Wednesday, December 31, 2008

When Is Intolerance a Good Thing?

According to health experts, having a high alcohol tolerance is a bad sign. I disagree. As we should be tolerant of others who may have different religious, social, or romantic values, we should also be tolerant of alcohol and all of the friendly pranks it can play on our minds, hearts, and livers.

Like most forms of tolerance, alcohol tolerance is easiest to teach to the young. Studies show that binge drinking at an early age can lead to increased alcohol tolerance later on in life. What better way to prepare your children for the rigors of college life than by giving them a celebratory six pack every time they bring home a good report card?

Okay, I'm just kidding (to a point). Binge drinking children aren't cool. But I also think that there's an unnecessary hate out there for having a high alcohol tolerance. Alcohol is our misunderstood friend. Remember, Science has proven that it's better to keep drinking than to stop.

Keep that in mind when you're out having fun tonight. Happy New Year!

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

How a (partly) blind brain sees

Our knack for improvisation and workarounds is more than just a way we cope with external problems. It's practiced by our very cells themselves.

It turns out that our brains can reorganize themselves to compensate for loss of eyesight due to macular degeneration. Macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in the elderly, is a disease that results in damaged retinas and a loss of vision. Because the vision loss occurs in the center of the visual field, the brain makes up for it by using other parts of the visual field to focus.

What does that mean in English? If your brain can't see what's right in front of you, it compensates by getting information from your peripheral vision (or other areas that your eye can focus on) to fill in the blanks. Kind of cool, really.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

Biological Clocks In Reverse

The candle that burns twice as bright lasts half as long, and until recently it was thought that that the fly that produces twice as many offspring lives half as long. Thank goodness, then, for the USC biologists who found a way to express genes for fruitflies to have more children and expand their lifespan by 5 to 30 percent. I'm sure this is welcome news to all the career-minded fruitflies out there who were worried about their biological clocks.

Of course, the USC researchers are cagey, stating that "the implications for mamals are not clear." I'll tell you what I'd like them to clarify: whether I can live longer by doin' it more often. Oh, sure, there are alread quacks out there making just that claim, but I'd like to have some hard scientific evidence before I commit. (Hee hee, "hard"! Wait, I mean "That's what she said!")

So, in five or ten years, we may have some useful information about human reproduction and genes that can reduce aging. In the meantime, we're stuck with a lot more flies that will be hanging around a lot longer. Way to go!

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Plastics Are Just Straight Crazy

So the University of Wisconsin-Madison has issued a press release about plastics that isn't saying much. It's saying a lot of stuff I already knew--rah rah, plastics are great, plastics are in everything, plastics have some weird properties--but nothing outrageous.

Unlike glass, which is weird for completely different reasons, plastics still maintain the ability to "flow" and rearrange their structure, which makes them so versatile. Unlike regular, crystalline structures, the molecular components of plastic are just kind of jumbled around depending on how the plastic cooled and solidified. This means that they can be rearranged without destroying the plastic completely, and that makes them handy in applications where more rigid materials would be destroyed.

Besides the plastic, there was some other weird stuff in the press release. Did you know that Boeing's new plane, the 787, is going to be 50% polymer (plastic) materials? For comparison, the Boeing 777 is only 10% polymer. There's also a line about how "anyonee who has ever dropped a plastic container from the freezer" knows that low temperatures can make polmers brittle.

I'm clumsy. I've dropped plastic containers, and containers taken from the freezer, and even plastic containers taken from the freezer hundreds of times. I wouldn't say that they were particularly brittle. Am I the only one who didn't notice this?

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Single Moms: Don't Judge 'Em.

It's not like they're bad parents, according to the University of Maryland. Okay, let me rephrase that. It's not like they're not trying as hard as married parents. I'll explain in a minute.

It turns out that single mothers spend 83%-90% as much time caring for their children as married mothers. It's understandable that they have less time to spend with their children, but researchers were surprised to see that single mothers came so close to matching the amount of childcare time that married mothers provide. True, the constraints of their jobs can dictate how much time they will have available for their children, but some single mothers appear to be able to rely on support networks outside of traditional marriage to help them balance their work and their families.

The whole "bad parents" thing? Well, let's just say that time spent with your children doesn't automatically make you a good parent. There are plenty of bad parents--both single and unmarried--who spend lots of time with their kids. They still do a crappy job.

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Friday, December 26, 2008

You Can Finally Rest Easy

Back in 1936, unfettered by the demands on his time that would have been posed by cable television, internet pornography, and the XBox, Sir James Gray had nothing better to think about than dolphins. He wondered how they were able to swim at speeds upwards of 20 mph (no, I refuse to convert that into kilometers, you Europeans are on your own), given their muscle mass.

It sounds cute, but honestly, I'm not sure why anyone cared. They already had that staple of faux-science small talk, the old saw about how a bumblebee is aerodynamically impossible, and should not be able to fly, but I guess that everyone's looking for a new gem of useless trivia that they can trot out when they need something to talk about but want to sound smart.

So the dolphins, right. Rensselaer Polytechnic actually started studying the whole dolphin business. I'm not sure why they needed to; it has already been proven that dolphins can swim fast, why do we need to study whether or not it should be possible for them to swim fast? I guess that's why I'm not a scientist.

Now, more than 70 years later, "Gray's Paradox" has been solved. "The short answer," said the professor who led the project, "is that dolphins are simply much stronger than Gray or many other people ever imagined.”

Well, I never. What are the odds of that?

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Are You Going to Church Today?

I hope so. Not because of the whole "observing the birth of Christ" thing, either. I hope you go because it will make you 20% less likely to die.

Researchers, who had to roll up their sleeves and grit their teeth to Do What Must Be Done for Science, studied 92,395 post-menopausal women. In their studies, they found that women who regularly attented religious services could cut their "risk of mortality" by up to 20%. I like those odds. I'm one of those people who goes to church on holidays anyway, but with news like this, I might want to go more often!

Wait, let me think about that. No, it doesn't seem like you get some kind of "frequent attendance" bonus that reduces your risk of death even further, and I am pretty lazy. I also like sleeping in on Sundays. Maybe I'll keep my churchgoing habits unchanged.

Anyway, Merry Christmas*, everyone! (I know I said it yesterday, but I'm saying it again today. I'm positively overcome with holiday spirit!)

*No, I'm not being insensitive to those observing other holidays. In this case, I am someone who celebrates Christmas, using the traditional phrase of my religion for recognizing the holiday. I am also still a little drunk giddy with the tidings of the season.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Yeah, Right, Like I've Got Something to Say

Friends, acquaintances, faithful blog readers and e-entrepreneurs who swing by this blog just long enough to leave an Entrecard, I'd like to thank you all. It's been a great couple of months, I've had a fun time writing this blog, and I wouldn't have had the motivation to keep at it without each and every one of you.

Of course, I'm also crazy busy getting everything ready for Christmas (Yes, it's tomorrow, yes, I should have started earlier, yes, I'm kind of freaking out about it. DON'T YOU JUDGE ME!). Sadly, this means that I can't deliver the kind of hard-hitting, quasi-investigative blather that you've all come to know and love today. I hope you can forgive me for it.

So for those of you celebrating tomorrow, I'd like to wish you a Merry Christmas. Those of you who celebrate other holidays, or observe Christmas on other days, you have fun, too, whenever it's culturally appropriate for you to do so. (Enjoy all the commas in the preceding sentence. They are my Christmas gift to you.) Have fun, be safe, and I'll be back at it tomorrow.

In the meantime, I have a lot of things to take care of before my annual Christmas tradition of getting blind drunk on vodka.



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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Dementia and the Internet

What does FTD (frontotemporal dementia, not the florist) have in common with internet message boards? They both give people extreme difficulty detecting sarcasm.

FTD is the second most common form of dementia, and leaves its victims unable to detect the moods of other people. One in 4,000 people are suffering from FTD and unable to tell when their caregivers are depressed or angry. They're also quite frequently conned into giving away large amounts of money (no, there is no directory of FTD patients. I checked.)

Researchers have now developed a test to diagnose FTD, to tell if patients can spot discrepancies between a person's words and the tone of their voice. Basically, they have actors run through a script once playing it "straight," and a second time loading up their words with sarcasm ("I'm ever so glad we're spending millions of dollars to study soil composition.") FTD patients always take the spoken words literally.

"When questioned about the applicability of the test to people from countries not renowned for their appreciation of sarcasm or irony, Hodges said the test could be modified." Are they sure he wasn't being sarcastic?

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Vibrating Keeps You Slim (WARNING: May Contain Gratuitous Use of the Word "Bone")

Oh, the things they do to mice, in those science labs of theirs. Recent studies have shown that exposing mice to "high frequency and low magnitude mechanical signals" (read: vibrations) can keep them from developing fat, and also helps to regulate their bone production. This sounds to me a lot like those old school exercise machines with the belt that would jiggle you around, but I'm sure that this study was done for valid medical reasons and not just because the mice wanted to be members of a very tiny gym.

Somebody with deep pockets had to see some sort of potential in it, because they're handing out a grant for $1.8 million to study the phenomenon further. Okay, you twisted my arm, the "somebody" issuing the grant is the National Institutes of Health.

It does seem like good news, in that this is supposed to be research that will treat diabetes and osteoporosis. More than 60% of Americans are overweight and obese, while approximately 200 million people worldwide are struggling with osteoporosis. Still, if I was going to use loaded words like bone, vibration, and possibly vibrator in a story of my own, I think it would steer clear of fatties and old people. And it probably wouldn't be something that was safe for kids to read.

And yes, I could have put a Beach Boys joke about "good vibrations" in this post, but I chose to take the high road.

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sea Worms and Shattered Faces

If I lived near a beach, I'd spend most of my time walking along it and looking for crap that I could use as a makeshift glue to hold things in place inside my body. Wouldn't you? I mean, what else is there worth doing at a beach?

Sadly, any breakthroughs I wished to make in the glamorous field of seaborne adhesives look like they've already been made. The University of Utah has been studying Sandcastle worms, which live in intertidal surf (naturally, Utah would be the source of that kind of research, due to its proximity to the oceans). The worms build their homes by gluing together whatever materials are on hand, be they eggshells, beads, sand, etc.

The glue is worth studying because most current glues don't stick to wet surfaces. How often do you think surgeons deal with dry surfaces when they're trying to reconstruct broken bones? Since current glues are useless in the bloody environs of the human body, this new worm glue might help hold small bone fragments in place while they heal (which is necessary because screws and wires aren't great for smaller bone pieces).

It's premature to celebrate, though. The synthetic worm glue that researchers have synthesized only performs 37% as well as commercial superglue. I'd say that some more research is in order.

This article was fun to read for a few reasons, but mostly because of the phrase "shattered faces."

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Great Leapers, or Greatest Leapers?

Dalhousie University (remember them? Famous for their groundbreaking study of psychopaths?) has crowned a new highest jumper of the insect kingdom: the spit bug.

Have you ever seen spitbug nests? Maybe you have and didn't recognize them. It looks like someone hocked a big loogie on a plant (hence the name). Those bubbles? The spitbug blows them out its rear to build a frothy nest.

Anyway, as nasty as they are, they're apparently incredibly high jumpers. They can leap 100 of their own body lengths in a single jump. That's like a person jumping 600 feet.

It's supposed to be a defense mechanism to escape birds. It builds up muscle power and --KAPOW-- jumps away at 13 feet per second. Pretty impressive.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Fat Chicks Gone Wild

Obese women just can't control themselves. That's what they're claiming at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. According to their studies, obese women have "a more feeble impulse control."

It's back to delay discounting. UAB thinks that obese women aren't able to do it as effectively. I guess you could make an argument that the two are linked. After all, the ability to put off present (food) rewards in favor of long term (health) benefits would explain the weight gain. Still, I love eating, hate exercising, and don't think about the future consequences of my current meals, but I wouldn't say that I have poor impulse control.

Then again, I haven't been subjected to a medical study like UAB's. They determined how effectively the participants could delay their rewards by offering them cash now or more cash later. I would totally participate in medical studies for cash, no matter how quickly they paid me.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Does Church Make You Feel In Control?

Or does the feeling that you have some control over your life make you more likely to go to church?

The University of Toronto has uncovered a link between religious devotion and the feeling that one has personal control over events in one's life. (Yes, I know that using "one" in that sentence was awkward, but it's tough to convey what they're studying in a simple sentence.)

Do you think you have control over your life? Do you spend much time in church, or observing religious rituals? The UT study expected to find that people who were very involved with religious activities felt as though they had less control. After all, the universe supposed to follow God's plan, right? And who are we to question (or worse yet, influence!) what God does? I think it's fine for people to let the church play an active role in their lives, as long as it's not telling them to do things that are harmful.

The question that it raises for me is which is the cause, and which is the effect. Does going to church help people feel like they are taking more control over the events around them? Or do people go to church because they already think that they can control things in their lives, and they are using prayer to exert that control?

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

You Could Do It In Your Sleep

Well, you could learn it while awake, and then sleep to be sure you formed strong memories about it. I'm a fan of sleep. I think it cures a lot of problems. That's why I'm not surprised by the University of Chicago's report that sleep can help you learn.

Of course, the study is also near and dear to my heart because it involved video games. They looked at people playing video games and tested groups that slept in between rounds versus groups that did not. It turns out that the most effective way to learn something is to study, sleep, and then study some more; the test subjects that showed the most improvement were the ones that slept in between rounds.

Sadly, I don't think you can get the same effect from sleeping in class. If it did, my grades would have been much better. Rather, it looks like sleep is a way for your mind to sort and file the information you have learned, so that it can be recalled more effectively later.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cybernetic Tiger Lillies

Are they still cyborgs if they're part machine, part plant? I ask because that's going to be the wave of the future, if our discarded nanotechnology ends up in plants. Now we not only have to worry about robot insurrection, but rhododendron ascension as well.

The University of Delaware has proven that plants can absorb nanoparticles into their tissues. With a little work, they found that pumpkin seeds were able to absorb iron oxide nanoparticles. Naturally, it was a soil physicist who did the study.

The alarm they're raising is that if the nanoparticles can get into plants, then other animals that eat those plants will be passing the particles along the food chain. That's not good news, but neither is the thought of these plants getting hold of advanced nanotechnolgy and using it to become superplants. Then we're screwed.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Is your new friend a Psychopath?

Because psychopaths can smell fear.

Just kidding. It's far more mundane than that; psychopaths just notice women who are sad, lonely, and downtrodden, and remember details about them more easily so that they can target them later. Kind of like lions picking the slowest and weakest of the herd.

Dalhousie University, which is apparently breaking new ground in the exciting field of psychopath studies, has released a new study. First, they singled out the study participants who were psychopaths. Then, they separated the test subject psychopaths from the ones who were running the study (ZING!). Then they showed them a series of pictures of women.

All of the test subjects were told that some of the women from the pictures were happy, some were sad, some had high-paying jobs, and some had low-paying jobs. In addition to the mini-biographies, the subjects were told the names of the women in the photos.

The psychopaths did a better job recalling the details of the unhappy, poor women, and a worse job remembering details for everyone else. Other test subjects weren't as focused on the sad, lonely, victim demographic, and couldn't recall details about them as well.

It raises an interesting question. Why is this professor so interested in psychopaths?

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Toothlessness: Nature or Nurture?

Nearly one-fourth of the children in the United States didn't see the dentist last year. Now, I hate going to the dentist, and I find it tough to care about other people's children (I'm a jerk like that), but according to the University of South Carolina, it's a public health problem.

I guess that they have a point. For one thing, these kids are going to grow up to be toothless adults. And Halitosis ain't pretty.

Still, I learned some things from this study. Did you know that the United States can designate Dental Health Professional Shortage Areas? It's a fact! Of course, I don't see the federal government training any new dentists to improve the situation, but at least they're keeping an eye on it.

Also interesting? Vermont led the nation in children receiving dental care. Actually, by "interesting," I meant to say "boring." Vermont, call me when you decide to start living on the edge. Until then, you have fun with your cheese and your dentists, but don't think for a second that you're hardcore.

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Why Your Coworkers Want You Fired

It's not personal, it's just business. They think that by getting you in trouble, they can distract attention from themselves. They'll throw you under the bus in a heartbeat if it means keeping their own job.

An assistant professor of management at the University of New Hampshire thinks that as the economy gets worse, you'll see more and more of that behavior. I don't know if I'd go so far as to agree with his claim that we're "obsessed with assigning blame," but I've definitely taken the fall for idiot coworkers before (and probably will in the future!). The tough part, as he accurately points out, is when you've been wrongfully accused--working to clear your name just makes you look more guilty.

So, I guess that the moral of the story is that the worse the economy gets, the more important that it is to blame other people watch your ass, and make sure you won't be left holding the bag if things fall apart.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Teens Are Trying To Kill You

No, not with their go-go lifestyle of loud music, wild drugs, and wilder sex. They want to kill you with their cars. They're so hell bent on driving that they don't bother getting their license first, and end up being some of the most dangerous hazards on the road.

Unlicensed teens drive recklessly, and don't follow traffic laws. Why should they? They're already driving without a license. The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia found that 20% of the 14- to 18-year-old drivers involved in fatal car accidents were driving without a license. Unlicensed drivers are more likely to drive drunk or while on drugs, drive without using a seatbelt, and "driving without a purpose," which sounds crazy dangerous. Damn kids.

Much like those PSAs they run saying that drunk drivers aren't as dangerous to themselves as they are to other people, these unlicensed teen drivers are a real health hazard. There are some comically racist conclusions in the study as well, about urban vs. rural teens and which minorities are most likely to drive without a license, but it's not really worth mentioning.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

What Bacteria and your Crazy Aunt Have in Common

They both love to knit, but you can actually see the hideous and useless (uselessly hideous? hideously useless?) sweaters that your aunt makes, while bacteria can weave things that are as useful as they are invisible to the naked eye.

Did you know that bacteria can secrete fibers, like butterflies and spiders? Small fibers, sure, but I don't think I need to remind you of what they say about thousand-mile journeys and single steps. So five years ago in Sweden, some scientists tried to control these bacteria to get them to produce useful shapes. And they did. Right now the bacteria produce artificial blood vessels (read: simple tubes, and tubes that are not approved for use in medical procedures involving humans, but again, miles and steps).

These days, the researchers involved have set up shop at Virginia Tech, and they've got big plans. They've now figured out how to use electrical fields to control the bacteria so that they can weave custom architectures in three dimensions. It's promising because the bacteria could build tiny scaffolding for things like bone grafts or cartilage repair. Of course, it's also going to be proprietary technology, only available from the companies involved for whatever sky-high rates they decide to charge, but what else is new in health care?

Besides, it won't be too long before the enslaved bacteria figure out how to knit the weapons and armor they need to throw off the shackles of their human oppressors...

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Fight Fat with Text Messaging

Oh, if only sending texts to people burned calories. That's what I thought when I saw the headline that text messaging helps keep kids slim, but UNC-Chapel Hill is just a big tease.

They're not telling us that you can keep your kids trim and healthy by making them send text messages to each other, they're encouraging people to keep their kids slim with digital nagging. It's weight watchers for tech geeks.

Three groups of test subjects (families of parents and children) were given instructions for healthy living and then asked about the amount they walked, the number of sweetened drinks they drank in a day, and the amount of time they spent in front of a (TV or computer) screen over the course of the study.

The group that reported their results via cell phone text message stayed at it the longest, with only 28% dropping out. I thought it was funny that while 50% of the non-reporting group dropped out, a massive 61% of the group that was supposed to write down their results in a diary said "Screw this, I've got better things to do with my time."

The saddest part was the automated messages that were sent back to the text messaging group whenever they reported their results. I see the next big internet startup being programs that generate text messages of encouragement to you while you're on a diet. "Good job, CITIZEN, you did great work REDUCING YOUR CALORIC INTAKE BY -2%."

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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Pediatricians Make Lousy Bartenders

Look, drunks make lousy parents. I'm not going to argue that. However, I am willing to discuss the level of intervention that the state should take when it comes to identifying and intervening when it is suspected that a parent has a drinking problem.

No, I'm not writing about something that happened to me (yet). I'm talking about the goody two-shoes parents who told Children's Hospital Boston that it's okay to get screened for alcohol abuse while they're taking their child to the doctor. Of the 879 parents asked, 90% were open to being asked about their alcohol use.

The problem with alcohol screening is that the thresholds are set way too low. This study found that one in every nine parents were found to have a "positive alcohol screen," and 75% of the parents with a positive screen were willing to be screened for alcohol problems during the visit--probably because they didn't know they'd be "problem" cases.

Then the researchers launched further attacks, raising the possibility that the parents who declined the screening were probably also drunks who knew they'd fail the test. If you're not guilty, you have nothing to hide, right? (/sarcasm)

Yes, alcoholics bad, responsible parents good. Still, they've got no right poking into my business, and they can take my ice-cold Schlitz when they pry it out of my ice-cold (dead) hand!

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Monday, December 8, 2008

You May Already Be Asleep

And not even know it. Your brain might just be waiting for one more segment to fall asleep before it shuts you down completely. Seriously.

Have you ever wondered why you can't remember the exact moment that you go to sleep? That always seemed weird to me. It turns out that a Washington State University paper is proposing that parts of our brain fall asleep little by little. The big sleep, the total shut down where you stop registering your surroundings and start dreaming, happens once a large enough portion of your brain has gone to sleep.

I like the cut of this paper's jib. It makes sense to me; it explains how I can be working on boring, repetitive tasks and just completely lose track of what I'm doing (parts of my brain fell asleep, but I stayed awake overall).

I'm also a fan of their argument for "sleep inertia," where your brain wakes up a little at a time. It explains why you're sluggish in the morning (or in my case, from the time the alarm goes off until four hours later).

The only weird question that this study raises is how I can tell if I'm awake or asleep at any given moment. Maybe I'm conscious, but most of my brain is asleep?

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Sunday, December 7, 2008

It's CSI with a Calculator

Looking at dirt might not be a very appealing career option, but there's a certain level of coolness to be found in catching criminals. Even if you catch them by staring at spreadsheets, account balances, and wire transfers. Forensic accounting has now become a large enough field to support four undergraduate programs in the United States.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham is tooting their own horn in a recent press release, but they are one of those 4 schools that offer forensic accounting. (That's right four whole courses of undergraduate training. That kind of intensive study almost guarantees your status as an expert.)

They raise a valid point; people will be more tempted to commit financial crimes as the economy gets worse. There could be an increased demand for forensic accountants to catch these white-collar criminals. There could also be an opportunity for a crooked forensic accountant to make a killing by selling his knowledge to the highest bidder.

What? I'm just sayin'. Yeah, it was a bit of a slow news day, why do you ask?

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Saturday, December 6, 2008

What's REALLY Hiding in all that Dirt?

I don't know. Do you? Should either of us care?

The Soil Science Society of America thinks we should care, and want to know why we aren't doing our part to learn about dirt. They've gone so far as to investigate why there is a declining number of soil science students in America, and wrote it up in the Journal of Natural Resources and Life Science Education.

The lack of interest is understandable. I mean, it's dirt, right? How exciting is it going to get? If these people want to entice college students to spend more time studying the soil, they've got their work cut out for them. I have no idea how I'd make the study of dirt sound exciting. Do you?

Wait, maybe I have an idea after all. Some of the spy shows I watch have the secret agents claiming to be soil scientists as a cover identity. Maybe they could start telling people that soil sciences is what the future James Bonds of the world are choosing for a major? Maybe not.

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Friday, December 5, 2008

Is Half a Liver Better than None?

Apparently not. Crappy, low-grade livers may even be more dangerous than not getting a liver at all, when it comes to the organ transplant waiting list. Still, would you be willing to play god, deciding who will live and who will die?

The University of Michigan has launched a scathing attack on the status quo for liver allocations. At least, it's as scathing as you'd expect a scientific document to be. Under the current system, the Model for End-Stage Liver Disease (MELD), the sickest patients get the best quality livers the fastest. That sounds good on the face of it, but it turns out to have had grave and inintended consequences.

Since the sickest patients are getting the high-quality livers first, that means that other transplant patients are getting lower quality, high-risk livers. According to the study, some of the patients that have a low pre-transplant risk of death end up getting harmed by receiving a transplanted liver.

Just like the issues involved in experimenting on pregnant women, there are some tough ethical questions raised. Should the risky livers go to the patients with the lowest odds of survival, since they probably won't be able to use it to the fullest anyway? Or should the transplant recipients in good shape be given the low-quality organs because they have a better chance of pulling through afterwards?

It's a call I'm glad I don't have to make, but it's also a strong argument for temperance.

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Thursday, December 4, 2008

Are You Genetically Reckless, or Behaviorally?

So, children of parents who smoke are more impulsive and more likely to take risks. In fact, both the children and their parents are more impulsive, according to Nationwide Children's Hospital.

It's all about your "delay discounting" ability, which is fancy talk for being able to put off a small reward in the present for a greater reward in the future (although in the case of smoking, it's more like ditching a small reward in the present to avoid a massive punishment in the future, but who am I to argue with science?). The cigarette-smoking parents want their rewards right here and now; it's why they smoke. The study is showing that apples don't fall far from their respective trees since the children of smokers are also choosing the immediate rewards.

Of course, they left off the crucial question: do they make these choices because they were raised that way, or is it part of their genetic makeup? Would it have made a difference if they had laid down some ground rules?

I can put off something good in the present if I'm sure there's something great in store for the future, but I think it's something my parents taught me.

What about you? Where do you think it comes from?

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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

First Shots Fired in War on Christmas

Why does the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) hate Christmas so much? Alternatively, what do they gain from pushing their pro-sprinkler agenda? Finally, what should I have chosen as my college major to land a job setting things on fire for money?

That's right. NIST sets Christmas trees on fire. And then videotapes it. How's that for a research project?

The videos were made to show the effectiveness of sprinkler systems in stopping fires, and used Christmas trees to put a seasonal spin on their message. I don't plan on installing a sprinkler system anytime soon, but it looks like it's something I should think about. Dying in a house fire is not on my list of things to do in the new year.

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Earwax is a Goddamn Miracle

So you leave it right where it is, understand?

I know this because Harvard Medical School told me. Aren't you glad that they're finally studying something worthwhile?

According to the eggheads in the ivory tower, earwax is a useful substance that serves as a natural cleanser with antibacterial and antifungal properties (and thank god, because ear fungus is the last thing I need). As it moves out of your ear, it carries all kinds of garbage away with it, and that keeps you healthy. So healthy, in fact, that you're supposed to let it do its thing without interference.

They've actually bothered to evaluate various methods of earwax removal (the winner? A few drops of liquid such as plain water, saline solution, or hydrogen peroxide, allowed to soak into the wax and drain out afterwards), and they warn people against trying too hard to remove the wax. The old standby, trying to scoop wax out with a cotton swab, is bad news, since it tends to push earwax back into the ear. That can lead to an ear canal plugged up with earwax, causing problems like earaches and infections.

Yes. Scientists were paid money to study this. Yes, I also spent time writing about it. And now the joke's on you, for spending your time reading about it. So who's the winner in all this? The ones walking away with the grant money, that's who.

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Monday, December 1, 2008

Are You Gonna Eat That?

Because those pigs totally will, if you won't. Or those chickens, or those cows over there, or maybe some dogs. It turns out that one-third of the world's ocean fish catch is just fed to animals.

Pig feed, chicken feed, even farm-raised fish are being fed ground up "bait fish" or forage fish such as anchovies, sardines, and menhade (a species I had not heard of until reading the report). All told, it's 31.5 million tons of fish that could be either fed to hungry people or more importantly kept in the goddamn ecosystem to keep our ocean stocks from collapsing, but I guess that those factory farms needed some kind of substitute now that the threat of mad cow disease has kept them from grinding up cows to feed to other cows.

The whole thing makes me equal parts angry and scared.

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Sunday, November 30, 2008

If It LOOKS Better, It Must TASTE Better

So say children everywhere. Were you embarrassed to eat the generic, store brand cereal? The stuff that came in the sacks instead of the boxes? With the almost-but-not-quite-the-same cartoon mascots? I know it made me feel weird.

It's part of a deliberate marketing strategy (of course). And it's working. The American Public Health Association has found that children who are offered cereal with well-recognized cartoon mascots on the box (Tony the Tiger, Snap, Crackle & Pop, Sugar Bear, etc.) found that it tasted better than the exact same cereal from a box without the character.

There's another piece of the research that's a little more heartening. Children thought that a cereal with a healthy-sounding name tasted better than the same cereal with a less-healthy name. So, all we have to do is trust that marketers will be truthful in choosing cereal names that reflect the nutritional value of their product. What could go wrong with that?

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

One Step Closer to Cyborgs

Not that mimetic polymer alloy or whatever that the shape changing T-1000s were made of, but we're getting there. We've now developed organic microscopic wires that assemble themselves in water.

They're called organic because they're derived from carbon-based compounds.

Now, you may ask yourself if this is a good idea. Do we even need microscopic wires that are 10,000 times smaller than human hair? And what's so great about getting them to assemble themselves in water? Well, according to the researchers, it's going to help with medical breakthroughs.

How they're going to help remains to be seen. In fact, the wording of the press release even leaves it vague as to whether these "wires" will actually conduct electricity. Still, I'm sure someone will figure out a way to use them as a stepping stone to world domination.

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Friday, November 28, 2008

Black Friday? We're All In It Together

Seriously. If we work together, we can drive prices down. North Carolina State University has completed a study showing that comparing prices at multiple online retailers will contribute to driving down the prices of that product.

Think about it. Online retailers monitor their traffic more obsessively than ever. Everyone's terrified that they'll have terrible holiday sales figures, and they're trying to remain as competitive as possible. When they see you're going to other sites with lower prices, they'll have to lower prices themselves if they want to stay in business.

There's some other stuff in the study, about loyal customers, switching customers, the ratio of each, but I got bored and stopped paying attention. I mean, I'm not running a store, so why do I care? The short version of the extra stuff is that some retailers won't care, and will shaft you anyway on the prices because they have enough loyal customers to get away with it.

Don't get shafted! Do your research! Shop around!

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thankful for Excuses to Sell Things

It's Thanksgiving day, and that's one of my favorite holidays. I think that makes it a great day to check one of my favorite websites, the Association for Dressings and Sauces website. They've got a press release for every month of the year (although they could stand to update a few of the ones that are 2+ years old).

The Association has a press release about the holidays that's for the month of December, but I think a lot of their tips would work for Thanksgiving. And by "tips" I mean "excuses to push dressings and sauces." What else would you expect from a trade organization?

Some of it's kind of inventive. For example, they recommend having bowls of fruit as a substitute for candy or chocolates. Then they recommend that you serve them with some sort of fruit dip. They suggest basting your turkey with a tangy or smoky sauce from the grocery store. And not to neglect their dressing contingent, they recommend that you make the leftover turkey into a salad later--so you can top it with salad dressing.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Hold Your Nose for Extra Years

It's totally not fair that roundworms get all the cool scientific breakthroughs, but whatever. Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis went ahead and extended their life spans by up to 29%. And they didn't even have to genetically splice them into chimeras or godless abominations that were half worm, half radioactive monster.

I thought the tag line about eating less helping you live longer was unrelated, but it's actually an interesting part of the test. Reducing your calorie intake increases your lifespan. Researchers found that treating roundworms with a chemical to block their sense of smell prevented them from detecting food. Since they couldn't find food as effectively, they didn't eat as much and ended up living longer.

It looks like Weight Watchers should think about giving out nose plugs with their memberships.

I'm sure that worms everywhere will be happy to hear this news. Of course, that's assuming they can avoid the Rooping iron.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Chaos Kills in the Workplace

How many studies have to be released about lousy bosses before people realize that they are a serious health hazard? I mean honestly, they can do worse than kill a company. The really bad ones keep the company going long enough to completely destroy all their employees.

The Health Behavior News Service is taking a timid stance on the matter but admitting that instability in the workplace MIGHT lead to increased risk of heart attacks.

I guess that Finland has just wrapped up a study showing that your risk of heart attack is 1.8 times higher in a disorganized setting than it is in an organized one. By "organized," we're talking clear division of tasks, workers who understand their job responsibilities and what they're being judged on, and how everyone is supposed to work together.

I don't think I've ever worked at a job like that. I guess I'd better start looking out for my heart.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

How Far Would You Go to Avoid Scarring?

I thought it was just a fad, but apparently having major surgery via your vagina is the next big thing. It almost makes me wish I had a vagina; I feel like I'm missing out.

Anyway, having surgeons go in through your "natural orifices" is supposed to mean less time healing and no external scarring, but since you're already having surgeons cram things into your body unnaturally, you might as well go whole hog and just have them cut you open.

This time around, they did it for more than just weight loss. Surgeons at UC California Medical Center actually repaired a hernia.

I think this is going to end up as bad news for dudes, though. It scares me to think of where they'd want to put the instruments.

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Rock Dots

They're a big deal. No, really. A set of dots, or small impressions made in a rock, are apparently the earliest animal footprints ever found in the fossil record.

Two parallel rows of small dots found in the rocks date back 570 million years, and suggest that animals started using legs about 30 million years earlier than thought. Animals started using tiny, tiny legs, since each print is about 2 millimeters in diameter. As far as the "animal" these tracks came from are concerned, well, it probably wasn't what I think of when I hear the word animal.

Still, it's nice to know that this time, it wasn't the tracks of a massive killing machine. I'm getting a little tired of hearing about how many of those used to roam the earth.

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

But Binge Drinking Seemed Like Such a Good Idea

I know, I know, you're stunned to hear that binge drinking could be bad for your health. Still, it's shocking but true, and proven by Loyola University that binge drinking can mess with your bones. According to the study, alcohol "disturbs" the genes necessary to maintain your skeletal health.

Oh sure, you're staving off lung cancer, but you're also risking brittle bones when you drink. To me, the phrase "alcohol-induced bone loss" sounds pretty grim, and while I'd welcome the chance to have my bones replaced with more efficient, more durable plastic versions, I don't think that medical science is at that stage yet.

That's why I take calcium supplements. Hey, if you wash them down with White Russians, the milk gives your bones an extra boost as well, right?

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Churches Are Bad for Your Mind

It's sad, really.

I'm a fan of churches, and I think that they have a place in a healthy society. We neglect our spirituality only at a terrible cost.

The problem is that church authorities, like everyone else, can end up causing problems when they're not careful about applying their authority. Like, for example, if someone went to their church for help with a mental illness and was told that there was nothing wrong with them.

A study at Baylor University found that not only do more people turn to the clergy first for help when in mental distress, but also that the church frequently discourages them from seeing a medical health professional.

Depression is serious business. So are other mental illnesses like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. And yet when 293 Christians finally found the courage to try and seek help for their problems, more than 32% of them were dismissed; told that they didn't "really" have a mental illness, that it was just "personal sin, lack of faith, or demonic involvement."

Why do Priests hate Doctors?

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

It's as American as not bothering to learn English

You know how you can get stuck with huffy people in elevators who are always yelling at people about how "You're in AMERICA! Speak ENGLISH or LEAVE!"? I used to deal with people like them all the time. Hearing people speak in a foreign language really got them worked up, for reasons I never understood.

So, in Wisconsin, they've found out that people like that would have been just as pissed off in the 1800s as they are today. The idea that immigrants coming to America immediately learned the language and started blending in? Yeah, that's a myth.

In fact, the UW-Madison looked at German settlers in Wisconsin from as far back as 1839, and found that some of them never bothered to learn English. In some cases, they lived in the U.S. for over 50 years and remained "monolingual" (German-speaking only). Even after a law was passed in 1889 requiring schools to be taught in English, school districts would still write to the office of the state school superintendent entirely in German.

It looks like we've been able to carry on since then without witnessing the complete collapse of society. I guess it's not as bad as some people make it out to be.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Toothless Chicks Are God's Plan

Or they're at least a noble tradition stretching back through the millennia. That's what the University of Oregon found out after researching the issue extensively. And it's about time.

It's actually quite the subject of academic debate. The prevailing thought was that as societies shifted from hunter/gatherers to farming-based, the change in their diet led to an increase in cavities. Anthropologist John R. Lukacs agrees that women experienced an increasing number of cavities as a result of the societal shift, but not due to diet. Lukacs argues that the societal shift away from hunting and gathering led to increased sedentism and fertility. It was the increase in fertility that led to increased cavities more than anything else.

Did you know that women get more cavities than men? It was news to me, but I'm not really up on my orthodontic trivia. The idea that pregnancy leads to poor dental health was also a surprise, but not something I had spent a lot of time worrying about.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

How to Raise a Victim

I used to call them "disaster magnets" in college. You know, the people who always had things going wrong? Their parents were on disability, their (other) friends committed suicide, they were sexually assaulted, their landlords were going to evict them, their exes were stalking them, etc. They were drama central, and I was always afraid to be around them for extended periods of time in case whatever they had was contagious.

Well, the Archives of General Psychiatry says that they were raised that way. In fact, some families can raise children who are "consistently victimized," and these "chronic victims" usually come from poor backgrounds and have strict parents. You all remember where strict parenting leads, right?

The study is suggesting that these children need "early preventive interventions," and I agree for the most part. The thing is that the research appears to be based on Canadians. I'm not sure if that excludes the results or gives it more validity (ZING! I'm just kidding, Canadians, you're good people with great syrup and a fabulous hockey tradition.)

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Space Mafia Flummoxed By Space Cement Shoes

Do you think about concrete as much as I do? Probably not. I bet you never concerned yourself with the fact that traditional concrete needs to work with a binder that's usually cement and water, but water is hard to come by in outer space. When you find it, you're better off using it for other things, like survival.

That means that when we go to the moon and beyond, we're going to want to rethink our plans to build permanent structures out of concrete. (I know, the science fiction books all have us using plasteel, or crazy super plexiglass, or some other space-age polymer mumbo jumbo, but we haven't invented those yet, have we? Seriously. Have we? I'd like to know. But I digress...) Not to mention the mafia will have a tougher time fitting people with cement shoes out there in the void.

I guess we could still use concrete, if someone figured out how to make concrete without water, like they did at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. I guess that they think about concrete as much as I do.

In a way, I'm kind of heartened to see so many scientists trying to figure out how to build things on the moon. I mean, we're not planning on landing there anytime soon, and I'm pretty sure that the space budget isn't going to be a priority until well after we're out of this current financial crisis, but it shouldn't be totally put on the back burner.

If you were going to build a space city, what would you use as your construction material?

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Why Checklists Are Best Left to Doctors

Checklists have their place as a diagnostic tool, but they're best used by doctors and kept out of the hands of patients. It make sense when you think about it; hypochondriacs will run down the list writing that they have everything from ebola to parkinson's, while other people won't mention the fact that their speech recently became slurred and their left side is completely numb because they see admitting pain as a weakness. But now there's a real study to back it up.

American Medical News (the newspaper of the American Medical Association) is reporting that written screening tests can confuse some patients, and may have their effectiveness limited by "deficiencies in literacy." How deficient? Only about 16% of the 300 men over 40 understood all of the questions on their test survey. Worse yet, 28% misunderstood all of the questions.

That's not even counting the people who suck at math (politely described as "innumerate" in the article). I know I have a tough time even answering the doctor's verbal questions. "Is it a stabbing pain, a shooting pain, or a burning pain?" Hell if I know. Are you going to stab, shoot, or burn me for comparison? I hope not.

Am I the only one who has a tough time explaining what's wrong with me to my doctor?

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Real Reason You Smoke When You Drink

The risks cancel each other out.

Red wine prevents lung cancer. I don't think we need to elaborate on that point, but just in case, you may be interested in the study from the American Association for Cancer Research.

Sadly, it's only red wine, not beer, white wine, or liquor, but it could be worse. You average two percent less of a risk for lung cancer with each glass of red wine you consume per month. Booze hounds who sucked down one to two glasses of red wine per day reduced their risk of lung cancer by 60 percent. Of course, the scientists were quick to note that the most effective way to reduce lung cancer risk is not to smoke at all, but they're probably the same people who think that you should wear a helmet while riding a bicycle and wash your hands after going to the bathroom, afraid to live life on the edge.

There is one downside to this that I can think of. The French? Yeah, they're gonna be insufferable, all hanging around longer than ever in their cafes with their surly attitudes and refusing to get lung cancer. I guess it's good news for beret salesmen, though.

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Friday, November 14, 2008

And Beaten with a Rooping Iron

Let's talk about Worm Grunting, because it's completely awesome. You go into the woods, drive a stake into the ground, and then beat it with a rooping iron, which drives worms all around up to the surface. That, my friends, is worm grunting, and you do it to pick up bait before going fishing.

It's really more of a rubbing motion with the rooping iron (a special piece of metal), but Vanderbilt University Researchers wanted to know why some hillbillies with sticks (excuse me, "Apalachicola residents who have collected decades of experience with subsistence living") were able to get such dramatic results. It turns out that the answer is moles.

A digging mole can eat up to its own weight in worms in a single day, and it sounds a lot like a worm grunter. To escape from a mole, earthworms will dig to the surface and wriggle as far away from the sound as they can before returning to the earth. Worm grunters take advantage of this fact by scaring the worms to the surface.

I for one, think that we should be thanking these earthworms for their noble contributions to society, not only as bait, but for the addition of new words into the English lexicon including "worm grunting" and "rooping iron." I know I'm going to try to use them in a sentence, at least once a day.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Religious Kids Have More Incentive To Lie

At least, that's the conclusion that I've drawn from a study conducted by Brigham Young University sociologists. I think my findings are as valid as theirs, even if they were looking at a link between religion and marijuana use.

The study measured "religiosity" in teenagers, defined as how freqently they attended church and how important religion was to them. The researchers examined data sets from a National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health and a state-wide survey of Utah schools. They compared answers to conclude that teens with more "religiosity" were half as likely to use marijuana, drink alcohol, or smoke.

Interestingly enough, this religiosity didn't affect the likelihood of their using cocaine or heroin.

Are we really going to take these teenagers at their word? First, it's completely possible that they're upwardly exaggerating the number of times that they go to church. I do it all the time. Second, wouldn't the kids who ARE more religious want to avoid being judged by their church and their peers for using drugs? Oh, sure, their religion might consider lying to be a sin, but if they're already sinning by using drugs, why wouldn't they lie about it?

I'm not saying that participating in a religious community has no benefits at all, I just want to be cautious about not overestimating them. After all, good parenting is important, too.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Has your appendix burst: Y/N (Check One)

Sorry for the title, but the news from Johns Hopkins Children's Center has me thinking of those fifth-grade "do you like me" questions you'd pass to each other as notes. It's actually a serious issue, since it involves sick kids, which is kind of sad, and also vomiting and diarrhea, which is difficult to deal with even in non-life-threatening circumstances.

It's tough to tell the stomach flu from appendicitis--past research shows that half o f appendicitis cases are misdiagnosed when first evaluated by a doctor. That's why the medical center developed a checklist that doctors can run down to make sure that they're not dealing with the potential of a ruptured appendix.

The press release itself just includes four questions, about white blood cell count, abodominal pain, diarrhea, and vomiting. Hopefully, it will lead to fewer cases of ruptured appendices, because doctors will be able to spot the signs earlier.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Why Clean Up a Neighborhood You Hate?

Ohio State University has been asking some questions about how satisfied residents are with their neighborhoods, and came up with some interesting answers. You know those bad parts of town that are run down and grubby looking? Well, they got that way because the residents have bigger concerns.

Short version: Happy residents who were satisfied with their neighborhoods said they were satisfied because of things like public transportation, access to recreational opportunities, distance from family and friends, and appearance. People who were dissatisfied said that they were unhappy because of violence, and feared for their safety. The happy residents didn't mention crime, and the unhappy residents didn't complain about housing density.

So, route the police patrols through the unhappy neighborhoods and the bus lines through the happy neighborhoods and it's problem solved, I guess.

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Monday, November 10, 2008

The Oceans Will Be the Death of Us

Sharks haven't needed to evolve for thousands of years. Why would they bother? They're nearly perfect killing machines.

And now it turns out that they're even more of a menace than we had originally thought. Female sharks can conceive babies without the help of a male (word of the day: parthenogenesis!). They're not asexual, since they have males and females, but if you leave a female alone for too long, she can knock herself up.

Scientists have seen it happen. Twice.

Sure, they're trying to downplay it, saying things like "It may just be an occasional mistake that sometimes occurs when eggs are left unfertilized," but I know the truth. Sharks are a pervasive threat that cannot be stopped!

I'm going to start doubling the amount of shark cartilage I take each day*. It's them or us, people!

*I'm not actually taking any shark cartilage these days, so my total consumption will still be zero.

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Sunday, November 9, 2008

Snoring Children are Stupid Children

So sayeth the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. According to them, 2 out of every 3 children who snore have some kind of cognitive defecit. I want to know if they're looking at the chicken, or its egg.

The study sounds like it was a real party, because they used near infared spectroscopy, "which is able to penetrate the skull with high-powered light beams." While they were in there, they measured oxygen levels, and it turns out that kids who snore end up with brains that are less saturated with oxygen. Now, from the press release alone it's not clear whether the lack of oxygen stunts the brain's development and leads to the cognitive deficit, or whether the cognitive defecit is preventing them from correctly regulating their breathing while asleep.

Really, all they say at the end is that this study shows that they have a lot more to study. For one thing, children with sleep apnea (who also had the same high incidence of cognitive development) had higher blood oxygenation levels while asleep than "normal" children. So, it's a noteworthy study not because they learned anything groundbreaking, but because they're penetrating skulls and using high-powered light beams.

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Saturday, November 8, 2008

Bad Behavior Is in the Genes; Jeans Not Entirely Free From Blame

So it turns out that criminals (that is to say, real criminals, not just bears with attitude problems) seek each other out socially. Yes, we already knew they all hang out together in college, but it looks like it starts even younger.

Florida State University is reporting that they have located a gene that indicates criminal tendencies, and that young men in possession of this gene tend to group with their delinquent (and genetically defective) peers. It seems a little suspect to me. I mean, what next, are they going to determine whether someone is predisposed to criminal behavior by feeling the bumps on their head? Phrenology was dismissed as nonsense a long time ago, do we really need to blame bad behavior on genes?

To its credit, the study also acknowledges factors like environment and upbringing can have an effect on whether or not the adolescent males will in fact be delinquent. The criminal genes might not express themselves as fully, or express themselves more easily, depending on the subject's situation. Of course, if they're seeking out peers who are also likely to commit crime, then we're back to square one.

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Friday, November 7, 2008

Beetles Know Better Medicine; Beatles Play Lousy Music

Pine beetles have got better antibiotics than we do, and until a recent study they were using antibiotics we'd never heard of. It's an interesting development both because of what the study discovered and how it has been presented as news.

Baby beetles eat fungus. The mother beetle carries this fungus around with her, but she can also end up with a parasitic mite that carries its own fungus. The parasite's fungus would normally destroy the beetle's fungus, which would be disastrous for its children, but that's where the antibiotic comes in. The beetle has a special bacterium with antibiotic properties that destroys the intruding fungus and keeps its children well fed.

Bored yet? I know, beetle-on-fungus action isn't very exciting in its own right. That's why Harvard Medical School jazzed up their press release to read like a movie script, capturing the capture the drama of life-and-death struggles on a microbial level with action-packed thrills and chills. Not one to put style over substance, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has issued a more staid press release that's not above a little fear mongering as it quietly reminds us that discoveries of new antibiotics have slowed while bacteria resistant to existing antibiotics are spreading at an increasing rate. Which press release do you think is sexier?

And the Beatles? Yeah, I hate them and their music. Deal with it.

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Thursday, November 6, 2008

A Moment on the Lips, a Lifetime on the Arteries, Heart, and Possibly Breast Tissue

I'm always a fan of studies about drinking, and while this one didn't involve malt liquor, it still reinforced existing beliefs about gender differences.

Harvard is studying women who drink. For science. Well, the study is for science, the women appear to be drinking for the usual reasons. Anyway, Harvard Medical School has found that alcohol does more damage to women when viewed over the long term.

You may know that women metabolize alcohol more slowly than men. Harvard has examined this and found that since the alcohol spends longer in a woman's body, her body tissue is exposed to more alcohol per drink than a man. When this is paired with a study in Japan showing that too much alcohol is bad for the heart and arteries (and earlier studies showing that it can harm breast tissue), a picture emerges showing that women are more susceptible to the inherent health risks in alcohol than their male counterparts.

And that's not even counting the health risks posed by their male counterparts, if they're drinking at a fraternity.

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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Tomorrow's Technology Brings You Yesterday's Brutal Dismemberments, Today!

In a well-thought-out marriage of robotics and dinosaurs, paleontologists have been working with aeronautic engineers to create an aerial drone based on the design of a Pterodactyl.

This can only end well. I mean, we have solid proof that dinosaurs were ferocious, brutal, and damn near unstoppable, now we'll have robot dinosaurs stalking us from the skies, using our own eyes to spot us.

Well, probably not my eyes, because I have pretty crappy vision. And really, if you're going to build a flying robot anyway, you might as well use eyes that are better suited for that kind of thing, like from a hawk or an owl. But that's beside the point. Do we really want to make autonomous machines more mobile? Shouldn't we maintain some measure of control?

Or should we go the other way, and make it mandatory that ALL robots mimic some type of animal? What animal would you copy if you were in charge of designing a robot?

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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

So we have a new president-elect.

It wasn't the outcome I expected, but that's not a bad thing.

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Water Pirates from Outer Space: One Step Closer to Reality

The University of Alabama in Huntsville envisions a future where microwave ray guns harvest water from the moon and possibly Mars. The idea is to collect water in those locations so that our space missions don't have to bring their own water with them, but it's just a short step of the imagination to imagine unscrupulous privateers looting the water reserves of planets across the galaxy.

There is ice buried just under the surface of the moon and Mars, but digging for it is risky and could damage the equipment. However, melting the ice with microwave radiation can turn it into water vapor that is then captured and re-condensed as water. I'm not really sure what happens if the ice that gets turned into vapor was actually a significant part of the surface that the ray gun was resting on, but I'm sure that the scientists have thought it through.

They actually want to take it further, imagining a "robotic, roving device powered by a nuclear generator," irradiating huge stretches of the moon's surface to get at the water underneath. They also want to melt the moon's surface into a solid, dust-free crust, which could be used as a landing pad or to bake bricks or blocks that can be used in the construction of lunar structures.

Sure, the idea of fusing the lunar surface with concentrated bursts of radiation sounds like a bad idea, but it's already getting irradiated by the sun, and it's not like there's an ecosystem up there to be destroyed. I say go nuts.

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Monday, November 3, 2008

Truckers Are Essential for Battling the Flu

Oh, sure, you need doctors, and nurses to keep the hospitals running, but stop and think about what is going to be important in the event of an epidemic illness. That's right, truck drivers and communications personnel, along with utility workers are going to be pretty crucial. Thank goodness that Johns Hopkins Medical Center has been thinking about this.

I'm pretty sure that my local government would be completely helpless in the event of a severe flu outbreak or bioterrorist attack. In fact, my own preparations are sorely lacking. I don't have stockpiles of food, water, or medicine. I'd better hope that my plans of keeping my fingers crossed and praying will work out for me.

I never even thought about what would grind to a halt and what would be important. At least someone's thinking about it. Hopefully internet connectivity and cable television are also put on the "vital services" list.

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Sunday, November 2, 2008

100 Years of Mixed Blessings

Nitrogen has been a pretty powerful tool, increasing crop yields on one hand and killing marine life on the other. But most of its impact wouldn't have been felt if it weren't for a 100-year-old process, the Haber-Bosch process for synthesizing ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen.

The widespread availability of nitrogen created by the process allowed for the use of nitrogen in explosives and fertilizer (and sometimes both at the same time) and spawned a huge chemical industry that was able to discover new uses and applications for it. The problem now is to figure out how to meet the increased demand we've created.

Hi there, third world countries! Were you looking to develop your farming efforts so that you can actually feed your citizens?

In a way, it's kind of like oil. In the early 1900s, no one cared about it. Now, everyone wants a car and oil is a resource that affects almost all of us in our daily lives. Similarly, four of the world's leading environmental research centers think that nitrogen is going to become important, and I agree with them when you consider the increased demand for biofuels along with the growing needs of a globally increasing population.

I disagree when they say we'll have a nitrogen-based economy. Do we have an oil-based economy now? Yes, oil is a crucial part of the economy, but not the sole scale against which all other economic gains or losses are measured.

I could be wrong, though. What do you think the next big natural resource is going to be?

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Saturday, November 1, 2008

How Echolocation Brings You Better Coffee

It's all about the bats. First, there are ongoing studies in Mexico to determine how to raise coffee without pesticides. The researchers used to think that birds played a crucial role in keeping coffee-eating insects away from crops, but it turns out that a much larger share of the responsibility goes to bats.

They studied four groups of coffee plants. The control group of plants, uncovered day and night, was protected from insects by both bats and birds. A second group of plants was only covered during the day, protected by the bats at night, and a third group was covered at night, protected only by the birds during the day. The final group of plants was covered day and night, and was most severely attacked by pests.

It turns out that plants that did not have the benefit of the bats' protection had 84% more assorted pests than the coffee plants in their care. That's when they started paying more attention to how the bats were protecting the plants. Think spiders. Actually, think sandworms of the sky.

You may be familiar with the way you can see bats hunting for insects, zipping through the air after mosquitos and other flying pests like aerial dogfighters from World War I. Bats can eat half their body weight in just one night that way. However, the researchers watching the coffee plants learned about a new way for the bats to hunt.

The bats by the coffee plants would hide in the trees, and use their sonar to listen for insects going after the plants. Like Frank Herbert's sandworms, sensitive to the shifting of desert sands, the bats can use their acute hearing to pick up the sounds of insects moving, eating, or chirping. Then they strike. It's actually kind of awesome.

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Friday, October 31, 2008

Getting Your News from Here Is a Terrible Idea

Of course, the Journal of the American Medical Association says that getting your medical information from any type of news media is a bad idea because the information is biased. Patients and even some doctors get their information from news articles that can be based on studies funded by pharmaceutical companies or other potential conflicts of interest. More than 40% of the news sources (in print and online) that they reviewed failed to disclose how the studies they reported on were funded.

My unbiased report is that we're biased. Well, the major news outlets are biased, I'm just an idiot with a keyboard, but that still counts as me being biased by my own stupidity. If you REALLY want to be able to make informed, objective decisions about new drugs or specific medical treatments, you'd better have access to a lab that can do the research for you. And you'd better pray that the lab isn't biased.

Question: Do you still look at news and other information coming from sources that you know are not objective? I do, especially because you can actually get more information from them by reading between the lines.

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Raising the Stakes for Graduate Students

Have you ever screwed something up so badly that you've wasted over a century worth of work? I hope not, but if you have, I hope that you stay the hell away from Auburn University (formerly the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama). They've had an ongoing experiment running for the past 110 years.

I know, I know, you've probably already read all about this in the press release put out by the American Society of Agronomy, but I just love repeating what they have to say so that I can bask in their reflected glory.

Anyway, Auburn University is the oldest continuous cotton experiment in the world, and the third oldest field crop experiment in the United States (on the same site). They've been using thirteen plots to grow cotton, corn, wheat, and soybeans (they all grow cotton, but some plots alternate cotton with the other crops in rotation). Some of the plots are treated with nitrogen, and it's nice to know that it's good for something besides killing lakes.

I hope they've got safeguards in place to make sure that things keep running smoothly, because the longer an experiment like that runs, the more researchers stand to lose when it ends unexpectedly.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Bearclaw: Breakfast Pastry, Gang Sign

Black bears are TOTALLY gangsta, according to the journal Human-Wildlife Conflicts. They get pregnant at a younger age, are more likely to die violent deaths, and grow bigger. The weight is because they supplement their diet with garbage (real garbage, not frito-lay products and hostess snack cakes (ZING!)), and the increased weight leads to the earlier pregnancies (don't ask, I don't want to know).

The violent death part is due to vehicle collisions, but the study doesn't state how many of those collisions were during drive-bys.

It also brings up an interesting concept, the "bear sink." Urban areas and their tasty, tasty garbage are drawing in bears from outlying areas. Then the bears get killed. Violently. And eventually, no bears are left in the wilderness. This is why we should start dumping our trash in the middle of the woods. Problem solved.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Do You Like Working Out?

Actually, a more fitting title is "Do you like excruciating pain?"

Physical therapy sucks. It's painful, difficult, and usually frustrating as you struggle to complete simple motions that were once effortless to you. It's no wonder that a lot of people would prefer to skip their physical therapy sessions.

Johns Hopkins Medical Center has developed a way to tell in advance if patients are going to be blowing off their physical therapy appointments. They did a whole survey and everything, naming it a Patient Activation Measure (calling it PAM for short, which may or may not be because they're huge fans of The Office), and using it to predict how involved the patients want to be with their recovery. You may not be surprised to hear that patients who felt that they were less responsible for their own health/well being/recovery were more likely to skip therapy.

The whole thing seems much more elaborate and complicated than just asking the patients, "Hey, are you gonna do that physical therapy or not?" but I guess that's why I'm not a doctor.

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Monday, October 27, 2008

5,000 Year-Old Unknown Substance

Twilight-Zone style twist ending: It's just glass! Glass is weird. My high-school chemistry teacher said it was just a super-slow-moving liquid. That explains why really old glass windows look all distorted, because the glass has been pulled downwards by gravity over time.

We've been making glass since 3,000 B.C. (E.), but scientists still have a lot of questions about how it makes the transition from molten to solid. Enter the Twinkling Fractal Theory. According to Richard Wool of the University of Delaware (the developer of the theory), atomic fractals inside of glass twinkle as it cools towards the solid, glassy state. Dr. Wool thinks that the twinkling frequency will determine the temperature at which the material transitions to solid, as well as "the dynamics of the glassy state."

I'm a fan of this theory because of its liberal use of the word "twinkling," and the potential to use variants like "twinkles," "twinkly," and "twinkalicious."

EDIT: Eh, I have been proven wrong by the cold, hard facts of SCIENCE. Glass is NOT a liquid, but I maintain that it is both weird as hell and FRACTALLY TWINKALICIOUS.

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Sunday, October 26, 2008


No, it's not a slang for a more interesting part of the body, it's a news item about women, their bunions, and the scientists who study them. That's right, an entire press release was written around the issues that women experience with their feet. Shoe fetishists ahoy!

In fairness, there actually is information that they're trying to convey. Namely, women can choose to wear shoes in colder weather that aren't good for their feet. After a summer of flip-flops and open-toed shoes, pointed shoes can put stresses on feet that cause bunions (eeew!) and other problems. That's why they need to be careful about selecting shoes that aren't going to damage their feet.

So speaketh the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons (yes, there is actually an American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons.)

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

I Thought Economy Class Would Suck Less

I got all excited when I saw the latest research from Georgia Tech, talking about how they've developed a new material to mute the noise from airplane engines. People could buy those houses near the airport, I wouldn't be kept awake by engine noise on long flights, and I'm sure the military would want to use it for some kind of stealth plane.

Well, they've only developed a prototype material, and I'm not very excited about it. The material is supposed to be a honeycomb of channels that work together to trap noise and remove its energy before it gets to our ears, but it sounds like they're still figuring out what they'll need to use in order to construct the channels that would be as small as a single micron. Some kind of superalloy, they suspect.

Right, so check back once you have the material in production, and actually used in an engine design that is less loud than current airplane engines. Who am I kidding? Even if they did get it into production, it would do nothing about the screaming baby in the seat next to me.

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Friday, October 24, 2008

Don't Plan a Prehistoric Vacation in Argentina

Unless you want to make friends with a new dinosaur they discovered that ate meat, was over 30 feet long, and weighed as much as an elephant.

This dinosaur (Aerosteon riocoloradensis, if you must know) is an exciting find for paleontologists because it's another link between dinosaurs and the evolution of birds. It doesn't have normal lungs like a mammal. Instead, it breathes "more efficiently" with a bellows system. It's fun to talk about because it involves a series of air sacs, and who doesn't like a good excuse to use the word "sac" as much as possible, right?

FUN FACT: Aerosteon riocoloradensis didn't have any sweat glands. That's good to know, because if a dinosaur had to run me down before it tore me limb from limb, I'd hate to think that it would be all sweaty when it finally caught me.

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Fat Kids Respond Well to Help

Sometimes, I read these studies and wonder what they thought was going to hapen. I mean, super job, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, you've established that obese children can lose weight if they participate in a behavioral management programs. Why don't you commission a study to find out if patients denied medical care will get sicker and die?

Yes, we need more education on eating healthy in the United States, at all levels, but did we really need scientific studies to tell us that? And haven't they already studied it?

I guess that this is different because it comes from an official government agency.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

What Could Possibly Go Wrong With Your Pregnancy?

Wouldn't you want to find out? I say not really, especially if it involved putting me or the baby at risk to find out, but then I'm not pregnant. And won't be in the future.

Anne Drapkin Lyerly, MD, a medical ethicist at Duke thinks that pregnant women should be studied in trials along with everyone else when testing new medications.

It's a tough issue she's tackling. On the one hand, it seems irresponsible to expose an unborn fetus to potentially dangerous or deforming chemical interactions. On the other hand, doctors don't currently know a whole lot about what could be dangerous or deforming, because no one has been runnning tests on pregnant women.

I don't know how I feel about the issue, except to say that I don't want to take a stand on it. You know how doctors used to experiment on themselves rather than put someone else at risk? I'm envisioning a creepy worst-case scenario where a woman doctor gets herself pregnant and then starts experimenting on herself to collect data. Not that it would actually happen, but I guess that someone could write a medical thriller about it. Someone who needs a lot of therapy.

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Keep Your Surgeries out of My Orifices

Okay, this whole surgery without external incisions business is getting a little crazy. I mean, now they're performing gastrectomies--removing part of the stomach to assist in weight loss--through "natural orifices" (in this case, the vagina).

I swear that they're just competing to see who can pull what out of where now. There's no end to the stories about the orifices that doctors have decided to pull things out of.

If you had surgery scheduled, would you want an incision done the old-fashioned way, or through the new natural orifice entry technique? I say slice me open. I'd like to keep my orifices to be used the way god intended, and I don't think god intended for me to have a kidney transplant performed via the anus.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Live Fast, Die Young, Leave a Honeybee Corpse Behind

There are two types of bees in this world; the lazy SOB's who loaf around the hive all day, watching TV and waiting for their welfare checks to arrive in the mail, and the hard-working go-getters who are out there in the fields, foraging for new sources of pollen. Or nectar. Or whatever the hell it is that bees eat forage for.

The hard working foragers die first (surprise!). At least, I think that's what this study is trying to show. Something about active bees processing more oxygen, the effects of age observed as the inability to process oxygen efficiently, There's some extra commentary about bees being forced to go and forage earlier by the hive leads to them aging faster and dying sooner, but I really can't make much sense of it.

I'm a loud-mouthed internet pundit, not a scientist! It just sounds to me like aerobic exercise will kill you faster, which is fine because it was worthless anyway.

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Monday, October 20, 2008

Houston, We Have Some Prozac

First of all, we're going to send astronauts to Mars, and it is going to be awesome. That's just a given.

Now, the problem is how to help astronauts on their mission after they've left Earth. That's why they're developing computer programs to help astronauts diagnose and treat depression on their own.

So now I'm excited about the trip to Mars, and I'm excited about this new, self-serve depression treatment. After all, once they start using it on astronauts, it's only a matter of time before they adapt it for use here on Earth.

If you could design a computer program that could diagnose and treat an illness without the intervention of a doctor, which illness would you pick?

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Science Proves: A DJ Saved My Life

You may remember the song "Stayin' Alive" from the movie Saturday Night Fever, but did you know that it was actually designed to be used as a medical aid in lifesaving efforts?

Okay, that's a bit of a lie. But not much of one, since it apparently CAN be used as a medical aid in lifesaving efforts, specifically when performing CPR. I'm not kidding. The American Heart Association has been using it as a training tool for the past 2 years.

The song has 103 beats per minute, and it's almost the perfect rate for performing chest compressions. If you're trying to restart a stopped heart, listening to the song or trying to remember how it goes in your head will help you keep the right rhythm. The AHA tested it by having classes train while listening to it on iPods, and trying it again while remembering the song a week later, and both times it helped them keep the right pace to save a life.

What song would you prefer to save a life to?

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Think It, But Don't Feel It

We all have negative experiences that we want to forget. You know, stuff that just gets you so worked up that even remembering it gets you bent out of shape? Well, it turns out that if we want to deal with our psychological issues, to get over them and move on, we've got to detach ourselves from the emotions involved.

Nothing new, right? Well, people are studying it anyway, and they now have scientific evidence to back up common sense. Processing the emotions involved in a traumatic event requires you to distance yourself, so that you're not feeling the emotions associated with it as intensely.

Of course, that's easier said than done, since the whole reason you should be reviewing the event is so that you can think about it without getting emotional.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

This One's (Not) For The Ladies

Okay, I'm not a bisexual black male, but I've watched a few crime shows. They were very helpful in explaining what it means to be "on the down low." It's not something I'd normally spend a lot of time thinking about, but it's getting some serious coverage in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior.

Um, tolerance is good, and blaming bisexuals on the spread of HIV is bad, I guess? I mean, the journal has an entire section dedicated to discussing bisexual latino and black men, which is way more detail than I would normally concern myself with.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Wasps Are The New Elephants

Except that wasps are just looking for an excuse to fuck you up. (The insects, not the churchgoers. Okay, maybe both groups, but this post is just going to be about the insects from here on out)

According to studies, wasps remember. They're less aggressive to wasps they remember meeting. Of course, they probably also remember all the times you tried to kill them, and get more aggressive when they see you.

Wasps. There are more of them than you think, and they're going to remember all the times you've pissed them off.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Arm Is The New Pancreas

Man was meant to play god, apparently.

I had never even heard of islets before reading this story, and yet they're vital in producing insulin. It turns out that having your pancreas removed makes you lose all your islets, and you end up unable to produce insulin and come down with type I diabetes.

That's why the solution is to make a new pancreas in your arm. Well, normally they put the islets in your liver and a new pancreas analog sets up shop there, but in this patient's case they couldn't choose that option because of liver damage.

I'm curious to see if the creation of a new, arm-based pancreas could lead to the creation of better treatments for diabetics. Let's hope so.

It's a fascinating story, mostly because it uses the word "pancreases."

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Men Make The Money While The Women Bake The Pies

Not only do jerks see more action, they get more money, as well. Men who "believe in traditional roles for women" earn more money than men who don't, according to the American Psychological Association.

Traditional roles in this case means men who think that a woman's place is in the home, employing wives leads to more juvenile delinquency, the man should be the achiever outside the home, etc. I see one of 2 things at work here:

-Men who think that they should be the main achiever outside the home put more pressure on themselves to go out and get high-paying jobs, because they don't have the safety net of a partner working as hard as themselves.

-Men who believe in so-called "gender equality" are just lazy and looking for an excuse to goof off and play XBox while their wives pick up the slack.

Sure, there could be some third option that I'm not considering, but dammit, Jim, I'm a pundit, not a psychologist.

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Parental Role Reversal and Stress

Newsflash: caring for an older parent when you yourself are a midlife adult is incredibly stressful. I mean, who would have thought that watching the people who rasied you and who were always there for you actually needing assistance themselves could have any kind of negative psychological effects, right?

Anyway, it turns out that adults who care for older parents are under more stress, especially if they're trying to balance that with caring for their own children.

Since our constant medical breakthroughs are keeping people alive longer there are going to be a lot more parents hanging around. I think we need to follow the example set by the Japanese, and develop robots that will help care for our elderly. We'd still visit (the elderly, not the robots) and provide emotional support, but we'll let the robots handle the physical effort.

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

Malt Liquor Is Absorbed Differently (And Awesomely)

Thanks, Science! Researchers have been loading up African-American youths with malt liquor or a mixture of alcohol and diet Sprite. It's great to see science continually going against existing stereotypes.

Anyway, they were getting these kids youths drunk to study how quickly the body absorbed the alcohol. The malt liquor was actually absorbed slower, with blood alcohol concentration peaking 28 minutes after they finished the malt liquor, compared with the soda drink that made it peak 5 minutes earlier.

They're not really sure what that proves, but I'd like to know if the diet soda could help the body metabolize the liquor faster. The whole thing just seems odd.

Oh, by the way. That malt liquor used in the study? It was Olde English.

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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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