June 23 Link Roundup

I’ve been talking about this article a lot recently – it details the rise of the passport as the source of one’s identity, replacing the actual embodied self.

In 1923, a Danish man traveling in Germany reportedly had to regrow his mustache before border officials would permit him to return home. When clean-shaven, he did not resemble the photograph in his passport, a document that had only recently become essential for travel across national boundaries.

A sub-roundup of AIs naming things. Turns out AI is very good at naming guinea pigs but very bad at naming paint colors.  AI is also fantastically inept at punning, discussed in this puntastic interview with the author of a book on the competitive punning community. Looking forward to reading this one!

Joe: Twitter lately is like a sadness gauntlet filled with clowns and Nazis, and the light at the end of it is your house on fire. So yeah, it’s pretty much the opposite of a pun competition.

All you wanted to know about the vaginal microbiome. I mean, I have many more questions.

I was previously unsure of the ethics of market shorting. This article has not made me less sure. Is it a crime, or is it just skeezy? Is activist shorting less skeezy because it exposes more corruption, or more skeezy because it exposes corruption for personal gain? I’m not even sure what ethical framework I should use to analyze it.

UChicago news: the adorable scav team STTR-BBOY recreated the iconic scene of the snake-iguana chase from Planet Earth II in the library stacks, site of the infamous 2007 scav video (since deleted) “Trapped in Crerar”, a parody of R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet”. That library is really a quality filming location.

May 19 Link Roundup

This family kept a slave. Read the entire account – it’s horrifying. (For more on complex caregiver-child relationships, read this.)

Lola never got that allowance. She asked my parents about it in a roundabout way a couple of years into our life in America. Her mother had fallen ill (with what I would later learn was dysentery), and her family couldn’t afford the medicine she needed. “Pwede ba?” she said to my parents. Is it possible? Mom let out a sigh. “How could you even ask?,” Dad responded in Tagalog. “You see how hard up we are. Don’t you have any shame?”

How do painkillers find what hurts?

Here’s an interesting discussion on addressing instructors by their formal titles. In high school we called our teachers Mr./Ms. Lastname, but in college most of my professors didn’t seem bothered. I’ve always preferred students to call me by my first name, but I also like to cultivate an atmosphere of openness and not feel like I’m always quizzing them (plus, I use the title Mx, which just confuses things). I wonder if I’m downplaying my status as instructor? Also, British students call teachers Miss, which sounds so infantile to me as an adult.

Good points about bike lanes. I am all for more bike lanes on busy roads, and ensuring that those bike lanes DO NOT also function as parking spots or pavements (I’m looking right at you, Kentish Town), but on small roads they feel less safe because cars think they can overtake in too small a space.

For those of you unaware (and that is an increasingly higher percentage of people I know), I used to participate in the world’s largest scavenger hunt. It covers 4 days, the list can be up to 20 pages, and participants are frequently found wandering around in a state of confused exhaustion wearing ridiculous costumes and muttering seemingly nonsensical verses that are, in fact, bizarre list items. I have roasted a lamb on a homemade spit and stuffed it with a chicken and a Cornish hen, had a book signed by Jane Goodall while dressed as a video game character (complete with arrow above my head), and raced to absorb the water in a kiddie pool wearing a suit of armor made of sponges. Here’s this year’s list.

I’m doing my viva (thesis defence) Monday at 3pm GMT. Send whatever scientifically-valid good vibes you can in my general direction!

April 14 Link Roundup

T. rex had many nerve endings in its snout, which palaeontologists argue indicates that they nuzzled before mating like modern crocodiles. The article has one of the best titles – “Tyrannosaurus rex was a sensitive lover.” It anthropomorphizes and makes grandiose assumptions!

Researchers argue that footbinding was not solely aesthetic, but economically important as it kept young girls housebound and thus entrenched in domestic tasks and production.

Here’s a handy guide to surviving the next pandemic! Good luck, all. I’ll see you at Svalbard.

More on the Monty Hall Problem, also known as “what’s behind door #3?” Basically, we are so tied to our interpretation of the mathematics behind it that we can’t be swayed by the correct probability of winning.

Hannah Rose Woods explains why there aren’t many women on University Challenge. I competed on Eggheads a few years ago, and I am still convinced that our team was picked at auditions because of our diversity (two women, and two non-white team members); the rest of the teams auditioning alongside us were uniformly white, male, and mostly 25-40.

The British Museum used to keep a posse of cats! They were used for rat- and mouse-catching. I imagine though they solved one conservation problem, they created a host of others…

This week there was a rave on the Bakerloo line (I wasn’t there)!

Last week I won a contest and got to see the European premiere of the first episode of American Gods. The series is based on my favorite book, and I am so eager for the rest of the episodes! Here are some pictures of me with Yetide Badaki, who plays Bilquis (fantastically), and a buffalo.

A History of Legs in 5 Objects

Originally posted April 11, 2017 on the Student Engager blog.

My research focuses on the tibia, the largest bone in the lower leg. You probably know it as the shin bone, or the one that makes frequent contact with your coffee table resulting in lots of yelling and hopping around; that’s why footballers often wear shinguards. The intense pain is because the front of the tibia is a sharp crest that sits directly beneath the skin. There are a lot of leg-related objects in UCL Museums, so here’s a whirlwind tour of a few of them!

One of the few places you can see a human tibia is the Petrie’s pot burial. This skeleton from the site of Badari in Egypt has rather long tibiae, indicating that the individual was quite tall. The last estimation of his height was made in 1985, probably using regression equations based on the lengths of the tibia and femur (thigh bone): these indicated that he was almost 2 meters tall. However, the equations used in the 80s were based on a paper from 1958, which used bone lengths from Americans who died in the Korean War. There are two problems that we now know of with this calculation: height is related to genetics and diet, and different populations have differing limb length ratios.

Pot burial from Hemamieh, near the village of Badari UC14856-8

Pot burial from Hemamieh, near the village of Badari (UC4856-8).

The Americans born in the 1930s-40s had a vastly different diet from predynastic Egyptians, and the formulae were developed for (and thus work best when testing) white Americans. This is where limb length ratios come into play. Some people have short torsos and long legs, while others have long legs and short torsos. East Africans tend to have long legs and short torsos, and an equation developed for the inverse would result in a height much taller than he actually was! Another thing to notice is the cartilage around the knee joint. At this point in time, the Egyptians didn’t practice artificial mummification – but the dry conditions of the desert preserved some soft tissue in a process called natural mummification. Thus you can see the ligaments and muscles connecting the tibia to the patella (knee cap) and femur.

The Petrie also has a collection of ancient shoes and sandals. I think the sandals are fascinating because they show a design that has obviously been perfected: the flip flop. One of my favorites is an Amarna-period child’s woven reed sandal featuring two straps which meet at a toe thong. The flip flop is a utilitarian design, ideal for keeping the foot cool in the heat and protecting the sole of the foot from sharp objects and hot ground surfaces. These are actually some of the earliest attested flip flops in the world, making their appearance in the 18thDynasty (around 1300 BCE).

An Egyptian flip-flop. UC769.

An ancient Egyptian flip-flop (UC769).

 

Another shoe, this time from the site of Hawara, is a closed-toe right leather shoe. Dating to the Roman period, this shows that flip flops were not the only kind of shoe worn in Egypt. This shoe has evidence of wear and even has some mud on the sole from the last time it was worn.  This shoe could have been worn with knit wool socks, one of which has been preserved. However, the Petrie Collection’s sock has a separate big toe, potentially indicating that ancient Egyptians did not have a problem wearing socks and sandals together, a trend abhorrent to modern followers of fashion (except to fans of Birkenstocks).

 

Ancient Egyptian shoe (UC28271) and sock (UC16767.

Ancient Egyptian shoe (UC28271).

 

sock UC16767

Ancient Egyptian sock (UC16767).

The Grant Museum contains a huge number of legs, but only one set belonging to a human. For instructive purposes, I prefer to show visitors the tibiae of the tiger (Panthera tigris) on display in the southwest corner of the museum. These tibiae show a pronounced muscle attachment on the rear side where the soleus muscle connects to the bone. In bioarchaeology, we score this attachment on a scale of 1-5, where 5 indicates a really robust attachment. The more robust  – attachment, the bigger the muscle; this means that either the individual had more testosterone, which increases muscle size, or they performed a large amount of activity using that muscle. (We wouldn’t score this one because it doesn’t belong to a human.) In humans, this could be walking, running, jumping, or squatting. Practice doing some of these to increase your soleal line attachment site!

The posterior tibia of a tiger.

The tibia of a tiger.

Moving to the Art Museum, we can see legs from an aesthetic rather than practical perspective. A statue featuring an interesting leg posture the legs is “Spinario or Boy With Thorn”, a bronze statue produced by Sabatino de Angelis & Fils of Naples in the 19th century. It is a copy of a famous Greco-Roman bronze, one of very few that has not been lost (bronze was frequently melted down and reused). The position of the boy is rather interesting: he is seated with one foot on the ground and the opposite foot on his knee as he examines his sole to remove a thorn. This is a very human position, and shows the versatility of the joints of the hip, knee, and ankle. The hip is adducted and outwardly rotated, the knee is flexed, and the ankle is everted. It’s rare for the leg to be shown in such a bent position in art, as statues usually depict humans standing or walking.

Spinario, or Boy With Thorn.

Spinario, or Boy With Thorn.

Bipedalism, or walking on two legs, is one of the traits we associate with being human. It’s rare in the animal world. Hopefully next time you look at a statue, slip on your flip flops, or go for a jog, you’ll think of all the work your tibiae are doing for you – and keep them out of the way of the coffee table.

(OK, I know that was six objects… but imagine the sock inside the shoe!)

 

April 7 Link Roundup

First, three stories about robots:

  1. A child believes a water boiler is a robot; talks to and hugs it (she, for one, welcomes her new overlords)
  2. A researcher created a neural network that produces horrifying and hilarious menu items such as Completely Meat Chocolate Pie
  3. An engineer built and married a robot in a ceremony that was not legally binding

Here’s a fascinating article on how research bias shows up in data.

I love learning about diseases that doctors don’t believe in because they’re don’t have an apparent physical cause; nevertheless, they are no less real to the sufferers than any more easily diagnosable condition. Delusional parasitosis is one of these, and many cases are brought to entomologists.

In 20 years, Syria will be the Bosnia of today. Defectors and escapees report that hospitals are the sites of mass torture.  CN: torture.

Documents signed by senior government and security officials acknowledged the upsurge in deaths, at times complaining that the bodies were building up.

“It’s impossible to interrogate, torture and kill tens of thousands of detainees without a system in place,” said Scott Gilmore, a staff attorney at the Center for Justice and Accountability. “Before the revolution, the regime was not generating thousands of dead bodies. Then all of a sudden it was. So what did you do with them?”

Waking surgery is now a thing. I… I don’t know if I could do it.

This article about ancient cannibalism has some problems… two of which are sample size and the binary of nutritional vs social. But it is a handy guide to “average” caloric values for various body parts.

When asked whether he thought his friends and colleagues would show up to his next dinner party after reading about his latest paper, Dr. Cole said yes. But he added that he’d most likely just serve vegetables.

Finally, your NSFW of the week: an 18th-century illustrated guide to sex positions, using characters from classic mythology. Follow it up with biological anthropologist Agustin Fuentes’ brief piece on human sexuality.

March 31 Link Roundup

The double standard that saved Obamacare – apparently people only pay attention when straight cis white men are affected, with historical examples.

Magazines like Cosmopolitan and Ladies Home Journal ran articles by men telling women to pop pills to make their depression evaporate. Women hosted dinner parties where they plopped Miltown in their martinis, and Cartier jewelers sold a bracelet that doubled as a holder for a Miltown pill.

Another essay on what happens to the last member of a species, with pondering on the nature of being. Read it in concert with Elizabeth Kolbert’s Recall of the Wild.

Having your children sleep alone is strongly associated with capitalism, suburbia, and excessive space. I’ve often advocated sleeping separately to friends who find themselves in couples with incompatible sleep habits, but this is only because we spend 30-odd years learning how we best sleep individually. Perhaps if we grew up sleeping communally we wouldn’t have so many problems – I wonder how strongly our idea of individual circadian rhythms is influenced by this.

A fascinating story of a hand transplant. (CN: lots of privilege.) I recently attended a lecture by Ross Reynolds, a researcher exploring the aesthetics of prosthetics; I wonder why Koch and his doctor, Kobi Azari, decided to go down the transplant route instead of prosthetics as he did for his leg.

March 24 Link Roundup

Are chins what make us human? I’m a fan of spandrels; I like to remind people that evolution isn’t perfect, it’s “meh, guess this works long enough to keep you breeding.” Or, as my colleague Ella Al-Shamahi remarks in her comedy, “the chin is the penis of the face.”

Maybe it’s about sex, then? Men typically have bigger chins than women, and stronger chins are often equated with attractiveness. Perhaps the chin is a sexual ornament, the human equivalent of a stag’s antlers or a peacock’s tail.

Here are some ancient Chinese sex toys. Thanks, internet! (The link is SFW depending on where you work.)

Another article on underground psychedelic therapy in the US, mostly focusing on MDMA. I attended a lecture recently on “The LSD Psychotherapists”, presenting first-person perspectives from therapists working legally within the EU, showing promising responses for a variety of conditions.

“Sometimes the medicine can stabilize someone in a difficult situation. Sometimes it stirs up madness, so they can process that. Some people feel rejuvenated and ready to go back into their lives, but other people feel frazzled, spent, fragmented. I’ve had a few people say, ‘That shattered who I thought I was.’ ”

John Hawks has some criticism about the Neanderthal oral microbiome study, including potential contamination, “sloppy genome assembly”, and unmapped genomes of possible food species.

Pregnant asylum seekers in the UK are often sent letters demanding payment, making them too afraid of deportation to seek prenatal care. This is illegal. If you know/work with anyone seeking asylum, refer them to this document.

March 17 Link Roundup

Neanderthals and humans may have been making out! OK, maybe not, but they share bacteria from the oral microbiome that can be transferred through food sharing, parental care, and kissing. This could be more evidence that Neanderthals and humans could have fallen in love, but considering that not very many cultures kiss romantically, possibly not!

Your computer’s not safe. Your smartphone’s not safe. Your TV’s not safe. Protect your devices from hacking and snooping!

The documents published by WikiLeaks disclosed that a tool called Weeping Angel puts the target TV in a “fake off” mode. Then, with the owner believing the TV is turned off, the set secretly records conversations in the room and sends them over the internet to a C.I.A. server computer.

Here’s a good retrospective on Jose Mujica, Uruguay’s dream president who didn’t accomplish what his voters wanted. It really muses on how stuff doesn’t get done in politics, and the dangers of hope.

One of my teaching colleagues is an expert in trash in modern fiction. Read the interview about her recent book here. Oh, the chats we’ve had about garbology!

So these avant-gardists and descendants of the avant-garde deploy waste in a sustained attack on consumerism, the stultifying nature of the nine-to-five day, social inequality, and ecological devastation… Often, it’s framed in a reproachful way, as exemplified by the famous scene in Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1986), when Jack Gladney gazes upon a used tampon stuffed in a banana peel and asks: ‘[Is] this the dark underside of consumer consciousness?’

I’d love to read this book about cephalopod intelligence. There was a great study a few years ago testing octopus puzzle-solving abilities. The octopodes were given a set of nested Perspex puzzle boxes with a prey animal in the center. Two octopodes opened all three puzzle boxes to get to the prey; the third opened the outer two boxes but couldn’t solve the innermost box, so crushed it until it snapped.

octo

An octopus near Madagascar. Photograph: Gabriel Barathieu; image courtesy The Guardian.

The Whanganui River in New Zealand has been granted the same rights as a human, since the the Maori view it as an ancestor. This means that anyone mistreating the river can be prosecuted as if they had harmed a person.

 

March 3 Link Roundup

There is no evidence that stents work, yet doctors keep installing them. The article brings up one of my favorite studies, which compares outcomes of real knee surgery to sham knee surgery. Surprise! The outcomes are the same – the idea that the knee has been repaired works just as well as actually scraping at the cartilage, showing wither the power of the mind or the ineffectiveness of the surgical technique.

Are you worried about internet privacy, but don’t know how to set up a secure email? This article explains it all. Perhaps you’ll sit back in your chair, reeling with the sudden realization that any number of individuals can know where you live and work and who you talk to. Have fun! Encrypt your life now!

Research into rescuers in genocide situations shows interesting psychological traits.

“We looked and we only saw brothers here. You could not think about killing this person, because he was a brother, someone who would have rescued you too, if you needed help.”

On a lighter note, here’s an excerpt from a biography of David Bowie on how he came out.

Finally, check out these 18 turkeys circling round a dead cat in what appears to be (but isn’t, because anthropomorphizing) a bizarre ritual.