Saturday, May 17, 2008

More Funny 'Fruit'

Several years ago I posted some 'Funny Fruit' creations. You can see those here and here. Although these aren't all get the idea.

You can click on the thumbnails to enlarge them.

Olympic Dream Stays Alive, on Synthetic Legs

Some of my own experiences competing in the Paralympics can be read here.

From the NY Times:

"May 17, 2008
Olympic Dream Stays Alive, on Synthetic Legs

When an international court ruled Friday that a double-amputee sprinter from South Africa was eligible to compete in this summer’s Olympic Games in Beijing, the stage was set for disabled athletes to meet their own trailblazer.

The watershed ruling made the runner, Oscar Pistorius, the first amputee to successfully challenge the notion that his carbon-fiber prosthetics gave him an unfair advantage and assured his right to race against able-bodied athletes in the Olympics, should he qualify. Previously barred from competing in such races by track and field’s world governing body, Pistorius will continue to stoke the debate over the competitive issues created by evolving technology in sports.

The ruling’s direct impact on disabled athletes could be limited, in part because Pistorius, 21, still must post a time fast enough to qualify for the Games. Yet his victory Friday in the Court of Arbitration for Sport sent a message that could long resonate among Paralympians.

“I am extremely shocked that the C.A.S. has made that decision,” said Marlon Shirley, a single amputee who holds world records in the 100 meters, the 200 meters and the long jump in his Paralympic class. “It’s a very brave decision and one that’s definitely going to revolutionize sports.”

Ann Cody, a seven-time Paralympic medalist for the United States in basketball and track and field who sits on the governing board of the International Paralympic Committee, added: “It sends a message. People with disabilities can see people like them compete, and they’ll connect. They’ll say, ‘Maybe I can do that, too.’ ”

In overturning a ban imposed by the International Association of Athletics Federations, track and field’s governing body, the court deemed that there was not enough evidence to prove that Pistorius’s flexible j-shaped blades, attached below his knees, gave him an advantage.

“It’s not just about me,” Pistorius said in a telephone interview from Milan. “It’s about the extra opportunity for amputee athletes.”

Pistorius must meet the qualifying standard of 45.55 seconds in the 400 meters to gain an automatic berth in Beijing (or 45.95 seconds for a provisional spot); his current personal best is 46.33, according to his coach, Ampie Louw. With 64 days left, he is in a race to race.

Several Paralympic athletes and officials said that the court’s ruling would probably not affect many athletes, at least immediately. A large portion of athletes in the Paralympic Games, which take place two weeks after the Olympics, compete in wheelchairs; those who do not rarely reach the elite levels that Pistorius has. And the wording of the ruling appeared to caution against extrapolation, clearly stating that it “has absolutely no application to any other athlete, or other type of prosthetic limb. Each case must be considered by the I.A.A.F. on its own merits.”

“I knew they would have to do it somehow to protect themselves,” said Brian Frasure, a single amputee who will try out for his fourth United States Paralympic team in June. Frasure also works for Ossur, the company that designed and manufactured the Cheetah Flex-Foot, the prosthetics that Pistorius and many other athletes use.

“In the world of prosthetics, with so many variables, they need a stipulation for down the road, when we come to the day and age when bionics come to the fore,” Frasure said. “If they say it’s O.K. for all amputees to compete in the Olympics, they would be setting themselves up for even more controversy, more than Oscar dealt with, in the future.”

The I.A.A.F. thought it had made that stipulation when it barred Pistorius in January, despite clearing him to compete with able-bodied athletes last spring; he ran at international meets in Rome and Sheffield, England.

Disabled athletes have competed in the Olympics before — for example, the American Marla Runyan, who is legally blind, made the final of the 1,500 meters at the 2000 Sydney Games. Natalie Du Toit, whose left leg was amputated above the knee seven years ago, will swim for South Africa in Beijing.

But very few have raised the issue of whether their disability, or their compensation for a disability, presents an advantage. One was Neroli Fairhall, a paraplegic archer from New Zealand, who competed in the 1984 Olympics while in her wheelchair; there was some question as to whether the chair provided her better stability than archers standing on legs, but she was allowed to compete.

Pistorius was born without the fibula in his lower legs and with defects in his feet, and his legs were amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old. He went on to set Paralympic world records in the 100, 200, and 400 meters, but did not draw attention until he started competing with able-bodied athletes in South Africa in 2004.

So last November, the track and field governing body’s cooperation with Pistorius was uncharted territory. The I.A.A.F. sponsored three days of testing on Pistorius, who gave his consent, in Cologne, Germany, under the supervision of Peter Brüggemann, a professor at the German Sport University.

Brüggemann found that the Cheetah prosthetics were more efficient than a human ankle. He also found that they could return energy in maximum speed sprinting and that Pistorius was able to keep up with a few able-bodied sprinters while expending about 25 percent less energy.

Pistorius’s lawyers, however, argued that the results of the study did not provide enough evidence to make a decision, and they lodged an appeal in February. Jeffrey Kessler, a lawyer with the New York-based firm Dewey & LeBoeuf, who agreed to take the case on a pro bono basis, led Pistorius’s defense.

“The I.A.A.F. had not at all followed proper procedures in conducting any of its review,” Kessler said. “Many of its results were in many respects pre-ordained.”

To test how much mechanical energy a runner uses, researchers study forces on the ankle, knee and hip joints. They do this with video cameras to record the joints’ motions and plates along the running path that record the force on the joints. When the athlete’s foot, or prosthesis, touches a plate, it measures the forces in three directions: up and down, right and left, and front and back.

The measurements, combined with oxygen consumption, are a reliable indicator of the runner’s economy — and whether the prosthetics are providing an advantage, said Roger Enoka, a biomechanics researcher at the University of Colorado.

The researchers who examined Pistorius were instructed to study only his performance while running on a straightaway — when he was at his fastest. That approach was deemed unfair by the court. In its published opinion, the court censured the I.A.A.F. for its handling of the case, saying that from the outset, it had its mind made up.

“The manner in which the I.A.A.F. handled the situation of Mr. Pistorius in the period from July 2007 to January 2008 fell short of the high standards that the international sporting community is entitled to expect from a federation such as the I.A.A.F.,” the panel said.

In a public statement, however, the I.A.A.F. did not address any of the hearing’s specifics.

“The I.A.A.F. accepts the decision of C.A.S. and Oscar will be welcomed wherever he competes this summer,” the I.A.A.F. president Lamine Diack said. “He is an inspirational man and we look forward to admiring his achievements in the future.”

But Pistorius is not convinced that his future includes the 2008 Olympics on top of his competing in the Paralympic Games. Over the last five months, the time spent preparing an appeal and a court case has eaten away at his time on the track.

“It’s going to be very hard for me to make the Olympics now,” he said. “Even if I don’t, I want to compete at the world championships and in London in 2012.”

The cutoff date for Olympic qualification is July 20, and between now and then he hopes to race in three or four able-bodied events as well as at least five competitions against amputees to build up to his top speed.

If Pistorius does qualify, the International Olympic Committee said it would welcome him. “Oscar Pistorius is a determined and gutsy athlete who will now no doubt put all his energy into reaching the qualification standards for the Olympic Games,” the I.O.C. said in a statement.

And with the court’s decision effective as soon as it was delivered, Pistorius said he would resume training immediately. But he added that training was the furthest thing from his mind as he sat in Dewey & LeBoeuf’s Milan office, waiting for a fax from the court. “We were trying not to expect anything so as not to be disappointed,” he said.

But when a lawyer read him the decision, five months after he thought the I.A.A.F. had shattered his dreams of running in the Olympics, he wept.

“Most people would have quit after the I.A.A.F. said no,” said Shirley, the single-amputee Paralympian. “He kept fighting through. He’s been doing things on prosthetics that people haven’t thought about.”

Gina Kolata contributed reporting."

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Ten Smartest Animals



humans have the ability to learn, to reason and solve problems. We're
self-aware, and we’re also conscious of the presence, thoughts and
feelings of others. We make tools and practice the art of deception.
We're creative. We think abstractly. We have language and use it to
express complex ideas. All of these are arguably signs of intelligence.
Scientists may not agree on the best and fullest definition of
intelligence – but they generally agree that humans are highly

Other members of the animal kingdom exhibit
signs of intelligence as well, and some scientists might say the
definition of animal vs. human intelligence is merely a matter of
degree – a point that was brought home in 2005 when the London Zoo put
“Homo sapiens” on display in the exhibit pictured here. Click the
"Next" arrow above to learn about nine other species that stand out for
their smarts.

Join the discussion on Newsvine: What distinguishes our intelligence from that of other animals?

-- John Roach, contributor

Chimps are almost like us
Tetsuro Matsuzawa / AP

Chimps are almost like us

we humans possess intelligence, chimpanzees must have some as well: Our
genomes are at least 98 percent identical. Chimps make and use tools,
hunt in organized groups and engage in acts of violence. Wild troops
have distinct behaviors and customs. Field observations and lab
experiments show chimps are capable of empathy, altruism and
self-awareness. In the experiment pictured here, chimps performed
better than humans on a number memory test.

Dolphins get creative
Janet Mann / Georgetown University

Dolphins get creative

dolphin in Australia uses a sponge to protect her snout when foraging
on the seafloor, a tool use behavior that is passed on from mother to
daughter. Scientists say that’s just one sign of dolphin smarts. Other
signs include distinct whistles and clicks that may serve as dolphin
names, perhaps used in a type of language. A famous 1960s experiment
found that a pair of dolphins entered a tizzy of creativity once they
figured out their novel behaviors were rewarded with fish. Frustrated
human test subjects just let out a sigh of relief when they caught on
to the idea.

Elephants exhibit self-awareness

Elephants exhibit self-awareness

sheer size of their brains suggests that elephants must know a thing or
two about the ways of the world. They have been seen consoling family
members, helping other species in times of need, playing in water and
communicating with one another via vibrations sensed in their feet. A
crowning achievement, some researchers say, was when this female Asian
elephant named Happy recognized herself in the mirror. The complex
behavior is shared only with humans, great apes and dolphins.

Cephalopods have big brains
Binyamin Hochner

Cephalopods have big brains

octopi, squids and cuttlefish smart? That’s a matter of scientific
intrigue, but such cephalopods are certainly among the brainiest
invertebrates in the sea. The cephalopod brain surrounds the esophagus,
but shares with the human brain features of complexity such as folded
lobes and distinct regions for processing visual and tactile
information. The how-smart debate swirls around deciphering
observations that the creatures have a seemingly irrepressible
curiosity, a disdain for boredom, an ability to learn and the capacity
to use tools. The octopus pictured here exerts precise muscle control
to eat.

Crows get crafty
Alex Kacelnik et al. / University of Oxford

Crows get crafty

are crafty critters: They fashion tools from twigs, feathers and other
bits of debris to snare food from hard-to-reach places. A crow named
Betty, pictured here, uses a straight wire she bent into a hook to
retrieve food from a tube. The birds are born with a tool-making ethic,
but they hone their craft by watching their elders, a sign of higher
intelligence. Ravens, a type of crow, have even been shown to
manipulate the outcomes of their social interactions for added
protection and more food.

Squirrels can be deceptive
Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images file

Squirrels can be deceptive

the squirrel pictured here plotting deception? Perhaps. Researchers
recently reported that the rodents put on elaborate shows of deceptive
caching to thwart would-be thieves. The behavior increased in a lab
experiment after squirrels observed humans stealing their peanuts. The
researchers called the finding a sign that squirrels can interpret
intentions of others, though it could just be a case of learned
behavior. Other studies have shown the critters make three-dimensional
maps to recall where they cache their nuts. And squirrels in California
will cover their fur in the scent of rattlesnakes to mask their own
scent from predators.

Man's best friend
University of Vienna

Man's best friend

dogs intelligent or just really good at basic obedience? They can learn
to sit, lie down and fetch, for example, but can they read their
owner's intentions? Research suggests they can at least find food in
response to non-verbal cues, a type of understanding that scientists
think may be akin to the human ability to understand someone else's
point of view. The dog in the experiment pictured here accurately
discriminated between photos of dogs and photos of landscapes – an
indication the dog was able to form the concept of "dog."

Cats are adaptable
Bob Pennell / AP

Cats are adaptable

dog owners, some cat owners have trained their pets to sit down, roll
over and jump through hoops. Cats learn the tricks by observation and
imitation, egged on with positive reinforcement. But training cats is
harder than dogs. Does that mean they are less intelligent? Not
necessarily. Cat experts say felines are just different. They are
solitary animals, motivated by the need to survive. This has allowed
them to adapt to a variety of domestic environments for at least 9,500
years – even the hoods of cars.

Pigs are wise � and clean
Paulo Whitaker / Reuters

Pigs are wise - and clean

the dirt on pigs: They are perhaps the smartest, cleanest domestic
animals known – more so than cats and dogs, according to some experts.
But pigs don't have sweat glands, so they roll around in the mud to
stay cool. A sign of their cleverness came from experiments in the
1990s. Pigs were trained to move a cursor on a video screen with their
snouts and used the cursor to distinguish between scribbles they knew
and those they were seeing for the first time. They learned the task as
quickly as chimpanzees.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Platypus Looks Strange on the Inside, Too

From the N.Y. Times:

May 8, 2008
Platypus Looks Strange on the Inside, Too

If it has a bill and webbed feet like a duck, lays eggs like a bird or a reptile but also produces milk and has a coat of fur like a mammal, what could the genetics of the duck-billed platypus possibly be like? Well, just as peculiar: an amalgam of genes reflecting significant branching and transitions in evolution.

An international scientific team, which announced the first decoding of the platypus genome on Wednesday, said the findings provided “many clues to the function and evolution of all mammalian genomes,” including that of humans, and should “inspire rapid advances in other investigations of mammalian biology and evolution.”

The research is described in Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature by a group of almost 100 scientists led by Wesley C. Warren, a geneticist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. The single subject of the study was a female platypus named Glennie, a resident of Glenrock Station in New South Wales, Australia, whose DNA was collected and analyzed.

The platypus, native to Australia, is so odd that when the first specimens were sent to Europe in the 19th century, scientists suspected a hoax. It was classified as a mammal, one of only two monotremes (echidna is the other) living today that are offshoots of the main mammalian lineage. The divergence occurred some 166 million years ago from primitive ancestors combining features of both mammals and reptiles.

“What is unique about the platypus is that it has retained a large overlap between two very different classifications, while later mammals lost the features of reptiles,” Dr. Warren said in an interview.

In their investigation of the platypus genetic blueprint, the scientists found that its genome contains about 18,500 genes, similar to other vertebrates and about two-thirds the size of the human genome. The platypus shares 82 percent of its genes with the human, mouse, dog, opossum and chicken. Some repeated elements in the genome, the scientists noted, hold hints as to the chronology of changes in the platypus.

Of particular interest, the researchers reported, the analysis identified families of genes that link the platypus to reptiles (like those for egg-laying, vision and venom production), as well as to mammals (antibacterial proteins and lactation). The platypus lacks nipples; the young nurse through the abdominal skin.

One surprise was finding genes responsible for sensitive odor receptors. As a primarily aquatic animal, the platypus was already known to rely on electrosensory receptors in its bill to detect faint electric fields emitted by underwater prey. So why the considerable ability to sense odors? The scientists speculate that it may involve sexual communication or the use of water-soluble odorants in navigating and hunting underwater.

Richard K. Wilson, director of the Genome Sequencing Center at Washington University, said that the comparison of the platypus genes with those of other mammals was the beginning of an examination of how “genes have been conserved throughout evolution.”

The project, involving scientists from eight countries, was primarily financed by the National Human Genome Research Institute in the United States. Its director, Francis S. Collins, said, “As weird as this animal looks, its genome sequence is priceless for understanding how mammalian biological processes evolved.”