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