- Garage Seismic Stations Provide High-Res Earthquake Data
- Freaked-Out Tweets After Earthquakes Help Scientists
- New Infared Telescope’s Awesome First Images
- Baby-by-Number: Parents’ New Obsession With Data
- Giant Panda Genome Reveals Why It Eats Shoots and Leaves
Posted: 14 Dec 2009 10:58 AM PST
SAN FRANCISCO — If you have the dubious distinction of living in an earthquake zone geologists want to study, your garage could become part of a new effort to detail how tremors move through urban areas.
NetQuakes, a project launched by the U.S. Geological Survey's James Luetgert, aims to create a denser network of seismic sensors in the Bay Area by putting a miniaturized geological station in private homes across the region.
The falling cost and size of electronics allowed Luetgert and his team to create a small $4,000 seismic station in a box that piggybacks on your Wi-Fi network to beam data back to the USGS. That's a third to a half less expensive than a standard unit and it can be installed in just a few hours.
"Yet it's producing research-quality data," Luetgert said here at the American Geophysical Union meeting Monday.
That's important for scientists who want to study the variation in ground motion between locations. Differences in soil and terrain can impact the way a quake's energy actually moves the ground. But in urban areas, it's hard to find space for the standard, bulky seismic station, so the sensor network is sparser than scientists might like. The traditional stations are also expensive. Given the relatively small budgets of the groups that do earthquake monitoring, Luetgert estimated that it would take "several decades" to reach "the desired level of monitoring" if the old-style seismic stations were used.
The new program could redraw the seismic map for urban areas. Sixty-eight garage stations have already been installed since the program began in March, and 90 more will be put in next year. Forty-two stations will also be installed in the Pacific Northwest. If you're interested in signing up, you can head to the NetQuakes site and see if a station is needed in your area.
The seismic-station-in-a-box consists of three accelerometers measuring motion along the three axes that store their data on a two-gigabyte flash drive. It's also got a 36-hour internal battery in case a nasty earthquake knocks out the grid.
Images: James Luetgert.
Physicsts Find Dark Matter, or Something Even Stranger
Posted: 14 Dec 2009 10:30 AM PST
SAN FRANCISCO — A team of U.S. Geological Survey scientists have developed a web service that combines seismic data about an earthquake with Tweets of surprise and angst from the popular microblogging service's users.
The goal of the project is to improve emergency response by providing a crowdsourced window of the conditions on the ground immediately following a quake.
"Why would such a system work?" asked Paul Earle, a geologist at the USGS, at the American Geophysical Union fall meeting Monday. "Because people like to tweet after an earthquake."
It turns out that the "Earthquake! Earthquake!" SOS that you tweet, aggregated with thousands of others, provides an excellent indication of the strength and severity of a quake. A little rumbler yields just a small spike, while a strong quake produces a huge spike in Twitter activity, as seen in the graph above.
Right now, the system is designed to automatically harvest tweets, so they can be e-mailed to would-be responders with traditional earthquake measures and plotted in Google maps. All the OMGs and BFDs can provide some qualitative color about what's happened on the ground.
"We've developed a prototype system that integrates Twitter messages with our standard earthquake alerts," Earle summarized.
It's one of a variety of ways that some scientists are trying to use the crowd and the cloud to augment the professional tools they already have. It's already been suggested that some laptops with accelerometers built-in may be useful as earthquake detectors. Researchers in other disciplines, like bird-tracking, have also had success using citizen scientists. In a separate session at the AGU fall meeting, another scientist described a garage seismic station that has begun to make its way into homes around the Bay Area.
The challenge presented by data gathered outside the traditional channels is that it's noisy. What the scientists gain in breadth is partially canceled out by the lack of control they have over the incoming information. After all, Quake is also a popular videogame and Dairy Queen serves up a "brownie earthquake," and both are likely to find their way into tweets.
"We've been developing filtering techniques that allow us to tell the difference between an actual earthquake and a group of people who just finished playing a videogame and got the munchies," Earle said.
Eventually, Earle and his software engineer, Michelle Guy, would like to use geolocated tweets to rough out a "felt range" for earthquakes, but it's not as easy as it looks. Only half of Twitter users even give a basic location like "San Francisco" and just a few percent of earthquake tweets come from GPS-enabled devices, which allow for precise measurements, Guy said.
It also stands to reason that USGSted, as the program is known on Twitter, won't be of much help in any earthquake strong enough to knock out telecommunications systems.
Where Guy and Earle say their service may be most useful is in the window of time between when an earthquake happens and when the USGS data starts to pour in. That time period can be anything from two to 20 minutes, and during that time, all those tweets are much better than nothing, if far from perfect.
Image: Paul Earle
Physicsts Find Dark Matter, or Something Even Stranger
Posted: 14 Dec 2009 03:00 AM PST
Thick clouds of dust usually obscure the Flame Nebula in visible light, but a brand new infrared telescope saw right through to capture this spectacular image.
VISTA is the latest telescope to come online at the European Southern Observatory's outpost in the Chilean desert. It isthe largestsky-mapping survey telescope and is perched on a peak next to the Very Large Telescope. It hasa 13.5-foot mirror and a three-ton, 67-megapixel camera.The result is asensitivity 40 times greater than previous infrared surveyors, which will provide a whole new look at the southern sky as these firstVISTA images released to the publicshow.
The Flame Nebula, pictured above, is a cloud of ionized gas located around 1,000 light-years away in the Orion constellation. Below, around one million stars are pictured in the constellation Sagittarius, also known as the Archer, deep in the dense core of the Milky Way. The view is much different than a visible-light telescope would offer.Below that, the Fornax Galaxy Cluster.
Posted: 13 Dec 2009 09:00 PM PST
Allen Fawcett admits he and his wife are mildly addicted to keeping track of their babies' schedules. The pair of economists have been recording every diaper, feeding and nap since they became parents.
With the help of the Trixie Tracker website, they know they've changed exactly 7,367 diapers for their three-year-old son and 969 for their three-month-old daughter. They also have a graph of precisely how many minutes each of their children slept on nearly every day since birth. During their daughter's first month, the data shows she averaged 15 hours of sleep a day, which is two hours more than her brother at the same age and well above average for other Trixie Tracker babies.
"People look at us and say, 'My goodness, how do you spend so much time on this?'" Fawcett said. "But each record takes just a few iPhone clicks, so it's really not as time-consuming as it looks."
The Fawcett family may take baby tracking to the extreme, but they're certainly not the only parents who are measuring, recording and comparing minute details of their kids' lives. While parents are driven by concern for the children's well-being, some child-development experts are concerned about the increasing emphasis on data.
Fifteen years ago, tracking your baby's development meant going to the pediatrician every few months and recording his growth on a simple height and weight chart. Today, baby tracking is a booming business. In addition to websites that let you track your infant's schedule, there are iPhone apps that translate and record your baby's cries, wearable devices that keep track of how much you talk to your child, and even electronic toys that record how your child plays with them, so you can compare his progress to developmental norms.
As a soon-to-be mom expecting my first child in less than a month, I sympathize with the desire to keep close tabs on a baby. Almost the instant a second line appeared on my pregnancy pee stick, I found myself seized by a strong desire to make sure my baby was developing normally.
I managed to refrain from buying a home Doppler device to monitor my kid's heartbeat, and I skipped the special Kickbee belt that detects fetal kicks and tweets every time baby wiggles in the womb. But once my first son makes his appearance, I know I'll be tempted to try some of the infant-tracking technology. Who wouldn't want more ways to record their child's health and well-being?
According to pediatricians and child development experts, however, this new obsession with quantifying our kids has a potential downside, especially when parents cross the line from merely tracking an infant's schedule to obsessing over developmental milestones and worrying about how baby measures up to her peers.
"As a pediatrician and researcher, I applaud anything that gets parents more interested in their child's development," said Dimitri Christakis of the University of Washington, who studies the impact of technology on early childhood. "But I would hate to find out that a parent is spending an hour a day entering data on their child's development, especially if that hour of data entry comes at the expense of spending an hour with your kid, or an hour somehow recharging your battery so you're better able to engage with them in the future."
Christakis recognizes that tracking certain aspects of infant development can be incredibly helpful. For instance, parents who use Trixie Tracker say having all the data is a life-saver when you're trying to understand why your baby is awake all night for the fourth time in a row, or suddenly develops a rash after trying a new food.
Data-loving parents like Fawcett say tracking is also just plain fun: For instance, in the time-lapse video below, you can see Fawcett's graph of his son's sleep patterns from age zero to one, where a blue bar means sleeping and yellow means awake. He loves that the data "neatly shows how we emerged from that tunnel of sleep deprivation, how the chaos of newborn sleep patterns blossomed into this nicely ordered set of days and nights."
But as we keep track of more and more statistics on our kids, and spend more time comparing our offspring's numbers to the national averages, some experts fear we're becoming a generation of neurotic parents, obsessed with making sure our children are at the top of the pack.
Preoccupied with percentages
DIY Autism Screening
Some baby-tracking products do more than track kids' schedules or how they play with toys: One new device assesses language ability and calculates risk of autism and developmental delay.
The digital recorder was developed by the nonprofit LENA Foundation as an autism research tool. Now, for about $200, parents can buy their own LENA Language and Autism Screen.
After recording at least 12 hours of speech, parents mail the device and some questionnaires about their kid's behavior to LENA, and get a full report back of their child's language ability, including an autism risk score and a calculation of developmental age.
"A lot of times parents may suspect something is wrong," said LENA spokeswoman Mia Moe. "But there aren't a lot of great automatic screening tools that they have access to."
Parents can bring up concerns at their child's yearly checkup, Moe says, but 15 minutes with a pediatrician is often inadequate to diagnose a problem or get a referral to a specialist.
"A lot of times they say, 'Let's just wait and see,' and then children end up getting these diagnoses at age 5 or even later," Moe said. But early intervention programs can be very effective, so it makes sense for parents to want to detect problems early.
But not everyone thinks home screening is the answer. Although devices like LENA can be very useful for research or professional assessment, marketing the tools to parents isn't appropriate, says University of Rochester developmental psychologist Lucia French.
"Certainly, keep an eye on your kid and make sure they're doing better in everything today than they were yesterday," French said. "But to do a formal screening and then worry that your child isn't quite normal yet, that's going way too far for parents' knowledge level."
"I've seen this developing over the last decade or so," said developmental psychologist Lucia French, who studies language and cognitive development at the University of Rochester. "Parents have more information available, but they don't always know how to use that information."
For instance, French said, there's a huge amount of data on the internet about normal developmental milestones — when most kids start to crawl, say their first word, or learn the alphabet — but such information often lacks the disclaimer that 50 percent of children will fall either above or below the average range.
The same goes for products like LENA Home, a digital recording device that tracks how often parents talk to their children, and how often their kids talk back. Parents get a graph of the number of "conversational turns" they have with their kids throughout the day, and they can compare their performance with that of other users across the country.
"Not everybody can be average," French said. "If you have everyone average or above average, who's going to be in the below average range? Mathematically, it doesn't work. And there's no point either, because everyone gets to walk and everyone learns to talk, so if they do it one or two months earlier or later, it really doesn't matter."
That's not the message most parents get from the media or marketplace, however. In the past decade, there has been an explosion of digital toys, movies and computer programs marketed for the two-and-under crowd, and many of these new products claim to enhance your baby's development or help teach critical skills.
Christakis calls the new industry the "build-a-brainier-baby enterprise," and he says it has resulted in a national neurosis around how to make sure your child is as smart as he or she can possibly be.
"The truth is that those of us who are interested in early childhood are somewhat to blame for this," Christakis said. "We've succeeded over the last 10 to 15 years in convincing people that the early years are critical to long-term brain development. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to us, what that's done is created a marketing juggernaut preying on parent's vulnerabilities and concerns."
Toys that teach — and track
In addition to targeting specific skills, the latest electronic toys also record how children are playing with them, so that mom and dad can hook the toys up to the computer using a USB connection and see what Junior has been doing all day.
Last month, I visited the Emeryville, California, headquarters of LeapFrog Enterprises, one of the most popular brands of kid-friendly technology and the leading manufacturer of the new kid-tracking toys. Although most of LeapFrog's USB-connected products are designed for children three and older, their free program for tracking child development, called the Learning Path, begins at birth.
Parents who sign up for the Learning Path receive regular e-mails about their child's developmental milestones, along with tips and activities to help enhance learning at each stage. Of course, the program also suggests LeapFrog products that parents can buy to help their babies master new skills.
A talking stuffed dog named Scout or Violet (pictured at the top of the page) is supposed to teach first words and early number sense, while a set of electronic maracas are designed to help babies explore colors, music and even Spanish vocabulary. For kids two and older, LeapFrog offers a digital book reader called Tag Junior, which reads aloud or asks questions when a child points the device at text and pictures in a book. The system also tracks how long a child spends on each page, so parents know what skills or activities their toddler is focusing on.
"If you have Tag Junior, we can tell you that this is the page that your child enjoyed the most," said Jeff Grant, vice president of web products at LeapFrog. "When you get into the older products like Leapster and Tag, which both start at age four, that's when we'll start telling you which questions they're getting right or wrong."
The products are designed to encourage specific skills and track a child's progress, but the Learning Path team actually cautions that focusing too much on a kid's performance isn't a good idea.
"Even though we'll tell you the correct answer percentage, we have some information there that says there are lots of reasons why kids will get the wrong answer," said Tina O'Shea, senior producer on the Learning Path team. "It can be because they think it's hilarious, or because they've reached the top level of the game and now they just want to get everything wrong to see what happens."
But despite the disclaimer, some over-eager parents are bound to obsess about how well their child is doing compared to other kids or their grade level, and that's one of the reasons many experts are hesitant about kid-tracking toys.
"Anything that gives you a number, you need to realize it's about what the number represents," said pediatrician Gwenn O'Keeffe, a member of the Council on Communications and Media at the American Association of Pediatrics. She says focusing too much on a specific number — whether it's how many hours a baby sleeps through the night, or the percentage that a toddler scores on a computer game — can make parents forget that the real focus should be on their child.
"It's like when a child has a fever," O'Keeffe said. "I really don't care how high the fever is. What I care about is how does your child look? Are they zipping around the house with a 104-degree fever, or are they lying limp on the couch?"
Similarly, to assess a child's development, O'Keeffe says parents don't need to rely on digital toys or tracking programs. They just need to look at their kid, trust their instincts and consult an expert if they're concerned.
In praise of blocks and crayons
In addition to encouraging parents to obsess over numbers and percentiles, it turns out that not all of the so-called "educational" products actually enhance cognitive development. For example, although "Baby Einstein" clearly sounds like a product that will make your child smarter, there's no data to suggest that babies learn anything from watching Baby Einstein videos. Even worse, recent research has shown that infant television programs may actually stunt language acquisition rather than support it.
"What's fundamentally lacking here, quite honestly, are standards and enforcement about what constitutes educational toys," Christakis said. Companies can label their products 'educational' without doing any research on the toys' effectiveness, he said, as long as they don't explicitly state that the toys have been proven to teach a particular skill.
Parents often miss this subtle nuance, however, and some are quite angry about the false advertising. In fact, to avoid a class action lawsuit claiming "unfair and deceptive marketing practices," Disney now offers a full refund on any of their Baby Einstein DVDs purchased between June 5, 2004 and September 4, 2009.
"The names and the marketing have successfully convinced parents that this is actually really good for their children," Christakis said. "Parents often ask me, 'Well if my child doesn't watch Baby Einstein, are they somehow losing out? Are other children at a competitive advantage because they're getting this high-tech intellectual stimulation?'"
According to Christakis, the opposite is actually true. "You're giving your child a leg up if you spend more time with them, read to them more, sing to them more, play with them more," he said, "not if you park them in front of a DVD or an iPhone app."
Even the folks at LeapFrog caution that electronic toys shouldn't replace the tried-and-true childhood staples of previous generations. Plain old wooden blocks can be an incredibly valuable learning tool, says Jim Gray, a former child development researcher who now heads the learning team at LeapFrog.
"I would recommend that parents have a healthy toybox," Gray said, "with a variety of types of toys. Electronic toys are one type, wooden blocks are one type, rubber balls are another type. Dress-up toys, even a piece of paper and crayons are wonderful as a learning environment."
Perhaps parents would do well applying this idea of a healthy toybox across all of the baby tracking technologies. In the end, most of the experts I talked with concluded that it's all about balance. While there's nothing wrong with data-loving parents tracking their baby's schedule for the fun of it, at the end of the day there's no reason to obsess about the numbers.
"Kids have been raised by parents without tools like this for generations," O'Keeffe said. "What parents need is a good inoculation of common sense and some self-esteem, to realize that they can do this without a tool. Just because we have computers and hand-held devices, doesn't mean we need a tracking device. What we need to do is look at our kids and realize they're developing just fine."
Images: 1) LeapFrog's Violet tracking toy with 6-month-old June./Jim Merithew/Wired.com. 2) Courtesy of Mia Moe/LENA Baby. 3) Watching Baby Mozart from Disney's Baby Einstein series./ FLickr/texasgurl. 4) 2-year-old Ella with LeapFrog's Tag./Betsy Mason/Wired.com
Video: Allen Fawcett and Michael Lennon
Disclosure: Wired Science editor, Betsy Mason's sister works in LeapFrog'sfinance division.
Posted: 13 Dec 2009 02:05 PM PST
What's black and white and read all over? The giant panda genome. All 2.4 billion DNA base pairs of a 3-year-old female panda named Jingjing have been cataloged, researchers report online Dec. 13 in Nature. The information will help researchers understand panda traits such as finicky diets. A thorough understanding of panda genetics may aid conservation efforts for the endangered bear.
An international consortium led by scientists in China found that the panda genome is smaller than the human genome, which comprises about 3 billion base pairs. Despite the difference in total size, the panda genome contains an estimated 21,000 genes that encode proteins, a number similar to that of humans.
Surprisingly, the panda genome turned up no signs of inbreeding. Jingjing's two copies of DNA in each of her cells differed in many places, demonstrating a surprisingly high rate of heterozygosity. That finding suggests that the decline of the panda population has not been caused by inbreeding, says study coauthor Jun Wang of BGI-Shenzhen in China and the University of Copenhagen. Jingjing, named for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games mascot, has a mixed genetic heritage from two regions of wild giant pandas in China, so her genome may be more diverse than that of other pandas, Wang notes.
Although the team found high diversity between the two copies of Jingjing's DNA, other genetic studies indicate that pandas' genetic makeup changes less from generation to generation than that of humans and other mammals, rendering the rate of evolution slower. This slow rate of evolution is consistent with the notion that the panda is a "living fossil," says Wang.
The panda genome gives clues to understanding the panda's strict bamboo diet. It turns out that pandas have mutations in two copies of a taste gene called T1R1, which encodes a protein that senses the savory taste of meats, cheeses, broths and other high-protein foods. These mutations may have robbed pandas of the ability to taste meat, pushing them toward their bamboo diet, the researchers suggest.
Pandas possess all the requisite genes for digesting meat, but none of the genes required for digesting bamboo, Wang and colleagues found. The researchers guess that pandas rely entirely on communities of gut microbes for extracting nutrients from bamboo.
Microbiome expert Julie Segre of the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Md., calls the result fascinating and says that it "underscores the concept that the panda — and similarly the human — genetic landscape is truly made up of their own organismal and microbial genomes."
Images: Zhihe Zhang
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