Shaving Strokes

Here’s some good health news:  stroke rates among older Americans are falling.  The decline started in the 1980s, has continued since then, and shows no signs of stopping.

The decline was noted in a long-term study of heart health that began in 1987 in which thousands of adults in the U.S. have participated.  Data accumulated during the study showed that the rates of strokes of participants aged 65 and older has dropped by one-third for each decade the study has continued.

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Interestingly, the researchers don’t know exactly why the stroke rates among seniors are falling.  It could be due to reduced smoking rates, better attention to addressing some of the other key risk factors for stroke, which include diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure, or advances in medication for those conditions.  And because the decline was detected in a study that was actually focused on heart health, rather than strokes, the decline also might be due to other factors that weren’t measured during the study, such as diet, exercise, or salt intake.

If you’ve ever had a family member felled by a stroke, you know how devastating they can be — and how important it is to be ever watchful for the signs of stroke, such as slurred speech and drooping facial features.  Whatever the cause of the falling stroke rates among older Americans might be, the fact that it is happening an incredibly positive development.  Now, it would be helpful to find out why.

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Asking “What Could Go Wrong”?

Most actions have a potential upside, and a potential downside.  Some people are very good at envisioning about the rosy, positive consequences of an action, but not so good at identifying the possible negative outcomes.

Take scientists, for example.

aedes-aegypti-696x392In Brazil, disease-carrying mosquitoes are a huge problem.  Authorities there are keenly interested in wiping out the pests that spread the Zika virus, dengue, and malaria, but the issue is how to do it in an environmentally safe way.  Some scientists then came up with the idea of using gene-hacking techniques to tackle the problem.  The scientists would modify the genes of a control group of male mosquitoes so that their offspring would immediately die, release the mosquitoes into the wild, and then watch as the mosquitoes mated and the mosquito population plummeted.

Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way.  Initially, the mosquito population did decline, but then it returned to its prior level.  Puzzled scientists looked into what had happened, and discovered that the genetically modified control group had in fact mated with wild mosquitoes — but at least some of their offspring survived.  What’s worse, the offspring carried genetic modifications that may make them even more resistant to future attempts to wipe them out.  In short, the gene-hacking experiment may have produced a new strain of superbugs that are more robust than their predecessors.

One of the researchers who looked into the issue commented:  “It is the unanticipated outcome that is concerning.”  No kidding!  We should all remember those words the next time somebody proposes messing with DNA and genetics and confidently assures us that their efforts will produce nothing but positive benefits.  Just because somebody wears a white lab coat doesn’t make them infallible.

In The Public Domain

A few days ago we went to buy groceries.  In the coffee aisle I found a bag of ground coffee sold by a local company that was called the “Einstein Blend” and featured a drawing of Albert Einstein sipping a cup of coffee.  The slogan under the drawing read:  “An intelligent, medium roast blend of African and Costa Rican coffees.”

Albert Einstein, that unique, world-changing genius, probably the most famous scientist in history, on the cover of a coffee packet?  What’s the world coming to?

The value, and price, of being famous is that your image has value.  But at some point your image and likeness is no longer your own.  When a notable person dies, the clock starts ticking, and ultimately the right to publicity expires and the famous person’s image and likeness slip into the public domain for anyone to use.  That’s why it’s not unusual to see Abraham Lincoln, stovepipe hat and all, in TV ads for car insurance and other products of the modern world.  In the case of the Discoverer of the Theory of Relativity, who died in 1955, a 2012 court ruling concluded that his post mortem publicity rights had expired.  As a result, Albert Einstein’s grandfatherly likeness, with that familiar halo of hair and wise, kindly look in his eyes, is now fair game for advertisers.

At least coffee is a product that Einstein actually used (and enjoyed), unlike Abe Lincoln and car insurance.  And by the way, I bought a pack of the Einstein Blend — how could I not? — and it’s pretty good coffee.  Drinking it, I feel smarter already.

 

Robots In Space

Tomorrow Russia will be sending a humanoid robot into space.  The robot will be one of the passengers on a Soyuz capsule that will take the robot and other crew members to the International Space Station.  Once there, the robot will perform certain tasks under the direction and supervision of a Russian cosmonaut.

190723192309234a3550372iThere are some signs that the robot’s trip is a bit of a publicity stunt, with a whiff of the old “space race” about it.  For one thing, the robot’s name was recently changed, from “Fedor” to “Skybot F-850.”  For another, the Russians say the robot will occupy the commander’s seat on the Soyuz, rather than being carted up in the cargo compartment — although Soyuz being a capsule, there really isn’t a commander’s seat or much piloting going on.  The robot also seems to be a kind of multi-purpose robot who is largely controlled through immersive teleoperation (i.e., controlled by a human) rather than fully autonomous.

As for the whiff of the old space race days, there’s a conscious effort to compare Skybot F-850 to an American robot called Robonaut-2 that worked at the International Space Station a few years ago and is ready to return.  Robonaut-2, the Russians point out, was shipped to the ISS as part of the cargo rather than as a member of the crew.  Good thing for Robonaut-2 that robots can’t feel embarrassment!

Even though the Russian effort seems to have a lot of publicity elements to it, I’m still glad to see a focus on moving forward with robotics in space.  Astronauts are great, of course, but a lot of the hard work involved in tackling space is going to be done by robots who don’t have to worry about atmospheres or food.  If a little taste of the space race will help to move the process along, I’m all for it.

Apollo’s Lasting Legacy

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon — which happened on July 20, 1969 — we’ve seen a lot of interesting articles about the space program, the Apollo program, and NASA’s lunar missions, including a fascinating Smithsonian article about Apollo 11 specifically.  Popular Mechanics also has reprinted an interview with Buzz Aldrin from 25 years ago about why he went to the Moon, and why he thinks we should go back.

as16-113-18339hrsmOne of the most intriguing pieces I’ve seen was a UPI article that sought to identify products and technologies that can be attributed to the Apollo program and that still are in use today.  (That means that “Space Food Sticks,” an awful-tasting product from my youth that quickly went out of production, doesn’t qualify.)  The UPI writer found that Apollo’s legacy goes beyond Tang, velcro, and computer chips.  Products such as the “Dustbuster” hand-held vacuum cleaner, high-performance athletic shoes, communications headsets, credit card swiping machines, and even the “memory foam” in your mattress all trace their roots back to developments that occurred during the Apollo program.

These technological advances are important, of course, and show what can happen when you hire a bunch of really smart, creative, highly motivated engineers and problem-solvers, give them a mission and adequate funding, and establish a meaningful deadline to achieve the goal.  Technological developments are a pretty predictable result of such an effort, which is one reason why I think the United States should end the 50-year drought and get back into the manned space arena in a significant way — whether through government programs, or through partnership with the private companies that are focused on space, or through some other creative means.

But new technology and techniques are not, perhaps, the best reason to go back into space.  For those of us who grew up during the ’60s space program days, and dreamed about being an astronaut like the courageous adventurers of our youth, there will always be a part of our make-up that is interested in space, and science, and the stars.  Perhaps it would be impossible to fully recreate the conditions that made the early astronauts celebrity-heroes in those innocent days, but wouldn’t it nevertheless be valuable to give the current generation of young people role models who are smart, well-educated, selfless, and brave, and encourage those young people to dream about discovery and scientific advancement?

The technological legacy of the Apollo program is impressive, but I think the real legacy is aspirational — something that touched us deeply and leaves even 60-somethings like me still keenly interested in space and hoping that one day, perhaps, I’ll follow in Neil Armstrong’s footsteps and be able to visit the Moon.  The real legacy tells you something about the power of a dream.  We should give the children of today, and tomorrow, the chance to experience such dreams again.

Selfie Psychosis

We are learning more and more about people who have a “selfie” obsession.  We know that people taking selfies are at greater risk of having serious, and even fatal, accidents because they are oblivious to their surroundings while they are taking pictures of themselves on streets or, say, at the edge of the Grand Canyon.  We’ve also seen evidence that people who take selfies are so self-absorbed that they don’t show the decency and sensitivity you typically would expect from a fellow human being.

Woman taking a selfieNow new research is indicating what seems like a pretty obvious conclusion:  people who take selfies are more likely to undergo plastic surgery.  The connection is even stronger if the selfies are taken with filters, or if the posters regularly take down selfie postings that they later conclude aren’t very flattering.  Cosmetic surgeons are reporting that members of the selfie crowd are coming to their offices with selfies where the features have been digitally altered and asked the doctor to change their appearance to match the altered image.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, I suppose, that people who take selfies are narcissistic and are interested in changing their appearance to try to reach their own definition of personal perfection.  After all, if you spend your time constantly looking at your own pouting face, you’re bound to notice a few imperfections to be cleaned up.  The selfie-obsessed also tend to compare their selfies with the countless other selfies that appear on social media feeds and find their looks wanting.

As one of the plastic surgeons quoted in the article linked above notes, that’s not healthy behavior.  It’s the kind of behavior that those of us who don’t take selfies, and indeed don’t particularly like to have their photos taken at all, just can’t understand.

But we’ll have to, because the selfie epidemic seems to be getting worse, not better.  Researchers estimate that 650 million selfies are posted every day on social media.  That’s a lot of potential plastic surgery.

Why Opposable Thumbs Exist

Why do opposable thumbs exist in humans and other primates?  Scientists generally agree that the appearance of the opposable thumb was a key evolutionary point in the development of our species.  It is what allowed primates to grip and climb and move into the trees, away from the realm of large predators looking for a meal.  Opposable thumbs also proved to be pretty handy from a toolmaking and tool using perspective, whether the tool was a stick to be manipulated or a rudimentary axe.

All of this is true,  Curiously, however, scientists haven’t fully explored whether the opposable thumb was developed in anticipation that modern humans who are too cheap to buy a nozzle for their garden hose might need the thumb to water their yard and plants on a beastly hot summer day.  Sure, the opposable thumb might not have been evolved specifically for watering and hose wielding, but it sure works well for that purpose — whether you want to generate a gentle sprinkle or a high velocity jet to reach the side of the yard beyond the length of the hose.

How do we know for sure that our distant ancestors weren’t big on watering?