Effects of Learning and Lack of Sleep on the Brain

New research confirms something that many probably already knew: Learning new things helps to ‘rejuvenate’ the brain while lack of sleep undoes that effect.

I can definitely attest to the sleep deprivation part. There have been a few really long plane flights (New Zealand, South Africa, Thailand) combined with time zone shifts and minimal sleep that have left me struggling to do simple things like calculating the gratuity to add to a bill or to maintain any sense of direction once we are on the ground. A good nights sleep does quite a bit toward addressing this.

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Websites in a Blink

I really enjoyed Malcom Gladwell’s book Blink and noticed that a recent article in Nature provides further evidence that all it takes is a ‘blink’ to decide if a web site is worthy of attention or not.

Lindgaard and her team presented volunteers with the briefest glimpses of web pages previously rated as being either easy on the eye or particularly jarring, and asked them to rate the websites on a sliding scale of visual appeal. Even though the images flashed up for just 50 milliseconds, roughly the duration of a single frame of standard television footage, their verdicts tallied well with judgements made after a longer period of scrutiny.

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High Tech Road Reflectors

Mavromatic has an article about a company that has created road reflectors that are capable of measuring a vehicles speed and using a built in camera, capture the license plate number (and presumably issue you a ticket).

I just wonder how well these things would do in a climate that regularly requires snow removal (and potentially inadvertent camera/detector removal).

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Running In the Rain

The BBC have an interesting article titled “Do you get less wet if you run in the rain?“. The article delves into the ‘serious’ mathematics and physics to consider in answering the question. I won’t spoil the conclusion — read the article.

However, I did appreciate one of the post comments which reminded me of my Intelligence and Effectiveness rant from the other day:

Alternatively, ignore the maths and get an umbrella.

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iPod Dangerous To Your Health

The Guardian note that Doctors issue warning on iPod finger, the latest hi-tech ailment. Not surprisingly, you can develop a repetative stress injury from most anything, including your favorite MP3 player, the Apple iPod.

“Handheld music machines are extremely popular and users are constantly using small, difficult buttons with the same finger in a repetitive motion,” said Carl Irwin from the British Chiropractic Association. “The nature of modern technology means that these devices are only going to be getting smaller, and I would not be surprised if hand and finger related injuries become one of the most common repetitive strain injuries that chiropractors treat.”

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World Usability Day

Visit the World Usability Day site and take in the world-wide activities that are happening today. This one sounded entertaining (in Auckland, New Zealand)

A hiliarious remote control shootout! Eight attendees vied for the title of “Owner of the most unusable remote control”.

The winner wasn’t actually the most number of buttons, or the least amount of buttons actually used – but the one that managed to switch off all the electrical equipment in the room through the accidental push of a random button!

Another good resource is Jakob Nielson’s site useit that focuses primarily on web usability. The remarkable thing about this site is that inspite of the fact that web development has been going on for around 10 years, the same mistakes keep getting made over and over again.

If today’s activities inspire you, you might consider joining the Usability Professionals Association.

Shameless — Disaster Profiteering Act

In light of all of the other questionable activities post-Katrina, this is absolutely reprehensible (emphasis below added):

Project on Government Oversight – Big federal contractors have scored a major victory with yesterday’s news that House Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis (R-VA) and Representative Kenny Marchant (R-TX) introduced legislation that will waive meaningful taxpayer protections and competition in contracting whenever Congress or the President declares a national emergency or there is a disaster. It is rumored that the legislation will be included in a manager’s amendment to the next Katrina relief bill. Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has donned the legislation (H.R. 3766) the “Disaster Profiteering Act.”

The Davis legislation would allow agency heads across the federal government to treat all purchases related to national emergencies as “commercial items,” meaning that contracts can be made under a no-bid process and that the government would not have the authority to audit purchases after they have been made. A second, unrelated provision deals with Katrina volunteers.

via Agonist

The only hope is that this ‘proposed’ legislation won’t actually pass.

Using ‘War’ to Sell More Arms To The World

Apparently the US and Britain are taking some flack for staging a huge arms exhibition in London and using the Iraq war as a sales point:

The spokesman said the invasion and occupation of Iraq had been “good news” for the major arms companies.

“It has allowed them to label their arms as battle-tested and provided them with promotional material for their missiles, bombs, fighter aircraft, artillery, tanks and armoured vehicles.

“They will be marketing their weapons to countries with the full support of the UK Government and the perverse promotional assistance provided by Iraq.”

I suppose there is nothing to keep this sort of thing from happening, but it does have that sort of perverse quality to it as if Louisville Slugger said ‘look at how well our baseball bats cracked skulls at the last riot’.

Not surprisingly, these same activities went on during previous hostilities in the Middle East.

More Katrina (Less Angry)

This article which appeared in National Geographic in October of 2004 raises some interesting questions for the ‘we couldn’t have known this was going to happen’ apologists that I pointed out in a previous posting. This quote from the article was particularly striking:

“The Federal Emergency Management Agency lists a hurricane strike on New Orleans as one of the most dire threats to the nation, up there with a large earthquake in California or a terrorist attack on New York City.”

I am glad that Colin Powell is out of office and can speak his mind about Katrina and it’s aftermath as well.

This is a pretty amazing slide show of the before, during and after of a photographer who was in New Orleans the entire time of the storm.

Katrina Aftermath Anger

After a week of listening to the coverage of Katrina (and the aftermath) there are some things that I just need to get off my chest:

As bad as it is, stop calling it ‘our tsunami’. There is a big difference between something that happen with little or no warning and something that happened with several days warning that some people either didn’t react to or couldn’t react to. Why does there have to be competition over whose natural disaster was worse? They are all horrible and provide an opportunity to see the best (and worst) in people.

In New Orleans, the situation rapidly turned into a Y2K-esque worst case scenario: no power, no water, no communications, armed mobs looting and pillaging with the government unable to respond. Except in this real life scenario, this was not the result of some errant computer software. This was a fatal combination of natural disaster and the worst side of humankind.

Before Katrina hit, it seems that there were those who couldn’t move because they didn’t have cars or some other means of getting around or out of the city because they are poor. This might have something to do with the fact that the poverty rate in the US has grown to 12.5% under the current administration. Apparently the poor are good enough to fight wars, but not worth rescuing or looking out for properly — sickening.

Another point that I am struggling with regarding the slow federal response is ‘because it is a very complicated situation that no one could have foreseen’. Then how do we account for the Hurricane Pam simulations that showed almost exactly what was going to happen? You might ask yourself how can the international press get camera crews, helicopters, ground transport, etc to freely go in to areas to broadcast (some might say, exploit) those impacted by this disaster, but the government doesn’t seem to be as resourceful. Nor does it seem that the press has enough integrity to try to bring in whatever aid they can while covering the events.

The National Guard, who typically play a crucial role in providing swift and effective assistance during natural disasters are hobbled by the fact that 40% of Mississippi’s and 35% of Louisiana’s National Guard are in Iraq.

This event seems to me to be an example of the current administrations domestic policy writ large: if you have money, you’re ok, you can evacuate (you can basically do whatever you want); if you don’t, then they really don’t give a damn about what happens to you. So you have a situation were the administration cut funding for levee enhancements/maintenance because of ‘the war’, but then turned around and provided a 31 billion USD handout to oil companies that are already making multi-billion dollar profits quarterly. Then you have gun toating idiots wrecking havoc, because we need more guns in this country, right NRA? I can already hear their twisted response, ‘well, if everyone had a gun, they could defend themselves against the bandits’ Right, we all know that the solution to cleaning up an oil slick is to pour more oil on it…

Thankfully, the situation seems to be improving. I just hope that this country learns a lesson from this disaster and is able to grow in a more positive direction.

One final note: it seems ironic to me that the Administration has been on TV and radio telling those who have Labor Day plans (which in the US is ‘a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.’) to stay home, and not have any inessential travel.