Learning by Doing

Monday, September 20th, 2010

Mark Frauenfelder asks us to imagine a school where the kids learn by doing projects like these:

clone jellyfish DNA; build gadgets to measure the electrical impulses of cockroach neurons; make robotic blackjack dealers; design machines that can distinguish between glass, plastic, and aluminum beverage containers and sort them into separate bins; and convert gasoline-burning cars to run on electric power.

No such school exists, but the kids who showed up to the recent Maker Faire had done just those things, and learning by doing is a wonderful way to learn:

The ideal educational environment for kids, observes Peter Gray, a professor of psychology at Boston College who studies the way children learn, is one that includes “the opportunity to mess around with objects of all sorts, and to try to build things.” Countless experiments have shown that young children are far more interested in objects they can control than in those they cannot control—a behavioral tendency that persists. In her review of research on project-based learning (a hands-on, experience-based approach to education), Diane McGrath, former editor of the Journal of Computer Science Education, reports that project-based students do as well as (and sometimes better than) traditionally educated students on standardized tests, and that they “learn research skills, understand the subject matter at a deeper level than do their traditional counterparts, and are more deeply engaged in their work.” In The Upside of Irrationality, Dan Ariely, a behavioral psychologist at Duke University, recounts his experiments with students about DIY’s effect on well-being and concludes that creating more of the things we use in daily life measurably increases our “feelings of pride and ownership.” In the long run, it also changes for the better our patterns of thinking and learning.

Unfortunately, says Gray, our schools don’t teach kids how to make things, but instead train them to become scholars, “in the narrowest sense of the word, meaning someone who spends their time reading and writing. Of course, most people are not scholars. We survive by doing things.”

An unexpected twist in cancer metabolism

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

Researchers have found an unexpected twist in cancer metabolism:

Just as trees can be turned into logs to build a new house, or firewood to generate heat, sugar can serve many purposes. In a normal cell, most of the sugar is burned up for energy, with little left over to build anything new. Cancer cells, on the other hand, need building blocks for new cells as well as energy.

“If you have a forest of trees, you can take all the trees and burn them and release a lot of energy, but you haven’t built anything,” says Vander Heiden. “To build a house out of it, you need to save some logs to turn them into lumber.”

Most human cells burn a six-carbon sugar called glucose. Through a long chain of reactions that require oxygen, the cells extract energy from the sugar and store it in molecular energy packets known as ATP. Cells use ATP to power a variety of functions, such as transporting molecules in and out of the cell, contracting muscle fibers and maintaining cell structure.

Glucose metabolism normally occurs in two stages, the first of which is known as glycolysis. It has been known for decades that cancer cells perform gylcolysis only, skipping the second stage, which is where most of the ATP is generated.

Vander Heiden’s new study focuses on glycolysis, traditionally thought to be a linear, nine-step process by which a cell turns one molecule of glucose into two molecules of pyruvate, an organic compound with three carbon atoms. That pyruvate is usually fed into the second phase of glucose metabolism.

“Everyone takes it for granted that this is how it works,” says Vander Heiden, who did this research as a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Harvard Medical School Professor Lewis Cantley, senior author of the paper. But the new study shows that “there is another way it can work, and this other way seems to be at play in proliferating cells.” That could include rapidly dividing embryonic cells as well as cancer cells.

Scientists already knew that cancer cells replace one type of a key metabolic enzyme known as pyruvate kinase with another. Both versions of the enzyme (PKM1 and PKM2) catalyze the very last step of glycolysis, which is the transformation of a compound called PEP to the final product, pyruvate.

In the new study, the researchers found that PEP is involved in a previously unknown feedback loop that bypasses the final step of glycolysis. In cancer cells, PKM2 is not very active, causing PEP to accumulate. That excess PEP activates an enzyme called PGAM, which catalyzes an earlier step in glycolysis. When PGAM receives that extra boost, it produces even more PEP, creating a positive feedback loop in which the more PEP a cell has, the more it makes.

The most important result of this loop is that the cell generates a large pool of another chemical that is formed during an intermediate step of the reaction chain. Vander Heiden believes this compound, called 3-phosphoglycerate, is diverted into synthetic pathways such as the production of DNA, which can become part of a new cancer cell. In future studies, he plans to investigate how that diversion occurs.

Jeffrey Rathmell, associate professor of cancer biology at Duke University Medical Center, says the discovery of this bypass pathway explains the apparent paradox of why cancer cells have an overactive metabolism even though PKM2 is much less active than the normal PKM1 form of the enzyme.

“The thing that astounds me is that these metabolic pathways like glycolysis have been known and understood for decades, and here we are still finding that cancer cells, in particular, have entirely different ways to do them,” says Rathmell, who was not involved with the research.

Battlefield Air Targeting Man-Aided kNowledge

Friday, September 17th, 2010

At Wright Patterson Air Force Base, they’re working to modernize Special Forces soldiers’ equipment — and they’ve dubbed it the Battlefield Air Targeting Man-Aided kNowledge project:

“In the earliest stages when we were coming up with a name for the program, we were perceived as having a lot of gadgets,” said Reggie Daniels, BATMAN program engineer at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. “[Batman's] devices allow him to have an advantage. That is what we’re trying to do.”

Fittingly, the motto of the program is “lighter, smarter, deadlier.”

Regarding the first objective, elite Air Force soldiers often must lug up to 160 pounds (73 kilograms) of equipment during a mission, Daniels said.

This equipment includes communications gear, helmet displays, a headset and a computer, plus a host of batteries to keep all these electronics juiced in the field.

Special ops missions include setting up runways and landing zones as well as retrieving injured people from aircraft down behind enemy lines. “They have a very dangerous job,” said Daniels.

Yet in many cases, Special Forces’ outdated gear has overly burdened them, impeded their time-critical decision-making, or simply not been up to the task at hand, he added.

Before recent battlefield incidents spurred reform, Special Forces “were basically using paper and pencil and calculating [their positions in the field] and they had to hobble equipment together that wasn’t supposed to be together,” said Daniels.

In one particular disaster in Afghanistan, an improperly reinitialized piece of equipment essentially called in an airstrike on the Special Forces’ position, killing a number of troops, said Daniels, though he demurred on the details.

The Department of Defense wanted to ensure that this sort of incident would never happen again, and thus BATMAN was born.

So BATMAN was spawned by a tragic killing.

Anyway, this BATMAN project goes beyond a utility belt to a suite of tools built around the human chassis:

For example, components such as communications antennas have been placed closer to the torso rather than at distances that can tax a soldier’s balance, Daniels said.

A key BATMAN achievement has been reducing the weight of carried batteries by 25 percent. New fuel cells powered by methanol actually get lighter as the methanol is consumed, Daniels said, so instead of toting drained batteries, a soldier’s load decreases over time.

BATMAN has additionally pioneered the use of a small, chest-mounted computer to provide warriors with real-time logistical and tactical information.

The bat hook does seem cool:

Other technologies brought to bear in the BATMAN initiative include a device that soldiers throw over low-voltage, overhead power lines to draw electricity.

“The time spent by [Special Forces] in the field is limited by how long their batteries last,” said Dave Coates, lead test engineer at Ohio-based Defense Research Associates (DRA). “When those batteries die, they’ve got to come back in.”

The DRA-developed device, the Remote Auxiliary Power System – though better known as the Bat Hook – was similarly inspired by the Dark Knight.

A Special Forces soldier working with DRA said, “‘You know what would be really cool?’” recalled Coates. “‘Something like what Batman has on his belt that he can take out and wing it up to a power line and get power.’”

The black, stereo remote-size Bat Hook has a notch that catches onto a power line and then a tiny razor cuts into the wire’s insulation. The Bat Hook slurps down energy into its cable’s housing, where the alternating current is converted into the direct current fed into electronics. Coates said he weighted the device such that it easily pops off a wire as well once charging is done.

We’re Sorry

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

We’re sorry, (some) white South Africans say:

(Via Alternative Right.)

Who’s the establishment now?

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

Who’s the establishment now?, Matt Ridley asks:

Walter Russell Mead has a powerful essay in the American Interest online about how the environmental movement suddenly turned into the establishment. Have you noticed the irony of being told to shut up and trust the experts by the likes of Greenpeace? Nothing is quite so amusing about the modern environmental movement as its sudden volte-face on the argument from authority: from `don’t believe the experts’ to `do as you are told’.

I suppose one should not be surprised. Every movement, from Christianity to Bolshevism, had the same transformation. How the church went from being a radical insurgent organization that gave a voice to the poor to one that insisted on papal infallibility without a backward glance always struck me as entertaining.


Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

Nicole Gelinas explains that Europe might have been better off if its nations had continued to compete on currency:

The euro, which debuted in 1999, was the triumph of half a century’s worth of economic and political reconstruction. Its champions, chief among them postwar French and German leaders, hoped that the single currency would fuse the Continent in trade and travel. The euro would encourage greater investment in Europe because investors wouldn’t worry about currency risk. It would give weaker European nations something to aspire to — if they could cut their deficits, they could join the currency and attract more tourism and investment. Further, the euro would give stability to savers, who wouldn’t have to worry about their countries’ turning to inflation in a crisis and destroying the value of their savings. And the euro could compete with the dollar as a world currency.

These goals are admirable, but the common currency may do more to thwart than achieve them. Even cross-border travel, one of the euro’s big success stories, likely could have thrived without the common currency. Europe’s rail investments and deregulatory unleashing of competitive, low-budget airlines have probably done more for international travel than the euro has. Airport and railway-station ATMs put cash in travelers’ hands within minutes. People can use credit cards for almost any purchase now. It’s true that in a state of currency competition, European travelers would have needed to pay exchange fees on withdrawals and credit-card transactions; but competition would have brought banks and money brokers more customers — in addition to the people from England, America, and Asia who already use these services in Europe — and hence caused more jockeying on price, especially with European antitrust hawks watching. So, too, could trade and investment have surged with competing currencies — perhaps more productively than under the euro.

The biggest problem with the euro’s first decade, in fact, is that it did encourage cross-border investment — much of it unproductive. Banks and other investors lent too much, too cheaply, to Greek, Spanish, Italian, Irish, and Portuguese borrowers. Lenders figured correctly that France and Germany would never let a euro member default. Greece used borrowed funds to maintain an impossible system of labor and taxation, while in Spain and Ireland, the debt fueled property and financial-services bubbles, respectively.

Without the euro to protect them, each country would have had to compete for investor capital. Instead of proving to European bureaucrats that they could reform labor and control public spending, each national government would have had to convince investors — perhaps a more skeptical audience — that it would be fiscally responsible and encourage economic growth. Financial institutions, increasingly adept at helping investors hedge against currency risk, could have kept an eye on deficits, too.

UPS [Hearts] Logistics

Monday, September 13th, 2010

UPS is replacing “What can Brown do for you?” with “We [Heart] Logistics”:

Conceived by Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, a unit of WPP PLC, the campaign aims to educate businesses that logistics done well can be a competitive advantage, Mr. Davis said.

The TV ads feature a new UPS jingle set to the tune of the Dean Martin classic “That’s Amore,” sung in Mandarin, Spanish and English with lyrics such as, “When it’s planes in the sky, for a chain of supply, that’s logistics,” and “There will be no more stress, ’cause you’ve called UPS, that’s logistics.”

The campaign reflects the company’s shift, since going public in 1999, from simply shipping parcels:

Supply Chain and Freight, the UPS logistics unit started after the company went public, is the company’s third-largest unit.

The division brought in 16% of total UPS revenue of $45.3 billion in 2009, up from 7% of total revenue in 2004. The unit is growing faster than UPS’s largest unit by far, its domestic package-delivery business.

Profit margins in the logistics segment have “improved pretty dramatically,” Mr. Davis said. The past decade was “a time of adding capabilities,” he said.

Since going public, UPS has bought more than 40 logistics companies whose specialties range from distributing medicine to clearing international borders.

Good Food, Good Weapons, and Good Explosives

Monday, September 13th, 2010

Two Newsweek reporters interview a 16-year-old, trained as a suicide bomber for Al Qaeda — and it sounds like something straight from the War Nerd:

But Hanif thinks back happily on his own training. “They provided good food, good weapons, and explosive devices,” he says. “Everything you needed to be a powerful jihadi was available.” There were generators to provide electricity, and the recruits relaxed at the end of the day by watching jihadi videos on their laptops.

Wild chimps outwit human hunters

Monday, September 13th, 2010

Chimps in in Bossou, Guinea have learned to disarm the snares set by local hunters to catch them as bush meat:

“They seemed to know which parts of the snares are dangerous and which are not,” Mr Ohashi told the BBC.

In the journal Primates, the researchers describe six separate cases where chimps were observed trying to deactivate snares.

Mostly, the chimps grasped the snare stick with their hands, shaking it violently until the trap broke.
Sometimes a chimp lightly knocked the sapling that holds the snare, before grasping it to break the trap.
But in all cases, they avoided touching the dangerous part, the wire loop.

This is not the kind of thing a chimp could learn by trial and error.

India’s Hidden War

Monday, September 13th, 2010

Jason Miklian and Scott Carney report on India’s hidden war in its dirt-poor hinterlands:

The richest iron mine in India was guarded by 16 men, armed with Army-issued, self-loading rifles and dressed in camouflage fatigues. Only eight survived the night of Feb. 9, 2006, when a crack team of Maoist insurgents cut the power to the Bailadila mining complex and slipped out of the jungle cover in the moonlight. The guerrillas opened fire on the guards with automatic weapons, overrunning them before they had time to take up defensive positions. They didn’t have a chance: The remote outpost was an hour’s drive from the nearest major city, and the firefight to defend it only lasted a few minutes.

The guards were protecting not only $80 billion-plus worth of mineral deposits, but also the mine’s explosives magazine, which held the ammonium nitrate the miners used to pulverize mountainsides and loosen the iron ore. When the fighting was over and the surviving guards rounded up and gagged, about 2,000 villagers who had been hiding behind the commando vanguard clambered over the fence into the compound and began emptying the magazine. Altogether they carried out 20 tons of explosives on their backs — enough firepower to fuel a covert insurgency for a decade.

Four and a half years after the attack in the remote Indian state of Chhattisgarh, the blasting materials have spread across the country, repackaged as 10-pound coffee-can bombs stuffed with ball bearings, screws, and chopped-up rebar. In May, one villager’s haul vaporized a bus filled with civilians and police. Another destroyed a section of railway later that month, sending a passenger train careening off the tracks into a ravine. Smaller ambushes of police forces on booby-trapped roads happen pretty much every week. Almost all of it, local police told us, can be traced back to that February night.

The Bailadila mine raid was one of India’s most profound strategic losses in the country’s protracted battle against its Maoist movement, a militant guerrilla force that has been fighting in one incarnation or another in India’s rural backwaters for more than 40 years. Over the course of the half-dozen visits we’ve made to the region during the past several years, we’ve come to consider the attack on the mine not just one defeat in the long-running war, but a symbolic shift in the conflict: For years, the Maoists had lived in the shadow of India’s breakneck modernization. Now they were thriving off it.

Only a decade ago, the rebels — often, though somewhat inaccurately, called Naxalites after their guerrilla predecessors who first launched the rebellion in the West Bengal village of Naxalbari in 1967 — seemed to have all but vanished. Their cause of communist revolution looked hopelessly outdated, their ranks depleted. In the years since, however, the Maoists have made an improbable comeback, rooted in the gritty mining country on which India’s economic boom relies. A new generation of fighters has retooled the Naxalites’ mishmash of Marx, Lenin, and Mao for the 21st century, rebranding their group as the Communist Party of India (Maoist) and railing against what the rebels’ spokesman described to us as the “evil consequences by the policies of liberalization, privatization, and globalization.”

Although it has gotten little attention outside South Asia, for India this is no longer an isolated outbreak of rural unrest, but a full-fledged guerrilla war. Over the past 10 years, some 10,000 people have died and 150,000 more have been driven permanently from their homes by the fighting. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told a high-level meeting of state ministers not long after the Bailadila raid that the Maoists are “the single greatest threat to the country’s internal security,” and in 2009 he launched a military surge dubbed “Operation Green Hunt”: a deployment of almost 100,000 new paramilitary troops and police to contain the estimated 7,000 rebels and their 20,000-plus — according to our research — part-time supporters. Newspapers run stories almost daily about “successful operations” in which police string up the bodies of suspected militants on bamboo poles and lay out their captured caches of arms and ammunition. Many of the dead are civilians, and the harsh tactics have polarized the country.

Highest-Paid Athlete Hailed From Ancient Rome

Sunday, September 12th, 2010

Our modern sports superstars make a tremendous amount of money, but the highest-paid athlete of all time may have been a Roman charioteer:

According to Peter Struck, associate professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania, an illiterate charioteer named Gaius Appuleius Diocles earned “the staggering sum” of 35,863,120 sesterces (ancient Roman coins) in prize money.
Diocles, “the most eminent of all charioteers,” according to the inscription, was born in Lusitania, in what is now Portugal and south-west Spain, and started his spectacular career in 122 A.D., when he was 18.
Diocles won his first race two years after his debut with the Whites, four years later, he briefly moved with the great rivals the Greens. But had the most success with the Reds, with whom he remained until the end of his career at the age of “42 years, 7 months, and 23 days.”

He is said to have won 1,462 of his 4,257 races and finished second 861 times, making nine horse “centenari” (100-time winners) and one horse, Pompeianus, a 200-time winner.

The inscription details his winning tactics: he “took the lead and won 815 times,” took the competitors by surprise by “coming from behind and winning 67 times,” and “won in stretch 36 times.”

Although other racers surpassed him in the total number of victories — a driver called Pompeius Musclosus collected 3,599 winnings — Diocles became the richest of all, as he run and won at big money events. For example, he is recorded to have made 1,450,000 sesterces in just 29 victories.

Struck calculated that Diocles’ s total earnings of 35,863,120 sesterces were enough to provide grain for the entire population of Rome for one year, or to fund the Roman Army at its height for more than two months.

“By today’s standards that last figure, assuming the apt comparison is what it takes to pay the wages of the American armed forces for the same period, would cash out to about $15 billion,” wrote Struck.

That last comparison strikes me as far from apt. One sestertius had the purchasing power of roughly $1.50, making Diocles’s total earnings closer to $54 million — not bad, but he still couldn’t buy an Escalade, a flat-screen TV, or a copy of Scarface on Blu-ray.

Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits

Saturday, September 11th, 2010

Some of the most hallowed advice on study habits is flat wrong, Benedict Carey reports:

For instance, many study skills courses insist that students find a specific place, a study room or a quiet corner of the library, to take their work. The research finds just the opposite. In one classic 1978 experiment, psychologists found that college students who studied a list of 40 vocabulary words in two different rooms — one windowless and cluttered, the other modern, with a view on a courtyard — did far better on a test than students who studied the words twice, in the same room. Later studies have confirmed the finding, for a variety of topics.

Mixing it up improves learning:

Varying the type of material studied in a single sitting — alternating, for example, among vocabulary, reading and speaking in a new language — seems to leave a deeper impression on the brain than does concentrating on just one skill at a time.
The advantages of this approach to studying can be striking, in some topic areas. In a study recently posted online by the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, Doug Rohrer and Kelli Taylor of the University of South Florida taught a group of fourth graders four equations, each to calculate a different dimension of a prism. Half of the children learned by studying repeated examples of one equation, say, calculating the number of prism faces when given the number of sides at the base, then moving on to the next type of calculation, studying repeated examples of that. The other half studied mixed problem sets, which included examples all four types of calculations grouped together. Both groups solved sample problems along the way, as they studied.A day later, the researchers gave all of the students a test on the material, presenting new problems of the same type. The children who had studied mixed sets did twice as well as the others, outscoring them 77 percent to 38 percent. The researchers have found the same in experiments involving adults and younger children.

“When students see a list of problems, all of the same kind, they know the strategy to use before they even read the problem,” said Dr. Rohrer. “That’s like riding a bike with training wheels.” With mixed practice, he added, “each problem is different from the last one, which means kids must learn how to choose the appropriate procedure — just like they had to do on the test.”

Studying frequently, not for a long time, is the key:

When the neural suitcase is packed carefully and gradually, it holds its contents for far, far longer. An hour of study tonight, an hour on the weekend, another session a week from now: such so-called spacing improves later recall, without requiring students to put in more overall study effort or pay more attention, dozens of studies have found.
In one of his own experiments, Dr. Roediger and Jeffrey Karpicke, also of Washington University, had college students study science passages from a reading comprehension test, in short study periods. When students studied the same material twice, in back-to-back sessions, they did very well on a test given immediately afterward, then began to forget the material.But if they studied the passage just once and did a practice test in the second session, they did very well on one test two days later, and another given a week later.

The Genteel Nation

Friday, September 10th, 2010

David Brooks argues that, like the UK, the US has shifted from a practical, industrial nation to a more genteel nation — with consequences:

The shift is evident at all levels of society. First, the elites. America’s brightest minds have been abandoning industry and technical enterprise in favor of more prestigious but less productive fields like law, finance, consulting and nonprofit activism.

It would be embarrassing or at least countercultural for an Ivy League grad to go to Akron and work for a small manufacturing company. By contrast, in 2007, 58 percent of male Harvard graduates and 43 percent of female graduates went into finance and consulting.

The shift away from commercial values has been expressed well by Michelle Obama in a series of speeches. “Don’t go into corporate America,” she told a group of women in Ohio. “You know, become teachers. Work for the community. Be social workers. Be a nurse. … Make that choice, as we did, to move out of the money-making industry into the helping industry.” As talented people adopt those priorities, America may become more humane, but it will be less prosperous.

Then there’s the middle class. The emergence of a service economy created a large population of junior and midlevel office workers. These white-collar workers absorbed their lifestyle standards from the Huxtable family of “The Cosby Show,” not the Kramden family of “The Honeymooners.” As these information workers tried to build lifestyles that fit their station, consumption and debt levels soared. The trade deficit exploded. The economy adjusted to meet their demand — underinvesting in manufacturing and tradable goods and overinvesting in retail and housing.

These office workers did not want their children regressing back to the working class, so you saw an explosion of communications majors and a shortage of high-skill technical workers. One of the perversities of this recession is that as the unemployment rate has risen, the job vacancy rate has risen, too. Manufacturing firms can’t find skilled machinists. Narayana Kocherlakota of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank calculates that if we had a normal match between the skills workers possess and the skills employers require, then the unemployment rate would be 6.5 percent, not 9.6 percent.

Goat Farming

Friday, September 10th, 2010

There are 300,000 Muslims in the DC area, making goat farming a growth industry:

Your Pants are Lying to You

Friday, September 10th, 2010

Small, medium, and large are subjective, and women’s numerical-yet-not-quantitative sizes aren’t much better, but it’s a bit of a shock to learn that your pants are lying to you even if they list a size in inches: