17 June 2010

Daily Digest, 16.06.2010

Today: Compulsive hoarding (no, the article is not about me); two waves of migration from East Asia to the Americas?; rewiring the adult mouse brain; assessing a man's upper-body strength from his voice; lightning strikes massive Jesus statue; sex robots; dancers who don't get out enough; silencing vuvuzelas; an impossible goal; not not seeing Hitchens.  And lots of free articles!

Vaughan at mind hacks has a brief description of a new study on the Collyer Brothers, the "Hermits of Harlem," compulsive hoarders who died in 1947, trapped by the 130 tons of accumulated junk in their own apartment.  As someone who comes from a family that has the packrat gene on both sides (although I may be heterozygous), I find this particularly poignant.

The article is Kenneth J. Weiss (2010), "Hoarding, Hermitage, and the Law: Why We Love the Collyer Brothers," in Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. The article is free, and can be read online or downloaded.

Science reports on a new study comparing a large number of skulls of ancient Americans with more recent Amerindian skulls. The study suggests that this comparison provides good reason to think that the migration of humans into the Americas may have taken place in two distinct waves. Dienekes has the abstract.

The open-access article is Mark Hubbe et al. (2010), "Testing Evolutionary and Dispersion Scenarios for the Settlement of the New World," at PLoS ONE.

A press release at Science Daily reports yet another new study showing that, surprise, the brain does "rewire" itself in adulthood ..... at least in mice.  The study shows that when a row of whiskers is removed from a mouse, the neurons associated with that row quickly shift to adjacent whiskers.

The headline of the press release typically overstates and misleads: "Experience shapes the brain's circuitry throughout adulthood." This leads one to expect a report on the brains of adult humans.  Nope, it's adult mice. Which isn't to say, obviously, that the brains of adult humans do not adapt in similar ways (in fact, we know they do); it's just that this study didn't show that.

The press release refers repeatedly to "circuits" in the brain.  Nope, no circuits in the brain, and no wires either.  These metaphors are becoming decidedly overused and unhelpful.

The open-access article is S. A. Marik et al. (2010), "Axonal Dynamics of Exitatory and Inhibitory Neurons in Somatosensory Cortext," in PLoS Biology.

Tom Jacobs at Miller-McCune Online discusses a new study purporting to show that both men and women, across cultures, "can accurately assess a man's upper body strength by simply listening to his voice."  Jacobs says very little about the design of the study, and I'll remain skeptical until I've read it. I've spent a significant amount of time in my life listening to short fat guys with no apparent upper-body strength sounding pretty damn masculine on the opera stage....  (And seriously, one would think that there very likely would be an "honest signaling" problem here, too.)

The article, which comes out of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at UC Santa Barbara, is Aaron Sell et al. (2010), "Adaptations in humans for assessing physical strength from the voice," in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.  The article is free for download.  Wheee!

"Lightning strikes massive Jesus statue" (via BoingBoing, with photos). Perhaps there is a God after all.  One who hates really really cheesy art.

Roxxxy and Rocky the sex robots, invented by engineer Douglas Hines, are described in an article at IEEE Spectrum. Quotes:
Hines devised the skin by encasing a woman—a fine-art model—in silicone and cutting the material away after it solidified. “Roxxxy has three inputs and motors where it counts,” explains Hines. “There’s a lot of heat buildup, so we installed a convection system. Other motors simulate a heartbeat and responsive gestures.”

Hines employed a voice-over artist to record the robot’s vocals—snoring, sleepy talk, and escalating orgasmic yelps—as well as a conversational mode programmed to discuss specific areas of interest. Roxxxy’s knowledge database starts with a customer’s answers to a preferences questionnaire of 400 questions. Then Roxxxy periodically uplinks to the home office wirelessly for upgrades and—based on the conversations between customer and robot—new information.

Choroeographer Mark Morris and his staff must not get out of the rehearsal studio often enough. In an article at the Washington Post describing how his company, unlike most dance companies, always uses live musicians, Nancy Umanoff, executive director of the Mark Morris Dance Group, is quoted as saying: "I'm often surprised at how many presenters will say to us, 'Can't you just do it to tape?' Would you go to the opera and watch a film?"

Well, yes, apparently, as the Met has found out, millions of people will go to watch an opera on film.

At lifehacker, the self explanatory "How to Silence Vuvuzela Horns in World Cup Broadcasts," using an equalizer. It can also be done on a Samsung TV, apparently.

And while we're on the subject of football: This video has been around for a long time, and undoubtedly every football fan has seen it, but if you haven't (and I hadn't), it's a must watch. An analysis (with diagrams and geometry) of Roberto Carlos's "impossible goal" (via io9).

And finally:  earlier this evening I received an e-mail from the Harvard Book Store that tonight's "event" with Christopher Hitchens had been canceled.  Darn!  Now I can't not go.  Or, to put it another way, I wasn't going to go, and now I can't.

And Larry Moran at Sandwalk waxes curmudgeonly about Richard Dawkins.  I can't think of anyone more in need of curmudgeoning.  Except perhaps Christopher Hitchens.
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