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A Reissue of a Classic: Small Business and the Importance of Community

A Reissue of a Classic: Small Business and the Importance of Community

classic record

DFC the company supports small businesses all over with our array of business solutions. And DFC the humans try to do the same in our own community, through frequenting the many fairs, inns, and shops of our fellow Frontenac-dwellers. Sometimes we even go as far as Kingston! And it is in that bustling burg that I’ve found a heartwarming story about how important local support is to the small businesses in the area — and how important those small businesses are to the people around them.
 
Back in August, Brian’s Record Option, a legendary used record and music paraphernalia shop in downtown Kingston, suffered a catastrophic basement flood when a city water main broke. Brian Lipsin, owner of the shop for 38 years, believed the destruction of so many classic posters, records, and CD’s — never mind the damage to the building itself — spelled the end of the Princess St. landmark. That is until a GoFundMe set up for his store’s recovery netted four-fifths of its $10,000 goal in a single day. And the donations kept pouring in! Brian’s patrons responded to his plight by affirming (financially) how important his shop’s music, and identity as a hub for artists, is. And their generous donations have meant that Brian’s Record Option will open its doors again.
 
“Renovations in the store are in their final phases now. The floor has been replaced, new lighting has been installed, and storage bins and shelves are in the process of being built.

Lipsin said 13 bins for records have been built by the carpenters and more are coming. ‘They’re bringing in more, in a few days, another twenty I think.’ […]

‘People were just putting cash and cheques in my pocket as I was roaming around, I mean, it was wonderful.’

Donated money has been used to replace posters he lost in the flood along with adding new lighting and exit signs.”
 
According to the Record Option’s Facebook page, Brian is aiming for an early March grand re-opening. Until then, the whole community (at least those of us who like music!) is waiting excitedly to beat a path to his (new!) door.
 
This story makes me proud to be not only a Kingston-area community member but a human being. The dreams inspired by music are universal, and stores like Brian’s Record Option have become part of those dreams for everyone who’s ever enjoyed a genius, classic recording. Plus, it’s an object lesson in how small, personal, businesses are part of the fabric of community life — and the relationship goes both ways.

Squaring Up Theories on Wombat Poop

wombat

My entire life, I have been squirreling away facts in my brain that will come in handy when I inevitably get on Jeopardy. One of my favourites is a classic tidbit about one of Australia’s less-violent marsupials, the wombat. Specifically, that fact that its scat is cube-shaped!
 
While theories have abounded as to why wombats poop cubes (They stack them to mark their territory! There’s so little water to drink that they compress it all out in their guts!), no one has tried to find out the how. At least until Patricia Yang, a post-doctoral fellow in Mechanical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, got interested in the subject after hearing about it at a conference. Yang, who specializes in the movement of fluids in the bodies of animals, dissected the intestines of two roadkilled wombats that took months to acquire. (As a control, she and her team used a pig intestine.)

“As food is digested it moves through the gut, and pressure from the intestine helps sculpt the feces – meaning that the shape of the intestine will affect the shape of a dropping. So Yang and the team expanded both wombat and pig intestines with a balloon to measure and compare their elasticities (or stretchiness).

The pig intestine had a relatively uniform elasticity, which would explain the animal’s rounder poo. The wombat intestines, however, had a much more irregular shape. Yang observed two distinct ravine-like grooves, where the intestine is stretchier, which she believes helps shape wombat feces into cubic scat.”
 
Yang’s experiment goes a long way toward explaining why wombats’ waste materials conform to a shape that, barring crystals,  is actually pretty rare in nature. That’s a lofty result for a problem most often found in the gutter!
 
(Speaking of exotic animals and their bathroom habits: did you know that the three-toed sloth only poops once a week? They do so in response to their incredibly slow-moving metabolisms, as well as to minimize time on the ground that could attract predators. Now that’s efficiency…)

Peppery Plant Heat and the Future of Painkillers

pepper plant that may provide pain relief

Welcome to February! Right about now is the point in the winter when I start dreaming of warmer climes — if only for a vacation. One of my personal life goals is to visit some of my favourite hot-weather plants, cacti, in their natural habitats. Saguaro cacti  in particular look so friendly  that I’d be tempted to give them a high five. (Though with their significant spines), only tempted…!)
 
Another plant I’d like to get to know from a distance is Euphorbia resinifera, which is native to Morocco. Also known as the resin spurge, this cactus-like plant has an incredibly powerful defense mechanism: it’s hot. Like, 16 billion Scovilles hot. To get an idea, imagine pepper spray, then multiply its effect three (!) thousand (!) times.
 
The heat has long prevented predators from chowing down on the spiny leaves; now it’s also being studied as a possible painkiller. Dubbed resiniferatoxin, or RTX, the spicy chemical derived from the resin spurge can be injected into a pain site, like a bad knee or injured back, while the patient is anesthetized. There it basically burns away the nerve endings that transmit the feeling of pain to the brain. Though it seems counterintuitive for something that causes violent pain to block out violent pain, the science is there. From Wired:
 
“[RTX] binds to a major molecule in specifically pain-sensing nerve endings, called TRPV1 (pronounced TRIP-vee one). […]

RTX is a capsaicin analog, only it’s between 500 and 1,000 times more potent. When RTX binds to TRPV1, it props open the nerve cell’s ion channel, letting a whole lot of calcium in. That’s toxic, leading to the inactivation of the pain-sensing nerve endings.

This leaves other varieties of sensory neurons unaffected because RTX is highly specific to TRPV1. ‘So you gain selectivity because it only acts on TRPV1, which is only on a certain class offibers, which only transmit pain,’ says [UC San Diego anesthesiology professor Tony] Yaksh. ‘Therefore you can selectively knock out pain without knocking out, say, light touch or your ability to walk.’”
 
Researchers all over are looking at this naturally inspired pain solution, partly in response to the opioid epidemic that is gripping the US in particular. It’s also being tried as an alternative to morphine for end-of-life pain management. Localized injection treatments have already been attempted — and proven very effective — in dogs, with researchers reporting cessation of joint pain lasting up to five months (which feels like years to a pup)!
 
I’m very interested in further research into RTX, both for the immensely practical applications and for the coolness factor. Joint pain or no, at this point in the year we all need some heat!

The Toes Knows: Research Uncovers Key Co-Worker of Michelangelo

Michelangelo toes

One of my favourite things to do on a cold winter day off is wandering around an art gallery or museum! I love how the snow outside bounces a different kind of light onto paintings and photographs, and how — with the weather being so grim — there’s no pressure to be anywhere else, or do anything except sit and appreciate.
 
Good art raises big questions, including “What is meant by this piece?” “How does it affect me?” Sometimes, with pieces of murky provenance, the biggest question is “Who the heck made this??” That can be really difficult to answer. But, in a recent case, science has happily stepped in to add real-world context to some incredibly rare art.
 
The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, had a pair of 16th-century bronze statues, whose creator was unknown. So, they took the outside-the-box step of asking clinical anatomist Professor Peter Abrahams of Warwick Medical School to have a look. Abrahams focused not on technique or material, but on the model. And it is through the physical quirks of the man who sat for the artist that Abrahams has determined the sculptures to be the only known bronze works by Michelangelo! As the professor said to The Guardian:
“Being an observant person, both as a doctor and a scientist, I noticed that the toes on the bronzes were a bit odd. […]
I then went and had a look at all the toes that I could find anywhere in Michelangelo’s oeuvre. Out of 40 toes, all except for two fitted this brief: they had a short big toe and a long second toe, and the big toe goes outwards — it looks like someone is wearing a flip-flop in between the toes.
In the Sistine Chapel, David, Moses, they all have the same toes. There are certain traits that shine through in an artist’s work.”

The toes were the clincher, but there were other tells: the model also had an “eight-pack” series of abdominal muscles on display. This rare configuration has a genetic basis, and further narrows down the modeling pool to Michelangelo’s usual collaborator. Most fascinatingly, the statues’ legs showed evidence of the sartorius muscle in action. The sartorius is not usually externally visible, and both sculptures predated the publication of the first human anatomy textbook in 1543, so Prof. Abrahams concluded the person who sculpted the bronzes had dissected human bodies. Bingo: Michelangelo!
 
While we often think of science as the opposite of art, in the case of the mysterious Michelangelo, it complemented it. Prof. Abrahams’ analysis answered a question about who made the bronzes, and leaves us to contemplate so many more: Who was the quarry labourer who had such a great working relationship with the artist? What was it like collaborating with such genius? And, how beautiful are the pieces left for us to enjoy, 450 years in the future, on our day off in the museum!

Microbes: A Match for Childhood Leukemia?

microbiome with microbes

I’m lucky enough to have lived through a good amount of the 20th century, and into the 21st, two amazing centuries for medical science. In my own time, doctors (and vaccines!) have eliminated or nearly eliminated such terrifying diseases as smallpox, polio, and measles. But these diseases all come from outside agents: viruses. (Never mind all the nasty infections you can get from bacteria.) What about that lofty goal of curing cancer — taming our own rogue cells when they go haywire? How can we possibly get in there and convince parts of ourselves not to kill us?
With a trusty outside agent, says Professor Mel Greaves of London’s Institute of Cancer Research . The recently knighted scientist has trialled microbes — yes, microbes  — as assassins of a terrifying childhood cancer, acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
 
This leukemia results from a collision of two unhappy states: a genetic mutation and an “unprimed” immune system. The latter is often due to today’s hyper-clean parenting, which uses wipes and all kinds of concoctions to minimize germ exposure in babies. But “Sir Mel”’s research has shown him that children whose immune systems aren’t challenged in their first year, and who carry the leukemia mutation, can later have those trigger-happy immune systems wig out — thus sparking full-on leukemia.
 
“‘When such a baby is eventually exposed to common infections, his or her unprimed immune system reacts in a grossly abnormal way,’ says Greaves. ‘It over-reacts and triggers chronic inflammation.’

As this inflammation progresses, chemicals called cytokines are released into the blood and these can trigger a second mutation that results in [leukemia] in children carrying the first mutation.

‘The disease needs two hits to get going,’ Greaves explains. ‘The second comes from the chronic inflammation set off by an unprimed immune system.’”
 
Happily, this research means that, even if a child has the unfortunate genetic mutation, leukemia can be averted by “seeding’ their immune system with appropriate bugs. To prevent having your baby lick an escalator railing, Greaves is experimenting on mice to determine which bugs are most helpful. Then he plans to develop a yogurt-like drink, that could be taken with a minimum of fuss. This should provide enough of an immune challenge to avert the second mutation in a susceptible child, without any attendant illness.  I love how we keep going back to the human microbiome for our overall health. And it just keeps getting better: today anti-jet-lag, tomorrow, anti-cancer!

A Red Bird is Not Just a Red Bird: The Many Kinds of Cardinal

Cardinal bird

Deep winter is when birdwatching really heats up in our (literal) neck of the woods. I love looking out into forested backyard over my first cup of coffee and seeing who’s joining me for breakfast. Species who end up at our sunflower-and-suet-filled feeder include juncos, chickadees, and blue jays — the bullies of the bunch!
 
Another bird I love to see is the Northern Cardinal, whose brilliant red (male) or warm dun (female) plumage really pops against our deep eastern Ontario snow! But I recently discovered an assumption I had been making about that species is false: the idea that they are in fact one species at all. 
 
Turns out, researchers out of the American Museum of Natural History have discovered that what was previously known as the heterogeneous Northern cardinal species is in fact made up of at least two genetically distinct populations. Since the types of birds look almost exactly the same, the researchers detected their differences through a fascinating tell — how the birds communicate.
 
The scientists began by looking at the behaviours of two different cardinal populations separated by a distance, with one centred in the eastern US, and another in Arizona and Mexico. In both cases, male cardinals use their songs to not only attract mates but to posture against males of the same species. Male cardinals do not react against males of different species as strongly as they do their own, so the researchers realized they had a clear marker of genetic difference on their hands. From Gizmodo:
 
“The researchers played cardinal songs for four trials at 128 different sites, 67 in the Sonoran desert and 61 in the Chihuahuan desert. The cardinals at the sites generally came much closer to the speakers when songs from the local population played than they did when songs from the other population did, according to the paper published recently in the journal Ecology and Evolution. […]

Furthering the evidence, the researchers performed a genetic analysis of cardinals in either group. It demonstrated that the two cardinal populations likely diverged approximately a million years ago.”
 
The two populations are separated by the Cochise filter barrier, a geographical and ecological phenomenon, including a mountain range, that prevents the mingling of species between the areas of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts. Given this fact, and the confirmation of behaviour when confronted with rivals’ songs, the researchers are pretty certain they have different species on their hands. Much like books and covers, it seems you can’t judge a bird by its feathers!

What Alexa Knows

creepyalexa

If Santa brought you an Alexa device this year, once you hear this news you might turn right around and punt it out the window!  A German Amazon user requested that company’s data in him back in August, under the EU’s new, stringent, General Data Protection Regulation. Amazon sent his data — along with a 100MB ZIP file full of recordings of someone else’s Alexa voice commands for the entire month of May 2018. 

After receiving no reply to his concerned enquiry to Amazon, the user contacted German tech magazine c’t , and they began to investigate. To parse the severity of the privacy breach, the c’t team attempted to identify the mystery second user through the leaked recordings.

“It was obvious that ‘Customer X’ uses Alexa in multiple locations. He has at least one Echo at home and has a voice-controlled Fire box connected to his TV. A female voice also spoke to Alexa, so there was clearly a woman around at least some of the time. […]

The alarms, Spotify commands, and public transport inquiries included in the data revealed a lot about the victims’ personal habits, their jobs, and their taste in music. Using these files, it was fairly easy to identify the person involved and his female companion. Weather queries, first names, and even someone’s last name enabled us to quickly zero in on his circle of friends. Public data from Facebook and Twitter rounded out the picture.”

The investigative team, after having identified Customer X (and his girlfriend) from the recording, contacted him to warn him. He was shocked at the breach, but even more shocked, they report, at the fact that Amazon hadn’t reached out themselves. (The offending company must at least contact the regulators within 72 hours if a breach occurs.) Amazon ended up calling Customer X, with an apology for the “human error” that released his Alexa commands, three days after c’t approached them.

Amazon has been having giant problems with Alexa, but this is the first time the company has sent a pile of someone’s data to someone else and had it been their unequivocal fault. We know why they’re collecting massive amounts of data on us: in short, monetization. The significant question — which we must ask of Google, Facebook, et al — is if the companies themselves can keep up with what they’re doing. If they’re going to keep innovating devices that make our lives the easiest they’ve ever been in dark exchange for that data, that’s the least they can do.

Systems vs. Goals: The Resolution Revolution?

Happy New Year! The DFC team hopes you’ve had a year of joy, challenge, and prosperity, and are looking forward to more of the same in 2019.

With the calendar turnover approaching, I’m sure many of us have been thinking about resolutions. In my case, I mostly think about them to immediately discount them — I’m not a fan of being told what to do, even if it’s by my past self!

So I’ve gotten interested in a different way of thinking about resolutions: one that’s not necessarily new, but that I’ve seen pop up on a few productivity blogs recently.

Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert and business and political commentator, outlined his process of “systems over goals” on his blog back in 2013 (before he got kind of alarmingabout American culture).

His productivity advice is quite cogent thought. Adams’ theory pits the standard, goal-oriented way of getting things done against one that he says Adams says is far more effective: the creation of a system, a state of small steps that serve to improve your self in relation to what you want to do — with the achievement of the goal as a side effect. He gives an example by citing his blogging system:

“Writing is a skill that requires practice. So the first part of my system involves practicingon a regular basis. I didn’t know what I was practicing for, exactly, and that’s what makes it a system and not a goal. I was moving from a place with low odds (being an out-of-practice writer) to a place of good odds (a well-practiced writer with higher visibility).

The second part of my blogging system is a sort of R&D for writing. I write on a variety of topics and see which ones get the best response. I also write in different “voices”. […] You readers do a good job of telling me what works and what doesn’t.

When the Wall Street Journal took notice of my blog posts, they asked me to write some guest features. Thanks to all of my writing practice here, and my knowledge of which topics got the best response, the guest articles were highly popular. […]

So the payday for blogging eventually arrived, but I didn’t know in advance what path it would take. My blogging has kicked up dozens of business opportunities over the past years, so it could have taken any direction”

I think this concept is inherently freeing because it leverages what you can personally control: if you set a goal to land a particularly large company as a client, for example, and you don’t because that company goes under, that’s technically a failure. But, if you were to establish a system of sending out one new pitch per day instead, your success becomes automatic, and landing Company X is a natural outgrowth.

I think I’m going to apply this process to a few things in 2019 I want to approach differently — my music for example. Dear readers, what systems or goals are you revisioning in the New Year? Whatever your chosen challenge, we at DFC wish you all the best!

Keeping an Eye on Screen Time as a Light Source

light source

As the winter solstice nears and the sun disappears from the sky earlier every day, light sources become even more important to we humans. Exposure to sunlight gives us vitamin D and may have an effect on mood. The current trend of hygge, the Danish concept of embracing winter coziness, is so centred around candlelight that researchers are now warning fans about the dangers of indoor pollution given off by their dozens of tapers.
 
But there’s one kind of evening light issue that interests the team at DFC the most: that which beams straight into our brains from our screens. Scientists have long known that artificial “blue” light from phone, computer, and tablet screens disrupts sleep. But what they didn’t know was the precise mechanism of how this works — until a new study out of the Salk Institute shed light on it. (Sorry, couldn’t resist!)
 
It involves melanopsin, a protein that is created by cells in the retina when they are exposed to continuous blue light. This protein suppresses the production of melatonin, the hormone that helps us fall and stay asleep. The effects of melanopsin was believed to be dampened by the presence of proteins called arrestins, that were theorized to kick in after several seconds exposure to the light. But when the researchers experimented on mouse retinal cells, they found that there were two types of arrestins working against each other.
 
“In mice lacking either version of the arrestin protein (beta arrestin 1 and beta arrestin 2), the melanopsin-producing retinal cells failed to sustain their sensitivity to light under prolonged illumination. The reason, it turns out, is that arrestin helps melanopsin regenerate in the retinal cells.

‘Our study suggests the two arrestins accomplish regeneration of melanopsin in a peculiar way,’ [senior author Prof. Satchin] Panda says. ‘One arrestin does its conventional job of arresting the response, and the other helps the melanopsin protein reload its retinal light-sensing co-factor. When these two steps are done in quick succession, the cell appears to respond continuously to light.’”
 
Now that they know the method by which the retinal cells react to light, the researchers are looking for ways they can begin to suppress it. This would definitely help folks who stare at the ceiling at 3 AM regretting watching all those YouTube videos hours earlier. And there would be a market for photosensitive people, like migraine sufferers as well. So it seems that for those of us huddled at home this winter, in several sweaters, trying to pass the time with news reading and texting our snowbound loved ones, there might be a light at the end of the tunnel! (Sorry again!)

Smartwatches for Kids: Too Smart For Their Own Good

‘Tis the season for your gift-giving holiday of choice — and boy am I over it already!
 
For those of you still mired in the depths of gift buying, it’s my duty to warn you away from a tech-based gift that is especially hot right now but has chilling implications for its users. (And it’s not any of that infernal Paw Patrol merch!)
 
Smartwatches for children have been gaining traction over the past couple years, as ways for parents to keep track of their kids in a hands-off way, while they play in the park or walk home from school. These smartwatches are basically stripped-down, wearable phones: some have limited calling capabilities, SOS buttons that a kid can punch in case of emergency, and all have GPS tracking through a paired app on the parent’s own smartphone.
 
The good news is this is great for reducing helicopter parenting. The bad news is REALLY bad — these watches are incredibly hackable. Information can be intercepted and gleaned in a variety of ways: from remotely initiating an outgoing call, effectively broadcasting the child’s voice and surroundings to a bad actor, to spoofing the watch’s location so the child appears to be in a place they aren’t.
 
The alarm was raised a year ago by the Norwegian Consumer Council, a watchdog organization, which performed several hacks on four popular watch brands to see how far they’d get. The watches performed miserably enough that Germany, that stalwart defender of personal privacy, banned all children’s smartwatches nationwide. The companies responsible and the industry as a whole made noises about fixing the problems — but an analysis of a new brand of smartwatch has shown that has not happened. Pen Test Partners, a security testing firm out of the UK tested out the Misafes children’s smartwatch, and the Norwegian Consumer Council commented that:

“the MiSafes products appeared to be ‘even more problematic’ than the examples it had flagged [last year].
‘This is another example of unsecure products that should never have reached the market,’ said Gro Mette Moen, the watchdog’s acting director of digital services.
‘Our advice is to refrain from buying these smartwatches until the sellers can prove that their features and security standards are satisfactory.’ […]
The BBC found three listings for the watches on eBay earlier this week but the online marketplace said it had since removed them on the grounds of an existing ban on equipment that could be used to spy on people’s activities without their knowledge.”

But it shouldn’t take the BBC weighing in to let us know this is serious. All I think it takes is common sense — no technology can replace good old-fashioned supervision, combined with the street smarts of a well-trained kid. This season, we need to stick to classic gifts that don’t spy on you. Then, equip our kids with the skills to know their world much better than a plastic watch ever could!