Salvador Dali & Walt Disney tell a story: Destino

Destino is a beautiful animation, a surreal, creative love story that I have only just discovered. It was produced between 1945 and 1946, according to the video description. In the intro to the animation, it says it took over half a century to complete (will find out more, just want to post this). And yes, it is indeed a collaboration between the Walt Disney and the Spanish painter and master of the surreal, Salvador Dali. Apparently Dali called the animation “a magical display of the problem of life in the labyrinth of time” and Disney’s description is “A simple story about a young girl of true love.”

It’s dreamy and romantic and and set in a series of beautiful, surreal environments. With ants that turn into men in coats riding bicycles carrying a loaf of bread on their heads.

She is a long-lashed beauty who loves a man hard as stone. Actually he is stone, a statue of Chronos, the man who controls time. But maybe in this story at least he isn’t all stone and clock? This Chronos stud is also not the typical older man with the beard.

Chronos can step out of his stone encasing but yet he and she can still not easily find their way to one another. Especially when her head becomes a glowing white marble and he, now a baseball player, smacks the head, now glowball, out of the park. And if you don’t care about the difficult love story, just watch her dance, so fluid and easy, past eyeballs with pointing arms and phone receivers hanging in mid-air, and his equally smooth moves take you through landscapes in which objects always morph into new ones. a

Credits include: Directed by Dominique Monfery, executive producer: Roy Edward Disney (Roy is Walt Disney’s nephew); producer: Baker Bloodworth; production: design Thierry Fournier; Animation: David Berthier, Dominique Monfery, Yoshimichi Tamura; Music (Destino) Armando Dominguez, English lyrics by Ray Gilbert, performed by Dora Luz; additional music by Michael Starobin.

Maria Popova (Brain Pickings) describes the animation here, in The Atlantic.

BondeCurlsBlueEyes mentions the book by David Bossert called: Dali & Disney: Destino – the Story, Artwork and Friendship Behind the Legendary Film’ and you can find it
here at goodreads.

According to the goodreads site, Walt Disney and Salvador Dali became friends and started working together, also story boarding the animation with the legendary John Hench. But they couldn’t complete the project due to financial troubles. Walt Disney’s nephew Roy Edward Disney took it upon himself to do so and the film was released in 2003.

David Bossert, author of the book and head of classic programs at Disney gives a talk at The Dali Museum about the book, the making of the animation and the friendship between Dali and Disney.

Study design matters

Mere mention of the subject of their article makes eyelids droop, write the authors in the journal Fertility & Sterility (F&S). True, their paper about statistics and the null hypothesis sounds like a good night lullaby. It isn’t. The article is from last year, but has not aged a bit. Setting aside the flaws in study design that the paper documents, a more recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association highlights similar challenges. Problematic gaps between treatment recommendations and evidence from clinical trials supporting those recommendations continue to cause trouble.

Faulty study design and statistical analysis, particularly in medicine, can waste research dollars, involve research subjects for naught or even expose them to unnecessary risks, say the F&S paper authors David Meldrum and Mary Samuel of Reproductive Partners Medical Group and Kurt Barnhart from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Meldrum is editor of Fertility and Sterility.

What motivates the team to write this no-nonsense critique is to assure that “only quality manuscripts are published” and they outline what to do (WTD) and what not to do (WNTD), as they examined studies in the journals Fertility & Sterility and Human Reproduction. The offer papers in the WTD and WNTD classes. The WNTD papers have been de-identified to protect the guilty.

Some studies just do not make the grade. Image: Amirki / Pratheepps

Among the mistakes in the WNTD papers, are defects in study design, such as a lack of calculation at the outset to determine the necessary size of patient group needed to achieve meaningful results, using the wrong statistical tests, the lack of “blinding” which leads to biasing in the interpretation of results, “dredging” for outcomes that were not part of the study design, and keeping opaque the actual number of study participants in a trial and their outcomes.

The authors suggest including statistics consultants when  evaluating papers for publication, but also say that reviewers “need to be more aware of these common pitfalls and deficiencies.”

What are some of the not-to-do points? One study that the group criticizes is “extremely small,” with only around a 2 percent difference that relates to one variable in the experimental and control group. The problem lies not just with this small difference. A small difference can be a relevant result. But this study only had 15 patients in the experimental group and 35 in the control group. Statistical analysis in small groups runs into plenty of problems. For example, as in this case, the standard error, which describes the range in which the results can fall, overlaps between the experimental and control groups. That overlap makes it unlikely that study results can reach statistical significance.

The scientists kindly offer a little statistical education in their article as a kind of WTD reminder for readers. Standard error is standard deviation divided by the square root of all the observations. Performing a Student t test would have also raised a red flag. But, the study authors note, it is important to remember that the t test which looks at two sets of continuous data, needs observations that are independent from one another. In the case of the WNTD study, there were “several observations” for each patient, which would have required further analysis, all of which means the observations in this case are “clearly not independent from one another.”

Another WNTD paper the authors do not like, does not indicate how many participants were in the study. And in this case, the number of observations outnumbers the number of study participants. A big no-no in this paper, as in the previously mentioned one, is that the results were not blinded. In other words, the scientists were doing an “open-label study” and were aware both of treatments and outcomes, which can spell bias in the tracking and interpretation of findings.

For these types of open-label studies, the authors say, study size needs to be set from the beginning, with statistical analysis scheduled at a predetermined point or at the end. As the authors list all the flaws, they bemoan the lost opportunity, the “shame” of the investigation, which had the chance to enhance clinical practice with a better design.

Another flaw in two studies is the lack of registration. As the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors points out in an editorial in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) , registration is voluntary. Not registering a trial means not revealing its existence.

Registration is way to gain public trust and “enhanced public confidence in the research enterprise will compensate for the costs of full disclosure,” write the NEJM authors. Patients volunteering for clinical trials “deserve to know that their contribution to improving human health will be available to inform health care decisions.” And the knowledge made possible by their collective altruism “must be accessible to everyone.”

While the authors of this F&S paper did not mention author names for the papers they criticize, they do mention the names of the researchers behind the WTD studies. They heaped praise on these investigators, for example for registering studies and revealing how the results were kept from the researchers in order to avoid bias.

The scientists like the care and dedication that characterizes the work that went into the studies they praise. One study had the writers so joyous, they wrote to the authors: “We salute you!”

Challenges in study design are not limited to the field of reproductive medicine. In the JAMA article, scientists explained that their analysis raises questions more generally about the ability of clinical trials to supply enough high quality evidence for recommendations. Trials remain small, for example, with widespread variation in procedures such as randomizing and blinding. While in some fields of medicine small-scale studies can yield useful results, the authors write that “substantial differences in the use of randomization and blinding across specialties persist after adjustment for phase, raising fundamental questions about the ability to draw reliable inferences from clinical research conducted in that arena.” Study design and the snoozy topic of statistics have powerful consequences.

Meldrum, D et al. The null hypothesis: closing the gap between good intentions and good studies Fertility and Sterility. Vol. 96, No. 1, July 2011.

Califf, Robert et al. Characteristics of Clinical Trials Registered in, 2007-2010, JAMA 2012;307(17):1838-1847. doi:10.1001/jama.2012.3424.

Thumbs down by Amirki, derived from Pratheepps
User: Pratheepps derivative work: Amirki (Symbol_thumbs_down.svg), via Wikimedia Commons

Trapped in the ice

This study is one I have wanted to write about for a while but kept postponing. The research is important, but the events bug me, because it includes many whales dying. That is one spoiler alert. The other hindrance is that this article stands to upset global warming skeptics.

For some comic relief, watch the YouTube video with a selection from “Finding Nemo” when Dory speaks Whale. Even if it anthropomorphizes the relationship between fish and marine mammals. This clip is also nice about freeing a trapped and drowning whale.

Now, to the narwhals of the Arctic, nicknamed unicorns of the sea. They are related to orcas and bottlenose dolphins and live near Greenland and Canada. Check out narwhals here.. There is audio on the page, too, so you can hear what they sound like. They probably sound different when in distress, but I don’t speak whale or narwhal. It is distressing for them when the weather suddenly turns frostier than frosty and ice develops where a passage normally is. Those conditions create ice entrapments, like ponds with icy shores all around. These entrapments are deadly for narwhals.

According to the University of Washington’s polar science center blog, the Artic is subject to many changes due to marine shipping and sea ice changes, to name just a few factors. Studying narwhals is a way to understand the animals and the ongoing shifts in this region.

Glenn Williams, NIST via Wikimedia Commons

Swimming in the Arctic, there is often more ice than water around narwhals. But sometimes they get surrounded by a big solid block of ice. Swimming means drowning because the animals would not be able to come up for air. After all, they are mammals. If they stay, they can breathe but they starve. It is the animal version of no-win situation.

Entrapment events tend to be reported in the winter, particularly February and March, and are often observed by Inuit hunters. If the situation is deemed hopeless for the animals, the narwhals are harvested. But not all entrapments are recorded, so their frequency is unknown.

Science writer Todd McLeish points out that ice entrapments, called savssats by the Inuit, are probably happening much more frequently than records suggest. Witnesses and observers are just not always around, since the Arctic is thinly populated.

Scientists studied entrapments between 2008 and 2010 in the ocean area off the coasts of Greenland and Canada. They found an unusual pattern as they looked at four such events near the areas where the whales summer. It turns out that the narwhals had, for some reason, delayed their departure from these areas into the late fall and winter. That delay turned into a deadly situation for them.

It appears there might be a link to different weather conditions: the normal autumn freeze-up happened later in each of these entrapment locations, sending the narwhals different cues about moving on to other waters, report Kristin Laidre and Harry Stern of the University of Washington, and colleagues Mads Peter Heide-Jørgensen from the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, and Pierre Richard from Fisheries and Oceans Canada who collaborated on this work. Their paper was published in the journal Polar Biology.

The team points out that around 80,000 narwhals live in Baffin Bay between Greenland and Canada and around 7,000 of them call the Greenland Sea home. In the fall, when ice quickly forms, the animals move away from the coast toward open water, and then return in the spring as the seasons change.

Three of the locations where entrapments occurred had no wind and cold temperatures. Wind is crucial for creating new patches of open water. In these no-wind and cold conditions, the narwhals were limited to areas where ice grows rapidly. Although they can break ice, three days of -19 degrees centigrade leads to ice layers beyond their limits as marine mammal icebreakers.

The researchers also studied the sea ice pattern changes in six of the narwhal’s summering spots and fit the four entrapment events in with all of the other ones that have been reported between 1912 and 2010.

The scientists report that in mid-February of 2008, hunters discovered 30-40 narwhals off of East Greenland at Amanga Island. “All entrapped whales were taken in a subsistence harvest,” they write. In November of that year, several hundred narwhals were found off the coast of Canada, near Pond Inlet. Open water was 50 kilometers away. Determining that, “the animals had no chance of escaping to open water,” a total of 629 whales were killed. One year later, around 50 to 100 narwhals got trapped off the coast of West Greenland, near Qaanaaq, and 38 animals were harvested. In February 2010, 30 to 100 whales were entrapped off the coast of West Greenland. They were swimming between three and 4 four large ice floes about two kilometers wide. The nearest open water was between 30 and 40 km away. “During the subsistence hunt on February 6, approximately 35 whales were secured and more lost under the ice,” according to the study authors.

Blogger McLeish writes about Laidre’s work of examining the distribution and timing of known ice entrapments and looking at the trends in the breakup of sea ice on the narwhal’s summering grounds. The ice seems to be forming later. “Over a 30-year period there is a three to four week difference in when the ice forms,” she told McLeish. “If ice formation is a clue to the narwhals that it’s time to get out of their summering grounds, then the trigger is changing, the pattern is changing.”

It might seem easy to jump to the conclusion that changes in the timing of ice formation makes narwhals more vulnerable to ice entrapments and that the team has found an implication of global warming. While that may be the case, there are “precious little data from which to draw conclusions just yet,” he writes of Laidre’s work.

As Laidre and her colleagues write in their paper, it is not clear whether the four entrapments are due to random variation or “whether there is an actual trend in prolonged summer residence time as narwhals adapt to a longer open water season.”

Climate models suggest increased variability in climate extremes and more frequent and intense weather events. But rapid changes in weather and ice conditions do not appear to always lead narwhals to move into open water areas, so the scientists recommend “careful documentation” of future entrapments to assess the relationship between the changes in autumn freeze-up and narwhal vulnerability.

Kristin Laidre et al. Unusual narwhal sea ice entrapments and delayed autumn freeze-up trends. Polar Biology (2012) 35:149–154 DOI 10.1007/s00300-011-1036-8

The University of Washington Polar Science Center Blog

by Glenn Williams, National Institute of Standards and Technology. Public domain image, via Wikimedia Commons

Violinists not tuned for Stradivarius

Living next to a music school, I hear talented people practice their already grand skills and add to them every day. On the street, I often walk behind someone humming melodiously and I pick up fragments of conversation about tonality or other musical nerdy-ness, all of which sounds like Ancient Greek tunes to me. Their ears certainly hear things I cannot, which must be a skill they bring to bear when selecting instruments, too.

Musicians have personal methods of selecting their favorite sound when testing an instrument. And one might also assume that an ‘old Italian’ violin, like the Stradivarius from the 1700s, would be what experienced violinists would most gladly select, given the freedom to choose an instrument worth around $10 million.

Scientists now say that the Stradivarius has no secret, magical sound that makes it the most memorable for  violinists. A French-American research team convinced 21 experienced violinists attending a competition to play instruments and pick favorites. They had managed to include some rare violins, which they organized on loan. The musicians had to wear special goggles so it became impossible for them to see if they were playing a new instrument or one that is centuries old, famous, and invaluable.

In two types of testing arrangements the Stradivarius was the least-preferred instrument of three old violins and three new models. The results are “a striking challenge to conventional wisdom,” write the researchers in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Playing blindfolded

To motivate competitors to go to a hotel room and play an instrument practically blind-folded, they told the volunteers they would have the chance to play fine violins, and at least one Stradivarius. The volunteers were not told the violin’s make. A dab of scent was placed under each violin’s chinrest to disguise any characteristic smell. The musicians were supposed to play and listen for range of tone colors, projection, playability, and response.

A Spanish Stradivarius violin II from c. 1687 at Palacio Real de Madrid by H. Svensson via Wikimedia Commons

Of the six violins, three were new models. The scientists had on loan two violins from around 1700 and 1715 by celebrated craftsman Antonio Stradivari and a third was from the hand of Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu, another violin master from the Golden Age, and which dated to 1740. For each test run, the researchers gave the volunteers pairings of one new and old violin, a fact they did not disclose to volunteers.

In one test series, mimicking instrument-shopping, violinists had 20 minutes to choose their instrument they would most likely take home to test further. In a second experiment, the musicians had only one minute to play one violin and then the other before choosing a favorite.

In the longer test, whenever the older Stradivarius was one of the two possible violins to choose from, the players rejected it, leading the scientists to note “its consistent rejection appears to drive the overall preference for new violins…”

In the short testing, violinists consistently preferred a particular new violin. It was chosen eight times as the take-home model, while the older Stradivarius was chosen only once. A punishing 16 times that precious violin was named “worst-in-a-category,” the researchers write.

Choosing new favorites

Overall, eight of the 21 violists chose an old violin as their favorite. Given the small test group the scientists warn this result cannot be generalized. At the same time, that fact that a new violin won over Stradivarius and Guarneri del Gesu in the view of 13 musicians in the study “stands as a bracing counterexample to conventional wisdom.”

The new violins got high marks for playability and response but there appeared no difference between the violins in terms of projection and tone colors. An amount of “uncertainty” in the results remains.

Only three musicians were able to correctly guess they were playing an old violin, which, according to the researchers, shows that the instruments dating back to the Golden Age of violin-making do not have “special playing qualities.” The scientists point out that the violinists chose favorites only by playing them and not by listening to the instruments from a distance.

Stradivarius holds a secret

Irrespective of the results, the scientists assert that old Italian violins will “no doubt maintain their hold on the imagination of violinists and their audiences for a long time to come.” As scientists, they hope their results will shift the focus of research away from a seeming “secret” the Stradivarius might hold to achieving a better understanding of what exactly musicians’ ears are hearing as they evaluate instruments.

This team, unlike other researchers before them, does not believe there is evidence the violins by Italian masters have better qualities due to varnish properties, the effect of the Little Ice Age on the wood, chemical treatment of the wood or plate-tuning methods, to name a few of the attributed traits thought to lend these violins superiority.

The Naked Scientists, a group of physicians and scientists at Cambridge University, write in their blog that despite the small study sample, the study “seems to suggest that the reputation of the greater masters’ violins relates more to the price tag than the sweet music they make.”

In a discussion on a violinists’ blog a few years ago, there is an impassioned discussion on the merits of ‘old Italians.’ Perhaps this new study does not quite settle this long-running discussion. And the one about young violins is just beginning. Anne McKinley writes that modern violins can make their players “happy, or unhappy, at any price range.” In that sense, she says, they are in some ways “like modern chairs.”


Fritz, C. Player preferences among new and old violins. PNAS; vol. 109, no. 3, January 17, 2012, p. 760-763.


A Spanish Stradivarius violin II from c. 1687 at Palacio Real de Madrid

by Håkan Svensson (Xauxa) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Talking from the gut in East and West

[T]he stomach cramm’d from every dish,
A tomb of roast and boil’d, of flesh and fish,
Where bile and wind, and phlegm and acid jar.
And all the man is one intestine war.
-Alexander Pope

It has been the season to be jolly and to over-eat. A number of people I know, including yours truly, have had stomach ailments of various kinds this season. These events now send me back into the gut, a trip best done on e-paper.

Indigestion, bellyaches, crises de foie, upset stomachs are some of the names we use when telling our doctors about ongoing abdominal bloating, heartburn, burping, nausea, vomiting or midriff pain.

Historian James Whorton explains that Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle, who was the “most eminent of Victorian dyspeptics,” compared his stomach ache to “a rat gnawing at the pit of the stomach.”

Treating this ailment is boggled by a lack of understanding of what the gut might be trying to say. But little steps of progress are being made and one standard treatment could add to those steps.

Stomach aches are one of the most common disorders that general physicians hear about in their practices. Gastroenterologist Paul Moayyedi at McMaster University in Hamilton in Ontario, Canada points out that roughly one in 20 visits to primary care doctors involves these types of symptoms.

Letting doctors peer into one’s innards by swallowing a tube in a diagnostic procedure called endoscopy, leads to “a normal result” in 80 percent of all cases, says Moayyedi in his invited commentary in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Functional dyspepsia is the name given to the ailment this large group of people suffer from: stomach aches without a discernable cause.

Diagnosing what might be at the root of a bellyache is trouble because there are so many potential causes. The stomach may have difficulty emptying or it might be secreting high levels of acid — genetics and environmental factors such as stress and diet play a role, too.

A typically prescribed drug is a proton pump inhibitor, which blocks stomach acid production. But it only works when a stomach ache is caused by an atypical type of acid reflux. Prokinetic agents work on the small intestines and “may” help, but larger studies are not confirming the smaller studies, Moayyedi says.

In addition to these drugs, in China and Japan, doctors dispense herbal medicines such as xiaoyao san and rikkunshito to treat functional dyspepsia.

It might not just be from the lovely dinner. Image: Smathur80 via Wikimedia Commons

According to Moayyedi there is a “paucity of effective therapies” for functional dyspepsia, which is hardly good news everyone with a pained belly.

This class of indigestion can mean short-term or lifelong pain, another reason why a better understanding of the ailment is needed. A Vanderbilt University School of Medicine study with children and teens between 8 and 16 who were followed for 15 years found patients who had been diagnosed young with a painful condition called esophagitis had a lower quality of life as young adults and were at increased risk for anxiety as well as chronic indigestion.

Doctors also tend to prescribe antibiotics to people with functional dyspepsia. The idea is to rid the body of the bacterium that causes ulcers, Helicobacter pylori. The bacterium can be sometimes detected in people who have stomach ache symptoms. Some patients get relief from this treatment.

The microbe is not equally distributed throughout the world. Studies suggest it plays a larger role in the Chinese population than in Western populations. According to a study from Singapore, wiping out H. pylori in patients with chronic stomach aches may be “more significant” in the Asian region.

The benefits have to be weighed against what one study calls the high financial burden of the treatment as well as the risk of antibiotic resistance.

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Taking a low energy spin

We add gadget to gadget in our carpetbag of electronic goodies well aware that the devices can only be themselves when there is enough power at hand. Read and write operations, which are computing tasks that include getting information from a computer’s hard drive and putting it there, all take energy to run. Researchers are exploring lower power ways to do the job.

The idea is to one day lose conventional switching methods, which require a magnetic field, so that an electric current is enough to handle the switching. Solutions that have been tried up to now have unfortunately puffed out too much energy as heat loss, the authors of a new study write.

As scientists hunt for the right materials a number of groups focus on multiferroics, which have garnered much interest among physicists. These materials are multitaskers: they have both electric and magnetic properties. Applying an electric field to these multiferroics can reverse their magnetization. But getting them to do so in an orderly fashion is hard.

Materials scientists at the University of California Berkeley and the National Chiao Tung University in Taiwan along with Intel Corporation have now managed the feat and published their work in the journal Physical Review Letters. With their, in their words, “heretofore unreported” method of magnetization reversal with an electric field, they may well have changed the outlook in this field.

Magnetism and electricity go together. Image by Oguraclutch via Wikimedia Commons

Their method could “pave the way to a new generation of compact magnetic devices with unmatched energy efficiency,” writes materials scientist Manfred Fiebig of the ETH Zurich in an accompanying editorial to their study.

It has long been known that an electric field can be used to change a material’s magnetic properties. This quality is one the data storage industry likes, which is why multiferroic compounds hold promise. Yet the marriage between magnetic and electric order in these materials is not “a happy one,” writes Fiebig.

Multiferroic compounds generally require low temperatures, which is one challenge to working with them and creating applications. And even under those conditions, they do not deliver much in terms of energy-saving effects. Some scientists have been focusing on a multiferroic called BiFeO3, Fiebig explains, which shows “robust” multiferroicity at room temperature.

In their new paper, the Berkeley researchers explain how they lowered the energy needs of writing a magnetic state. They leveraged the goings-on at the interface between a ferromagnetic layer and the mutiferroic BiFeO3.

Since nature does not deliver a wealth of materials with desired multiple electric and magnetic traits, researchers like the Berkeley group have been fabricating heterostructures, thin-film composite materials. They hook up ferromagnets and ferroelectrics into interacting heterostructures. Apply a magnetic field to one partner in such a structure creates strain, which becomes electric current to the other partner in the structure.

In this new work, the scientists created a composite by depositing a ferromagnetic alloy, CoFe, onto films of the multiferroic BiFeO3. When they applied an electric field to this heterostructure, they were able to reversibly switch the ferromagnet’s magnetization at room temperature and in the absence of a magnetic field.

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Pigeons know who is nice

In cities, people who like pigeons are a minority. In a New York City park, I recently saw a young woman on a bench calmly feeding a group of the birds by hand with pigeons pecking and cooing right next to her.

Noting pigeons’ reputation as flying rats, animal behavior researcher Ahmed Belguermi of the University of Paris West Nanterre La Défense and his colleagues have found that  birds can tell the difference between people and adjust their behavior accordingly. The team has added to the wealth of literature about pigeon smarts with their study in the journal Animal Cognition.

For the experiments in a downtown Parisian park, the team spread out seeds on two identically-sized patches in an area regularly frequented by 80 to 100 pigeons.

Feeding pigeons, by Mila Zinkova via Wikimedia Commons.

One human feeder, clad in a long coat, always acted grouchy and performed “vigorous arm waving” once a minute. This “hostile” behavior at one seed patch kept the pigeons from feeding. In contrast, the “neutral” feeder, also in a long coat of a different color, stood still next to the seeds on the other patch. With a video camera, the scientists captured the number of pigeons feeding on each seeded area.

Then, in testing sessions, the pigeons were allowed to feed on both patches and neither feeder bothered the birds. The pigeons avoided the previously “hostile” human, even though that person was no longer disturbing the birds and even when the seed pile in the other patch got low.

The research team believes “that pigeons discriminated facial or other body or movement characteristics and used them to recognize and avoid the hostile feeder.” The coats the feeders wore covered around 90 percent of their bodies leaving only head, hands and shoes visible to the pigeons. In one experiment, the feeders were two women and in another experiment, one man and one woman did the feeding. The people were of similar height, size, and skin color. They wore different colored-long coats, too, and even swapped the coats in the course of the experiment.

The birds might have detected general body shape or face traits, write the researchers. “We do not know yet precisely which characteristics are used,” they admitted.

The researchers say that being able to discriminate between human feeders is “ecologically relevant” for the birds, because it means faster recognition of the safe human feeder. It leads to a gain in energy and time when foraging for food. Pigeons rely on humans for their food in cities, from either “benevolent” feeders or from people leaving scraps behind. Either way, it is to the birds’ advantage if they can recognize “the best human feeder.” How they do so, is still a mystery.

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Coming home to music

Everyone has a favorite song they like to take along. Your headphones connect you to your music collection, as long as there is an electrical outlet nearby to recharge the device when the juice runs out.

When you don’t have a home, though, music can ease the situation. When you are homeless, just finding an electrical outlet is difficult.

For the homeless, mobile music can become a home of sorts. The MP3 players also make for good bartering material, report researchers from the University of Washington.

Scientists explore our relations to personal digital devices to uncover how our culture and our habits are changing. Some academics look at the role these objects play for people in difficult circumstances, like the homeless.

Jill Palzkill Woelfer and David Hendry from the UW’s Information School interviewed 12 people between the ages of 19 and 29 at a Seattle drop-in center for the homeless and people transitioning out of homelessness. They reported their findings at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Meeting Computer-Human Interaction Conference earlier this year.

Research meets public service

Here is a talk at the University of British Columbia by Palzkill Woelfer with an introduction by Hendry that explains how this project is about designing information systems that are sensitive to values, in this case, the needs of the homeless. As Hendry explains, their work is a research venture and a public service project.

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Reprieve for snakebite victims

When a poisonous snake’s fangs sink into someone, the victim needs anti-venom treatment as soon as possible. The snake toxin travels from the bite’s location to the lymphatic system and then to the bloodstream, where it can, for example, cause respiratory failure and death. It might buy time when you put pressure on the bite with a bandage, slowing the venom’s journey through the body. But there is bitter disagreement among snakebite experts about whether pressure bandages help or harm.

A team of researchers at John Hunter Hospital, the University of Newcastle, and the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital in Australia has tested a gel that slows the voyage of venom in a snakebite victim’s body. The gel could also heighten the effects of pressure bandages, increasing the need for consensus on this type of snakebite treatment.

Publishing their findings in the July issue of Nature Medicine, the scientists tested a commercially available gel on 15 male and female volunteers. Instead of using real snake venom on their subjects, they used a stand-in for the venom. The non-toxic substance travels just like venom from the point of injection to the lymph nodes.

Travel time

The team injected the substance into the feet of their volunteers, tracking in each case the time the molecule took to travel from foot to groin lymph nodes. To be able to compare results, they smeared the ointment on the injection sites of some, but not all of their test subjects.

The gel led to a “marked slowing” of the molecule’s transit from simulated bite site to the lymph nodes. Without the ointment, the venom substitute took between 4 to 81 minutes. With the ointment it took between 6.5 to 162 minutes for it to go from foot to lymph nodes. The tested individuals show a wide range of transit times, an aspect on which the scientists do not comment in their paper.

The team also performed animal experiments using a venom replacement on the hind legs of anesthetized rats. In these cases, adding the gel increased transit time to the lymph nodes three-fold.

The gel, normally used to treat hemorrhoids, releases nitric oxide (NO), which is a chemical that is also a signaling molecule in the body. The scientists believe that NO-release brakes the spread of venom after a snake bite by stopping smooth muscle contractions that are a part of the body’s lymphatic pump. These contractions push the toxin onward in the body. The authors write that delaying venom transportation also lowers venom effects because it lowers the peak venom concentration in blood.

Photo by Peter Woodard. Eastern Brown Snake in Tamban Forest near Kempsey, New South Wales, Australia.

The scientists also applied real venom, from the Eastern Brown snake, on anesthetized rats. The Eastern Brown snake has “extremely potent venom” and causes more snakebites in Australia than any other, according to a snake site at the University of Sydney.

The researchers found that the gel “significantly” increased the lymph transit time by 6 minutes and staved off respiratory system collapse by around half an hour. As the results sicker through the scientific community, it is sure to stir up plenty of disagreement about pressure bandages.

Speed is the first priority with snakebites. The University of Sydney site has the tale of Theodore the dog who died after being bitten by the Eastern Brown snake. His owner is upset to not have recognized the symptoms quick enough. The symptoms include vomiting green bile, frothing at the mouth, swollen gums, and rapid heartbeat.

Pressure bandages must be placed skillfully to work well. The University of Melbourne’s department of pharmacology website has an explanation and illustration.

Here is a Youtube video of someone bandaging a cat’s leg to illustrate a firm bandage.  (I do not think the kittie has been hurt, it is just calm enough to be a bandage show-kitty.)

Some bites are unlike others

The World Health Organization’s Regional Office for South-East Asia also mentions pressure bandages on its site about snakebites in Southeast Asia. It states that pressure immobilization is “recommended for bites by neurotoxic elapid snakes, including sea snakes but should not be used for viper bites because of the danger of increasing the local effects of the necrotic venom.” For those kinds of bites, a local compression pad is better, according to the site.

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Lights out at the smasher

It has been a sad countdown toward the closure of the Tevatron, the atom smasher at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. Money is the main reason that the four-mile long particle accelerator is going dark tomorrow, on September 30, 2011.

The shutdown will be streamed live on Friday, Sept 30 at 2 pm Central Time.

In a letter to employees back in January, Fermilab director Pier Oddone told staff that the “present budgetary” climate stopped the Department of Energy from obtaining funds to keep the Tevatron running. Protons and antiprotons can now no longer smack into one another there, telling stories about their own qualities and helping researchers find new subatomic particles.

Tevatron Ring with Fermilab’s Wilson Hall in background.
Image: courtesy Fermilab.

The Tevatron, completed in 1983, cost $120 million to build as part of Fermilab, which was constructed in 1967.The Guardian’s Jon Butterworth mentions a visual tribute to the Tevatron, and a bike ride, by artist Maria      Scileppi and Tevatron physicist Rob Snihur. The film is here and background about it here.Dennis Overbye wrote his tribute to the Tevatron in New York Times in January.

The Tevatron’s closing is not news since Oddone sent out his note in January announcing the end. Although the lab heard about this funding issue in January, rumblings probably reached the scientists sooner.

One of the greatest Tevatron hits was to help scientists discover the top quark in 1995. The top quark is the third in a trio next to the up quark and the down quark. Here is Fermilab’s timeline of Tevatron’s achievements.

As Adrian Cho points out in Science, the Tevatron has fans but there is also lukewarm praise, in which the Tevatron is called a “solid” player. Other researchers wish that research there had focused more on W and Z bosons, the latter having the ability to change into a top quark.

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