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