January 31, 2013 11:21 am
Cold weather, lack of wind and a dearth of environmental regulations have lately created a perfect storm of toxic smog in northern China. Air pollution has gotten so extreme in China’s capital, ABC News reports, that “it is literally off the charts: more than 20 times the maximum safety level.”
Some of Beijing’s factories are temporarily closing, flights are being cancelled and emergency rooms are filling up with people having severe respiratory reactions to the toxic air they have been breathing.
According to a report on ABC World News, the air quality index in Beijing has reached a height of 755. Higher numbers mean worse pollution, and anything over 300 is considered “an emergency.” By comparison, the worst-polluted city in the U.S., Bakersfield, California, reached a peak air quality index of 159 last year.
Perhaps most notably, the notoriously silent Chinese government has recently sent out emergency warnings about the air quality in Beijing for the first time. But many Chinese citizens clearly feel that not enough is being done, according to ABC:
The air is so bad that wealthy Chinese entrepreneur, Chen Guangbiao, is selling fresh air in soft drinks cans, similar to bottled drinking water. Each can is sold for 5RMB or about 80 cents. Chen is well known for his charitable donations and publicity stunts. He says he wants to stimulate awareness of environmental protection among government officials and citizens by selling the canned fresh air.
“If we don’t pay attention to environmental protection, in 10 years every one of us will be wearing gas masks and carrying oxygen tanks on the streets,” Cheng told ABC News. “By that time, my canned fresh air will be a necessity for household,” he predicts.
Sound familiar? In the 1987 comedy Spaceballs, a Star Wars spoof, a corrupt president uses up all the air from his world, and then schemes to steal fresh air from another planet. In this scene, he outwardly denies the crisis while sucking down cans of “Perri-air: canned in Druidia, naturally sparkling, salt-free air.”
It’s a bleak state of affairs indeed when a Mel Brooks schtickfest from the ’80s actually predicts the future.
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January 30, 2013 3:04 pm
Dogs have been long been an important part of military operations—from bomb-sniffing to supply-delivery—even long before Rin Tin Tin. But training military working dogs is an expensive and time-consuming process. And anyone who’s spent any time trying to get a dog to even follow the “sit” command knows that some dogs are sharper than others.
Now, Wired’s Danger Room blog reports on a plan by DARPA to pre-select the smartest recruits using newly available brain-scanning methods:
…the project — adorably called FIDOS, for “Functional Imaging to Develop Outstanding Service-Dogs” — touts the idea of using magnetic image resonators (or MRIs) to “optimize the selection of ideal service dogs” by scanning their brains to find the smartest candidates. “Real-time neural feedback” will optimize canine training. That adds up to military pooches trained better, faster and — in theory — at a lower cost than current training methods of $20,000, using the old-fashioned methods of discipline-and-reward.
The theory is that, by scanning a dog’s level of neural response to various stimuli, including handler cues, the researchers will be able to identify the dogs that will be the quickest learners and therefore the easiest to train.
Scanning dogs’ brains may also help trainers identify different types of intelligence, so as to more accurately match certain dogs to tasks they’d be best at. For instance, more “brain hyper-social dogs”—those who are best at sensing and responding to the emotional cues of their handlers—would be best used as therapy dogs for soldiers in rehabilitation.
The research looks promising; although, as PopSci’s Clay Dillow points out, challenges remain:
Before you can train to be a canine psychology assistant or to rope out of helicopters with the SEALs, you have to train it to lay still in an fMRI machine.
Good point. On the other hand, though, if little Fido can’t do so much as sit still for a quick head exam, shouldn’t he be automatically disqualified from the more delicate task of detecting a bomb?
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January 30, 2013 2:02 pm
Germophobes might not want to read this one. New research has found that there are some microbes that are so resilient that they can actually ride hurricanes.
A tropospheric survey, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found 17 individual bacterial species as high as 10 kilometers (more than six miles) in the air, according to David Biello on Scientific American’s Observations blog. By comparison, other lifeforms such as fungal spores and pollen don’t thrive nearly as well as the microbes, the survey found.
Swept up in the air by wind and water, these bacteria not only survive in the stratosphere; they actually gain nourishment from it. And unfortunately, what goes up must come down:
…judging by these samples, hurricanes and possibly other storms, help convey enormous amounts of a lot of different bacteria around the world.
Samples from Hurricane Karl and Earl (both in September 2010) showed that the big storms both rained out bacteria from the atmosphere and also swept up some species not usually found so high, including E. coli and Streptococcus, especially after passing over cities and other populated areas. In the case of Hurricane Earl, there were even soil microbes from that tropical cyclone’s origins as a dusty wind in the Sahara Desert.
As Smart News wrote last month, previous research published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology revealed that microbes were capable of traveling by “vast streams of dust,” even crossing oceans and spreading from one continent to another.
Purell addicts already suffering through this year’s unusually rough flu season are advised not to think too hard about germs so tough that they can survive ultraviolet rays, extreme cold and Category 4 hurricane winds.
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January 30, 2013 1:16 pm
Thanks to new research methods and a pile of (very old) dirty dishes, archaeologists have discovered the very ancient origins of a globally popular cuisine. Though the combination of flavors recognized as curry today is the result of centuries of cross-cultural trade between India, Southeast Asia and Europe, the dish’s origins reach back farther than was previously thought.
According to Andrew Lawler, at Slate, “the original curry predates Europeans’ presence in India by about 4,000 years.” The three basic ingredients of the spicy stew were ginger, garlic and turmeric, and, using a method called “starch grain analysis,” archaeologists Arunima Kashyap and Steve Weber at the University of Washington at Vancouver were able to identify the residue of these ancient spices in both skeletons and pottery shards from excavations in India:
Starch is the main way that plants store energy, and tiny amounts of it can remain long after the plant itself has deteriorated. If a plant was heated—cooked in one of the tandoori-style ovens often found at Indus sites, for example—then its tiny microscopic remains can be identified, since each plant species leaves its own specific molecular signature. To a layperson peering through a microscope, those remains look like random blobs. But to a careful researcher, they tell the story of what a cook dropped into the dinner pot 4,500 years ago.
Examining the human teeth and the residue from the cooking pots, Kashyap spotted the telltale signs of turmeric and ginger, two key ingredients, even today, of a typical curry.
The two researchers dated the remains of these spices to between 2500 and 2200 B.C. That, and the discovery of a “carbonized clove of garlic,” Lawler writes, supports the theory that “curry is not only among the world’s most popular dishes; it also may be the oldest continuously prepared cuisine on the planet.”
So the next time you order a spicy vindaloo, korma or masala, know that you’re not only having a sinus-clearing, delicious experience—you’re tasting a bit of ancient history.
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January 29, 2013 3:43 pm
From birth, Neil Harbisson lacked the ability to perceive color. Because of a rare condition called achromatopsia—total color-blindness—he always lived in a black-and-white world. But with the help of inventor Adam Montadon, Harbisson developed the “eyeborg,” a device that he wears on his head that translates colors into sound. The camera senses the color frequency in front of him, then sends different audible frequencies to a chip embedded in the back of his head.
Using the same color-sound language, he now also translates music into colors to create art—painting a multi-chromatic modernist representation of a Justin Bieber song, for instance. And as he explains in the film above, his ability to perceive color through sound has expanded into the realm of the superhuman; he can now “see” infrared rays, and soon, he hopes, ultraviolet as well.
Harbisson spoke more about how the “eyeborg” has changed his life in this fascinating TED talk, below. “Before I used to dress in a way that it looked good,” he says, wearing pink, blue, and yellow. “Now I dress in a way that it sounds good. So today I am dressed in C major, it is quite a happy chord.”
The most intriguing part of Harbisson’s TED talk is the very end, when he says that “I think life will be much more exciting when stop creating applications for the mobile phones and we start creating applications for our own body…. I do encourage you all to think about which senses you would like to extend. I would encourage you to become a cyborg—you won’t be alone.” The TED blog has a list of six other “real-life cyborgs,” who go through daily life with cameras in their eyes, USB drives in their hands and extra ears in their arms. (Yikes!)
According to Harbisson’s and Montadon’s Cyborg Foundation website, the team is working on all kinds of wild, sensory-experience-expanding projects in addition to the “eyeborg.” There’s also a “speedborg,” which is like a little radar detector that you wear on your hand that translates the speed of an object into vibrations; a “fingerborg,” a prosthetic finger with a miniature camera inside; and “360-degree sensory extension”—a pair of earrings that vibrates when someone approaches from behind.
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