what i learned last week

1. becoming a member of a social group will half your probability of dying in the next 12 months. this is roughly equivalent to the effect of smoking. so, if 1) you smoke, and 2) you have no friends, these two are equally dangerous to your health.

2. cells replicate themselves by creating two copies that go on to create two new cells each. human cells can regenerate themselves about 50 times before the process stops. by the time this finishes happening (after 50 generations) the “descendents” of a single cell could cover an area roughly equivalent to manhattan. (listen to the “mortality” episode of radiolab for more info on this.)

3. vaccines are incubated in cells that are grown in human cells that have been regenerated in a lab. in the 1950’s the source of these human cells was aborted fetuses. everyone that hase been vaccinated against smallpox, polio and a number of other diseases (totalling about 1,000,000,000 persons) has been vaccinated with viruses that were incubated in the cells of a single fetus aborted by a swedish woman living in the usa. (listen to the “mortality” episode of radiolab for more info on this.)

4. while it is illegal to sell human organs for transplantation in the usa, it is not illegal to sell human tissue (such as bone, tendons and skin). the american tissue donation industry is a $1,000,000,000 a year business. (link)

what i learned last week

1. 94% of the world’s languages are spoken by only 6% of the population. the top three most-spoken languages (in order of most to fewest) are mandarin, spanish and english. 133 of the world’s languages are each spoken by fewer than 10 persons. 473 languages are currently listed as endangered. link

2. hebrew was a dead language at the beginning of the 19th century, but was revived by israeli jews. link

3. approximately 20% of the young women in 18th-century london, england, were prostitutes. link

what i learned last week

1. silvio berlusconi is even more of a loonie than i had thought. link.

2. every second, $3,075.64 is being spent on pornography, 28,258 Internet users are viewing pornography, and 372 Internet users are typing adult search terms into search engines. link

3. the data centre industry emits about the same amount of co2 as the airline industry, but it’s growing much faster. this may have an economic impact on iceland. link

4. swedes burn bunny rabbits to heat their homes. link

5. in 1931, a piano company made concrete pianos. link

6. you can make $300,000 a year being a prison guard in california. also, the average employee of the city of new york makes $100,000 a year. link

7. deep-fried butter is becoming a popular snack food in texas. as a side note, the person that invented the recipe for this also came up with deep-fried coca-cola. link

what i learned last week

1. it was fashionable during the american civil war for officers to be bearded. the reason it was fashionable was that almost every man in britain in the 19th century was bearded. this was because the men were imitating the returning soldiers from the crimean war. they grew beards to help keep warm in the winters outside sebastopol. link

2. it is apparently more wrong for a canadian christian brother to have forcible sex with a child than it is for a french film director.

3. carl linnaeus proposed a “flower clock” which was a garden that contained flowers that would bloom at different times of the day. you would therefore be able to tell the time by looking at which flower was in bloom. link.

4. a spice clock was also invented in which a different spice would be automatically dispensed at each hour of the day. you could therefore smell or taste the time, if, say, you didn’t want to turn on the lights to have a look…

5. before about 1850 in the u.s.a., time was relative. (technically, according to einstein, i suppose, it still is… i’ll try to be more clear….) the time on the clock at the post office was not necessarily the same as the time on the clock in the hotel or in your house. in addition, for a given place, “noon” was set to be the time when the sun was directly overhead (or at least as close as it got on that day…). it was not until the railroads were laid across the country that a standard time was adopted, primarily so that people wouldn’t miss the train. this caused some debate, since towns were asked to move “noon” to a time when the sun was over someone else’s head.

6. oliver sacks reports that he has met some patients who have a different “clock rate” in their brains. in one example, he talks about a man who takes 2 hours to scratch his nose without knowing that, in our perception, it takes a very long time. as far as he’s concerned, he’s just scratching.

what i learned last week

1. there is a tapeworm-like parasite called a “bloodfluke” that can inhabit your body on a trip to africa. if you’re really unlucky, you’ll be the home for a male and a female who can hang out together, swimming around in your bloodstream, for decades.

2. there is a 50% reduction in probability of a person with a hookworm infection to have asthma. in addition, becoming infected with a hookworm may cure asthma and allergies. if you would like to try it, you can buy hookworms HERE.

3. there is a parasite called toxoplasma that has some interesting characteristics and even more interesting associated theories:

3a. toxoplasma can only reproduce (sexually, if you’re interested) inside the gut of a cat. after doing so, however, it lays eggs which are excreted by the cat. now the parasite (once the eggs hatch) wants to get back into another cat, so it sits there (in the cat poo) until a rat comes along to eat it. once inside the rat’s gut (which is not where it wants to be) it starts migrating to the rat’s brain (this takes about 6 weeks). now, remember that the toxoplasma is trying to get back into a cat, but it’s stuck inside a rat which is typically afraid of cats and the way they smell… so, the toxoplasma heads for the amygdala (the part of the brain where fear resides) which happens to be next-door to the part of the brain where sexual arousal resides. the toxoplasma then is able to “cross the wires” between these two brain bits, thus making the smell of cat urine sexy to the rat. the rat looks for a cat, who eats it, and the toxoplasma is back inside a cat where it wanted to be in the first place…

3b. before reading this one, you have to read the previous one, since it’s important to know that toxoplasma changes the rat’s behaviour by rewiring its brain. there is an theory that the rise in incidence of schizophrenia (which practically didn’t exist in humans about 500 years ago…) is directly attributable to having cats as pets. it seems that there may be a link between having toxoplasmosis (being infected by the toxoplasma parasite) and schizophrenia.

3c. people with toxoplasmosis are 2 to 3 times more likely to be in a car accident. remember from (3a) that the toxo parasite is able to make the rat think that dangerous things are sexy? the theory goes that they may also be able to do this to humans, thus removing the fear associated with driving recklessly.

3d. if proven to be true, this may have implications on the issue of “free will”.

4. the new head of unesco – the united nations’ agency that is supposed to promote education, science and culture – is an egyptian who once said that he would burn all israeli books found in egypt’s libraries. see here.

5. salaries for porn stars are dropping. see here.

6. given enough time, it is possible to take a photograph of the entire sky. see here.

7. cows with names give more milk than those without. see here.

8. “probiotic” food doesn’t have any proven benefit over food that isn’t. see here.

what i learned last week

1. girls who grow up in a home without a father reach sexual maturity before those in a home with a father. girls in a home with a step-father reach sexual maturity even earlier. those who grow up in a home with one or more step-brothers are earlier still.
2. all lamb and goat meat exported by australia is slaughtered in accordance with halal custom.
3. halal customs vary not only from country to country but between certification organisations.

(seems like it was a slow week, educationally speaking… oh well…)

men can’t change diapers

this is a list of all the places i’ve found, starting today, where i can’t change a diaper because there are no change tables in the men’s room. so, I wind up going in with my son, and then coming back out to either hand him over to my wife (if she’s with us) or changing him on the floor…

1. mcdonald’s, silkeborgvej 7, herning, denmark

what i learned over the past two weeks…

1. rose valland, a quiet and unassuming art historian who worked at the jeu de paume museum in paris during the war had an excellent memory and the ability to speak german. neither of these two qualities was known by the occupying germans who were busy plundering art from the museum during the war. she paid attention, and kept track of which artwork went where and to whom. this resulted in many works being recovered.

2. russian forces used anti-tank dogs to attack german forces. bombs would be strapped to hungry dogs who were trained to think that someone on a tank would feed them. the theory is that the dog would drop the bomb and run, but this was only a theory…

3. when the nazi’s were exterminating jews in the ukraine, they found that lining them up single file and shooting them, one-by-one was taking too long. so, they convinced 30,000 people to come by a ravine at babi yar where they were mowed down by machine gun fire over two consecutive days.

4. one of the greatest examples of the placebo effect was that of a mr. wright, reported by a dr. bruno klopfer. wright was dying of a lymphatic cancer and was convinced that, if he was put on a drug trial for a new drug, he would be cured. after one dose of the drug, his tumours started shrinking at an unbelievable rate. upon hearing that the drug trials were proving to be unsuccessful, he died within days. this is the short version of the story – the longer, more interesting version can be found here.

5. norman mailer stabbed his wife. she didn’t press charges but, if she had done so, his defence would have been that, had he not stabbed her, the suppressed anger would have resulted in him developing cancer. this probably wouldn’t have been a successful defence…

6. nikita kruschev was responsible for a number of “purges” (massacres) committed for stalin before world war 2.

7. during world war 2, the paris austerlitz train station was turned into a large warehouse for all the stuff that was being stolen from the jewish homes in the city. homes would be emptied into trucks, the truck would drive to austerlitz where everything was emptied, sorted, repaired and then put on trains to be given to germans. most of this work was done by jewish prisoners who, in some particularly sad cases, saw things from their own homes go through the station.

8. the british had a plan to build aircraft carriers out of a sawdust-ice mixture called pykrete which is much stronger than regular ice.

9. each year, more persons are killed as a result of eating sharks than as a result of being eaten by sharks.

10. there was an award called “righteous among the nations” which, in a secular context, was given to non-jews who risked their lives to rescue jews from the nazi’s.

11. hitler had parkinson’s disease (something tells me that i learned this before and forgot it…)

12. hitler took cocaine eye drops

13. the most devestated city of world war 2 was warsaw. the second-most-devestated city was manila.

14. adidas and puma were started by two brothers in a small town in germany. the two companies were in a long-standing family feud until this past week.

15. there is a link in some children between cases of strep throat and obsessive compulsive disorder. see this link for more info.

what i learned last week

1. public nakedness is legal in england and wales. (see here)

2. quantum computing is getting closer to being a usable reality. (see here)

3. an ancient contraceptive was alcohol made from stewed beaver testicles. (see here) i wonder who came up with this one…

4. there is a large collection of floating garbage – mostly plastic – swirling in a large vortex in the middle of the pacific ocean. it’s called the “great pacific garbage patch” and is roughly twice the size of texas.

5. 50 years ago, 50% of australian men smoked. today, only 25% do.

6. the meaning of the word “stakhanovite”

7. the apollo 11 guidance computers had less processing power than a modern cellphone.

customer service, air france style

so, after a 5-hour train ride from home to copenhagen airport, we roll up to the air france check-in desk to get our bording passes for our flight. we (a 2-month old, a 2-year old, my wife, and i) already know two things:
– when you’re travelling with an infant, the computer-aided check in doesn’t work
– my wife and the two kids are travelling on points whereas i bought my ticket, therefore we’re on different itineraries, but we’d still like to sit together
so, we know that we have to talk to a human being at the check-in desk rather than a computer. luckily, my wife has a flying blue silver card, so we can check in at the desk for important people instead of the desk for the lower castes. also, luckily, there are no people in the lineup, so people being served and two air france representatives sitting there at their respective desks, having a chat while one files her nails.
with the 2-month old crying loudly, asking for lunch, we head towards the auto-manicurist who looks at us coldly and simply tells us that we have to go over there and check in at the computers. she explains that she cannot deal with families. my wife points out that she has the silver-i’m-an-important-person-card but this does not impress – we are dismissed anyway.
somewhat tired and confused, we obey unquestioningly and turn around to walk towards the self-check in terminal thingy. however, on the way, we realise that we were being dumb, that the auto-manicurist was indeed capable of offering assistance, and was just being damned lazy.
so, we turn around and head back and firmly ask why it is that being a family qualifies us as being second-class citizens. the second rep decides to help us, and the auto-manicurist says nary a word, buries her head into her computer terminal and pretends to tap keys aimlessly until we’re all done.
not an impressive start to our trip. but it was still better than air canada…