Pencil revolution

Here is the best website about pencils. The Atlantic's Rebecca J. Rosen sings its praises:

So, the obvious question is, why pencils? What is it about pencils that merit this sort of attention, this level of devotion? Johnny Gamber, the site's creator and leader, answered that for me over email. What draws him to pencils are "their relative simplicity." But, at that same time, that simplicity obscures an object that, as Gamber sees it, is "amazing," if you just look closely enough. "While mostly made of wood, graphite and clay, they are wonders of engineering," he writes. "Even terrible pencils are made with astounding precision.

Yes, of course, the author loves our house instrument, the Blackwing 602.

How to: Instantly turn water into snow

Chalk this up under "Blogs You Ought to be Following". The Tumblr Fuck Yeah Fluid Dynamics is a great place to find succinct, clear explanations of the forces that make things flow. In particular, they're fantastic at posting explanations behind things you see in YouTube videos, both viral and obscure.

The video above — in which a nice Siberian guy tosses boiling water off his balcony and creates a cloud of snow — has been making the rounds recently. Here's how Fuck Yeah Fluid Dynamics explains it:

Several effects are going on here. The first thing to understand is how heat is transferred between objects or fluids of differing temperatures. The rate at which heat is transferred depends on the temperature difference between the air and the water; the larger that temperature difference is the faster heat is transferred. However, as that temperature difference decreases, so does the rate of heat transfer. So even though hot water will initially lose heat very quickly to its surroundings, water that is initially cold will still reach equilibrium with the cold air faster. Therefore, all things being equal, hot water does not freeze faster than cold water, as one might suspect from the video.

The key to the hot water’s fast-freeze here is not just the large temperature difference, though. It’s the fact that the water is being tossed ...

Read the rest

A useful blog for people interested in alternative medicine

Until 2011, Dr. Edzard Ernst was the head of one of the few university departments doing real, unbiased research on the effectiveness and safety of alternative medicine techniques. That's important, because you can't just dismiss weird-sounding stuff out of hand, but you also want somebody other than the practitioners of that weird-sounding stuff conducting research and analyzing the data. Now retired, Ernst recently started blogging, and I wanted to point you to his new home on the Internet. He can be a bit snarky and caustic (especially with chiropractic and homeopathy). But in general he's a fair, reasonable, and knowledgeable source on what works and what doesn't. Definitely worth a bookmark.

Mote and Beam

Joel Johnson, formerly the gadgets man at this august institution, has himself a new blog: Mote and Beam. This one, unlike the others, is about whatever the hell he likes! Right now, this is Virtual Reality. Early highlights:

Six possibly useful observations about the successful Oculus Rift Kickstarter
Grove iPhone 5 case: When a better product makes one nostalgic for an older product more given to decay
Why I think the most compelling piece of VR software might be Writeroom.

Gamers are going to push VR forward in the near term. (And projects like the Oculus Rift are certainly game-centric, by dint of the first software available alone.) But one of the most compelling things about VR for me–the thing I think will take VR from a niche within video gaming and into a, well, larger niche within computing at large–is the notion of using VR headsets for productivity.

The Open Laboratory: Best Science Writing on the Web 2012

Last week, I mentioned The Open Laboratory—an annual anthology of the best science writing on the Internet. Now the 2012 edition is available for pre-order. This is a great place to start if you want to expand your science RSS feed, discover trustworthy sources of science news, and learn lots of interesting stuff in a format perfect for reading on the bus or train. Bonus: A couple of BoingBoing posts made it into this edition!

A doctor reviews the science of "House"

Earlier this week at The Conference on World Affairs, I watched a panel about science in the movies. During the panel, physicist and science writer Sidney Perkowitz said that, out of all the people writing about science and medicine in Hollywood, the writers of House are some of the people who care the most about accuracy.

After I tweeted that, reader Jay Rishel pointed me toward Polite Dissent, a blog written by a doctor that periodically reviews the medical science presented on episodes of House.

It's a nice reminder that even the writers who care the most about getting science right, don't always succeed. That said, I am pretty impressed that, for the most part, the complaints the doctor-blogger has are usually closer to the nit-pick end of the spectrum. For a show that is so densely packed with medical information, that's pretty good. Some of the complaints about Season 2, Episode 1:

I’m surprised the inmate didn’t have a severely elevated blood pressure with the pheochromocytoma, and I’m equally surprised that his abdominal surgery went so well since pressure on the abdomen is enough to cause the tumor to release a large amount of adrenalin. This sends the blood pressure rocketing dangerously high.

The patient got over his respiratory depression remarkably quickly — one minute he’s sick enough to require intubation, and the rest of the time he’s fine. (And why wasn’t the endotracheal tube taped in place?)

It takes a great deal more alcohol than a few shots to clear that much methanol from the body, and that’s why IV ethanol is generally used.

Check out all of Polite Dissent's House-related posts.

Via Jay Rishel

Roboheart

A new tech/art blog with a beautiful minimal layout and custom pixel-art illustrations for nearly every post. [via Submitterator]

Science helps old mice age gracefully

There was some interesting research out of the Mayo Clinic announced this week. The study focused on a new method to combat aging, though not, significantly, one that could extend life. Instead of living forever, Darren Baker and colleagues would just like to help people enjoy the time they do have—by reducing the physical downsides of aging, such as lost muscle and stiff joints.

Their method centers around something called senescent cells, normal cells that have basically shut down all growth, but continue to release chemicals into the body. Some scientists have suspected this process of cellular senescence contributes to the negative physical effects of aging and Baker's team was able to provide some big support for that theory. They killed senescent cells in the bodies of fast-aging mice. Those mice went on to age more gracefully, delaying the physical breakdown of their bodies. Ed Yong explains:

Baker exploited the fact that many senescent cells rely on a protein called p16-Ink4a. He created a genetic circuit that reacts to the presence of p16-Ink4a by manufacturing an executioner: a protein called caspase-8 that kills its host cell. Caspase-8 is like a pair of scissors – it comes in two halves that only work when they unite. Baker could link the two halves together using a specific drug. By sneaking the drug into a mouse’s food, he activated the executioners, which only killed off the cells that have lots of p16-Ink4a. Only the senescent ones get the chop.

Baker tested out this system in a special strain of genetically engineered mice that age very quickly. It worked. The senescent cells disappeared, and that substantially delayed the onset of muscle loss, cataracts, and fat loss. Typically, around half of these mice show signs of muscle loss by five months of age. Without their senescent cells, only a quarter of them showed the same signs at ten months. Their muscle fibres were larger, and they ran further on treadmills. Even old mice, whose bodies had started to decline, showed improvements.

It really should go without saying that there's a big jump between getting something to work in mice and getting it to work in people. So do not expect your doctor to be able to kill off your senescent cells anytime soon, if ever. There's also potential risks to this therapy and a lot we don't yet know about it. Will this work as well in mice that age at a normal rate? Will killing senescent cells allow us to delay or eliminate other signs of aging, or just muscle loss and cataracts? If you kill of senescent cells, will damaged cells continue to grow, producing cancer?

When you're thinking about a study like this, it's probably best to treat it as an interesting discovery about the way mammal biology might work, rather than something that has any immediate practical medical applications for humans. From that perspective, this is pretty cool science.

Bonus fun: Read Ed Yong's write-up of the study. Then read this version written by a reporter at the New York Times. Then think about how much you would have misunderstood about this study if you'd only read the New York Times story.

Thanks Doug!

Image: The Apple Mouse, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from moparx's photostream

Inn at the Crossroads: A "Game of Thrones" cooking blog

I've long been a big fan of modern attempts to cook medieval cuisine (see: Medievalcookery.com, University of Chicago Press' The Medieval Kitchen, and all the various scanned, historic cookbooks available through Wikipedia). There's something about the cultural anthropology of food that just really appeals to me. Plus, I love the way historic cookbooks assume you know how to do then-basic parts of household labor and will start a recipe with instructions like, "First, butcher and dress a pig." Oh, okay. Sure.

The Inn at the Crossroads blog combines the geeky joy I get from medieval cooking with the geeky joy I get from George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. The results: A brilliant collection of recipes for dishes mentioned in all five of Martin's novels, many developed using medieval cookbooks and techniques.

In a way, this blog is almost inevitable. I haven't read a series of books this obsessed with the food its characters eat since Little House on the Prairie. Unlike Laura Ingalls Wilder, however, George R. R. Martin doesn't provide much instruction in how to make that food. So bloggers Sariann and Chelsea should get serious props for reverse-engineering recipes for everything from medieval pork pie , to marinated goat with honey, to honey-spiced "locusts" (actually crickets). This is one of those food blogs that's totally worth gawking over, even if you never plan on cooking the recipes.

Thank you, Laci Balfour!