Population Statistic: Read. React. Repeat.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2021

Mention GM or “Frankenfood”, and people go apeshit. No one wants their munchables messed with by mad scientists.

Then again, genetic manipulation of our foodstuff is nothing new, and we’ve all likely been chowing down on the stuff for a while now.

Yes, I can indeed see through this “you’re soaking in it” approach to making gene-spliced products more palatable to the general public. Even with Rutgers adding its academic weight behind it, the view that GM consumption is already established practice, and thus nothing to fret over, is laughably one-sided.

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have merit. I take an even longer-range look at it: Genetic manipulation of our food supply has been going on for millenia, via less sophisticated means.

Think about it: As soon as people settled into domesticating livestock and growing fruits and vegetables, they practiced genetic selectivity. Crops were cultivated and re-cultivated, resulting into the development of stronger and desirable strains of plants. Same thing with the breeding and interbreeding of pigs, cattle and other animals; the modern-day farm chicken bears little resemblance to its wilderness ancestor. This evolution was the direct result of human intervention — the earliest forms of genetic engineering. The only difference between those past efforts and today’s version is that it’s more obvious today.

So eat up! At least until they figure out how to make those “Jetsons”-style food pills, which would free us from the drudgery of eating altogether.

- Costa Tsiokos, Wed 03/23/2005 10:13:27 PM
Category: Food, Science | Permalink | Feedback

Saturday, March 19, 2021

Author Rainer Karlsch has come out with a new book that posits a chilling scenario for the final days of World War II in Europe: Nazi Germany had developed a prototype tactical nuclear weapon, and had tested it in March 1945.

Hitler’s efforts to produce atomic weapons was no secret; the American atomic program at Oak Ridge and Alamogordo, staffed with expatriate German scientists, knew they were in a race with the Nazis to build a bomb. Werner Heisenberg’s team was hampered more by limited resources than by ability to pull it off; Michael Frayn’s play “Copenhagen” presents a compelling (if fictionalized) account of the Germans’ efforts.

Still, the idea that they got as far as making a limited-range fission bomb (perhaps no more effective than a modern-day “dirty bomb”) is disquieting, and not without skepticism:

“The eyewitnesses [Karlsch] puts forward are either unreliable or they are not reporting first-hand information; allegedly key documents can be interpreted in various ways,” said the influential news weekly Der Spiegel.

“Karlsch displays a catastrophic lack of understanding of physics,” wrote physicist Michael Schaaf, author of a previous book about Nazi atomic experiments, in the Berliner Zeitung newspaper.

“Karlsch has done us a service in showing that German research into uranium went further than we’d thought up till now, but there was not a German atom bomb,” he added.

It has also been pointed out that the United States employed thousands of scientists and invested billions of dollars in the Manhattan Project, while Germany’s “dirty bomb” was allegedly the work of a few dozen top scientists who wanted to change the course of the war.

Karlsch himself acknowledged that he lacked absolute proof for his claims, and said he hoped his book would provoke further research.

But in a press statement for the book launch, he is defiant.

“It’s clear there was no master plan for developing atom bombs. But it’s also clear the Germans were the first to make atomic energy useable, and that at the end of this development was a successful test of a tactical nuclear weapon.”

In my mind, the idea that something like this could remain undercover for more than half a century gives me pause. Plus, some measurable fallout should remain in the Thuringia region to this day. I’m not sure what the alternative explanation could be, though (assuming the eyewitness accounts are accurate).

What if Hitler had the use of an arsenal of tactical bombs, even a few months earlier? The Nazis probably couldn’t have won — it was far too late by 1944 for the outcome to have changed — but they could have done considerable damage on the way out:

- A desperate elimination bombing of concentration camps, both to destroy evidence of the Holocaust and to provide a true “Final Solution”;

- Indiscriminate targeting of advancing Allied troops, more for terror purposes than to turn the tide;

- Mounting of a few warheads onto remaining V-2 rockets, and launching them toward London, Paris and Moscow — a last-gasp bid to freeze the Allies’ momentum.

- Costa Tsiokos, Sat 03/19/2005 08:21:37 PM
Category: Science, History | Permalink | Feedback (1)

game over
What must those aliens be thinking? The above digital image was sent out into space during the dedication of the Arecibo Observatory, the world’s largest radio telescope, way back in 1974. No return message has been received, although since the target is tens of thousands of lightyears away, we shouldn’t be expecting one for a while yet.

Here’s how to interpret this pixelated piece:

[F]rom left to right are numbers from one to ten, atoms including hydrogen and carbon, some interesting molecules, DNA, a human with description, basics of our Solar System, and basics of the sending telescope.

I’m looking at it, and I’m thinking it’s an early prototype for Robotron: 2084.

Still, considering it’s from 1974, it could have been a lot worse: They could have sent a Pong lookalike hurtling through the universe.

- Costa Tsiokos, Sat 03/19/2005 07:03:14 PM
Category: Videogames, Science | Permalink | Feedback (1)

Sunday, March 13, 2021

How much moo-juice should you pour down your kids’ throats? Maybe less than has been the conventional wisdom — and maybe not. A new review article in the medical journal Pediatrics that suggests less dairy-derived calcium in childrens’ diets is being challenged by the dairy industry as a screen for promoting vegetarian agendas.

An abstract of the article, “Calcium, Dairy Products, and Bone Health in Children and Young Adults: A Reevaluation of the Evidence” (catchy title!) can be found here.

Personally, I’ve never been much on milk and related products. I’d just as soon have calcium-infused orange juice. And my boss raised her daughter on a low-dairy diet, substituting other calcium sources like broccoli, almonds and such; the kid is now 17, something like 5′8″, and athletic as anybody. So it wouldn’t be surprising to find that dairy’s benefits are overhyped.

The counterattack by dairy producers follows a trend of late, similar to the Florida Department of Citrus’ PR efforts against recent problem findings with grapefruit juice’s health benefits. It’s a system of checks of balances, and a deft use of public relations strategy; still, I’m not sure if it’s a favorable development. Industry interests aren’t going to present anything but a favorably sanitized story that doesn’t have to be particularly deep to be effective. The long-term result is the intimidation of researchers from making definitive statements.

- Costa Tsiokos, Sun 03/13/2005 12:18:30 PM
Category: Food, Science | Permalink | Feedback

Sunday, February 27, 2021

Edward L. Bernays, the acknowledged father of modern public-relations practice, formulated a theory called “engineering of consent” to explain his craft:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society,” Bernays argued. “Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country… In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons… who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”

Bernays had a special resource for looking into the workings of the mass mindset: His uncle and mentor was Sigmund Freud. Thus we see the earliest intersection of the sciences of psychology and propaganda.

Bernays was definitely on to something by digging into the brain: “Neuromarketing” studies are showing that advertising and marketing efforts interact with braincells in such a way that they actually mold mental processes over time, creating “branded brains”.

Inside the brain of the 54-year-old male volunteer, the sight of a desirable product triggered an involuntary surge of synapses in the motor cerebellum that ordinarily orchestrate the movement of a hand.

Without his mind being aware of it, his brain had started to reach out.

Deconstructing the anatomy of choice, the researchers are also probing the pliable neural circuits of reasoning and problem-solving — the last of the brain’s regions to evolve, the last to mature during childhood, and the most susceptible to outside influences.

They have begun to obtain the first direct glimpses of how marketing can affect the structures of the brain.

It turns out the marketers have always been right: You want their crap, and it’s their job to let you know that you want it. It’s the engineering of consent at the microscopic level.

This all applies not only to the cola wars and blue-light specials, but also to political campaigns:

In a series of unpublished experiments conducted during the recent presidential campaign, UCLA neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni detected intriguing differences in how political brains react. It was the first time brain scanning had been used to study a political question, several experts said.

To 13 volunteers screened for political expertise and party loyalty, Iacoboni showed pictures of Sen. John F. Kerry, President Bush and Ralph Nader while recording their neural activity. He then screened footage for them from Republican and Democratic campaign ads.

Afterward, he recorded how their neural responses changed when they were shown the same faces a second time.

Not surprisingly, Iacoboni found that people watching their favored candidate responded with a surge of activity in the reward circuits of the brain.

Republican die-hards, however, seemed to have a strong positive emotional response to any prominent leader.

But those Republican brain patterns changed when exposed to Bush campaign ads, which stimulated activity in areas involved in more rational deliberation, Iacoboni said.

Shown campaign advertising that touched on the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Republicans and Democrats again had different responses.

“The Democrats had a big response in the amygdala — the anxiety threat detector and bell-ringer in the brain,” said UCLA psychiatrist Joshua Freedman, who helped organize the experiment. “Republicans did not have a statistically significant response to that, for whatever reason.”

These findings do seem to jibe with theories about linear thinking, or lack thereof, indicating political inclination. Regardless, red state or blue state, it’s all in the sell job.

- Costa Tsiokos, Sun 02/27/2005 05:30:15 PM
Category: Advert./Mktg., Politics, Science | Permalink | Feedback

Thursday, February 24, 2021

Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen” is now playing at Gorilla Theatre in Tampa.

I’m there.

I find this story so compelling that I bought the book of the stage script (which I loved), and watched the PBS movie production (which I found only so-so). I think a small, intimate space like the Gorilla’s stage would be ideal for an intensely character-driven play.

I’m sure most people wouldn’t imagine a years-long interaction between Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, and Bohr’s wife Margrethe, centering around discussions on quantum physics, to be the stuff of dramatic captivation. Throw in intrigue with the Nazi atomic bomb program and complex interpersonal relationships, though, and you’ve got one of the best-crafted plays I’ve ever had to pleasure to take in.

- Costa Tsiokos, Thu 02/24/2005 10:12:49 PM
Category: Media, Science, History | Permalink | Feedback (1)

Wednesday, February 23, 2021

What exactly is a “dark galaxy”?

“The ratio of dark matter to regular matter is at least 500-to-1, which is higher than I would expect in an ordinary galaxy,” [Cardiff University astronomer Robert] Minchin said. “However, it is very hard to know what to expect with such a unique object — it may be that high ratios like this are necessary to keep the gas from collapsing to form stars.”

Other potential dark galaxies have been found previously, but closer observations revealed stars in the mix. Intense visible-light observations reveal no stars in VIRGOHI21.

The invisible galaxy is thought to lack stars because its density is not high enough to trigger star birth, the astronomers said.

I didn’t realize it was possible to define a galaxy without the presence of stars. The definition of “galaxy” is an aggregate of stars, dust, and gas. In light of this dark matter body, maybe a redefinition is in order.

This dark stuff is a pretty big deal, on a universal level:

Dark matter makes up about 23 percent of the universe’s mass-energy budget. Normal matter, the stuff of stars, planets and people, contributes just 4 percent. The rest of the universe is driven by an even more mysterious thing called dark energy.

Puts things a bit into perspective.

- Costa Tsiokos, Wed 02/23/2005 07:45:00 PM
Category: Science | Permalink | Feedback (1)

Friday, February 18, 2021

Psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis have determined that a “sixth sense” of heightened awareness actually does exist in the human brain.

Basically, your brain is working overtime and in the background, processing on subtle cues and sensory inputs to create an early-warning instinct. It’s not a base instinct, either: The action happens in the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that’s central in processing complex information.

There is such a thing as too much intuition, though:

Abnormal activity of the anterior cingular cortex has been linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder, [University of Michigan professor William] Gehring said. “It’s been shown that there is too much activity in this area. There is a general sense that things are going wrong, when actually they are not.”

- Costa Tsiokos, Fri 02/18/2005 08:47:20 PM
Category: Science | Permalink | Feedback

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