Archive for January, 2011|Monthly archive page

House hunting with collective intelligence

In Read on January 31, 2011 at 7:17 am

Researchers at Arizona State University have been studying how ants make decisions as a colony.  Specifically they looked at how a colony chooses a new nest site, and their findings suggest that the “brain” of the colony is distributed among the worker ants:

“Ants have to reach a consensus if they want to move the colony to a different location,” said [Stephen] Pratt, an associate professor at the School of Life Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “There are a few key ingredients to how they do this. The main thing is that they have to communicate, and that communication has to say something about how good a site it is.”


Ants are marked for research purposes.  Photo by Arizona State University.

Ants are marked for research purposes. Photo by Arizona State University.

“There is a competition going on here,” he said. “There are some ants advertising one site and other ants advertising another. The number of ants visiting and advertising is rapidly growing for the good site. The ants essentially ‘vote’ based on the number of ants visiting a site. If the site reaches a quorum, or threshold, they increase the advertising and basically make a higher level of commitment to that site.”

Click through for thoughts on the queen ant’s role (basically just a baby factory) and for a blurb on the ant robot the researchers are building.  Also at the link is a video demonstrating ants that work together cooperatively to carry a “food” object bigger than what a single ant could move.

Purpose of the appendix

In Read on January 28, 2011 at 7:12 am

This article is three years old, but the notion that the appendix is totally useless has somehow persisted, at least for me.

Researchers at Duke University think they have figured out the purpose of the appendix:

“Sometimes the flora of bacteria in the intestines die or are purged. Diseases such as cholera or amoebic dysentery would clear the gut of useful bacteria. The appendix’s job is to reboot the digestive system in that case.The appendix “acts as a good safe house for bacteria,” said Duke surgery professor Bill Parker, a study co-author. The location of the appendix — just below the normal one-way flow of food and germs in the large intestine in a sort of gut cul-de-sac — helps support the theory, he said.

The article also discusses the fact that the appendix may have lost its usefulness for people living in populations where diseases like cholera have been eradicated.  Hence the modern idea of the useless appendix (and the higher rate of appendicitis in developed countries).


In View on January 27, 2011 at 7:21 am

Adam Avery runs his very own brewery in Boulder, Colorado.  He started brewing beer in college and has since grown his hobby into a 137,000-case-per-year operation.

As usual with these Popular Mechanics profiles, click through for an interactive graphic highlighting Avery’s gear:


Adam Avery with his brewing equipment.  Photo by Popular Mechanics.

Adam Avery with his brewing equipment. Photo by Popular Mechanics.

Number 3 in the graphic above is a hydrometer, which measures the amount of sugar dissolved in the unfermented malt.

I have a friend who attempted to brew cider one time without the help of a hydrometer.  He misread the recipe and put 16 times the amount of sugar into his mixture before bottling.

Too much sugar at that stage means too much bottle fermentation.  This doesn’t mean super-alcoholic cider (like you might think), but rather super-carbonated cider, which proved to be quite explosive.

Since the sugar he used was a type of corn syrup, the cider also tasted like tortilla chips instead of apples.

Gary Numan’s “Cars” on cars

In Read, Watch on January 26, 2011 at 7:34 am has the behind the scenes on this DieHard Battery commercial featuring Gary Numan:

Over three days in the desert, a team of six engineers worked on 24 cars and removed the batteries from each. Instead, they connected them all together to a central computer and a keyboard. The horns inside the cars were removed and instead an MP3 player was used to tune it. The entire set-up was hooked to one DieHard battery.

Numan is playing his 1979 hit song “Cars.”

X-rays of flowers

In View on January 25, 2011 at 7:18 am
A colored x-ray of a rose.  Photo by Hugh Turvey.

A colored x-ray of a rose. Photo by Hugh Turvey.


The Telegraph has a gallery of x-rays taken by photographer Hugh Turvey.

Hugh, 39, has been fascinated since childhood with getting underneath the surface of things. He said: “I’m driven by my curiosity. It’s about discovering the world around us. As a kid I would take things apart to see what was inside and how they worked. I have an insane curiosity for how things work. X-ray gives me a way to get that insight and turn it into art.”

The stargazer lilies at slide 11 are gorgeous.

UPDATE:  The Telegraph site has been intermittently broken.  Here are the photos at OddStuffMagazine.

Ant warfare

In Read, View on January 24, 2011 at 7:01 am has an interesting look at the wild world of ant warfare.  The piece draws on work that ecologist Mark Moffett has done to explore and photograph the ways in which ant fighting is similar to human fighting:

“When it comes to war-fighting, ant species are more similar to humans than most other animals, even primates,” ecologist and photojournalist Mark Moffett tells Danger Room. “Societies with population explosions, that extend into the millions, are prone to large-scale, intense, tactical warfare. It’s a nature of battle only possible among communities with plenty of excess labor force.”


Malaysian marauder ants fight a termite.  Photo by Mark Moffett.

Malaysian marauder ants fight a termite. Photo by Mark Moffett.

Also, how about this “looming mega-battle” in California:

So with all the strategy, ruthlessness and brute force, which ant species reigns supreme? We might soon find out, thanks to a looming “mega-battle” Moffett’s anticipating in California. There, two species of ants — Argentine and fire — are preparing to duke it out for the state’s 164,000 square miles.

Where do I go to watch this?

Rising education levels save lives

In Read on January 21, 2011 at 7:09 am

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) has released a study finding that as the education level among women rises in developing countries, the mortality rate among young children in those countries goes down:

Between 1970 and 2009, mortality in children under age 5 dropped from 16 million to 7.8 million annually, and IHME researchers estimate that 51% of the reduction can be linked to increased education among women of reproductive age. This means that 4.2 million fewer children died in 2009 because women received more years of schooling.

“More education helps mothers make better choices in a range of areas – personal hygiene, nutrition, parenting approaches,” said Dr. Christopher Murray, IHME Director and one of the paper’s co-authors. “It also helps them take better care of their own health when pregnant, and, after the child is born, they are able to navigate the expanding array of health services being offered to their families.”

Researchers also believe that higher education levels among mothers will increase the likelihood that they are willing to accept and adopt new medical advances as they become available, thus creating a synergistic effect that can further reduce mortality rates.

Google Earth stunners

In View on January 20, 2011 at 7:25 am

PC World has put together a list of some notable sights on Google’s Maps or Earth satellite views.  Some are just well-timed pictures (see an airplane in flight over England at slide 13) and some are spectacular shots of the natural world in action (elephants running at slide 10 and below, and Victoria Falls at slide 11):

African elephants on the move.  Google Earth.

African elephants on the move. Google Earth.

To look at any of these locations paste the coordinates from the description into Google Earth or Google Maps.  When the map comes up look around for the arrow and that should mark the spot.  Here’s a link to the elephants above in Google Maps.  You can see that in this particular part of Africa, there are only a few select locations that have photos at this zoom level.  (Also, PC World flipped this photo for some reason in their slideshow.)  There’s a bigger herd of elephants just to the west of this group.

UPDATE:  PC World’s Part 2.  My favorite is the Coliseum at slide 10.

Brand new vintage guitars

In Read on January 19, 2011 at 7:03 am

Scott Kennerson is a luthier in Michigan who has discovered a niche in making custom aged guitars.  He builds new instruments and then distresses them in ways that naturally occur over the life of a guitar:

Proper distressing requires a deep understanding of how a guitar is played: Knowing where a sweaty palm wears the finish from the neck, a belt buckle scrapes paint from the body, a cigarette tucked into the low E string burns the headstock. It also means knowing how time changes the tone and feel of a guitar.

Scott Kenerson of SMK Music Works.  Photo: Jim Merithew/

Scott Kenerson of SMK Music Works. Photo: Jim Merithew/

Kenerson can build a new guitar that looks old and plays like butter in about 10 hours. It’ll run you about $1,500.

His instruments are available at a small music shop near his house (Motor City Guitar) or directly from his website, SMK Music Works.

Inside Jelly Belly’s flavor creation

In Read on January 18, 2011 at 7:01 am

Here’s a story The Atlantic did last summer about how the flavor designers at Jelly Belly go about their work:

The development process begins with a very specific idea. The taste must be instantly recognizable, says Lisa Brasher, a fifth-generation member of the founding family and executive vice chairman of the board. “When you say ‘pickle,’ do you mean sweet or dill? When you say ‘potato chip,’ do you mean regular or barbecue? Those are very important questions for us.”


Photo by House of Sims.
Photo by House of Sims.

The article also has stories of when flavors go wrong, like raw garlic or barf (which apparently “sell like hotcakes”).


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