More Brain Power Needed for Mandarin Than English

Monday, June 30th, 2003

According to More Brain Power Needed for Mandarin Than English, Mandarin speakers use the left lobe, like English speakers, but they also use the right lobe, which is normally used to process melody, presumably because Mandarin is a tonal language:

Unlike English speakers, who use one side of their brain to understand the language, scientists at the Wellcome Trust research charity in Britain discovered that both sides of the brain are used to interpret variations in sounds in Mandarin. “We were very surprised to discover that people who speak different sorts of languages use their brains to decode speech in different ways; it overturned some long-held theories,” said Dr. Sophie Scott, a psychologist at the charity.

Using brain scans on volunteers, Scott discovered that different areas of the brain are used to interpret words and intonation.

The left temporal lobe of the brain is active when English speakers hear the language but Mandarin speakers use the left and right lobe, which is normally used to process melody in music and speech.

Intonation is important in Mandarin because it gives different meanings to the same word. The word “ma” for example can mean mother, scold, horse or hemp, depending on the tone.

“We think Mandarin speakers interpret intonation and melody in the right temporal lobe to give the correct meaning to the spoken word,” Scott said in a statement.

Blunder Leaves Woman Awake for Surgery

Monday, June 30th, 2003

Blunder Leaves Woman Awake for Surgery presents a true horror story:

A woman lay awake during surgery for 45 minutes, unable to move or call for help, after staff forgot to hook up the machine pumping out anaesthetic, the Austrian daily Kurier reported Monday.

The woman was temporarily paralyzed because she had been given a muscle relaxant, and her ordeal ended only after a replacement doctor who came into the operating room saw tears in her eyes and noticed the machine was not connected properly.

The woman, who was undergoing abdominal surgery, is suing for 70,000 euro ($79,970) in damages, the hospital in the Austrian province of Carinthia confirmed.

Iraq: The Computer Game

Friday, June 27th, 2003

Slate has a fascinating article on what “virtual world” games can teach us about geopolitical hotspots, Iraq: The Computer Game. One section of the article discusses what Richard “Lord British” Garriott learned from “ruling” Ultima Online:

In the startup of a virtual world, Garriott says, the players — like Iraqis — face anarchy, confusion, and unclear rules. They are poor, they are at the mercy of brutal spoilers (players who rob and kill other players for kicks), and they are subject to a whimsical, alien overlord (the programmers). Of course players don’t actually risk their lives, but they are passionate about constructing a successful society, and there are hundreds of thousands of them.

Virtual worlds with thousands of players may not offer much useful economic insight for Iraq or help anyone understand Iraqi social structure. But, says Garriott, the games do clarify the essential rules for stabilizing a chaotic society. Virtual worlds teach that there are really only two of those rules, one obvious, one surprising.

The first is the urgent need to protect lives and property. Ultima was plagued by murder and theft from its earliest days, as players exploited software loopholes to wreak havoc and get rich. As a result, other players quit the game or simply become villains themselves. Garriott says they had to fix the code and evict the anti-social players who were ruining the civilization for everyone else. Ultima didn’t take off until the caretakers established security and law. Neither can Iraq.

The second requirement is an idea that hasn’t gotten much attention from the U.S. occupation. It is that the ruler must let the people know he has heard their complaints. In a virtual-world startup, thousands of players gripe about the same thing (there’s not enough money, my character keeps getting robbed). It’s incredibly important, Garriott says, that the ruler acknowledge he has heard the complaints. Not acknowledging complaints makes people nervous: It destabilizes and enrages them. Even if you have a plan to deal with a problem, you still have to let participants know they have been heard. Otherwise they panic or turn to some rival power that does admit their complaint. Broadcasting the acknowledgement to the whole community — “yes, we know you don’t have enough running water” — is as essential as actually fixing the problem. Only once you have publicly recognized the problem, Garriott says, do you present your plan to remedy it.

Air Force Doctrine

Friday, June 27th, 2003

In Air Force Doctrine, Den Beste argues that the Air Force doesn’t really want to work with the other branches. It wants sleek, high-tech aircraft, even when ugly, low-tech aircraft, like the A-10 can perform an important job better:

The problem is that no matter what the Air Force gets that has wings and might fly into a combat zone, the Air Force insists that it be designed to be able to participate in strategic bombing in hostile unsecured airspace. Which means everything has to be stealthy. Everything has to be loaded to the gills with avionics. And everything ends up costing a bloody fortune. (And it all ends up having to be “multimission”.)

He argues against the super-expensive jack-of-all-trades:

There seem to be two kinds of heavy bomber missions:
  • getting into well-defended areas, bypassing air defenses, and taking out high value targets by delivering a small number of bombs very precisely.
  • carrying a maximum bombload into an area where air supremacy has been established, and dumping it from high altitude to thoroughly plaster a huge area (or dump parts of it to thoroughly plaster several smaller areas in close succession).

The first requires bombers which cost their weight in platinum, if not more. It’s the B2 type mission, but does it really make sense for every single heavy bomber to be like that, at the expense of carrying capacity? Why is it that some bombs have to be shoved out the back of cargo jets? It’s because those bombs can’t be carried by aircraft made of platinum. They dump those mothers out of C-5′s because they won’t fit in the bomb bay of a B-1 (and the hardpoint can’t support that much weight). And even if a B-1 or B-2 could carry such ordnance, they cost so damned much that we can’t afford to purchase as many as we would really need for the area-obliteration mission. What’s needed is something that’s big, inexpensive, slow, heavy, unstealthy, inexpensive, long ranged and capable of carrying a hell of a lot reliably. And inexpensive.

I love this idea:

Some have proposed that the Air Force should augment its heavy bombers by purchasing what is half-facetiously referred to as “B-767′s”. (Jim Dunnigan is a big fan of this concept.) The idea would be to contract with Boeing to create a militarized bomber version of the 767, with a huge bomb bay and such essential structural changes as that would require but otherwise little different from the civilian 767. They’d be relatively cheap, have a huge carrying capacity (on the order of 4 times what a B1 can carry), fly long distances without refueling, be extremely reliable, and wouldn’t be even faintly “stealthy”. They might carry flares and ECM, but aside from that there’d be no defenses.

They could probably be acquired for about $80 million each, as opposed to about $200 million for the B-1 and a stunning $2.1 billion each for the B-2.

It is astounding to realize that the acquisition cost of two B-2′s exceeds the cost of one Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. For the cost of one B-1 we can purchase more than 4,000 Tomahawk cruise missiles.

Who is the Ornery American?

Friday, June 27th, 2003

I can’t believe I didn’t know where “ornery” came from. The Ornery American explains:

The word “ornery” began as “ordinary.” In the days when you were either of the “gentle” class or merely “ordinary,” parents would say to their stubborn children when they refused to do as they were told, “Don’t be so ordin’ry.”

Naturally, I now need to know where high falutin’ comes from. According to the American Heritage Dictionary:

H.L. Mencken, in his famous book The American Language, mentions highfalutin as an example of the many native U.S. words coined during the 19th-century period of vigorous growth. Although highfalutin is characteristic of American folk speech, it is not a true regionalism because it has always occurred in all regions of the country, with its use and popularity spurred by its appearance in print. The origin of highfalutin, like that of many folk expressions, is obscure. It has been suggested that the second element, ‘falutin, comes from the verb flute — hence high-fluting, a comical indictment of people who think too highly of themselves.

Staying in Touch : One More Thing At Which Women Beat Out Men

Wednesday, June 25th, 2003

Ah, I remember friends… Staying in Touch: One More Thing At Which Women Beat Out Men:

Male relationships follow a different pattern. Men tend to build friendships until about age 30, but there’s often a steady fall-off after that, researchers say. Among the reasons: Male friendships are more likely to be hurt by geographical moves, lifestyle changes, or differences in career trajectories. And many men turn to wives, girlfriends, sisters or platonic female friends to share emotional issues, assuming male friends will be of little help.

For perhaps some of the same reasons, women tend to turn to close female friends for emotional support rather than their spouses. Consequently, women with strong friendships often have closer marriages, in part because they don’t burden husbands with all their emotional needs, according to research by Stacey Oliker, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The Poor Like Globalization

Wednesday, June 25th, 2003

According to The Poor Like Globalization, a recent Pew survey shows that “views of globalization are distinctly more positive in low-income countries than in rich ones”:

Contradicting the anti-globalization movement’s claims, Dollar says that most “striking in the survey is that views of globalization are distinctly more positive in low-income countries than in rich ones.” For example, in Sub-Saharan Africa 75% of households thought that multinational corporations had a positive influence on their country, compared to only 54% in rich countries. Of the 38,000 people in 44 nations surveyed, those in the developing world generally blamed their local governments, not globalization, for their country’s ills.

Three Nebraska Men Develop Rabbit Fever

Wednesday, June 25th, 2003

When I read Three Nebraska Men Develop Rabbit Fever, I immediately thought of Bugs Bunny, seeing spots — which is the same thing I thought of, to be honest, when I first heard about monkey pox. That’s a real disease? Anyway:

Two men who mowed over a nest of rabbits, killing some of them, and another who cleaned the mower developed a rare disease known as rabbit fever, authorities said.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has launched an investigation into the incident. The disease, also called pneumonic tularemia, is generally treatable with antibiotics but can lead to pneumonia.

The illness is caused by a bacterium found in wild animals, particularly rodents and rabbits. People can become infected through bites from infected animals or infected insects, handling carcasses, eating contaminated food or, in rare cases, inhaling the bacterium. It is not transmitted person-to-person.
[...]
Tularemia is caused by the organism Francisella tularensis, a bacteria studied widely during World War II as a biological weapon. Depending on how the person is infected, it can cause flu-like symptoms, skin ulcers, swollen eyes and a sore throat.

Playboy Models’ Curves May Be Sign of the Times

Wednesday, June 25th, 2003

Playboy Models’ Curves May Be Sign of the Times demonstrates the great use to which a psychology Ph.D. can be put:

According to researchers, a comparison of the faces and figures of Playmates of the Year from 1960 to 2000 suggests men may prefer stronger-looking women in hard times, and softer, more vulnerable types when bull markets resume.

“In short, we want someone to have fun with when times are good, and we want someone to take care of us — and themselves — when times are bad,” said psychology researcher Dr. Terry F. Pettijohn II, of Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Riiiigghhht. So how did they go about this scientific process?

In their research, Pettijohn and Jungeberg created an annual “hard times measure” by tracking changes in U.S. statistics on unemployment, marriage, homicide and other factors for the years 1960 through 2000.

Hard times? No comment.

Then, using clear, front-on photographs of Playboy Playmates of the Year for each of those 40 years, the two researchers made precise measurements of key face and body dimensions.

I’m guessing that, for once, the grad students didn’t do all the work.

Cultured Bacteria Save Medieval Italian Frescoes

Wednesday, June 25th, 2003

Microbes do plenty of amazing things. Now they restore medieval art. From Cultured Bacteria Save Medieval Italian Frescoes:

After a glue used in a bungled earlier restoration attempt clouded one of the 14th and 15th century paintings in the Camposanto cemetery fresco cycle in Pisa, scientists turned to a bacteria called Pseudomonas Stutzeri — with spectacular results.
[...]
The 4,900-square-foot of frescoes in the “Conversion of Saint Efisio and Battle” by Spinello Aretino were nearly destroyed in a World War II air raid, and were further damaged by botched restoration efforts when the paintings were peeled off the walls and glued to canvases.

Over the following years, the organic glue used hardened and clouded, wrecking paint pigments and resisting all efforts at removal. Attempts at using chemical solvents took their own toll on the frescoes.

But the revolutionary bacteria culture degraded 80 percent of the glue within just 10 hours, revealing the colorful garments of Aretino’s angels and of Saint Efisio himself.

In War on Poverty, Pipeline In Chad Plays Unusual Role

Tuesday, June 24th, 2003

In War on Poverty, Pipeline In Chad Plays Unusual Role:

Massive trucks and drilling rigs deployed by an Exxon Mobil-led consortium rumble through the sand and bush of Kome, Chad, rushing to complete one of largest private-sector investments — $3.5 billion — in sub-Saharan Africa. In a few weeks, the Miandoum I well, pumping in the shade of an ancient fig tree, is expected to tap the first drops of a one-billion-barrel oil reservoir. The crude is set to flow 663 miles through a pipeline that slithers under hippo-filled rivers, parched savannahs, tropical rain forests and the hunting grounds of the Bakola pygmies, before emptying into storage tanks anchored in the Atlantic surf off the coast of Cameroon.

Pardon my cynicism, but my first thought was: how long until this all gets nationalized? Or, how much of this oil money will “the people” ever see?

That’s the simple part. More audacious is the route along which Chad’s oil money will flow. For the first time, a nation has agreed to surrender part of its sovereignty over how to spend the money earned by unlocking its oil wealth. Proceeds from Chad’s sale of oil from the first three fields — expected to exceed $100 million a year, nearly doubling the nation’s fiscal revenue — will travel a financial pipeline designed, and insisted upon, by the World Bank and other outsiders and monitored by a Chadian committee that includes Muslim and Christian religious figures and other community leaders. Their job is to ensure the money is spent on development projects such as schools, clinics and rural roads, and isn’t siphoned into secret overseas bank accounts, as happened in neighboring Nigeria, or funneled into civil wars, as in Angola and Sudan.

So, is this Western Imperialism or not?

Some Commercials Strike Wrong Note With Viewers

Tuesday, June 24th, 2003

Everyone hates Carrot Top, right? Maybe not, according to Some Commercials Strike Wrong Note With Viewers:

AT&T has a different view. Carrot Top has made more than 50 commercials for the 1-800-CALL-ATT calling service, and is now in his third year as its pitchman. AT&T says research indicated that the consumers it wants to use the service — young adults ages 18 to 24 — have an affinity for irreverent spokespeople. Within a week of its first campaign featuring Carrot Top, AT&T says, the company noticed an upswing in calling.

Savant for a Day

Monday, June 23rd, 2003

A recent NY Times article, Savant for a Day, reports on a hard-to-believe invention:

The Medtronic was originally developed as a tool for brain surgery: by stimulating or slowing down specific regions of the brain, it allowed doctors to monitor the effects of surgery in real time. But it also produced, they noted, strange and unexpected effects on patients’ mental functions: one minute they would lose the ability to speak, another minute they would speak easily but would make odd linguistic errors and so on. A number of researchers started to look into the possibilities, but one in particular intrigued Snyder: that people undergoing transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, could suddenly exhibit savant intelligence — those isolated pockets of geniuslike mental ability that most often appear in autistic people.
[...]
He has used TMS dozens of times on university students, measuring its effect on their ability to draw, to proofread and to perform difficult mathematical functions like identifying prime numbers by sight. Hooked up to the machine, 40 percent of test subjects exhibited extraordinary, and newfound, mental skills. That Snyder was able to induce these remarkable feats in a controlled, repeatable experiment is more than just a great party trick; it’s a breakthrough that may lead to a revolution in the way we understand the limits of our own intelligence — and the functioning of the human brain in general.
[...]
Perhaps the most famous savant was Dustin Hoffman’s character in ”Rain Man,” who could count hundreds of matchsticks at a glance. But the truth has often been even stranger: one celebrated savant in turn-of-the-century Vienna could calculate the day of the week for every date since the birth of Christ. Other savants can speak dozens of languages without formally studying any of them or can reproduce music at the piano after only a single hearing. A savant studied by the English doctor J. Langdon Down in 1887 had memorized every page of Gibbon’s ”Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” At the beginning of the 19th century, the splendidly named Gottfried Mind became famous all over Europe for the amazing pictures he drew of cats.

Gel Used in Diapers Is a Fire Retardant

Monday, June 23rd, 2003

Gel Used in Diapers Is a Fire Retardant:

Judith Withers watched in horror from the desert floor as a raging wildfire consumed the mountainside outside San Diego where her home stood. “It looked like an atomic bomb blast up there,” she recalls of that day last summer.

She returned to the charred landscape a few days later and was shocked to find her house standing and unscathed. “It looked like God picked up my house, and the fire blew by, and then he put it back down,” she says.

It wasn’t divine force that saved her house. It was a man-made gel, one of a family of superabsorbent plastics known as polyacrylates, which are probably best known for the vital role they play in disposable diapers.

Inside a dry diaper, the material is fibrous and grainy; it becomes a thick goo when wet. Unknown to Ms. Withers, firefighters had slathered her house with a premixed version of the superabsorbent gel, like a giant wet blanket, in a test of its fire-fighting potential.

There does appear to be a downside though:

With some brands of the gel, cleanup is a major headache. Sprayed over an entire house — windows, walls, porches, roof — the gel is slimy at first. Eventually, it dries to a nearly invisible film. Add water — such as rain — and the stuff comes back to life, oozing out over porches and driveways and sliming the house all over again. It takes weeks or months to wear off.

When fire rampaged through their neighborhood outside Jackson Hole, Wyo., George and Barbara Erb were among the first to have their house gelled in a test two years ago. Their 2,800-square-foot log house survived, and insurance paid to have the gel power-washed off.

But then it rained. “This white gooey stuff started coming out between the logs,” Mr. Erb recalls. Powerwashing ruined his roof, which the insurance company replaced. He had to have the log exterior refinished. Still, the long cleanup beat having to rebuild a burned-down house.

Aladdin Is to Become Planet Hollywood Casino

Monday, June 23rd, 2003

I was just at the Aladdin last week, and I had no idea that it was on its way out. From Aladdin Is to Become Planet Hollywood Casino:

The ailing Aladdin casino in Las Vegas will become a Planet Hollywood casino and a Sheraton hotel, according to a ruling by a federal bankruptcy-court judge on Friday.

I don’t have a good feeling about this:

During the next 18 months or so, the casino will be renovated — getting a new facade, refurbished suites and other changes — into a celebrity-theme Planet Hollywood. “It’s a chance to put Planet back into ascendancy,” Mr. Earl said in an interview. He and Bay Harbour recently brought Planet Hollywood, an Orlando, Fla., company Mr. Earl co-founded, out of bankruptcy-court protection.

The top floor will have “celebrity suites” devoted to the lives and careers of various stars. One floor below will have suites themed along the lines of Hollywood memorabilia, such as a room with the ice pick from the movie “Basic Instinct” and another room with the bed from the Madonna film “Truth or Dare.”

I was quite impressed with the Desert Passage mall:

New entrances will be opened to the Desert Passage shopping mall, and new restaurants placed with doors opening to both the mall and casino. The mall was designed to be part of the casino but was largely cut off from it after relations soured early on between the mall owners, Chicago-based Trizec Properties Inc. and the Aladdin. “We’re going to carefully correct all the design errors” of the Aladdin, Mr. Earl said.

That is partly where Mr. Gluck comes in. Mr. Gluck, 75 years old, sold Caesars World to the former ITT Corp. in 1995. He was the first casino operator to bring retail stores to Las Vegas casinos when he opened the Forum Shops in 1992. The Forum Shops mall, which has the highest sales per square foot of any U.S. shopping center, brought on a wave of retail development in Las Vegas casinos, including Desert Passage and the Venetian casino’s Grand Canal Shoppes.

The Planet Hollywood-Starwood group is hoping Mr. Gluck might work something similar with Desert Passage. But it isn’t yet precisely clear what Mr. Gluck’s role will be. “I’m going to help them put it together,” he said in an interview. “They want to take advantage of my experience in having done this before.”