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Sat, 24 Sep 2016
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From crows to elephants, species utilise DIY tools in every day life

© Getty
New Caledonian crows can fashion hooks out of wire to grab titbits
Man always likes to think he's a cut above the rest of the natural world.

And one of the ways he likes to set himself apart is by his use of tools. Now, on that yardstick I'm barely human.

I am to DIY what the New York Yankees are to football. But the rest of humankind is far from alone in being a dab hand with tools.

This week an endangered crow from sun-soaked Hawaii became the latest species to be proclaimed a tool-user. Nature magazine said the Alala was observed by St Andrews University researchers winkling tasty grubs out of dead wood with a twig held in its beak.

It is following in the footsteps of New Caledonian crows, which can fashion hooks out of wire to grab titbits.

A fascinating new book by ecologist Carl Safina says tool use is widespread. Birds do it, elephants do it, even educated gorillas do it.


Corruption of science: Mass production of redundant, misleading, and conflicted systematic reviews and meta-analyses

John P.A. Ioannidis
Well known Stanford University researcher John Ioannidis published a new paper this week criticizing the use and production of systematic reviews and meta-analyses, often considered the highest forms of research evidence. In the paper, "The Mass Production of Redundant, Misleading, and Conflicted Systematic Reviews and Meta-analyses," Ioannidis describes meta-analyses as being taken over by industry sponsors and concludes that an estimated 3% of all of these reviews may be useful.

In 1978, Hans Eysenck commented on the "mega-silliness" of using poorly designed research studies to study outcomes in psychotherapy. He quoted the well-known maxim from computer science - "garbage in-garbage out" to refer to the uncritical selection of disparate studies to produce reviews."A mass of reports - good, bad and indifferent - are fed into the computer in the hope that people will cease caring about the quality of the material on which the conclusions are based," wrote Eysenck.

The pitfalls of this practice are the subject of a new investigation by John Ioannidis, a Stanford University researcher well known for his critique of research methodologies summarized in his paper "Why Most Published Research Findings Are False." Focusing on biomedical research he writes, "Most topics addressed by meta- analyses of randomized trials have overlapping, redundant meta-analyses; same topic meta-analyses may exceed 20 sometimes. Some fields produce massive numbers of meta-analyses; for example, 185 meta-analyses of antidepressants for depression were published between 2007 and 2014. These meta-analyses are often produced either by industry employees or by authors with industry ties and results are aligned with sponsor interests."

Comment: More food for thought:

Christmas Tree

The secret life of trees: Thinking, caring and using the 'wood-wide web' to communicate

There's increasing evidence to show that trees are able to communicate with each other.
There's increasing evidence to show that trees are able to communicate with each other. More than that, trees can learn.

If that's true — and my experience as a forester convinces me it is — then they must be able to store and transmit information.

And scientists are beginning to ask: is it possible that trees possess intelligence, and memories, and emotions? So, to cut to the quick, do trees have brains?

It sounds incredible, but when you discover how trees talk to each other, feel pain, nurture each other, even care for their close relatives and organise themselves into communities, it's hard to be sceptical.

I didn't always feel this way. In fact, when I began as a civil servant with the German forestry commission in the Eighties, I knew next to nothing about the hidden life of trees.

Comment: See also:


China successfully deploys second space lab into low Earth orbit

© China Out / AFP
China has successfully launched the Tiangong-2 space laboratory into low orbit in the latest step of the country's cosmic ambitions to build a permanent modular space station. It may become humankind's only space hub after the ISS retires next decade.

China's Tiangong-2 space lab blasted off on the back of a Long March-2F T2 two-stage launch rocket at 10:04 pm Beijing Time from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest Gobi desert.

Tiangong-2 separated from the rocket that used four strap-on boosters during its first stage to reach the orbit 575 seconds after blast-off, mission control said declaring the mission a success.


Mystery of blood-red spot on Pluto's largest moon solved: Dark patch on Charon caused by trapped gas

The north pole of Pluto's largest moon Charon is covered by a large dark red stain (pictured) that has led to it being nicknamed Mordor after the evil land in JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Analysis of images of the area have revealed it may be caused by trapped methane gas.
Orbiting a frozen world in the darkest fringes of our solar system, the blood-coloured north pole of Pluto's largest moon Charon appears so foreboding that astronomers nicknamed it Mordor.

A study of images beamed back by Nasa's New Horizon's space probe may now have uncovered what causes the dark red patch that stains the top of the icy moon.

Named after the shadowy lands that were home to the evil Sauron in JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, it appears the area is being 'spray painted' with methane gas from Pluto that becomes trapped on its surface.


Solar storms could crash U.S. upper Midwest's power grid

© vichie81/iStockphoto
Solar storms not only cause auroras, but also electrical surges that can upset power grids.
When the lights go out, the cause is often regional: Ice storms in the northeastern United States or hurricanes in the southeast. Now, a new study shows that the upper Midwest can have its own special sort of grid-destroying storm—space weather. The study finds that this region is at greatest risk of damage from storms of charged particles from the sun, which crash into Earth and send electrical currents surging along power lines, melting transformers and triggering blackouts. According to the study, those surges could be up to 100 times more powerful in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin than in other parts of the United States.

Scientists have been trying to predict geoelectric storms for decades, but have been hampered by a lack of data. Now, researchers have created the first "geoelectric hazard" map for large parts of the continental United States. Rather than providing local recommendations for making a power grid safe or short-term warnings of big storms, this new map aims to predict where large geoelectric storms can be most severe. The map, published last week in Geophysical Review Letters, draws on data about the two biggest factors in the strength of these storms—the likely interactions of space weather with Earth's magnetic field and the conductivity of Earth's crust.


Scientists develop new 'mind reading' analysis that decodes emotion flickering across brain

© Philip Kragel, Kevin LaBar, Duke University
A Duke team has mapped the distinct patterns of brain activity that correspond to seven different emotional states. The brain anatomy presented here is an average of data from 32 study subjects.
New statistical analysis powers "mind reading" ability

As you relax and let your mind drift aimlessly, you might remember a pleasant vacation, an angry confrontation in traffic or maybe the loss of a loved one.

And now a team of researchers at Duke University say they can see those various emotional states flickering across the human brain.

"It's getting to be a bit like mind-reading," said Kevin LaBar, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke. "Earlier studies have shown that functional MRI can identify whether a person is thinking about a face or a house. Our study is the first to show that specific emotions like fear and anger can be decoded from these scans as well."

The data produced by a functional MRI hasn't changed, but the group is applying new multivariate statistics to the scans of brain activity to see different emotions as networks of activity distributed across areas of the conscious and unconscious brain.

These networks were first mapped by the team in a March 2015 paper in the journal Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. They identified seven different patterns of brain activity reflecting contentment, amusement, surprise, fear, anger, sadness and neutrality.

To build these maps, they had put 32 research subjects into the scanner and exposed them to two music clips and two film clips that had been shown to induce each of the seven emotions. The subjects also completed self-report questionnaires on their mood states for further validation.


Walmart patents a self-driving shopping cart

© U.S. Patent Office
The Roomba-like device, seen under the cart, would slide into position and pull the cart.
If it has wheels, there's a good chance someone, somewhere is going figuring out how to make it roll on its own.

Last week, for example, the United States government granted Walmart's patent request (thank you, Patent Yogi) for a system of self-driving shopping carts. Forget yanking carts from a train of clanking metal, or wheeling the things back to their corrals after your car is loaded.

The carts themselves won't change; instead, a fleet of Roomba-like transport units would slide under carts and ferry them through the store.

According to Walmart's patent request, customers will be able to summon one of these cart-pullers — each equipped with cameras and sensors — with their "user interface device", perhaps a smartphone app, and a motorized unit will attach to a cart parked in a docking station and pull it to the customer. Once customer and cart meet, the transport unit will serve as a personal store escort.


1bn stars mapped by 3D Gaia satellite

© ESA / Gaia / DPAC
The European Space Agency (ESA) has released the most detailed map of the Milky Way to date after cataloging the precise positions and brightness of more than 1.1 billion stars.TrendsViral

The 3D map released Wednesday, is based on observations from ESA's Gaia spacecraft, which was launched in 2013 with the express purpose of charting the most detailed map ever of the stars in our galaxy.


Eclipse of the harvest moon on 16th September

According to folklore, this Friday's full moon is the Harvest Moon--a bright orb that shines down on the ripening fields of the northern hemisphere, allowing farmers to harvest their crops late into the night. The Harvest Moon of Sept. 16th won't be as bright as usual, though. It's going to pass through Earth's shadow, producing a penumbral lunar eclipse.

© Shadow and Substance
This is a penumbral eclipse of the Moon that is centered south of India. For us in the United States, we will not see it. This eclipse is interesting, because it appears like a cloud is shading the northern portion of the Moon. If you were on the Moon, looking back towards Earth, the Sun would appear partially eclipsed. If you are in the eastern hemisphere, try looking for it. (Information derived from USNO.)
A penumbral eclipse happens when the Moon passes through the pale outskirts of Earth's shadow. It is much less dramatic than a total lunar eclipse. In fact, when observers are not alerted beforehand, they often do not realize an eclipse is underway. Nevertheless, the subtle shadow of Earth is visible to the naked eye if you know it's there.