Thursday, June 9, 2016

Plants, Animals, and Dolomite: Natural Investigations

Dolomite involved in archaeological prank. A site originally thought to be a lost city near the Greek island of Zakynthos turned out to be a weird quirk of geology. Julian Andrews from University of East Anglia has found that the paved floors, courtyards, and colonnades observed underwater were naturally occurring formations and not evidence of a vanished civilization.

"Golden Rice" sucks, but don't blame environmental activists. This genetically modified food was supposed to be a big deal back in the year 2000, and has been described as a "promising idea backed by good intentions." Glenn Stone, of Washington University in St. Louis, has published an article discussing the current state of Golden Rice efforts, and it doesn't seem as promising in its current state — but the shortcomings are not the fault of anti-GMO activists.

Do shy moms make better moms? If those moms are wild boars, and there is plenty of food available, then the answer is yes. Finally, a team from the Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology at the Vienna University of Veterinary Medicine has answered the boar-related questions that we've all been asking about motherhood, food availability, and porcine aggression. Detailed, multi-year work involving personality indices and variable feeding regimes has definitively concluded that the answer is: "It depends."

The wonders of nature, explained by slap-wrap bracelets. The exploding seed pods of popping cress, a common garden weed, are able to function because of unique cell wall geometry that is present in its seed pods. Derek Moulton, of the University of Oxford, explains that it's the same geometric forces that are at work in toy slap bracelets. Previously, scientists thought that the explosive shatter of popping cress was due to the differential contraction of the inner and outer layers of the seed pod as it dried; they were wrong.

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Friday, June 3, 2016

Big Business, Small Business, and Not-For-Profit Business Research

Exciting developments from the business world. Here's some of the latest research:

Protip for banks: Don’t over-invest in mortgages. Dr. Natacha Postel-Vinay at University of Warwick has done some research into Chicago during the great depression; the city had the highest urban bank failure rate at the time. Chicago’s real-estate boom led to a banking sector bust, although I’m sure that couldn’t possibly happen again.

Please don’t wait for the next available register. Syracuse University’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management has found that cashiers take longer to ring up customers when they’re all queued up in the same giant line, while they work faster when each cashier is responsible for their own line of customers. Note the part where they admit that “faster” does not equal “better service.”

“Affordability” is in the eye of the beholder (or voucher holder). Researchers from researchers from Florida Atlantic University, the University of Texas, Arlington, and the University of Utah have found that “affordable housing” is not very affordable when you add in the cost of getting to your job.

You don’t have to be crazy to be an executive at a nonprofit organization, but it helps. NC State University research has found that nowhere near as many of them retire “voluntarily” as had been previously assumed. Be sure to read the quote from the guy saying that the only people who take executive roles are the ones who are too na├»ve to understand what a disaster it’s going to be.

Natural disaster? Entrepreneurs to the rescue! Trenton Williams of Syracuse University has found that entrepreneurship “serves as a vehicle for generating positive social outcomes.” In some situations, survivors of natural disasters can alleviate suffering and generate transformational change for residences experiencing chronic poverty by creating their own businesses.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Frictionless Sharing: Invasive? Or Super Invasive?

If I had to draft a list of things that were objectively worse than Hitler, the Washington Post Social Reader as seen on Facebook would be right up near the top.

Have you seen it? They craft headlines that are incredibly misleading to entice you to click through to the story, but then you can't actually read it until you agree to let the social reader tell all your friends what you're looking at. If they're also interested in the headline, they can't see the accompanying story without telling THEIR friends, and so on.

In fact, I think the concept of "frictionless sharing," the idea that all of your reading, listening, and watching activities online should be broadcast to everyone you know without any effort (or approval!) on your part may be the only thing worse than the social reader.

Is it even legal? Professor Neil M. Richards of Washington University in St. Louis has been in the news lately sharing his concerns about it, so I know I'm not some lone crank. Meanwhile, The Next Web busted SocialCam when it used dodgy techniques to give itself a leg up in online popularity without letting people know just how "frictionless" their experience had become.

The whole concept of frictionless sharing isn't about being frictionless for you and me, the end users, it's about removing the obstacles (read: friction) preventing companies from exploiting you as just another sales tool. I don't care what other people are reading, I don't want other people to know what I'm reading, and I actively resent companies trying to use me as free advertising for their crap.

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Saturday, May 12, 2012

The "Moving Target Defense" (MTD) system, as envisioned by Kansas State University's Scott DeLoach and Xinming Ou, has a computer network automatically change its configurations and settings to deter hackers. It sounds like a great idea, and good for security, until you think about the types of computer networks that will end up using it:

Our robot overlords.

 Seriously, haven't we done enough already to make things easy for the machines that will one day rise up to enslave us? This is like those movies where the hero is all, "WHY DIDN'T YOU BUILD AN OFF SWITCH FOR YOUR DOOMSDAY DEVICE?!"

It's all fun and games, and safely in the realm of the theoretical, until someone actually designs a working model. The problem is that KSU got a million-dollar grant to spend the next five years figuring out how to make it work. I'm sure this will end well.

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Monday, March 14, 2011

Some Jobs More than Others

Let's face facts: Robots are the future. For real this time. Beyond automated assembly lines, we are going to see robots in more and more human-facing roles (and people are looking especially closely at Japan on this one, since they have an older population that vastly outnumbers the working-age population, and someonething is going to have to care for them.)

So, the Georgia Institute of Technology did a study on how effective these robots are going to be in interacting with people. Sounds reasonable. After all, there's no point in blowing an entire R&D budget on Robot Guidance Counselors (that's robots doing the job of guidance counselors, not guidance counselors for robots, by the way) when it turns out that people would rather get life advice from a rolled-up newspaper.

It turns out that robots may have a future in the nursing industry. Grief counselors, not so much. Interestingly enough, subjects responded differently to the exact same robot contact depending on what they thought was happening. People who thought that the robot was cleaning their arm responded much more favorably than people who thought that the robot was trying to "comfort" them.

What does this mean for the sex robots of the future? too early to tell, but there may still be hope for them in certain specialized fetish niches.

(And I demand some recognition for the fact that I made it all the way through this post without changing their "Touched by a Robot" press release title into a "Touched by an Angel" joke!)

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Monday, November 22, 2010

Forced Out?

A study from the University of Haifa has asked whether early retirement is as optional as it appears. According to their data, most people take early retirement options because of workplace pressure. However, their data set was taken from men who had taken early retirement from government companies that became privatized, which makes me wonder how applicable it is across the entire workforce.

I'm not saying government employees are lazy and terrible at their jobs (because plenty of other people are saying it), I'm saying that I can see where a profit-motivated corporation would look to trim its workforce as much as possible. That's probably the source of the pressure cited in the study. Is this kind of thing really happening in companies that aren't making a dramatic shift in managment and objectives?

The ideal put forth by Sigal Naim, who carried out the study, is that "everyone would be able to continue working based on his or her abilities and desires." He goes on to suggest a removal of mandatory retirement ages. That's all well and good in theory, but what happens in reality, when elderly workers who are well past their prime insist on bitterly clinging to jobs that could be used to lower the nation's unemployment rate?

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Sunday, November 7, 2010

Can't BEET it!

Ha ha ha. Sorry for the pun, I just couldn't help myself. I'll try not to go too nuts with this story (because that would be BEET-ing a dead horse!)

Apparently, beet juice is kind of a big deal. They've been looking into it over at Wake Forest University, and it has some pretty beneficial health effects. It's all about the nitrates, which I thought were supposed to be harmful compounds found in processed meat like hot dogs, but then I'm not a university biologist so my knowledge is crap.

The body turns nitrates into nitrites, and nitrites improve blood flow. The Wake Forest researchers divided up their test subjects into a group that ate a lot of nitrates, provided by beet juice, and a group that didn't. Then they switched diets halfway through for the participants to make sure that it really was the food that was having the effect. And in all cases, the research supported the theory that increased nitrate consumption leads to improved blood flow.

From there, they are saying that this improves brain activity, and think it's going to be helpful for older adults.

What I want to know is how nasty it was to have to drink 16 ounces of straight beet juice. That's a full pint glass, and when dealing with glasses of that size, I'd rather have the beer. Does beer help increase the blood flow to the brain? If they're interested in studying that, I want to volunteer to be one of the test subjects!

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The header image is adapted from a photo taken by Bill McChesney and used under a creative commons license.
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