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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Take five minutes to match a few whale noises. We guarantee you’ll feel better.


Website Enlists Crowds to Analyze Whale Songs

By Duncan Geere, Wired UK
The folks at Zooniverse have a new citizen science project for you to play with — matching up whalesong to try and analyze the watery leviathans’ language.
wireduk
Sounds  have been collected from both pilot whales and killer whales (both of which are actually species of dolphin). Each family of killer whales appears to have a distinct “  dialect” that it uses to communicate, and closely related families appear to share calls. Biologists have begun to categorize those noises, but the species’ communication is still poorly understood.
Pilot whales, too, appear to have similar dialects and calls, but researchers haven’t yet begun to seriously categorize these in the same way. Some of the calls have a general context that’s known — reproduction, contact calls for finding each other, etc. — but many others remain a mystery. Furthering the process of analyzing both species’ calls is where you come in.
If you head over to Whale.fm, you’ll be presented with a large whale call, placed on a Google map, and 36 smaller possible matches. Your task is to pick the one that’s closest to the original call, with the help of visualizations of what the audio sounds like.
With the public’s assistance in matching items in the datasets and creating links, the team behind the experiment, from St. Andrews University in Scotland, hope to better classify the datasets and also answer a few additional questions — how large the pilot whales’ call repertoire is, whether long-finned and short-finned pilot whales have different dialects, and whether the whale song changes during sonar transmissions (from human activity).
The sounds are collected from animals tagged with “D-Tags,” non-invasive sensors attached with suction cups, which eventually fall off. They record not only the sounds that the animals make, but also what they hear from other animals. They record location-based data, too, making them very useful for remotely studying the creatures. They’re attached by scientists using long poles.
What we particularly like about Whale.fm is how soothing the whole process is. If you’re having a tough day at work, put your headphones on and take five minutes to match a few whale noises. We guarantee you’ll feel better.

"This is the first time anyone in the state can recall a child being taken from a parent for a strictly weight-related issue.”


Wednesday Morning Eye-Opener: Weighty Decisions

by Kevin Coupe

The issue of childhood obesity comes up here on MNB a lot. But there was a Slate story yesterday that offered a different kind of perspective on the problem.

In Ohio’s Cuyahoga County, officials made the decision last month “to remove an eight year-old boy from his family's home last month because they considered his mother's inability to get the child's ballooning weight under control a form of medical neglect ... Tipping the scales at over 200 pounds, the third-grader more than triples the 60 pounds that government growth charts deem a healthy weight for boys his age. He is at risk for diseases like diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and high blood pressure.”

According to Slate, the child’s situation came to light some 18 months ago when his mother took him to a local hospital because of breathing problems; he was diagnosed with sleep apnea, which “can be caused by excessive weight.” Case workers
monitored the case for a year and a half, then decided that the child was in “imminent danger,” and took the eight-year-old away from his mother, a substitute elementary school teacher who says, “ "Of course I love him. Of course I want him to lose weight. It's a lifestyle change, and they are trying to make it seem like I am not embracing that. It is very hard, but I am trying."

A hearing is scheduled for next month, on the child’s ninth birthday, to determine next steps in the case.

Slate writes that “although two million US children are extremely obese, including 12 percent of Ohio third-graders ... this is the first time anyone in the state can recall a child being taken from a parent for a strictly weight-related issue.” And the story quotes the Cleveland Plain Dealer as reporting that the boy in question “is an honor student and participates in school activities.”

Is this the inevitable result of a nation that has become obsessed with the obesity crisis, but doesn’t seem able to really do anything about it? Is government being unnecessarily intrusive? Or doing its job, protecting the life of a citizen who is unable to protect himself?

The situation is troubling. Though I’m not sure precisely why.

But it is Eye-Opening that we’ve reached this point.

The whole prospect makes vegetarianism seem barbaric and not much different from meat-eating.



Plants
Life flows through their veins, but what kind of life is it?If You Pick Us, Do We Not Bleed?
Understanding the plant experience helps us understand the human one, too.

In a room near Maida Vale, a journalist for The Nation wrote around 1914, an unfortunate creature is strapped to the table of an unlicensed vivisector. When the subject is pinched with a pair of forceps, it winces. It is so strapped that its electric shudder of pain pulls the long arm of a very delicate lever that actuates a tiny mirror. This casts a beam of light on the frieze at the other end of the room, and thus enormously exaggerates the tremor of the creature. A pinch near the right-hand tube sends the beam 7 or 8 feet to the right, and a stab near the other wire sends it as far to the left.

“Thus,” the journalist concluded, “can science reveal the feelings of even so stolid a vegetable as the carrot.”

Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, the aforementioned carrot vivisector, was a serious man of science. Born in what is today Bangladesh in 1858, Bose was a quintessential polymath: physicist, biologist, botanist, archaeologist. He was the first person from the Indian subcontinent to receive a U.S. patent, and is considered one of the fathers of radio science, alongside such notables as Tesla, Marconi, and Popov. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1920, becoming the first Indian to be honored by the Royal Society in the field of science. It’s clear that Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose was a scientist of some weight. And, like many scientists of weight, he has become popularly known for his more controversial pursuits — in Bose’s case, his experiments in plant physiology.

Perhaps it was his work in radio waves and electricity that inspired Bose’s investigations into what we might call the invisible world. Bose strongly felt that physics could go far beyond what was apparent to the naked eye. Around 1900, Bose began his investigations into the secret world of plants. He found that all plants, and all parts of plants, have a sensitive nervous system not unlike that of animals, and that their responses to external stimuli could be measured and recorded. Some plant reactions can be seen easily in sensitive plants like the Mimosa, which, when irritated, will react with the sudden shedding or shrinking of its leaves. But when Bose attached his magnifying device to plants from which it was more difficult to witness a response, such as vegetables, he was astounded to discover that they, too, became excited when vexed. All around us, Bose realized, the plants are communicating. We just don't notice it.

The more responses Bose got from his plants, the more encouraged he became, and the more detailed his efforts became. Bose discovered that an electric death spasm occurs in plants when they die, and that the actual moment of death in a plant could be accurately recorded. As Sir Patrick Geddes described in his 1920 biography of Bose, the electromotive force generated during the death spasm is sometimes considerable. Bose calculated that a half-pea, for instance, could discharge up to half a volt. Thus, if 500 pairs of boiling half-peas were arranged in series, the electric pressure would be 500 volts, enough to electrocute unsuspecting victims. The average cook does not know the danger she runs in preparing peas, Bose wrote. “It is fortunate for her that the peas are not arranged in series!”

Bose was determined to show other serious scientists not only the wonders of plant perception but “the marvelous resemblance there is between the reactions of plants and animals.” His 1902 paper “Responses in the Living and Non-Living” contains a whole chapter comparing the electrical impulse response of frog, lizard, and tortoise skins to the skins of tomatoes and grapes. He found little difference. Bose would write that plants grew more quickly when exposed to nice music and gentle whispers, and poorly when exposed to harsh music and loud speech. Over years of research, Bose found that plants were visibly reactive to all manner of stimuli: flashes of light, changes in temperature, plucking, pricking, screaming. Plants became numbed by drugs and drunk from alcohol. They became depressed when exposed to polluted air — even by the passing of a darkening cloud — and were more sensitive to electricity than either Hindus or Europeans. In short, what Bose’s work showed was that plants could feel pleasure and they could feel pain. Plants had feelings, too.

And so, Bose’s private laboratory at Maida Vale became a site of amazement and disbelief. Notable men of science and letters were drawn to Bose’s experiments in plant perception, scientists from the Royal and Linnean societies, as well as the ever-curious vegetarian playwright George Bernard Shaw, who was seized with horror when subjected to the sight of a violently convulsing piece of cabbage gasping in a pot of boiling water. Yet, it is not surprising to learn that Bose — whose scientific inventions and work in radio waves were highly esteemed — struggled to gain proper respect in Western scientific circles for his work in plant biophysics. The above heart-wrenching account of vivisection performed in a Frankenstein-like experiment upon a carrot is typical of those who painted Bose’s work with plants as the stuff of parody.

In a speech presented to the Bengal Literary Conference in 1911, Bose asked:
How are we to know what unseen changes take place within the plant? If it be excited or depressed by some special circumstance, how are we, on the outside, to be made aware of this?.... When an animal receives an external shock it may answer in various ways if it has voice, by a cry; if it be dumb, by the movement of its limbs. 
The plant, by contrast, is voiceless, until science came along and allowed us to hear that voice. With the right tools, Bose felt, the secret life of plants is revealed.

Surely The Nation was right to balk. The idea that plants feel sensations akin to animals is absurd, laughable. It is a realm of biology bordering on the paranormal. Are we really supposed to believe that that trees suffer when they lose their limbs, that we are safe from the wrath of peas only because they have not yet learned to organize? How many consequences are we willing to accept? What are we to do in the face of all this vegetable suffering?
Bose is long dead, but plant physiology has become a well-respected scientific pursuit. There are now plenty of scientists who, over the decades, have given further weight to Bose’s theories that plants may not be as different from animals as previously thought. Elizabeth Haswell, assistant professor of biology at Washington University in Saint Louis, along with colleagues at the California Institute of Technology, recently wrote a review article about mechanosensitive channels in plants for the journal Structure. The article was called “Mechanosensitive Channels: What Can They Do and How Do They Do It?” In it, Haswell writes about how she has been experimenting on Arabidopsisplants to understand plants’ responses to gravity, and touch, and us. This fact alone is, admittedly, of little interest to the average person. But one wonders why Haswell’s rather scholarly article got picked up by press around the world. Why, in March of this year, The New York Times published a piece called “No Face, but Plants Like Life Too?” Why a big science news story last year was a BBC News report titled “Plants can think and remember.” Why, nearly 100 years since the publication of Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose’s “Researches on irritability of plants,” plant physiology is news.

"Picture yourself hiking through the woods or walking across a lawn," Haswell told the press. "Now ask yourself: Do the bushes know that someone is brushing past them? Does the grass know that it is being crushed underfoot? Of course, plants don't think thoughts, but they do respond to being touched in a number of ways."

Plant lovers and gardeners won't be shocked by Haswell's statement. They know all about the myriad ways plants respond to humans, because they live with them every day.

A number of years ago in graduate school, I was introduced to the work of sound artist Miya Masaoka. In her “Pieces for Plants,” Masaoka (following in Bose's footsteps) connects the leaves of houseplants to highly sensitive electrodes, which were then connected to a laptop and synthesizer. With this set-up, Masaoka "plays" the plants. She crouches over them, strokes the leaves, waves her hands over the plants, agitates them, moves closer and then farther away. With each movement, the plants give off a reactive sound, filling the air with spacey electronic warbles. For those of us accustomed to thinking of plants as mute and senseless, the effect is unnerving. In outdoor performances, Masaoka will often let the public play with her plants. Often, she told us, visitors return again and again, sometimes just to talk with her about their own plants, their belief that plants have extraordinary capabilities and awareness beyond what is normally attributed to them. They are not surprised by the singing of the plants, nor by the implication that the plants are having an almost psychological response to human interaction. These people were not scientists. They tell Masaoka what they experience, and therefore, what they believe. For Masaoka's part, she wasn't necessarily trying to say that plants had consciousness. But she does think that plants can inspire us to think about the very nature of consciousness, theirs and our own.

“While mechanobiological processes employ diverse mechanisms,” Haswell and her colleagues wrote in the abstract for “Mechanosensitive Channels,” “at their heart are force-induced perturbations in the structure and dynamics of molecules capable of triggering subsequent events.” Translated into everyday speech: The plants are aware. Science says it's so. And if plants are aware, we begin to wonder, as Bose did so long ago, what we're supposed to do about it.

Plants respond to environmental factors. We’ve known this for a very long time. They will turn toward or away from the sun; they will sway with a passing breeze. But more and more, science has been telling us that the awareness goes much deeper, that plants have a kind of sentience. Does that mean they have consciousness? If they have consciousness, can they suffer? And if they suffer, and we are sometimes causing their suffering, do we want to stop? Can we? “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” — it's our Golden Rule. As Bose showed, plantss reactions to unpleasant stimuli is very similar to our own. If we can call this pain, as Bose does, how can we accept the harm we cause when snipping a flower off a bush simply for decoration, or rolling around in the grass to play? Should we start eating only food that we can pluck from a tree without damaging the tree itself, or better still, that falls off the tree of its own accord? Food that is already dead? The whole prospect makes vegetarianism seem barbaric and not much different from meat-eating. But where do you stop? With protozoa? Bacteria?

Maybe we never should have started asking questions about our environment in the first place. But it’s too late now. Our relationship to the natural world is forever fraught. Are we stewards? Intruders? Does it matter?
What concerned J.C. Bose was perception. He was interested in what plants perceive. But more important, he was interested in what we perceive about them and what we can learn about perception itself from them. With scientific tools and increased awareness, Bose demonstrated that it was possible to enhance our experience of the world by turning our attention to the silent, invisible phenomena around us.

In 1918, Bose delivered a lecture on “The Automatic Writing of the Plant.” A local newspaper reporter in attendance wrote this:
Sir J. C. Bose spoke of two different ways of gaining knowledge, the lesser way is by dwelling on superficial differences, the mental attitude which makes some say, “Thank God I am not like others.” The other way is to realize an essential unity in spite of deceptive appearance to the contrary.
Bose believed in the fundamental unity of all life, the fundamental unity of everything —  “a uniform and continuous march of law." But it wasn’t just a belief. Bose had scientific proof.

For Bose, thinking of life as a unity wasn’t just about theories — it had real world implications. Though patents were granted to Bose, he never sought them out for personal gain, preferring that his inventions be "open to all the world to adopt for practical and money-making purposes." Likewise, the belief in the unity of all things was not Bose’s innovation, nor was it therefore an invention of science. Bose was well aware that he was bringing thousands of years of Eastern philosophy into his British-funded lab. For a scientist in an increasingly fragmented India in the time of the 20th-century Raj, who had spoken publicly against the caste system, the message of unity not only had scientific and metaphysical ramifications; it had political ones as well. Bose’s scientific innovations were a broader challenge to the root assumptions behind scientific enterprises and whether they ought to be strictly defined by the West. Barriers between animal and plant, biology and physics, East and West — these were all limits to humanity’s access to universal truths.

“Amongst such phenomena,” Bose wrote in 1901, “how can we draw a line of demarcation, and say, here the physical ends, and there the physiological begins?"
Such absolute barriers do not exist…. It was when I came upon the mute witness of these self made records, and perceived in them one phase of a pervading unity that bears within it all things the mote that quivers in ripples of light, the teeming life upon our earth, and the radiant suns that shine above us it was then that I understood for the first time a little of that message proclaimed by my ancestors on the banks of the Ganges 30 centuries ago: “They who see but one, in all the changing manifoldness of this universe, unto them belongs Eternal Truth unto none else, unto none else!”
One last thing about Bose. When he talked about the great connectedness of life, he wasn’t kidding around. Bose was also the first scientist to study inorganic matter in the same way a biologist examines a muscle or a nerve. Bose performed his plant experiments on rocks and metals, too. He found that, just like plants, the “non-living” responded when subjected to mechanical, thermal, and electrical stimuli. Even rocks and metals became numbed by cold, shocked by electrical currents, stupefied by anesthetics. He once invited Sir Michael Foster, a veteran physiologist at Cambridge, to witness the electrical response of poisoned piece of tin (as written by Patrick Geddes):
“Come now, Bose, (said Foster) what is the novelty in this curve? We have known it for at least the last half-century.”

“What do you think it is?” asked Bose.

“Why, a curve of muscle response, of course.”

“Pardon me; it is the response of metallic tin.”

“What!” said Foster, jumping up. “Tin! Did you say tin?”
If he were just a biologist, maybe Bose would have felt more constrained by the conventions of the field: What biologist would think of poisoning a piece of tin? But studying matter as a physicist allowed Bose to make big claims about the fundamentals of life itself by adhering to simple demonstrations of action and reaction. If something looks like suffering, it’s suffering. If it looks like it’s depressed, it’s depressed. Truly, Bose believed, all things — organic and inorganic — were determined not by an unknowable and arbitrary force, with different rules for different beings, but by a universal law, with the same rules for everyone.

It’s easy to accept that an animal is happy when we are nice to it. It’s less easy, though not impossible, to accept that a plant grows measurably better when we are nice to it. Harder to take seriously is the idea that grass feels pained by our walking feet. Harder still, the idea of a sad rock. The further things get away from their likeness to humanity, the more difficult it is to empathize with them, and therefore to feel that we should care.

But before we dismiss Bose as completely crackers, it’s important to understand the true implication of his work and that of Haswell, et al. Bose’s message isn’t that our care for the world must be based on the assumption that all things have a fundamental humanness. It is that existence and awareness are deeply connected, and that dismissing the fundamental unity of matter is dismissing a fundamental truth about life. Most of us will still keep eating our veggies in good faith. But will we ever approach our salad in exactly the same way again? Or, for that matter, our fork? • 22 November 2011


Stefany Anne Golberg is an artist, writer, musician, and professional dilettante. She's a founding member of the arts collective Flux Factory and lives in New York City. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.


Each of the suitcases you’ll see here belonged to a patient...


NOVEMBER 30, 2011
Emotional baggage
PHOTOGRAPHY
Willard suitcases
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The Willard State Hospital (a.k.a. Willard Asylum for the Chronic Pauper Insane) used to be America’s largest home for people with incurable mental illnesses. But you wouldn’t know it was an insane asylum by looking at Jon Crispin’s intimate photos of the baggage its residents left behind.
Each of the suitcases you’ll see here belonged to a patient; judging by the contents, most (or all) of those patients must have passed away years, or decades, ago. Still, there’s something incredibly moving about these orphaned belongings — everyday objects (hairbrushes, alarm clocks, lists, letters) that are like the clues to some long-forgotten puzzle.

“Watch OWS videos on youtube that show police brutality. Spend a half hour in silent reflection.


Occupy Wall Street Library Releases Writing Prompt

The online version of the Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology has just added one hundred new pages as poems arrive from all over the world.
Follow this link to download a free online copy of the 538-page anthology. If you want to add your work to the anthology, the OWS Library has issued a writing prompt for the week–a good way to join the community writing project.
Here is the writing prompt: "Watch OWS videos on youtube that show police brutality. Spend a half hour in silent reflection. As you reflect, calmly send radiant energy to people the world over that have been victims of police brutality. Then write a poem to a police officer! Dedicate poems to Robert Hass or anyone you know that has been a victim of police brutality."

A brief history of mathematics from the BBC...


  1. A Brief History of Mathematics
  2. Episodes
  3. Available now on BBC iPlayer

A Brief History of Mathematics episodesavailable now on BBC iPlayer

(1 - 10 of 10 programmes)
  1. Nicolas Bourbaki

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    programme information
    (15 minutes)
    Available since Fri, 25 Jun 2010.
    10/10. Nicolas Bourbaki, the mathematician that never was.
  2. Hardy and Ramanujan

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    programme information
    (15 minutes)
    Available since Thu, 24 Jun 2010.
    9/10. GH Hardy, whose work inspired the millions of codes that help to keep the internet safe.
  3. Henri Poincare

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    programme information
    (15 minutes)
    Available since Wed, 23 Jun 2010.
    8/10. Professor Marcus du Sautoy argues that mathematics drives science.
  4. Georg Cantor

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    programme information
    (15 minutes)
    Available since Tue, 22 Jun 2010.
    7/10. Professor Marcus du Sautoy argues that mathematics drives science.
  5. The mathematicians who helped Einstein

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    programme information
    (15 minutes)
    Available since Mon, 21 Jun 2010.
    6/10. Bernhard Riemann, the man who showed mathematicians how to see in four or more dimensions.
  6. Carl Friedrich Gauss

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    programme information
    (15 minutes)
    Available since Fri, 18 Jun 2010.
    5/10. How the Gaussian or normal distribution underpins modern medicine.
  7. Evariste Galois

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    programme information
    (15 minutes)
    Available since Thu, 17 Jun 2010.
    4/10. How the maths begun by Evariste Galois describes the particles that make up our universe.
  8. Joseph Fourier

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    programme information
    (15 minutes)
    Available since Wed, 16 Jun 2010.
    3/10. How Joseph Fourier's mathematics transformed our understanding of heat, light and sound.
  9. Leonard Euler

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    programme information
    (15 minutes)
    Available since Tue, 15 Jun 2010.
    2/10. How a solution to a 1700s conundrum enables us to access information on the internet.
  10. Newton and Leibniz

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    (15 minutes)
    Available since Mon, 14 Jun 2010.
    1/10. An astronaut and an investment analyst pay homage to the enormous power of the calculus.

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