better houses, but it’s deliberate over the long term, which I kinda like.  Pinpointing stressed areas does have a certain validity for the grand work of making houses stronger.  And the way most roofs attach to houses and the way walls themselves are constructed, ‘balloon framing’ has a whole new meaning.  In addition, after New Orleans and all the legal scutwork of various insurance agencies, even research involving exactly why and how a house fails is extremely important. Go Little Pigs!

Since they seem to have everything pretty well covered and are very technologically sound (way to build your house out of bricks, guys), it almost makes me feel bad to be the hurricane.  I think they might need more of a Big Bad.  How about adding some earthquakes, locusts, diseases, or other ravages to the experiements?  I’d be happy to contribute a bit of huffing and puffing myself, if that could scientifically help.

Drilling down to the good stuff.

It’s been proven time and again – socially conscious products and services are officially a viable niche market.  Whether based on environmental impact or hunger or the disparity of wealth resources, people will pay for the feel-good of buying along ethical lines.  perhaps it’s no surprise then that eBay is launching a new site, worldofgood.com, that will host only those products and services.  In addition, the items listed on the new website will be integrated regular eBay searches, making the products accessible to a wider audience while still providing a venue where they can be more easily found.

What is more valuable to me is the amount of information available on the site.  Every vendor, producer, or product is reviewed by a range of outside organizations, each of which present thier own information regarding the the vendor, producer, or product.  For example, a purse that I took a look at was certified by IFAT, which is a group of global fair trade organizations, and Co-op America, which is an initiative that promotes an economic system that is good for both people and the environment.  So the producer of my particular purse met the standards in place for both organizations.  In addition, the vendors list thier own positive impacts in a separate statement.  this allows a vendor both to promote the positive aspects of their product.  Since the statements are pre-defined by worldofgood, it allows easy comparison between products.

True, if you really want to get the scoop on what each product does not provide, you’re going to have to look to outside sources and do your own research.  But this is definitiely a start.  Hopefully user feedback and ratings will soon be incorporated (just like on the main eBay site) to allow a little more word of mouth to fill in the gaps as far as specific product is concerned.

Sex Sells.

Ok, we all know the studies that have been done linking attractive people in advertising to successful ads.  We all know that even in the smartest, most world-savvy of us, the appeal of being that attractive ourselves or winning the heart of someone else that attractive is a strong one.  We want to be and to have some ideal of beauty, and the commercials that promise us we will be and will have this ideal are the ones that get us to buy.

But our responses may be more basic than that.  A recent study has shown that men are willing to risk more when presented with a positive image before a gambling situation (say, a photo of a handsome couple together) than a negative (snakes and spiders) or neutral (office supplies) one.  In this case, unlike that of advertisements, the image is completely unrelated to the end result.  Gambling does not make you a handsome couple, a snake, or a stapler, nor is there any implication that it does.  However, the survey shows that by stimulating that positive part of the brain with a positive image, risk-taking increases.

To a certain extent this is common sense.  When we are happy, we feel more secure and able to take risks.  On a good day, you’re more likely to ask that crush out on a date.  On a bad day, you’re less likely to buy that new car you’ve been looking at.  While this study shows that such affects are almost instantaneously registered to your brain, the result is pretty much the same.  You’re going to gamble more in a casino with attractive and friendly serving staff, a good ambiance, and with a few drinks in you because you feel happy and relaxed.  No one gambles in a casino being bombed.

Pain: the real class divider.

Time released an article recently about a study between the correspondence of pain (especially chronic pain) and a variety of other categories: income, age, gender, education, and class.  The study, authored by Alan Krueger and Arthur Stone, is noted for its more detailed analysis of how Americans live with pain.  While the information I can gather from the article does not address much of the lower end of the spectrum (i.e, those only dealing with occasional, minor pain), the incidence of more severe or prolonged pain does say some interesting things.

“Americans in households making less than $30,000 a year spend nearly 20% of their lives in moderate to severe pain, compared with less than 8% of people in households earning above $100,000” says the article, drawing the conclusion that those who make less feel more pain.  This could be a sign of lower-paying jobs that require a good deal of manual labor, with a corresponding higher risk of injury.  However, to me it suggests the possibility of another conclusion: those who suffer from moderate to severe pain on a regular basis find it more difficult to suceed at their careers than those who do not.

The article itself goes on to suggest such an idea related to chronic pain: “People with chronic pain also worked less, the new study found, costing U.S. businesses as much as $60 billion annually.”  Perhaps this suggests a corresponding loss of work for thsoe who suffer moderate pain?  What an astounding idea!

Still, Time had one up on the Boston Metro this morning: one of their headlines read “Rich kids packed off to fat-wallet camp: Summer camps teach financial responsibility earl”.  Hmm.  It seems we’ve become a little confused about old money and titles.  At least they managed to get it together for the online edition.

Singing in the Brain

Ok – I totally stole the title for this post from MIT – but it was so ridiculously, ideally cheesy that I couldn’t resist.  While the article itself does present some interesting research about development, babble, and different areas of the brain, I must confess I was more amused by the title.  Everyone should take a look though, for the knowledge, and especially for the funny little songbird clips.

So.  Singing in the brain.  We’ve all done it – some wonderful, or completely annoying song or jingle will get stuck in our head, and there’s no getting it out.  You’ll be going through your day, and suddenly an old snatch of song or phrase (Bob Loblaw) will jump into your awareness.  How does this happen?  Just what are these little hiccoughs of memory and experience?  Why one song instead of another?  Why any song at all?

Though there is division about whether or not music (in particular, one type of music) aids memory, I am more interested in the particulars of spontaneous recall of a song.  Does the pattern of the rain remind me of some subtle rhythm?  Is it a particular phrase that reminds me of half-forgotten lyrics, springing full against my mind?  Does some sharp smell trigger an emotional or even visceral response that calls the past back to life?  Is it movement, the gentle touch of a hand, or the swift shifting between people in a crowd, that triggers the inner mind to sing?  Is it all of these, and something more besides?  Is it some subtle connection of inner vision, emotional and hormonal response of the body, and endless looping sparks of the memory that collide to yank a song from its memory space?

It’s an intriguing thought to me, the way all these triggers could interact.  I hope we don’t come up with a complete answer anytime soon.  It would take some joy out of the pondering, and take some delight out of the song.

Neanderthals and their big, language-filled brains

One of the problems I have with modern news reporting (in addition to poor grammar and inconsistent or immature style) is the lack of concrete data presented. While quotes are used to increase validity, most ‘facts’ can be simply stated without providing the references that would be required for an academic journal, report, or paper. While for print sources such as newspapers, this kind of brevity was probably necessary to reduce costs, in the world of modern internet journalism, it’s hardly necessary. Why not give links to all your fact sources? Could it be that online publications are jealous of their readership, or that in the speed of current reporting, there is not the time or inclination to link to sources? How drole.

Take this recent article from CNN. While it clearly indicates the source for its quotes and references New Science as a location for further information, there are not direct links or complete bibliographic information for any reference. In addition, the findings of one scientist are presented as fact, rather than indicating the variety of opinion on whether or not Neanderthals even had complex language.  Why couldn’t a more diverse representation, as seen in this article, be presented here as well, especially as the claims of Mr. McCarthy seem a little far-fetched?

Let me paint you a picture of my annoyance with the audacity of ‘creating a Neanderthal sentence’, beyond the debate on whether or not they actually spoke.  First off, language is, to a certain extent, arbitrary.  With the notable exception of onomatopoeia, words do not sound like their meanings.  My intended meaning when I speak the word ‘dog’ could just as easily be represented by the sounds ‘oo’, ‘chien’, ‘pajama’, ‘calb’ or ‘gau’.  In addition, various modern languages are made up of sounds that don’t exist in all other languages.   An example many people are familiar with is the Spanish rolled ‘r’ sound, or the click sounds of the African language, Xhosa.  The idea that someone could recreate or interpret meaning from the range of sounds a species could produce is therefore based on at least two fallacies – first, that the sounds made would somehow be translatable into meaning, and second, that the range of sounds producible by an individual of a species would all be used by that individual.

Finally, while the re-creation of the sounds a Neanderthal could make may get us a little closer to understanding them, the idea of recreating what they actually said, how they may have combined sounds and stresses together, seems a bit too extreme for modern linguistics at the moment.  Linguistic studies of a range of languages on Earth through the course of history have been able to draw some conclusions on natural speech patterns in humans.  We know that one type of sound shift is more likely to occur than another (for example, it’s more easy for a ‘t’ sound to change to a voiced ‘th’ sound than the other way around, as in the German vaTer to the English faTHer).  However, there is no certainty that any shift will occur, or how frequently shifts may occur.  It is unclear to me how a Neanderthal range of sounds could then be created by working backward from modern languages, even when taking anthropological discoveries in to account, with any degree of veracity.  In addition, there is no real certainty that the speech patterns we have observed over time in modern man would be equally applicable to Neanderthals.

I am certain I do not understand much of the research involving fossilized larynx and brain and bone studies that Mr. McCarthy is drawing on to make his suppositions.  however, the lack of direct information given by the press and my own limited understanding leads me to interpret the paucity of information as indication of little prof to back up a hypothesis.

Avoiding macular degeneration.

I am a big fan of science.  Not only has it spawned such wonders of fiction as Frankenstein and The Absent-Minded Professor, but it’s also actually made our life better.  Sometimes.

Take the growing body of research on antioxidants, for example.  Not only are they classifying new types of these chemicals every day, the discoveries regarding how antioxidants work are redefining how we understand our own health.  Still, much of this research is not really accessible to the common man.  In the article linked to above, the section titled ‘antioxidants 101’ closes with a reference to macular degeneration, which pretty much stopped me cold.  It’s when part of yoru retina breaks down and you lose most of your vision, in case you were wondering.  So, as educated readers, we don’t understand what ‘oxidation’ means, but we’re all familiar with macular degeneration?  Just what body of semi-scientists or health professionals is this article written for?

At the end at least there are some helpful hints about which foods carry which antioxidants.  I’ll just have to keep my mouth ready for lycopene in red-fleshed fruits like…watermelon or for Isoflavones/Phytoestrogens in those frequently-used cooking substances like flax seed.

The Web has lost me the ability to read.

A part of my current job is to do research for my boss. Sometimes the research is fun, and completely irrelevant, sparked by fancy or perhaps the urge to hone my research skills (such as “Stacey, please find out what kind of weaponry Genghis Khan used from the back of his little pony”). At other times, the research is actually relevant (“Stacey, please look at the Cambridge Associates website for information on securities lending – I want to find out how it works”). Most often, it involves the web rather than the library and I’m very, very good at it. I take pride in my research skills, because it’s one of the things I do that a trained monkey couldn’t do, and therefore makes me feel special. At least specialer than a trained monkey.

Unfortunately my current research project is less than fulfilling.  I’m supposed to be finding one particular line in one of two books.  The table of contents and indices of both books thus far have been less than helpful.  Scanning pages has yielded nothing as yet.  I’m pretty much stumped.  And I’ve also realized how lazy I’ve become.

When I was growing up, in high school and middle school, research meant going to the library and getting books.  The you read, or at least skimmed the books to find the material you needed.  Tables of contents and indices were  key in finding the correct material and analyzing the value of a particular resource.  And I used to be able to do all that well, and fast.  But now, I’m not so sure.  Now, I’ve gotten accustomed to online resources with ‘find’ options within the text and a wide array of summaries and abstracts readily available.  Have I lost my touch?  Or is it only natural to get frustrated with old methods of research that are less efficient?

What I couldn’t do with $30,000

Inventiveness should be cherished.  It’s something that I’ve always felt was true, even though I’m likely to not ever make a better widget-maker.  I value creativity, in the areas of art where I have some potential for benefiting the world, but also in areas of science and most importantly, humaneness.  While the last is obviously the hardest to acheive, I still have utter respect for those who excel at the first two.

The Lemelson prize is a recognition of the second, a recognition of strides made in science inventiveness.  This year’s prize winner is all about bacteriophages, little viruses that infect bacteria.  By redesigning these, the winner was able to use them to target the DNA of bacteria and manipulate its ability to resist antibiotics as well as to produce enzymes that break down the biofilms that bacteria can build up as slimy layers of defense against antiseptics and cleaners.  What’s next?  Proteins for the destruction of viruses?  The manipulation of DNA on a molecular level?  I certainly don’t know.

There was also some discussion of the development of new antibiotics, and how expensive it was.  Evidently the reason most companies don’t take it on is due to the high cost of the process and the low returns due to a decreased use of antibiotics.  There are two contradictory self-defeating propositions there, I suppose counterbalancing each other.  The first is the reduced use of antibiotics due to increased resistance to them, which new developments might be able to overcome, increasing the use of that particular antibiotic.  The second is the increased resistance of bacteria to antibiotics due to the development of new ones that allow bacteria to grow more defensive.

Finally, I would like to discuss the prize of $30,000.  Now, I can understand the recognition we want to give to our inventors, and the bacteriophage work is something I never could have done.  But still, $30,000?  What is the money really for?  Do we think this winner is going to be more inspired to invent more due to his prize, or is this considered just as seed money for potential future developments?  Obviously the addition of funds helps research, but how much is a prize like this really going to fuel that research?  Would the money be better spent on programs that allow for development, rather than an individual?  Conversely, would we have peanut butter diesel fuel if George Washington Carver had won the Lemelson prize?