On May 18th, 2017 we learned about

The scientific underpinnings everyone’s favorite fidget spinners

As the parent of a second grader, I’m apparently obligated to have an opinion or concern over the fad/scourge/salvation known as fidget spinners. Our household now owns a lovely metallic-purple spinner, and it hasn’t made a huge difference in our lives one way or the other. This may be because they’re just toys exploiting kids’ (humans’?) desire to keep up with their peers, but it may also be because fidgeting isn’t often an issue my daughter seems to struggle with. This point may actually tell me more about my daughter than the spinners though, as some researchers suggest that the toys are sort of a tool for self-regulation, and as such every person may benefit differently from playing with them.

The fuss about fidgeting

For those of you outside the parenting bubble, a fidget spinner is a flat, three pronged piece of metal or plastic with rounded edges. Each prong flares out wide enough to accommodate a small disc inside that can turn on internal bearings. In the center of all this is another disc, which again can turn on internal bearings. You then interact with a spinner by holding the center disc like an axle, flicking the outer prongs to watch it spin. It’s oddly satisfying just to flick, but some kids take it farther by trying to do tricks, and in some cases, accidentally discovering rotational inertia (more on that here).

The fidget concept is that instead of getting distracted during an otherwise sedentary activity, like a classroom lecture, you can keep your hands busy with your spinner. This isn’t actually that odd an idea, and many adults that twiddle pencils, click retractable pens, or maybe doodle already employ the same strategy that spinners promise— by giving your hands something to do, you’re actually fine-tuning your stimulation levels. If all goes well, you should be able to improve your overall concentration by finding just the right balance of activity levels. For some people, an object to manipulate in their hand might not be necessary. For others, those small amounts of movement may really make a difference— some studies have found that kids who have something to wiggle with actually have their test score improve.

Finding the right balance

The downside of fidget spinners may be that they can occupy too much of one’s attention. If you go beyond just flicking them in your hand by attempting balancing tricks, you’re likely to want to look at the spinner at the same time, which will draw you away from class, your meeting, the deposition, etc. In that sense, clicking pens or other toys, like fidget cubes, may be superior at helping us moderate our activity without demanding too much concentration. In some cases, the best option isn’t in one’s hands, but under one’s butt— our local elementary school will let kids swap their chairs for exercise balls, which is basically another way to let students manage their activity and stimulation.

So a fidget spinner may not be a bad idea, but it may miss its design goals ever so slightly. This imperfect match for their stated purpose of managing activity and stimulation may doom them to being the fad many are labeling them as, but that doesn’t mean the underlying ideas aren’t worth paying attention to.


My second grader said: I can balance my spinner without looking at it! Look!

Source: Fidget toys aren’t just hype by Katherine Isbister, The Conversation

On August 15th, 2016 we learned about

Mop-up teams fight the fires that might flare up behind the fire line

Battling wildfires is an enormously involved process, and it continues on long after the walls of flame have been extinguished. The first goal of dealing with large wildfires is to contain them, creating a perimeter where there is no more fuel, or fire, to burn, keeping things from spreading further. Once that perimeter has been established, it needs to be maintained, which is where the mop-up teams go to work.

Mop-up teams are in charge of making sure fires don’t get restarted behind the fire line. Forest fires can burn hot enough to leave smoldering embers and ash buried under dirt and rocks, even without the presence of visible flames. Since a shift in the wind or hotter day can push these hidden heat sources back into the danger zone, mop-up teams have to carefully sift and dig through burned areas to make sure everything is really extinguished.

Low-tech tools

Rather than fire trucks, mop-up teams rely on a less mechanized tool set for their work. Pulaski, which are a sort of ax-pickax hybrid, is used to chop and break up soil and clumps of foliage. To see how hot soil may be at any particular location, these firefighters simply pull off a glove to feel the temperature with the back of their hand. If a hot spot is found, it might be “dry mopped” by mixing in cooler soil, or “wet mopped” by spraying additional water to cool things off.

Potential perils

While these teams shouldn’t be facing walls of flame when mopping up a burn site, they’re certainly not out for a picnic either. Firefighters may still deal with long, physically exhausting shifts as they dig and hack their way through smoking forests. Burned trees are often structurally unsound, and prone to collapse, possibly revealing fires hidden in their branches or trunks. Ash pits are another common hazard, as trees and roots that have burned away may leave hidden cavities underground. As a firefighter walks through the area, they may suddenly find themselves waist deep in hot ash, as the ground beneath their feet collapses.

Even after the mop-up work is done, the fire management still isn’t complete. To help get burned areas back to normal as quickly as possible, teams of soil specialists move in to assess the damage, and prescribe next steps to rehabilitate the lost flora. Some of this is to restore the woods quickly, but a more immediate concern is to fend off erosion and possible mudslides, as the burned plants and their stabilizing root structures will be sorely missed at the next windy or rainy day.

Source: Unglamorous ‘Mop-Up’ Duty Keeps Fires Extinguished by Sharon McNary, KQED News

On May 22nd, 2016 we learned about

Crafting furniture through careful cultivation

My wife just completed building an eight-foot table for our porch. After watching the sawing, drilling, sanding and staining, my first grader suggested that “next time” she try getting a really big log, and just carving a table out of one piece of wood. The conversation then drifted into hypotheticals about the size of the tree you’d need for a table this size, but the basic notion that furniture doesn’t have to be assembled isn’t actually far fetched. Some items can be carved, and others can just be grown and harvested.

If you look for “single log” furniture, it will often refer to pieces that have been sourced from a single tree, often with some traditional assembly involved. The advantage of this concept is that careful planning can help reduce the amount of wood wasted if nearly every piece goes back into the furniture in question. If you’re willing to deal with more waste, you can skip all the screws and nails by carving a whole log, most often with a chainsaw.

A seat from a sapling

For minimal material waste, both from wood or fasteners, you should probably just grow your furniture. People have been guiding and shaping trees and vines for ages, which can produce results comparable to an all natural 3D printer. To achieve more complex shapes than a round stump, branches of willow, oak or ash trees can be grafted together, forming a natural weld, so to speak. With planning and patience, this can allow for a variety of forms, even incorporating some elegant decoration beyond the object’s structure. More complex items need more time to grow, but an elaborate chair can be harvested after 11 years, with only some pruning and finishing to be complete.

For the most part, this kind of “manufacturing” is too slow and labor intensive for mass production. A firm called Full Grown Ltd. is trying to prove that growing complete furniture is viable though, especially in light of the energy savings involved. They estimate that growing a chair at once may offer as much as 75 percent energy savings over traditional harvesting, planing, preparation, etc. (although shipping a full chair is trickier than something that can be stacked and shipped flat.) Full Grown Ltd. is looking to make the process as streamlined as possible though, with a willow chair requiring as little as four years to grow. Other products include spiraling lampshades as well as tables, although achieving a single smooth surface is obviously a challenge.

No need to harvest

If a grown chair still seems too invasive, tree shaping can make you a seat that doesn’t need to be cut down. Similar to grown furniture, guides and grafting can achieve complex forms in tree trunks, to the point of becoming living sculptures. The one catch is that your living tree-chair is probably even harder to relocate that the hulking log my first grader proposed we carve on our porch.

Source: The Furniture Farmer by Andrew Amelinckx, Modern Farmer

On January 21st, 2016 we learned about

Railroad delays shuttering station for one last student commuter

If a train goes to a station where there’s nobody to ride it, does it make a stop? Considering the expense of operating a train as a commuter vehicle only makes sense if you can sell tickets for the majority of seats, it would probably make sense to skip that station, and maybe even close it altogether. A number of small stations throughout rural Japan are slated to be closed due to lack of ridership in the coming year, but in the Hokkaido area, cost efficiency is taking a back seat for the benefit of a single rider. The Kyu-Shirataki Station is apparently being kept open for the convenience of its last regular passenger— a high school student who uses the train to get to school.

Reduced ridership

The Kyu-Shirataki Station is on the JR Hokkaido Main line, located 807 miles north of Tokyo. Thanks to dwindling rural populations and the end of freight services on the line, the small station has been seeing less and less use. This pattern has being playing out all over Japan, shifting demand from remote stations to more densely populated urban centers.

As service winds down at the 70-year-old station, the schedule has been tailored a bit to the needs of the student who uses the station. The two scheduled stops per day are meant to accommodate her school schedule, even if there are other stations available two to six miles away. Her expected graduation date conveniently coincides with the end of the railroad’s fiscal year, at which point the station will be permanently closed.

One student, but many pilgrims

While this student’s commute has attracted some attention to the shrinking rail service, she’s not the only citizen enjoying the country’s smaller train stations. Enthusiasts have dubbed these out of the way stations hikyo eki, or “secluded stations.” While seeing less and less use for daily commutes, the stations are being visited as destinations unto themselves. Suggested stops give visitors a tour of Japan’s cultural history, and begs some reflection on the current transition the country is experiencing.

Source: Japan Keeps This Train Station Running for Just One Regular Passenger by Linda Poon, City Lab

On November 26th, 2015 we learned about

Ambergris: The prized squid parts whales don’t want

You might not believe it, but the results of indigestion were once worth a ton of money. Well, not your indigestion, nobody wants that, because you’re not eating enough squid beaks to make a material called ambergris. Sperm whales, on the other hand, make this amazing material in their guts which humans have prized as an aphrodisiac, plague replant and even perfume fixative. It once sold for thousands of dollars an ounce, none of which helps the whales very much.

Digested and rejected

Ambergris has been found washed ashore in a variety of shapes and sizes, from 15 grams to 110 pounds. By the time it’s washed ashore, it’s usually hard with a crusty or waxy color, and is even capable of fossilization. It’s not a mineral though, as fresher samples are fatty, soft and stinky, hinting at its origin in the irritated gut of a sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus). When the whales are gobbling squid, their hard beaks don’t always go down as easily as their soft bodies, and so the whale will generally try to cough or vomit the beaks back up. If it’s too far down it’s digestive tract, the beak gets coated in a greasy substance to ease it’s eventual ejection along with the whale’s poop.

Salable smell

While this all sounds rather unsavory, the hardened clumps of ambergris have a much more pleasant smell than you’d assume. It’s been burned as an incense since Ancient Egypt, even being added as a scent in cigarettes. During the Black Plague in 14th-century Europe, people would carry a pellet of ambergris on a necklace, hoping the smell would ward off any foul air they thought carried the plague (no word on if the smell repels plague-infected fleas.)

More recently, ambergris was in demand as a perfume additive, driving it’s value up immensely. Perfume makers used it as a fixative in their recipes, helping the perfume stay on the body longer while at the same time lending some of its earthy odor to the mix. Demand has diminished in recent years, as chemists have been able to replicate the preservative qualities of ambergris with ambroxan. This is on top of a ban for its sale in the United States since the 1973 Endangered Species Act, preventing sales of a product derived from endangered species like our gastrically distressed sperm whales.

Source: What's Ambergris? Behind the $60k Whale-Waste Find by Johnna Rizzo, National Geographic News

On August 4th, 2015 we learned about

Managing the cycle stockpiles of Amsterdam

Amsterdam has a problem that many other cities wish they had to worry about. While many cities, especially in the United States, are struggling with clogged freeways and cramped parking options, Amsterdam is drowning in bicycles. Actually, in many cases it’s the bicycles that are drowning, as they’re literally spilling into the canals as people look for easy places to park them.

Cycling is a big part of Dutch culture, but that’s only part of why residents of Amsterdam collectively bike 1.2 million miles a day. A compact city plan in across largely flat terrain make biking a very easy and practical form of transportation. There are health benefits, plus a lack of pollution makes cycling an environmentally friendly way to get around the city. Unless you consider the bikes themselves pollution when they end up in the water.

Boating for bikes

The canals of Amsterdam have a history of pollutants, as they used to double as an unofficial public sewer. In 1860 most of these biohazards were cleaned up, and by comparison the bikes dumped in the water are much easier to handled. This is thanks to the “bike fishermen,” who patrol the canals with a boat outfitted with a giant, mechanical claw. Looking something like a scaled-up skill game from a carnival, these patrols retrieve shopping carts, scooters, and around 15 thousand bicycles per year. Some of these drowned bikes may be accidents, as there are few fences to keep them out of the canals, but many may be purposely abandoned.

Snapping up cycles

A second task force patrols Amsterdam for bikes that are illegally parked, blocking right of ways or, after two weeks, considered abandoned. Even with four-story parking garages entirely for bikes, commuters are known to cut corners either to make a train on time or avoid the hassle of properly finding a parking space. Improperly parked bikes are cut off their locks, carefully documented, and trucked out of town to a large holding lot. There they can be reclaimed, largely thanks to the careful organization of the operation. Eventually, unclaimed bikes are either recycled, resold, or even donated to other countries. People who do claim their bike get to enjoy the “ride of shame,” riding on a mostly empty road back to town while contemplating how they ended up there in the first place.

Why neglect their wheels?

So why are so many bikes tossed about in a city that loves and enjoys them? There may be just too many bikes, and they aren’t perceived as being valuable. When it’s cheaper to get a new, used bike than pay for repairs, people may just toss them in the drink. They’re even compared to disposable cups. It’s still good to have people biking, of course, but programs are being developed to reduce the need for everyone to own and maintain their own vehicle.

Amsterdam actually started a bike sharing program in the 1960’s, but it eventually failed. Other cities have since copied that idea, and now Amsterdam may be ready for a second shot at it, so that hopefully the four-story garage will be a place where bikes frequently “checked out” and used, rather than piled up to the point of frustration. Either way, Los Angeles is jealous.

Source: In Amsterdam, watch out for tow trucks — for bikes by Bradley Campbell and Marissa Lorusso, PRI's The World

On July 30th, 2015 we learned about

Dogs have learned to look for the looks we make for toddlers

Humans likely started domesticating dogs 13- to 15-thousand years ago. While these early companions may have initially interacted with us as scavengers or hunting partners, much of our relationship and psychology with modern dogs seems to be modeled more on our children. When you gaze into the eyes of the significant canine in your life, both of your brains react with the same neurotransmitters in play when people bond with their babies. Now another parental pattern has been proven, wherein dogs look to their owners for guidance on how to handle unclear situations.

In humans, this pattern actually extends beyond parents and children, but it’s more obvious when a toddler finds themselves in an unusual situation. If they’re not familiar with something like a potentially surmountable obstacle, they’ll often look to their mom or dad for cues about how they should treat this novel encounter. If the parent looks worried, the child will usually pull back or hold still. If the parent smiles, the child will proceed to interact with whatever the item or scenario was, having understood that smile as an “all clear!” signal.

From kids to canines

While the above isn’t shocking, it is interesting how directly it seems to have been translated to dogs. Dogs were put in a room with their owners and a table fan, decorated with green ribbons to act as streamers. The fan didn’t need to an actual threat, but it was enough to make the dogs consider it for a moment.

Almost every dog followed the pattern set out by toddlers. They looked to their owners immediately, and then followed the cues set out for them. Negative facial expressions, turned backs or harsh words would all tell the dog that the fan was trouble, and to keep its distance. More positive or accepting body language would then do the opposite, and the dogs would approach or touch the streamers.

The effect was strong enough that researchers kept dogs that had had negative cues after the study was done to try to undo the original instructions. Extra treats and enthusiastic behavior was displayed to make sure no dogs went home with an overly pessimistic idea about fans they might see later on.

Source: Dogs Look to People to Figure Out How to Respond to the Crazy Green Monster by Julie Hecht, Dog Spies

On July 16th, 2015 we learned about

The people of Berezniki celebrate blood sucking while withstanding the ground sinking

The town of Berezniki, in the Ural mountains, is holding what has become the annual Russian Mosquito Festival. Three days of activities are planned, all celebrating or enduring people’s relationship as food for irritating blood-suckers. It’s all tongue-in-cheek, with events purposely designed to be “absurd,” which is probably a good coping mechanism when you live in a place otherwise famous for being besieged by sink-holes.

On the light-hearted side of things, the Mosquito festival will include a parade with costumes, music, and a twist on a beauty pageant. The pageant will be to crown Ms. Mosquito Legs, looking for the longest, skinniest and presumably most insect-like legs in town. On the more excruciating side of things, there will also be a “Tastiest Girl” competition. Participants will stand for 20 minutes to be bitten by the mosquitoes near the municipal pond, trying to accumulate the most bites. Whoever has the highest bite count after 20 minutes wins. Event organizer Natalya Paramonova noted that in her opinion, the insects prefer healthier people that “eat well, don’t drink and don’t smoke,” although there’s little scientific evidence for that claim at the moment. The current record to beat is 100 bites.

Problems bigger than bug bites

While not exactly the most traditional forms of revelry, the Mosquito Festival is certainly a more pleasant reason to be in the news than sink-holes. After a freshwater spring began eroding salt pillars in a potash mine in 2006, sink-holes have been threatening the town. At the time, the mayor stated that they would not consider relocating, and indeed electronic surveillance has done a good job of predicting sink-holes before they cause real harm. Collapses have continued, with one happening this February, although Berezniki’s major infrastructure is said to be holding up. Still, some 12,000 residents have moved away in the last decade to avoid massive holes up to 340 yards wide and 50 stories deep. Whether or not the Mosquito Festival is enough to lure them back remains to be seen.

 

Source: Insect-Loving Russians Gearing Up for Annual Mosquito Festival, The Moscow Times

On April 15th, 2015 we learned about

For cows, a magnet one day can keep the surgeon away

Cows aren’t the most careful eaters out there. They basically rip up anything they can when they’re grazing, chew a bit, then swallow. This is only the beginning of their digestive process though, as the food will famously make it’s way through the cow’s multiple stomachs, get chewed again as cud, etc. But when the cow grabs something in that initial bite that wasn’t food, it can become a dangerous hazard in the cow’s belly.

When a cow gets too much iron in their diet

One of the biggest concerns is that the cow will pick up lost tacks, nails, wire or other bits of metal debris out in the field. These sharp metal objects will usually pass through some of the cow’s digestive tract before stopping at the reticulum— a chamber meant to sort foodstuffs either for further digestion or further chewing. But metal doesn’t fit into this system well, and can either lead to inflammation of the stomach walls, tearing of the stomach with possible damage to the animal’s heart (located next door), or blockage bad enough to require surgical intervention, conditions collectively known as “Hardware disease.”

That surgery is fairly involved, and as it involves the immediate release of previously blocked digestive tract, fairly disgusting: “The stinky contents rush out under pressure and coat the barn floor, the surgeon and anything else within range.” Fortunately, there’s a fairly reliable and easy method to help prevent hardware disease, and all it requires is having the cow swallow a piece of metal.

Enter the cow magnet

The metal that is purposely fed to the cow is a magnet. It’s a couple inches long, and fed through a tube to get it started on its journey to the cow’s reticulum. Once there, it will stay and gather up any stray nails or wire the cow may have swallowed, keeping them from causing damage to the reticulum walls. The cow will keep the magnet for the rest of its life, and can be checked for by holding a compass near the outside of the cow to see if it reacts to it. The system isn’t flawless, as non-ferrous metals like aluminum from soda cans aren’t affected, but it’s certainly easier on everyone than surgery.

Source: 'Hardware disease' isn't fun for the cow or veterinarian by Bill Croushore, Daily American

On March 8th, 2015 we learned about

Music by humans for cats

This one is simultaneously self-explanatory and confusing. While there have been looks into whether or not animals appreciate music, or at least rhythm, this project has leap-frogged all that and started composing music supposedly tailored to the taste of house cats.

Going along with the premise that cats have been jealous of humans top-40 collections since their domestication, David Teie has composed music based around sounds and rhythms that would be familiar or interesting to cats. For instance, a series of high-pitched notes are played at 23 Hz to match the timing of a cat’s purr. A higher-pitched series of tones is meant to be reminiscent of birds. They’re not meant to trick the cats, just evoke things that the cats normally care about.

How are the tunes received? Some cats seem to be very interested in them, while others regard it like most people handle a collection of familiar sounds as presented by Negativeland. Then again, it’s not at all surprising to learn that cats are finicky about their music, as with everything else.

Source: These Tunes Are Music To Your Cats' Furry Ears by NPR Staff, Weekend Edition Saturday