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You’re Not What You Eat…Probably

Posted by richardmaxwell on February 11, 2015

There’s good news to be found on the nutrition front if we’re to believe reports in the news media recently.

First of all, Brian Williams on NBC reported (cut the guy some slack here…he didn’t claim to be an avocado farmer) that two studies had shown the latest wonder foods to be avocados and oatmeal. Wonder foods, of course, are a movable feast, and I look forward to cinnamon rolls taking a turn in the spotlight.  But for now we need to consider what to do about the current stars.

The avocado news comes from the Journal of the American Heart Association in January 2015.  The authors take direct aim at the apple by recommending an avocado a day. Say it ain’t so.  How many people have been fending off doctors for how many years by desperately trying to figure out a way to take in that single, powerful Macintosh or golden delicious each day?  And do we now drop the apple in favor of the avocado or do we simply add the avocado?  They fail to make this clear, and the whole thing demands further research.

Here’s some of that further research freshly done:

You do not need to choose!  No need to agonize over which to cast aside.  According to, my go-to site for practical solutions to scientific conundrums, you can have it both ways.  Try Easy Apple Avocado Salad, for example, or if its meager 3 ½ stars rating gives you pause, how about the 4 ½ star Kale, Apple, Avocado, and Bacon (!!) salad?  Certainly the big three will overpower any possible problem associated with the bacon…and the salad will actually have flavor.

Cautionary note: WebMD says that the avocado is only “LIKELY SAFE” when eaten in “food amounts.”  Not clear on what constitutes a food amount, but it seems like a pretty subjective measurement.

Oatmeal was not the actual focus of what was cited by NBC (oh Brian….), rather the article in JAMA Internal Medicine looked at whole grains more generally.  The conclusion: not much new, really. “Higher whole grain consumption is associated with lower total and CVD mortality in US men and women, independent of other dietary and lifestyle factors.” I think they’re hinting at immortality there, but lack the fortitude to come right out and say it.

Allrecipes failed to be as helpful when I asked for avocado and oatmeal together, but really…how tough is it to simply hack up a freshly cleaned avocado and toss it into a bowl of oatmeal?  Even with my slavish devotion to using recipes for nearly everything, I believe I could improvise that one. There’s also the possibility of making use of that idle food processor or blender. Certainly something resembling food would result and you’d know that good health would result from somehow choking it down.

The other good news comes from reading between the lines of the Associated Press report on what testing commissioned by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman found was in bottles labeled as herbal supplements.  Sold at retailers GNC, Target, Walgreen’s, and Wal-Mart, containers claiming to hold such things as echinacea and St. John’s Wort were frequently found to contain no echinacea or St. John’s Wort DNA.  There instead were such things as rice, garlic, wheat, beans, and a tropical houseplant.  Herbal supplements are not regulated by the FDA other than to ask manufacturers to verify that their products are safe and correctly labeled. While these little unmentioned bonus ingredients could present problems for those with food allergies, the New York AG’s stern letters to the retailers are overlooking the good news.  Keep things as they are, add some fine print to the label, and many folks buying the “supplements” would be painlessly and cluelessly adding much needed grain (see above) and protein to their diets.

Speaking of food additives and DNA and now speaking of surveys which gauge the views of large numbers of us on scientific questions, here’s something wonderful which could have come from the amazing minds of the people at The Onion, but did not…repeat, did not:

Among many other questions posed in a survey conducted by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics, was one asking if the respondents would favor mandatory labeling of food containing DNA.  Take a moment to let that soak in.  Unsurprisingly but kind of depressingly, 80.44% said sure. They would love to know if something as clearly strange and dangerous as DNA was being added to their food.

Not from The Onion.

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Posted by richardmaxwell on November 19, 2014

Perfectly understandable annoyance with whiplash-inducing weather swings from lovely autumn warmth to arctic-like cold might be misplaced.  The cold offers an opportunity to take advantage of something we’re all tempted to do at such times…sinking into a state of torpor.  Torpor is the scientific term for vegging out or, in the animal world, hibernating (also known as aestivating to hardly any of us).  Actually hibernating is multiday torpor, but the picture of one of us horizontal on the couch being cared for and fed by a mythical willing partner remains the same, and who hasn’t imagined the joy of doing it for days on end.  Be honest.

As seems to be the case with just about any question you can imagine, there has been plenty of research into hibernation and the most recent efforts might help remove the guilt some of us feel when doing absolutely nothing for extended periods of time. This is Nobel-worthy stuff.  It comes from S. Giroud et al in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences in 2014.  The lead researchers and the relaxed garden dormice they studied are based in Vienna, which would have to be considered an acceptable place in which to achieve an extended state of torpor, broken occasionally by sightseeing. Others in Australia and France chipped in as well.

They studied young dormice born late in the year, who have less time to gorge themselves in anticipation of the coming hibernation. One group was given plenty to eat, while the other fasted on alternate days.  The latter group chose torpor as a strategy to kill time on the fasting days.  The lowered body temperature and decreased energy use during those periods have more beneficial effects than expected, including “promoting growth during early life and fattening prior to hibernation, as well as slowing ageing processes,” according to Giroud.  Now it’s best to ignore the mention of fattening and focus on “slowing ageing processes” for our purposes.

It sounds as if Giroud is as excited as he should be about a potential method to slow ageing, but of course more research will be required, or as he says: “we hope to unravel the mechanisms involved in torpor use and ageing processes in individuals facing contrasted environmental conditions during their early life.”

Further good news: there may be a drug out there on the horizon that will help you achieve a state of torpor if for some reason you can’t make yourself drop into hyper-relaxation.  In “Induction of torpor: mimicking natural metabolic suppression for biomedical applications,” in the Journal of Cell Biology in 2012, H.R. Bouma and others from the Netherlands examine “efforts to induce torpor-like states in non-hibernating species using pharmacological compounds.”

In a country where each year millions of devices are sold which allow you track your number of steps per day, your mileage, your heart rate, sleep time and quality, and just about anything else you’d care to quantify, we may be overlooking a simpler tool.

This would indicate that Joseph Heller’s character Orr in Catch-22–Yossarian’s tent matewas onto something.  It was his belief that since we all have noted that time seems to go more slowly when we are in a situation that is mind-numbingly boring (such as reading this, and you’re welcome).  In the interest of living longer, he worked very hard at staying bored.  How hard is that, really?  Look around.

A real world example of how effective torpor can be is out there in northern California.  A ride down the Avenue of the Giants will find you surrounded by massive Redwoods, many of them hundreds or even thousands of years old.  Stop the car.  Turn off the engine.  Hear anything?  Of course not.  They’re just standing there.  They don’t need to exercise or watch their diets or do much of anything except photosynthesize and drink a little. If they had televisions they would probably watch (but only public television and the news, of course). No guilt at all.

Posted in fyi, musings by maxwell | Leave a Comment »

Prime Rib and Punishment

Posted by richardmaxwell on September 22, 2014

Imagine, if you will, that you have a personal trainer…a coach dedicated to your personal fitness and health.  This coach is very quiet but at the same time relentless.  She is always there 24 hours a day watching you eat, exercise, sleep, goof off, and snack.  This would seem to be an ideal guide along your path to physical well-being, don’t you think?  Now imagine that your trainer has and is quite willing to use a Producer’s Pride Jolt Handy™ cattle prod (available online through, among other sources,  She would use it on you in the almost unimaginable scenario where you fell short of one or more goals. If you find that not at all disturbing and possibly even appealing in the face of  your history of procrastinating when it comes to doing the right things, then probably you could find such a person with a little focused research (batteries not included).  But thanks to modern technology, if having a full time sadist following you around isn’t really your cup of tea, consider the Pavlok (picture a lightning bolt in the letter “o” in the logo).

The Pavlok is a wristband which in theory is under your control as it tracks your every activity throughout the day.  You tell it how you’d like to be evaluated in terms of diet, hours of sleep, amount of and type of exercise, etc., and it will let you know when you’ve failed to live up to your own expectations.  You don’t have to choose to be jolted each time you fall short, of course.  You could instead opt for the Fitbit or other similar wristbands which have much more benign natures.  They simply track your various (in)activities and sleep hours, etc. and provide you with the humiliating data via email, apps on your smart phone, or Facebook posts.

The Pavlok is clearly for the rugged but motivation-challenged individualist, or for those who respond best to negative reinforcement and have $250 to spare.  There’s apparently no switch to flip it to positive reinforcement (“Pavlok is very impressed with how you left four M&M’s from the jumbo bag uneaten, Master.”)  The device has been mentioned in publications such as Fortune and Popular Mechanics in accounts which would seem to indicate that Pavlok is not a creation of The Onion. It is apparently due out in 2015 and the developers are hoping for start-up help from crowd sourcing.  Should be an interesting group making up that particular crowd.

If you do some scientific research on the Google machine, you’ll find that more than 25 million hits are returned when you ask for “weight loss.” I’ve not looked at all of them quite yet, but they seem to fall into two camps.  Some are boringly science based and talk about the hard work involved in eating right, counting calories, and exercising…and you have to continue it after you reach your goal! Painful.  How boring is this approach? Try “Relationship between mouthful volume and number of chews in young Japaneses females” by A. Nakamichi and others from Appetite in 2014.

The other large block consists of programs that you usually have to pay for and which will then sell you food and/or force you to sweat or even hypnotize you into shape.  Electrical wrist shock would seem to (pardon this) short circuit those lengthy processes and simply make you a willing slave to both the Pavlok and healthful behaviors.  Win Win.

In an attempt to pry consulting dollars from the Pavlok folks, allow me to cherry pick some research which they might use to boost the scientific validity of their approach. This comes from Annals of Medicine in prepub abstract form: “Innovative interventions to promote behavioral change in overweight or obese individuals: A review of the literature,” by Okorodudu, Bosworth, and Cosino. The useful mined and sculpted quote: “Behavioral change therapy is an effective treatment strategy and includes…reinforcement tactics…to increase access, improve convenience, decrease cost, and increase participant engagement.” While the article in no way mentions anything like Pavlok, this would do the job if the company had sense enough to use it, don’t you think?

Now if you find the idea of this use of our friend electricity in the interest of weight loss and fitness a bit off-putting, you’ll need to face the fact that you have a lot to learn.  Look what else is being considered.  “Body fat and body weight reduction following hypothalamic deep brain stimulation in monkeys: an intraventricular approach,” by Torres et al in the International Journal of Obesity (London) from 2012. While also apparently effective (“The stimulation of the VMH region through an intraventricular approach might acutely modulate FI and induce a sustained decrease in BW and fat mass in normal non-human primate.”) it is just a touch more invasive.  It’s not clear if they’re crowd sourcing this one, but turning it into an appealing website and marketing campaign could be an uphill struggle.

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No GPS Required

Posted by richardmaxwell on April 15, 2014

There’s an initiative backed by the U.S. government to “map” the human brain.  Various attempts have been made over the years…some successful, others not…to try to identify which portions of the brain control specific functions, emotions, and possibly even thoughts.  Success along these lines could be handy in numerous ways, although when dealing with humans and our alleged higher functions, it’s best to be careful what you ask for and to keep your expectations low.

Leaving out the more obvious big ones, such as our endless quest to kill one another for pointless reasons, here are some areas worth looking for in the hope of gaining some control over them:

Where in the brain is that collection of cells which causes us to spend large amounts of our finite incomes on clothing and other merchandise bearing the logo of a business whose employees are athletes often making more money than most of us will see in two lifetimes?  The owners of said businesses, while frequently moaning about the dollars they’re somehow forced to pay those athletes, generally are doing the backstroke in Scrooge McDuck-like piles of money both from those of us who buy tickets to the arenas where the athletes perform, and from television networks who deliver the money in large trucks.  The broadcasters in turn recoup that money from advertisers, who pummel those of us watching on television with commercials extolling the virtues of their beers or vehicles.  We drive one of those vehicles to the liquor store to buy the beer that we then consume while cheering for the athletes/employees who we inexplicably include ourselves with, as in “WE won!!”  There must be a sweet spot in the gray matter where that is allowed to happen.  Go Broncos, by the way. We can do it!

There are studies of the actions of that elusive section of the brain, including one from Islamic Azad University in Iran: “Relationship between Elite Sport Teams and the Fans, Team Identity; A Case Study in Iranian Premier Soccer League,” lead author Vahid Shojaei. The article itself, in the International Research Journal of Applied and Basic Sciences in 2013, is intriguing mainly because it may offer the worst translation into English offered so far this decade. Their conclusion: “Unlike the past, today the sport is not only influenced by the players and fans of all sports to affect custodians. Moreover, not a single player challenge the legitimacy of the vote, but it has its share of fans.” Map that to coherence if you will.

It would be good to find the cluster of cells causing the sort of intriguing activity which leads other humans to remark “what the hell made them think of that?”  An example would be someone thinking “Hey, there’s a lot of organic material in spit.  Why not use it to power a generator?”  This was roughly the thought that somehow occurred to Justine E. Mink of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.  She mentioned it to fellow researcher Bruce E. Logan of Penn State, whose spit-focused brain area apparently lit up in response, and off they went.  While this is unlikely to solve energy shortages in large urban areas…although one should never say never…for now the fuel cells that resulted produce power in the one microwatt range.  Logan should be especially pleased and relieved at the saliva breakthrough, since in his prior work with microbial fuel cells he has looked to wastewater as a source for the bacteria-laden fuel.

A truly annoying area of the brain gradually reveals itself as part of the normal aging process, leading many humans to sleep less, waking up more frequently during the night.  Would it be comforting to learn that you (not youthful you, of course) are not alone?  In fact some of the research in this area is done on the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, which lives an average of 8 weeks, thus achieving elderly status depressingly quickly.  The flies, like many of us, wake frequently at night and “wander restlessly.” No books, no TV, no Ambien.  They even end up taking naps during the day.  While locating the dastardly brain spot causing this would be ideal, researchers from the Max Planck Institute in Cologne have decided to treat the symptoms rather than try to explore a brain smaller than the period you see here.  By giving doses of rapamycin to the flies, researcher Luke S. Tain reports in a PLoS Biology article, his group was able to reverse the aging sleep problems.  They hope to ramp up the therapy to others with similar difficulties, such as roundworms and us, with equal success.  Doses may have to be increased.

A little probing, metaphorically speaking, of the cognitive study of fruit flies reveals pre-mapping work from 2004 in Trends in Neurosciences which would suggest that the work needs to continue if not accelerate.  Due to the less stringent rules for abstract writers in those bygone days, the authors of Cognitive consonance: complex brain functions in the fruit fly and its relatives,” R.J Greenspan and B. Van Swinderen, titillate us but leave us longing for more:  “What are the degrees of sophistication in cognitive behavior displayed by these organisms, how have they been demonstrated, and what is their potential for understanding how our own brains work?” While the answers to those questions might have been amazing and invaluable, as a result of the currently unmapped but clearly large thrift-conscious quadrant of my own gray cell collection, curiosity in this case stops at the point where the publisher asks for $35.95.




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Bring Your Own Popcorn

Posted by richardmaxwell on February 11, 2014

Problem solved!  Remember that terrifying divorce rate in the U.S., often cited as around 50%? Researchers at the University of Rochester, led by associate professor of psychology Ronald Rogge, believe that they’ve come up with a simple and possibly even enjoyable way to make a serious dent in that number.

The intervention?  Watch a movie together and then talk about it.  If that sounds too simplistic to you, that’s also how Rogge and his colleagues felt.  “We thought the movie treatment would help, but not nearly as much as the other programs in which we were teaching all of these state-of-the-art skills.  The results suggest that husbands and wives have a pretty good sense of what they might be doing right and wrong in their relationships.  Thus, you might not need to teach them a whole lot of skills to cut the divorce rate.”

As reported in the December 2013 issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, They studied 174 “engaged and newlywed couples” and randomly divided them into three groups.  One faced a “4-session, 15 hr. small-group intervention designed to teach them skills in managing conflict and problem resolution (PREP) or skills in acceptance, support, and empathy (CARE)….”  Don’t you hope that the newlyweds in this group were at least allowed to enjoy their honeymoons before the sessions began?

The second group received a “1-session relationship awareness (RA) intervention with no skill training.”  They were then sent home with instructions to watch one movie a week from a long list of suggested titles, and then to discuss each one.  As a helpful starter, they were also given a list of sample questions, such as “what main problem(s) did this couple face (and) are any of these similar to problems that the two of you have faced or might face as a couple?”

Couples in the third, control group, were basically sent home and told to have a nice life.  Three years later this last group had a rate of dissolution, to use the academic phrasing, of 24%…a sad but perhaps understandable rate since they were sent home with no intervention, leading some no doubt to assume that the scientists saw them as hopeless cases.

By contrast, the other two groups dissolved (their relationships) at a rate of 11%.  The fact that there was no difference in the rate between them is what got the attention of the researchers. They conclude that “the potential value of cost-effective interventions such as RA, cast doubt on the unique benefits of skill-based interventions for primary prevention of relationship dysfunction, and raise the possibility that skill-based interventions may inadvertently sensitize couples to skill deficits in their relationships.”  Uh-oh…the pricier option might actually make things a bit worse.

It’s a safe bet that a scramble is ongoing to replicate this, with studies by those actively engaged in using the skill-set methods in their lucrative practices (and hoping desperately to see no replication) and by others financed by Netflix and hoping for solid replication.  It might be hard for couples to announce their engagement at this point without opening a floodgate of invitations to join one of these studies or another.  A suggestion for them might be to hold out until a serious offer comes in that’s tied to your registry at Target or Bed Bath and Beyond.  Towels are always a nice choice.

Some of the movies on the list are interesting:

“She’s Having a Baby”: perfect for a specific subset

“Indecent Proposal”:  your boss called

“Her”:  for those cutting edge folks partnering with software

“Mr. and Mrs. Smith”:  for those with hidden agendas and caches of automatic weapons

“The Horse Whisperer” or “Marley and Me”:  different sort of couple, but not without issues

“Unfaithful”:  getting things off on the right foot and/or out in the open

Not on the list for some reason:

“Basic Instinct”:  one of the sample questions that would be useful here is “did the couple in the movie do considerate or affectionate things for each other?”  (hint: define your terms)

Also any of the “Shrek” movies, which couples with transformation issues would find useful, I’m sure.  What about “Psycho”?  Parent/child couples can have occasional problems as well

“Diary of a Mad Housewife”?  Might not even be necessary to watch the movie since just having one partner suggest it should get a discussion going.

“The Shining”?  For the couple struggling with stress and the paranormal.

“Lars and the Real Girl”? Discussion should flow well, since one partner will be speaking for both.

“The First Wives Club”?  Helpful for the couple interested in planning ahead.

Movies not your thing?  There are studies of other interventions that you might like to try.

This one could probably be paired with movie viewing.  James McNulty of Florida State University reported in 2012 at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association that his research showed that anger might be a key to a successful marriage.  It can be helpful, he said, to endure the “short-term discomfort of an angry but honest conversation.”  This might be especially true, he found, among “disagreeable” spouses (his term) who may take advantage of their partner’s good nature and willingness to forgive and forget.  I think we can all agree that we see ourselves as partner number two in that scenario.

Another alternative to long-term coupleship was suggested by Ash Levitt and Kenneth Leonard of the University of Buffalo in the December 2013 issue of Psychology of Addictive Behaviors:  find someone whose alcohol consumption matches yours.  They tracked 634 couples for nine years and found that it was the divergence in the amount of drinking between partners rather than the amount alone that led to relationship problems.  For example, among heavy drinkers (their definition of “six or more drinks at one time or drinking to intoxication” certainly seems to qualify as “heavy”) the divorce rate was 50% when only one partner qualified, but only 30% when neither was likely to be the designated driver.  Teetotaling couples also fared well.

The take home message here is to take along a tally sheet when you head for the nearest lounge to partner shop.

Posted in fyi, musings by maxwell | Leave a Comment »

Name that tune, Cheeta

Posted by richardmaxwell on November 15, 2013

In another study that has to make a pragmatic person once again rethink his or her place in the biological scheme of things, cognitive biologists at the University of Vienna have found that squirrel monkeys (Saimiri sciureus) have an ability similar to yours and mine to detect “simple structural and melodic patterns” in what we call language.  The scientists involved, led by Andrea Ravignani, a PhD candidate (this should put him over the top), call this “language musicality.”

In an attempt to clarify what they’re working on, Science Daily provides the following example: “the perceived musicality of some languages results from dependency relations between vowels within a word…try it yourself: ‘gullar’ requires more movement and does not sound as good as ‘guller.’” Put the requisite two dots above the letter “u” in those words and let me know if you agree.  Seems incredibly subtle, but squirrel monkeys can tell. Impressive.

So if they can work that sort of magic, it’s possible they’ve been listening in on conversations in every language man has developed.  I don’t know about you, but I can think of several occasions where I’ve been indiscrete with squirrel monkeys nearby. Who knew?

Worse yet is the possibility that they might end up composing music.  The researchers designed “a sort of musical system for monkeys” and measured their grasp of what was going on. No problem. In a chilling conclusion, Ravignani says “mastering basic phonological patterns and syntactic rules is not an issue for squirrel monkeys:  the bar for human uniqueness has to be raised.”

This is not the first warning but seems to be the most dire so far.  In 2012 Honing and others reported in PLoS One that “Rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) detect rhythmic groups in music, but not the beat.” Still, it’s a start, and a look around any dance floor loaded with humans will demonstrate how not getting the beat isn’t unique to monkeys.

It’s possible that the inability to detect the beat is based more on their taste in general than on anything genetic.  According to an article in Cognition from 2007 by McDermott and Hauser, “Nonhuman primates prefer slow tempos but dislike music overall.” Here we learn very little about cotton-top tamarins and marmosets, two more of our close cousins.  Other than their tempo preference, we are not told what genre of music they were subjected to, or whether it was merely electronically generated music-like sounds, popular in acoustic labs.

It may very well be that in tuning into our conversations and probably our radio stations over the last few decades, whatever enjoyment other simians might have taken from listening to music of all kinds was just erased.  Why?  Possibly be due to resentment over the license taken by humans in taking the names of simians and inserting them into songs and even into band names without permission.  It’s hard enough to find a good intellectual property attorney if you’re of the human persuasion, so just imagine what it must be like for a marmoset with a good claim.

Consider some of these tunes, which I’m sure we’re all familiar with:

Shake That Monkey by Too Short

Punish the Monkey… Dave Mathews Band (shaking’s not punishment?)

Shock the Monkey…Peter Gabriel (really, enough is enough)

Monkey Man…Amy Winehouse

Monkey Man…Toots and the Maytals (the original, if you’re shopping)

Tweeter and the Monkey Man…Traveling Wilburys

Lab Monkey…Alice in Chains (sure, rub it in)

Code Monkey…Jonathan Coulton (NSA? Anything you’d like to tell us?)

Too Much Monkey Business…Chuck Berry

Super Karate Monkey Death Car…BUMP (sadly a lot more guitar than screeching brakes)


Chimp Gut…Charlie Hunter Trio

Chimp & Flower…Garage A Trois (drugs had to be involved here)

Or…these groups (all human):

Chimp Spanner (like the song Monkey Wrench by Foo Fighters, possibly only tool-related)

The Space Chimps

Arctic Monkeys

…almost forgot: The Monkees (hey! hey! we’re the….)

Take a (another?) look at Rise of the Planet of the Apes and, based on the above, add one more reason why they were very unhappy with our species.  Only a movie…so far.

Posted in fyi, musings by maxwell | Leave a Comment »

Have some of my candy? Not so fast….

Posted by richardmaxwell on September 23, 2013

There’s apparently some disagreement in the world of academia over whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing to be selfish.  You’ll note that I’m not keeping this information to myself, although I certainly could have.

One recent salvo in this conflict comes from a couple of evolutionary biologists at Michigan State University. Their finding, offered in layman’s terms by Christoph Adams, whose fields are microbiology and molecular genetics, is that “…evolution will punish you if you’re selfish and mean.” He concedes that there can be short-term benefits for the selfish, but that in the long view offered by evolution, selfishness “isn’t sustainable.”

Now the question this has to raise is how short is this short-term we’re talking about?  For example, we’ve heard repeated for quite a while now the suggestion from some book whose title eludes me that the meek will inherit the earth.  Speaking for the meek, I can tell you that we’re getting a little tired of waiting.  Not that we’re trying to be pushy or anything like that, but a little sign of maybe a smidgen of the inheritance would be welcome. No hurry though. Really.

The MSU study focuses on our old friend game theory.  This does not have anything to do with your Wii or your PlayStation or baseball.  For 30 years or so researchers have placed people in scenarios which give them the choice between cooperation and every man for himself.  A paper last year drew notice when it went against the cooperation-friendly tide in claiming that its research revealed that a new strategy, called zero-determinant (ZD), provided selfish players with a guaranteed win over more cooperative ones.  Hello Ayn Rand.  Adams and his colleague Arend Hintze decided to test the claim by cooperating on their own study.  They used a computer with muscle to run hundreds of thousands of simulated games (no actual humans were needed) and found that even if a long run of success seems to favor ZD players, and even if all of the cooperating players are defeated, the ZD survivors will at that point have to begin to cooperate.  Hmmm.  OK, but…..

Speaking (we were, you might recall) of the meek, not all studies of selfishness involve humans or computer simulations of humans: “Selfish-herd behaviour of sheep under threat.” Here A.J. King and others, including an inexplicably unnamed sheepdog, looked at individual behavior within the flocking activity of a group.  When danger (the dog) approached, GPS tracking (!) showed that individual sheep were very anxious to push their way into the dead center of the flock.  Their attitude was clearly the opposite of the old movie staple “if you want to get to her, you’ll have to do it over my dead body.” For Daisy and others it was more like “I’m not even here…see those other guys out there…look delicious don’t you think?”

Other studies reveal the fact that there is a “…debate about empathy in great apes.” They mean among scholars, not among the simians…I assume. It’s a little ambiguous. The existence of this debate may not be widely known even among the great apes, let alone the lesser ones.

The literature seems to focus on chimpanzees as prototypes of the group.  Based on a Scientific American article (“I’ve Got Your Back”) we might even assume that the chimps are willing to share rides on those little bicycles, if not pieces of fruit or cigars (showing my age with that one, which I remember from the exploitative but highly entertaining shows at the Detroit Zoo). It’s not exactly an apology, but according to the article, some scientists are willing to concede that they might have been wrong about chimp selfishness.  Readers of the magazine are not really the ones they should be apologizing to.

For an example of a title packed with intriguing hints at an article’s contents, try this from Current Biology: “Promiscuous honey bee queens increase colony productivity by suppressing worker selfishness.”  Proof that these researchers are having a great deal of fun: “…increasing ovary activation is coupled with reductions in task performance by workers and colony-wide rates of foraging and waggle-dance recruitment.”  There are multiple examples of the waggle-dance on You Tube if you’re looking to break out of the Tango rut.

For further enlightenment, you’ll find 658 or so books on the topic of selfishness at Amazon’s site, with Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness (a title that does not obfuscate) ranking, as of this writing, behind 17,260 other books overall.  One hundred eleven folks are willing to share their used copies, but in keeping with the book’s theme, they expect compensation.

Posted in fyi, musings by maxwell | 1 Comment »

Conspiracy Theory Starter Kit

Posted by richardmaxwell on April 25, 2013


            “Museum Find Proves Exotic ‘big Cat’ Prowled British Countryside a Century Ago” the headline on a news item at the Science Daily web site tells us.  Anyone who’s been around house cats over the years and really paid attention should find this chilling.  Where did the ‘big’ ones go and who is secretly breeding them and stoking their natural hatred of humans?  That’s what is undoubtedly happening.   They’re coming.

            Those who are concerned about the proliferation and increasing prominence of conspiracy theories and denials of one supposedly settled bit of science or history after another need to rethink their approach.  In the increasingly fragmented world of…news??…one of the most effective ways to gain some notoriety (and who doesn’t want that?) is to either come up with a fresh conspiracy theory or to double-down on an existing one.  Science offers a daily truckload of possibilities.

            What’s behind this strange call for “marriage equality” that’s slowly taking hold in the U.S.?  Prominent TV “thinkers” have already put forward the notion that the ultimate goal is to allow human/animal unions.  Their proof?  Let me help.

            “Humans Passing Drug Resistance to Wildlife in Protected Areas in Africa.” Thanks to a study in EcoHealth for the tip.  How exactly is this “passing” accomplished?  Don’t allow yourself to think about the fact that it involves a banded mongoose. Extrapolate if you must (and you should).

            It gets worse.  “Humans Feel Empathy for Robots: fMRI Scans Show Similar Brain Functions When Robots are Treated the Same as Humans.”  The excessively named Astrid Rosenthal-von der Putten and others at the University of Duisburg Essen are responsible for letting this news get out.  If it makes people feel warm and fuzzy to treat a machine like a human, civil unions are an inevitable result.  What could possibly come from that except more robots…and fewer humans?  That’s the goal.  The government is most likely behind it.

            More proof?  “Robot Hands Gain a Gentler Touch: Tactile Sensing Technology Builds on Tiny Barometer Chips.” As if the gentle and no doubt very pleasant touch isn’t dangerous enough, just try to avoid it.  The technology developed at Harvard(!) produces “a robot that knows what it’s touching…it can pick up a key and use it to unlock a door.” Graduate student Leif Jentoft is the co-creator of this thing, and it’s easy to picture his Friday evening date.

            Here’s a gift to a couple of conspiracy groups.  You’re welcome.  “Maya Long Count Calendar Calibrated to Modern European Calendar Using Carbon-14 Dating.” Featuring what are clearly random numbers, this study in Scientific Reports fails to acknowledge the space alien origin of both the Mayans’ origins and also their subsequent disappearance.  Then it throws in the Carbon-14 dating smokescreen which is always dredged up to supply “evidence” or even “proof” when questions arise about the brief history of Earth, the universe, and important items of old clothing. 

            The goal of animals and/or robots to eliminate us, cleverly masked by the above mentioned steps toward one type of intimate connection or another, is inadvertently given away in “Self-Medication in Animals Much More Widespread Than Believed.”  Aha!  So much for insecticides and various poisons designed to control their feverish hyper-breeding.  The gentle-touch robots can crank out antidotes and paw-friendly syringes at a rate we can only imagine, allowing the animals to counter our every move.  At the same time, the animals clearly don’t recognize the danger inherent in their nefarious deal with their cyber-partners.  Once we’re out of the way, what purpose will any form of carbon-based life serve? Think about it Rags and Fluffy.

            In the meantime, humans continue to ignore the clear danger, treating pets with far too much deference and even favoritism.  “Parents Tend to Share More Bacteria With Family Dogs Than Children.” The awkwardly written headline gives the impression that parents actually share children with family dogs, but not as much as they share bacteria.  Well, usually not.  What Rob Knight and others at the University of Colorado Boulder found is that “the microbial connection seems to be stronger between parents and family dogs than between parents and their children.” Shameful.  Dogs are more than capable of locating and ingesting bacteria on their own. 

            We are our own worst enemy…almost…except for all of those others.

            Furthermore…just a second…uh oh.  Never mind.

Posted in fyi, musings by maxwell | Leave a Comment »

Smile or else

Posted by richardmaxwell on February 14, 2013

See if this doesn’t cheer you up.

A recent news report reveals that a number of countries, in addition to looking with some trepidation at their Gross Domestic Product and other indicators of economic well-being/ill health, are now also calculating and reporting a “happiness index.”  There’s talk, according to USA Today, of reporting a similar index for our very own United States of America.  Responses to the idea have ranged from the positive (“revolutionary”) to the dismissive (“silly”).

Excellent idea: something else to worry about and blame on the other political party.

Try a search on “happiness” in Amazon’s books category and you’ll get more than 29,000 titles, ranging from Secrets of True Happiness and The How of Happiness to the intimidatingly prescriptive but nicely portable The 18 Rules of Happiness Pocket Guide.

The self-help industry would never miss an opportunity like this.  Workshops and classes abound, with a Google search on “happiness workshops” producing more than seven million hits.  Pick a continent and then pick a more discrete location, and you can find one to meet your own personal need to turn your frown upside down.  Some of the instructors are MD’s, some PhD’s, some just happy people who desperately want to share what they have.  David Humes, for example, is a “happiness expert” who also holds a black belt in Wado-Ryu Karate and has co-authored something with Deepak Chopra.  Chopra himself, even if money cannot (?) buy happiness, has every reason to smirk on a daily basis.  Without going into uncompensated detail, Humes promises, among many other things, to teach you how to “increase your happiness set point (thermostat).”  He offers a home edition for $297, but in a bit of happy news, it can be yours right now for only $247.

Happiness, of course, is not a subject which has escaped scientific scrutiny.  Few things have at this point, with the continuing need to publish as a requirement for academic advancement combined with the growing number of graduate students needing to research something…anything…in order to satisfy professors, stay in school, and avoid both the weak job market and the need to begin to pay back student loans.  Those folks might benefit from a book or workshop somewhere along the line.

The National Library of Medicine (NLM) welcomes studies on happiness and provides as useful a definition as any, I suppose: “highly pleasant emotion characterized by outward manifestations of gratification; joy.”  That’s a bit more complex than the “warm puppy” definition that Charles Schultz offered via Charlie Brown. The NLM definition seems to have appeared in 1970 or 1974, begging the question of where happiness was before then.  I seem to remember feeling a “highly pleasant emotion…” a time or two prior to that, but I may be misremembering.  I have no proof and pictures of me as a somber little guy would seem to argue the opposite.

As of early February 2013, there were 1106 articles indexed in the PubMed database with happiness as the major subject.  Not encouraging when compared to the total of more than 22 million articles the database producers report on all subjects.

Some of the articles deal with the topic touched on earlier: money and happiness.  DeNeve and Oswald look at this in the obfuscatingly titled “Estimating the influence of life satisfaction and positive effect on later income using sibling fixed effects.”  They choose to use the euphemism “psychological well-being” instead of happiness, but they can’t fool us. Interestingly, their focus is on the old chicken or egg question. They suggest that “relatively little attention has been paid to whether happier individuals perform better financially in the first place.”  Uh-oh.  They looked at a “large representative panel” of U.S. adolescents and young adults and found that “those who report higher life satisfaction or positive affect grow up to earn significantly higher levels of income later in life.”  …Note to self: send check to David Humes….

A study in the Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion (oxymoron fans feel free to chime in) from 2012 might have presented problems keeping the participants focused. “Pornography, religion, and the happiness gap: does pornography impact the actively religious differently?”  Short answer: you bet. Apparently “club” is a term used in studies of this sort to describe a social group, such as a church.  The irony in using a word whose alternate definition is “a stout, heavy stick…suitable as a weapon,” must have been overlooked at some point.  At any rate and not surprisingly, the “happiness gap” is greater for those in the club who use pornography than for those users on the outside looking in, so to speak. Note that they don’t actually say that no happiness results for club members, just that there’s a gap.

Kloumann et al in PLoS one look at “Positivity of the English language.”  I’m happy to report that they find English to be, on the whole, fairly positive.  “Here, we report that the human-perceived positivity of over 10,000 of the most frequently used English words exhibits a clear positive bias.”  As word pools, they chose Twitter, the Google Books Project, the New York Times, and music lyrics.  They took the 5000 most frequently used words in each and merged them to come up with a list of10,222 unique ones. In the next dense paragraph, magic was performed by Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (? Confusion mine), resulting in charts.   They computed the “average happiness score and standard deviation for each word,” obtaining “sensible results.”  The happiest was “laughter,” and the most forlorn was “terrorist.”  The charts show a clear clustering of words toward the positive side of the scale, but to my unschooled eye something short of ecstasy.  Their conclusion (abbreviated): “…in our stories and writings we tend toward prosocial communication.”  If your response to this sort of research tends toward “what the hell is the point?” then you also might benefit from some interaction with David Humes.

Weiss et al suggest that in your down moments you are even less alone than you might have thought.  In “Evidence for a midlife crisis in great apes consistent with the U-shape in human well-being,” they posit that happiness and its waxing and waning through a lifetime might just be biological and evolutionary, no matter how often you use the word “laughter.”  The chimpanzees and orangutans they observed don’t use the New York Times or Google Books, don’t write lyrics, and use Twitter only sparingly, yet they still find themselves down in the dumps at midlife.  This was “assessed by raters familiar with the individual apes,” and not by standard questionnaires.  So the next time you find yourself at the zoo and perplexed by the lethargy some of the apes show despite the tire swings and the toys lying around, have a little sympathy for your middle-aged cousins.

Posted in musings by maxwell | Leave a Comment »

Musical Mystery Tour

Posted by richardmaxwell on November 19, 2012

I play the trombone.

That sounds like a confession or, with my name attached, my introduction at a twelve-step support group meeting.  It’s really not that bad.  I’ve been doing it since I was nine years-old, which is more than a decade, so it’s one of the few things I’ve kept up with since the fourth grade. Other musicians my age veered off in the direction of electric guitars and rock and roll, earning in some cases a lot of money and the attention of members of the opposite sex who really wanted to be friends with them.  This seldom happens to trombone players.  There’s hope now, though, since the venues of the bands I play in are most often retirement homes of one kind or another.  Those tend to be weighted heavily toward single females, so you never know.  It keeps my wife on her toes.

But after all these years it occurred to me that I’ve never looked carefully at the kind of damage that repetitive trombonish activities might have done to my body, and once I started down that road it seemed only fair to other innocent musicians to take a broader look at just how risky making music might be.

The medical literature, as always, was more than willing to foment anxiety.

For my particular instrument, there’s not a lot to worry about based on reports in serious journals.  There are “Postural problems of the left shoulder in an orchestral trombonist” as outlined by Price and Watson in the concisely titled journal Work.  I’m proud to say that “the trombone presents unique physical challenges which are heightened by recent developments in instrumental design as well as by orchestral working conditions.”  While this case report deals with a UK professional’s actual, “performance related injury,” the authors can’t resist getting in a little dig regarding their obvious suspicion of some psychosomatic aspects.  This case, they say, “demonstrates the importance of considering the interplay between psychological and physical factors in the development and treatment of injury in musicians.” I’m guessing he/she practiced compulsively, meaning that I’m in no danger here.

But what about “Trombone player’s lung: a probable new cause of hypersensitivity pneumonitis” (HP) as documented in Chest in 2010?  This was another professional and in this case he had a 15 year (!) history of “a chronic, nonproductive cough.”  Even though on a few occasions long ago I was actually paid for what I did on the trombone, and was a member of the musicians’ union, I don’t qualify as a professional if we use the implied definition that includes skill.  So I’m safe again.  The report does have broader implications, though…especially for players who either don’t clean their horns or do so with dish washing detergent or saliva.  The researchers cultured organisms from 12 instruments, including two trumpets, and could barely disguise their disgust at what they found.  “…many brass musicians are at risk for HP from contaminated instruments, and standard cleaning methods may not be adequate to prevent this complication….” They suggest regular cleaning with 91% isopropyl alcohol.  Many musicians through the years have moved instinctively in that direction by ingesting alcohol in slightly different form before and during performances and then allowing the gaseous waste product from their lungs to flow through the instruments.

HP is also reported in saxophone players, who, while no reports turn up, like all reed instrument players would have to be vulnerable to splinter injuries and the risk of fire.

Not so fast…a bit of good news arrives. Steer your children toward oboes or bassoons.  In the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine we find “Risk of obstructive sleep lower in double reed wind musicians.”  He works in mysterious ways.

Such good news, however, is rare.

There’s “Fiddler’s neck,” which is not a site for a bluegrass festival but a form of “irritant contact dermatitis on the submandibular neck of violin and viola players.”

Here’s a sign that you’ve given little Jason the wrong instrument: “Violin bow-associated rubber allergy in a child,” published in Dermatitis just last year. You know he wants an electric bass.

What can go wrong with playing the flute, barely bigger than a toothpick?   Plenty: “Incidence of injury and attitudes to injury management in skilled flute players” again in Work, found that of 20 flautists questioned, “all except one player reported suffering from a performance-related musculoskeletal disorder.”  Most blamed long hours of practice, poor posture, and performance anxiety. Posture and anxiety seem to be common themes, begging the chicken or egg question.  Do I slouch because I worry, or worry because of that damned slouch?

It goes on:

“Cardiopulmonary changes during clarinet playing.”

“School-issued musical instruments: a significant source of nickel exposure.”

“Playing saxophone induced diffuse alveolar hemorrhage: a case report.”

Speaking of saxophones, I’m not sure what to make of this from the Indian journal of dermatology, venereology and leprology: “Unusual case of saxophone penis.”  Unusual? There’s a usual? I’m fine basking in ignorance here.

A very sad story arises from what apparently was a more positive one about a remarkable bird who seems to have been a musical prodigy.  The Journal of Wildlife Disease reports “Zinc toxicosis in a free-flying trumpeter swan (Cygnus buccinators).”

Finally, the audience should also be considered, if only briefly.

One of two chilling articles on this topic looks at “Lyrics of national anthems and suicide rates.” Reporting on a European study, Lester and Gunn in Psychological Reports say that suicide rates of 18 European nations “were associated with the proportion of sad words in the lyrics of their national anthems as well as the gloominess of their music.” They suggest that changing those might work as a suicide prevention tactic.

Oh say…can you see what they’re talking about? Don’t worry. Be happy and enjoy some of that upbeat music at Fiddler’s neck.

Posted in musings by maxwell | 1 Comment »


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