Posts filed under ‘Science’

Cats, LOLCats and birdfeeders

A busy week this week, so no time for daily posts. But here’s a question for you – if you chuck a whole lot of domestic cats under a bird feeder, would they all be salivating at the thought of a yummy bird dinner and should the birds be extremely nervous? According to Science Daily, the birds can go on stuffing their faces happily because it seems that domestic cats aren’t interested.

A research team, looking into bird feeding habits, found evidence that a flurry of bird activity around feeding does not necessarily increase birds’ risk of predation. And for some odd reason, the presence of feeders is associated with lower levels of predation by domestic cats. We could conclude a number of things:

  • domestic kitties are just plain dumb (cat lovers: don’t send me an abusive email, I don’t believe cats are dumb)
  • domestic kitties are so well fed they can’t be bothered leaping up to capture a bird dinner from the feeder on the balcony
  • kitties, after thousands of years of domestication and being worshipped as cat gods in Egypt, are used to the luxury life of sleeping on cushions or gazing out a window for hours. So they’ve had the hunting instinct bred out of them.

And my History of LOLCats post continues to be ThinkingShift’s No 1 post and after a spot of research and help from a ThinkingShift reader, I have now uncovered further historical details. LOLCats were around in the Medieval era. How insidious these cats are! No new cultural craze these LOLCats; they have a solid historical pedigree. You want proof? Check out this marginal illustration from a 14th Century Book of Hours (British Library MS Stowe 17) from the gotmedieval blog:

I will be looking into whether LOLCats actually originated in ancient Egypt 🙂

May 1, 2008 at 2:00 am 3 comments

Experience doesn’t always count

Kim photoRemind me not to be at the mercy of these two nurses. A robotic patient at Florida State’s Human Performance Laboratory, lay idly by whilst two nurses, one with solid experience and the other with less nursing experience, handled a medical emergency – the plummeting blood pressure of the patient.

Stan D. Ardman (robotic patient) was in trouble. He was having difficulty breathing and his heart monitor was going berserk. Thomas, a nurse in his mid-20s, rushed in to the hospital room and flipped through the patient’s chart. He was uncertain. The patient reported feeling nauseous and dizzy. The chart told Thomas that Ardman was already receiving a drip of dopamine, a compound that treats low blood pressure. Increasing the dosage of dopamine would raise the blood pressure and relieve the nausea and dizziness. This would have been the solution, but Thomas was unsettled by inexperience and the sounds of the heart monitor squealing, which signalled that blood pressure was plummeting further.

In a state of uncertainty in crisis, Thomas decided to give Ardman epinephrine. This drug would raise the patient’s blood pressure but, in combination with the dopamine, would also spike his heart rate and possibly kill him. Ardman drifted off into unconsciousness and just before dying….the simulation ended. Thomas had killed the patient.

Okay so Thomas was just out of nursing school and didn’t have the medical knowledge or intuition that years of nursing experience can give. So in came Monica with over 25 years’ nursing experience. Same robotic patient; same scenario. As the monitor showed a drop in blood pressure, within seconds Monica spotted the dopamine drip and identified it as a possible answer. Cool, calm and experienced.

But….Monica needed to know Ardman’s weight to administer the right dosage of dopamine. As she picked up his chart to establish his weight, the monitor began squealing dramatically and….. Monica made the same mistake as Thomas, she went for the epinephrine. Ardman went into tachycardia. Monica at least knew to shock him with the defibrillator but too late…..Monica had killed off her patient just as surely and swiftly as Thomas had. Both novice and experienced nurse had made the same error and taken the same decision to act in a certain way in crisis.

Knowledge management is about understanding experience and improving performance through learning from experience. So you would think that Monica would have it over Thomas. According to Anders Ericsson, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, the number of years of experience a person has does not guarantee success or outstanding performance. Grand masters at chess can recall intricate and complex layouts of 25 pieces from their games but when the chess pieces are randomly arranged, they can recall the positions of about 6 pieces – not much better than a novice chess player.

Expert performers possess experience plus superior skill, which is gained by deliberate practice that involves the risk of failure. In a study of figure skaters and their skating practice habits, elite skaters spent 68% of their time practicing jumps; whilst skaters with similar years’ experience, but considered second tier skaters, spent only 48% of their practice time on jumps. So if we merely practice what is in our “comfort zone” repertoire without stretching our skills through learning and practicing new or complex tasks and receiving accurate feedback, then we may make the same mistake as Monica.

I remember working with a lawyer who had over 20 years’ experience. All “baby” lawyers were in awe and wanted to work with him in order to learn from his experience. But it turned out that vast experience got in his way. He made mistakes that even a baby lawyer would be prone to making. As Ericsson points out, experience often means we execute routine tasks almost unconsciously. We retrieve information but we don’t worry about the rules. The free space that’s left in our minds by knowing how to perform a task may mean that we get distracted by thinking about what’s for dinner. And so experience can lead to smugness or overconfidence. It can lead to a Monica-type decision in a time of crisis.

Source: Time

March 19, 2008 at 2:00 am 1 comment

Let us count the ways

I reckon when your number is up, you should aim to go in a spectacular fashion. Nothing as mundane as carking it in your sleep. Far preferable to snuff it a dramatic moment that will go down in history. So if you spend your time wondering about how you’ll go, perhaps one of the following will happen to you (or all of us):

Nasa imageAn Australian astronomer is giving us dire warnings about a beautiful star that could send us all kaput. WR104 is an elegant rotating pinwheel system located in the Sagittarius constellation. Discovered 8 years ago, the system contains a very unstable star (mmm…think I work with a few of them!) named Wolf-Rayet, which is known to star-gazing types as a ticking time bomb. The hot dust and gas that is the swirling star is getting ready to explode and is really just down the road from Earth – a mere 8000 light years away. And should it explode, Earth is in the line of fire. A destructive gamma-ray radiation burst would come our way and zap. Earlier fossil extinctions are said to have been caused by gamma-ray bursts from supernovas having hissy fits. Dr Tuthill, the astronomer who first clamped eyes on WR104 says:

    I used to appreciate this spiral just for its beautiful form, but now I can’t help a twinge of feeling that it is uncannily like looking down a rifle barrel“. Okay, well when you gotta go, snuffing it along with all of humanity in a spectacular explosion and death rays caused by an adolescent star having a melt down could count as pretty memorable, not that we’d be around to remember!

    Should you be contemplating just how long you can hang around and avoid that final moment, you might want to consider leaving out the protein. Protein can apparently hasten your exit from this world, but the good news is protein can lead to more children. Eating less protein, not just fewer calories, is the (new) key to longevity. The balance of protein to carbohydrate in the diet is critical scientists are saying. In experiments with fruit flies, scientists are showing that eating less protein may extend life; but protein is needed for the reproductive system, so cutting down on protein will lead to having fewer children.

      Okay, so a bit of a dilemma here: eat less protein, maybe delay the inevitable but be pretty lonely when you have no kids to look after you in your dotage; or scoff a lot of protein and have kids, but maybe not live long enough to have them look after you in your dotage.

      But then we may not even have to worry about protein or death stars, because something else may be capable of snuffing us out in one blaze of glory. The plague. It’s here again. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has classified the plague as ‘re-emerging’. Did you know that WHO records a few thousand cases of the plague each year around the world? Scared the bejesus out of me when I read that! Since the early 1990s, the plague has returned to places like Mozambique (gulp: I’ve been there), India, Zambia (been there too), Algeria and parts of China. In the 1970s, the plague mostly existed in Asia; but now it’s zeroing in on Africa where more than 90% of cases are reported.

      You probably were taught in Modern History that the worst manifestation of the plague happened during the Black Death that devastated Europe in the 14th Century. And you probably found out that this creature and its fleas was to blame – the rodent:

          Mind you, the Medieval plague rodent probably didn’t look as cute as this fellow because it was busy living in the garbage of medieval European towns. But scientists are now beginning to understand the dynamics of plague infection. It’s not just the Yersinia pestis bacteria, which animal populations can carry, that is the problem. The spread of the bacteria is dependent on interactions between rodents AND contact between humans and wildlife. Rodents are now being displaced by deforestation and sprawling human populations are now reaching areas where black rats live.And global warming could accelerate the whole thing. Following a 50 year study, scientists from the former Soviet Union noted that human plague in Kazakhstan occurs only when the local gerbil population reaches a certain threshold in winter. Warmer winters mean more gerbils. A warmer world could mean the unleashing of this virulent pathogen. And given the growing problem of antibiotic resistance, don’t count on drugs to save us from a rerun of the 14th Century.

          So…let me count the ways: a Death Star, too much protein, the plague, terrorists, ebola, bird flu, George Bush….

          Sources: University of Sydney; University of Sydney News; Time.

            March 17, 2008 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

            Volcano, Mayans or pandemic?

            Regular ThinkingShift readers would know that I love a good doomsday prediction or two. Is the human race going to be kicking around still in another 1000 years or will we have been snuffed out by our own stupidity, a super volcano blowing its stack or the Mayans being right about December 21, 2012?

            So today’s post brings you some of the latest apocalyptic End Times scenarios. Forget global warming, there are more serious things to contend with if any of these predictions turn out to be true.

            Mayan calendar: 2012 could be it, kaput. Another four years to go. The Mayans created their calendar 5,122 years ago and they set the expiry date after thirteen 394-year baktun cycles. Just in case you’re not fully up to speed with the Mayans, that expiry date is December 21, 2012. Great…just before Christmas! We’ll go up in smoke accompanied by volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and a comet or two smacking into us. But the author of 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, Daniel Pinchbeck, thinks we shouldn’t panic because the concept of apocalypse means ‘uncovering’ or ‘revealing’ and so 2012 will be a catalyst for a transformation in human consciousness. Good to know: guess I don’t need to pack the cat just yet then. But there is a word of warning from New Age guru, JosĂ© Arguelles, who says we should just accept the 2012 apocalypse, don’t fight it because those who do will be carried away on silver ships. To where, I’m not sure.

              If we don’t get wiped out in a Mayan inferno, then we might need to duck lava and hot ash spewing out of a super volcano. I’ve finished rereading Simon Winchester’s fabulous book, Krakatoa, which left me wondering when that famous volcano’s child, Anak Krakatoa, might blow up. Perhaps I needn’t fret because there’s a super volcano hiding under Yellowstone National Park in the US that could be far more to concern ourselves over. 640,000 years ago this volcano had a mega hissy fit and Greg Breining, author of Super Volcano, says this volcano is due for “another shake up” (witty guy). Should it erupt, it will take a chunk of Earth far larger than Mt Everest with it. Mmmmm….wonder if that chunk will include Australia. Apparently, the way to survive this cataclysm is to head west of Wyoming since the jet stream blows East and will carry far less ash and debris going West.

                Honey Holocaust. This one isn’t about super killer bees. Since 2006, honey bees have been vanishing. It’s said that Albert Einstein once muttered: “”If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live” – although Einstein most likely didn’t say this. Nevertheless, the disappearing bees is a serious matter. Bees pollinate more than a quarter of the world’s food supply, so no bees equals no honey, no fruit or veges and so on. The solution would seem to be to learn how to be a bee keeper super fast.

                Then there’s the usual predictions of pandemics but global health experts expect a global pandemic that might make the Spanish Influenza outbreak of 1918 look like the common cold. H5N1, aka bird flu, is seen as the likely suspect for a pandemic. Although not easily transmitted to humans, 61% of people who have contracted bird flu have died. Virologists think that should H5N1 mutate, the death toll would be in the billions. I must say that I’ve always thought that a pandemic is the most likely doomsday scenario – how many more people can our Earth withstand before Nature turns on us?

                Blue gold. We’ve heard this one repeatedly in recent years – a future scarcity of clean H2O – which may lead to conflict, famine and huge disruption of food supplies. More than a billion people lack access to safe water and 3.4 million people die each year from water-related diseases. An estimated two billion people are expected to have no access to clean water by 2050. China and India, superpowers-in-waiting, already face issues with the infrastructure necessary to distribute and clean water. The problem is really a fast-growing global population and its need for food rather than a lack of water.

                Resistance is futile. Here’s one I hadn’t heard of before. Do you know what telomeres are? The DNA of nearly every life-form contains telomeres—protective coverings on the ends of chromosomes that aid in replication and linking. Over the course of generations, telomeres degenerate and erode and this has been linked to ageing, cancer and diabetes. So it’s a ticking time bomb – a countdown to extinction. Some scientists are linking the increase in cancer, for example, with telomere degeneration.

                Gray-goo. The so-called gray-goo scenario was first suggested by nanotechnology pioneer K. Eric Drexler in his 1986 book, Engines of Creation. This is all about robots going wild. If nanobots break free of their controls, they’ll run amok, reproduce at an exponential rate and ” reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days”.

                Kick-ass chunk of rock. Didn’t think I’d leave this one out did you! The fatal impact of a comet or asteroid could wipe us out for sure. Maybe it will happen in 2029 when 99942 Apophis, a near-Earth asteroid passes very close to Earth. Most likely it will just be a close brush but this chunk of rock could set up a “gravitational keyhole” – a precise region in space no more than about 400 meters across, that would set up a future impact on April 13, 2036. Said chunk of rock will have a 1 in 45,000 chance of hitting the Pacific Ocean or Denver, Colorado on Easter Sunday. That will sure spoil any chocolate eating on that day! And I guess Bruce Willis won’t be around to save us.

                Don’t mess with nature or space. Messing around with human DNA strikes me as not a good thing. And this scenario suggests that some dude in a lab coat could turn things horribly wrong and you might find a human embryo growing inside a rodent. Alternatively, you have the artificial worm-hole scenario. Scientists are suggesting that a short-cut or worm-hole in the space-time continuum could be artificially created. But those of us who spend our time watching Star Trek or Alien movies might wonder what sort of unspeakable horrors lie beyond our known universe just itching to slide down a worm-hole heading to Earth.

                Well, better mark my calendar for December 21, 2012 and April 13, 2036 – seem like possible glitches for mankind in the 21st Century, that is if water wars, pandemics, crazy nanobots and eroding DNA don’t get us first.

                Sources: Radar Online and Cracked.

                January 24, 2008 at 2:00 am 1 comment

                How curious!

                To kick-start the New Year, let’s have a look at some curious bits and pieces I’ve found.

                Glow-in-the-dark kitty. Perhaps you’re tired of the usual assortment of colours cats come in: tan, black, white, gray, marmalade, chocolate. So why not colour-coordinate so kitty matches your personal colour scheme preference? Scientists first cloned a cat in 2002 (the cat was named Copycat – how droll) but not content to just clone felines, researchers have now found a way to change the colour of cats. By modifying a gene, the enterprising scientists have produced the planet’s first red cloned cat (seems the colour palette is limited to red at the moment, so if red’s not your fav colour, bummer). The photo above shows two cloned Turkish Angola kittens (cute!). Due to the red fluorescence protein in their skin cells, the kittens look reddish under ultraviolet light.

                I would think this would be a most useful feline feature should you have trouble finding kitty in the dark. Here’s a video of the glow-in-the-dark cats.

                Source: The Korea Times

                A beetle of many colours: staying with the colour theme, there’s a golden beetle species in Panama that can do its very own colour-changing trick without the need for gene modification. If it desires, the Panamanian tortoise beetle can turn brick-red in less than two minutes. This is not due to external temperature changes. The beetle can alter the flow of fluid in its ecoskeleton, which consists of 20 to 40 layers. Apparently, when the beetle is wet, wavelengths of light bounce off the ecoskeleton due to the porous nature of the layers and gives the beetle an overall glossy golden colour. But when the beetle has dried off, the light doesn’t bounce off evenly and the ecoskeleton becomes translucent, revealing red pigment. The colour-changing trick could have implications for biomimicry. If a house plant dries out, for instance, the pot could change colour to warn that the plant needs watering. Source: Discover Magazine

                Don’t bug a cockroach in the morning. If you’re not a morning person, well you have some company: neither are cockroaches. Scientists have found that the learning ability of cockroaches is pretty kaput in the morning, but by evening, they’re raring to go with learning tasks and it’s the first example of an insect whose ability to learn is controlled by its biological clock. Now, I was more interested in what on earth scientists are teaching cockroaches. It seems they were taught to associate peppermint, which they don’t like, with sugar water so they would favour peppermint over one of their favourite smells – vanilla. Apparently, the bugs trained at night could remember the smell association for several days, but their morning trained counterparts were incapable of learning anything new, let alone remembering it. Mmmm….better get that vanilla out of my pantry or start training cockroaches fast! Source: Reuters.

                How much would you pay for dessert? Well, if you have a spare US$14,500, you can savour the taste of the world’s most expensive dessert. A Sri Lankan hotel is serving up a chocolate pudding but this is no ordinary choc pud. This pudding includes a gemstone – an 80 carat aquamarine. The dessert sits on a pedestal with a model of a fisherman perched on a stilt and contains chocolate, champagne, caramelised sugar and the gemstone. This culinary experience costs seven times the average national income and so far only one dessert has been ordered. Let’s hope the person didn’t choke on the gemstone. Source: BBC News.

                Japanese mutant ninja mice. Back to messing around with animals’ genetic make-up – a Japanese university professor has been interfering with the receptors in the olfactory bulb of mice and has produced fearless mice. Normally, a mouse gets a whiff of a cat and runs fast in the opposite direction. But because the part of the brain that processes information about smell has been blocked, the mice are so fearless they actually play with their nemesis as if they were long-lost friends. Mind you, the cat in the video below is Mochikko-chan, a cat that was specifically selected for the demonstration because of her docile nature. But still this mouse is pretty game!

                January 4, 2008 at 1:00 am Leave a comment

                What influences our visual perception?

                Optical illusions seem to be popular on science related sites. I don’t usually get into them but I found this one interesting. Take a look at the drawing below. Robert Laws was a Scottish missionary who worked in Malawi in the 1880s and put forward the theory that our visual perception is influenced by one’s culture and environment. What do you see below? Examine the image before reading further.

                I have to admit I had a couple of versions in my mind when I first examined this image. My immediate impression was that it looked like a group of people sitting around in a hut or a room – admittedly well-dressed people – and there is a palm tree just outside the window. Or they’re all sitting under a tree. They don’t look “Western” but then again their attire suggests they are. A happy family sharing the love with the family dog?

                Well, if you come from Eastern Africa you wouldn’t see what I’ve just described. You’d see a woman balancing a box or container on her head, which is how African women often carry water around and you’d see the family sitting around a tree. If you’re a Westerner on the other hand, you’d be more accustomed to indoor architecture, so you’d see a family hanging around a lounge-room and you’d see a window through which a tree can be seen.

                This reminded me of a workshop I once ran in Africa where I used black and white photos in a values exercise. I ran the same exercise with a group of people in New Zealand and the interpretations were so very different.

                Kim photo

                Source: Mighty Optical Illusions.

                December 14, 2007 at 3:00 am Leave a comment

                A few curious things

                Kim photoAs ThinkingShift is having a pre-Xmas break, today’s post brings you some bits and pieces I’ve found very interesting over the last few weeks or months but haven’t had time to do separate posts about.

                For my UFO and alien fans, there was a fascinating piece recently in The Fortean Times on the link between hippies and UFOs. Now, I’ve always thought of myself as a bit of a hippie, but I haven’t seen too many UFOs lately. So what’s the connection? The article talks about John Michell, who was the leader of the Underground movement of the mid-1960s. The Underground refers to people during the 60s who were fed up with the post-WWII acquisitive society and were influenced by Eastern religions and belief systems. But the Underground was also influenced by the flying saucer culture that had built up steadily since the 1950s.

                Michel noted that during the 50s people “were having experiences that weren’t allowed for within the context of our education. There was a split between the view of the world we’d been taught and accepted unquestioningly and the world of actual experience.” So he took himself off to the ancient site of Glastonbury, which is apparently the centre of weird and wonderful things in the UK. I’ve always noticed that UFOs seem to be reported around ancient sites and Michel made that same connection. And an awful lot of hippies during the 1960s were on the wacky tobaccy and this produced a “specifically British form of psychedelia which involved dancing gnomes and flying saucers”.

                So with a new generation of post-WWII kids rejecting the values of their parents and doped up on LSD, Glastonbury, which is also associated with King Arthur and the Holy Grail, became the epicentre of UFO sightings, particuarly over Glastonbury Tor.

                60s rock musicians also became interested in UFOs to express their psychedelic experience. You had David Bowie with his Ziggy Stardust persona for example. And you had album covers that depicted swirling universes and spinning discs. Michell even accompanied The Rolling Stones on a visit to Stonehenge for a spot of flying saucer viewing.

                Anyway, read the article yourself – at the very least it goes a long way towards explaining the influence of outerspace on inner space ie the exploration of the soul and spiritual awakening that happened during the hippie movement of the 1960s.

                You might not be so interested in hippies and flying objects, but you might lie awake at night wondering why the ancient Greeks and Romans always seemed to build their auditoriums and amphitheatres in elliptical shapes. Why not build the Colliseum in a square shape? Well, that’s because humans have long known that certain shaped structures can enhance or conversely stifle sound. So the elliptical shape of an amphitheatre, for example, allowed the audience to hear plays and speakers at a comfortable sound level.

                So the space around us affects our neurological activity and of course designers and architects are well versed in creating the desired psychological effect. And apparently ceiling height can affect the way you think. The University of Minnesota conducted some experiments and found “people focused more on specifics when the ceiling was eight feet high and more on the abstract when the ceiling was ten feet high“. So high ceilings would encourage visionary, big-picture thinking, whilst lower ceilings would be perfect for detailed, technical tasks. Mmmmm….better have a look at the ceiling at my work place! And clearly knowledge managers know the importance of designing space that encourages collaboration. You can read more about the intersection between neuroscience and physical space on d/visible.

                And finally, to my most precious find of the last few weeks – a screen saver that displays security camera images! SurveillanceSaver is an OS X screensaver that shows live images of over 600 network surveillance cameras worldwide. Just like a live soap opera! BoingBoing showed the picture below from one of the cameras. I’ve just uploaded Leopard to my MacBook and then I plan to download SurveillanceSaver.

                Sources: Fortean Times; d/visible; BoingBoing; i.document

                December 4, 2007 at 3:00 am Leave a comment

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