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Origami Robots: (Transformers are real!)

Scientists are creating real transformers (but much cooler).  Applying origami principles to robots can create flexible robots that could in theory fold into any shape.  

How Intelligent are Plants?

It’s a loaded question, given how intent humans are in separating ourselves from the rest of nature.  But as we look closer, you can’t deny that there are a lot of interesting things going on in the inner lives of plants, and some of it looks very “smart”…. 

This New Yorker article  covers the scientific controversy over calling plants “intelligent.” But you can skim over the controversy over nomenclature, and just focus on the research they mention. A taste: 

A recent study in Science found that the caffeine produced by many plants may function not only as a defense chemical, as had previously been thought, but in some cases as a psychoactive drug in their nectar. The caffeine encourages bees to remember a particular plant and return to it, making them more faithful and effective pollinators.

This strategy definitely worked for the coffee plant… which is manipulating me very effectively!  

Plants communicate and trade with each other in a network that could be compared to our economy, or even the Internet.  They also support their family. Check out this great podcast.

And finally, a nice documentary from PBS

Are plants conscious?  Certainly not in the exact same way we are.  Do they have a complex self-awareness?  Well, probably not. But from these sources we know they do: sense damage to themselves.  And threats.  And probably “hear” sounds.  And certainly “smell.” And they can “see” a sunset.  If they are cut off from their ability to detect their own signals (i.e. model themselves), they have problems (“go crazy”).   So….

But do they have “hard problem" style consciousness.  The important one?  I hardly think we can have good understanding of why we have that one.  But it seems  simple to conclude that if there’s something it’s like to be a bat, then there’s something it’s like to be a plant.

And it’s pretty interesting. 

People choose electric shock over being alone with their thoughts

According to a new study,  we do not like to be alone with our thoughts (especially men): 

In 11 studies, we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts. Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.

First, this is consistent with other studies that show that “mind wandering” is a very unpleasant activity for most people, being even worse than commuting. When our mind go loose, we get into trouble.   

On the other hand,  it provides evidence for why meditation is a) hard, and b)  worth training at, for all of us.  We’re bound to be alone with our thoughts a lot in life.  It would be nice to have those times make us stronger and happier, vs. wearing us down.  

Finally, this is a great thing to remember whenever you have a boring job to do.  It’s a lot better than having nothing to do at all, apparently.  Worker drones rejoice!

Could you beat a chimp at Game Theory?

Planet of the Chimps? New research shows that chimps are pretty great at Game Theory,  something most humans struggle with.  They might be learning faster than humans do…

If so, why? My guess: the humans spend more mental resources “modeling” what’s going on. They need to “understand” their strategy before they change it. The chimps are probably just trying different tactics, and being more empirical - sticking with what’s worked recently.

Sometimes trying to fully understand things can just trip you up. 

Check out the video.  Could you do this well?

Hedonic Opportunity Cost

What a great  concept:  the “hedonic opportunity cost”:

What is the hedonic opportunity cost of spending 6 billion pounds on a load of railway tracks? Here’s my naive advertising man’s suggestion: what you should in fact do is employ all of the world’s top male and female supermodels, and pay them to walk the length of the train handing out free Chateau Petrus for the entire duration of the journey. You’ll still have about 3 billion pounds left over and people will actually ask for the train to be slowed down.

Nearly Half of homeless had brain injury beforehand

Is being homeless the the result of personal failure?  is it simply misfortune?  The question is fraught with idealism, and obviously the answer is not universal or simple. 

But consider some new data (paper):   Almost 50% of homeless men have have had Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI - essentially brain damage) in their lives.  87% of those had the injury before becoming homeless.  

Should brain-damaged people be expected to be wholly responsible for themselves? Seems to me they might be the archetype of a group worthy of support.    

What if they brought that damage upon themselves, through violent crime for example?  Well it seems a sizable portion of homeless men don’t fit that description.  44% of the TBI came from “sports & recreation.”  Most TBI occurred in childhood.   What kind of support did (do?) these children deserve?

The issues can’t be boiled down to such simple stats, I’m sure.  But they do seem to point in a direction. 

Successful (early) step in gene therapy for HIV

This new pilot study used a cool gene therapy technique to confer resistance to HIV.    

Basically, a small fraction of humans have innate resistance to HIV.  Scientists have found the mutation in white blood cells that confers this.  They they extract the cells of patients, alter them, and re-introduce them.  The resultant cells resist HIV and are selected for.  (the mutation in CCR5 is very hard for HIV to mutate around - if I remember right from my school days, it’s one of the things HIV consistently relies upon).   

This study was meant to show safety, not efficacy, but there were signs it was working. 

So sad that gene therapy moves so slow, and does not get more money. But excited to see any progress! 

Placebo effect strong, even when you know about it

The Placebo effect continues to be amazing in its mystery and power.  This podcast from Science Friday covers a recent study where a migraine drug was employed to specifically test the placebo effect. 

Basically,  Migraine sufferers were given pills labeled as drug, placebo, or ambiguous.   Unusually, this study also featured a no-treatment group, which enabled better isolation of placebo. 

Impressive result #1:  The placebo effect was found to be as strong as the (well tested) drug itself. 

Impressive result #2:  The placebo effect scaled along with the degree of positive expectations conferred.

Impressive result #3: Knowing about the placebo didn’t remove the effect.  In fact, the biggest treatment effect delta was between no treatment and being given a pill labeled “placebo.”

That last one is particularly bizarre.  Studies like this just show that a) we need to study this more, and b) we need to be very careful how we message things in life.  Our mind does have great power over our matter. 

Turing’s theory of developmental biology validated, 60 years later

Yet more evidence that Alan Turing was one of the smartest, most impactful people ever.  

When he wasn’t pioneering computer science, artificial intelligence, or winning WWII, Turing also dabbled in basically inventing systems biology.

Turing attempted to model the mechanisms by which organisms could form structures during development.  Turing built models that would allow cells to form patterns like stripes or spots, using only local information, with now global direction.

For decades after, biologists didn’t take the theory seriously.  Now, 60 years later, evidence is mounting that Turing was right in many cases: his de-centralized model may be integral to how structures like our fingers are formed (albeit with interaction from other positional information that allows for more complexity and precision). 

Yet again, Alan, on behalf of humanity, let me say:

Thank you.  And we are sorry. 

Here are some sources to peruse: 

Podcast with a researcher in the field

Biologists hone in on Turing patterns

Hox Genes Regulate Digit Patterning by Controlling the Wavelength of a Turing-Type Mechanism

A Mechanochemical Model for Embryonic Pattern Formation: Coupling Tissue Mechanics and Morphogen Expression

Turing’s theory of developmental pattern formation (Video lecture)

Proper Etiquette when you have just croqueted someone*

*Someone being your father and future father-in-law

Proper Etiquette when you have just croqueted someone*

*Someone being your father and future father-in-law



Mushrooms can eat radiation - and protect those who eat them

Ok, learned something awesome on the TWIM podcast.   Many fungi are protected from radiation, and can even process it as a food source.   Eating the right mushroom might even protect you in the case of a radiation overdose. 

Here’s some more info, but the highlights: 

  •  Melanin (the stuff in human skin), has a property called “Compton Scattering” (This is different from what occurs in LA, LOL).   Basically, it scatters and dissipates radiation
  • Some mushrooms have a lot of Melanin, and can use the pigment (like chlorophyl) to harvest energy from the radiation.
  • In a 2012 experiment, researchers gave mice a lethal dose of radiation, and fed some of the mice a mushroom (often found in asian food).  All of the control mice died.  90% of the mushroom-eaters lived.  
  • FYI - check out the interior of Chernobyl - apparently it’s black with fungus.

Biology is the true alien technology… 

Tooth and Claw indeed. 

Tooth and Claw indeed. 

Can You Read People’s Emotions?

Fun quiz based on research* 

Try it here.  How well do you score?

*done by Sacha Baron Cohen’s cousin!

Faillist: Embracing setbacks once => 3 years of success


Shankar Vedantam* covers some amazing research on NPR today.

The experiment tested the effectiveness of a one-time intervention on college freshmen, which craftily encouraged students to testify that:

  • Adversity is common
  • Adversity is transient
  • We all feel like outsiders sometimes
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