Fall Olympics / The Slushy Games

Warm weather at the Winter Olympics played a major part in the $51 billion extravaganza. Greg Laden calls the Sochi games more of a “Fall Olympics” as competitors bit the slush on the slopes and the half pipe. At the Extreme Park, casualties among women outnumbered casualties among men by nearly 3 to 1. Why the gender imbalance? Greg wonders if the men’s and women’s courses are not suitably dimorphic, or if better training would make a difference. On The Pump Handle, Celeste Monforton takes the panoptic view with the official Olympic injury and illness surveillance system. During the last winter games, in Vancouver, 11.2% of all athletes were injured, 7.1% got sick, and a single person was killed. In Vancouver, as in Sochi, women were injured at a significantly higher rate than men. Is it possible to reduce the injury rate for women? And can the IOC predict a suitable venue for winter sports as Arctic air becomes increasingly motile?

Advertisements

Last Week on ResearchBlogging.org

Researchers observed tiny voids forming in silicon used for solar panels; these voids provide physical evidence of the Staebler-Wronski effect, “which reduces the solar cell efficiency by up to 15 percent within the first 1000 hours.”

Using an online avatar with a skin color other than your own makes you less racist in real life; playing a hero makes you less cruel, and playing a villain less benevolent.

Old mouse muscles exhibit “elevated levels of activity in a biological cascade called the p38 MAP kinase pathway” which prevents stem cells from dividing and repairing muscle damage.  By blocking this pathway with a drug, researchers grew a new generation of potent stem cells in a petri dish and transplanted them back into old mice.  “Two months after transplantation, these muscles exhibited forces equivalent to young, uninjured muscles.”

Continuing its exhaustive penetration into the ecosphere, plastic has been observed built into the hives of urban bees.  The researcher notes, “although cells made with plastic may not hold together as well—and might have other, unseen effects on developing bees—they could have advantages too” such as keeping parasites away from eggs.

A protein normally necessary to shut down inflammation is undetectable in triple-negative breast cancer cells.  Without the protein, these cells can proliferate rapidly, but a new drug treatment can prevent the protein degradation.

Boys playing football is not the only recipe for head trauma: girls playing soccer are also at risk.  A total of 351 players were observed for one full season, and cumulatively suffered 59 concussions, mostly from player-to-player contact, heading the ball, and goal-tending.

A study surveying “leaky valves and pipes in the rapidly growing natural gas industry” observed 50% more methane leakage than expected, but the extra atmospheric contribution still causes less global warming than coal.

An isopod that infects California fish is the only known parasite to functionally replace a host’s organ.  The bug latches on to a fish’s tongue and sucks out the blood, causing it to atrophy.  After latching on to the diminished tongue it settles in for a life of “holding food up against the small teeth on the roof of the fish’s mouth” while also getting first dibs on all that fish food.

In the courtroom, weak evidence is strengthened by arbitrary precision.  Precision (along with body language) communicates confidence, which makes people “more likely to believe what you are saying.”

Engineered viruses can deliver instructions for making crucial growth factors to stem cells; when seeded onto a polymer scaffold incorporating the viruses, stem cells can achieve self-sufficient growth and replace the scaffold with (for example) a tailored piece of cartilage.

Alternatively, we could soon be able to print a piece of cartilage: researchers have “successfully printed two types of rat neural cells from the retina” through a piezoelectric inkjet printer without killing or sterilizing the cells.

Why oil spills are bad for fish: crude oil interrupts a cellular pathway “that allows fish heart cells to beat effectively,” causing “slowed heart rate, reduced cardiac contractility and irregular heartbeats that can lead to cardiac arrest and sudden cardiac death.”

Following a stroke, exercise confers a 91% reduction in mortality risk, versus anticoagulants and antiplatelet therapy, which showed no statistically significant benefit.

Silicon nanoparticles packed into a carbon shell like seeds in a pomegranate (so as to prevent silicon degradation) may power a new generation of hyper-efficient lithium-ion batteries.

New fuel cell design can convert any biomass into electricity with a little help from sunlight or waste heat.

When responding to “virtual customer service agents,” people showed equal social engagement with human images and animated helpers.  The VCSAs were regarded as most helpful when they seemed most social.

Like mercury, ionic silver can build up in ocean-dwelling organisms.  In algae cells, silver stows away on a transport protein usually used by copper, and once inside the cell membrane, continues to pose as copper, damaging many proteins including those critical to energy generation and photosynthesis.  The cells do their best to get rid of the silver, but with silver added to everything from “air sanitisers to cleansing face creams to odourless socks,” sea life may be fighting an upstream battle.

For more visit researchblogging.org.

Spoiler Alert: The Lego Movie

The story starts off predictably enough for a grandiose adventure: a wizard, a prophecy, an unwitting hero.  Emmet is just a model construction worker, living his city life to the tee by following every rule in the book.  He is manically happy just to be doing it right: greeting his alarm clock with a smile, doing some calisthenics, watching his favorite sitcom before heading out for an overpriced coffee and a fulfilling day on the job.  He feels like he has friends, that he’s part of something.  Then a mysterious woman who’s obviously not playing by the rules leads him to fall down an archaeological rabbit hole and end up with a mysterious plastic piece stuck to his back.  The woman tells him he has found the “piece of resistance” and is the hero of prophecy.  And like Neo in The Matrix, Emmet begins to realize he’s been living a lie.

The putative villain in the film is Lord Business, head of the Octan corporation.  In real life, Fox News, though generally not known for its perceptiveness, accused The Lego Movie of pushing an anti-capitalist agenda and making Lord Business look like Mitt Romney.  To be fair, there is certain capitalist critique in the film: the Octan corporation not only employs Emmet but makes and sells his coffee, produces his television show, and constantly plays his favorite song on the radio.  They also manufacture voting machines, which may explain why Lord Business is president of the world.  To be fair, Lord Business’s plan to perfect everything to his liking and then glue it in place forever does reflect a certain degree of conservatism.  But never mind that The Lego Movie endlessly promotes the toys of a company that made nearly $1 billion in profits in 2012; the real reason the film is not anti-business is because Lord Business does not end up a villain.

Nor does Emmet end up a hero—until he realizes he was never entitled to be one.  The wizard from the beginning of the film admits he made up the whole prophecy, just so someday someone might believe in him or herself.  To help foil Lord Business’s superglue spree, the people of the city are inspired to believe in themselves as well, and they take to the sky in a hodgepodge of jury-rigged vehicles to fight the robotic micromanagers determined to pose everyone perfectly.  The message of the film changes: from there shall be a hero, to anyone can be a hero, to everyone can be a hero.  Emmet even offers heroism to Lord Business, saying that he has a choice, that he can change.  For exposing both prophecy and villainy as BS, The Lego Movie gets an A+ in the moral-of-the-story department.

Of course, there’s a twist: Emmet and his world are the projected fantasies of a real boy, who personifies his real father as Lord Business.  When Emmet tumbles out of his animated world onto a live-action concrete floor, he’s no longer able to move.  He finds himself in a basement where the boy has spent the day messing with his father’s meticulously constructed collection, ignoring signs to keep his hands off.  The lighting is somehow reminiscent of a twenty-five-year-old print ad, and for a moment you get the unsettling feeling that you just spent twelve dollars to watch a 100 minute commercial.  But then in walks Will Ferrell.  As the boy’s father, a mature collector and block aficionado, Ferrell’s plan to glue everything in place is real.  But the inventiveness of his son inspires him to change his mind.

The film represents something of a full circle for Lego, which prior to 1999 issued sets mostly based on its own generic intellectual properties: cities, castles, pirate ships, the wild west.  But then they started licensing Batman, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and other blockbuster film franchises.  The popularity of Legos soared, to the point where they now have a film franchise of their own.  It helps a lot that characters like Batman, Superman, Gandalf, Dumbledore, Milhouse (from The Simpsons), a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, and a Millennium Falcon‘s worth of Star Wars characters can drop in for cameos, along with half-forgotten real-life luminaries likes Shakespeare and Shaquille O’Neal.  If I have any criticism of the film, it’s that Shaq is one of the few diverse figures in a sea of yellow faces.  There’s also Morgan Freeman providing the voice of the wizard, and a Native American in a headdress, whose unprovoked toss of a tomahawk in the general direction of the good guys is all the more troubling for its tired half-heartedness.

But in the end, The Lego Movie wins because it is consistently, deliriously funny, because it is intelligent and has a heart, and because if you can catch even half of what’s happening in the plasticky mise-en-scène you will see things you have never seen before. The film is visually astounding, looking like a vast stop-motion fantasia even though it’s really computer animated.  Everything from fire to water to steam is depicted as frenetically rearranged Lego blocks, and the fluidity that emerges from the static forms is a revelation.

The Carte Blanche of Intelligent Design

As an alternative to biblical creationism, Intelligent Design infers a less obtrusive God to explain life on Earth. This deity doesn’t hurl bolts of lightning, unless it’s with the express purpose of sparking abiogenesis in the primordial soup. On EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse dismisses probabilistic arguments against the likelihood of complex organisms, explaining that even the most improbable-seeming outcome of natural selection is more or less inevitable. As a flawed analogy, he imagines flipping a coin 500 times. This will always manifest a sequence of heads and tails that only had a one in gazillion chance of occurring. But of course, nature has no mercy upon arbitrary outcomes. Rosenhouse writes, “The prolonged action of natural selection ensures that most gene sequences have a probability close to zero of ever occurring (or persisting for long if they do occur) while the small percentage of functional sequences have a relatively high probability.” On Pharyngula, PZ Myers aces a quiz that was meant for him to fail. PZ writes that ID “was intentionally formulated in response to court decisions that prohibited gods and faith-based arguments — they literally rewrote their texts to exclude god to circumvent church-state conflicts.” No surprise: it’s hard to sway skeptics with a true believer’s plan B.

Thus it was an uphill battle that Ken Ham lost in his debate against Bill Nye the Science Guy.  Nye was widely perceived as the winner, even in religious circles.  Greg Laden sums up Ken Ham’s argument as “We know everything, we understand the most important issues of origins, creation, and evolution, and all of this information comes mainly from the Bible.”  This in contrast to Nye, who presented “science, science, science and more science” clearly and convincingly.  Greg continues “During the few moments when we were allowed to see the evangelical audience during Bill Nye’s presentation they looked, frankly, charmed.”  PZ Myers sounds a note of dissonance amongst the praise for Nye, saying “Nye is good at communicating a passion for science, but fails to note the conflict when he pretends that science is about being a better, more employable widget maker for Big Widget, Inc.”  In other words, Nye focused on the economic advantages of scientific understanding to the exclusion of aesthetic and philosophic advantages.  PZ sees science as an art, and argues we should practice science for science’s sake.

As for Ken Ham, with even Pat Robertson disavowing biblical creationism, he may have been flogging a dead horse.  The invention of Intelligent Design as a shield for traditional religious beliefs may have backfired on creationism. The faithful are comfortable abandoning the idea of a Young Earth to embrace geology and evolution, as long as they have the carte blanche of Intelligent Design to provide a hypothetical role for the Almighty.

Recalculating Round Numbers

The price of human genome sequencing has fallen spectacularly since the turn of the century; what then cost $100,000,000 is now promised for only $1000. This race toward zero makes even Moore’s Law look like a snail’s pace, but the $1000 price tag does come with a couple asterisks. For one, providers will need high demand to pay off the multi-million dollar sequencing array that makes it possible, and low demand should result in higher prices.  For two, $1000 will only buy you a rough draft of your genome. On Discovering Biology in a Digital World, Todd Smith writes “While some sequencing technologies claim they can produce data with errors as low at one in 10 million bases, a six billion genome sequence will still contain thousands of false positive variants.” To separate the sequencing errors from the actual DNA mutations, you’ll need to double-check (at least).  Meanwhile, Chad Orzel cautions America about getting its billion back. Advertisements for a tax prep service claim Americans overpaid the IRS by $1,000,000,000 last year.  That’s about $3 per citizen, but after cutting out the young, the old, and Mitt Romney’s “47% percent,” Chad estimates about $48 per two-income household. So while the promise of a billion dollars may lure in new customers, the vast majority of them will not come out ahead.