Raptors are setting fires on purpose

Thursday, January 11th, 2018

Raptors — the black kite, whistling kite, and brown falcon — are intentionally spreading grass fires in northern Australia:

Raptors on at least four continents have been observed for decades on the edge of big flames, waiting out scurrying rodents and reptiles or picking through their barbecued remains.

What’s new, at least in the academic literature, is the idea that birds might be intentionally spreading fires themselves. If true, the finding suggests that birds, like humans, have learned to use fire as a tool and as a weapon.

Gosford, a lawyer turned ethno-ornithologist (he studies the relationship between aboriginal peoples and birds), has been chasing the arson hawk story for years. “My interest was first piqued by a report in a book published in 1964 by an Aboriginal man called Phillip Roberts in the Roper River area in the Northern Territory, that gave an account of a thing that he’d seen in the bush, a bird picking up a stick from a fire front and carrying it and dropping it on to unburnt grass,” he told ABC.

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“MJ,” a Kimberley, (Western Australia) cattle station caretaker manager … saw kites working together to move a late dry season fire across a river by picking up, transporting, and dropping small, burning sticks in grass, which immediately ignited in several places,” they write. “The experience resulted in an uncontrollable blaze that destroyed part of the station’s infrastructure.”

Bob White, a firefighter in the Northern Territory saw a small group of raptors, likely black kites, “pick up numerous smouldering sticks and transport them ahead of a fire front, successfully helping the blaze spread up a small valley.”

Nathan Ferguson claims to have observed fire spreading about a dozen times in the Northern Territory since 2001. The long-time firefighter is adamant that the birds he’s observed — picking up twigs and starting new fires — were doing so on purpose.

That jibes with the other research Gosford and Bonta dug up. “Most accounts and traditions unequivocally indicate intentionality on the part of three raptor species,” they wrote.

Missing old friends

Tuesday, January 9th, 2018

Modern humans may be missing old friends:

With good reason. Hookworms are a leading cause of disease in the developing world with around 750 million people suffering from infection, which can cause anaemia, growth retardation and malnutrition in heavily infested populations. Hookworms can even be lethal, with hookworm related death standing at an estimated 60,000 people per year (Crompton 2002, de Silva 2003).

In first world nations, cleanliness, sanitation and clothing measures have eradicated hookworm infections by breaking their life cycle. (Brooker 2004, Crompton 2000)

This may seem like a good thing at a casual glance. The economic impact of hookworms is huge for some countries. For example, productivity losses due to hookworm infections in South Asia have been estimated at a value of approximately 5 billion dollars annually. (Crompton 2002) At first glance, exterminating these parasites seems wholly sensible.

There is a caveat however, to throwing nature out of balance by Man’s crude intervention. By vastly overpopulating areas in developing countries, we have created the perfect conditions for huge hookworm burdens. Then, by removing hookworms completely, we induce conditions unnaturally sterile. Our bodies, finely tuned through eons of evolution to respond to the challenge of parasite infection, react erratically.

Westernised nations have witnessed a dramatic rise in the incidence of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, a rise that is concurrent with hookworm eradication. Researchers soon realised that many autoimmune diseases are largely absent in Third World populations. This discovery gave rise to the Hygiene Hypothesis.

The Hygiene Hypothesis theorises that the absence of various micro-organisms in Western society causes dysfunction in immunoregulation (Stiemsma 2015, Versini 2015). We see this manifest itself in diseases such as MS, Crohns disease, Asthma, and Rheumatoid Arthritis. This theory can be traced back to the 1870s when it was noted that aristocrats and city dwellers were more likely to get hay fever than farmers.

This idea was further developed into the ‘Old Friends Hypothesis’.

Whilst it would be rash to state that the sole cause for the increase in autoimmune diseases seen in our society is due to helminth eradication, it is certain that the underlying cause in genetically susceptible individuals is environmental. One of these environmental factors is the removal of Helminths, or ‘old friends’ (Rook 2012).

In Rooks’ words:

“The Old Friends hypothesis suggests that one reason for the increasing incidence of chronic inflammatory disorders in developed countries since the mid-nineteenth century is the depletion from the urban environment of organisms that accompanied mammalian evolution and had to be tolerated. In parts of the world where there was a heavy load of organisms causing immunoregulation (such as helminths), there has been selection for single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP) or other gene variants that partially compensate for the immunoregulation. As soon as immunoregulation inducing organisms (Old Friends) are withdrawn by the modern lifestyle, the genetic variants lead to excessive inflammation, and become risk factors for chronic inflammatory disorders”

In effect, organisms like helminths have been present in the human environment since the evolution of our species. Our immune systems have been titrated to their presence. Further, genes have evolved to help to manage the burden of these organisms, genes which predispose individuals to autoimmune disease once the helminths have been removed.

The fellow writing about old friends suffered from terrible psoriasis and decided to try Necator Americanus therapy:

A few short weeks and a lot of reading later, I sat at home, looking, with serious trepidation, at a small vial filled with clear liquid.

Inside it, were 25 stage L3 NA Larvae, purchased online with laboratory assurance that they were as sterile as a multicellular organism that comes from faeces can be.

Now I am not by nature someone who puts off what needs to be done. But I won’t lie when I say it took a few minutes of serious contemplation before I pipetted the innocent looking fluid onto the supplied dressing, and pressed it onto the skin of my inner arm.

Would this work? Did the larvae survive transit? Would they find their way onto my skin?

I needn’t have worried, less than two minutes after application, it felt like dozens of hot needles were boring into my skin. This was very real, and now there was no going back. They were inside me.

I didn’t sleep that night such was the itching on my arm, and I got a low grade fever the next day that lasted 48 hours.

Exactly 5 days post inoculation, I awoke in the middle of the night thinking someone was choking me. My throat was burning and closing up fast, causing my breath to rasp in my chest. As I sat in the bathroom gasping for breath, I knew exactly what was happening. They had made it to my throat and were about to finish their migration down into my intestines.

10 days after inoculation, I awoke once again in the early hours of the morning to terrible stomach ache. My regular regimen of intermittent fasting was out, the only remedy for this was a large breakfast, which for reasons unbeknownst to me helped ease the symptoms. My skin, likely because I had stopped the Methotrexate, worsened.

Bereft that I might have to drag my arse back to the Dermatologist and actually ask her for worming tablets, I toughed it out.

It worked.

The process for catching these people is equally elegant

Saturday, January 6th, 2018

Scott Alexander shares some highlights from his notes from a forensic psychiatry conference:

Contrary to popular belief, the insanity defense is not overused. It’s used in only about 1% of felony trials and successful only about a quarter of the time it is used. 90% of people who successfully plead insanity had been diagnosed with a disorder before they committed their crime.

Felons found insane usually get locked up in forensic hospitals even longer than sane felons are locked up in prisons. Some statistics say that by pleading insanity you increase your time behind bars by 50–100%

For some reason, there is a law saying juries are not allowed to be told what will happen to defendants if they return a certain verdict. Juries assume that if a defendant is found “not guilty by reason of insanity”, they will be released scot-free. Although this is completely false, no one is allowed to tell the jury this. So it’s really hard to win an insanity defense simply because juries think it will mean a felon will be put right back on the streets.

Forensic psychiatrists have become very effective at determining which criminals who plead insanity are “faking it”. They usually rely on patterns of mental disease which psychiatrists know but criminals don’t. For example, they’ll start by asking “Do you hear voices?”, and most fakers, anxious to please, say they do. Then the psychiatrist will ask questions like “Which side of your head do the voices come from?” and “Do you ever have smells associated with the voices?” Still eager to please, the fakers will choose a side of the head for their voices to be on, and make up smells that happen at the same time as their voices. But real schizophrenics don’t generally hear their voices to one side or hallucinate smells, so this decreases the likelihood that they’re telling the truth. Some of these questions are very tricky – for example, one psychiatrist asks both “Do you ever hear secret messages for you from the TV or radio?” and “Do cats and dogs ever give you secret messages?”. The first is very common in mental illness; the second practically never happens. Unless you’re a psychiatrist yourself, you’re not going to know these things and you’ll end up claiming symptoms that make no sense.

Some criminals also claim to be mentally retarded, especially in states where it’s illegal to execute retarded people. The process for catching these people is equally elegant. They are asked to take a multiple-choice vocabulary test with easy, medium, and difficult words. Real mentally retarded people will do okay on the easy words but perform at chance on the medium and difficult words. Fakers will also do okay on the easy words – they are smart enough to understand that even mentally retarded people know some things – but then they intentionally throw the medium words and do worse than chance. On the difficult words, the fakers honestly don’t know them and so they go back to performing at chance again. Computers can detect these patterns and easily and confidently point out a fake.

Combining endurance and strength training has always been tricky

Saturday, December 30th, 2017

Combining endurance and strength training has always been tricky, because of the “interference effect” between the two types of workouts:

The classic study on concurrent strength and endurance training was published by Robert Hickson in 1980. After ten weeks of seriously intense endurance training, strength training, or both, the verdict was that strength training didn’t hinder endurance gains but endurance training did hinder strength gains. Here’s what the strength changes in the three groups looked like (from a graph redrawn by University of California Davis researcher Keith Baar in this paper):


One explanation of the interference effect goes something like this: Resistance training activates a protein called mTOR that (through a cascade of molecular signals) results in bigger muscles. Endurance training activates a protein called AMPK that (though a different signaling cascade) produces endurance adaptations like increased mitochondrial mass. AMPK can inhibit mTOR, so endurance training blocks muscle growth from strength training.


There’s now emerging evidence of an alternate molecular-signaling pathway in which metabolic stress — not just from endurance training but also from other triggers like caloric deficit, oxidative stress, and aging — hinders muscle growth. This alternate pathway involves a complex series of links between a “tumor suppressor” protein, another protein called sestrin, and various other obscure acronyms. But details aside, what’s particularly intriguing about the hypothesis is that it’s highly sensitive to the presence of the amino acid leucine, which binds to sestrin and triggers the synthesis of new muscle protein. And this, Baar says, suggests some strategies to beat (or at least minimize) the interference effect.


Does workout order matter? In the traditional mTOR versus AMPK picture, you’re better off doing endurance before strength training. That’s because the endurance signals only stay elevated for about an hour following exercise, while strength signals stay on for 18 to 24 hours. But in the revised picture, where metabolic stress is the key, the order of workouts is less important than your energy balance.

Finally, it’s important to point out that you shouldn’t stress about this unless you’re training pretty damn hard. As a general rule of thumb, if you’re not doing endurance training four or more times a week, or pushing your workouts (i.e., sustaining above 80 percent of VO2max), you’re unlikely to be hurting your strength gains.

The word simply has no meaning

Wednesday, December 27th, 2017

William Buckner, a student of Evolutionary Anthropology at UC Davis, says that we’ve been romanticizing the hunter-gatherer:

Why do people in societies with substantially greater life expectancy, reduced infant mortality, greater equality in reproductive success, and reduced rates of violence, romanticize a way of life filled with hardships they have never experienced? In wealthy, industrialized populations oriented around consumerism and occupational status, the idea that there are people out there living free of greed, in natural equality and harmony, provides an attractive alternative way of life. To quote anthropologist David Kaplan, “The original affluent society thesis then may be as much a commentary on our own society as it is a depiction of the life of hunter-gatherers. And that may be its powerful draw and lasting appeal.” One might think that if avarice, status hierarchies, and inequality are peculiarly modern phenomena, then maybe they aren’t part of human nature, and with the right kind of activism, and enough forward-thinking individuals, such problems can be readily solved by changing the culture.

Conversely, to look across human cultures and notice that even the smallest and most ‘egalitarian’ societies are still plagued by problems of violence, sexism, xenophobia, and inequality may be disheartening for many political progressives and anthropologists dedicated to social justice. These problems are not new — in fact they are very old indeed — and they cannot simply be wished away or made to disappear with misleading commentary. But there is a concern that acknowledging the deep roots of many human social ills is to excuse them, or to concede that they can never be mitigated or overcome. This is not only defeatist, it is completely misguided. Recent human history is undeniably a story of enormous progress. If global declines in child mortality, hunger, violence, and poverty, and increases in life expectancy do not represent progress, then the word simply has no meaning.

With a very limited set of clues, smart guys managed to get key facts about European prehistory roughly correct

Monday, December 25th, 2017

Gregory Cochran mocks the inexorable progress of science by contrasting old, outdated archaeology with what followed:

In 1939, archeologists and prehistorians seem to have thought that agriculture was brought to Europe by a gracile Mediterranean people, and was in large part spread by their expansion. They thought that the Corded Ware culture was Indo-European and probably originated in South Russia.


A lot of this stems from Gordon Childe’s work – for example The Aryans, published in 1926. Understand that this was all before carbon dating, and before a tremendous amount of modern archaeological work, including much of the work in the Balkans.

Archaeology took a different path in the 1960s and later. Archaeologists became very uncomfortable with the idea of migration, colonization, conquest, and prehistoric violence. I say this without really understanding its inner nature: I personally am made quite uncomfortable by the thought of dinosaur-killing asteroids or Yellowstone-scale megavolcanoes showing up in my neighborhood, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking that they occurred. I don’t get it.

The low point in acceptance of the reality of prehistoric violence seems to have occurred in the 1970s, according to Lawrence Keeley (War before Civilization). In those days, a log palisade with a 9-foot-deep ditch surrounding a frontier Neolithic village was explained as expressing the “symbolism of exclusion.”

Theories that disallowed migration (let alone conquest) became more and more popular with time. I can find examples of grown human beings suggesting that the Anglo-Saxonization of England need not have required any actual Anglo-Saxon immigrants at all.


With a very limited set of clues, smart guys managed to get key facts about European prehistory roughly correct almost 90 years ago . With tremendously better tools, better methods, vastly more money, more data, etc, archaeologists (most of them) drifted farther and farther from the truth.

Cochran cites Carleton S. Coon’s The Races of Europe, which makes the following points — in 1939:

  1. The Caucasoid race is of dual origin consisting of Upper Paleolithic (mixture of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals) types and Mediterranean (purely Homo sapiens) types.
  2. The Upper Paleolithic peoples are the truly indigenous peoples of Europe.
  3. Mediterraneans invaded Europe in large numbers during the Neolithic and settled there.
  4. The racial situation in Europe today may be explained as a mixture of Upper Paleolithic survivors and Mediterraneans.
  5. When reduced Upper Paleolithic survivors and Mediterraneans mix a process of “dinaricization” occurs which produces a hybrid with non-intermediate features, epitomized by the Dinaric race.
  6. The Caucasoid race extends well beyond Europe into the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, North Africa and the Horn of Africa.
  7. “The Nordic race in the strict sense is merely a pigment phase of the Mediterranean”, created by the combination of Corded and Danubian elements.

Apes and goats and poultry conjoined

Saturday, December 23rd, 2017

Rudyard Kipling’s The Eye of Allah features an artist in a monastery who illuminates his copy of Luke with new devils than the usual “apes and goats and poultry conjoined”:

‘No matter! Now for your own tricks, John,’ the tactful Abbot broke in. ‘You shall show the doctors your Magdalene and your Gadarene Swine and the devils.’

‘Devils? Devils? I have produced devils by means of drugs; and have abolished them by the same means. Whether devils be external to mankind or immanent, I have not yet pronounced.’ Roger of Salerno was still angry.

‘Ye dare not,’ snapped the Friar from Oxford. ‘Mother Church makes Her own devils.’

‘Not wholly! Our John has come back from Spain with brand-new ones.’ Abbot Stephen took the vellum handed to him, and laid it tenderly on the table. They gathered to look. The Magdalene was drawn in palest, almost transparent, grisaille, against a raging, swaying background of woman-faced devils, each broke to and by her special sin, and each, one could see, frenziedly straining against the Power that compelled her.

‘I’ve never seen the like of this grey shadowwork,’ said the Abbot. ‘How came you by it?’

Non nobis! It came to me,’ said John, not knowing he was a generation or so ahead of his time in the use of that medium.

‘Why is she so pale?’ the Friar demanded.

‘Evil has all come out of her—she’d take any colour now.’

‘Ay, like light through glass. I see.’

Roger of Salerno was looking in silence—his nose nearer and nearer the page. ‘It is so,’ he pronounced finally. ‘Thus it is in epilepsy—mouth, eyes, and forehead—even to the droop of her wrist there. Every sign of it! She will need restoratives, that woman, and, afterwards, sleep natural. No poppy juice, or she will vomit on her waking. And thereafter—but I am not in my Schools.’ He drew himself up. ‘Sir,’ said he, ‘you should be of Our calling. For, by the Snakes of Aesculapius, you see!’

The two struck hands as equals.

‘And how think you of the Seven Devils?’ the Abbot went on.

These melted into convoluted flower—or flame-like bodies, ranging in colour from phosphorescent green to the black purple of outworn iniquity, whose hearts could be traced beating through their substance. But, for sign of hope and the sane workings of life, to be regained, the deep border was of conventionalised spring flowers and birds, all crowned by a kingfisher in haste, atilt through a clump of yellow iris.

Roger of Salerno identified the herbs and spoke largely of their virtues.

‘And now, the Gadarene Swine,’ said Stephen. John laid the picture on the table.

Here were devils dishoused, in dread of being abolished to the Void, huddling and hurtling together to force lodgment by every opening into the brute bodies offered. Some of the swine fought the invasion, foaming and jerking; some were surrendering to it, sleepily, as to a luxurious back-scratching; others, wholly possessed, whirled off in bucking droves for the lake beneath. In one corner the freed man stretched out his limbs all restored to his control, and Our Lord, seated, looked at him as questioning what he would make of his deliverance.

‘Devils indeed!’ was the Friar’s comment. ‘But wholly a new sort.’

Some devils were mere lumps, with lobes and protuberances—a hint of a fiend’s face peering through jelly-like walls. And there was a family of impatient, globular devillings who had burst open the belly of their smirking parent, and were revolving desperately toward their prey. Others patterned themselves into rods, chains and ladders, single or conjoined, round the throat and jaws of a shrieking sow, from whose ear emerged the lashing, glassy tail of a devil that had made good his refuge. And there were granulated and conglomerate devils, mixed up with the foam and slaver where the attack was fiercest. Thence the eye carried on to the insanely active backs of the downward-racing swine, the swineherd’s aghast face, and his dog’s terror.

Said Roger of Salerno, ‘I pronounce that these were begotten of drugs. They stand outside the rational mind.’

‘Not these,’ said Thomas the Infirmarian, who as a servant of the Monastery should have asked his Abbot’s leave to speak. ‘Not these—look!—in the bordure.’

The border to the picture was a diaper of irregular but balanced compartments or cellules, where sat, swam, or weltered, devils in blank, so to say—things as yet uninspired by Evil—indifferent, but lawlessly outside imagination. Their shapes resembled, again, ladders, chains, scourges, diamonds, aborted buds, or gravid phosphorescent globes-some well-nigh starlike.

Roger of Salerno compared them to the obsessions of a Churchman’s mind.

‘Malignant?’ the Friar from Oxford questioned.

‘“Count everything unknown for horrible,”’ Roger quoted with scorn.

‘Not I. But they are marvellous—marvellous. I think——’

The Friar drew back. Thomas edged in to see better, and half opened his mouth.

‘Speak,’ said Stephen, who had been watching him. ‘We are all in a sort doctors here.’

‘I would say then’—Thomas rushed at it as one putting out his life’s belief at the stake—‘that these lower shapes in the bordure may not be so much hellish and malignant as models and patterns upon which John has tricked out and embellished his proper devils among the swine above there!’

‘And that would signify?’ said Roger of Salerno sharply.

‘In my poor judgment, that he may have seen such shapes—without help of drugs.’

‘Now who—who,’ said John of Burgos, after a round and unregarded oath, ‘has made thee so wise of a sudden, my Doubter?’

‘I wise? God forbid! Only John, remember—one winter six years ago—the snow-flakes melting on your sleeve at the cookhouse-door. You showed me them through a little crystal, that made small things larger.’

‘Yes. The Moors call such a glass the Eye of Allah,’ John confirmed.

‘You showed me them melting—six-sided. You called them, then, your patterns.’

‘True. Snow-flakes melt six-sided. I have used them for diaper-work often.’

‘Melting snow-flakes as seen through a glass? By art optical?’ the Friar asked.

‘Art optical? I have never heard!’ Roger of Salerno cried.

‘John,’ said the Abbot of St. Illod’s commandingly, ‘was it—is it so?’

‘In some sort,’ John replied, ‘Thomas has the right of it. Those shapes in the bordure were my workshop-patterns for the devils above. In my craft, Salerno, we dare not drug. It kills hand and eye. My shapes are to be seen honestly, in nature.’

The Abbot drew a bowl of rose-water towards him. ‘When I was prisoner with—with the Saracens after Mansura,’ he began, turning up the fold of his long sleeve, ‘there were certain magicians—physicians—who could show—’ he dipped his third finger delicately in the water—‘all the firmament of Hell, as it were, in—’ he shook off one drop from his polished nail on to the polished table—‘even such a supernaculum as this.’

‘But it must be foul water—not clean,’ said John.

‘Show us then—all—all,’ said Stephen. ‘I would make sure—once more.’ The Abbot’s voice was official.

John drew from his bosom a stamped leather box, some six or eight inches long, wherein, bedded on faded velvet, lay what looked like silver-bound compasses of old box-wood, with a screw at the head which opened or closed the legs to minute fractions. The legs terminated, not in points, but spoon-shapedly, one spatula pierced with a metal-lined hole less than a quarter of an inch across, the other with a half-inch hole. Into this latter John, after carefully wiping with a silk rag, slipped a metal cylinder that carried glass or crystal, it seemed, at each end.

‘Ah! Art optic!’ said the Friar. ‘But what is that beneath it?’

It was a small swivelling sheet of polished silver no bigger than a florin, which caught the light and concentrated it on the lesser hole. John adjusted it without the Friar’s proffered help.

‘And now to find a drop of water,’ said he, picking up a small brush.

‘Come to my upper cloister. The sun is on the leads still,’ said the Abbot, rising.

They followed him there. Half-way along, a drip from a gutter had made a greenish puddle in a worn stone. Very carefully, John dropped a drop of it into the smaller hole of the compassleg, and, steadying the apparatus on a coping, worked the screw m the compass joint, screwed the cylinder, and swung the swivel of the mirror till he was satisfied.

‘Good!’ He peered through the thing. ‘My Shapes are all here. Now look, Father! If they do not meet your eye at first, turn this nicked edge here, left- or right-handed.’

‘I have not forgotten,’ said the Abbot, taking his place. ‘Yes! They are here—as they were in my time—my time past. There is no end to them, I was told . . . . There is no end!’

The story, from 1926, qualifies as science fiction, or alternative history, and even ends with a rather Twilight Zone twist. Kipling did quite a bit of research for the story.

Does Vitamin D prevent the flu?

Tuesday, December 19th, 2017

Does Vitamin D prevent the flu?

Influenza (flu) epidemics occur in winter, and rarely if ever in the summer. Vitamin D levels in humans are lowest in the winter, and highest in summer. Is there a connection, and does vitamin D prevent the flu?

Consider the following chart, taken from a paper, Epidemic influenza and vitamin D, which shows the percentage of all cases of type A influenza by latitude and month. Virtually all cases occur in winter and early spring, and none in the summer.

Flu Incidence by Latitude and Season

Next, the seasonal variation in vitamin D blood levels in people aged 50 to 80 in southern Germany.

Vitamin D Blood Levels by Month

There’s a clear correlation between vitamin D and influenza. But is it causal?


An inelegant weapon for a more barbaric age

Friday, December 15th, 2017

A lightsaber would not be an elegant weapon, as any plasma torch able to cut through a blast door like butter would vaporize flesh explosively:

He thanks Matter Beam of Tough SF for running the numbers. His estimate of a light saber’s output was 35 MW, about the same as a nuclear submarine’s reactor.

I found some footage of a modern plasma torch cutting through meat:

Star Trek’s phasers have the same problem as Star Wars’ light sabers, by the way. Vaporizing a human wouldn’t be much more elegant.

Kids love dinosaurs

Wednesday, December 13th, 2017

As a near-universal rule, kids love dinosaurs. Or, as psychologists might say, many children develop an intense interest in dinosaurs:

Researchers don’t know exactly what sparks them — the majority of parents can’t pinpoint the moment or event that kicked off their kids’ interest — but almost a third of all children have one at some point, typically between the ages of 2 and 6 (though for some the interest lasts further into childhood). And while studies have shown that the most common intense interest is vehicles — planes, trains, and cars — the next most popular, by a wide margin, is dinosaurs.


“I hear it over and over” from parents, he says: ‘They know all the names! I don’t know how they remember that stuff.’” But Lacovara does, or at least he has some theories. “I think for many of these children, that’s their first taste of mastery, of being an expert in something and having command of something their parent or coach or doctor doesn’t know,” he says. “It makes them feel powerful. Their parent may be able to name three or four dinosaurs and the kid can name 20, and the kid seems like a real authority.”

Intense interests are a big confidence booster for kids, agrees Kelli Chen, a pediatric psychiatric occupational therapist at Johns Hopkins.

They’re also particularly beneficial for cognitive development. A 2008 study found that sustained intense interests, particularly in a conceptual domain like dinosaurs, can help children develop increased knowledge and persistence, a better attention span, and deeper information-processing skills. In short, they make better learners and smarter kids. There’s decades of research to back that up: Three separate studies have found that older children with intense interests tend to be of above-average intelligence.


And it’s probably not a coincidence that the age range for developing intense interests overlaps with the peak ages of imagination-based play (which is from age 3 through age 5).


In a study published in 2007, researchers who followed up with the parents of 177 kids found that the interests only lasted between six months and three years.

There are a number of reasons kids stop wanting to learn anything and everything about a particular topic, and one of the biggest is, ironically, school. As they enter a traditional educational environment, they’re expected to hit a range of targets in various subjects, which doesn’t leave much room for a specialization.


“Maybe at home the interest was being reinforced, and the positive feedback loop was, ‘Johnny knows that’s a pterodactyl, Johnny’s a genius!’ When you’re getting praise over and over again for having information about a subject, you’re on a runaway train to Dinosaurland,” Chatel says. “But then school begins and the positive feedback loops shift to, ‘Johnny played so well with others, Johnny shared his toys and made a friend.’”

It starts much, much too early for me

Saturday, December 9th, 2017

Studies have shown the benefits of later school starts, but what about really late school starts?

Here we report on the implementation and impact of a 10 a.m. school start time for 13-16-year-old students. A four-year observational study using a before-after-before (A-B-A) design was carried out in an English state-funded high school. School start times were changed from 8:50 a.m. in study year 0, to 10 a.m. in years 1-2, and then back to 8:50 a.m. in year 3. Measures of student health (absence due to illness) and academic performance (national examination results) were used for all students. Implementing a 10 a.m. start saw a decrease in student illness after two years of over 50% (p< .0005 and effect size: Cohen’s d = 1.07), and reverting to an 8:50 a.m. start reversed this improvement, leading to an increase of 30% in student illness (p<.0005 and Cohen’s d = 0.47). The 10:00 a.m. start was associated with a 12% increase in the value-added number of students making good academic progress (in standard national examinations) that was significant (<.0005) and equivalent to 20% of the national benchmark.

My teenage self would be nodding in agreement — as would Brian Setzer:

Hey, man, I don’t feel like goin’ to school no more / Me neither. They can’t make you go. No you daddyo yeah! / I ain’t goin’ to school it starts too early for me / Well listen man I ain’t goin’ to school no more it starts much, much too early for me / I don’t care about readin’, writin’, ‘rithmetic or history

An Amish mutation leads to a long life

Monday, November 27th, 2017

Amish who carried the null SERPINE1 mutation lived about 10 years longer:

That’s a huge increase in lifespan, arguably much greater than almost any single factor we know in humans.

The carriers of the gene mutation produce less PAI-1, which results in a greater tendency for blood clots to break down. Those who are homozygous (-/-) for the mutation have an even greater tendency to break down blood clots, which results in a bleeding disorder. That’s the immediate consequence of less PAI-1.

However, the heterozygous (+/-) carriers had longer telomeres, which is a sign of slower aging. They also had less diabetes risk, a 0% diabetes rate compared to 7% in non-carriers, even though body mass index was the same. And they had better cardiovascular risk markers, including lower blood pressure and lower carotid artery thickness, a measure of atherosclerosis.

Clearly, PAI-1 does a lot to promote aging, and having less of it appears to result in longer life.

Some aspects of prodigy and autism do overlap

Friday, November 24th, 2017

Prodigies aren’t typically autistic, but some aspects of prodigy and autism do overlap:

Prodigies, like many autistic people, have a nearly insatiable passion for their area of interest. Lauren Voiers, an art prodigy from the Cleveland area, painted well into the night as a teenager; sometimes she didn’t sleep at all before school began. That sounds a lot like the “highly restricted, fixated interests” that are part of autism’s diagnostic criteria.

Prodigies also have exceptional working memories. In a 2012 study led by one of us, Dr. Ruthsatz, all eight of the prodigies examined scored in the 99th percentile in this area. As the child physicist Jacob Barnett once put it during an interview on “60 Minutes,” “Every number or math problem I ever hear, I have permanently remembered.” Extreme memory has long been linked to autism as well. Dr. Leo Kanner, one of the scientists credited with identifying autism in the 1940s, noted that the autistic children he saw could recite “an inordinate number of nursery rhymes, prayers, lists of animals, the roster of presidents, the alphabet forward and backward.” A study on talent and autism published in 2015 in The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found that over half of the more than 200 autistic subjects had unusually good memories.

Finally, both prodigies and autistic people have excellent eyes for detail. Simon Baron-Cohen, an autism researcher, and his colleagues have described an excellent eye for detail as “a universal feature of the autistic brain.” It’s one of the categories on the Autism-Spectrum Quotient, a self-administered test Dr. Baron-Cohen helped develop that measures autistic traits. The prodigies in Dr. Ruthsatz’s 2012 study got high marks in this trait on the test. One of the subjects, Jonathan Russell, a 20-year-old music prodigy who lives in New York, described how startled he gets when the chimes on the subway are slightly off key.

Beyond the cognitive similarities, many child prodigies have autistic relatives. In the 2012 study, half of the prodigies had an autistic relative at least as close as a niece or grandparent. Three had received a diagnosis of autism themselves when young, which they seemed to have since grown out of.

There might even be evidence of a genetic link between the conditions. In a 2015 study published in Human Heredity, Dr. Ruthsatz and her colleagues examined the DNA of prodigies and their families. They found that the prodigies and their autistic relatives both seemed to have a genetic mutation or mutations on the short arm of Chromosome 1 that were not shared by their neurotypical relatives. Despite a small sample size (the finding rested on five extended prodigy families), the data was statistically significant.

Engineers at Caltech have created a stable ring of plasma in open air

Saturday, November 18th, 2017

Engineers at Caltech have created a stable ring of plasma in open air using just a stream of water and a crystal plate:

“We were told by some colleagues this wasn’t even possible. But we can create a stable ring and maintain it for as long as we want, no vacuum or magnetic field or anything,” says co-author Francisco Pereira of the Marine Technology Research Institute in Italy, a visiting scholar at Caltech.

The stream of water is an 85-micron-diameter jet blasting from a specially designed nozzle at 9,000 pounds per square inch that strikes the crystal plate with an impact velocity of around 1,000 feet per second. For reference, that’s a stream narrower than a human hair moving about as fast as a bullet fired from a handgun.

Stable Plasma Torus at Caltech

In their study, Gharib and his team experimented with both crystal plates of quartz and lithium niobate, each of which can induce the triboelectric effect—in which an electric charge builds up because of friction with another material. When the jet hits the crystal, the water creates a smooth, laminar flow of positively charged ions across the negatively charged surface. At the shear region, where the stream strikes the surface and flows outward across it, the triboelectric effect triggers a high flow of electrons through the water to its surface. This flow of electrons ionizes the atoms and molecules in the surrounding gas near the surface of the water, creating a donut, or torus, of glowing plasma that is dozens of microns in diameter and visible under a microscope.

Gharib and his team fired the water jet at surfaces of different textures and found that the smoother the surface, the clearer the structure of the plasma ring. The ring is stable, and as long as the water continues to flow, the ring maintains its shape and size.

In addition, engineers working with the plasma noticed that their cell phones encountered high levels of radio frequency noise—static—while they were in the same room as the experiment. It turns out that the plasma ring emits distinct radio frequencies. “That’s never been seen before. We think it’s because of the piezo properties of the materials that we used in our experiments,” Pereira says, referring to the materials’ ability to be electrically polarized through mechanical stress—in this case, the flowing of water.

Consciousness began when the gods stopped speaking

Thursday, November 16th, 2017

Julian Jaynes presented his (in)famous theory of consciousness in his 1970 book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind:

The book sets its sights high from the very first words.  “O, what a world of unseen visions and heard silences, this insubstantial country of the mind!” Jaynes begins. “A secret theater of speechless monologue and prevenient counsel, an invisible mansion of all moods, musings, and mysteries, an infinite resort of disappointments and discoveries.”

To explore the origins of this inner country, Jaynes first presents a masterful precis of what consciousness is not. It is not an innate property of matter. It is not merely the process of learning. It is not, strangely enough, required for a number of rather complex processes. Conscious focus is required to learn to put together puzzles or execute a tennis serve or even play the piano. But after a skill is mastered, it recedes below the horizon into the fuzzy world of the unconscious. Thinking about it makes it harder to do. As Jaynes saw it, a great deal of what is happening to you right now does not seem to be part of your consciousness until your attention is drawn to it. Could you feel the chair pressing against your back a moment ago? Or do you only feel it now, now that you have asked yourself that question?

Consciousness, Jaynes tells readers, in a passage that can be seen as a challenge to future students of philosophy and cognitive science, “is a much smaller part of our mental life than we are conscious of, because we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of.” His illustration of his point is quite wonderful. “It is like asking a flashlight in a dark room to search around for something that does not have any light shining upon it. The flashlight, since there is light in whatever direction it turns, would have to conclude that there is light everywhere. And so consciousness can seem to pervade all mentality when actually it does not.”

Perhaps most striking to Jaynes, though, is that knowledge and even creative epiphanies appear to us without our control. You can tell which water glass is the heavier of a pair without any conscious thought — you just know, once you pick them up. And in the case of problem-solving, creative or otherwise, we give our minds the information we need to work through, but we are helpless to force an answer. Instead it comes to us later, in the shower or on a walk. Jaynes told a neighbor that his theory finally gelled while he was watching ice moving on the St. John River. Something that we are not aware of does the work.

The picture Jaynes paints is that consciousness is only a very thin rime of ice atop a sea of habit, instinct, or some other process that is capable of taking care of much more than we tend to give it credit for. “If our reasonings have been correct,” he writes, “it is perfectly possible that there could have existed a race of men who spoke, judged, reasoned, solved problems, indeed did most of the things that we do, but were not conscious at all.”

Jaynes believes that language needed to exist before what he has defined as consciousness was possible. So he decides to read early texts, including The Iliad and The Odyssey, to look for signs of people who aren’t capable of introspection — people who are all sea, no rime. And he believes he sees that in The Iliad. He writes that the characters in The Iliad do not look inward, and they take no independent initiative. They only do what is suggested by the gods. When something needs to happen, a god appears and speaks. Without these voices, the heroes would stand frozen on the beaches of Troy, like puppets.

Speech was already known to be localized in the left hemisphere, instead of spread out over both hemispheres. Jaynes suggests that the right hemisphere’s lack of language capacity is because it used to be used for something else — specifically, it was the source of admonitory messages funneled to the speech centers on the left side of the brain. These manifested themselves as hallucinations that helped guide humans through situations that required complex responses — decisions of statecraft, for instance, or whether to go on a risky journey.

The combination of instinct and voices — that is, the bicameral mind — would have allowed humans to manage for quite some time, as long as their societies were rigidly hierarchical, Jaynes writes. But about 3,000 years ago, stress from overpopulation, natural disasters, and wars overwhelmed the voices’ rather limited capabilities. At that point, in the breakdown of the bicameral mind, bits and pieces of the conscious mind would have come to awareness, as the voices mostly died away. That led to a more flexible, though more existentially daunting, way of coping with the decisions of everyday life — one better suited to the chaos that ensued when the gods went silent. By The Odyssey, the characters are capable of something like interior thought, he says. The modern mind, with its internal narrative and longing for direction from a higher power, appear.