We at DFC have already reported on the many talents of the smartphone – from testing your stress, to becoming a high-powered microscope. Now there’s yet another service they can do to add to that list: helping to mitigate cravings for food, drugs, and other activities.
It has everything to do with what the subjects did (and most of do) on their smartphones: play games! Specifically Tetris, the finest Soviet-era puzzle game ever committed to pixels. Researchers from Plymouth University and Queensland University of Technology, Australia, have just reported on their experiment in the journal Addictive Behaviors. They rounded up 31 undergrads between the ages of 18 and 27, and had them self-report cravings they were experiencing (for things like food, sleep, cigarettes, coffee…) both when prompted by text messages and on their own. Half of the group then played Tetris on iPods for three minutes before reporting their levels of craving again.
The undergrads who played Tetris reported significantly decreased levels of craving than their co-subjects, to the tune of 50% to 76%. This marks the first time that “cognitive interference” has been proven an effective non-food craving management tool outside of a laboratory setting. How lead researcher Prof. Jackie Andrade postulates this works is very interesting:
“‘We think the Tetris effect happens because craving involves imagining the experience of consuming a particular substance or indulging in a particular activity. Playing a visually interesting game like Tetris occupies the mental processes that support that imagery; it is hard to imagine something vividly and play Tetris at the same time.’”
I’m sorry if you have a video-game obsessive in your life, because now they have science backing them up on the “At least I’m not doing [insert intoxicant here]!” front. Otherwise: how cool is it that we can manage our own pesky cravings by distracting ourselves for three measly minutes! In fact, I bet it doesn’t even have to be with Tetris – just something as visually imaginative, as Prof. Andrade says. Maybe a game of tennis… There. There’s your totally unscientific rejoinder to your hypothetical video game nut. You’re welcome!
This August brings with it much memorializing, as it marks the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the end of the Pacific War, the last conflict of World War II. This end began of course with the cataclysmic use of the most extraordinary weapon humanity had seen to date: the atom bomb. The city of Hiroshima saw widespread destruction when the United States unleashed the bomb “Little Boy” at 8:15am on August 6, 1945; “Fat Man” was dropped on Nagasaki on the morning of August 9. Japan formally surrendered on September 2.
While scholars are now, with the benefit of hindsight, divided on the necessity of using the A-bomb, at the time decision was regarded as inevitable, and taken very seriously (Harry S. Truman called it “an awful responsibility.”) In fact, during the long march into the Atomic Age, many other ideas were floated by Americans intent on breaking Japan. One of the nuttiest involved everyone’s favourite rabies vector, bats.
In January 1942, Dr. Lytle S. Adams of Pennsylvania penned a missive to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, outlining his plan to arm bats with incendiary bombs, and take advantage of their natural tendency to fly in a wide spread and roost in eaves to destroy the wood and paper homes of the Japanese people over whom these special bats would be dropped.
This plan, dubbed “Project X-Ray,” was perhaps crazy, but so well-elucidated (and Adams so well-connected: he was a friend of Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt), that FDR kicked it up to the head of wartime intelligence, Col. William J. Donovan. Dr. Adams and his off-the-wall scheme got funded.
Adams footed a team of bat experts who sourced agreeable chiropterans from a Texas colony of Mexican Free-Tailed bats. Then thought turned to the nature of the bombs, both the ones the bats would be carrying, and the one in which they would be dropped from a plane. From i09:
“Two major tasks remained: designing the mini-bombs that each bat would carry, and the larger bomb that would house the whole shebang. The first problem was given to Dr. Louis Fieser, best known as the inventor of military napalm. It was a tricky project—the bombs had to be light enough for the bats to carry, and they couldn’t contain reagents, like phosphorus, that reacted with oxygen, because their bat carriers had to be able to breathe. Fieser settled on a light pill-shaped case made out of nitrocellulose, or guncotton, and filled with kerosene. A capsule on the side of the bomb held a firing pin, which was separated from the cartridge by a thin steel wire. The whole thing weighed seventeen grams (or about as much as three American quarters), and dangled from a string.”
“The larger, housing bomb was entrusted to the Crosby Research Foundation, a joint venture of famous crooner Bing Crosby and his brothers Bob and Larry [Ed. note: What?!]. Based on a design by Adams, it looked, from the outside, like a normal bomb, a cigar of sheet metal with a tapered nose and fins. But on the inside, it was outfitted with a parachute and heating and cooling controls, and stacked with enough cardboard trays to hold one thousand and forty bats.”
The bats would be prompted to hibernate by the cool interior temperature of the bomb. They would then slumber through the long flight to their target city, bearing mini bombs strapped to them, into which copper chloride, a corrosive, had been injected. Once released, they would awaken and scatter, hiding in the roofs of the structures that they found. And when night fell, they would instinctively chew through the strings holding the bombs to their bodies, and fly off in search of insect breakfast. (I was very happy to learn they were not intended to blow up too!) The copper chloride would then finally reach the steel firing pin, causing it to release, and the mini incendiary bombs to leap into flame. And the city – and any city they chose to rain bats on – would burn to the ground.
It wasn’t hubris or impracticality that ended up killing Project X-Ray, which saw continuous development for two years: it was the military’s need to push all available resources to the Manhattan Project. So we have no way of knowing how effective Dr. Adams’ batty plan would have been, though he maintained to the end that it would have been just as destructive as Fat Man and Little Boy’s combined efforts, with far less loss of life.
Moving to a new area after 40 some odd years requires getting to know the members of one’s new community. Of course there is plugging oneself into the local scene to find new hairdressers, butchers, dentists, etc. One member that I’ve taken the time and effort to get to know is someone I’ll call Charlotte…she’s my “friendly” backdoor spider. The reason that I call her “friendly” is that she stays out of the way during the day, tucked away, covered up in a corner of the back door, and at night she is out, spinning and repairing her web and catching all sorts of bugs. She is very busy at night, every night. Charlotte doesn’t call in sick or take a vacation, and she’s always busy preparing her meals.
At one time I would have taken a shoe to a spider that was sojourning in my environment, now I visit Charlotte every night and marvel at how industrious she is with the big bonus of being a very efficient bug zapper. I must ask my friend at the University of Guelph who is a world expert on spiders, how long she has to continue her work….I feel Charlotte is a member of my new community and I am interested in her.
Little Free Libraries: Forging Ties between Police and Communities
Just over two years ago, we wrote about Little Free Libraries — the “take a book, leave a book” phenomenon that has seen small book collections sheltered in purpose-built houses crop up in a variety of places.
The aim of Little Free Libraries is to help create a sense of community by fostering book sharing and conversation. The LFL organization is now seeking donations to extend that aim to where it is sorely needed: American police stations. From BoingBoing:
“Using the simple idea that books begets community begets new understanding, LFL has developed “Libraries of Understanding,” a new program that aims to establish and rebuild the relationship between police and the community. Todd and Co. have designs on providing Little Free Libraries available to each of the 18,000 police departments across the country, so that people in any neighborhood, anywhere in the country can gather, exchange books, exchange ideas and hopefully, extend the idea of what it means to be a community.”
The initiative has raised over $58,000 USD to finance the building and furnishing of the Little Free Libraries, and has already opened some for business in police stations in major American cities. (Go to their Kickstarter site for more info.)
Education and a common point of departure are key for communication between different groups — and libraries are places where that important work can happen. And, though the Little Free Libraries are indeed physically modest, the LFL movement was founded on the belief that something small can be the catalyst for something big. I have a feeling they will meet with success!
As I’m sure you are aware, dear readers, I share my life with two hulking yet adorable dogs. I love seeing how smart they are in their dog-specific skills. To change things up, we have a new game: I stand on the porch and throw dog treats for them to find. Jill, in particular, has proven quite adept with her nose: She was very fond of scent training back in Toronto, and now both she and Samson spend a lot of energy finding and rolling in all kinds of gross things in the hiking trails around our new home in rural southeastern Ontario. (Yay…?)
So, as a human with dogs in my life, I have a bit of an inferiority complex about my scent detection abilities. Thankfully, as I was sitting on my back porch working my way through back issues of The New Yorker and watching Jill and Samson snuffle through the grass for amphibious prey, I came across an article that explains why we have such a hard time identifying scents. And I feel a bit better about it!
In short, it involves socialization. Generally, human noses (unless injured or affected by congenital smell disorders) are able to detect differences between up to a trillion (!) scents. But the ability to describe and name what we smell depends on our culture. A team led by Asifa Majid, a psycholinguist at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, pitted a group of Dutch speakers and a group of Jahai speakers against each other in a study verbally identifying scents. (Jahai is a language of hunter-gatherers in Malaysia and southern Thailand.):
“In Jahai, [in contrast to Dutch,] there are about a dozen abstract words in common use for distinct scents, such as the one that emanates from stale rice, mushrooms, cooked cabbage, and certain species of hornbill (yes, the bird). Majid couldn’t tell me for sure whether the Jahai facility with odor was the result of culture, physiology, or environment, but she suggested that their surroundings may play a significant role. When visiting the Jahai, Majid noticed a rich smellscape—heady wafts from flowers and pungent elephant dung. The thick jungle, she said, seemed to render vision less important.”
In European/North American culture, scientists theorize, sight is king due to a holdover from the Enlightenment (which emphasized visual evidence), childhood training (when was the last time you saw a Sesame Street sketch that taught scents like they do colours?), or even physiology (scents being processed by the limbic system, which, as the brain area associated with memory and emotion, is less able to turn around a complex description). As a result, the Dutch subjects of the study took an average of thirteen seconds to spit out a vague approximation of a smell’s description. The Jahai nailed them in an average of two seconds.
All this spells hope for me as I sit on my porch sniffing the country air, filled with scents of, um… pine? I plan to ask Samson and Jill for tips. Updates to come!