Tuesday, July 31, 2007

You’re More Easily Manipulated Than You Think

Subliminal triggers may have more of an influence on you than you think, according to a new feature at the New York Times. What’s a subliminal trigger? It could be something as simple as a briefcase. In a 2004 University of Waterloo study, researchers found that contestants in an investment game were more competitive if a briefcase was sitting in the room.

In another study, researchers observed a greater likelihood of study participants cleaning up after a snack if “citrus-scented cleaning fluid” was hidden in the room.

And here’s a strange one. In a Yale study, test subjects were intercepted on their way to the lab and asked to hold a cup of coffee. In some cases the coffee was iced, in others the coffee was hot. But in all cases, the subjects had no idea they were holding the coffee of a lab assistant. Later, the subjects were asked to rate a hypothetical person described in a text. As it turns out, the subjects that held the cold cups of coffee were more likely to rate the person as “colder,” “less social,” and “more selfish” than subjects that held the hot coffee.

Strange, yes?

As it turns out, these subliminal triggers are very powerful. One expert told the times, “once covertly activated, an unconscious goal persists with the same determination that is evident in our conscious pursuits.” This is probably because, “the brain appears to use the very same neural circuits to execute an unconscious act as it does a conscious one.”

But before you go out and try to trick yourself into certain behaviors with subliminal triggers, know this. “Using subtle cues for self-improvement is something like trying to tickle yourself.” According to an expert, “priming doesn’t work if you’re aware of it.”

But what if you enlist the help of a very clever friend?

Monday, July 30, 2007

Cat Accurately Predicts Death

If you’re reading this near the end of July, 2007, I apologize. I know this story is everywhere, but I couldn’t resist adding this to the blog. For those who have not heard, a cat named Oscar shows up next to patients within hours of death in a Rhode Island nursing home. Check out the story at CNN.

So far, Oscar has accurately predicted death in 25 observed cases.

Even when doctors observe signs that death is near, Oscar doesn’t come in until the final hours. In one case, a doctor noticed a patient had stopped eating, was having difficulty breathing and her legs were turning blue: sure signs of imminent death. But Oscar was nowhere to be seen, so the doctor “thought his streak was broken,” reports CNN. As it turns out, the patient didn’t die for 10 hours, and during the last two, Oscar was there.

Some speculate that Oscar is picking up a scent that signals death is near. Others suggest that he’s observing something in the behavior of nurses. Still others think it has something to do with “self-centered pleasures like a heated blanket placed on a dying person.”

If any or all of these have something to do with Oscar’s uncanny ability, if it’s so easily explained, why aren’t other cats doing this?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Ignorance on Both Sides of Plastic Bag Debate

Another town has a ban of plastic grocery bags in the works to help improve or save the environment, or whatever. This time its Annapolis, Maryland, reports the NY Times. First it was San Francisco. Now Boston, Baltimore, Oakland (CA), Portland (OR), Santa Monica and others are looking into it. This is a good thing. But of course, there are people on both sides of this issue, and I’m hearing some pretty lame arguments from all of them.

First, let’s look at the numbers. It takes about 430,000 gallons of oil to produce 100 million plastic grocery bags. Here in the US, we go through about
100 billion bags per year. Yeah, that’s a one with eleven zeroes behind it. Do the math and you’ll see that it takes about 430 million gallons of oil to make all the plastic bags used by this country each year. (For the record, the US burns through about 840 million gallons of oil per day).

Where do they all the bags go? Landfills, I suppose. But supporters of a ban on plastic bags say a lot of plastic ends up in the ocean. One environmentalist told the NY Times that “much” of the plastic bags go on and kill animals in the ocean. Hmm… do the math there. If much of the bags, say 60 billion out of 100 billion are killing ocean animals, wouldn’t the US shores be littered with carcasses?

The same environmentalist (who happens to be Jacques Custeau’s granddaughter) claims it takes 1000 years for a bag to biodegrade. I’m not sure where she gets that from. But if you check out this interesting Slate Explainer entry,
Will My Plastic Bag Still Be Here in 2507?, you’ll learn that we really have no way of knowing how long it takes a plastic bag to break down.

Again, I think it’s a good thing to ban the bags, but this kind of hyperbole can really turn people off from the cause.

Anyway, another ban supporter claims that, “no oil is used to produce recycled paper checkout bags.” I doubt it. Transporting paper bags alone would take oil. And the manufacturing of the bags almost certainly uses some oil. Oil aside, I guarantee some kind of other fossil fuel to manufacture recycled bags.

What about those fighting the ban? Of course, they say ban supporters don’t consider the cost. It takes 2 cents to make a plastic bag, while paper bags cost a whole nickel. That may not sound like much. But on a national scale, that’s the difference between $2 billion and $5 billion (if you multiply the cost times the number of bags created each year). Sounds like a lot, yes, but what does it cost a society to deal with a 100 billion-bag heap of bags that grows by 275,000 each day, and doesn’t start to decompose for (at least) 500 years and maybe, just maybe, 1000?

If stores are so bothered by cost, try this: stop handing out bags all together. Maybe governments should consider an all out ban on any bags, paper or plastic in retail stores. This way, stores that do hand out bags won’t have a competitive advantage over those that do not. In the end, consumers (me included) would be forced to get reusable bags. And that’s the best solution.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

How Much Tree is In a Book?

Guess how many trees were harvested to crate the first run of the new Harry Potter book? The first printing of “The Deathly Hallows,” 12,000,000 books in all, took 400,800 trees to make. That’s about 16,700 tons of paper. If you do the math, you’ll find that about .0334 percent of one tree is used to make one book.

I got wind of this story from
a blog post at New Scientist.

For the record, Scholastic, the Potter publisher, claims 65 percent of the 16,700 tons of paper came from “paper that contains a minimum of 30 percent post-consumer waste fiber.” That may sound like a lot (it did to me at first). But at a minimum, just 2,254 tons of the fiber is recycled. That’s closer to 14 percent of the total. That doesn’t sound like as much. But hey, Scholastic is trying. According to
their press release, “this historic commitment is the largest purchase of FSC certified paper to be used in the printing of a single book title.”

Also for the record, something I picked up from the New Scientist blog, China is a big fan of recycled paper.
So explains a BBC report. In all, China’s practice of using waste paper has saved about 65 million tons from landfills around the world.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Raw Fish Is Not as Dangerous as You Think

The New York Times recently took on the myth of raw fish being excessively risky for your health.

In the article, they begin by showing how in the US, doctors tell pregnant mothers to avoid raw fish. However, in Japan (
where people actually live longer), they actually encourage pregnant mothers to eat it. Are Japanese doctors crazy? It’s possible, but not likely. “The Japanese government is fanatical about public health, and Japanese medical scientists are among the best in the world,” explains the Times.

So what’s going on? As usual, Americans have distorted the facts to create their assumptions. Most shocking about this is that this distortion actually affects medical “science.” But anyhow…

Raw mollusks (oysters and clams), not fish, are the primary cause of seafood-related illness in the US. In fact, raw oysters and clams account for 85 percent of cases, according to the Times report. Pull that out of the equation and the chances of getting sick from seafood are 1 in 1,000,000. Still scared? Consider this: with chicken, you have a 1 in 25,000 chance.

As I learned in the Times, there are a few reasons that raw fish is relatively safe in the US. One, FDA guidelines require fish is flash-frozen before serving. “This freezing kills any parasites as sure as cooking would.”

Another reason you’re chances of getting sick with raw fish are slim is the type of fish that ends up as sushi. “Most species used for sushi don’t have parasites,” reports the times. Tuna, for example, usually hang out in very deep, cold water that makes them less prone to parasites. Also, sushi restaurants usually stick to farm –raised salmon which don’t have the same parasite problems that wild salmon do. Finally, fish that usually have parasites (for example, cod and whitefish) don’t usually end up on sushi menus.

But who cares if we eat raw fish or not? Fish is healthy, and the reputation that raw fish gets means some “are being scared off fish altogether.”

So don’t be scared.

Revenge of the Endangered Species

I noticed an article at UPI describing how rebounding elephant populations are raising Hell in Zambia. The story reminded me of a similar story heard on NPR about bad eagles in Alaska. Both iconic creatures have been protected for decades, and this seems to have worked to boost head counts. But now the creatures are getting their revenge.

In Zambia, “elephants trample crops and have killed four people, including two children, in the last year,” reports UPI. After hitting a low of 7,000, the elephant population there has risen to 30,000.

Up in Alaska, after years of protection, there are actually more bald eagles than there are people, reports NPR. There are so many that some Alaskans consider the birds a nuisance. Eagles are scavengers, so they swarm around landfills and fish-processing plants. Sometimes, after grabbing scraps and flying away, eagles will loose their grip leading to “cod guts and heads falling on cars all over the place,” said one resident. “Coastal Alaskans look at bald eagles the way New Yorkers look at pigeons,” said an NPR reporter.

I take the elephants and the eagle’s side on this one. Humans have been pushing around animals and wiping them out for centuries. Who’s the more adaptable species here? If we (humans) need to move our homes and farms or change business practices to enrich biodiversity, then shouldn’t we?

Monday, July 23, 2007

Meet the Man-Eating Humboldt Squid

Off the coast of Mexico, a creature know to local fisherman as the “Red Demon” lurks in the deep. Legend has it that Red Demons, also know as Humboldt squid, have actually pulled fisherman overboard and devoured them. Fishermen are so terrified of the squid that they “would rather fall into the water with a feeding frenzy of sharks than Humboldt squid,” undersea explorer Scott Cassell, who studies the Humboldt, told the San Diego Union-Tribune in a recent feature.

Humboldts, named after an ocean current, not the Northern California coast, are incredibly violent creatures. Lashing out with feeding tentacles covered in “needle-sharp” teeth (40,000 of them), Humboldts, “shred you when they grab you,” explained Cassell. “They're not just attacking you to scare you,” Cassell said. “They are attacking you to eat you, not necessarily to kill you. They don't care if you live or die as long as they get to eat.”

In one encounter with the Humboldts, Cassell was pulled down so hard and fast that his arm was pulled out of it socket, his eardrum ruptured and his wet suit, of course, was shredded.

On the inside, Humboldt squid have three hearts pumping blue, copper-based blood. The monsters can swim up to 24 MPH, dwell in water up to 3,000 feet deep and they’re “smart as dogs,” reports the Union-Tribune. I’m not sure what that means, but they say these things have “excellent problem-solving skills,” and communicate among eatch other by changing the color of their skin. Yes, one of their favorite colors to flash is Red. And no, I don’t want to find out for myself.

Could Humankind Beat the Copernican Principle?

I read today about something called the Copernican Principle at the NY Times. I won’t even try to explain it in a blog posting (I don’t even fully understand it myself), but when applied to the tenure of world leaders in 1993, it will achieve 95 percent accuracy assuming none stays in office past the age of 100.

The principle is based on how long something has lasted already. So if you look at how long Broadway plays typically run, the Copernican Principle can estimate the run of any other play within 95 percent certainty. According to the Times, the Copernican Principle has actually worked on plays as well as the lifespan of newspapers and dogs.

Now if this principle is applied to the longevity of humankind, we find we have between 5,100 and 7.8 million years left on this planet. But I’m not sure how well the Copernican Principle applies here. What other species on earth are like humans? I don’t mean to be arrogant, but am I wrong to imply that if any species on earth can beat the odds, its homo sapiens?

Another thing suggested by the Copernican Principle is that there’s a 50 percent chance that we only have 46 years of space exploration left. I found this troubling. To be honest, I never thought we’d stop exploring space. But it has happened before, that a civilization ends its age of exploration (China is the example given in the article).

If we do stop exploring space, and we are confined to the Earth, then maybe we are just another species.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Astronomers Look Back 13 Billion Years in Time

The universe is about 13.5 billion years old. And astronomers are saying they’ve found some galaxies so far away from us that the light took 13 billion years to reach earth, according to a CNN report. That means they’re observing the universe when it was just 500 million years old. But wouldn’t that light have passed earth billions of years ago?

Am I the only one that finds this incredibly frustrating to wrap my puny little brain around?

Is it that when the Big Bang occurred, matter that formed the earth was shot 6.5 billion light years in one direction while matter that formed these 13 billion-year-old galaxies were shot 6.5 billion light years in the opposite direction?

Well, if the universe is expanding,
as Edwin Hubble discovered in 1929, maybe our position in the universe didn’t start so far away from those super-ancient galaxies (assuming we’re traveling at different speeds).

Hmm… I’m thinking that I’m thinking about the Big Bang the wrong way. From what I’ve heard, it wasn’t exactly like a bomb that exploded and everything rushed out from one point. Then again, they say all the matter in the universe was once
condensed into a space no bigger than a single electron.

Looks like I have some homework to do. I’ll post again on this later.

(Sorry, the original link up there to the CNN article is dead! Just realized that on 7/12/2008. But here's a link to the same, or a similar -- it's 10 years old! -- story.)

Massive, Prehistoric Flood Cut UK from Europe

For 13 million years, a land bridge connected Britain to Europe where the present day Straits of Dover are. But sometime between 180,000 and 450,000 years ago, the bridge was washed away by an awesome flood, according to an Imperial College of London study. This according to a feature at the LA Times.

Somewhere in the region currently covered by the North Sea, a great lake once existed. Glaciers descending from the arctic cut off its original drainage channel causing a flood that released 250 million gallons per second. It’s this flood that cut through the land bridge “like a buzz saw through Styrofoam,” said one geologist. Today, the (very beautiful)
white cliffs of Dover stand where the bridge once was.

Following the floods, humans disappeared from the Britain for about 120,000 years. They wouldn’t return until about 60,000 years ago.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Are they Gonna’ Clone That Mammoth or What?

Recently a 6-month-old female mammoth that died 10,000 years ago was pried from the permafrost in Siberia. We’re not talking about a fossil here, but a dead animal in “perfect condition.” All that seemed to be missing was a heart beat.

Of course, this raises the question, can we clone this thing and visit a mammoth at the zoo? The New York Times looked at this question in a recent piece, “
Nope, That’s Not a Hairy Elephant.”

According to the article, scientists need to dig down the cellular and molecular level on the carcass to figure out how “perfect” it actually is. If it is actually perfect, and there are perfectly preserved egg cells, there’s a chance that, “sperm from an elephant could possibly tickle the egg awake from its long hibernation.” However, one scientist explained the chances of this are “remote.”

So why don’t some scientists just sequence the Mammoth’s DNA, make a perfect copy and raise a clone? First of all, DNA from fossils is usually in pretty ragged shape. And even if they put it together, there are “special proteins” that are needed to make DNA “read out its genetic information.” The problem there is that, “no one knows how to add these proteins to DNA,” reports the Times.

But don’t loose hope just yet. A recent advancement and a separate discovery keep the dream of cloning a long-extinct species alive. For our first problem, fragmented DNA, “a new kind of DNA decoding machine happens to use such fragments as its starting material,” according to the Times. A team of Canadian scientists is ready to go to work on a Mammoth genome, all they need is about $1 million to get started.

Regarding the second problem, the “special proteins,” a recent experiment shows DNA without this stuff can take over a bacteria cell. Of course, bacteria cells are different than animal cells, so whether this will work for the mammoth is a mystery.

Could Skyscraper Farms Replace Fields?

People need food, food grows on farms and farms are already taking up 41 percent of land on planet Earth. So what happens when the world population goes up 50 percent to 9.2 billion in 2050? Will 60 percent of land be used for farming? If that happens, are we going to wipe out more rainforest to make room for agriculture? That probably wouldn’t be good.

One solution is to ditch farming in fields for farming in skyscrapers, suggests Columbia microbiologist Dickson Despommier. In
a feature at Popular Science, Despommier expects 30-story skyscraper farms will produce enough food and water for 50,000 people each year. The skyscrapers would take in raw sewage and later send out fresh produce and pure drinking water.

At present, we know of about 100 fruits and vegetables that can be grown indoors (this according to NASA, which is studying this for future missions to interplanetary destinations). One plant notably missing from the list is corn. “Genetic engineering and artificial selection will also play an important role in vertical farming because there are a lot of plants, such as traditional corn, that we don't yet know how to grow indoors,” Despommier told Popular Science.

Another problem, these farms aren’t going to be cheap. Despommier estimates costs for skyscraper farms in the billions. I bet a fair amount of that will be the cost of the building itself. While Despommier points out that there are 1,723 abandoned buildings in Manhattan, I seriously doubt anyone’s going to donate these or sell them cheap. Just last week, a record $1,600 per square foot was paid for a “small boutique office building” in Manhattan,
reported CNN. That’s the most ever paid for commercial real estate in the country. As if that weren’t enough of a surprise, consider that the same building sold in 2002 for $493 per square foot.

Then again, who says the skyscraper farms have to be urban?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Am I Crazy, or is the Ethanol ‘Solution’ Insane?

I stumbled on two more articles today about the absurdity of using ethanol to slow the rising cost of fuel and weaning the US off of foreign oil. At the Nation, “Why Milk Costs More Than Gas.” At ABC News, from a 20/20 report, “Sacrificing Our Children to the 'Corn God'.

I’m also reading Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” at the moment, so it’s becoming clear to me that we need to ratchet down our production of corn in this country, not pump it up.

Before I go into details here, I’d like to make a plea to anyone out there who can direct me to contradictory info. Aside from politicians trying to raise votes in corn country, could you point me to a credible, objective source that is SUPPORTING ethanol for reducing fuel prices and achieving a higher degree of energy independence?

At the nation, writer Nicholas von Hoffman observes that milk in one New England neighborhood sells for $4.79 per gallon while milk sells for $3.04. “One of the factors driving up the cost of milk is the ethanol stampede,” he explains. “American ethanol is made from corn, and the more corn we use to feed our cars, the more expensive is the corn left over for our livestock.” Not only that, milk basically comes from gas.

According to Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” it takes a gallon of oil to grow three bushels of corn in this country. (You can read more, and I’m citing info from this Washington Post review of his book
here.) Oil is needed to make the fertilizer and pesticides that help grow corn. Once the corn is harvested, dairy farmers feed it to their livestock.

Look at the simple economics of this. Supply and demand. More demand for corn leads to more demand for oil. The price of both of these goes up, right? So not only does it cost more to produce a gallon of milk, it also costs more to buy a gallon of gas. Am I oversimplifying this? Or is this truly absurd?

If price were the issue, we could buy from ethanol from Brazil where it’s more efficient to produce it. “But Brazilian ethanol, thanks to the agribusiness lobby and a 54-cent-per-gallon import tariff, is kept out of the country,” according to the Nation’s von Hoffman.

So if it’s not price, this must be about energy independence, right? Um, okay. But remember it takes oil to make corn, which we then turn into ethanol to replace oil. Where does the oil originally come from? Overseas, I’d wager. Again, am I oversimplifying this? Or is ethanol a truly absurd solution?

How much oil does it really take to create a gallon of ethanol? About a gallon. According to ABC News, by way of a 20/20 report, “a number of recent studies show that it takes just about as much energy to produce ethanol as you get when you burn ethanol.”

“The idea that ethanol is the answer is a myth,” reads the 20/20 report. But it’s a myth yielding tremendous political capitol. “By pushing to subsidize ethanol, candidates are able to keep voters happy in critical Midwestern election states, and seem like friends of the environment. It also lets them convince voters that we're moving toward the hallowed state of "energy independence.”

What’s the answer? How do we achieve lower priced fuel, energy independence and a healthier environment? Simple. One word. Conservation.

“Instead of making windy speeches about our ‘oil addiction,’ our politicians should be at work making sure we use less of the stuff now,” urges von Hoffman.

Immigrants Live Longer than Native-Born Americans

A new study by researchers at USC shows foreign-born Hispanics live longer than those born in the United States. This according to a report at Reuters. Of course, the usual suspects are gathered. “Poor eating habits, smoking and a lack of exercise are all likely to blame,” according to the USC team.

When I saw the Reuters piece on this study, it reminded me of a stat I saw in an old Time Magazine article recommended to me by a friend, “
How to Live to Be 100.” In one of the sidebars, I read that immigrants live longer than native-born Americans.

While you won’t find that stat in the link to the Time article (you’d have to track down the printed magazine), I did find this story over at NewsMax from 2004: “
Immigrants Outlive Native Americans.” How much longer do they live? About three years. This despite the fact that, “[immigrants] are more likely to be poor and less likely to see a doctor,” according to the NewsMax piece.

Once again, in the NewsMax article, the usual suspects are all there. Native-born Americans are fatter, “22 percent of adult immigrants were obese, compared to 28 percent of U.S.-born adults,” and of course they smoke more, “18 percent of immigrants smoked, compared to 26 percent of U.S.-born adults.”

Monday, July 16, 2007

Deathbed Confession Keeps Roswell Mystery Alive

Something crashed on a ranch near Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. The rancher who found the wreckage thought it was a downed flying saucer. The local paper thought so, too. The headline of the July 8, 1947 edition of the Roswell Daily Record read, “RAAF Captures Flying Saucer On Ranch in Roswell Region.” (RAAF stands for “Roswell Army Air Field). According to the article, the Army announced it had “come into possession of a flying saucer.” Shortly thereafter, the Army held a press conference, apparently, to clarify its position. It wasn’t a flying saucer, but a reconnaissance balloon that had crashed.

Since the crash, witnesses have come forward to refute the Army’s position. They’re convinced it was an aircraft of incredibly advanced technology. Some witnesses even claimed the Army recovered alien bodies. Are these people nuts? The Air Force released
two reports in the nineties saying they are.

But one of the military’s own broke ranks from beyond the grave recently.

Lieutenant Walter Haut was RAAF public relations officer at the time of the controversial crash. In fact, he’s the very man that delivered the press release describing how a recon balloon, not a flying saucer had crashed near Roswell. And he stuck to that story until his death last year. Now, the text of a sworn affidavit by Haut (only to be opened after his death) has surfaced that contradicts everything.

According to the affidavit, “the weather balloon claim was a cover story… the real object had been recovered by the military and stored in a hangar,” according to
a report in the Sydney Telegraph. (Did anyone see a US news source pick this up?) Not only did Haut confirm the recon balloon business was nonsense, but he claims to have seen alien bodies.

In Haut’s affidavit, he describes a meeting with base commanders where they inspected unidentifiable materials from the crash. He also revealed that there was a second, more extensive crash site that the public never learned of. Most surprisingly, he details a visit to the Air Field’s “Buliding 84,” where he saw a cigar-shaped craft approximately 15 feet in length and two bodies, partially covered by a tarp, that were about 3 feet tall and had “disproportionately large heads.”

"I am convinced that what I personally observed was some kind of craft and its crew from outer space,” read the affidavit.

Easy on the Frion: System Cools Buildings With Ice

Ice may be disappearing from the arctic, but it’s showing up in 800 gallon tanks beneath about 3,000 buildings worldwide. Why? To cool them off, of course.

According to a BusinessWeek report, an “ice-cooling system” is being used to keep workers comfortable in buildings like New York City’s Met Life tower. The building has 64 tanks (800-gallons each) that it uses in tandem with traditional AC (when it’s exceptionally warm out).

Annual energy savings for the Met Life tower, with its hybrid cooling system, is about 2.15 million kilowatt-hours. That’s enough energy to power 200 homes or the equivalent of pulling 223 cars off the road. It’s not much, but imagine if the technology were implemented in more structures.

A good dream, but don’t hold your breath.

Widespread adoption of ice cooling probably won’t happen anytime soon. It’s expensive. The Met Life tower’s system cost about $3 million to install. That may sound like a lot, but consider how much a building could save on maintenance fees. One expert told BusinessWeek, “when you make something mechanical, it can break, but a big block of ice four floors below grade level isn't going to do anything but melt."

For ice cooling to be spread, building owners need to think beyond the next fiscal year (which is very, very hard for Americans to do).

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Let’s Say Humans Were Wiped out Tomorrow…

What would the world look like in a few years, decades, millennia? A journalism professor at the University of Arizona, Alan Weisman, explores this fascinating scenario in a new book, “The World Without Us.” In an interview with Scientific American, Weisman reveals some of the possible outcomes.

First of all, a lot of our infrastructure -- roads, bridges, buildings -- wouldn’t last too long. Weisman refers to our seemingly “imposing”, “monumental”, infrastructure as “fairly fragile.” In reality, our infrastructure is heavily dependent on regular maintenance.

Take Manhattan, for example. If you pull humans out of the equation today, you’ll have flooding tomorrow. “Even on a clear, sunny day, the people who keep the subway going have to pump 13 million gallons of water away,” said Weisman.

After a couple decades of flooding, the streets would start to crater as underground steel supports corrode and collapse. Waterlogged foundations would also become unstable and buildings would topple. All the while, seeds would blow into cracking concrete, covering much of the crumbling cityscape with native plants.

Turn the clock ahead a few more decades now. Imagine majestic urban rivers winding through the hollow, ghostly husks of decimated city structures covered in a soft, green coat.

Dense forests, “like what you see in your mind’s eye when you’re a kid and someone is reading Grimm’s fairy tales,” would probably make a comeback. So would giant mammals, like sloth the size of mammoths and beavers the size of bears, which mysteriously disappeared with the arrival of humans.

According to Weisman, “as forests would become reestablished across the continent, eventually -- in evolutionary time -- larger herbivores would evolve to take advantage of all the nutrients locked up in woody species. Larger predators would evolve accordingly.”

Okay, Disneyland, when are you starting construction on this ride?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

What’s AIDS have to do With the Price of Gold?

Something that’s always fascinated me is the impact of health on economy. I’ve read enough on this issue to believe that good health is a civic responsibility. Think of the billions spent in the United States on preventable health problems (obesity and smoking-related ones). Imagine what we could do with the savings. I’d pour the money into space exploration. A more righteous person would house all the homeless. George Bush could hire a mercenary army to occupy the rest of the Middle East. Well, maybe we wouldn’t save that much money, but you get the point. Good health is good for a nation’s wallet.

Across the Atlantic, countries in Africa and Asia are starting to notice the impact of AIDS on their mining industries. This according to
a report by Reuters.

In South Africa, compared to the general population, the rate of HIV infection is double among miners. One mining group, Anglo, reports a third of its workers (about 6,000 people) are infected with HIV.

Mining firm Gold Fields estimates HIV has increased the price of gold $5 per ounce.

Five bucks doesn’t sound like much when you consider gold sells for $640 an ounce. But HIV doesn’t seem to be slowing down. So unless something changes, we can expect that number to grow.

According to UN figures, HIV infection numbers are up 20-fold in Eastern Europe and Central Asia over the last decade. Numbers have doubled in Russia over the past two years. During that same period, infections are up 23 percent to 650,000 in China. Taken as a whole, Asia is responsible for 44 percent of all gold production and 33 percent of all copper.

While nobody has put a price of the total impact of HIV on the mining industry, big companies aren’t waiting to find out. According to Reuters, “In May this year health experts from seven mining giants met for the first time in London, forming a group to come up with an improved strategy on how to halt the spread of AIDS.”

Early steps to slow the disease include prizes for taking tests, distributing condoms and dispatching mobile treatment units.
For mining companies, an ounce of prevention equals about four ounces of cure. According to a statement from mining company BHP Billiton, “for every dollar it invests in HIV training, education and medical programs the return is four-fold in terms of benefits such as re-training, absenteeism and productivity,” reports Reuters.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

US Bird Populations Crashing

US Bird Populations CrashingCould Sparrows be the next species to make the endangered list? According to an Audubon Society report (covered by CNN), “Twenty common birds -- including the northern bobwhite, the field sparrow and the boreal chickadee -- have lost more than half their populations in the past 40 years.” Some species have taken a more dramatic hit than others. The bobwhite population has plummeted from 31 million in 1967 to 5.5 million, an 82 percent change.

Of course, it’s the usual suspects killing our birds: “agriculture, habitat loss, pesticides, invasive species, global warming.” Why this matters for you, Mr. Average American, is the whole canary-in-the-coal-mine thing. “The health of a region's bird population is often a harbinger of the health of other wildlife and of human populations as well,” read the CNN article.

Biofuels (the sustainability of which I’m really
starting to question these days) were cited as a factor in the loss of bird populations. From CNN: “Some farmers are now using land once set aside for conservation to plant more corn for use as ethanol.”

Monday, July 09, 2007

Is Yawning Contagious?

I noticed a headline at the BBC today, “Why is yawning contagious?” While most of us would agree that yawning is contagious, I’ve never seen any research on this front. So the headline got me to wondering, is yawning contagious? Or is this just a myth?

After doing a bit of research, I couldn’t find the hard evidence I was looking for, but a couple of (seemingly legitimate) sources strongly implied that this was the case.

First, in the above mentioned BBC piece, they note that, “about half of adult humans are prone to contagious yawning.” Second, I stumbled upon
a reference page by University of Washington neuroscientist Eric Chudler where he explains, “yawns become contagious to people between the first and second years of life.” Also, the Discovery Channel show, “Mythbusters,” confirmed this myth.

One reason I thought yawning might be contagious is environmental factors, like a lack of oxygen in the air. But Chudler cites a study which shows changes in the air do not affect frequency or durations of yawns.

So why do we yawn and why is it contagious? According to the BBC piece, a new theory suggests, “the purpose of yawning is to cool the brain so it operates more efficiently and keeps you awake.”

But that still doesn’t solve this matter of contagiousness. The explanation there may be an evolutionary adaptation developed to keep prehistoric human groups in synch. “When we contagiously yawn we are participating in an ancient, hardwired ritual that evolved to help groups stay alert and detect danger,” explained the BBC.

Another possibility, according to the BBC piece: “contagious yawning might have helped early humans communicate their alertness levels and co-ordinate sleeping times.”

A couple of interesting yawn facts:
  • The average yawn is six seconds (Chudler)
  • Humans begin yawning three months after conception (yes, that means you start
  • yawning in the womb) (Chudler)
  • Chimpanzees are the only other species thought to experience contagious yawning (BBC)

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I started pound360 to channel my obsession with vitamins, running and the five senses. Eventually, I got bored focusing on all that stuff, so I came back from a one month hiatus in May of 2007 (one year after launching Pound360) and broadened my mumblings here to include all science.