Science fiction writer and biologist Peter Watts gave a spectacular talk to the Symposium of the International Association of Privacy Professional, called The Scorched Earth Society: A Suicide Bomber's Guide to Online Privacy (PDF); Watts draws on his two disciplines to produce a stirring, darkly comic picture of the psychological toll of the surveillance society.
Watts is the writer who was beaten, maced, and convicted of a felony for asking a US border guard why he'd walked up behind his rental car and opened his trunk without any discussion or notice. His take on surveillance and its relationship to control, authoritarianism and corruption is both sharp-edged and nuanced. And his proposal for a remedy is provocative and difficult to argue with. I only wish I'd been in the room to give the talk, as he's a remarkable and acerbic storyteller.
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"The Oldest Living Things in the World
is an amazing hybrid," says Carla Sinclair
, "part traditional coffee table book displaying gorgeous photographs, and part memoir of Rachel Sussman’s journey trekking around the world to photograph the oldest living things that she could find."Read the rest
A comb jelly (University of Florida).
A scientist in Florida who studies simple sea animals known as comb jellies says he has discovered a path to a new form of brain development that may one day lead to treatments for Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases.
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More gorgeous pancakes from Nathan "Saipancakes" Shields: this week, it's cephalopod flapjacks. Dig that chambered nautilus!
Wagner James Au writes, "Openworm, the open source collaborative project to construct an artificial life form from the cellular level, now has a Kickstarter so supporters can back the project and also get a copy of the worm itself, Wormsim, to put on their browser and even tweak the code. Here's some background from the project coordinator, who I also ask if this Kickstarter is, you know, contributing to the ultimate creation of a completely artificial sentient life form that will turn against humankind and enslave our children.
They're mostly raising money for core engineering, with the balance going to administration and educational outreach. The code is all MIT-licensed free/open source software.
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] The Final Member
"follows the aging curator of one of the world's only penis museum as he races against his own mortality to complete his comprehensive collection." He needs a human penis.
Stanford bioengineer Manu Prakash devised a pretty amazing paper microscope that uses cheap tiny spherical lenses. The "Foldoscope" costs around 50 cents.
“I wanted to make the best possible disease-detection instrument that we could almost distribute for free,” Prakash says. “What came out of this project is what we call use-and-throw microscopy.”
"Stanford bioengineer develops a 50-cent paper microscope"
In Evolutionary origins of sensation in metazoans: functional evidence for a new sensory organ in sponges, Danielle A Ludeman and her team at the University of Alberta document the heretofore unsuspected phenomenon of sneezing in freshwater sponges. When these sponges are stimulated with damaging sediment, they close their chimneys and inflate themselves to bursting, then abruptly "sneeze" out the irritants -- a process that unfolds very slowly (documented above in timelapse). I found out about this thanks to a fascinating interview (MP3) with the researcher on CBC Radio's As It Happens.
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Say dragons did exist. In that alternate universe, how would they breathe fire? (Where the answer is not "magic".) Kyle Hill has a nice explanation for how real-life fire breath might work
, and how it could have evolved over time. (Although, slight spoiler, Hill's idea won't be terribly surprising to those of us raised on Ken Hamm Creationism videos.)
An educational video for you, from Japan. [Video Link
. Thanks, Heather!
Because puppies are filled with love ... and also hydrogen sulfide
This video was made by the University of Utah Brain Institute to teach medical students about what a brain looks and feels like before it gets preserved in formalin and takes on the texture of a hard rubber ball.
The big takeaway message: Your brain is seriously squishy. So squishy, in fact, that a finger can dent it. As professor Suzanne Stensaas explains, this is one of the reasons why cerebrospinal fluid is so important. Your brain has to float in that fluid. If it didn't, it would come to rest against the side of your hard skull and quickly end up deformed.
Seriously, this is a fascinating (if extremely graphic) video. (Hilariously, given that fact, it opens with an image of a student eating.) Definitely worth watching!
After you spent all that time in grade school conditioning yourself to know that snakes stick out their tongues in order to smell
things, it turns out that those tricksy animals were also tasting with their tongues
, all along.
Can you properly distinguish between a male and female crocodile? This research paper, published in 2007, will help — pointing out the sometimes subtle differences between external genitalia. It's chock full of pictures of erect crocodile penises, so you'll learn what those look like, but what particularly interested me was the diagram above.
Cloacas are sort of multi-purpose orifices found in certain species of birds and reptiles. Instead of having separate biological tools for poop, pee, and sex, these animals manage all three functions with the same hole. Males also have cloacas and will either have a penis or pseudo-penis that comes out of it for mating. I've known this for a long time, but had a lot of trouble picturing how all of that anatomy fits together. This diagram (Figure 4 in the paper) is the first image that made the internal structure of cloacas really make sense to me. The more you know!
Earlier this week, Republican representative Devin Nunes referred to his colleagues in the US House of Representatives as "lemmings with suicide vests". I would like to propose that this characterization is vastly unfair. To the lemmings.
That's because real lemmings, such as the adorable little creature pictured above, aren't actually suicidal. If anything, their problem is that they're just too damn horny. [Insert new political analogy here.]
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Fun fact you might not be aware of if you are not the owner of a uterus: Periods go hand-in-hand with pooping
. Not every person who gets a period will end up with diarrhea, but it's not uncommon because the same hormone that makes a uterus contract (a necessary step in the whole period process) can also end up making your intestines contract. Francie Diep explains this effect — as well as the other
hormone-related reason why periods and poops can be linked.
First, neither the authors of the paper, nor the journal its published in, have the best track record for careful work, well-documented research, or non-hyperbolic results. More important, the actual paper, itself, makes claims it can't back up
. Case in point, says Phil Plait, the alien in question is a particle the authors assume is part of a diatom — a single-celled plant. The paper actually says "assume", and, from the sounds of things, they haven't even checked out that basic, important idea with a diatom expert.