Sunday, October 19, 2014

When air pollution is so bad it makes your skin dirty


Even by the city's standards, Beijing was very polluted on Sunday. The PM2.5 scale, which measures the number of micrograms of "particulate matter" per cubic meter, came up to a whopping 344. (To put that figure in perspective, the World Health Organization considers 25 micrograms to be healthy). ...

To say the least, these weren't ideal conditions for a marathon. But that race is precisely what took place on Sunday, as tens of thousands of runners braved the conditions to complete the 34th annual Beijing International Marathon.

Event organizers were aware that the air wouldn't be good on Sunday, but determined it was too late to postpone the race, which had attracted participants from throughout China and around the world. To help runners clean detritus from their skin, organizers supplied over 140,000 sponges placed at stations throughout the course.
--Matt Schiavenza, The Atlantic, on taking air pollution to the next level

What happened to Samuel L. Jackson's character after Pulp Fiction

At the end of Pulp Fiction, [Samuel L.] Jackson’s Jules says to Vincent that, after their brush with death in the diner, he’s just going to “walk the earth.” When Vincent asks him to expand, he says, “You know, walk the earth, meet people… get into adventures. Like Caine from Kung Fu.” In Kill Bill: Vol. 2, Jackson makes a cameo at The Bride’s wedding as a piano-playing drifter who goes by the name of “Rufus.”
--Marlow Stern, Daily Beast, on a beloved character making good on a vow. HT: AS

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Time spent in meetings is growing exponentially

Time spent in meetings has been rising by 8% to 10% annually since 2000, and is likely to continue increasing, says Michael Mankins, a partner in San Francisco with the management-consulting firm Bain & Co. Senior executives are spending an average 28 hours in meetings each week, and middle managers spend 21 hours, says Mr. Mankins, lead author of a recent 17-company time-management study with analytics provider VoloMetrix. ...

Conference-room shortages fuel genuine anxiety in employees who must meet with others to get work done. When Seattle-based Moz, a maker of marketing-analytics software, outgrew its office space last year, employees began booking conference rooms in advance just in case they needed them, says Mark Schliemann, vice president, technical operations, for the company. “If there’s a shortage of food, people want to hoard it. Conference rooms are the same way,” Mr. Schliemann says. “If people see conference space as valuable and they need it, they do whatever it takes to get it.”

Such logjams leave 40% of employees wasting up to 30 minutes a day looking for meeting space, according to customer surveys by Steelcase Inc.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

How a prayer meeting helped bring down the Berlin Wall

Disillusioned with the Berlin Wall, the physical fault line of the ongoing Cold War and the repressive East German regime, Pastor Christian Führer began organising Prayers for Peace every Monday evening, beginning in 1982.

On many occasions fewer than a dozen people attended the prayer meetings. The East German government strongly discouraged its citizens from becoming involved in religious activities, but the meetings continued each Monday without fail.

In 1985 Pastor Führer put an 'open to all' sign outside the church. Such a gesture was loaded with symbolism as the church provided the only space in East Germany where people could talk about things that could not be discussed in public.

Meetings were open to everyone. Young people, Christians and atheists all sought refuge there. Attendances soared as word of the peace prayers spread.

Momentum began to build in earnest during the summer of 1989...

"On 8 May 1989, the authorities barricaded the streets leading to the church, hoping to put people off, but it had the opposite effect, and our congregation grew. There were beatings and arrests of demonstrators at protest rallies in Leipzig, Berlin and Dresden," [Pastor Führer] said.

By this time the prayer meetings had led to a series of peaceful political protests in Leipzig and other cities which became known as the Monday Demonstrations. ...

Things came to a head on 7 October 1989, the 40th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic.

"There were hundreds of arrests made among the crowds in front of the Nikolai Church. Erich Honecker [the Communist leader of East Germany] had declared that the church should be closed. The police used brute force against the demonstrators and lots of people were beaten," Pastor Führer recalled.

An article appeared in a local newspaper announcing that the counter-revolution would be put down on Monday 9 October "with whatever means necessary". ...

"The church was visited by doctors who told us that hospital rooms had been made available for patients with bullet wounds. So we were absolutely terrified of what might happen," Pastor Führer said.

Up to 8,000 crowded into St Nicholas Church, including members of the feared Stasi (secret police) who had been sent to occupy it.

Other Leipzig churches opened to accommodate additional protesters. About 70,000 people had now gathered in the city.

After an hour-long service at St Nicholas, Pastor Führer led worshippers outside.

The nearby Augustusplatz was filled with demonstrators clutching lit candles. Slowly, the crowd began walking around the city, past the Stasi headquarters, chanting "we are the people" and "no violence", and accompanied by thousands of helmeted riot police ready to intervene.

The tension was palpable.

But at the decisive moment the police stood aside and let the protesters march by.

Pastor Führer said: "They didn't attack. They had nothing to attack for. East German officials would later say they were ready for anything, except for candles and prayer." ...

This would prove to be a seismic moment. The fact they had been met with no violence meant the protest movement began to lose its fear. The dam had burst.

Footage of the march was widely broadcast, which inspired Monday Demonstrations throughout East Germany in the following weeks.

About 120,000 people took to the streets the following Monday. Erich Honecker resigned two days later. The dissidents became increasingly emboldened, with around 300,000 taking part in the protests on 23 October.

Exactly a month after the events of 9 October the Berlin Wall came down amid scenes of jubilation witnessed around the world.
--Peter Crutchley, BBC, on the power of prayer. HT: JM

Kids' food tastes begin forming in the womb

Children begin to acquire a taste for pickled egg or fermented lentils early — in the womb, even. Compounds from the foods a pregnant woman eats travel through the amniotic fluid to her baby. After birth, babies prefer the foods they were exposed to in utero, a phenomenon scientists call “prenatal flavor learning.” Even so, just because children are primed to like something doesn’t mean the first experience of it on their tongues will be pleasant. For many Korean kids, breakfast includes kimchi, cabbage leaves or other vegetables fermented with red chile peppers and garlic. A child’s first taste of kimchi is something of a rite of passage, one captured in dozens of YouTube videos featuring chubby-faced toddlers grabbing at their tongues and occasionally weeping.

Children, and young omnivorous animals generally, tend to reject unfamiliar foods on the first few tries. Evolutionarily, it makes sense for an inexperienced creature to be cautious about new foods, which might, after all, be poisonous. It is only through repeated exposure and mimicry that toddlers adjust to new tastes — breakfast instead of, say, dinner. ...

Sugar is the notable exception to “food neophobia,” as researchers call that early innate fear. In utero, a 13-week-old fetus will gulp amniotic fluid more quickly when it contains sugar.
--Malia Wollan, NYT Magazine, on the next frontier for hyper-anxious parenting

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Christianity is a potent force for democracy

One of the most interesting things I've read about the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong touches on an aspect that has received relatively little attention so far. An article in The Wall Street Journal looks at the religious background of some of the movement's main organizers. It turns out that many of the key people are Christians.

Joshua Wong, the 17-year-old leader of the activist group that has played a key role in launching and organizing the demonstrations, is an evangelical Protestant. Two of the three leaders of Occupy Central, the main protest group, are Christians. A former Catholic bishop of Hong Kong is another big supporter. "Christianity has been a visible element of the demonstrations, with prayer groups, crosses, and protesters reading Bibles in the street," the article notes. ...

Yet many other leading media organizations -- like The New York Times or CNN -- have neglected to mention this point. This strikes me as a significant omission. We can hardly be expected to understand why the demonstrators persist in defying the world's most powerful dictatorship without understanding the beliefs behind their choices.

Why has there been so little attention to the Christian factor? I think it's a combination of ignorance and embarrassment. Most journalists in the countries of the West today are skeptics or secularists. They tend to regard religious belief as a quaint oddity, a sort of exotic irrelevance. ...

No one, not even the communists, believes in Marxism-Leninism these days, and the [Chinese Communist] Party has yet to come up with a solid value system to take its place.

On top of that, the Party is also extremely sensitive to a history apparently lost on many of the reporters currently covering the protests in Hong Kong: the long and illustrious Christian involvement in revolutions around the world. The Chinese leadership is painfully aware of the role played by Pope John Paul II and his Polish Catholic compatriots in the downfall of the communist system in Eastern Europe. And despite their eagerness to discount Chinese Christians (and Hong Kong protesters) as agents of foreign powers, the rulers in Beijing also know that indigenous Christians were equally prominent in the pro-democracy movements that brought down dictators in South Korea and the Philippines in the 1980s.

Indeed, Christians have played strikingly important roles in popular protest movements ranging from the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa to the civil rights campaigns in the United States. ...

Martin Luther King mined Biblical texts for powerful metaphors of individual liberation and collective empowerment. Twentieth-century activists have translated Christ's radical emphasis on love into programs for non-violent struggle. On the purely practical level, churches provide alternate networks of support and refuge that can come in handy for activists who might otherwise find themselves alone against the power of the state.

Most people in Hong Kong aren't Christians -- so what is it about this particular faith that seems to predispose its adherents to activism? Surely that's worth examining.
--Christian Caryl, Foreign Policy, on beliefs that motivate

Making your dying days your best possible days

A couple of years ago, I got a call from the husband of Peg Bachelder, my daughter Hunter’s piano teacher. “Peg’s in the hospital,” Martin said. ...

He put his cell on speaker for Peg. She sounded weak and spoke in long pauses. She said the leukemia treatment was not working. ... She didn’t know what to do. ...

What is it we think should happen now? Her condition was incurable by established means. So should she press the doctors for other treatments, experimental therapies, anything with even a remote chance of keeping her going, no matter what? Or should she “give up”?

Neither seemed right. But for more than a decade in medical practice, I had not really understood what other choices might exist. ...

But hearing her fears, I suggested that Peg try hospice. It’d at least let her get home, I said, and might help her more than she knew. Hospice’s aim, at least in theory, I explained, is to give people their best possible day, however they might define it under the circumstances. It seemed as if it had been a while since she’d had a good day.

“Yes, it has — a long while,” she said.

That seemed worth hoping for, I said. Just one good day.

With her husband’s encouragement, she went home on hospice less than 48 hours later. ...

A few days later, however, we got a surprising call from Peg. She wanted to resume teaching. ...

That hospice could make teaching possible for her again was more than I’d imagined. But when her hospice nurse arrived, she asked Peg what she cared most about in her life, what having the best day possible meant to her. Then they worked together to make it happen. ...

Her first goal was just managing her daily difficulties. The hospice team put a hospital bed on the first floor so she wouldn’t have to navigate the stairs, organized a plan for bathing and dressing, adjusted her pain medications until they were right. Her anxieties plummeted as the challenges came under control. She raised her sights. ...

It took planning and great expertise to make each lesson possible. The nurse helped her learn how to calibrate her medications. “Before she would teach, she would take some additional morphine. The trick was to give her enough to be comfortable to teach and not so much that she would be groggy,” Martin recalled. ...

“It was important to her to be able to say her goodbyes to her dear friends, to give her parting advice to her students.”

Medicine has forgotten how vital such matters are to people as they approach life’s end. People want to share memories, pass on wisdoms and keepsakes, connect with loved ones, and to make some last contributions to the world. These moments are among life’s most important, for both the dying and those left behind. And the way we in medicine deny people these moments, out of obtuseness and neglect, should be cause for our unending shame.

Peg, however, got to fulfill her final role. She lived six weeks after going on hospice. Hunter had lessons for four of those weeks, and two final concerts were played. One featured Peg’s current students, all younger children; the other, her former students from around the country. Gathered in her living room, they played Brahms, Chopin and Beethoven for their adored teacher. A week later, she fell into delirium and, a short time after that, died peacefully in her bed.

My final remembrance of Peg is from the end of her last recital with the children. She’d taken each student away from the crowd to give a personal gift and say a few words. When it was Hunter’s turn, Peg gave her a book of music. Then she put her arm around her.

“You’re special,” she whispered to her. It was something she never wanted her students to forget.
--Atul Gawande, NYT, on the good death

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Eat kiwis with the skin on

[T]he kiwi has the reputation of a fruit that requires…work. Typical ways to eat it include skinning it with a vegetable peeler and slicing into rounds or cutting it in half and scooping out the insides with a spoon. ...

I am about to blow your minds, friends. (Unless you already know this, in which case, cool, let’s make a salad together sometime.) The proper way to eat a kiwi is exactly the way you would eat a peach.

Which is to say, wash it lightly, and then bite right into it. The kiwi is better with its skin than without it. The skin isn’t just edible, it’s one of my favorite parts of any fruit. It’s similar to a peach skin, in that it is sort of fuzzy and that the flesh directly under the skin is a bit more tart than the deep insides, but the kiwi’s skin is even thicker and thus provides even more delightful textural contrast to the green flesh within.
--Dan Nosowitz, The Awl, on a truth I just experienced for myself

Saturday, September 27, 2014

How to stop a binge-watching addiction

Binge-watching television shows—viewing episodes back-to-back for hours on end—may be America's new favorite pastime, but it's brought me to some pretty dark places. ...

Ultimately, I discovered that freedom from TV might be hidden in the structure of the episodes themselves.

One trick: Don't watch an episode to the end, because at that point, it's almost impossible to resist continuing to the next one. Instead, stop about three-quarters of the way in. The next time you watch, pick up from that point until most of the way into the following episode.

I know this sounds illogical. After all, how can it be easier to stop mid-show than at the end? But there's usually a lull in the narrative arc, when story lines get wrapped up and the pacing slows down. The show actually gets pretty boring.

"People unconsciously write this way," said Charlie Rubin, area head of television writing at the Tisch School of the Arts and a former writer for "Seinfeld" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent." "It's inhale and exhale. There's always a dramatic moment, and then you pull back from it."

What's more, each episode weaves together multiple story lines, Mr. Rubin explained. The "A" story—the one involving the star—is what keeps you watching episode after episode (even the ones that don't end with obvious cliffhangers). The "B" and "C" stories involve the supporting characters.

"The usual rule of the universe is that you end your stories in order of their importance," with the minor ones wrapping first, Mr. Rubin said. "The order of finish is C-B-A."

Recovering binge-watchers can use this knowledge to their advantage. Although each show has its own template, you should try to quit at the end of the B or C story, said Mr. Rubin. "Once you cycle back to that A story, you want to see what's going to happen to Tina Fey or Tony Soprano. "

Colleagues who helped me test the theory (using "Scandal" and "Dr. Who") found that the sweet spot varies by series—but you can intuit it after watching a few episodes. In a roughly 45-minute episode (without commercials), it'll usually fall somewhere around 30 minutes in. ...

An essential one: disabling auto-play, a feature found on services like Netflix and Hulu that automatically starts the next episode in a series when the one you're watching ends. ...

You can also strike the problem at the source: your Wi-Fi router. Many models allow you to shut down access to the Internet on a set schedule; Netgear routers can target specific websites at certain times...
--Michael Hsu, WSJ, on curing by avoiding the cliff-hangers

Students learn less from professors they like better, part 2

Michele Pellizzari, an economics professor at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, has a more serious claim: that course evaluations may in fact measure, and thus motivate, the opposite of good teaching.

His experiment took place with students at the Bocconi University Department of Economics in Milan, Italy. There, students are given a cognitive test on entry, which establishes their basic aptitude, and they are randomly assigned to professors.

The paper compared the student evaluations of a particular professor to another measure of teacher quality: how those students performed in a subsequent course. In other words, if I have Dr. Muccio in Microeconomics I, what's my grade next year in Macroeconomics II?

Here's what he found. The better the professors were, as measured by their students' grades in later classes, the lower their ratings from students.

"If you make your students do well in their academic career, you get worse evaluations from your students," Pellizzari said. Students, by and large, don't enjoy learning from a taskmaster, even if it does them some good.

There's an intriguing exception to the pattern: Classes full of highly skilled students do give highly skilled teachers high marks. Perhaps the smartest kids do see the benefit of being pushed.
--Anya Kamenetz, NPR, on another strike against student evaluations. See the randomized evidence from the U.S. Air Force Academy here. HT: PW

Thursday, September 25, 2014

U.S. attack on Syria has already cost more than India's mission to Mars

Fears of a potent Syrian air defense system drove the U.S. Air Force to send its silver bullet force of F-22 Raptor stealth fighters into battle for the first time ever. ...

But the Raptors’ first mission wasn’t cheap. Together, the missiles and airstrikes cost at least $79 million to pull off, according to a Daily Beast tally.

That's more expensive than India's mission to Mars, which was successfully completed Wednesday at a cost of just $74 million.
--Dave Majumdar, Daily Beast, on two very different ways to spend $79 million. HT: Chris Blattman

An EMT on what all dying patients think

I've been a critical care EMT for the past seven years in Suffolk County, New York. I've been a first responder in a number of incidents ranging from car accidents to Hurricane Sandy. ...

Having responded to many cases since then where patients were in their last moments and there was nothing I could do for them, in almost every case, they have all had the same reaction to the truth, of inner peace and acceptance. In fact, there are three patterns I have observed in all these cases.

The first pattern always kind of shocked me. Regardless of religious belief or cultural background, there's a need for forgiveness. Whether they call it sin or they simply say they have a regret, their guilt is universal. I had once cared for an elderly gentleman who was having a massive heart attack. As I prepared myself and my equipment for his imminent cardiac arrest, I began to tell the patient of his imminent demise. He already knew by my tone of voice and body language. As I placed the defibrillator pads on his chest, prepping for what was going to happen, he looked me in the eye and said, "I wish I had spent more time with my children and grandchildren instead of being selfish with my time." Faced with imminent death, all he wanted was forgiveness.

The second pattern I observe is the need for remembrance. Whether it was to be remembered in my thoughts or their loved ones', they needed to feel that they would be living on. There's a need for immortality within the hearts and thoughts of their loved ones, myself, my crew, or anyone around. Countless times, I have had a patient look me in the eyes and say, "Will you remember me?"

The final pattern I observe always touched me the deepest, to the soul. The dying need to know that their life had meaning. They need to know that they did not waste their life on meaningless tasks.
--Matthew O'Reilly, TED@NYC, on the universal desire for forgiveness, meaning, and immortality, i.e. what Christianity offers. HT: PW

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Korean language has no word for "irony" or "parody"

Irony is that special privilege of wealthy nations—Aristophanes, possibly the world’s first satirist, wrote his plays as Athens was becoming the dominant power in the region; Cervantes wrote at the height of Spain’s naval wealth; and Alexander Pope was born the year that England defeated the Spanish Armada. First, one scrambles for wealth; then one luxuriates in mocking the effeteness that comes with it.

Thus “Gangnam Style” signals the emergence of irony in South Korea, meaning that the country has reached the final stage in any state’s evolution. If you don’t think that irony is a measure of eliteness, think of how annoyed you were the last time you were accused of not having any. Americans have told me that Asians have no irony; in Europe, where I last lived, I was told that Americans have none.

South Korea had no irony when I arrived there. I can say that as plainly as I can say that it had no McDonald’s (it arrived in 1988, in Gangnam, of course). The Korean language has no word for irony, nor for “parody,” which is why the Korean press has been using the English word “parody” to describe Gangnam Style.
--Euny Hong, Quartz, on language reflecting culture

Are Paleo diets healthier? Evidence from hunter gatherers

What current health fad do I wish people would ignore?

Stone-age diets. ...

Our image of a carnivorous cave man with blood vessels free of plaques, low cholesterol levels and healthy hearts and brains may be wishful thinking. A postmortem study of 137 mummies from four different premodern cultures, found that atherosclerosis rates in hunter-gatherers was not lower than in farmers. For example, three of five (60%) mummies from an Aleutian hunter gather clan had atherosclerosis, by their 40s. ...

Of course, some half a dozen studies of the Paleo diet have noted benefits– e.g. a study of 10 full blooded diabetic Aborigines showed that temporary reversion to a hunter lifestyle resulted in improvements in glucose and weight. But since these were small studies of 10-15 subjects each that lasted only a few weeks, they are not generalizable. Many diets (including the vegetarian Rice Diet) have shown equally robust short-term benefits–the Achilles’ heel is the failure to show long-term benefits. And there is little evidence that a Paleo diet is any better than simply just eating fewer calories.
--Dr. Murali Doraiswamy, WSJ, on the good old days perhaps not being so good

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Obama's undersecretary for science: Climate science is not settled

The idea that "Climate science is settled" runs through today's popular and policy discussions. Unfortunately, that claim is misguided. ...

The crucial scientific question for policy isn't whether the climate is changing. That is a settled matter: The climate has always changed and always will...

Nor is the crucial question whether humans are influencing the climate. That is no hoax... The impact today of human activity appears to be comparable to the intrinsic, natural variability of the climate system itself.

Rather, the crucial, unsettled scientific question for policy is, "How will the climate change over the next century under both natural and human influences?" ...

Even though human influences could have serious consequences for the climate, they are physically small in relation to the climate system as a whole. For example, human additions to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by the middle of the 21st century are expected to directly shift the atmosphere's natural greenhouse effect by only 1% to 2%. Since the climate system is highly variable on its own, that smallness sets a very high bar for confidently projecting the consequences of human influences. ...

We often hear that there is a "scientific consensus" about climate change. But as far as the computer models go, there isn't a useful consensus at the level of detail relevant to assessing human influences. ...

For the latest IPCC report (September 2013), its Working Group I, which focuses on physical science, uses an ensemble of some 55 different models. Although most of these models are tuned to reproduce the gross features of the Earth's climate, the marked differences in their details and projections reflect all of the limitations that I have described. For example:

• The models differ in their descriptions of the past century's global average surface temperature by more than three times the entire warming recorded during that time. Such mismatches are also present in many other basic climate factors, including rainfall, which is fundamental to the atmosphere's energy balance. As a result, the models give widely varying descriptions of the climate's inner workings. Since they disagree so markedly, no more than one of them can be right.

• Although the Earth's average surface temperature rose sharply by 0.9 degree Fahrenheit during the last quarter of the 20th century, it has increased much more slowly for the past 16 years, even as the human contribution to atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen by some 25%. This surprising fact demonstrates directly that natural influences and variability are powerful enough to counteract the present warming influence exerted by human activity.

Yet the models famously fail to capture this slowing in the temperature rise. Several dozen different explanations for this failure have been offered, with ocean variability most likely playing a major role. But the whole episode continues to highlight the limits of our modeling.

• The models roughly describe the shrinking extent of Arctic sea ice observed over the past two decades, but they fail to describe the comparable growth of Antarctic sea ice, which is now at a record high.

• The models predict that the lower atmosphere in the tropics will absorb much of the heat of the warming atmosphere. But that "hot spot" has not been confidently observed, casting doubt on our understanding of the crucial feedback of water vapor on temperature.

• Even though the human influence on climate was much smaller in the past, the models do not account for the fact that the rate of global sea-level rise 70 years ago was as large as what we observe today—about one foot per century.

• A crucial measure of our knowledge of feedbacks is climate sensitivity—that is, the warming induced by a hypothetical doubling of carbon-dioxide concentration. Today's best estimate of the sensitivity (between 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit and 8.1 degrees Fahrenheit) is no different, and no more certain, than it was 30 years ago. And this is despite an heroic research effort costing billions of dollars. ...

They are not "minor" issues to be "cleaned up" by further research. Rather, they are deficiencies that erode confidence in the computer projections. ...

Yet a public official reading only the IPCC's "Summary for Policy Makers" would gain little sense of the extent or implications of these deficiencies. These are fundamental challenges to our understanding of human impacts on the climate, and they should not be dismissed with the mantra that "climate science is settled."

While the past two decades have seen progress in climate science, the field is not yet mature enough to usefully answer the difficult and important questions being asked of it. ...

Any serious discussion of the changing climate must begin by acknowledging not only the scientific certainties but also the uncertainties, especially in projecting the future. Recognizing those limits, rather than ignoring them, will lead to a more sober and ultimately more productive discussion of climate change and climate policies. To do otherwise is a great disservice to climate science itself.
--Steven Koonin, WSJ, on the fragility of complex models. I have long thought that there is a close analogy between climate models and models of the macroeconomy: It's hard to make accurate predictions of complex systems!

Trees are bad for the environment

Considering all the interactions, large-scale increases in forest cover can actually make global warming worse. ...

The dark color of trees means that they absorb more of the sun’s energy and raise the planet’s surface temperature.

Climate scientists have calculated the effect of increasing forest cover on surface temperature. Their conclusion is that planting trees in the tropics would lead to cooling, but in colder regions, it would cause warming. ...

...we can’t reliably predict whether large-scale forestation would help to control the earth’s rising temperatures.

Worse, trees emit reactive volatile gases that contribute to air pollution and are hazardous to human health. These emissions are crucial to trees — to protect themselves from environmental stresses like sweltering heat and bug infestations. In summer, the eastern United States is the world’s major hot spot for volatile organic compounds (V.O.C.s) from trees.

As these compounds mix with fossil-fuel pollution from cars and industry, an even more harmful cocktail of airborne toxic chemicals is created. ...

Chemical reactions involving tree V.O.C.s produce methane and ozone, two powerful greenhouse gases, and form particles that can affect the condensation of clouds. Research by my group at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and by other laboratories, suggests that changes in tree V.O.C.s affect the climate on a scale similar to changes in the earth’s surface color and carbon storage capacity.

While trees provide carbon storage, forestry is not a permanent solution because trees and soil also “breathe” — that is, burn oxygen and release carbon dioxide back into the air. Eventually, all of the carbon finds its way back into the atmosphere when trees die or burn.

Moreover, it is a myth that photosynthesis controls the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere. Even if all photosynthesis on the planet were shut down, the atmosphere’s oxygen content would change by less than 1 percent.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The plight of the NIH grant applicant

Sigh, the good old days really were better. Or: What happens when support for biomedical research falls by 20% in inflation-adjusted terms over the past decade.


College campus cops with grenade launchers and bayonets

Last week The Chronicle of Higher Education revealed that nearly 120 colleges and universities have acquired [surplus military] equipment through the 1033 program since 1998.

Working off of records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, The Chronicle found that colleges collected equipment running the gamut from office supplies to M-16s to weapons one would only expect to find on a battlefield. The Arizona State University police received 70 M-16s. Lincoln University, in Missouri, ordered 15 military backpacks and 20 bayonets. And the University of Central Florida police department owns an M-79 grenade launcher.

College professors and administrators defend the acquisition of Pentagon equipment for campus police by arguing that 1) the gear is free and 2) why not? ...

But the “better safe than sorry” totally ignores the possibility that owning such weapons could create the urge to use them. That isn’t to suggest that campus cops will open fire on students for no reason, but they could well overreact to a protest—just as the Ferguson police did. ...

Possession of military assault weapons sends a downright bizarre message as to what the campus police see as their purpose, or mission. They exist to keep the peace, not subdue a hostile population, but students might feel otherwise if they encountered their supposed protectors in assault gear and bayonets.
--Juliet Lapidos, NYT, on the militarization of campus cops

Which Boston university has the most desirable singles?

For the uninitiated, Coffee Meets Bagel is an app popular among #millennials these days. The app itself is pretty straightforward: Users are sent profiles of a potential love interest each day along with a picture and some basic biographical information, including education. Users can then like or ignore the potential interest. If both people independently like each other, they are then entered into a chatroom. The rest of the courtship process goes from there.

We asked Coffee Meets Bagel for information comparing the likability of students and alumni at ten Boston-area universities: Harvard, Boston University, Boston College, Northeastern, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Emerson, Brandeis, Suffolk, Berklee, Emerson, and Wellesley.

The results produced popularity data based on 1.2 million matches of Boston-area university students and graduates on its service.



First, that’s a big (and likely unnecessary) ego boost for male and female Harvardians. 36% of users liked Harvard men, the highest-liked percentage of all males at area schools. Harvard women, too, were the 2nd-most-liked among the female schools we looked at. ...

We also received data on which school’s students were the pickiest date-choosers.


--Eric Levenson, Boston.com, on what the millennial reptile brain wants