Thursday, November 19, 2015

It's Science - Fitter legs means fitter brains

I guess this belongs in the category, "We knew it all along."
Researchers at King's College London have found that muscle fitness as measured by power in the legs is strongly associated with an improved rate of ageing in the brain. 
Scientists studied a sample of 324 healthy female twins from the TwinsUK volunteer registry over a ten-year period from 1999, measuring various health and lifestyle predictors. Researchers were, therefore, able to control for genetic factors affecting changes in cognitive function. 
Thinking, learning and memory were measured at both the beginning and end of the study and it was found that leg power was a better predictor of cognitive change than any other lifestyle factors tested. Generally, the twin who had more leg power at the start of the study sustained their cognition better and had fewer brain changes associated with ageing measured after ten years.
 Here's the article, and you can pat yourself on the back, you smarty.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Fiction + Time = Fact

Maryland state wildlife workers used an electric hand saw to remove a milk can that was stuck on the head of a bear.
Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman Karis King says the wildlife response team was called early Monday to a rural location near Thurmont to rescue an adult male black bear with his head stuck inside a metal milk can.
The workers speculated that bear had probably found a picture book in the garbage but couldn't read.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Kierkegaard: Every movement of infinity comes about by passion

Recently, I saw the movie Chef.  While I’m not sure if it was a truly great movie, I thought that it was good enough and certainly enjoyable to watch.  Jon Favreau, best known for directing Elf, Iron Man and Iron Man II, starred, wrote, produced and directed it.  While I don’t want to give anything away, as the title suggests, the movie is about a chef.  You’ll find that this is was one of those food films – like Big Night, Babette’s Feast or Eat Dink Man Woman – in which, as the movie continues, you just get hungrier and hungrier.  To give everything the right feel, Favreau brought in Roy Choi, famous chief and Korean taco truck magnate, as a culinary consultant.  And the movie had at least one great scene – one that most people probably missed, unfortunately (spoiler alert).

At the ending of the credits, long after the movie proper has ended, there is a short clip – not related to the movie’s story – in which Choi is showing Favreau how to make a grilled cheese sandwich.  Choi performs a veritable ballet here, moving around the griddle, swirling the sandwich in the oil, constantly checking the bread for doneness from every angle.  As Choi is engaged in all this activity, he explains:
So you can see the whole sandwich is starting to evolve.
See the cheese is starting to evolve, too.
You’re almost…
Even now as you get further, Jon, you're getting in, like, a surgeon. 
You're changing even your grips here. 
Changing your positions, moving around. 
But you're not too busy with it. 
You're precise, but then sometimes you step back. 
Nothing else exists except this. 
This is the only thing that exists in this world right now. 

And if you f-ck this up, everything sucks in the world.

Favreau and Choi
cheese sandwich -- nothing else exists

Friday, November 13, 2015

Covert Military Action

The first attempt to try an interactive poll on the site proved technically successful. Unfortunately it didn't garner more than a handful of votes (I voted 4 times.) Perhaps a more serious topic will stir up interest. (This time you can only vote once.)

Each vote will probably need explanation. The comments should be used for that.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Tattoos are so 2nd Millennium

Step back piercers, the cyborg society is on the way with Pittsburgh at the forefront. While some are considering the Apple wristwatch, Grindhouse Wetware, a Pittsburgh company, asks you to consider the wrist. "Hopefully we'll have a lot of guinea pigs in the body modification community soon."
[Warning: linked article has some graphic surgical images.]

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Answer to the Two-Minute Mystery -- Or Not!

I think that enough time has elapsed for anyone interested to give his or her response to the Two-Minute Mystery. Jim was right to focus on the bird building the nest. Only, the problem wasn't with the bird but with the tree. Here is the wealthy Mrs. Sydney's complete answer as printed in the paper (I had to turn my desktop screen upside down to read it): "Although an experienced bird watcher, Roach didn't know his tropical flora. Obviously, he didn't watch a bird building a nest in a palm tree as he claimed. Palm trees have no branches, only long slippery fronds; and birds can't perch -- much less nest on them."

The more accurate answer, however, is a bit more complicated, which explains why Dr. Haledjian was stumped. It turns out that Mrs. Sydney may know her flora but she doesn't know birds. Even though palm trees do not have branches, certain resourceful birds do in fact build their nests in palm trees.

Here are the nests of the Weaver bird, clearly built in palm trees. As you can see from the second photo, they can be orange in color. Most are from Sub-Saharan Africa, with fewer species in tropical Asia.


Closer to home, the orange hooded oriole also builds nests in palm trees. According to the Audubon Society, while the hooded oriole will nest in various trees, it "[e]specially favors palm trees, and will nest in isolated groups of palms even in cities."

Now, the fact of the matter is that I couldn't find an orange bird from the Florida Keys that builds its nests in palm trees during the month of January (the hooded oriole spends its time in the Southwest US and Mexico). It may be that, given sufficient time and effort, I might discover a bird that fits that description. But, even so, Mrs. Sydney's contention was that it was physically impossible for a bird to build a nest in a palm tree, not that there are no orange birds in Florida that might build a nest there. And, Roach said that he spied an exotic orange bird, belonging to a species new to him. Perhaps a hooded oriole had lost its way, or Roach discovered a new species. In any event, Roach's story is not so implausible as to totally discredit him. Under these circumstances, no wonder Dr. Haledjian was stumped. His reputation as one of the world's greatest detectives without question remains intact.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Modern Health Care Questions Its Own Value

Perhaps modern health care may not have all the value we ascribe to it.

…we have compared lifespan in the Old Order Amish (OOA), a population with historically low use of medical care, with that of Caucasian participants from the Framingham Heart Study (FHS), focusing on individuals who have reached at least age 30 years. 
Analyses were based on 2,108 OOA individuals from the Lancaster County, PA community born between 1890 and 1921 and 5,079 FHS participants born approximately the same time. Vital status was ascertained on 96.9% of the OOA cohort through 2011 and through systematic follow-up of the FHS cohort. The lifespan part of the study included an enlargement of the Anabaptist Genealogy Database to 539,822 individuals, which will be of use in other studies of the Amish. Mortality comparisons revealed that OOA men experienced better longevity and OOA women comparable longevity than their FHS counterparts.

The study speculates that lifestyle may predispose longer life. (The study is here.)

Friday, November 6, 2015

One In the Plus Column for Nonbelievers

I may have to re-think my view of religion:  Religious upbringing associated with less altruism, study finds.

Serial - Season 2

For "Serial" devotees, season 2 will unfold sometime this month—new season, new subject, new controversies. Sarah Koenig said as much in a Glamour article. Also new this season, the series will be broadcast on Pandora as well as podcast on the Serial site.

While you're waiting you may want to try a completely different type of mystery podcast, called, appropriately enough, "Mystery Show". Starlee Kind, of This American Life, is the creator and host. I found the episodes a bit uneven, but entertaining in a richly quirky way, especially if you like solving lighthearted mysteries. They can be found here.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Sydney J. Harris and Dr. Haledjian

When I was growing up, I didn’t read much newsprint – even though on most days we received two papers.  But I didn’t ignore the newspaper altogether.  During baseball season, for example, brother Pete and I would daily pour over the sports section, reading the account of last night’s game and carefully studying every statistic and listing available.  And, of course, I read the comics.

There were two other features in the Post-Gazette that I distinctly remember from childhood.  These were:  a feature called “Two-Minute Mystery,” and the Sydney J. Harris column, "Strictly Personal.”

If I remember correctly, Two-Minute Mysteries appeared only during the summer, at least in the Post-Gazette.  It was a short column that spun a mystery story and gave the reader the chance to solve it – presumably in two minutes.  Donald J. Sobol authored the column and it was syndicated through the Associated Press.  It first appeared in 1959 and lasted until 1968.   Best of all, it starred the famous sleuth and criminologist, Dr. Haledjian.

I remember that there was always a group of us at home who would grab the paper for Sobol’s column and set our minds upon finding the solution.  And woe unto him who disclosed the answer before we had a chance to read it.  Inevitably, there would be a discussion comparing our guesses to each others and Sobol’s “correct” answer (printed upside-down below the column), and what we thought of the quality of that day’s installment.  It tended to be a competition of sorts – like everything else we did – to see who could solve the mystery.  Unfortunately, I was never very good at it and, as often happened in matters of this sort, I took a backseat to Dad and my older brothers.

Of course, the quality of the column varied, and some were impossible, requiring some specialized knowledge, for example, that muscles swell immediately after exercise.  And some – well – just didn’t make much sense.  In one mystery, an English professor's suicide note is considered fraudulent and a product of foul play because it contained a split infinitive.  Sobol in his solution naturally assumed that, because (1) English professors always follow grammatical rules, even when distraught and suicidal, and (2) that all English professors accept that “don't split infinitives in English” is such a rule, it must have been murder.  If anything, however, the often-strained logic only made it more fun and I found myself eagerly waiting for the next day’s installment. 

Anyway, here is one mystery that even the brilliant Dr. Haledjian couldn’t solve.  Answers can be written in the comments.
For years Mrs. Sydney, the wealthiest dowager in New York City, had vainly tried to outwit Dr. Haledjian.  As the famous criminologist selected a cigar from the tray held by the Sydney butler, a wicked gleam came into his hostess' eye.  It was time for playing stump-the-detective....”  John DeMott, Paul Houk, and Lee Roach were partners in a successful New York jewelry business," began Mrs. Sydney.  "Last January they flew down to the Florida Keys to spend a month at DeMott's lodge."  One afternoon DeMott took Houk, an avid fisherman but a non-swimmer, out on his forty-foot cruiser.  Roach, whose hobby was bird watching, remained behind. "Roach says he was sitting behind the lodge when he spied an exotic orange bird, belonnging to a species new to him, fly by. He followed it to the front of the house, and through binoculars watched it building a nest, high in a palm tree."  Quite by chance, he moved the binoculars out to the water and saw DeMott and Houk struggling on the yacht.  Roach says DeMott shoved Houk over-board and held his head under water.  "DeMott claimed that Houk had leaned over the side to gaff a fish, and, losing his balance, fell into the ocean.  He drowned before DeMott could reach him."  The coroner ascribed death to drowning.  At the trial, it was simply DeMott's word against Roach's.  "The jury deliberated less than five minutes," concluded Mrs. Sydney. "No doubt, my dear doctor, you won't need so long to realize who was lying."  Haledjian didn't.  Do you?

The other column I remember from the Post-Gazette of my childhood was Sydney J. Harris’ “Strictly Personal.”  Mostly, the column was Harris’ ruminations about pretty much anything that was on his mind, and it was more philosophical than political.  I’m not sure that anything like it exists today in newsprint, with the possible exception of the New York Times’ column “The Stone” that, according to the Times, “features the writing of contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.”  But, Harris was much less abstract and ponderous than most of what I read in the Times column.

He also had a curious occasional feature titled, "Things I Learned En Route to Looking Up Other Things,” in which he simply listed odd facts he had picked up along the way.  The facts listed could not be more random:  A few examples:
  • If a cat died in ancient Egypt, family members were required to shave off their eyebrows as a sign of mourning.  (And citizens were not infrequently executed for the ‘crime’ of killing a cat.) 
  • No king of Sweden for 100 years in the 17th century could speak the language of the country (since the time of Charles II in 1697 to the reign of Gustavus in 1792). 
  • “Fascism” as a political term was adopted by Mussolini from one of the Aesop’s fables showing that, while sticks could be easily broken one by one, they were irrefrangible if tied together in a bundle. (the Latin word for a bundle of sticks was fasces, which were brandished by the lictors of ancient Rome as symbols of authority.)  
  • The will Stephen Girard, endowing Girard College (for orphan boys) in Philadelphia, expressly prohibited clergymen from coming onto the premises of the school.
I don’t so much remember reading the column myself as much as I remember Dad reading it.  He was a big fan of Harris and, as far as I can recall, read the column at every opportunity.  He often would comment on it over breakfast or read sections to anyone who would listen.  I seem to recall that not everyone shared Dad’s high opinion of Harris, and that there was sometimes discussion on this point.  

I suppose that Dad liked Harris for the same reason that he was fond of G.K Chesterton:  Harris was clever, usually in support of a worthy cause, and he was profound without being obscure.  Harris may have also resonated with Dad because they were within months of the same age.  And, Dad was not Harris’ only fan.  In his day, Harris was immensely popular.  Time magazine once called Harris “the most quoted newsman in Chicago.  

Harris was born in London.  At five, his family moved to Chicago and he remained there the rest of his life.  He was a classmate and life-long friend of Saul Bellow.  Harris studied philosophy at the University of Chicago, and worked for several Chicago papers. In 1944, he began publishing “Strictly Personal,” which he continued to write for the next 40 years.  At some point his column was nationally syndicated, which is how it ended up in the Post-Gazette.

Despite having once written that “quotes are a way to lazy wisdom,” Harris was a master of the well-constructed sentence and could pack profound ideas into just a few words. Essayist, critic and editor Clifton Fadiman once referred to Harris as “America’s finest living aphorist.”  So, now he is remembered for these kernels of wit and wisdom.  Again, I provide a sample:
We have not passed that subtle line between childhood and adulthood until we move from the passive voice to the active voice — that is, until we have stopped saying “It got lost,” and say, “I lost it.”
Everyone admits that "the truth hurts" but no one applies this adage to himself — and as soon as it begins to hurt us, we quickly repudiate it and call it a lie.
Ninety percent of what we believe has nothing to do with the process of thought, but comes instead from the four sources of family inheritance, individual temperament, national culture, and economic self-interest; and while we cannot wholly cast off these shackles, we should at least recognize their cramping and distorting influence upon the free process of thought.
What we are looking for, I am afraid, is neither a true leader nor a true Messiah, but a false Messiah - a man who will give us over-simplified answers, who will justify our ways, who will castigate our enemies, who will vindicate our selfishness as a way of life and make us comfortable within our prejudices and preconceptions.
Terrorism is what we call the violence of the weak, and we condemn it; war is what we call the violence of the strong, and we glorify it.
The primary purpose of a liberal education is to make one's mind a pleasant place in which to spend one's leisure.
Intolerance is the most socially acceptable form of egotism, for it permits us to assume superiority without personal boasting. 
It's odd that the people who worry whether certain plays are "morally offensive" so rarely worry about the moral offensiveness of war, poverty, bigotry.
Our dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time; what we really want is for things to remain the same but get better.
Any philosophy that can be put in a nutshell belongs there.  (This is a corollary to Richard Feynman’s line “Hell, if I could explain it to the average person, it wouldn't have been worth the Nobel prize.”)
Who could blame Dad for liking Harris so much?

Sydney J. Harris

Sunday, November 1, 2015

In praise of and personal reflection on “It’s been a Long Time Coming”

“The Decadence of Halloween” from 1876 was a delight to read. The classic nostalgia of a wistful past along with the lament of a predicted future captures multiple meanings when the subject is Halloween. I would guess everyone over 30 expresses, at one time or another, the same regret that something has been lost. Life, unlike physics, is time-directional dependent. Your kids and your neighbors’ kids will never experience the “olden times” that you did. Their memories will be unique, but to predict the departure of the “glory of this once popular festival“, and that “its triumphs and rough jollities, festivals, and strange rites” will disappear is risking ridicule when your statements are discovered 150 years later. 

Perhaps the author did not fully understand the strength of life’s basic needs even while we conform to civilized society—the eternal conflict of the intellect of atheism versus the awe and alienation of life. We need the constructs of abstraction, our ordering of nature. We have to feel we understand, if only in part, what is going on. But we also need to dance naked on the hills of rural Scotland or Ireland where the “rough old games so peculiar to the [Halloween] festival” play out.

The Higgs field helps us model reality for better understanding, but we realize it is just a model that fits our mental image of reality. It is hardly more real than the field of ghosts and goblins. The one helps our understanding, the other helps our mystification. Both give us perspective.

Myk’s post also gives me a chance to relate a new personal perspective on Halloween. This was my first Halloween in my new home in my new neighborhood. While I’m in the city of Pittsburgh, my neighborhood is uniquely isolated by its cobblestone entrances, one on each end, to develop a personality of its own. There were hundreds of very small children (accompanied by parents) roaming the street. (only a very slight exaggeration) It is a trick ‘r treaters dream. As Michael can testify—he came up for Halloween—pounds of bag-challenging candy can be accumulated very quickly. The houses are close together, and the terrain is flat. Where it is not flat the homeowners come outside, down to their driveways to hand out candy to the children—no steps to walk. In fact many of the adults come out of their homes on both sides of the street. To fit in with the rest of the neighborhood, I spent the two hours of official Halloween on my front porch, chatting with kids and neighbors. The weather certainly helped, but I couldn’t help to periodically smile and laugh at the sight of little kids fantastically dressed walking among the homes and homeowners, also outside participating in this gathering. Perhaps this was the way Halloween was celebrated in Scotland in the early 1800’s.

It's Been A Long Time Coming

Even back in 1876 people lamented the decline of Halloween, and its loss of scariness and authenticity.  The Decadence of Halloween.