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.

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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.

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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.

January 27 Link Roundup

I was wondering where the Doomsday Clock had been – it’s just been set to 2 1/2 minutes to midnight. It hadn’t been reset since 2012. (The article is from 2015.)

While the Bulletin fretted over Ebola terrorism, the everyday scourges of tuberculosis, AIDS, malaria, and infant diarrhea were killing hundreds of times as many people. Doomsday theorizing gets infectious disease threats backwards: it’s not the genetically modified bugs hatching from high-tech labs that should worry us, but old-fashioned germs that thrive in poverty, underdevelopment, and failed states.

In a related blast from the past (seriously, no pun intended), the August 1946 issue of The New Yorker chronicles the entire day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in minute detail, told through interviews with a few civilians. Riveting and horrifying.

Cognitive linguist George Lakoff, whose work kept me studying linguistics longer than was necessary for my degree, has written a great post about conceptual metaphors used in contemporary politics, explaining how politics is always moral, the Strict Father vs  Nurturant Parent metaphors of government, and why we should argue from our own framework rather than negate the other side’s argument on their terms. Written in November, it has been followed up with an interview in Salon.

Columbia University has produced an extensive report detailing its connection to and profits from slavery. The NYT and Atlantic have coverage, and the full research project is available here. It includes the story of Joe, a slave owned by George Washington’s stepson as a student.

NASA has made all of their research available FREE.

Sports in the Ancient World

Originally published on Student Engagers on January 24, 2017.

I’ve written previously here about the antiquity of running, which was one of the original sports at the ancient Greek Olympics, along with javelin, archery, and jumping. These games started around 776 BC in the town of Olympia. What came before, though? What other evidence do we have of ancient sports?

Running is probably the most ancient sport; it requires no gear (no matter how much shoe companies make you think you need it) and the distances are easily set: to that tree and back, to that mountain and back. Research into the origins of human locomotion focus on changes to the foot, which needed to change from arboreal gripping to bipedal running and bearing the full weight of the body. A fossil foot of Ardipithecus ramidus, a hominin which lived 4.4 million years ago, features a stiffened midfoot and flexible toes capable of being extended to help push off at the end of a stance, but has the short big toe typical of great apes. Australopithecus sediba, which lived only 2 million years ago, had an arched foot like modern humans (at least not the flat-footed ones) but an ankle that turned inwards like apes. Clearly our feet didn’t evolve all the features of bipedal running at once, but rather at various intervals over the past 4-5 millennia. Evidence of ancient humans’ distance running is equally ancient, as I wrote about previously. Researchers Bramble & Lieberman have posed the question “Why would early Homo run long distances when walking is easier, safer and less costly?” They posit that endurance running was key to obtaining the fatty tissue from meat, marrow, and brain necessary to fuel our absurdly large brains – thus linking long-distance running with improved cognition. In a similar vein, research into the neuroscience of running has found that it boosts mood, clarifies thinking, and decreases stress.

Feats of athleticism in ancient times were frequently dedicated to gods. Long before the Greek games, the Egyptians were running races at the sed-festival dedicated to the fertility god Min. A limestone wall block at the Petrie depicts King Senusret (1971 BCE) racing with an oar and hepet-tool. The Olympic Games, too, were originally dedicated to the gods of Olympus, but it appears that as time went on, they became corrupted by emphasizing the individual heroic athletes and even allowed commoners to compete. There were four races in the original Olympics: the stade (192m), 2 stades, 7-24 stades, and 2-4 stades in full hoplite armor. It should be mentioned that serious long-distance running, like the modern marathon, was not a part of the ancient games. The story of Pheidippides running from the battlefield at Marathon to announce the Greek victory in Athens is most likely fictional, although the first modern marathon in 1896 traced that 25-mile route. The modern distance of just over 26 miles was set at the 1908 London Olympics, when the route was lengthened to go past Buckingham Palace.

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Limestone wall-block showing King Senusret I running the sed-festival race before the god Min. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

Wrestling might be equally ancient. It’s basically a form of play-fighting with rules (or without rules, depending on the type – compare judo to Greco-Roman to WWF), and play-fighting can be seen not only in human children but in a variety of mammal species. In Olympic wrestling, the goal was to get one’s opponent to the ground without biting or grabbing genitals, but breaking their fingers and dislocating bones were valid. Some archaeologists have tried to attribute Nubian bone shape – the basis of my thesis – on wrestling, for which they were famed. Another limestone relief in the Petrie shows two men wrestling in loincloths. Boxing is a similar fighting contest; original Olympic boxing required two men to fight until one was unconscious. Pankration brutally combined wrestling and boxing, but helpfully forbid eye-gouging. It may be possible to identify ancient boxers bioarchaeologically by examining patterns of nonlethal injuries. Some of these are depressions in the cranial vault (particularly towards the front and the left, presuming mostly right-handed opponents), facial fractures, nasal fractures, traumatic tooth loss, and fractures of the bones of the hand.

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Crude limestone group depicting two men wrestling. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

Spear or javelin throwing has also been attested in antiquity. Although we have evidence of predynastic flint points and dynastic iron spear tips, it’s unclear whether these were used for sport (how far one can throw) or for hunting. Actually, it’s unclear how the two became separate. Hunting was (and continues to be) a major sport – although not one with a clear winner as in racing or wrestling – and the only difference is that in javelin the target isn’t moving (or alive). In the past few years, research has been conducted into the antiquity of spear throwing. One study argues that Neanderthals had asymmetrical upper arm bones – the right was larger due to the muscular activity involved in repeatedly throwing a spear. Another study used electromyography of various activities to reject the spear-thrusting hypothesis, arguing that that the right arm was larger in the specific dimensions more associated with scraping hides. Spear throwing is attested bioarchaeologically in much later periods. A particular pathological pattern called “atlatl elbow”: use of a tool to increase spear velocity caused osteoarthritic degeneration of the elbow, but protected the shoulder.

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Fragment of a Roman-period copper alloy spearhead. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

A final Olympic sport is chariot racing and riding. Horses were probably only domesticated around 5500 years ago in Eurasia, so horse sports are really quite new compared to running and throwing! It’s likely that horses were originally captured and domesticated for meat at least 1000 years before humans realized they could use them for transportation. The Olympic races were 4.5 miles around the track (without saddles or stirrups, as these developments had not yet reached Greece), and the chariot races were 9 miles with either 2 or 4 horses. Bioarchaeologists have noted signs of horseback riding around the ancient world – signs include degenerative changes to the vertebrae and pelvis from bouncing as well as enlargement of the hip socket (acetabulum) and increased contact area between the femur and pelvis from when they rub together. In all cases, more males than females had these changes, indicating that it was more common for men to ride horses.

Of course, there are many more sports that existed in the ancient world – other fighting games including gladiatorial combat, ritualized warfare, and games with balls and sticks (including the Mayan basketball-esque game purportedly played with human skulls). Often games were dedicated to gods, or resulted in the death of the loser(s). However, many of these, explored bioarchaeologically, would result in similar musculoskeletal changes and injury patterns discussed above. Many games have probably been lost to history. Considering the vast span of human activity, it’s likely sports of some kind have always existed, from the earliest foot races to the modern Olympic spectacle.

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Limestone ball from a game. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

Sources

Bramble, D.M. and Lieberman, D.E. 2004. Endurance running and the evolution of Homo. Nature 432(7015), pp. 345–352.

Carroll, S.C. 1988. Wrestling in Ancient Nubia. Journal of sport history 15(2), pp. 121–137. Available at:

Larsen, C.S. 2015. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behavior from the Human Skeleton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lieberman, D.E. 2012. Those feet in ancient times. Nature 483, pp. 550–551.

Martin, D.L. and Frayer, D.W. eds. 1997. Troubled Times: Violence and Warfare in the Past. illustrated. Psychology Press.

Perrottet, T. 2004. The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games. Random House Publishing Group.

 

 

January 13 Link Roundup

Artificial arrangements of stalagmites in Bruniquel cave in France were known to be of Neanderthal origin. However, recent uranium dating has pushed the date of their construction to 176,500 years before present (BP). This is yet more evidence that Neanderthals had culture similar to humans. In an appropriately-timed piece, Jon Mooallem writes about the research going on in Gibraltar at the Neanderthal cave sites alongside his own realizations about our idea of human (sapiens) superiority. This may be the first NYT mention of some of the Victorian and Edwardian scientists I cite in my thesis; their ideas on the Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon (European early modern human) tibias echoed into the next century, perpetuating race-based theories of anatomy.

“This is like putting together a 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle where you only have five pieces,” Finlayson said. He somehow made this analogy sound exciting instead of hopeless… But it was like looking for needles in a haystack, and the entire haystack was merely the one needle they had managed to find in an astronomically larger haystack. And most of that haystack was now inaccessible forever.

In a hopefully more scientific rehash of the Easter Sunday experiment, researchers at Johns Hopkins are giving psilocybin to religious leaders to investigate mystical experiences. The PI, Anthony Bossis, has also led trials testing how psilocybin trips ease existential pain in terminally ill cancer patients (more here).

In this week’s “so adorable it hurts,” Sam Barsky knits sweaters featuring popular landmarks and then takes pictures in front of them.

The island of St. Helena, famous for being the location of Napoleon’s exile, is the burial place of 8,000 skeletons of Africans who were liberated from slavery. The island is at the center of the Middle Passage, the route across the Atlantic that carried millions of captured Africans to lives of slavery in the Americas. (Further note: I recently had the opportunity to visit the Slave Lodge museum in Cape Town. While the museums there are generally underfunded and little run down, the content was well-presented and devastating.)

Apparently Mengele’s skeleton has been used in a teaching collection in Brazil for decades.

Museum Review: Cape Town

I recently visited Cape Town and, as is my responsibility as a museum enthusiast, tried to visit as many museums and historical sites as possible. This was slightly difficult as it was the December holiday period, and many museums were closed. They all listed dates of closure on their websites, but in actuality they were closed for more days than listed: the excuse given by locals was that because Christmas was on a Sunday, everybody took the next two days off instead of just one day. (OK, sure.)

First, Kirstenbosch Gardens. The last time I was there I was less than ten years old, barely as tall as the agapanthus. It’s a really wonderful botanic garden showing the extensive variety of plants from the Table Mountain fynbos region and further north – the Namibian desert plants were quite spectacular. The fynbos is a unique ecosystem of tremendous biodiversity adapted to an arid environment. I hiked up Table Mountain four times, and each route had remarkably different vegetation specifically adapted for local shade, wind, and rain runoff. Kirstenbosch has a “boomslang”, or canopy walk, for visitors to admire the treetop flora and fauna; if we’d actually seen some fauna it would have been awesome, but it was not to be.

Next I visited the South African Museum. Most of the museums in Cape Town are part of an organization called Iziko, which sets standard prices and presumably consolidates direction and curation. All the Iziko museums were 30 rand; student entry was 15, but only if one has an ISIC card. I decided the difference in price, which worked out to just over a dollar, was not enough to buy an international student card, and I’d rather the meager (for me) entry go to funding the museum. The SA Museum is your average natural history museum – not particularly impressive compared to the NHM or AMNH, but similar in scope, with halls of taxidermy and a multi-story gallery of whale skeletons. They really shone in the exhibit on rock art, though: it had some of the most culturally-aware interpretation I’ve seen, and really thoughtful placards featuring quotes from interviews about traditional San medicine and rock art meaning. Additionally, the introduction to the ethnographic gallery should be used in every museum that still has displays of (non-white) traditional practices, although they could have used more explanation on the collection of body casts (but perhaps I’m still on a rant from Museum of the Normal). Sadly, the museums suffer from a severe lack of funding. In many rooms, the lights were out, the walls had leaks and mold, and one case contained a dead lizard that was definitely not meant to be there.

Across the Company’s Garden, originally planted by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to feed their merchants when Cape Town was a re-supply point on the route to the Far East, is the Slave Lodge, which was the original prison for slaves working for the VOC or the city. The temporary exhibit in the entry was about Tweede Nuwe Jaar, Cape Town’s carnival celebrated on January 2nd. The permanent exhibit about slavery, including a long video (most of the museums had a 15+ minute introductory video), a reproduction slave ship segment, and a hall of remembrance, were devastating. Interestingly, most of the slaves brought to Cape Town were Malay and Indonesian rather than West African, the latter being brought to the Americas rather than further south. Many of them were given names based on the month they arrived, and a photographic exhibit featured 12 interviewees whose surnames are months, making a calendar of sorts. Local Khoekhoe individuals were not enslaved, but were pressed into indentured servitude. The first half of the first floor of the museum was very informative. The second half was about the struggle to end apartheid, with another video and large placards. However, I felt that these seemed to be more evocative than informative, and the focus on oral history without artifacts (or with replica artifacts and a prison cell) was not very effective for me as basically a tourist with little knowledge of events like the Sharpeville massacre. The second floor was an odd mix of ancient Egyptian artifacts and 20th-century African and European domestic objects (silverware, pottery, jewellery) with little to link it to the history on the first floor. There was a marvellous temporary exhibit of ishishweshwe, an African fabric traditionally printed in blue. I realized that the first skirt I ever sewed was with ishishweshwe from Durban.

The Bo-Kaap Museum celebrates Cape Malay history in a house in the Bo-Kaap neighborhood, where all the houses are painted different colors as a sign of independence. Once again, it began with a rather long video interviewing local residents about their relationship to the area, which – as an area close to the city center – is gentrifying. The museum is only four rooms, one of which had the video and one of which was a historic kitchen with no placards. There were also tours of the neighborhood, which we didn’t take as they felt a bit poverty-tourism.

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The Bo-Kaap neighborhood

I really enjoyed the Maritime Centre. This museum doesn’t have very many objects, and despite being smack in the middle of the waterfront, it seems to not get much foot traffic; my mom and I were the only visitors then. It’s about Cape Town’s history as a port, first for trade and then for transport. My parents told me about riding passenger lines around the coast, and the museum even had a scale model of the ship they took! There’s also a maritime library, which seems like an invaluable resource. I’m rather obsessed with ships and trains, so I’m pleased I found out about this one.

Finally, we went to the Castle of Good Hope. Constructed in 1666, this was the second fort built to guard the harbor, and as far as I know it has never been attacked. I was a bit disappointed by the lack of information. I probably found out more about the castle’s history from the website than from the actual site visit. Many areas were closed for restoration, but we did go into the second-in-command’s house, stocked with original Dutch-imported furniture, and the prison, which had amazing historic graffiti. It was a nice day to walk along the castle walls and pretend to guard the city (though not the harbor, because there’s been significant land reclamation in the last 350 years), but it probably would have been more informative to take the tour.

Scattered around the Cape, particularly the shore and places of natural beauty, are placards with information about geology or history. I was pleased to learn about the stratigraphy of the rock beaches and the rock dassies and warnings about baboon behavior, but was left distressed after learning that Jan van Riebeeck parked his ships in the middle of a Khoekhoe grazing route, forever disrupting their herding strategies and forcing them into lives of servitude. Very much “we put a flag on it.

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View from near Judas Peak