I don't keep up with fashion trends. If I can't go somewhere wearing elastic-waist pants and a baggy T-shirt, then I don't want to go. But I think I'm in the minority. Or maybe it has something to do with age. Younger folks often seem to be obsessed with their appearance and are even willing to put their lives at risk just to look "good". For example, the government of Thailand has issued a health warning that proclaims black leggings put people at risk of catching Dengue Fever. I realize that might sound a bit paranoid, but they have a compelling reason behind the warning: the mosquitoes that transmit the disease are attracted to black and can easily bite through the thin fabric used to make the leggings. You can read more here.
In a strange case of the left manipulator not knowing what the right manipulator is doing, here are two more robots that I somehow managed to miss off yesterday’s post.
First up is the obvious and long overdue companion to yesterday’s beer fetching robots; a robot that can flip pancakes. Obviously there have been automated pancake makers around for a while now, but this robot from the Italian Institute of technology has learnt how to flip a good pancake by seeing how humans do it. Please, Dr. Kormushev, teach it to fry bacon next (Vimeo).
But if some groups are concentrating on robots that ply you with beer and pancakes, Autom’s mission in life is to help you lose weight and live healthily. The brainchild of Cory Kidd, who had the idea while at MIT, Autom first asks you for details of your diet, fitness and exercise regime, then it has daily 'conversations' with you during which it will dispense diet and exercise advice. Apparently a major insurance company intends to trial Autom in the US sometime next year, so we can all look forward to having one of these nag us each morning as a mandatory requirement of our health plan (Engadget).
Hmm, perhaps I could teach the pancake robot to flatten the annoying little thingamajig with its frying pan before making my breakfast stack?
Acupuncture is the procedure of inserting needles into various points on the body, used in most cases to eliminate chronic pain. But as with most ancient medical practices, there is heavy debate as to the validity of the science. And in all my reading on the subject, I have never encountered a claim like the one being made by Pham Thi Hong of Vietnam. Ms. Hong says she can detect whether or not a man is a virgin - it is a combination of checking the man's pulse and looking for a tiny red spot behind his ear. Apparently the spot will only disappear after heterosexual intercourse, and is not affected by gay sex or masturbation. But even though I doubt Ms. Hong's methods, she has made a name for herself. While treating a young man convicted of gang rape, she discovered the spot behind his ear and was convinced he was innocent. Her extremely persuasive campaign lead to the case being re-examined and investigators determined that the original case was flawed. The man was released from prison in January. Of course this has lead to a surge of appeals from other convicted rapists for Ms. Hong to examine them and clear their name. And while many would say this is proof that her method has merit, the underlying point is that the man was released from prison because the original investigation was erroneous. It raises an interesting question, though. How many of you read this and went to see if you have a tiny red spot behind your ear?
Sperm whales are among the biggest living things on the planet and, surprisingly for these gentle giants, once must have been among the most fearsome. Palaeontologists working in Peru have uncovered the remains of an extinct long lost relative of today’s sperm whale that had 30-40 cm long teeth in both jaws (the modern form has much smaller teeth in the lower jaw only). With jaws more closely resembling those of a killer whale than its thrust/suction feeding relative, scientists believe the newly named Leviathan melvillei was a 15 m long hunter of large prey, probably other whales. Its size, jaws and undoubted intelligence would have made this marine monster more than a match for the giant shark Megalodon with which it shared its home (Science [article], Nature [paper]).
Sperm whales are still the largest animal ever to have teeth, but today their diet consists mostly of squid – including the infamous giant squid – and therein lies a problem. Whereas most land dwelling creatures live on plant material, or some juicy meaty derivative thereof, and hence are essentially “carbon-neutral”, marine animals from penguins to whales feast upon carbon that was probably sequestered in the oceans hundreds if not thousands of years ago, or has weathered out of rocks that are millions of years old. One upshot of this is that carbon dating is notoriously inaccurate on marine organisms, what scientists call the “reservoir effect”, another is that unlike water breathers such as fish, who return this carbon to the oceans, air breathing animals like whales will release this carbon to the atmosphere as CO2 and so contribute to global warming. However in new research published by the Royal Society of London, researchers have calculated that whales have actually offset their carbon emissions with emissions of another kind. Whale poop is iron rich and comparatively liquid, hence returns the excess iron in the whale’s diet back to the oceans in a form that is readily usable by phytoplankton. The team, led by Trish Lavery of Flinders University in Australia, estimate that sperm whales are responsible for removing 200,000 more tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere annually than they actually emit (Royal Society).
But it’s not all good news for the tree-huggers for while whales might be a boon in the fight against climate change, their free-range, organic farming practices of preference are almost certainly not. In a paper published by the National Academy of Sciences, Jennifer Burney of Stanford University and her colleagues have found that intensive farming is by far the most land and carbon efficient method of agriculture. Because agricultural land use is a major contributor to global warming, increasing the yields from farmland, and thereby reducing the amount of land farmed, strongly outweighed the extra carbon emissions of the intensive farming needed to achieve this. Doing the sums on farm outputs since 1961, the team found that increased yields have produced the same as cultivating an additional area the size of Russia at 1961 levels, which would have led to the release of 590 billion more tonnes of CO2, equal to about a third of all man-made emissions since the industrial revolution (PNAS).
And modern farming may be coming to our rescue in another way, as a source of cheap batteries. Almost since Ben Franklin gave up kite-flying, kids in schools the world over have been making batteries out of apples or a potatoes. Now a trio of researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, led by Alex Goldberg, have found a way to turn these vegetable power sources from classroom curiosities into a viable product. What’s more amazing is the method they discovered to generate a tenfold increase the output of their potato power-pack, they boil the potato first. How did no-one think of this before (AIP)?
Another new idea, albeit a less welcome one, is that one should prosecute scientists for not knowing everything. At least that seems to be the approach taken by the public prosecutors of the Italian city of L’Aquilla, which last year was hit unexpectedly by an earthquake that killed over 300 people and injured 1600 more. The defendants include the head of Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and the director of the National Earthquake Center along with four other equally prominent scientists and Bernardo De Bernardinis then deputy head of the Civil Protection Agency, who together are looking at being tried for manslaughter for not alerting the population to the imminent disaster at a meeting held one week before the quake struck. It was Bernardinis, a government official, who claimed in a press conference held immediately after the meeting that the scientists had said there was “no danger”, despite the minutes of the meeting clearly showing that at no time was the chance of a major shock ever ruled out (Nature).
For those of us who are too tired to try and get back into shape (if we ever were in shape... I think I was in shape in high school twenty-some years ago). A recent study published in the journal Body Image claims that chubby men are as attractive as men with six-packs. The University of Queensland, in Australia, had participants rate mock-up advertisements for jeans, skin-care products and cologne featuring muscular male models and average looking men. Neither the men or the women in the study responded more favorably towards the muscular models. You can read more about the study here.
Just when you thought the anti-smoking campaign might be working, along comes a news story that proves otherwise. Ardi Rizal, aged two years, has a 40-per-day smoking habit. His mother has tried to get him to stop, especially since the government has offered to buy the family a new car once the child quits, but she says he is entirely too addicted. His father, on the other hand, doesn't see any problem - "He looks pretty healthy to me..." In the meantime, Ardi's health is such that he can't run around and play with the other kids. Instead he rides around on a plastic toy truck while puffing away, looking like a parody of a middle-aged truck driver.
Paul Di Filippo
Paul has been paid to put weird ideas into fictional form for over thirty years, in his career as a noted science fiction writer. He has recently begun blogging on many curious topics with three fellow writers at The Inferior 4+1.