The Word on, Like, Uptalk?

The Word on, Like, Uptalk?

As a woman in business, I am often aware of the way I speak, and how it comes across to clients and co-workers. Many damaging labels end up stuck to women who try to get their point across in power situations, and I like to do my bit in recognizing when that’s happening.
So I’m cheered to see that one linguistic quirk, uptalk, is being quickly reclaimed! (Uptalk is the“Valley Girl” tendency to end a declarative sentence with an upward inflection, making it sound like a question.) We have all heard about how women need to stop speaking in this manner if they want to be taken seriously, how it makes us sound undecided, or unsure, etc. etc. Of course, most of this criticism comes from people who are used to being in power and defining access to it — and now we’re looking at how uptalk has actually been a subversive demonstration of power all along.
Uptalk may share a technique that also occurs in American Sign Language — where a person signing a conversation raises their eyebrows, to signal to their partner the existence of a yes/no question, when there isn’t one in the content.
“According to studies:
(study 1: ;  study 2) […], uptalk serves the same purpose: By turning a declaration into a question, it invites the listener to listen actively, to nod or confirm, much like adding ‘you know?’ or ‘right?’ to a sentence. It also serves a more basic function of ‘floor-holding,’ preventing interruption by indicating there’s more to come; it turns a period into a semicolon.

[Journalist S.I.] Rosenbaum draws the connection beyond linguistics into sociology: Like ASL speakers, young women are often ignored or talked over. So it makes sense that they’d develop a similar defense.”
Nick Douglas of Lifehacker continues that “everyone” is now adopting uptalk, because of the strain that personal devices and up-to-the-second connectivity put on our attention spans. This is interesting, but I’m not ready to set aside the gendered nature of this particular bias quite yet. I think it’s high time for everyone to start listening to uptalkers, and not get hung up on how they’re saying it. And then, we can tackle the stigma of vocal fry next!

The City that Google Built: At Home in Toronto?

house in the city

Alphabet Inc., parent company of Google, has answered a call for proposals from the City of Toronto for a high-tech partnership that will reshape a chunk of the city’s waterfront. Alphabet’s “moonshot” initiatives arm, Sidewalk Labs, has been looking for a city in which to embed a new kind of urban district that it wants to build “from the Internet up.” Now, after having considered and cast aside sites in Denver and Detroit, the faintly ominous-sounding project is in private talks to touch down in The Six.
Due to the aforementioned private nature of the development right now, details are sparse; but many sources have been extrapolating possible outcomes from Sidewalk’s previous, smaller, urban interventions like the (possibly privacy-invading) public Wi Fi and browsing stations LinkNYC, As well as the philosophies espoused by Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff. From Doctoroff’s talk at the Smart Cities NYC conference in early May:
“‘The future of cities lies in the way these urban experiences fit together and improve quality of life for everyone living, working and growing up in cities across the world,’ Doctoroff said. ‘Yet there is not a single city today that can stand as a model — or even close — for our urban future.’

“We’ve found that applying urban innovations at scale could reduce cost of living by 14 percent compared to surrounding metro areas for an average family in America,”
In addition to managing cost of living, the concept aims to overhaul five more “urban experiences” to through integration of technology: housing and real estate, transportation (including public), environmental sustainability, a “new public realm” (parks, sidewalk and street experiences), and data-driven city services (e.g. remote monitoring of congestion and pollution).
Ultimately, Doctoroff sees the eventual district’s growth as modeled on that of a tech company. I think it’s far too early in the game to know if that model is sustainable for tech companies themselves, let alone an entire city district. I’m reminded of the kind of top-down city restructuring of the Robert Moses era, where heavily urban areas full of life were razed in favour of freeways and housing projects. While there is no real life in the industrial “Quayside” area up for development, plunking a hive-minded, Google-associated, at-home-anywhere-we-just-need-a-city-who-will-have-us concept of a tech district into the real world might need a smidge more consideration, in my opinion. Hopefully, that’s what they’re doing in these private talks right now… Because the concept could be pretty cool – if we can sustain it.

The (Human) Nose… Knows?? We May Smell Better Than We Think

nose on the face

I’m always impressed by the olfactory feats my canine companions Jill and Samson can accomplish. From searching a field for a groundhog to chase, to lasering in on the treat bag as I pull it from the kitchen shelf, I’m envious sometimes of the whole other world of scents they seem to inhabit!
Well, science may be showing that envy is not required: humans may actually have senses of smell comparable to that of dogs, and other big smellers like rodents. While we bipeds may have been socialized to not pay keen attention to scent input, we actually have competitive numbers of odour receptor genes, as well as a large olfactory bulb compared to the size of the rest of our brains. John McGann, a neuroscientist out of Rutgers and author of a recent paper in Science attempting to dispel the myth of humans as poor smellers, believes these physical realities translate into a better smelling skill set for us. McGann goes back to other studies and attempts to set the record straight. From the Guardian:
“Humans have approximately 1,000 odour receptor genes, for instance, compared to 1,100 in mice, which some had taken as confirmation of mouse superiority. However, other work suggests there is not a tight relationship between the number of olfactory genes and smelling ability. One study found that cows have 2,000 such genes – far more than dogs.

Even the constant sniffing of some animals may also be misleading, McGann said. When a rat is exposed to a new smell, for instance, it performs ‘fast investigative sniffing’ but rats have the same reaction to hearing an unfamiliar new sound or seeing something unexpected. ‘Sniffing, to some extent, means “I’m curious”,’ he said.” [Or, as we saw last week, “I’m anxious.”] 
McGann does concede a few points to the dogs though – that the reason they can detect the smell of explosives and we can’t could be due to the higher concentration of olfactory receptors in their noses. And critics of McGann’s work say that dogs have always been better at the kind of scent work (like tracking, sussing out drugs, or detecting kinds of cancers) that humans could not aspire to, even with the attention of a sommelier. But I think we could definitely fall somewhere in that huge middle ground between bloodhound and Pet Rock! If the nose knows, it’s only a matter of letting it do its thing, and the science will follow.

Keep Calm and Use Your Neurons: Deep Breathing and the Human Brain

neurons and deep breathing

Humans, in a variety of situations and religious practices, have long engaged in deep breathing to calm and centre — for so long, that it can’t be just a philosophical response! Researchers have been attempting for decades to nail down why deep breathing affects us the way it does. A new study led by Stanford University shows that the answer may be buried deep in the structure of our brains.
The team, who published their work recently in Science, built on the aforementioned decades of work with mouse neurons. Nearly 30 years back, UCLA researchers identified a knot of interlinked neurons in the brains of animals, including mice and humans, which appeared to handle most of our breathing. They called this knot of neurons the “breathing pacemaker.”
Now that genetic science has become more sophisticated, the Stanford-led team is able to tease a few mysteries out of this knot, by selectively disabling the genes behind particular types of cells in this pacemaker. In one experiment, they disabled one breathing related neuron in mice, and then placed the mice in unfamiliar cages. In regular mice, this would cause them to sniff around, trying to get a handle on their new surroundings in anxiety. Instead, the mice sat and calmly groomed themselves, as though everything were completely familiar and normal. This pointed to an intriguing connection between rate of breathing and autonomic anxiety response.
“It turned out that the particular neurons in question showed direct biological links to a portion of the brain that is known to be involved in arousal. This area sends signals to multiple other parts of the brain that, together, direct us to wake up, be alert and, sometimes, become anxious or frantic. […]

The disabled neurons would [normally] alert the brain that something potentially worrisome was going on with the mouse since it was sniffing, and the brain should start ramping up the machinery of worry and panic. So a few tentative sniffs could result in a state of anxiety that, in a rapid feedback loop, would make the animal sniff more and become increasingly anxious.

Or, without that mechanism, it would remain tranquil, a mouse of Zen.”
Though this research is preliminary, the team is cheered by the fact that our breathing pacemakers resemble those of mice, even though the rest of our brains do not. This early work could lead to greater knowledge of the calming effects of breathing, and may assist in relaxing future folks who maybe need a little top-down assistance. (Like me, I hope — meditation shmeditiation…) Until then, keep calm and breathe deeply — research is simply proving what our bodies have known forever!

In(mate)genuity: Behind the Hidden Computers in an American Prison

Showing the kind of get-up-and-go that may have, um, helped them in their previous careers, a group of inmates at the Marion Correctional Institution in Columbus, Ohio, constructed two working wires leading to computerscomputers out of spare parts and hid them in a ceiling in their facility. They were discovered in the summer of 2015, when IT at the facility detected an unexplained upswing in internet usage, which led to an employee login that was suspiciously in use when that employee was off work. Now, the state is investigating how in god’s green earth this could possibly have happened.
It turns out the inmates were smuggling parts from a computer-building program the prison was running, and security was loose enough not to catch them. The inmates also smuggled enough cables to connect their resulting Franken-puters to the state network. Through this setup, they were able to steal the identity of another inmate and commit tax fraud, and spoof a security clearance to access secure areas in their own facility.
“‘It surprised me that the inmates had the ability to not only connect these computers to the state’s network but had the ability to build these computers,’ Ohio Inspector General Randall J. Meyer said. ‘They were able to travel through the institution more than 1,100 feet without being checked by security through several check points, and not a single corrections staff member stopped them from transporting these computers into the administrative portion of the building. It’s almost if it’s an episode of Hogan’s Heroes.’”
Thankfully, investigators have determined this to be a failure of security protocols, and not a sign that these sorts of skill building workshops need to be spiked. The rehabilitative value of these workshops will be preserved. Meanwhile, the investigators have issued an interesting recommendation: that the U.S. corrections department run checks on their networks for strangeness, rather than relying on fallible humans to twig to what’s wrong!

A Tale of Intelligence: A New Test for Animal Self-Awareness Smarts

From one account of bias to another: This week we look at a new experiment that may redefine animal intelligence on their terms, not ours – opening up a whole new way of looking at the interesting animals with whom we share our planet!

The study (recently published in Scientific Reports) has shown that elephants show body awareness; that is, they recognize when own physical selves get in the way of a task. This form of intelligence is one that human scientists have not previously prioritized testing for. The gold standaintelligence showsrd of intelligence tests has long been the Mirror Self-Recognition Test, in which a subject is required to look at themselves in a mirror and demonstrate that they know the reflection is actually them. This test is biased in two ways: towards species that are visually oriented in their information processing; and towards humans in particular, for whom mirror recognition is a natural developmental milestone that kicks in at around 18 months old.

Elephants are among the few species other than us that pass the MSR test. Jumping off from that recognized intelligence baseline, the experimenters (out of the University of Cambridge) devised a more animal-friendly alternative test and had the elephants attempt it.

“ […T]he researchers attached a stick to a rubber mat with a rope. Elephants were required to walk on top of the mat, pick up the stick and pass it to a person standing in front of them. But as the elephant quickly discovers, the stick can’t be lifted all the way because it’s standing on top of the mat. In order to be able to hand the stick over, the elephant must step off the mat and try again.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, elephants excelled at this task. In tests involving 12 elephants, the animals successfully completed the task nearly 90 percent of the time. This suggests that elephants are capable of recognizing themselves as being separate from objects or their environment, and they appear to have a level of self-understanding—intertwined with their ability to pass the mirror test—that’s quite rare among animals.”

While the sample size is pretty small, the researchers are enthused at these early results. They also consider them a call to arms for other scientists: to continue to develop tests to identify different kinds of intelligence in animals, and not just intelligence that humans recognize as being like our own.

New Research Points to Tetris as Balm for Trauma


Good news for gamers! Swedish and British researchers working out of Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute are looking at something a little unusual right now — the health benefits of sitting on your duff and playing a video game — specifically, the perennial classic, Tetris.
The benefits seem to be to mental health, and involve counteracting the intrusive, painful memories that can occur as a result of trauma. The small study the researchers set up (recently published in Nature) involved patients admitted to a UK hospital in the immediate aftermath of a car accident. While in the emergency room waiting to be checked out, participants were invited to either play twenty minutes of Tetris, or complete an activity log of everything that happened to them since they entered the hospital (this was the control group).
The researchers found that, in the first week after their accidents, the patients who played Tetris had 62% fewer bad memories than the patients who did the log — and, the memories faded more quickly for them than for their unlucky, paper-pushing counterparts.
The researchers are keen to set up a more comprehensive study, because this one points to an interesting function of the disruption of memory. Literally playing Tetris could theoretically be an early therapy for post-traumatic and acute stress disorders because its action can get in the way of a patient’s brain consolidating memories immediately after a terrible event.
“Traumatic memories are often highly sensory: Sights and sounds of a trauma can flash back in horrifying detail. [Psychology professor and study lead author Emily] Holmes believes that any highly visual activity that stimulates the brain’s sensory centers might prevent graphic recollections from forming in the first place. The colors, shapes and constant movement of Tetris may do just that, but based on Holmes’ past research, activities like digital pub quizzes and counting exercises do not. She plans to study other visually engaging interventions like drawing and the video game Candy Crush in the near future.”
Even though I have one, and I witness the world through its frame every day, I’m often taken aback by how startlingly complex in all its aspects the human brain really is. And I find it quite fitting that something as simple as an addictive little video game can interrupt a spiraling process, and jump start this important organ back to health! I’m looking forward to the continuing research into this therapy — who knows, really, when any of us might need it.

Gene Editing: An Invasive Species Solution?

rabbit gene to be edited

The government of New Zealand may soon deploy a futuristic tool to solve an old problem, unique to their biosphere. That problem is the invasive species — like rabbits, rats, and stoats — that have wreaked havoc on native species that have not evolved to
ideal with predation. Previous attempts to gain control of these invaders have been unwieldy (like traps), and have sometimes backfired in allowing
new invasive species to gain a foothold in the country (like the above-named stoats, imported in the 1880s to deal with all the danged rabbits). But New Zealand has pledged to go “predator free” by 2050, and is considering adding to their quiver everyone’s favourite gene editing tool, CRISPR.
While very much in the experimental stages, the idea goes something like this: scientists can use CRISPR to cut out and readjust portions of a target animal’s DNA; to, for example, prevent them from having female offspring. Using a “gene drive” to push this artificial change through to successive generations means that his glitch becomes essentially inheritable, and the population of rabbits or rats or stoats naturally crashes within a few iterations.
While real world gene adjustments have been accomplished only with yeast and fruit flies, scientists are confident the technique can scale up. If applied to New Zealand’s invasive species problem, it would eliminate the need for costly trapping programs, and for poisons that could go where they shouldn’t.
An interesting hiccup involves keeping the edit going through enough generations that it manages to reach its goal. Evolution is powerful, and quick enough that it could “write” a workaround for exactly what the edited gene is prevented from doing. But:
“[R]esearchers propose a way to redesign gene drives in order to work around that immunity, hypothesizing that a more complex architecture would make it difficult for a mutation to occur in a short period of time. Instead of just including instructions for a gene drive to cut a piece of DNA in one place, their architecture it cuts in multiple places, meaning it would require multiple mutations to overwrite the drive. They also suggest targeting genes less likely to mutate in the first place, because they are essential to a species’ fitness.”
If scientists can surmount this obstacle, they could be well on their way to establishing the most minimally… um, invasive, way of dealing with invasive species that we’ve seen. I’ve always believed that we should take our impact on this planet seriously, and attempt to undo what damage we can. But, if we learn something really cool about the mechanics of genes on the way, all the better!

The Perils of Pseudo Penicillin Allergy

Since its serendipitous discovery by Alexander Fleming in 1928, penicillin has developed into one of the leading lights of the antibiotic world. But quite a few of us are allergic to it — or so we think. It appears that a startling number of folks who profess a penicillin allergy come to that conclusion without actual testing, and doctors seeing them for a pesky cough or infection often take them at their word.
However, this operating procedure is being reevaluated in the age of the superbug. With use of penicillin, a frontline treatment for infection, being dismissed out of hand for many patients, doctors turn to bigger guns; prescribing harsher drugs that are more likely to prompt resistance in what’s being treated. So, an individual’s phantom allergy to everyone’s favourite bread mold derivative could lead to us all being toast!
In a study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, researchers have tested a new protocol that takes the guesswork out of penicillin allergy diagnosis:
“[Lead author, allergist, and immunologist Kimberly] Blumenthal and colleagues assessed different methods for beating back allergy myths in internal medicine inpatients at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital over a two-year period. The study was broken into three spaced-out segments. In the first, researchers collected baseline data for penicillin and related prescriptions over five months. In the second, seven-month stretch, they looked at the same data when doctors were prompted to have patients consider taking skin allergy tests before antibiotic prescriptions. And in the last seven-month segment, they looked at prescription data when doctors had a computerized, clinical guideline for making decisions about prescriptions.”
Of the 43 participants who ended up cleared to undergo skin tests, none were shown to have the penicillin allergy they thought they had. The third group, the one given just a bit more diagnostic scrutiny by doctors, had a two-fold improvement in prescriptions.
This just goes to show that one can rarely go wrong in applying a bit of science to commonly held assumptions. It not only provides clarity about individual personal health, but might help us all avoid the Great Filter of a rampant superbug. That’s a win-win!

Country Living is Naturally Green

butterfly found in the country

The three R’s of Recycle, Reuse, Reduce come naturally when living in the country. Instead of watering my garden from our well I carry buckets of water from the rain barrel. I’ve learned that the ashes from the wood stove that we use to heat our house are used on the driveway as a natural ice-melter. We now take apart all of the packaging that stuff comes in and recycle the plastic and burn the paper/cardboard. By doing this we have reduced our garbage to the point that some weeks we don’t have enough to fill a bag! Junk mail is no longer an irritant – it goes into the wood stove! Same as the phone book that we received – instead of it taking space in the recycling box it is used as kindling when starting a fire. Speaking of the wood stove and fire, I discovered that burning wood is considered carbon neutral. Also we buy some fire wood and harvest our own from our property from dead fall trees or those that need thinning out. Another form of recycling is getting rid of old clothes: instead of throwing them in the garbage or a donation bin, there is a sharing centre in the local store where stuff can be dropped off or picked up…just like that. Also produce that is not really fit to eat, can be put out on the property (away from the house) and magically it is gone after a night! We also don’t run out to the store every-time something is needed, shopping lists are made and trips into town are planned so that the trips are at their most efficient. During the longer days we reduce our electricity consumption by hanging our clothes outside to dry. In our former neighborhood, it was illegal to have a clothesline in your yard, let alone hanging your clothes outside! Here everyone hangs their clothes out – and it’s a reminder that it’s a good day to do laundry when you see clothes hanging elsewhere. And there’s nothing better than sleeping in a bed where the bed linens had been hanging outside – detergent manufacturers try to chemically reproduce that smell and feel. The real thing is better.

Another side benefit or aspect of country living is that if you maintain your property and do the work necessary to keep your house warm if heating with wood, is that membership to a gym in not necessary. Hauling and stacking wood is exercise, along with chopping/splitting it. As a wood stove is not turned on with the flip of a switch, it takes physical effort to bring the wood in from outside, to build a fire and keep it going at the right level to keep the house at the right temperature. And when we are not inside, we are outside in nature’s playground. (see below) There are many lakes in the area that are by now frozen over enough where it’s safe to walk and as an added bonus, the light covering of snow on the lake allows us to see who else has visited….

These are just a few of things that we do on a daily basis as part of our life. But when you examine these aspects of country life, it comes as a realization that this is a green lifestyle probably because we are so close to the elements whereas people are insulated from this in cities.