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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Bee-wearing competition

Bee-wearing competition: "bees.jpg

Beekeeper Lv Kongjiang, 20, stands with bees covering his body on a weighing scale during a bee-wearing competition held last week in China. Competing against fellow beekeeper Wang Dalin in Shaoyang, Hunan province, the two wore only shorts and bees; Wang won the competition after attracting 57 lbs of bees on his body in 60 minutes, while Lv had 50 lbs, local media reported. Photo Reuters/China Daily

Previously: The Beekeeper's Lament: Must-read book on bee life, and death


Synesthesia and the origins of language

Synesthesia and the origins of language: "mrpointy.jpg

Do sounds have meaning?

Obviously, words do. But that's not what I'm talking about. Instead, think about the sounds that make up words. When the word was coined, were the sounds chosen because those sounds already made people think of the concept being described?

That's a difficult theory to prove, but there's been some research that supports it. New Scientist has a really fascinating article up about the studies that suggest the sounds in our words aren't totally random. Instead, we all might associate sounds with other senses to some degree. If that sounds a lot like synesthesia ... well, that's the point. The idea behind this theory is that, as with many neurological phenomena, synesthesia exists on a continuum. A true synesthete might hear the word 'table' and think of it as a color, or associate it with a smell. But most of us, if given the choice between two unfamiliar words, can tell which one means pointy at rate better than chance.

Suspecting that sound symbolism might also help adults to understand a foreign tongue, Lynne Nygaard at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, recently presented English speakers with pairs of antonyms (such as fast/slow) recorded in 10 different languages - including Albanian, Dutch, Gujarati, Mandarin and Yoruba. When given the corresponding pair of English words, and asked to match the foreign words to them, subjects performed better than they would by chance - suggesting the words' sounds must give clues to their meaning.

What could these clues be? A subsequent analysis hinted at some answers. Words that indicate general movement tend to have more vowels, for instance, and they are more likely to have glottal consonants (the 'h' in 'behind', for example). Sounds might also reflect the speed of movement: slow movement tends to be represented by sonorant sounds such as 'l' or 'w', whereas explosive obstruents produced from a blocked airway, such as 'ch' or 'f', are suggestive of more rapid speeds. Nygaard presented her work at the Atlanta workshop.

Bringing all the evidence together, there seems to be a strong case for saying that sound symbolism does occur in human language. However, some big questions remain. How common are words that elicit cross-sensory connections in modern languages? 'Maybe they represent just small pockets of vocabulary,' says Morten Christiansen at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York.

Finally, is sound symbolism universal, perhaps even innate? Tests showing that the patterns are recognised by young children, and by people across cultures, suggest that is a possibility, but more work needs to be done before it can be taken for granted.

Via Stan Carey

Image: Pointy Iron Things, a Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivative-Works (2.0) image from 22280677@N07's photostream


Tiny dinosaurs in minuscule bottles

Tiny dinosaurs in minuscule bottles: "Brontosaurus-Bottle

Japanese artist Akinobu builds architectural models as his day job, and creates exquisite 'Tiny Worlds In A Bottle' for kicks. He sells them on eBay. Tiny World In A Bottle (via Smithsonian)


Fish uses tool

Fish uses tool: "Fishtoooll

A series of shots including the one above are thought to be the first photographic evidence from the wild of a fish using a tool. It shows a blasckspot tuskfish about to smash a cockle against a rock to expose its flesh for eating. Scott Gardner took the photos back in 2006 at a depth of 60 feet in Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Scienctists have just now published their study on the images and related data, titled 'Tool use in the tuskfish Choerodon schoenleinii?.' 'Carry-out Cockles'


Who holds the copyright to a picture taken by a monkey?

Who holds the copyright to a picture taken by a monkey?: "Caters News Agency claims to have bought exclusive rights to the iconic self-portrait taken by a macaque that snatched a photographer's camera while the latter was shooting on Sulawesi. Caters has sent copyright threats to some sites that reproduced the image, prompting Techdirt (one of the nastygram recipients) to delve deeply into the question of the copyrightability of works created by non-humans.

Under US law (we'll deal with elsewhere soon), you have to have made the creative contributions (the copyrightable aspects) to the image to have it qualify for any copyright protection (and then, it's only the creative aspects that get the copyright). Thus, you could argue that if the photographer had set up the camera, framed the shot, and simply let the monkey click the shutter, perhaps there is some copyright there (though, even then it would likely be limited to some of the framing, and not much else). But David Slater has already admitted that the monkeys found a camera he had left out by accident and that he did not have anything to do with setting up the shot. He's stated that the monkeys were playing with the shiny objects and when one pushed the shutter, the noise interested them and they kept it up. It would be difficult to argue he made any sort of creative contribution here to warrant copyright.

Can the monkeys get the copyright? No. As Justin Levine kindly pointed out, according to the rules published by the US Copyright Office:

503.03 Works not capable of supporting a copyright claim.

Claims to copyright in the following works cannot be registered in the Copyright Office:

503.03(a) Works-not originated by a human author.

In order to be entitled to copyright registration, a work must be the product of human authorship. Works produced by mechanical processes or random selection without any contribution by a human author are not registrable. Thus, a linoleum floor covering featuring a multicolored pebble design which was produced by a mechanical process in unrepeatable, random patterns, is not registrable. Similarly, a work owing its form to the forces of nature and lacking human authorship is not registrable; thus, for example, a piece of driftwood even if polished and mounted is not registrable

Can We Subpoena The Monkey? Why The Monkey Self-Portraits Are Likely In The Public Domain


Telex: an infrastructure-level response to state Internet censorship

Telex: an infrastructure-level response to state Internet censorship: "

J. Alex Halderman and his colleagues have unveiled Telex, a 'state-level response to state-level censorship.' It's a network of censorship-busting major ISPs that provide infrastructure-level, hard-to-detect proxying that allows people in repressive regimes to get access to sites blocked by their national firewalls. The descriptive materials on the site are very easy to grasp and very exciting.

* Telex operates in the network infrastructure -- at any ISP between the censor's network and non-blocked portions of the Internet -- rather than at network end points. This approach, which we call 'end-to-middle' proxying, can make the system robust against countermeasures (such as blocking) by the censor.

* Telex focuses on avoiding detection by the censor. That is, it allows a user to circumvent a censor without alerting the censor to the act of circumvention. It complements anonymizing services like Tor (which focus on hiding with whom the user is attempting to communicate instead of that that the user is attempting to have an anonymous conversation) rather than replacing them.

* Telex employs a form of deep-packet inspection -- a technology sometimes used to censor communication -- and repurposes it to circumvent censorship.

* Other systems require distributing secrets, such as encryption keys or IP addresses, to individual users. If the censor discovers these secrets, it can block the system. With Telex, there are no secrets that need to be communicated to users in advance, only the publicly available client software.

* Telex can provide a state-level response to state-level censorship. We envision that friendly countries would create incentives for ISPs to deploy Telex.

Anticensorship in the Internet's Infrastructure (announcement)


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

CNC + Sharpie = fine-art Spirograph

CNC + Sharpie = fine-art Spirograph: "

Matt W. More and aarn teamed up to create these 'numerically controlled' posters made by fitting a Sharpie to a 3D CNC machine that then executed spirograpesque patterns. They come signed and numbered, with the Sharpie used to generate them.

Numerically Controlled : Poster Series.

(via This is Colossal)




If you're the sort of person who worries about having jackboot thugs breaking down your door and taking your laptop, you might consider this 'Media Artist Contingency Plan,' which helpfully marks off the spot you should aim your high-speed drill if you need to nuke your hard-drive in a hurry. Of course, full-disk encryption is a little less messy and more reliable (though perhaps also a little less stylish and dramatic).

Media Artist Contingency Plan


Probiotics and "Science by Product Release"

Probiotics and "Science by Product Release": "spiltyogurt.jpg

When heavy publicity turns early scientific findings into massive public debacles—see: Life, arsenic—we spend a lot of time talking about the problems inherent in doing science by press release. Essentially, an early finding might be pretty damn intriguing. But an early finding doesn't mean much until it's been picked apart by other scientists, and held up to criticism and verification. The process of science is glacially slow, while the news cycle moves like a waterfall.

But there's another place in public life where the speed of good science conflicts with outside demands. Namely: The food industry. Over at Slate, Amanda Schaffer has a really interesting article about how food companies (Big Food and crunchy hippie mom n' pops, alike) have taken incomplete, relatively new research on probiotics and turned it into absolute (and frequently overblown) statements about functional foods.

There's certainly a scientific basis for humankind's relationship with symbiotic bacteria, and there's also research suggesting that you can ingest these bacteria and benefit from it. But there is still a lot we don't know, and the benefits are usually smaller than you've been led to believe.

What about the immune system? Good bacteria may tweak the balance of immune cells or cause more cells to become activated, at least temporarily. In theory, this might help to fend off disease. Of course, 'most people aren't as interested in, for example, how activated their macrophages might be as they are in keeping from getting sick,' as Mary Ellen Sanders, a probiotics consultant who runs the company Dairy and Food Culture Technologies, puts it. The few studies that look at whether probiotics can help prevent common illness tend to find very modest benefits: A randomized trial of Finnish toddlers, for instance, suggested that those drinking a specific probiotic milk three times a day, five days a week, had about one sick day fewer over the course of seven months. It remains to be seen whether different strains (or combinations) might pack a bigger punch. At the same time, researchers are asking whether various bugs might help to prevent allergy if given early enough to breast-feeding mothers and babies, or whether they might reduce inflammation. None of this work is definitive, but it is intriguing early science.

Other claims, meanwhile, are simply bloated, especially when it comes to the immune system. Dannon is not outrageous for suggesting that its DanActive drink has an effect on that system: Some research does suggest that the relevant strain can give particular immune cells a boost. But that doesn't automatically mean it will keep you healthier. Company researchers in Europe have tried to get at that possibility--for instance, by giving a probiotic drink to elderly people and looking at their rates of common infectious diseases like colds, flus, and stomach viruses. (The strain they used, called Lactobacillus casei DN-114001, is the same one found in DanActive.) They found that each episode of sickness was shorter, on average, in people taking the drink: about six and a half days instead of eight days for those in the control group. So the probiotic did seem to spare them about a day-and-a-half of illness. Still, it didn't change the number of times they got sick or the severity of their illness. All of which might prompt consumers to give a bit of a shrug. (And some extra skepticism is always in order when so many studies in a field are company-funded.)

That last sentence is particularly important when it comes to safety. As Schaffer points out later in the article, most of the major trials of probiotics haven't been designed to monitor adverse effects at all. So while we know that there might be some benefits from ingesting bacteria, we know next to nothing about the potential downsides.

Via Ed Yong

Image: leafyog, a Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivative-Works (2.0) image from kenningtonfox's photostream