Archive | December 2013

Merry Christmas!

XmasTree2013Forget the annoying ads and the holiday songs that have been blaring in malls since October. The best thing about Christmas is being together with my husband and having our whole family home for the holiday week. As far as we’re concerned, that’s the best Christmas gift of all.

Of course, science hasn’t stood still while I’ve been running around buying gifts, cleaning house, and meeting client deadlines. Here are a few of this year’s Christmas science scoops, courtesy of AlphaGalileo:

New flash! The bulk of holiday preparation work falls on Mom. So says a new study from Kristine Warhuus Smeby at Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Smeby’s study falls into the category of what I call “Duh! Science.” As in: “Really? Tell me something I didn’t know!”

Gender inequality is one of those unfortunate facts of life where studies say that women still do more double duty than men. However, Smeby says, the differences are most pronounced at Christmas. Having done the bulk of holiday gift shopping and wrapping, hours of cleaning, and wrangling a live Christmas tree to put up by myself, I totally get the point. But there’s something reassuring about Smeby’s sociology dissertation that makes me feel justified in saying, “Okay, someone else handle the main dish for Christmas day. I’m exhausted!”

Another “Duh! Science” study comes from Esther Martinez at Rey Juan Carlos University and other researchers in Spain. Did you know that toy ads still send sexist messages to boys and girls? Strength and spatial skills figure prominently in toy ads for boys. Toy ads targeted at girls stress beauty and education. Again, the conclusion isn’t a surprise. Nonetheless, it helps to have some statistics to back up one’s gut feeling.

A more startling study from Spain finds that half the National Lottery’s sales in that country come from the Christmas lottery. It’s not clear from the study why this is so. Nonetheless, the National Lottery moves around 3 percent of the country’s Gross National Product and employs almost 80,000 people. On a national scale, that “cannot be irrelevant,” says sociology professor Gómez Yañez at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid.

Last but not least, don’t worry whether present-day light pollution would have kept the Wise Men from finding their way to Bethlehem. Research from Germany based on the “Loss of the Night” app shows that even in bright urban skies, some stars are still bright enough for people to see—and presumably be guided by.

Of course, the original Star of Bethlehem wasn’t just about astronomy. It was about faith and hope and the search for salvation. Here’s hoping that wherever we live, we don’t lose sight of the true meaning of the holiday season.

Merry Christmas to all. And to all, a good night!

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Here, Kitty, Kitty!

Scientists believe the Near Eastern Wildcat is the ancestor of modern domestic cats.  Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Scientists believe the Near Eastern Wildcat is the ancestor of modern domestic cats.
Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Ever wonder how long people have been calling “Here, Kitty, Kitty!” And do you think those early cats came running any faster or slower than your own cuddly cat does?

Previously, the earliest evidence of cat domestication came from 4,000-year-old Egyptian art. Now a new study pushes the date for domesticated cats back to about 5300 B.C. Moreover, the new evidence for furry feline pets come not from the Middle East, but from the Far East—in China.

The new study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  The international research team includes scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Archaeological Research Institute of Shaanxi Province, Peking University, and Washington University. The find comes from the same province as Emperor Qin’s amazing terra cotta soldiers.

The date for cat domestication isn’t quite as far back as that for dogs. Research published in November 2013 suggests that could have happened more than 18,000 years ago.

Whether you’re a cat or a dog lover, one thing is clear. People around the world have loved their pets for thousands of years.

Got treats, anyone?

Ho, Ho, Whoa!

In just a few weeks folks will be flocking to the gym as part of their New Year’s resolutions. Yet the time to be doing that is right now, while all the tasty cookies, chocolates, egg nog, and more cookies are making the rounds.

Even if you still wind up eating too much, bouts of exercise can counter some of the bad metabolic changes that follow from just one week of overeating. So say researchers at the University of Bath. Their study appears in the current issue of The Journal of Physiology.

In the study, young men in their twenties were asked to overeat. The control group limited their physical activity to less then 4,000 steps per day, while the test group added daily 45-minute sessions of treadmill running. The test group also upped their food intake even more, so both groups had about the same number of excess calories. (The researchers used the term positive energy balance, but that sounds way too perky and upbeat when you’re struggling with weight.)

Even with the excess calories, the exercise group had better results for measures such as insulin action and fatty tissue. In short, calorie balance is not the only thing going on. “[E]xercise has positive effects even when we are actively storing energy and gaining weight,” noted researcher James Betts in the press release accompanying the report.

Of course, what the researchers called “bouts” of exercise are actually pretty substantial. Get 45 minutes of vigorous exercise per day, and that’s 315 minutes per week. That’s more than twice the minimum 150 minutes per week recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. In other words, if you’re going to overeat, you need some serious exercise to counteract the physical effects.scale

And while the young men in the Bath study weren’t overly worried about a couple of pounds, that’s a real problem for many people. Contrary to past media reports, the average American doesn’t really gain 7 to 10 pounds during the holiday season. Yet even a one-pound gain over four weeks is a problem if the weight stays on and doesn’t come off. And research shows that people who are already overweight are likely to gain up to 5 pounds.

Even though I fully intend to work exercise into my already hectic holiday schedule, it’s going to get tricky. It’s hard to take long walks outside when sidewalks and streets are icy. Too much snow will also close down the gym—and the forecast shows more snow on its way here this week.

So, despite the new study, I’m planning to eat a few less cookies and chocolates this holiday season. And I’ll head up to the gym regularly before January 1 too!

I’ve Got Your Number–Or Do I?

phoneIf Nana is one of your grandmothers and Grandpa is a grandfather, who’s NANPA?

Nope, NANPA is not one of the relatives showing up at your table this holiday season. Nor will NANPA send you any Christmas present. But it could affect your phone calls when the spirit of Christmas future comes rolling around.

NANPA is the North American Numbering Plan Administrator, and its job is to administer the area code numbering system in a neutral way. Since 1997, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has selected a private company called Neustar to fill the role. Formerly, the company was Lockheed Martin IMS.

One of NANPA’s jobs is to figure out how fast area codes are being used and when available numbers will run out. It reports information to the FCC and other regulatory bodies so they can take action.

For example, NANPA projects that the 740 area code for central and southern Ohio will run out of numbers by 2015. In response, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio has just approved new area code 220. The new area code will overlay the old one.

NANPA also interfaces with industry and regulators on matters relating to toll-free numbers. Under an FCC order, numbers started becoming available for the new 844 toll-free area code last week. Apparently, the actual numbers are doled out by yet another entity, SMS/800, Inc.

On the one hand, it’s good that some folks are coordinating these things and working to make sure we don’t run out of phone numbers. For quite a while, though, more and more of those numbers have gone to machines—credit card readers for businesses, gasoline pumps, and so on.

And let’s face it. There are only 1,000 numbers from 000 to 999. It’s already tricky enough remembering 10 digits for folks’ phone numbers. When we get to 4-digit area codes, we’ll be pushing the limits of many people’s short-term memories.

So, I’ve got your number—at least for now. Who knows what could happen in the future?