Category Archives: Science/Nature/Tech

Maybe We Should All Be Reading Stone Tablets

The real books vs. e-books debate gets scientific. I have no doubt that if there had been psychologists back when bound books were replacing scrolls they would have have been presenting all kinds of scientifically valid evidence that scrolls were better, healthier and more natural. I am equally certain that when scrolls were first introduced there were people who criticized them for their impermanence compared to stone tablets. The new will always be bad and scary. At the same time, it’s true that, often, embracing the new means losing some useful or merely pleasant features of the old.

I like both paper books and my Kindle. What I miss most when reading a book on the Kindle is the ability to flip back to an earlier chapter to re-read something related to the latest thing I read. When I’m reading a paper book I often miss Kindle’s dictionary. I also like Kindle’s size and weight. The standard size paperback, which is the perfect size, seems to be disappearing. Many of the books I want to read are only available in hardback or the heavy, over-sized paperbacks. People say they like the way real books feel in their hands. Well, I like the way the Kindle feels in my hands. I didn’t at first. It felt awkward and there didn’t seem to be any good place to get a grip on it, but I got used to it and now I like it. Funny how that works.

Based on personal experience, I disagree with the article’s claim that e-book readers “inhibit reading comprehension” and even make it harder to remember what we read, but the article does present some interesting things to think about – about the way the brain works when reading. These are things future developers of e-book readers should take into consideration. I do think (or hope) real books are going to still be around for a long time. There is really no reason for debate. This is not like electing a president. We can have both.

Oooo! A New Book!

I have irrefutable evidence that my family is the coolest in the world. My son gave me the What If? book! How many sons would give their mom a cool, geeky gift like that?! How many moms are cool enough to appreciate it? Um… well… Enough bragging. This is getting embarrassing.

This is a great gift because I love XKCD and What If? but I often forget to read it for several weeks. (There’s just too much to love on the Internet.) The book has stuff that was on the website plus some extra stuff not on the website, like Weird and Worrying Questions, to which the author gives short, smart-aleck answers. The funny thing about that is that many of the questions to which he gives serious answers are equally weird and worrying.

I got the book this past weekend and I’ve been reading one or two questions and answers a day because that seems like a better way to enjoy this book than a marathon read. Besides, I’m also reading a novel, trying to catch up on several back issues of Smithsonian Magazine, and there’s the Internet. (And there are all those other things that can’t be done with a book or a keyboard.) Anyway, very cool and interesting book. You should get it.

People Will Believe Anything

I already knew most of these: 7 Myths Nutritionists Wish You’d Stop Believing. Number 3 is the only one I really did not know and I had never even heard that rapeseed plants are toxic. It’s one of those “interesting facts” that you always hear – that canola oil is really made from rapeseed but they renamed it because no one would buy something called “rapeseed oil”. Like a lot of “interesting facts” that you read on the Internet, it turns out it’s just a myth. Most of the others I had already seen debunked. Number 7 is obviously just a figure of speech. Pardon me for saying this but, DUH!

The one that gave me a real “AH HA!” moment was #2. Diet sodas make you gain weight. For a few years, I’ve been seeing articles saying this and it not only seems illogical it seems almost like religious dogma. “It is enjoyable therefore it is a sin to enjoy it and don’t you dare think you can “cheat” by drinking diet soda. Sodas are sinful. Period. Drink them not lest thou die.” And my own personal experiences with drinking diet sodas and weight loss/gain suggests it’s not true. But, you know, who am I to doubt a Scientific Study? So, while I disbelieved, at the same time I thought, “It’s probably true, darn it.” Turns out my true feelings on the matter are spot on.

There is a name for this sort of thing: Orthorexia Nervosa (not an officially recognized disorder yet) It’s a matter of degree, of course. Being conscious of what you eat, eating healthy – this is good. What is bad is obsession and using pseudoscience to try to scare other people into adopting your lifestyle.

“Oh!” – “I see, said the blind man.”

I had a 7th grade teacher who, whenever he would explain something to a student one-on-one and they would say, “Oh,” would respond, “I see said the blind man.” I suppose some students might have found this annoying but I always thought it was hilarious and I loved him for it. He was also one of my first Black teachers (I had two that year) and one of my first male teachers.

But that’s not what this is about. I just happened to think of it when I read this. That line from Star Wars, that the Millennium Falcon “made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs,” has always bothered me. I mean seriously bothered me. A parsec is a measure of distance, not time. Things like this, to me, are worse than fingernails on a chalkboard.

Well, in fact, it does make sense. And I’m feeling quite annoyed at myself for being such a scientifically illiterate numbskull. This is rather obvious.

The main criticism of the line is that a parsec is a distance. Han saying that he made the run in 12 parsecs is like a runner saying she ran a marathon in 26.2 miles. This would be a legitimate criticism if the Kessel Run was a set distance like a marathon. In most cases, there are several different paths from point A to point B. For example, I live next to a lake, and there is a house across this lake. The direct route from my house to this house is to swim across the lake, but swimming is not an option for me because I can’t swim. To get to this house, I have to walk or drive. The same applies to the closest Target, which is a little over a mile away. To walk directly there, I would have to swim across a lake (a different one; I live in Minnesota) and walk across a freeway. Again, driving five miles is the best way for me to go to Target. On Earth, certain obstacles prevent a straight course; instead, a path around these impediments is the best way to travel.

In space, the obstacles are numerous. Planets, asteroids, comets, meteors, and black holes are just a few of the features a pilot has to navigate around in order to arrive at a destination safely. When Han has to get away from Tatooine, he tells Luke, “Traveling through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops, boy. Without precise calculations we could fly right through a star or bounce too close to a supernova, and that’d end your trip real quick, wouldn’t it?” According to the material in the expanded ‘Star Wars’ universe, the Maw is a cluster of black holes on one of the possible routes to Kessel. The safest course is approximately 18 parsecs. For Han to have completed the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, he would have had to travel near this cluster of black holes, which is dangerous. A black hole has a strong gravitational pull, and getting too close to one could result in the ship either being destroyed or pulled into the black hole to face an unknown fate. Traveling a direct route in space can be risky, and it takes a skilled navigator to plot a course that will get a ship to its destination in one piece.

The author goes on to say that Han’s boast “doesn’t sell him as a great pilot.” I don’t care. This line that has bugged me for over three decades now makes sense to me. Rays of glorious light shone down from Heaven and angels sang. You can’t take that away from me. Not even by going back to the time vs. distance issue:

The problem with the Kessel Run claim is the fact that Han says the line as an answer to a question about speed. Obi-Wan says he is looking for passage on a fast ship. Han asks, “Fast ship? You’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon?” Obi-Wan replies, “Should I have?” Then Han says the famous line, “It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.” A parsec is a unit of distance, and distance is distance. You drive 60 miles; it could take you three hours if you go 20mph or one hour if you go 60mph, but you still travel 60 miles. Speed is determined by the relationship between time and distance. Again, without knowing how much time it took Han to complete the Kessel Run, the comment is an attribute to his navigating skills and not the performance of the ship. If Han has said, “It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in 11.7 parsecs in 3 days,” then the speed the Millennium Falcon could be determined, giving Obi-Wan an actual answer to his inquiry.

Okay, so she has a point. Sort of. But note the specific wording of the statement. “It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.” “The ship.” As if it was the only one that ever did it. A historic stunt that everyone is expected to have heard of, including other details, like time, that are not given in Han’s brief statement. Anyway, that’s how I make sense of it and I’m happy now. Star Wars is officially perfect.

I Can Read Your Mind

Well, actually I can’t. But maybe in the near future? Actually, I have a “wait and see” attitude about this kind of thing. Success in the lab does not always lead to the cool new products suggested by overly optimistic tech articles. If “mind reading headsets” do become available I don’t think it’s something that “everybody” will want. I see it mainly as a tool for the handicapped – people who can’t speak, people who can’t type – and that would be wonderful.

In Space No One Does Laundry

This is a really good article by astronaut Chris Hadfield. (Remember when everyone knew the names of all the astronauts?) 6 Ways Movies Get Space Wrong. It’s not the usual “OMG! That’s so fake!” kind of list that you might expect given the title and the website. It’s a lot of mundane little things that you probably never thought of. Except #5. I’m getting sort of tired of the “How do they go to the bathroom in space?” question. But even that one has a couple of details that I hadn’t read before.

Found on Facebook.

It Doesn’t Mean What You Think

10 Scientific Ideas That Scientists Wish You Would Stop Misusing. Scientists don’t always talk like the rest of us. Most of what the average person knows about science probably comes from TV so it would be helpful if TV writers would get it right. Of course that’s not going to happen so everyone needs to realize that TV hardly ever gets anything right. That’s not going to happen either.

The garbage we hear on TV and from our friends gets into our heads and we tend to talk like everyone else even when we know better. I resolved a while back to stop saying “theory” when I really mean “hypothesis” but it’s hard. I grew up hearing everyone say “theory” to mean “an unproven idea” and even though I have known for a long time that that’s not what it really means, that’s still what usually comes out of my mouth. Still, even though I use it wrong just like almost everyone else I know what it really means and I don’t assume that the way I use it is the real or only meaning like most people seem to do.

The misuse of “natural” and “organic” are two of my biggest pet peeves but I think the incorrect meanings of these words have become so fixed in most people’s minds that we can probably never recover the real meanings. And yes, I know that the language changes naturally over time but when people purposely hijack words and change their meanings we lose the original meaning and our ability to effectively communicate suffers. Chemicals is another widely misunderstood word. (Seriously, you must click on that link.)

There are other interesting points on the list: geologic time scales, which are difficult for most people to grasp, which I’m sure is part of why evolution is such a difficult concept for some people, and “survival of the fittest” and, something I hadn’t thought much about, genes “for” specific traits.

Terrible Tech

Ten Terrible Tech Annoyances That Should Be Illegal. Let’s start with the one which is not listed but of which the linked page is guilty: videos that start automatically. We should have the right to choose whether or not we want to watch a video or hear sounds on a website. Now, on to the list.

1.CAPTCHAs. I do hate the things and the one I used to have on this blog didn’t seem to prevent spam at all. But I really can’t blame anyone for trying.

2.Hold music and the right of silence. Either ban all hold music or require Mozart only hold music.

3.Proprietary power bricks. I have been saying this for years. Everything should work with everything else.

4. Printer ink to get consumer advisory labels. Ugh. Not another advisory label. I don’t know… Printer ink is ridiculously expensive and I can’t think of a better idea.

5. No voice-response double jeopardy. “An automated telephone system asks you to enter your name, account number, or other information. … Then why, once we’re transferred to a human operator, must we be asked for the same information again?” They do that even if it’s a live person who transfers you to another person and it’s one of my long time pet peeves. Sometimes when I’m in a really bad mood I impatiently tell them, “I just gave that information to the other person; why do I have to say it all again?” Maybe if everyone made a habit of doing that every time someone would get the hint.

6. Alerts must know their place. “Monitor status messages shall be designed so they don’t block login windows. Appliances like microwaves and dishwashers shall not beep constantly about minor issues, like their cycles being done (once or twice is enough), or their doors being closed.” Yes! And all boxes that require you to click either, “OK” or “Remind me later” or similar choices shall also be required to have a “Don’t Ever Bother Me Again” button.

7. Non-removable batteries: Banned Yes! And no weird sized or proprietary batteries. A dozen or so standard battery sizes should be enough!

8. Software updates shall only update. Definitely! Whether it’s an update or anything else, computers should only do what you tell them to and nothing more.

9. Pasted text must default to “no formatting”. And no additional text. Some sites, when I copy and paste something for my weekly quotes, will add an advertisement for their site. Again, computers (and software, and websites) should do only what you tell them to, nothing more.

10. No more long ads before video content. “The maximum length of a pre-roll ad (the commercial that plays before a video online) shall be at most 15 percent the length of the video itself.” That sounds reasonable but there should also be a maximum length in the case of very long videos. Say, 15 percent or 30 seconds, whichever is shorter.

Anyone have anything to add to those? I’m sure there must be more.

Eureka Springs: Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge

The most expensive thing we did in Eureka Springs (besides eating at that one restaurant) was to visit the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge. It cost $20 per person and I admit I did cringe a bit at having to pay that much but it is actually very reasonable considering the cost of caring for all these big animals. Turpentine Creek is a refuge for animals that someone thought they wanted as pets before they discovered what a handful several hundred pounds of cat can be. It survives on these entry fees and private donations.

Everyone who thinks they want a big cat as a pet should visit this place, see these animals and hear their stories. Some of the cats had been declawed and our tour guide told us about the effects of declawing, which include arthritis. One guy wanted to get rid of his cat (I can’t remember now if it was a lion or a tiger) and just let it go in a national forest 60 miles from his home. It found its way home in a surprisingly short time. There were a couple of bobcats. Many people think because they’re small they will make as good a pet as a house cat but they are wild animals and it is not possible to fully domesticate them.

The long-term pens that the animals live in are more or less the size of a typical suburban back yard. New arrivals are put in much smaller pens with concrete floors until a larger pen is available, which depends on having the money to build one.

There were also a few bears. My heart went out to this guy. The caretaker was trying to fill his pan with water and he kept playing in it and splashing it all out. He was like a big furry child and I wished I could donate a swimming pool for him to play in.

* * * * *

Inside a Steam Iron

For most of my life I was not aware that I possess the Must-Take-Stuff-Apart-To-See-How-It-Works gene but for a number of years now I have had a burning curiosity to see what was inside my steam iron. I finally got the opportunity when it stopped working two or three weeks ago. I immediately wanted to take it apart but I don’t have a lot of experience with that sort of thing and didn’t see any obvious screws or nuts holding it together and didn’t know where to start. So I saved it for Number One Son and I watched and took pictures while he took it apart.

The cover with all the heat settings listed on it was easier to pop off than I had expected and I was a little embarrassed that I hadn’t tried that. Quite silly but I was afraid of breaking that which I was planning to break.

Here are all the pieces. (Oops, forgot to move the salt and pepper. I moved them after taking this picture but this was the best picture of this stage of disassembly. And yes, that is a half eaten cookie on the left in these first two pictures.) That sort of bronze colored thing is the water reservoir. I think it’s actually made of aluminum.

Here it is with the water reservoir removed.

And finally, the very bottom piece with almost everything else removed.

Well, that was fun. Seriously, it really was fun. By the way, my new steam iron is the same brand and is almost exactly like the old one.

False Conflict

I keep finding more reasons why Neil deGrasse Tyson is awesome.

He says several things in this video that I particularly like. At about 3:50 he says that “maybe there is something in the brain’s wiring that prevents some people from becoming atheists.” In a way, I don’t want to believe that because I don’t like to believe that a certain way of thinking (whatever it is) is “pre-wired” but, on the other hand, this explains a lot and, as I (and others) have said before, brains are weird. I also respect him for trying to avoid politicizing science, though that’s often impossible.

I wish I could introduce Neil deGrasse Tyson to my grandmother. Actually I wish I could introduce a lot of people to my grandmother. She was extremely conservative. She thought almost everything on TV was immoral in one way or another. It’s probably not surprising that she objected to I Dream of Jeannie but she even considered The Lawrence Welk Show immoral because when the young ladies on the show danced and whirled around you could see their knees and (gasp!) sometimes even their thighs. From knees to belly buttons to kids smarting off at their parents there was no show so wholesome she couldn’t find something wrong with it. (and we’re talking about the 60’s, when TV couples slept in twin beds) She had similar opinions about real life behavior. You might assume from this that she was an unpleasant person but she wasn’t at all. She was usually cheerful and pleasant and never preachy but when certain subjects came up she would certainly tell you what she thought.

My grandmother read the Bible every day and believed in it and considered it a guide for living but one thing she did not believe was that the world was created in only six days. She understood that the Bible was never meant to be taken literally. I can clearly remember when I was very small she explained to me that both Genesis and evolution were true because the Bible said that to God a thousand years were as one day, which, of course, she also did not take literally. The world was not created in six thousand years any more than it was created in six days.

That one person could believe both the Bible and the true time scale of evolution and that humans evolved from a single cell, up through amphibians, small mammals, primates, early hominids to modern humans, does not compute for some people but I say, “Why not?!” We all believe things that are much more unlikely than that. My grandmother did not care for conflict. She did her best to educate her children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews but was content to leave strangers to believe anything they liked, but I know that if asked she would have said that creationists reduce God to human scale because they are not capable of grasping anything greater.

My grandmother was actually very interested in science. To her, science was the study of God’s creation so you had to get it right. I’m sure there are people who would say that she was cheating, that she had been convinced of the scientific truth of evolution but still couldn’t let go of religion. Perhaps there’s some truth to that. So what? People manage to reconcile seemingly conflicting ideas in their minds all the time, maybe because these ideas are not really as opposite or mutually exclusive to one another as some have been led to believe. Maybe someone with an agenda decided that a conflict would be to their advantage, created one, and convinced a lot of other people. Oh man, I wish I had that kind of talent! The talent to convince people. Well, if I can’t maybe Dr. Tyson can – the kids at least.

Playing Games For Mental Health

Researchers have developed a smartphone app that can reduce anxiety.

The game is based on an emerging cognitive treatment for anxiety called attention-bias modification training (ABMT). Essentially, this treatment involves training patients to ignore a threatening stimulus (such as an angry face) and to focus instead on a non-threatening stimulus (such as a neutral or happy face). This type of training has been shown to reduce anxiety and stress among people suffering from high anxiety.

In the study, about 75 participants — who all scored relatively high on an anxiety survey — were required to follow two characters around on the screen, tracing their paths as quickly and accurately as possible.

After playing the game for either 25 or 45 minutes, the participants were asked to give a short speech to the researchers while being recorded on video — an especially stressful situation for these participants.

The videos revealed that participants who played the ABMT-based version of the game showed less nervous behavior and speech during their talk and reported less negative feelings afterward than those in the placebo group.

That makes sense but I wonder if it has to be their specially developed game or if pretty much any low stress game could have the same effect.

“This can’t happen with a real book”

That was my immediate thought last night when my Kindle, quite strangely, went back to the beginning of the book I’m reading when I exited the dictionary. I was 40% of the way through the book! I didn’t know what to do and it was late so, heartbroken and worried, I decided to deal with it tomorrow (which is now today) and turned it off.

The first thing I did this morning was to search the Kindle forums on Amazon. This error has happened to other people and there is no automatic way to go back to where you were in the book. The best suggestion was to search on a phrase you remember from the page you were reading. Well, of course, early this morning I couldn’t think of any exact words that I had read last night. But slowly, after morning tea, the fog began to lift and I remembered something that got me very close to where I was.

Now that the panic is over, really thinking about it, it was no more of an ordeal (maybe less of one) than finding your place again in a paper and ink book when you drop it and lose your place so, even though that should not have happened, I still love my Kindle. I’m a little bit peeved at it for losing my place and I still wonder how such a thing could happen but no technology is perfect. It’s so easy to get into the habit of trusting it.

In the Next Five Years?

Five Surprising Things That Will Happen in the Next Five Years. I have not watched all five of the videos yet but I must say that I’m skeptical about these things happening in just five years and I do not think I would welcome #’s 2 and 5.

Regarding local retail beating online shopping: I have no doubt that local retailers will improve – they have to – but it will remain impossible for local stores, especially small town stores, to keep in stock everything that anyone might want. And there are some kinds of stores (book store, fabric store) that do not even exist in the small town where we do most of our local shopping. (nor in any of the surrounding small towns)

Of all the five things, #3, “doctors will routinely use DNA to keep you well,” is the one I would most welcome but I’m extremely skeptical that it will be routine within five years and it certainly will not be affordable and since insurance companies are extremely reluctant to cover anything new, their definition of “new” being anything approved in the past 30 years, this will affect very, very few people.

I am seriously tempted to put this post in the Sci-Fi & Fantasy category.

Weather Terms

I am not a fan of The Weather Channel. It’s okay. As cable/satellite channels go it’s relatively inoffensive but it’s just not that useful or interesting to me. I do sort of like Coast Guard Alaska but I rarely watch even that. So I was just a little bit surprised to find that their website is somewhat more interesting than their TV channel. I found their extensive Weather Glossary when searching for something else. That could definitely be useful. I love glossaries.

Today Is For the Birds

I took these photos a little while ago through the small window in our front door, with the camera at near maximum zoom.

The feeder on the left contains sunflower seeds, the one on the right contains thistle seeds, with the suet cake holder in the middle. This feeding arrangement brings us a wide variety of birds year round. We don’t always provide suet cakes in the summer. The greedy little things can gobble one down in only a day or two. Depending on the season, we get cardinals, downy woodpeckers and occasionally red-bellied woodpeckers, sparrows, chickadees, tufted titmice, blue jays, and several different species of finches including goldfinches and purple finches. (which are not really purple at all) I have seen blue birds but only rarely and last summer, for the first time ever, I saw indigo buntings. (That’s our neighbor’s truck and front door in the background.)