Management Invites You to Celebrate

The black rat squatted in the closest corner of the cell, turning over some bit of scavenged offal in its paws but still watching what was happening to me with beady-eyed interest. I idly wondered how long it would take for the rat to chew through the leather straps binding me to the chair, if I could lure it closer, if it were hungry, if it were so motivated. At least the fantasy gave me an instant’s distraction from the man pacing in front of my outstretched bare feet.

Bastinado,” purred the community manager of PLoS Blogs. “One of the more practical yet excruciating forms of torture embraced by the Spanish Inquisition.” He thudded the wolf’s head on his cane into his palm experimentally, testing the force. “Bludgeoning the soles of the feet inflicts unbearable pain without life-threatening injuries. And it leaves your precious, precious hands intact for typing.”

He looked me straight in the eye then. “You remember typing, don’t you? It was that activity you did with your fingers when you were actually blogging?”

Where I've been: the Banff Center, teaching science communications. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

“Seriously, Brian?” I sighed. “We’re doing this again? Okay, first, I’ve only been away for two weeks. In the Canadian Rockies, teaching at the Banff Science Communications program with broadcasting icon Jay Ingram and others. And second—hello, torture? Really? I still don’t even understand why the Public Library of Science lets you do this to the writers. It seems so… un-open access.”

He planted the cane on the cell’s dirt floor and leaned toward me. “Disciplined, regular posting is the cornerstone of successful blogging.”

“All I’m saying is, this sort of torture never happens at the Scientific American blogging network.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Doesn’t it? Doesn’t it, really?”

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Category: Entertainment, Science Writing | 5 Comments

The Rat’s Revenge

Give the people what they want, I say. And so in that spirit, I’m happy to now be able to present something for which my critics have long clamored: video of me being attacked by angry rats.

Well, not quite. But here’s the next best thing. A few months ago, I was approached by Ben Lillie and the other good folks behind The Story Collider, a wonderful group that features people telling true stories about how science, medicine and technology have affected their lives. If you’re a fan of The Moth storytelling events, radio show and podcasts, you would undoubtedly enjoy The Story Collider’s slightly more science-flavored offerings. Take a look at their backlist of stories on podcast.

Ben was kind enough to invite me to participate in The Story Collider’s one-year anniversary event on June 23, the theme of which was “Reinvention.” Others on the bill were George Hrab, Jen Lee, Nancy Parmalee and Ed Gavagan, all of whom spun amazing tales that were by turn funny, heart-wrenching and terrifying.

My story, “Aggression,” is now available on both video and audio. (You can also get the audio through The Story Collider’s podcasts on iTunes.) It does indeed feature one very angry rat of the laboratory variety, and I am indeed placed in peril (of sorts). And yet I would hope that the overall effect is primarily amusing. Caution: The story does include reminiscences of animal experimentation and bad 1970s fashion.

John Rennie: Aggression from The Story Collider on Vimeo.

Category: Animal Behavior, Entertainment, Psychology | Leave a comment

The Latest in 3D Printing: The Era of Downloadable Objects

Would a home appliance that could make anything you desired have a magically transformative effect on society? Or would it destroy it? Or would it simply blend into the continuum of amazing technological innovations that reshape modern life all the time? We may soon have a chance to find out, if trends in desktop manufacturing hold steady.

Manufacturing may still be synonymous with factories for most of us—with hulking industrial machines and mass production and corporate ownership. Not so for members of the maker movement, however, who take Tim O’Reilly’s MAKE Magazine as their polestar. They have been working for years to change all that with their do-it-yourself ethos and their advocacy for tools and standards that can help anyone take control over the technology in their lives. One of the technologies that best embody their ideals is 3D printing, a form of rapid prototyping that can create solid objects to exact programmed specifications. For the past couple of decades, big manufacturers have used it to (as the name would imply) rapidly make prototypes of contemplated designs for testing and further development.

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Category: Economics, Technology | 6 Comments

Dolphins: Sponge-worthy? Yes. Antimicrobial? Maybe

Dolphin wearing a sponge tool. (Photo: Eric M. Patterson, from PLoS ONE)

Update added at end.

Back in 2005 I wrote about dolphins that had developed a culture of placing protective sponges over their beaks to root along the seafloor for fish, which was noteworthy as a rare instance of tool use among cetaceans. (In my post on the subject, which I brushed off for use here last February, I also discussed how some dolphins seem to use bubbles as tools, too, and I flagged Emily Anthes’s Wonderland post with video about those.) Now it may be clearer why those dolphins go to so much trouble.  Georgetown University researchers Eric M. Patterson and Janet Mann have reported in PLoS ONE that dolphins off the coast of Western Australia that use this technique can catch more nutritious fish and may thereby improve the odds of their offsprings’ survival.

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Category: Animal Behavior, Biology, Drug Development | Leave a comment

Zeppelin Disappointments, Airship Woes

Serendipitously, Maggie Koerth-Baker, the brilliant science editor for Boing Boing, recently wrote about her visit to the zeppelin Eureka, just on the heels of my own posts here and at Txchnologist about airships. She offers an independent confirmation that as appealing and inspiring as these vehicles may be, they suffer from practical drawbacks that help to explain why our skies are not festooned with them.

As she writes, Maggie had been looking forward to a ride on the Eureka, which is a new technology zeppelin that carries 12 passengers and two crew, primarily for tourism but also sometimes for research jobs that need a hovering platform. The Eureka sounds like a marvelous little craft (I use “little” advisedly as an endearment, because it is longer than a 747), and Maggie’s enthusiasm for airships shines. She comes to recognize, however, that their comparatively large size, low speed, ballast and ground support requirements, and susceptibility to wind, among other considerations, do make them less practical than airplanes for most aviation jobs, as I had discussed.

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Category: Technology | 13 Comments

Gaaah!!! Nature!: Name that Monster “Curse You, Carl Zimmer!” edition

No, it is not the fearsome olgoi-khorkhoi, the Mongolian death worm of legend once feared by Gobi desert dwellers, nor an unspeakable dhole from H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction. Nor is it a prop Shai-Hulud sandworm left over from one of the Dune films, nor a pre-Cambrian graboid from the Tremors movies, nor even something from Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s upcoming prequel to Alien, though it would fit right in with any of those productions. But by the carpeted dais of Carl Linnaeus, what is it?

A hydrothermal worm, but of what species? (Image: FEI)

The microscope maker FEI posted this scanning electron micrograph in its image gallery with only the label “hydrothermal worm.” (And thanks, while I’m at it, to Rob Beschizza of Boing Boing and JWZ for bringing it to my attention.) Unfortunately, that labeling leaves much to be desired because the description “hydrothermal worm” fits a great many wee beasties.

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Category: Biology, Gaaah!!! Nature!, Parasites | 5 Comments

Does Global Warming Help the Case for Airships?

In the alternate worlds of steampunk fiction, glorious airships rule the skies, untroubled by lingering Hindenburg karma or pesky competition from other flying machines. One way that the television show Fringe flags scenes set in its heroes’ antagonistic parallel universe is by showing a New York skyline ornamented with passenger dirigibles (and a World Trade Center that never fell). Airships in our real world may not currently be much more than floating novelties, but enthusiasts for their technology have never given up on the dream of founding a new airship industry built around transporting people and cargo. Whether they can do so is debatable, but one factor that might tip the balance in their favor—perhaps unexpectedly—is climate change.

Last week, Txchnologist magazine published my story about efforts to bring back commercial airships. Many of the projects involve what are more accurately called hybrid airships. Helium inside their rigid or semi-rigid structures gives them some innate buoyancy (or static lift), but most of what holds them in up is aerodynamic lift from air rushing past their broad, flattened fuselages. These hybrids would also often use vertical thrusters to assist with takeoffs and landings, and ground-effect skirts (like hovercraft) as landing gear so that they could put down on either earth or water. (See my story for more details.)

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Category: Climate, Technology | 40 Comments

The Inhuman Response to Rebecca Watson

Next time you’re in an elevator, don’t stare at the other passengers—especially if they’re strangers. Even if you think you’ve noticed some spark of connection and that your unblinking gaze conveys only warmth and friendship, don’t stare at them. However you intend it, it will come across as creepy and possibly threatening. It’s just not cool.

That doesn’t sound very inflammatory, does it?

Ever since Rebecca Watson of Skepchick and the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe spoke about being accosted in an elevator, she has been showered with repulsive reactions, some of the worst of which came from the evolutionary biologist and atheist icon Richard Dawkins. Fortunately, posts at Pharyngula, Bad Astronomer, Shakesville, Pandagon, Greg Laden’s Blog, Bug Girl’s Blog and countless other sites have risen to her defense, and Rebecca has of course been more than capable of taking care of herself, too. What’s clear, beyond the fact that Rebecca’s remarks brought out a lot of people’s unrecognized misogyny and anti-feminism, is that most of them seem not to understand her point, despite Rebecca and others having explained it repeatedly. However redundantly, I thought I would take a crack at it, too.

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Category: Psychology, Skepticism | 351 Comments

Swimming Pool Safety: On Very Public Drownings

The terrible discovery that Marie Joseph, a 36-year-old mother of five, had drowned in a public swimming pool in Fall River, Mass., turned all the more macabre with the subsequent revelation that her body—spotted by chance this past Tuesday evening—had rested in the murk at the bottom of the pool for two days, unnoticed by dozens of swimmers or six lifeguards. The scandalous details of the case, from the unacceptable cloudiness of the water to reports that lifeguards ignored warnings from a 9-year-old boy that the woman was in trouble, are of course now driving an all-too-late crackdown. It’s hard to imagine that details emerging from the ongoing investigation will lift any culpability for the tragedy from those responsible for the pool’s safety.

Nevertheless, the sensational, blameworthy details of this case (no doubt soon to become the basis of an episode of Bones, if the show hasn’t already done something similar) should not distract from the more important truth that avoidable drowning deaths happen far too often in all sorts of situations. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on average about 10 people a day die in the U.S. from accidental drownings, and that figure does not include an additional 500 or so drowning deaths from boat-related incidents. About 20 percent of those who drown are under the age of 15, and for every one of those who die, four others receive emergency treatment for drowning.

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Category: Health | 4 Comments

Did Her Evolution Answer Win the Title for Miss USA 2011?

See updates below.

Much has already been written on the sad fact that of the 51 young women who vied to be Miss USA 2011, only two—Miss California (Alyssa Campanella), who ultimately took the crown, and Miss Massachusetts (Alida D’Angona)—unequivocally supported the teaching of evolution in public schools in a question during the preliminaries. Tanya Somaneder at Think Progress has a particularly thorough and damning review of the pageant contestants’ reactions to the question:

All of the contestants were aware of the question ahead of time. Indeed, according to one pageant veteran, the women were “scared to death” of a Prejean-like fiasco and were “concerned that there is a right or wrong answer.” In their apparent struggle, 96 percent of them either “confused the evolution of species with the origin of life (not the same) or said a variation of Miss Michigan’s line that it’s ‘silly’ and ‘ignorant’ not to know ‘both sides’ including, evidently, religious views in public schools.”

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Category: Creationist Twaddle, Entertainment, Evolution | 11 Comments