Posts filed under ‘News’

Door #9: The Parasite Behind Crazy Cat Ladies?

Filled with reports of off-beat research (or off-beat implications of otherwise garden-variety research), the annual “Year in Ideas” issue of the New York Times Sunday Magazine has become a highlight of my December.

This year’s most amusing item:  Rebecca Skloot’s piece on a possible biological explanation for why “some humans develop an unhealthful attraction to cats and apparently become immune to the smell of their urine.”

Just the first paragraph had me and my housemate in stitches:

Here’s a little-known and slightly terrifying fact: According to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 60 million people in the United States are infected with a parasite that may migrate into their brains and alter their behavior in a way that — among other things — may leave them more likely to be eaten by cats. New research into this common parasite — Toxoplasma gondii — may offer clues to the phenomenon known to the unscientifically-minded as “crazy cat lady” syndrome.

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9 December 2007 at 0:56 Leave a comment

Who Says Scientists Aren’t Funny?

I stopped by the RCSB Protein Data Bank only to find out that the Molecule of the Month was anabolic steroids.

29 August 2007 at 21:38 Leave a comment

Best. Caption. Ever.

Or at least the best photo caption I’ve read in a while.

Mike Turner sprayed herbicide recently on the weed Salvinia molesta on Caddo Lake near Uncertain, Tex. The weed suffocates all life beneath it.

I don’t know which part I enjoy most: the botanical name of the plant (Salvinia molesta), the location (Uncertain, Texas) or the whole suffocating all life thing.

Via a New York Times article about an invasive plant that’s threatening to take over the only natural (i.e., non-human-made) lake in Texas.

30 July 2007 at 20:36 2 comments

Where Do I Sign Up For This Job?

This past weekend, John Tierny from the New York Times blogged about Jaak Panskepp, a Washington State University scientist who’s studied the chirping sounds rats make when they play to see if these sounds are equivalent to human laughter.

Best quote from Panskepp: “Then one day we decided to tickle some animals.”

To get the full effect you really need to watch the video of Panskepp tickling some rats. Their ultrasonic vocalizations are amplified by a device called a bat detector so you can hear the chirping. The ticklish rodents cheered me up so much, I’ve watched the clip three times already.

At first I wondered if the rats were really trying to communicate something more along the lines of “get away from me you big, hairless hand,” but Panskepp found that they will run mazes or perform other tasks in order to get tickled. They also seek out the company of other chirping rats, and the rats in the video chase Panskepp’s hand around the cage for more tickling.

I don’t think this is enough evidence to definitively equate chirping and laughter, but it does seem like the rats are enjoying themselves and that their sounds express that enjoyment.

Incidentally, Panskepp has what may be the best academic title I’ve heard: Baily Endowed Chair of Animal Well-Being Science.

20 March 2007 at 17:53 2 comments

Signs of Hope

After a slew of news stories about U.S. states and counties attempting to declare English the one official language within their borders, it was a heartening to read this item from the New Zealand Herald.

The New Zealand government recently voted to add New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) to the country’s list of official languages, along with English and Maori, entitling NZSL speakers to interpreter service in all legal proceedings. They’ve also begun creating teaching materials so that middle and high school students will be able to study NZSL as a second language in public schools.

15 March 2007 at 22:46 Leave a comment

Attack of the Language Cranks

If you follow Language Log at all (and I do), you know that there’s no shortage of language mavens ready to jump on the least usage offense as evidence that the English language is going to hell, with or without handbasket.

Just yesterday, Geoff Pullum posted about software designed to identify all the adverbs in your browser window, presumably so you can go back and strip them from your prose. My favorite bit of Pullum’s post:

Strunk and White were a pair of hypocritical old grousers whose inaccurate grammar and usage edicts dated not from the last century but the one before that. Yet people not only treat them as if their words came from God and had been chiseled into granite slabs during an encounter up a mountain; they also fail to read those words to see if the old fools practice what they preach. Of course they don’t.

(Note that Pullum’s writing doesn’t seem to suffer in the slightest, despite his disdain for the self-styled usage police.)

On some level, I know that it’s not just Anglophones who are obsessed with saving their language from its speakers. Sitting on the shelf alongside my bed is a copy of linguist Fredrik Lindström’s Världens Dåligaste Språk (World’s Baddest Language), which is essentially an extended rebuttal to all the Swedes who think that the standards for Swedish are sinking ever lower and that, by the way, it’s World’s Worst Language, thank you very much.

So I don’t know why I was so surprised this morning when I stumbled on a review (from the Indian newspaper The Hindu) of a new usage manual for Telegu Telugu speakers. All the familiar prescriptivist gripes are present: standards in schools and textbooks are slipping, the media compounds the problem, etc.

6 March 2007 at 23:31 4 comments

Unlawful Accommodation of Donkeys Act 1837

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this Irish newspaper article my sister sent me. Since I’m too flabbergasted to paraphrase, here’s the opening sentence:

A man who was found dressed in latex and handcuffs brought a donkey to his room in a Galway city centre hotel, because he was advised “to get out and meet people,” the local court heard last week.

The alleged perpetrator was charged with, among other things, cruelty to animals, lewd behavior and violation of the above-mentioned Unlawful Accommodation of Donkeys Act.

I can’t help remembering an incident that happened when I was in college. One of the fraternities was brought up on disciplinary charges after a particularly raucous party. The friend from whom I heard the story never knew what actually happened, just that the frat members’ punishment included attending sensitivity training workshops run by the Women’s Center and the ASPCA.

2 March 2007 at 0:02 1 comment

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