Thursday, December 9, 2010

Ball 16. Graceful Guillemot Doubles as Robotics Muse

Engineers hoping to build a robot that can both swim and fly have
so far been frustrated by the design challenges of creating a
machine that moves well in water and air.

But one group of researchers has turned to nature for inspiration, in the form of the common guillemot, which has the uncommon ability to swim and fly with equal grace.

Richard Lock, a robotics expert at the University of Bristol, U.K., and his colleagues have been modeling the wing movements of the guillemot with the ultimate goal of building a mechanical version of the bird. Such a device, they say, could be helpful for a variety of marine pursuits, from off-shore oil rigs to counter-terror surveillance operations.

In a recent paper in the journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics, Prof. Lock's group presents elaborate mathematical models for how the birds fly and swim, paying particular attention to the way they hold their wings during each activity. Guillemots, and some of their seabird relatives, are able to flex their wings in the water in such a way as to derive substantial power for swimming strokes. Water, after all, is 800 times denser than air.

The modeling is a key step toward helping the robotics researchers
build a machine that can mimic the guillemots' movements. But they're still a ways off.

Professor Lock:
"There are many obstacles in the way before getting a functional
prototype but we believe we're at least heading along the right track. And the guillemots make it look so easy!"

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Ball 15. Fish Whispers

Rolf Korneliussen listens to fish. The Norse acoustician has been studying ways of using sound waves to identify fish species deep below the ocean surface. His research has shown that it’s possible to catalog telltale echo signatures, basically acoustic fingerprints, of species such as mackerel, capelin, squid and Norway pout.

Although even a weekend angler’s 14-footer can be rigged with a fish finder, the relatively crude sonar technology does little more than reflect the presence of a moving thing below the boat—possibly a fish, but not necessarily. More sophisticated sonar devices have had somewhat better luck identifying individual species, although they are far from reliable.

As a result, sonar has been of limited use to marine biologists concerned with monitoring vast—or, as the case may be, dwindling—stocks of critical ocean species like mackerel, herring and cod.

Korneliussen’s software relies on a technology called frequency-dependent backscatter—the reflection of sound waves in their direction of origin—as the main method for identifying fish species underwater. To improve the accuracy, it also incorporates measures of backscattering strength, geographical position, school-shape and other details that can be unique to particular species.

Korneliussen, of the Institute of Marine Research in Bergen, said the system

can be trained to identify several species. Currently our identification library contains Atlantic mackerel, herring, capelin, southern krill, northern krill, sand-eel and squid

However, he added, for some species the technique remains less definitive than it is for mackerel.

For the moment, the acoustic technology is best suited to scientific research, as it requires calibrated echosounders, but it has significant implications for the commercial fishing industry, Korneliussen said.

In Norwegian waters, any fish that is caught has to be delivered on land, so catching the wrong species—or catching a species at the wrong time of year—could cost quite a bit in lost income.

However, he added,

the scientific software has been modified to fit the commercial fishing fleet since we feel obligated to make new scientific methods available to them, but the software is currently not ready for general use by fishermen.

Korneliussen reported his latest findings in the ICES Journal of Marine Science.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Ball 14. When Pool Filters Attack

"Life," Woody Allen once quipped, "is divided into the horrible and the miserable." He clearly didn't spend a lot of time on Pubmed, else he would have come up with a third category to explain this:

"Swimming pool filter-induced transrectal evisceration in children: Australian experience."

The article comments on a case series reported last May in the Medical Journal of Australia of this terrible (and, in all seriousness, terribly traumatic for the victim) event that, unlike a lot of other medical conditions requires no translation.

"the long-term functional outcomes in the three cases of swimming pool filter-induced transrectal evisceration described by Price and colleagues are excellent and significantly better than many other cases described in the literature."

Many other cases described in the literature? How many cases of pool filters attacking Down Under could there be?

Quite a few, it seems. Reports of similar incidents date back 1982, and, while sporadic, aren't difficult to find. At least one myth-debunking site, Stupid People Tricks, describes a case in North Carolina while dispelling the similarly gruesome, but apparently apocryphal, stories of intestinal misadventures in airplane lavatories. (The lawyer in that case? A young John Edwards, who won millions of dollars for the family of the young girl injured in the episode.)

The lesson is simple: Pools are attractive nuisances and no matter how high the fence, they're always a threat. Anyone who owns one should exercise the utmost caution to avoid injury.

Well, okay, that's a lesson, I guess, but another message is that the human body truly is an amazing thing: No matter how obscure the mechanical invention, we'll find a way to let it maim or kill us.

(Disclaimer: I didn't pitch this as a story ... yet.)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ball 13. Make Mine Cow Patty

Dung beetles are nature's sewage workers, toiling in obscurity to
break down animal waste. Insect experts have long assumed that these
beetles are promiscuous decomposers, favoring no form of dung over another.

But a new study suggests that dung beetles are far choosier than they've
been given credit for, and that their choice of dung appears to be
hard-wired at birth.

The study, by French researchers, showed that dung beetles gravitate toward
cow patties, and, as a second choice, sheep droppings.  As it happens, cow
dung is rich in the volatile chemicals to which the beetles are attracted.

The findings appeared in a recent issue of the Journal of Experimental Biology.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Ball 12. The Truthiness of Animal Signals

Another one from the bird files:

The natural world has no equivalent of the Federal Trade Commission to monitor truth in advertising. Boasts about reproductive fitness—elaborate plumage, antlers and other ornaments—must be sincere because the physical costs of producing gaudy displays are so high. Animals with the most impressive finery have the physical robustness necessary to develop the flourish while fighting environmental threats like predators and infections.

Biologist Gary Bortolotti, of the University of Saskatchewan, says:

Signals have to be honest or cheat-proof and it is their cost that prevents cheating. Peahens like peacocks with big trains. Only the best quality males can pay the price and grow a big train. If it were cheap every male would grow one.
(See Ball 11. Begging to Differ)

As intuitive as it seems, however, proving the honesty of ornamentation is tricky. But Bortolotti and his colleagues have found compelling new evidence that, at least for one species of game bird, the cocks of the walk really strut the talk

The study found that the size (and, presumably, the attractiveness to females) of decorative combs above the eyes of red grouse depend largely on how much recent environmental pressure the birds endured. In particular, the researchers showed that levels in the birds’ feathers of the stress hormone corticosterone were linked to the height of their crimson courtship tufts. What’s more, the study also found that infecting the grouse with parasites diminished the size of the ornamental plumage—consistent with the idea that the wage of cultivating displays is reduced immunity.

We all know too well the important role of stress is in our own lives. How well an animal copes with the many, often concurrent, challenges in the environment may be one of the more meaningful, if not the best, overall measure of its ‘quality’ and fitness potential.

The researchers reported their findings in PLoS ONE.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Ball 11: Begging to Differ — New research challenges conventional wisdom about why animal babies grovel for food

Begging may be distasteful in polite society, but it’s a routine means of communication between animal offspring and their parents. Bird experts have assumed for two decades that they understood why chicks beg for food. But a group of scientists say the accepted theory is almost certainly wrong.

The prevailing view, solidly in place since the early 1990s, is that babies beg “to indicate how pathetic and needy they are,” says Douglas Mock, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Oklahoma. Their pleas signal parents to their most pressing desires—hunger to be sated—triggering a care-giving response that nature can’t ignore.

That theory resonated with our own cultural values,” Mock says. “We claim to love all of our children equally, we try to get everybody through by giving extra to the ones that need the most.

The problem, Mock says, is that the evidence doesn’t support the hypothesis.

I’ve been doing field work since 1970s and I seldom see it working the way these happy faced thoughts seem to be taking us.

Virtually any life form that features progressive provisioning of dependent offspring from birds to mammals, even insects and probably a lot more plants than anybody has contemplated, Mock adds

Researchers can’t measure true need in animals. After all, one more grub in the gullet is unlikely to improve a baby indigo bunting's prospects to a detectable degree, Mock notes. But the basic message that the chick is ready for another gulp is easy to test. And scientists can observe the way adult birds respond to the signals of their chicks.

Mock says:

If the signal of need idea is correct, then parents should do whatever they need to do to get food to the runts, but it turns out that parents more often than not bias deliveries of food to the bigger chicks.

Instead, Mock and his colleagues believe the true impetus for begging could be the opposite of a signal of need. Or, they say, it may be nothing more than a reporting of desire, like a child's letter to Santa.

In other words, he says, perhaps the only thing a begging baby bird communicates is the fact that it’s hungry. Yet the parents look at which baby is doing well and ask themselves, Is this a season that the family budget can support everyone, so I should shunt food to the runt, or is this a typical lean season when feeding the runt is a mistake?

Mock’s group, who presented its argument at a recent meeting of the Animal Behavior Society, takes another whack at the conventional wisdom about begging.

For a signal to be honest, the energy required to produce it can’t outweigh the potential upside. Consider the peacock, whose gaudy tail feathers boast of genetic fitness—yet serve as an “eat here” sign to predators.

Only a really strong male can carry around the drag queen paraphernalia. In effect, he's demonstrating that he can escape from predators even with the outrageous plumage. And that may indicate that his offspring will escape predators as well, Mock says.

For peacocks, the prospect of more frequent mating is worth the risks of ostentation, Mock says. But what’s the upside of a chick that so obviously advertises its need, in this case, hunger? Not much, he says.

The chick is supposedly announcing that it is weak and imperiled. It's giving a supposedly costly signal that it can ill afford to give, because it's so weak, but hoping to reap a disproportionate windfall.

Mock, who has spent his career studying siblicidal herons and egrets—sib-killing is also found in various hawks, owls, cranes, boobies and laughing kookaburras—says that for certain bird species, displays of weakness in the nest are death sentences.

If nothing else, one wonders why [a begging chick’s] stronger nest mates are suppressing their own, easily affordable signals, thereby stealing the spotlight and the meal. Sibling altruism certainly can evolve, but that cannot be assumed.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Ball 11. How Large is the trade in illegal wildlife?

One smuggler was caught with a single, scaly clam, another with three live iguanas in his artificial leg. Some thieves had larger ambitions—1.05 million queen conch, fat from 100,000 frogs, 68,000 kilograms of pangolin meat.

These grim statistics come from a new, comprehensive look at the illicit global trade in wildlife—a sub rosa industry estimated to be worth as much as $20 billion each year, second only the market for illegal drugs. Beyond the economic cost, researchers said, the stream of trafficked animals, from Southeast Asia in particular, poses a potential source of emerging or yet-unseen viruses that could make the jump to people with lethal consequences.

“From 1996 to 2008, more than 191,934 live animals were traded illegally from ‘disease hotspots’ in Southeast Asia,” said Gail Rosen, a Brown University graduate student and co-author of the study. “With no quarantines or certification systems, there is no way to know what diseases these animals may carry.

The study, reported in the journal EcoHealth, reviewed 12 years of seizure records, spanning the period 1996 to 2008, compiled by Traffic, an international wildlife monitoring program. In all, researchers identified 967 seizures involving everything from tiger pelts to live birds.

Mammals and products from these animals were the targets of choice for wildlife smugglers, accounting for 51% of all seizures. The bulk of those involved skins from big cats and elephant ivory. Among live animals, however, reptiles made up nearly 70% of seizures. Customs officials seized more than 72,000 live turtles and tortoises—more than enough to fill every seat in the Louisiana Superdome, Rosen noted.

“If we can understand the dynamics and scale of the trade, then we can improve legal enforcement,” Rosen says. “This knowledge can also help us anticipate problems like species invasions before they happen, so that we can work to prevent them.”

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Retractions R Us

The estimable Dr. Ivan Oransky, executive editor of Reuters Health and founder of Embargo Watch, and I have launched a new blog: Retraction Watch.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Ball 10. The Tragic Case of Dr. John Hancock Douglas

[A book idea I've been working on. Thought the anniversary of Grant's death would be a good news hook. Turned down--graciously, I guess--everywhere. Good to have a blog.]

On July 23, 1885, Ulysses S. Grant, the nation’s 18th president and arguably its greatest military leader, died at the age of 63. His death ended a struggle against cancer that had begun 10 months earlier, when the general walked into the Manhattan office of Dr. John Hancock Douglas, a noted throat specialist.

In that brief time, the two men had forged an intense and intimate doctor-patient relationship. Grant acknowledged that without the round-the-clock care Douglas provided, his life would have ended earlier and in miserable pain. Instead, the former general was given sufficient reprieve from suffering to finish his memoirs, widely considered the best ever written by a U.S. president.

Yet Grant’s death left Douglas broken and ultimately cast aside by his professional peers. As Grant benefited from his relationship with Douglas, the doctor suffered in return. He was destroyed financially, physically and almost certainly emotionally by his devotion to his patient.

Grant had come to Douglas, whom he’d known during the Civil War, in October 1884, about a troubling mouth sore that made swallowing increasingly difficult.

“Is it cancer?” Grant asked.

Douglas understood immediately what he was seeing. “The question having been asked, I could give no uncertain, hesitating reply,” he wrote of the meeting. “I realized that if he once found that I had deceived him, I could never reinstate myself in his good opinion.”

With incurable cancer, what Grant needed most was time. He was well into the writing of his autobiography, which promised to resurrect the family fortunes wiped out in 1884 by the scandalous failure of Grant & Ward, the stock firm of Ulysses Grant Jr. Thanks to the help of Mark Twain, who arranged the publishing deal, the memoir would give Grant’s heirs financial security.

But he had to finish the book. Over the coming months, Douglas helped keep Grant as comfortable as possible while his patient wrote, seeing him as often as twice a day, holding bedside vigils and, toward the end, sleeping on a cot in the dying man’s room. (Historian Joan Waugh quotes Douglas telling a Boston newspaper that his sense of duty to Grant gave him a “degree of physical endurance that might otherwise have been impossible.”)

Grant bounced literary notions off Douglas while undergoing treatment in Manhattan and later at a cottage on Mount McGregor, a resort near Saratoga where he spent the last weeks of his life and finished the memoir. It was Douglas who urged the family to relocate there in hopes that the mountain air might invigorate his patient.

Grant benefitted from the change of scenery. He also felt the effects of Douglas’ prescription for the painful tumor: applications of cocaine—which in part due to the work of Sigmund Freud had just begun to appear in the medical literature as an anesthetic—and injections of brandy and morphine.

Born in Waterford, N.Y. to a farming family, Douglas graduated from Williams College and the University of Pennsylvania. He trained with the preeminent throat specialist of his day, his brother-in-law Horace Green. He edited the American Medical Monthly and was published frequently in scientific journals. He was among the earliest members of the American Laryngological Association and the New York Academy of Medicine.

During the Civil War, Douglas volunteered to assist the U.S. Sanitary Commission, the health arm of the Federal military charged with improving the medical care of soldiers. He rose to become Associate Secretary for the Commissions’ activities west of the Mississippi, under the command of Grant. Douglas also was instrumental in founding an old soldier’s home and is credited with the use of pickles and sauerkraut to prevent scurvy.

But he and the other physicians caring for Grant were not beyond reproach in the press. When articles questioning their choice of treatment, particularly the use of cocaine, appeared, Grant steadfastly defended his medical team. At one point he wrote that were he to heed the clamor, “I would die within a few days, suffering the extremist [sic] agony in the meantime.”

After Grant’s death Douglas returned to New York to find his medical practice, which had provided him an income estimated at $20,000 a year (equivalent to roughly $450,000 today) irretrievably floundering. Soon his health began to fail. A stroke landed him in a charity room of Presbyterian Hospital, prompting a plea for financial aid in the trade press from two well-known New York physicians.

Desperate for money, Douglas pressed to recover earnings lost when treating the general forced him to abandon his practice. He received $12,000 from the Grant family, a substantial sum but not enough to keep him afloat.

In 1890, Douglas was expelled from the laryngological association. Although the reason for Douglas’s rejection remains uncertain, he may simply have been too poor to pay his dues—then $5 a year.

Douglas certainly had a history of money woes. As early as 1879, his wife complained in a letter that he had “lost so largely in money matters” that she could not afford to send their daughter, then suffering from an eye ailment, to Europe—“for we would be obliged to pay for a companion to go with her, because she could not read.”

Douglas may have fallen for one of the rampant stock schemes of the era. For a time one tenant in the tony apartment building at 48 East 26th Street where the Douglas family lived was Ulysses Grant Jr. It’s tempting to speculate that the young man might have sought out investors among his neighbors.

Whatever the case, the once prosperous physician spent the final years of his life in want. Douglas eventually moved to Washington D.C., where his daughter and her husband, the Episcopal Bishop of the city, were living. He died there in 1892, at the age of 68.

An 1892 obituary of Douglas in the Journal of the American Medical Association noted: “Without doubt under some forms of Government, having more gratitude than Republics, Dr. Douglas would have been, in his latter days, in the receipt of a comfortable pension.”

Douglas himself agreed with that sentiment. In a September 1891 letter to his friend, Frederick Law Olmsted, the great landscape architect with whom he had served in the Sanitary Commission, Douglas, in a hand frail and shaken by stroke, lamented that "if anyone is entitled to a membership in the Loyal Legion, it is certainly myself, for not only was the head of the Army (Gen. Grant) my patient, but his chief of staff, Gen. [John] Rawlings--and so many others of the Army [illegible] under my medical wing that I cannot attempt to enumerate them."

Alfred J. Bloor, another titan of late-century architecture with whom Douglas was acquainted, arranged a collection for the doctor from former colleagues in the commission. Olmsted and his wife gave money, prompting a profusion of gratitude from Douglas.

Instead, he had neither pension nor good standing. More than a century later, the American Laryngological Association has refused to reinstate Douglas despite attempts to do so. A 2005 scholarly article pleading his case in the association’s journal, Laryngoscope, did not budge the group’s board. And a more recent request to restore him also failed to arouse any interest in the matter, according to Dr. Gayle Woodson, the association’s former historian and a co-author of the journal article. No other member has ever been dropped for failing to pay dues, Dr. Woodson added.

Considering his professional contributions, the services he rendered to his country, and his devotion to his patients, Dr. Woodson and her colleagues wrote, Douglas’ fate “seems an unjust ending to the life of this magnanimous and noble” physician. The 125th anniversary of his most famous patient’s death would be a chance to remedy that injustice.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Ball 9. Going Fishing

Does an ancient fish fossil in the Caribbean have the potential to reshape the conventional wisdom about marine life in the Western hemisphere? Prosanta Chakrabarty thinks so.

Dr. Chakrabarty, an ichthyologist at the Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, believes that the preserved remains of a 5-million-year-old member of the cichlid family on the island of Hispaniola—home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic—is evidence that a prevailing theory of how freshwater fish spread throughout Central and South America needs revisiting.

Biologists generally believe that the upwelling of the Isthmus of Panama out of the sea 3.5 million years ago led to a major migration of species in the region, a phenomenon with the automotive-sounding name of “the Great Biotic Interchange.” The new isthmus—the spit of land that bridges Central and South America—allowed freshwater fish and other creatures to colonize habitats previously forbidden them, diversifying the animal life in North and South America in the process.

Analyzing genetic material from more than a dozen fish families, Dr. Chakrabarty and a colleague, James Albert, of the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, found that many species appear to have spread across the region far earlier than can be explained by the isthmus model.

“Cuba and Hispaniola may have connected the continents long before the Panamanian isthmus did, allowing fishes to disperse across fresh waters from South America to North America 50 million years ago instead of just in the last 3 million years,” Dr. Chakrabarty says. “We find that the closure of the Isthmus of Panama was just the most recent event in the rich geological history of this region. The rise of the Isthmus of Panama actually allowed more fish to move south from Central America to South America—more species than in the other direction. This is a very different view than that proposed by the Great Biotic Interchange.”

In addition to fish, toads and some lizards also appear to have enjoyed the same mobility as fish, he says. “In 100 million years, when Central America breaks up and drifts away, no one will believe the current state of having these four disparate geologic masses aligned as a land bridge,” Dr. Chakrabarty says. “That fish can tell us how these land masses fit together and broke apart is pretty cool.”

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Ball 8. Where's Monday?

Futility can take many forms (like being illiterate in several languages). "Where's Monday?" is a children's story condemned to the Purgatory of the Unread--although I'd like to believe not unreadable. After a decade of occasional pitches to publishers and agents, I surrender.

Wednesday was the first to notice that Monday was late for work.

"Where's Monday?" she wondered .

Thursday was doing his crossword puzzle and could not be bothered. "Ach," he grunted.

Tuesday began to fret. "I'm not ready to work today," she said, flitting about the room like an anxious sparrow. "It's not fair. For one thing, I don't have anything to wear."

"You can borrow something from me, dear," said Wednesday, who always kept an extra outfit at the office in case of emergencies. Everyone admired her wardrobe. She didn't have much, but she always dressed stylishly.

Thursday looked up from his puzzle and shook his yellow pencil at them like a conductor. "Hush," he said. "Can't you see I'm trying to concentrate?"

"Tuesday and I are concerned because Monday's late."

"Ach!" said Thursday, throwing his newspaper onto the table. "Has anyone tried to call him? Maybe he's at home."

"I did," said Wednesday. "I got his answering machine."

Friday loped in, wearing shorts and a baseball cap. He was carrying a cooler.

Tuesday ran to him. "Monday's gone AWOL," she said. "I'm going to have to work for him today. Can you believe it?"

"That's a bummer," said Friday. "I'm off to the ball game. I only came by to pick up a few files. I figure I can work on them between innings. Anyone care to join me?"

Wednesday shook her head. "Friday, I think you should help us find Monday. It won't do to have Tuesday fill in for him. After all, that means you'll have to take Thursday's place, and he says he's the hardest job of us all. Isn't that right, Thursday," she said, winking to Friday.

Thursday nodded. "Quite so, I'm afraid. It's all work and no play for me. The only day I always get off is Thanksgiving, and sometimes Christmas and New Years. You would hate it, Friday. No three-day weekends."

"Well then, we'd better find Monday, and fast," Friday said. "We can take my van."

The Days got into Friday's van and drove over to Monday's house. He lived in a small bungalow, surrounded by emerald grass and a bushy hedge. A magnolia tree, full of creamy blossoms, spread across the yard.

Thursday marched up the stone walkway and knocked loudly on the door. "Monday, are you in there?"

Tuesday elbowed him aside. "Monday, you answer this door right now. You're throwing everything off. Everything."

"Days, Days," Wednesday scolded. "Please try to be calm. We're here to find Monday, not punish him."

"Ach," said Thursday. "You think it's okay to be late."

"That's not the point," Wednesday said. "Of course it's better to be on time, as anyone can plainly see. But if something's happened to Monday, it doesn't help to make him feel bad."

"She's right," said Friday. "And anyway, nobody seems to care when I'm late."

"That's because you're Friday," Tuesday said sharply. "You're supposed to be late."

Wednesday stepped to the door and tried the knob. It was unlocked. The door swung open and the Days walked cautiously into the house.

Monday's house was a little messy, especially the kitchen. Dirty dishes filled the sink, and a pot of something that looked like beans sat on the stove.

Tuesday grimaced. "Doesn't he ever clean?" she said.

Friday walked to the bedroom and came back, shaking his head. "He's not sleeping. In fact, his bed is still made and hasn't been slept in."

"I think we should call September," said Thursday. "She'll know what to do."

September was the new president of the Months. She wasn't happy to be awakened.

Wednesday apologized. "We're so sorry to wake you," she said, "but Monday's late for work and we can't find him."

"Why are you calling me at home?" September said, her voice heavy with sleep and irritation. "Isn't June in charge this month?"

"We assumed that as president of the Board of Months, you should be informed first of any trouble."

"Good thinking, Wednesday. I'd forgotten," September said, no longer irritated. "So, you can't find Monday? This could throw the whole schedule off. I know for a fact that July is out of town and can't be reached. I'll give you another hour, and then I'll call the Years."

"The Years? Are you sure that's necessary? They're so…strict."

"And so they should be," September said. "They're the backbone of the whole calendar."

"Backbone of the calendar my foot!" said Thursday when Wednesday had hung up the phone. "We're the backbone of the calendar. Why, look what happens when one of us goes missing. Chaos. Pure chaos."

"Hush," said Wednesday. "We're all important in the calendar. Equally so. Every unit of time, from the seconds to the years, is precious."
"Ach," said Thursday, still upset. "Some time is more precious than others."

Friday came back from the living room, where he'd been snooping. "I think I've found something." He held up a scrap of paper. On it was written: Dinner 7:30.

Tuesday frowned. "This doesn't tell us anything," she said. "It could have been written weeks ago."

"Maybe," said Friday. "But I bet it's important."

"Friday's right," said Wednesday. "If Monday had dinner plans this weekend, we need to find out who he ate with. All I know is, it wasn't me."

"Not me," said Thursday. It wasn't Friday or Tuesday, either.

"Then it's obvious," Wednesday said. "Monday had dinner with Saturday and Sunday. Let's get in the van."

*** *** ***

Saturday and Sunday, the twins, lived on a ranch not far from town. They had everything a Day could want. A swimming pool, a volleyball net, a tennis court, a softball field. They had hiking trails and a fishing hole, stables and hammocks. In the summer, Saturday and Sunday would host cookouts for the rest of the Days. Sometimes the Months and Years would be invited.

Friday stopped the van beside a neat row of bicycles.

They walked to the door, and were about to knock, when it swung open and Saturday appeared.

"Thursday," she said with surprise. "And Tuesday, and Wednesday and Friday! What are you doing here?"

"We've come to find Monday," said Wednesday. "We thought he might have had dinner with you last night."

Saturday's mouth opened wide as a kettle and a gentle giggle escaped into the morning. "Come with me, but be very quiet," she said. She led the Days down a hallway, and stopped in front of a bedroom. "Listen," she said.

They heard a low, slow rumble. Someone was snoring.

"Monday?" asked Wednesday.

Saturday nodded. "Sunday and I invited him over. He spent so much time in the swimming pool yesterday that he got too tired to drive home. I forgot that we don't have any alarm clocks here."

She opened the door and the Days looked inside. Monday was in a waterbed, lying on his back. The light woke him.

"What time is it?" said Monday, blinking.

Saturday didn't have a watch, either. "It's a few minutes after nine," Thursday said sternly.

"What?" Monday shouted. He struggled to sit up, but the mattress was like pudding and would not cooperate. "I'm late for work!"

"Of course you are," said Saturday, helping him roll out of the bed. "That's why all the other Days are here. They were worried about you."

"Ohhhh," Monday moaned.

"Now, now," said Wednesday. "Don't get yourself all worked up over nothing. We're not angry. We just didn't know where you were."

"That's right," said Friday. "We thought something might have happened to you. We even went by your house. But you weren't there."

"Of course he wasn't there," said Tuesday. "He was here. Sleeping away the morning."

"I'm sorry, Tuesday," said Monday.

"That's good. You should be," said Tuesday. "But it doesn't help much. You're still late."

Monday covered his face with his hands. The Days heard the sound of sniffles.

Tuesday looked at her shoes. "I'm sorry, Monday," she said. "I shouldn't have been cruel."

"It’s not that," said Monday, wiping tears from his cheeks. "You're right to be mad. It just reminded me how much people don't like me."

"What are you saying?" said Wednesday. "Everybody loves you."

"No. Everybody loves Friday. People are always saying how much they hate Mondays. 'Oh, I wish it wasn't Monday already.' 'I'm so glad it's only a four Day week.' There's even a song: 'Monday I've got Friday on my mind.'"

"I don't know that one," said Friday. "Who sings it?"

"What's the difference," Monday said. "The point is, none of you would want to switch with me in a million Years."

Wednesday put her arm around his shoulders. "I know it's hard on you, Monday, but you have to remember that every Day has a purpose that no other Day can play. Without you, we wouldn't be able to start the Week."

Monday brightened up a bit. "So what's your role?"

"My job," she said, "is to make sure we keep from driving each other crazy."

*** *** ***

Saturday walked the other Days to Friday's van. "You really should visit more often. Sunday's a whiz at the barbecue and the pool's always warm."

"They also make the best frozen drinks," said Monday, who was now feeling much better. "Thanks, Saturday. It was so much fun."

"It was," she said.

Friday started up the van and headed down the driveway. As they passed the pond, it suddenly occurred to him: "Say," said Friday, "did anyone see Sunday?"

Friday, June 11, 2010

Ball 7. Brainy Birds

Are you smarter than the average dove? Want to bet?

In a finding that gives new meaning to the word "birdbrain," researchers in Washington State say pigeons outperform people when it comes to playing a common probability game called the "Monty Hall Dilemma."

Named after the host of the TV game show, Let's Make A Deal, the Monty Hall problem asks contestants to find a prize behind three closed doors. The odds of winning can change as the game progresses, requiring players to think on their feet.

The Washington researchers found that pigeons can be trained to employ the best strategy to win. Humans, they found, aren’t such able students.

Wally Herbranson, who led the research, calls the findings “somewhat surprising” (to everyone, perhaps, but the game show's producers).

“The advantages afforded to us by our large, powerful brains are not absolute,” Herbranson says. “The Monty Hall problem is presumably one of those cases where less is more: our sophisticated cognitive abilities actually trip us up.”

This research appeared in the February issue of the Journal of Comparative Psychology.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Banks Behaving Badly

The mail is full of pitches, so it seems reasonable to discuss a failed pitch that recently came my way.

One might expect that banks these days would be particularly careful about appearing to be honest brokers. Evidently, they are immune to shame.

Here's yet another sorry tale about mortgage shenanigans.

It happened right here in Clear Mountain. The other day, a FedEx envelope arrived in the mail from Chase. The first clue that something was amiss was that the envelope bore no waybill. In other words, it was merely a bulk-rate letter tarted up as urgent.

Inside was a notice from Chase happily informing us that we could cut the rate on our home loan by a full point and pay No Closing Costs (emphasis in the original). Act immediately, the letter said, and Chase would wave "all fees"—enumerated in the fine print as "any bank fees which means no application, processing, appraisal, credit report or origination fees. Third party costs associated with closing the loan are also waived."

The letter, signed by Jay Roth, senior vice president (of what division, silence) went on to add that any tax or insurance escrow shortages would be our responsibility. More on that bit in a moment.

Now, if you were like me, you'd think that no fees meant no fees. How silly!

I called the number on the offer and eventually connected with Mike, who turns out to be a Chase salesman based in an industrial park in Columbus, Ohio. Mike readily assured me that my interpretation of the no fee refinancing offer was correct: There would be no fees. We would pay NOTHING. He told me to watch the mail for another packet of materials from the bank that would lay out the terms of the new loan.

I was more than mildly surprised when the next letter arrived showing that our monthly payment would rise—not fall—by $1,200 a month. I called Mike. He insisted that the documents were mistaken, that they had been sent basically as placeholders by the bank and that the final documents would reflect the promised savings, which would amount to about $200 monthly.

Poor, misguided Mike. The documents kept making him a liar.

A few days later the wonderfully ironic "Good Faith Estimate" of settlement costs arrived. The amount? $11,429.36. For those keeping track, that's about $11,429.36 more than zero. Chase, it turns out, was generously offering to pick up about $3,300 of that, leaving us with some $8,000 in fees. What's more, our loan value was rising by $8,000--a suspicious coincidence.

I called Mike back. After a few minutes of dancing around the issue, I asked for his supervisor. Chris came on the line.

Chris insisted that I was mistaken. The $8,000 was not a fee but an escrow payment. But if that was the case, I wondered, why was our loan value rising? Escrow is our money, not the bank's, right? Why should I pay Chase interest on my money?

I then suggested to Chris that the deal was looking more and more suspect. He laughed and told me that "hundreds of people" had complained that it was fraudulent, but he swore it was legit. However, he graciously offered to close out our application if that would make me happy.

I hung up and contacted a local Chase branch. The loan officer promised to do some digging and get back to me.

Sure enough, he said--with what I took to be sincere embarrassment--the offer was bogus. Chase was indeed charging fees, as much as $2,000, but hiding them in "escrow" and building them into the new loan. He told me he would be raising the matter at an upcoming branch managers meeting.

Then, he added, his voice dropping to a near whisper, "to be perfectly honest," I should leap at the chance to refinance for only $2,000 in closing costs.

No thanks, I thought. The opposite of perfect honesty is imperfect deception, which is what started all this in the first place.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Ball 6. Revenge of the Birds

Here's another one from the archives. I thought this had the right mix of soft science and news. Evidently I was wrong.

European researchers have found that feces dropped on beaches by gulls may be an important reservoir of drug-resistant E. coli that could pose a threat to human health. Although such a risk remains theoretical, officials in Oregon believe that a gull may be to blame for a recent case of contamination of the drinking water supply in that state.

The findings appeared in the January issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Ball 5. Old Blue Eggs

Trolling through the abstracts of an ornithology meeting held a few months ago, I came across the following study: Robin's Egg Blue: Is Egg Color a Sexual Signal?

The authors, from Canada, didn't want to talk about their findings (a paper in the works, jeopardizing publication, etc., etc.), but it seemed like too nifty a story to let drop. Therefore:

The blue of the robin's egg is among the most vibrant colors in nature. In
fact, it's so striking that researchers have long puzzled over why evolution
would so obviously advertise robin’s eggs to potential predators.

Canadian ornithologists say they have an explanation. They found that male robins spent more time feeding their chicks that hatched from the most vividly colored eggs. That suggests that robin's egg blue is a signal to males about the fitness of their mates and the offspring they've
produced, according to the researchers.

A confession about eggs: As a birder, it pains me to think of even "trash" species suffering—particularly at my own hands. But the other night my wife and I were forced to clear a pair of vociferous house sparrows from their long-time home underneath a broken AC unit in one of our windows. Their noisy ways, and the dust from their grassy nest, had finally shattered whatever pretense of live-and-let-live we'd kept up for the children.

When we removed the behemoth machine, which was at least 30 years old and must have weighed 120 pounds, we found a clutch of seven, warm eggs in the nest. The parents, having been scared away by the commotion, were nowhere to be seen.

The next morning, the female sparrow was perched on the sill, chirping what at the time seemed like a confused and desperate question that nearly broke my heart. Until the morning after, when, at about 4:45, she was back to her usual, grating ways. In fact, she seemed louder than usual, with an insistence that I took to be hectoring of her mate for his poor choice of an apartment. So, the early bird may get the worm, but the earlier bird gets evicted.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Ball 4. What’s in a (drug) name? The tales anagrams tell—or not—about pharmaceutical marketing

Drug names often try to evoke cheerful whimsy—Pfizer’s painkillers Lyrica and Celebrex, for example, or Boniva, an osteoporosis agent from GlaxoSmithKline and Genentech, are onomatopoetic and light on the tongue. That’s no accident. With millions, and often billions of dollars at stake, a new medicine must grab the attention of both doctors and patients. Name recognition is critical.

But sometimes drug names have more to say than perhaps their marketers intended. Thanks to online anagram generators, these hidden messages are now easy to tease out. Here’s a list of some of the more amusing discoveries, courtesy of the Internet Anagram Server at (recommendation: be sure to try this at home, with the names of everyone from your mother in-law to your boss).

If anagrams contain an inner wisdom, some drug companies should have been more careful when coming up with their brands.

Consider Provenge, a new drug from Dendreon that fights prostate cancer by spurring the body’s immune system to attack tumors. Will men be scared off the medication by these three little words: “Never Go P”?

Similarly, Thrombate, an anticlotting drug from Talecris. Its letters combine to form “Heart Tomb” and “Bet To Harm”—neither of which screams “take me!”

Abbott Laboratories might have a PR problem with its AIDS drug, Heat-Stable Norvir. Hidden inside the three-word name: “A Observant Hitler.” (On the other hand, the drug seems likely to carry powerful, bipartisan political appeal. Conservatives looking for a strong showing in the midterm elections this November might be tempted by “A Thin, Stabler [Karl] Rove,” while liberals who detest the former Bush advisor might want to get their hands on “A Thin Rove Blaster.”)

Meanwhile, rabeximod, an experimental therapy under development by OxyPharma for patients with autoimmune disorders, might struggle against its competitors if it gets a nod from regulators. The anagram maker deems the product “A Bored Mix.”

Even when the hidden message isn’t negative, it’s often telling. AstraZeneca has high hopes for Brilinta, a blood thinner it plans to pit against blockbuster Plavix (Sanofi-Aventis/BristoMyers Squibb) in the multi-billion dollar market for such treatments. But it should have chosen a different name to make the best case for novelty. Brilinta’s most telling anagram: “Rat Blini”—a nifty combination of stomach turning foodstuff and unintended irony. After all, warfarin, the first blood thinner, was derived from rat poison.

Oleptro, Labopharm’s drug for major depression, doesn’t stretch far to hide the company’s hopes. It’s a “Rep Tool.” And, of course, let’s not leave out Viagra, whose generic name sildenafil, provides plenty to consider. Of the dozens to chose from, I’m partial to “Ids All Fine” and “A Filled Sin,” but you should find your own favorite.

Bausch & Lomb’s Besivance treats bacterial eye infections—a problem for people who wear contact lenses. But does this anagram hold a warning about possible side effects? “Even I Scab?” (You can also make “I Van Be Sec,” which sounds like something my Yiddish-speaking Bubbe might have said from behind the bathroom door.)

And, of course, when it comes to medicine, a little metaphysics never hurts. The folks at Johnson & Johnson could have been channeling J.K. Rowling when they named their new drug for rheumatoid arthritis Simponi. It contains—let’s hope not literally—“Imp Ions,” something Harry Potter would have had to master in his Dark Arts class. The FDA in January approved Ampyra, from Acorda Therapeutics, to improve mobility in patients with multiple sclerosis. But people who take it might want to get religion. One anagram from the drug’s name (punctuation added): “Ma, Pray!”

Mud Maracas (Adam Marcus) is managing editor of Anesthesiology News.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Ball 3. Saharan Peril for Migrating Raptors

Update: The article in Tuesday's N.Y. Times ( on long-distance migrants missed this study and other work by Dr. Alerstam on tracking migrating birds. (The cover of my edition also had a teaser with a caption about a bar-tailed godwit under a photo of an arctic tern.)

For birds that migrate from Eurasia south through Africa, crossing the Sahara desert is a particularly treacherous leg of the trip. Although scientists have suspected that the 3.5 million square mile Sahara is a death trap for migrants, the magnitude of the mortality risk hasn’t been clear—until now.

Swedish researchers used satellite tracking technology to follow four raptor species whose migration path took them across the Sahara. They found that 31% of juvenile birds—but only about 2% of adults—died during the migration, accounting for much of the overall annual deaths among these species.

The new study is the first to show how satellite tracking can be used to provide a quantitative picture of bird mortality at specific times and places during the animals’ annual cycles, said Thomas Alerstam, an ecologist at Lund University. It also yielded surprising graphical evidence of the frequent stops and starts, retreats and other detours that delayed the birds’ arrival at their breeding grounds.

“These instances of difficulties were significantly associated with late arrival at breeding sites and poor breeding success, showing that a barrier to passage may not only cause important direct mortality but also have consequences that translate into fitness losses later in the annual cycle,” Alerstam said.

The combination of such a limited margin for safety during migration and the Sahara’s southward expansion—a process of “desertification” resulting from global climate change—may have major consequences for raptors and other species that make the trip from the Palaearctic ecozone across northern Africa, the researchers said.

Alerstam’s group reported its findings in Biology Letters (Dec. 2009).

One editor’s response: “We’re going to pass on this, as it doesn’t seem all that surprising that a big barren desert could be bad for birds. Thanks though.”

Ball 2. Electronic "Tongue" Has a Taste for Tea

This story struck me as a sure bet--science, economics, quirky niche behavior--which is why it's a good thing I don't wager on sports, I guess. Even the British press wouldn't bite on it (as far as I can tell; none of them ever replied to my queries, a lack of professional courtesy that's a real pet peeve of mine). I found it while digging through the abstracts of the upcoming 2010 World Congress on
Biosensors, in Glasgow, UK. This meeting is a great venue for fascinating but largely unproven research.

Attendees at the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas this June will be able to immerse themselves in sessions covering everything from how to open a tea house to the latest in trends and blends.

What they won’t see, however, is a new bit of electronics that potentially could revolutionize their $10 billion industry: an electronic "tongue" that, its inventors say, can quickly and cheaply identify levels of two key taste compounds in tea leaves. Such a test would give both buyers and tasters a rapid means of determining product quality, which for now remains more art than science.

The hand-held device, developed by researchers in Taiwan, assesses levels of molecules known to produce astringency—the tannins that cause the pucker-up quality in many forms of tea—and umami, a general savoriness.

Samples of infused tea are put into the detector, which uses ultraviolet light to excite the leaves and measures the energy they generate in response. Leaves with different quantities of tannins and amino acids linked to umami, particularly one called teanine, produce different amounts
of energy, giving them unique signatures that can be easily identified.

The technique works best with partially fermented teas, such as oolong, a staple of Chinese restaurants around the world. Green tea, too, may also be a candidate, according to the researchers.

Tzong-Jih "George" Cheng, an associate professor at National Taiwan University who helped create the detector, said the technology could appeal to both tea wholesalers, who lack a fast way of gauging quality in bulk, and consumers, who are at the mercy of vendors when it comes to looking for top-shelf product.

Indeed, the Taiwanese researchers tested samples of infused teas of varying prices. They found that cost and quality—at least, according to the electronic tongue's definition—did not reliably agree. "We see that the retail price is not correlated with taste quality in partially fermented teas," Cheng said. "Price cheating is the usual conditions for general consumers."

The cost of the device is roughly $50US, with each test running about
25 cents.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Ball One

Hard to know where to start with these. I've been shopping something around for about a month now that seems destined to die aborning, but in the interest of optimism I'll save it for later. Meanwhile, here's something from the archives--April 2009--that never saw daylight:

Monsters vs Aliens meet Bacteria vs Fungi.

Researchers have found that adding certain bacteria to the skins of frogs can protect the animals against a deadly fungal infection that has been ravaging amphibian populations in the wild.

Biologists at James Madison University say the bacteria Janthinobacterium lividum produce a substance called violacein that neutralizes the fungus causing the lethal infections. The scientists say the findings support the strategy of “bioaugmentation”—using microbes to beef up an organism’s natural defenses—in both wild and captive amphibians.

The researchers published their study in the iSME Journal's online edition ....

No luck with the major science magazines or websites.
This blog is dedicated to all those freelance pitches whose short, uncelebrated lives ended in an editor's inbox without so much as a whimper. I offer them here not as an indictment of editors whose news sense is undoubtedly sharper than mine, but because I think they fall into the category of information that makes you raise, say, one eyebrow instead of both.

Then again, what makes it into print or the digital equivalent often has less to do with a standard of newsy-ness than what an editor ate for breakfast or how annoying her children were as she left for work. (Was that an indictment? Maybe just a little one.)

In addition to posting story ideas I've failed to place, I'll include other items I think are interesting but won't pitch from throughout the world of science.