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Archive for the ‘Science & Technology’ Category

old-books-300x205“Old books smell like grass, with a tang of acidity and a hint of vanilla, according to scientists who have discovered a way to tell the condition of an [sic] works by their odour.

“The system can measure the degradation of old books and historical documents on the basis of their aroma.

“Now the scientists say their non-destructive ‘sniff’ test could help libraries and museums preserve a range of prized objects, some of which are degrading rapidly due to advancing age.

“Matija Strlic, a chemist at University College London, and lead author of the study, and her team note that the well-known musty smell of an old book, as readers leaf through the pages, is the result of hundreds of so-called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released into the air from the paper. . . .

“Conventional methods for analysing library and archival materials involve removing samples of the document and then testing them with traditional laboratory equipment. But the new approach involves no damage to the document.

“The new technique analyses the gases emitted by old books and documents without altering the documents themselves.” (more @ The Telegraph UK, via Melville House)

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wolcott-0908-01Pity the culture snob, as Kindles, iPods, and flash drives swallow up the visible markers of superior taste and intelligence. With the digitization of books, music, and movies, how will the highbrow distinguish him- or herself from the masses?” (James Wolcott, via Vanity Fair)

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Curveball“The three best visual illusions in the world were chosen at a gathering last weekend of neuroscientists and psychologists at the Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts in Florida.

“The winning entry, from a Bucknell University professor, may help explain why curve balls in baseball are so tricky to hit.

“A properly thrown curve ball spins in a way that makes the air on one side move faster than on the other. This causes the ball to move along a gradual curve. From the point of view of a batter standing on home plate, though, curve balls seem to ‘break,’ or move suddenly in a new direction.

“This year’s winning illusion, created by Arthur Shapiro of Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, may explain this phenomena. His animation shows a spinning ball that, when watched directly, moves in a straight line. When seen out of the corner of the eye, however, the spin of the ball fools the brain into thinking that the ball is curving.

“So as a baseball flies towards home plate, the moment when it passes from central to peripheral vision could exaggerate the movement of the ball, causing its gradual curve to be seen as a sudden jerk.” (more @ Fox News)

A demonstration of the illusion of a baseball “breaking” can be found at the American Institute of Physics website.

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“In a 21st-century version of the age of discovery, teams of computer scientists, conservationists and scholars are fanning out across the globe in a race to digitize crumbling literary treasures.

“In the process, they’re uncovering unexpected troves of new finds, including never-before-seen versios of the Christian Gospels, fragments of Greek poetry and commentaries on Aristotle. Improved technology is allowing researchers to scan ancient texts that were once unreadable — blackened in fires or by chemical erosion, painted over or simply too fragile to unroll. Now, scholars are studying these works with X-ray fluorescence, multispectral imaging used by NASA to photograph Mars and CAT scans used by medical technicians.

“A Benedictine monk from Minnesota is scouring libraries in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Georgia for rare, ancient Christian manuscripts that are threatened by wars and black-market looters; so far, more than 16,500 of his finds have been digitized. This summer, a professor of computer science at the University of Kentucky plans to test 3-D X-ray scanning on two papyrus scrolls from Pompeii that were charred by volcanic ash in 79 A.D. Scholars have never before been able to read or even open the scrolls, which now sit in the French National Institute in Paris.” (cont’d @ Wall Street Journal)

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kindle“The Amazon Kindle, an electronic reader, has been lavished with praise by hopeful newspaper and book executives who say they believe it has the potential to do for newspapers and books what the iPod did for music.

“But if the Kindle, which not only displays the news but also speaks it with a computerized voice, is ever to be the savior of print media, it needs to bone up on its pronunciation.

“In particular, the voice of the Kindle mispronounces two important words that show up often in the pages of newspapers: ‘Barack’ (the device rhymes it with ‘black’) and ‘Obama’ (sounds like ‘Alabama’).” (more @ NY Times)

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cadaver-book“Visual explorations of how the human body works have had us riveted since before Leonardo da Vinci sketched the famous Vitruvian man sometime around 1487. That fascination is the focus of what may be one of the most gruesome coffee table books ever.

Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930 contains hundreds of pictures of medical students posing with the cadavers they were learning to dissect.

“These photos were something of an underground genre, says author John Warner, a professor of medical history at Yale. You wouldn’t see one in a doctor’s waiting room, but they were taken and treasured, and sometimes even passed around as Christmas cards.” (more @ NPR) [Click image to enlarge]

Meanwhile, in Berlin:

A controversial German anatomy artist is facing protests over his latest plastination exhibition after unveiling a work showing two corpses having sexual intercourse.

Gunther von Hagens, whose latest exhibition, Cycle of Life, opens in Berlin tomorrow, has defended the exhibit saying that it combines the two greatest taboos of sex and death and is a lesson in biology, but is ‘not meant to be sexually stimulating’.

“The exhibition has drawn angry protests from a cross-party group of politicians as well as church representatives. They have called for the work to be withdrawn, saying it is pornographic and an insult to the dead. . . .

“Von Hagens developed the plastination method several years ago after discovering a method for preserving bodies by replacing their fat and water deposits with injections of silicon, which then harden.

“His popular exhibitions, which have travelled the world, have included corpses playing chess, high jumping, and horse riding. Others have shown a dead pregnant woman and foetuses at various stages of development.” (more @ Guardian.UK)

Related: Prof In Corpse Sex Plan

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fatty-foodsA hormone released during the digestion of certain fats triggers long-term memory formation in rats, a new study says.

“Researchers found that administering a compound produced in the small intestine called oleoylethanolamide (OEA) to rats improved memory retention during two different tasks.

“When cell receptors activated by OEA were blocked, the animals’ performance decreased.

“Though the study involved rats, OEA’s effects should be similar in other animals, including humans, said study team member Daniele Piomelli, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Irvine.” (more @ National Geographic)

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Whatever the future holds for printed books, this much is certain: there is no shortage of ink being spilled presently by writers offering their visions of the digital future –

In “How the E-Book Will Change the Way We Read and Write,” author Steven Johnson points to two key developments, “the breakthrough success of Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader, and the maturation of the Google Book Search service,” and proposes that “2009 may well prove to be the most significant year in the evolution of the book since Gutenberg hammered out his original Bible.” (more @ Wall Street Journal)

Related: The Social Dilemma of e-Reading

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The presence of many lethal genetic diseases affecting the brain among Ashkenazi Jews may also increase their intelligence – so say Gregory Cochran (bottom), a physicist and genetics buff, and geneticist Henry Harpending (top), authors of the recently published, The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution.

From the Los Angeles Times:

“The biological basis for intelligence can be a thankless arena of inquiry. The authors of ‘The Bell Curve’ were vilified 15 years ago for suggesting genes played a role in IQ differences among racial groups.

“But Cochran, 55, and Harpending, 65, say there’s no question that as a whole, Ashkenazi Jews — those of European descent — have an abundance of brain power. (Neither man is Jewish.)

“Psychologists and educational researchers have pegged their average IQ at 107.5 to 115. That’s only modestly higher than the overall European average of 100, but the gap is large enough to produce a huge difference in the proportion of geniuses. When a group’s average IQ is 100, the percentage of people above 140 is 0.4%; when the average is 110, the genius rate is 2.3%.

“Though Jews make up less than 3% of the U.S. population, they have won more than 25% of the Nobel Prizes awarded to American scientists since 1950, account for 20% of this country’s chief executives and make up 22% of Ivy League students, the pair write.” (more @ LA Times)

RelatedAre Jews Smarter?

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alhambra“One of Spain’s most enduring historical mysteries is close to being solved as experts decipher and translate more than 10,000 Arabic inscriptions adorning the walls of the Alhambra palace in Granada.

“The intricate Arabic inscriptions carved into the ceilings, columns and walls inside the imposing hill-top fortress have long fascinated visitors. They contain everything from snatches of poetry and verses from the Qur’an to clever aphorisms, pious wishes and boastful slogans.

“There are so many of them, however, that nobody has ever managed to study each and every one. Now a team of researchers armed with 3D laser scanners and digital imaging software is slowly working its way around the complex recording, transcribing and translating every inscription.

“‘There is probably no other place in the world where studying walls, columns and fountains is so similar to turning the pages of a book,’ said Juan Castilla, of Spain’s Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC), who heads the team.” (cont’d @ Guardian UK)

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“What’s the right price for an e-book? No more than $10, says a group of Amazon Kindle e-book owners — and they have found a novel way to make themselves heard.

“Some 250 Kindle readers are using Amazon’s own book-tagging system to mark e-books priced more than $10 with the tag ‘9 99 boycott‘. Their argument: A Kindle book is more restricted in its use than a paper book and therefore should not cost as much. . . .

“The protesters are the latest in a long line of consumers to rebel against restrictive copy-protection technologies. Music lovers have been circumventing copy protection for decades, leading some labels to begin removing digital rights management (DRM) technology entirely. Film studios and consumers have clashed over copy protection in DVDs. Even iPhone apps are not immune from DRM-busting pirates.” (more @ Wired)

Related: Pirates Board Apple’s iPhone App Store

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“Dough, wonga, greenbacks, cash. Just words, you might say, but they carry an eerie psychological force. Chew them over for a few moments, and you will become a different person. Simply thinking about words associated with money seems to makes us more self-reliant and less inclined to help others. And it gets weirder: just handling cash can take the sting out of social rejection and even diminish physical pain.

“This is all the stranger when you consider what money is supposed to be. For economists, it is nothing more than a tool of exchange that makes economic life more efficient. Just as an axe allows us to chop down trees, money allows us to have markets that, traditional economists tell us, dispassionately set the price of anything from a loaf of bread to a painting by Picasso. Yet money stirs up more passion, stress and envy than any axe or hammer ever could. We just can’t seem to deal with it rationally… but why?” (more @ New Scientist)

RelatedWhy Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness

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“A newly reconstructed deformed fossil skull suggests our human ancestors probably cared for deformed offspring for years.

“The skull indicates that the child who lived about 530,000 years ago would have been severely handicapped — and yet survived at least five years and possibly several years longer. That suggests the parents or community provided the child with care, despite his or her obvious deformities.” (more @ Wired)

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Timely advice from Matt Gross, the New York Times’ “Frugal Traveler,” for “Staying in Touch Internationally, on the Cheap” using SkypeIn and SkypeOut with iPhones or unlocked cell phones.

RelatedAs Airfares Fall, Save Even After Buying

Update: Frugal Traveler: Skype Midterm Report

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vampire“Matteo Borrini, an anthropologist from the University of Florence, said the discovery [of a woman’s skull with its mouth agape and a large slab of rock forced into its mouth] on the small island of Lazzaretto Nuovo in the Venice lagoon supported the medieval belief that vampires were behind the spread of plagues like the Black Death.

“‘This is the first time that archaeology has succeeded in reconstructing the ritual of exorcism of a vampire,’ Mr Borrini said. ‘This helps … authenticate how the myth of vampires was born.’

“The skeleton was unearthed in a mass grave from the Venetian plague of 1576 – in which the artist Titian died – on Lazzaretto Nuovo, which lies around 2 miles northeast of Venice and was used as a sanatorium for plague sufferers.

“The succession of plagues which ravaged Europe between 1300 and 1700 fostered the belief in vampires, mainly because the decomposition of corpses was not well understood, Mr Borrini said.” (more @ Daily Telegraph UK)

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“While Times Square is not known for star gazing — the celestial kind, that is — and few people would normally venture onto a pitch-black ball field in Inwood to see the constellations, two unrelated, if not unlikely, projects hope to turn the city’s night eyes skyward.

Jason Kendall, an amateur astronomer, and Katja Aglert, a Swedish installation artist, want to turn out the lights in different parts of Manhattan and, weather permitting, illuminate the night sky. . . .

“Mr. Kendall and Ms. Aglert, 38 — who do not know each other — face daunting challenges to realize their visions.

“He must persuade the city’s parks department to darken Inwood’s Dyckman Fields, which run north for about 15 blocks from Dyckman Street, on April 3 and April 4.

“She has to persuade landlords and billboard owners in Times Square to cut their lights for one minute sometime this spring. . . .

“On the nights in April that Mr. Kendall wants Dyckman Fields darkened, the moon will rise early, and astronomy enthusiasts around the world are signifying the occurrence to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first recorded use of a telescope. . . .

“Ms. Aglert, who was awarded $21,000 from the Swedish government and given office space by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council to pursue her project, faces fewer government hurdles than Mr. Kendall. Since she is not proposing to turn off traffic signals, street lamps and other city lights, she does not need official approval, though the Buildings Department said she had to submit a proposal.” (more @ NY Times)

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porn-computer“Americans may paint themselves in increasingly bright shades of red and blue, but new research finds one thing that varies little across the nation: the liking for online pornography. . . .

“‘When it comes to adult entertainment, it seems people are more the same than different,’ says Benjamin Edelman at Harvard Business School.

“However, there are some trends to be seen in the data. Those states that do consume the most porn tend to be more conservative and religious than states with lower levels of consumption, the study finds.

“‘Some of the people who are most outraged turn out to be consumers of the very things they claimed to be outraged by,’ Edelman says.”

For example:

  • Eight of the top 10 pornography consuming states gave their electoral votes to John McCain in last year’s presidential election
  • Residents of 27 states that passed laws banning gay marriages boasted 11% more porn subscribers than states that don’t explicitly restrict gay marriage.
  • States where a majority of residents agreed with the statement “I have old-fashioned values about family and marriage,” bought 3.6 more subscriptions per thousand people than states where a majority disagreed.
  • A similar difference emerged for the statement “AIDS might be God’s punishment for immoral sexual behaviour.” (via New Scientist)

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As an early user and fan of Amazon.com’s Kindle e-book reader, I’ve wanted for the longest time to post something about the device, but never more than now, now that the Kindle 2 has been released and reviewed in various forums. Finally, Jon Stewart to the rescue.

From last night’s The Daily Show, here is Stewart’s discussion about the Kindle 2 with Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos.

Vodpod videos no longer available.


Laughter aside, Roy Blount Jr., president of the Authors Guild, argues that “authors have a right to a fair share of the value that audio adds to Kindle 2’s version of books.”

Update

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googleUpdating my January 31st post, Google & the Future of Books: I received the following email today from Nancy Dolan at Kinsella Media, LLC, regarding the Google Book Search settlement –

“Thank you for your blog post about the Google Book Search settlement.  The process of notifying authors and publishers about the settlement has begun.  If you would like to update your readers with the court-approved Notice, which summarizes the settlement, important terms, claims process, and key dates, it is available at http://www.googlebooksettlement.com/notice.html.  Rightsholders may now claim their works at http://www.googlebooksettlement.com.”

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texasborderbadge“In a controversial program aimed at enhancing border security, Texas sheriffs have erected a series of surveillance cameras along the Rio Grande and connected them to the Internet.

“Thousands of people are now virtual Border Patrol agents — and they’re on the lookout for drug smugglers and illegal immigrants.

“Robert Fahrenkamp, a truck driver in South Texas, is one of them.

“After a long haul behind the wheel of a Peterbilt tractor-trailer, he comes home, sets his 6-foot-6-inch, 250-pound frame in front of his computer, pops a Red Bull, turns on some Black Sabbath or Steppenwolf, logs in to www.blueservo.net — and starts protecting his country.

“‘This gives me a little edge feeling,’ Fahrenkamp says, ‘like I’m doing something for law enforcement as well as for our own country.'” (more @ NPR)

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