Saturday, February 28

Are Ocopuses Smart?

Reports of an octopus that flooded a California aquarium on Thursday led Brendan Borrell of to ask the question "are octopuses smart?":
On Thursday morning, workers filing into the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium in California were surprised to find 200 gallons (750 liters) of seawater soaking into their spanking new, ecologically sensitive flooring. It turns out that a curious two-spotted octopus had disassembled a water recycling valve and directed a tube to spew out of the tank for about 10 hours, according to the Los Angeles Times.

"It found something loose and just pulled on it," the aquarium's education manager Tara Treiber told the Times. "They are very smart creatures."

Octopuses, some 300 species of which inhabit tropical waters around the world, can change colors, squirt out poison, and exert a force greater than their own body weight. But calling the eight-armed cousin of your garden snail "smart" seems a bit of a stretch.
But apparently they are:
Scientists have found that octopuses can navigate their way through mazes, solve problems quickly and remember those solutions, at least for the short term.
Octopuses also supposedly "play" - which is considered another sign of intelligence.

Read full article, including an interview with an expert studying the intelligence of octopuses.

Anti-Love Potion: The Secret to Bliss?

Check out this article by John Tierney from the NYT:
In the new issue of Nature, the neuroscientist Larry Young offers a grand unified theory of love. After analyzing the brain chemistry of mammalian pair bonding - and, not incidentally, explaining humans’ peculiar erotic fascination with breasts - Dr. Young predicts that it won’t be long before an unscrupulous suitor could sneak a pharmaceutical love potion into your drink.

That’s the bad news. The not-so-bad news is that you may enjoy this potion if you took it knowingly with the right person. But the really good news, as I see it, is that we might reverse-engineer an anti-love potion, a vaccine preventing you from making an infatuated ass of yourself. Although this love vaccine isn’t mentioned in Dr. Young’s essay, when I raised the prospect he agreed it could also be in the offing.

...Read full article

Getting Old

So today I turned 26 years old - and I don't like it one bit (although, fortunately I still look better than that guy). I have reached the point in my life where there doesn't seem to be any advantage to getting older - I can already drive, buy cigarettes, buy liquor, and rent a car (and the novelty of these things has long since faded) - my age is no longer a limit to what I can or can't do. It's not that I don't like the idea of being 26 necessarily, but it gets me thinking about being 30 - and I don't like the idea of being 30, because then you're way to close to 40 - and 40 is old! (this is how my brain works)

I guess I kind of see 25 or 26 as "over the hill" of youth - it's all downhill (maybe that's not the right word, I'm not implying it will be easy) toward being an adult from here. There is also the fact that I am still at least a year away from graduate school, meaning I probably won't finish graduate school until I am 30 - and if I decide to get my PhD...good god I will be old! Then again, maybe the worry is all for nothing - I think I'm just going to count on the rapid advances in genetics to find a cure for aging, then age will be meaningless!

Friday, February 27


Fish are having a good news week. Yesterday I posted about a fish that can see through the back of it's head, and today came reports of a recently discovered species of fish called Histiophryne psychedelica - named for it's trippy coloring and because the way it swims, it almost looks intoxicated.

The fish is the size of your fist and has folds of thick skin to protect it from the corals amongst which it hunts. Scientists describe it's swimming motion as "hopping," which is made possible by "leg-like" fins, and is something that has never been observed before.

Check out this post on 60 Second Science for a better video of it's unusual swimming style.

Guitars Go Green

Even guitar makers are into the green revolution. Obviously, the concern with guitars is the sustainability of the logging practices used to obtain the wood. Most major guitar producers already voluntarily make at least some guitars with lumber certified as “sustainably harvested." Gibson, Taylor, Fender, Martin, Guild, Walden and Yamaha are all additionally partners with the Music Wood Coalition, a project of Greenpeace. According to Greenpeace Forest Campaign Coordinator Scott Paul, the biggest challenge is resistance from musicians, “Players expect a spruce soundboard, a mahogany neck, an ebony or rosewood bridge.” Tradition can be a bitch. For more, check out this article.

Don't Worry, Be Happy

Too often science journalism focuses on scientific evidence to be fearful of - we are constantly being told that too much of this or too little of that will have detrimental effects. In a somewhat old (July 2008), but unusually light-hearted article, John Tierney of the NYT tries to balance the coverage by listing 10 things NOT to worry about:

1. Killer hot dogs. What is it about frankfurters? There was the nitrite scare. Then the grilling-creates-carcinogens alarm. And then, when those menaces ebbed, the weenie warriors fell back on that old reliable villain: saturated fat.

But now even saturated fat isn’t looking so bad, thanks to a rigorous experiment in Israel reported this month. The people on a low-carb, unrestricted-calorie diet consumed more saturated fat than another group forced to cut back on both fat and calories, but those fatophiles lost more weight and ended up with a better cholesterol profile. And this was just the latest in a series of studies contradicting the medical establishment’s predictions about saturated fat.

If you must worry, focus on the carbs in the bun. But when it comes to the fatty frank — or the fatty anything else on vacation — I’d relax.

2. Your car’s planet-destroying A/C. No matter how guilty you feel about your carbon footprint, you don’t have to swelter on the highway to the beach. After doing tests at 65 miles per hour, the mileage experts at report that the aerodynamic drag from opening the windows cancels out any fuel savings from turning off the air-conditioner.

3. Forbidden fruits from afar. Do you dare to eat a kiwi? Sure, because more “food miles” do not equal more greenhouse emissions. Food from other countries is often produced and shipped much more efficiently than domestic food, particularly if the local producers are hauling their wares around in small trucks. One study showed that apples shipped from New Zealand to Britain had a smaller carbon footprint than apples grown and sold in Britain.

4. Carcinogenic cellphones. Some prominent brain surgeons made news on Larry King’s show this year with their fears of cellphones, thereby establishing once and for all that epidemiology is not brain surgery — it’s more complicated.

As my colleague Tara Parker-Pope has noted, there is no known biological mechanism for the phones’ non-ionizing radiation to cause cancer, and epidemiological studies have failed to find consistent links between cancer and cellphones.

It’s always possible today’s worried doctors will be vindicated, but I’d bet they’ll be remembered more like the promoters of the old cancer-from-power-lines menace — or like James Thurber’s grandmother, who covered up her wall outlets to stop electricity from leaking.

Driving while talking on a phone is a definite risk, but you’re better off worrying about other cars rather than cancer.

5. Evil plastic bags. Take it from the Environmental Protection Agency : paper bags are not better for the environment than plastic bags. If anything, the evidence from life-cycle analyses favors plastic bags. They require much less energy — and greenhouse emissions — to manufacture, ship and recycle. They generate less air and water pollution. And they take up much less space in landfills.

6. Toxic plastic bottles. For years panels of experts repeatedly approved the use of bisphenol-a, or BPA, which is used in polycarbonate bottles and many other plastic products. Yes, it could be harmful if given in huge doses to rodents, but so can the natural chemicals in countless foods we eat every day. Dose makes the poison.

But this year, after a campaign by a few researchers and activists, one federal panel expressed some concern about BPA in baby bottles. Panic ensued. Even though there was zero evidence of harm to humans, Wal-Mart pulled BPA-containing products from its shelves, and politicians began talking about BPA bans. Some experts fear product recalls that could make this the most expensive health scare in history.

Nalgene has already announced that it will take BPA out of its wonderfully sturdy water bottles. Given the publicity, the company probably had no choice. But my old blue-capped Nalgene bottle, the one with BPA that survived glaciers, jungles and deserts, is still sitting right next to me, filled with drinking water. If they ever try recalling it, they’ll have to pry it from my cold dead fingers.

7. Deadly sharks. Throughout the world last year, there was a grand total of one fatal shark attack (in the South Pacific), according to the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida.

8. The Arctic’s missing ice. The meltdown in the Arctic last summer was bad enough, but this spring there was worse news. A majority of experts expected even more melting this year, and some scientists created a media sensation by predicting that even the North Pole would be ice-free by the end of summer.

So far, though, there’s more ice than at this time last summer, and most experts are no longer expecting a new record. You can still fret about long-term trends in the Arctic, but you can set aside one worry: This summer it looks as if Santa can still have his drinks on the rocks.

9. The universe’s missing mass. Even if the fate of the universe — steady expansion or cataclysmic collapse — depends on the amount of dark matter that is out there somewhere, you can rest assured that no one blames you for losing it. And most experts doubt this collapse will occur during your vacation.

10. Unmarked wormholes. Could your vacation be interrupted by a sudden plunge into a wormhole? From my limited analysis of space-time theory and the movie “Jumper,” I would have to say that the possibility cannot be eliminated. I would also concede that if the wormhole led to an alternate universe, there’s a good chance your luggage would be lost in transit.

But I still wouldn’t worry about it, In an alternate universe, you might not have to spend the rest of the year fretting about either dark matter or sickly rodents. You might even be able to buy one of those Nalgene bottles.

Thursday, February 26

Coolest Fish Ever

Who needs eyes on the back of your head when you have a transparent, liquid-filled head? Not this fish, which lives at depths greater than 2,000 feet below the surface, and can rotate its green eyes up (as seen in this picture) to see through the back of its head - pretty freakin' cool!

Coen Bros: "Get Clean Coal Clean!"

The directors of such great films as Fargo and The Big Lebowski directed this ad aimed at debunking the myth that there is such a thing as "clean" coal:

Chew on This

Do you hate the dentist? - well their days may be numbered. Identification of a gene responsible for the production of tooth enamel might eliminate the need for fillings or dentures. OK - so this doesn't mean that there won't be any more dentists, but painful fillings and oral surgery could become a thing of the past (as well as dentures, at least as we know them today).

Researchers at Oregon University recently discovered a new function for a known gene, Ctip2, previously identified as a factor in immune responses and skin and nerve development. The new research shows that Ctip2 also plays a role in the production of tooth enamel. Mice engineered to lack Ctip2 can only form soft, rudimentary teeth, lack- ing a tough enamel coating.

Researchers believe a better understanding of the gene may lead to the repair of damaged enamel and tooth restoration, and even the production of "real" replacement teeth. Previous work has enabled the production of the soft, inner portions of teeth (using stem cells), but until now, researchers lacked knowledge of the genetic factors responsible for enamel production. Also of significance, researchers can now begin to study the process(es) involved in the production of enamel, one of the strongest coatings found in nature, knowledge of which may lead to the development of new synthetic compounds.

Wednesday, February 25

Cornell Professor Suggests Putting a Price on Endangered Species

I haven't read the actual article, but here is a tidbit from a post on Wired Science:

Rather than relying on warm, fuzzy feelings to protect animals, conservationists suggest appealing to something more reliable: greed.

By selling financial contracts pegged to species health, the government could create a market in the future of threatened animals, making their preservation literally valuable to investors.

"The incentive to conserve would increase as the likelihood of species survival decreases," said Cornell University biologist James Mandel. "If a species declines, investors have a bunch of paper that's now worthless."

It will be a hard sell, but it sounds like it might be worth a try.

Talking the Talk

Well, after watching Obama's address to Congress last night, one thing is sure: he can certainly talk the talk. In fact, I can say without much hesitation that Obama is one the best (if not the best) speakers I have ever had the opportunity to hear. He comes across as smart, confident, and even funny. And not only is his delivery excellent, he makes his messages and ideas seem brilliant in their simplicity (in other words, they seem like common sense solutions).

What we will have to wait to find out, is if he can walk the walk. Though his ideas often sound so simple they can't fail, inevitably some will. Does he have alternative solutions in the wait - and when those fail, will he be able to maintain his principles when caught between rock and a hard place? I have to say I am optimistic - based on his performance so far - that he will continue saying and doing not just what is easiest, but what is best. But then again, I can often be too trusting. In the words of Bob Marley, "time will tell".

(but one thing I am sure of: no matter what he does it will be better than the last eight years! Oh yeah, and Nancy Pelosi looked like a nut!)

Tuesday, February 24

President Obama's Address to Congress

Obama will address Congress in almost exactly four hours - you can watch it live here:

Monday, February 23


Insanity has been defined as repetition of the same action with expectations of a different result. This is also a perfect definition of America's war on drugs, which has employed the same techniques for the past forty years with no results. A recent report by the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, led by former presidents Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, Cesar Gaviria of Colombia and Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, calls out the United States on this issue.

Here are some highlights from an op-ed article by the three former heads of state in the Wall Street Journal summarizing the report:

Prohibitionist policies based on eradication, interdiction and criminalization of consumption simply haven't worked. Violence and the organized crime associated with the narcotics trade remain critical problems in our countries. Latin America remains the world's largest exporter of cocaine and cannabis, and is fast becoming a major supplier of opium and heroin. Today, we are further than ever from the goal of eradicating drugs.

Despite some of the world's strictest drug laws, combined hard-core-user prevalence rates for hard drugs are four times higher than in Europe.

The first step in the search for alternative solutions is to acknowledge the disastrous consequences of current policies. Next, we must shatter the taboos that inhibit public debate about drugs in our societies. Antinarcotic policies are firmly rooted in prejudices and fears that sometimes bear little relation to reality. The association of drugs with crime segregates addicts in closed circles where they become even more exposed to organized crime.

In order to drastically reduce the harm caused by narcotics, the long-term solution is to reduce demand for drugs in the main consumer countries. To move in this direction, it is essential to differentiate among illicit substances according to the harm they inflict on people’s health, and the harm drugs cause to the social fabric.

In this spirit, we propose a paradigm shift in drug policies based on three guiding principles: Reduce the harm caused by drugs, decrease drug consumption through education, and aggressively combat organized crime. To translate this new paradigm into action we must start by changing the status of addicts from drug buyers in the illegal market to patients cared for by the public-health system.

We also propose the careful evaluation, from a public-health standpoint, of the possibility of decriminalizing the possession of cannabis for personal use. Cannabis is by far the most widely used drug in Latin America, and we acknowledge that its consumption has an adverse impact on health. But the available empirical evidence shows that the hazards caused by cannabis are similar to the harm caused by alcohol or tobacco.

I particularly agree with this statement: "we must shatter the taboos that inhibit public debate about drugs in our societies. Anti-narcotic policies are firmly rooted in prejudices and fears that sometimes bear little relation to reality," this is the reason such insanity has been allowed to continue for so long. It's time to get the facts straight and debunk the myths, only then can we move forward towards a practical (and obtainable) solution!

Sunday, February 22

The Genetics of Beauty

Although the findings are still not officially published, researchers have identified six genes they believe may have significant effects on facial features. Exactly how much each gene influences any particular feature wasn't revealed, but the tentative results lead to speculation as to how this information might be used. Some potential applications noted in the article on the GenomeWeb Daily News website include:

-use in forensics - for example, to create a sketch of a criminal no one has seen based entirely on DNA
-and obviously in a pre-natal context, to have a computer predict what your child will look like based on DNA (although I don't see the point - I mean, what if you find out it's going to be ugly, you're not all of the sudden going to have an abortion - or at least I hope not!)

Anyway, just some more interesting ways genetics may change your life.

Hunter and Conan Do Art

Check out this hilarious, one-of-a-kind interview with Hunter Thompson in his natural element.


I think we can all relate to this, I mean - what are you really doing right now?