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Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Real Deal

There once was an economics student who, while going to school, would sit in the campus bar at Catholic University in Rio, Brazil with his drinking buddies complaining about the hyperinflation plaguing the country, criticizing those in power who were not doing the right things to solve it.  They were sure that if given the chance, they would have the solution that would reverse the problem.

The inflation problems started in the 1950's when the Brazilian government decided to build a new capital, Brazilia.  There was not enough money in the coffers, so they started printing money. By 1990, the pattern of inflation was so entrenched, the people had lost any hope of the government being able to control it.

The rate of inflation was astounding.  Most years it was above 100%, and some of the bad months it reached 80%!  Between March 1989 and March 1990 it climbed to 5,000%.  A reputable journalist named Joelmir Beting took the official reports, did the math, and calculated that between the years of 1964 and 1994, the total amount of inflation reached 1,000,000,000,000,000% (that is one quadrillion percent)!!

President after president would come up with plans, they would fail, and then he would either be voted out or impeached.  And the cycle continued.

People would spend their paycheck as quickly as they could, sometimes running in front of the man who changed the price stickers on the cans of food so they could grab the can with the old price.

Then in 1992 with a new president came a new Financial Minister.  He didn't know anything about economics, so he called Edmar Bacha, the economist who used to complain in the campus bar.  He was invited to come up with a plan to fix the problem.  Bacha and his drinking buddy's had a plan.  They came up with a crazy one that had not been tried before.  The four friends set about explaining their idea.  First, you have to slow down the creation of money, they explained. But, just as important, you have to stabilize people’s faith in money itself.  People have to be tricked into thinking money will hold its value.

The four economists wanted to create a new currency that was stable, dependable and trustworthy.  The only catch: This currency would not be real.  No coins, no bills.  It was fake.  “We called it a Unit of Real Value — URV,” Bacha says. “It was virtual; it didn’t exist in fact.”

People would still have and use the existing currency, the cruzeiro.  But everything would be listed in URVs, the fake currency.   Their wages would be listed in URVs.  Taxes were in URVs.  All prices were listed in URVs.  And URVs were kept stable — what changed was how many cruzeiros each URV was worth.

Say, for example, that milk costs 1 URV. On a given day, 1 URV might be worth 10 cruzeiros. A month later, milk would still cost 1 URV. But that 1 URV might be worth 20 cruzeiros.  Every night the Central Bank would print a table of the conversion rate between a cruzeiro and the URV.

The idea was that people would start thinking in URVs — and stop expecting prices to always go up.  After a few months, they began to see that prices in URVs were stable. Once that happened, Bacha and his buddies could declare that the virtual currency would become the country’s actual currency. It would be called the real (pronounced hey-ow).

“Everyone is going to receive from now on their wages, and pay for all the prices, in the new currency, which is the real,” Bacha says. “That is the trick.”  And the idea was you would start thinking in URVs. Because just last week you got paid a thousand URVs. Milk costs one URV. Next month, you’d get a thousand URVs again and milk would still be one URV. The exchange into cruzeiros, what you actually handed the clerk would change. But the price in URVs would not.

So on July 1st, 1994, the Central Bank released the new money. Everyone in Brazil, collectively, as a country, tricked themselves into believing that this fake currency was real. More real than the actual physical bill they were holding in their hands. And that made all the difference. That made it real. For money, it’s crazy but that’s all you need; people to believe in it. Our four heroes literally turned Brazil’s economy in the opposite direction with their plan. Brazil went from being an irrelevant, economic basket-case to one of the most important economies out there. The eighth largest in the world.

Cardoso, the finance minister who hired our four heroes after admitting he knew nothing about economics, was elected president. Twice. And the four economists, despite the fact that most people don’t know them by name, really are seen as heroes. These guys made money worth something.

If you would like to listen to the one hour podcast of this story from This American Life, you can find it here.

Now you have heard something interesting.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Did you see that?

Chris Chabris, a psychology professor, and his co-researcher, Daniel Simons, a psychologist, have been conducting experiments on something they call Inattentive Blindness, or Change Blindness.

Here is an interesting YouTube video showing one of their studies. It shows study participants talking to a man behind a counter. The man bends down to supposedly get a packet of info, and another man stands up and finishes the conversation. The two men were wearing different colored shirts and had different colored hair. Chabris and Simons discovered that 75% of those in the study didn't notice the change.

How is this possible? Why would such a large portion of people not see the difference? It is because our senses are surrounded by so much data, we would be overwhelmed if we tried to process it all.  So we generally take in the most important things around us.

One day Chabris and Simons heard the story of Kenneth Conley, a Boston police officer, and decided to take their experiments from the lab to real life.

The story of Conley takes place in 1995. Just like every other police officer in Boston, he was intensely interested in the police radio report that an officer had been shot and the four black suspects were fleeing by car. There were 20 police cruisers involved in the chase all over town. It ended in a cul-de-sac when the four suspects jumped out and scattered in four directions.

The first police officer out of his car was a black officer named Michael Cox. Since he worked under cover, he was dressed in plain clothes. The next officers out of their car mistook him for a suspect and attacked him. They started beating and kicking him.

Conley then arrived on the scene and joined the chase for the suspects. He ran right past Cox who was being beaten. He always claimed he never saw it happening.  Soon after he passed, the mistake was realized and the beating stopped.

He was later convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, because he was not believed when he said he saw nothing. He was sentenced to 34 months in prison. No other officer ever came forward or was ever identified. The official report on Michael Cox's injuries, which kept him out of work for six months, was that he slipped on ice.

Chabris and Simons wanted to find out if Conley was telling the truth The instructions to the participants were simple. Follow a jogger for a certain distance along a path and count how many times he touches his hat. This was to keep the attention on the jogger, just as Conley's attention was on the suspect in front of him. Then a minute into the run, they had three students stage a fight just off the path. With two beating and kicking a third, it seemed obvious that they would be seen.

They conducted the experiment at different times of day with both men and women. They were very surprised to find that during the night hours, the same as the Conley incident, only a third of the participants noticed the fight, and during daylight hours, only 40% saw what was happening.  Chabris and Simons proved that it was possible for Conley to have missed seeing the beating, but by then he had served part of his sentence and the rest was dismissed because of a technicality.

Chabris points out that our inability to absorb visual information coupled with our mistaken belief that we actually are able to absorb a lot of it influences all kinds of behavior.

"This underlies problems with using cell phones while driving and all kinds of situations like that," Chabris says.

There is an interesting video on YouTube that will test your inattentive blindness.  Try it out.

Now you've heard something interesting.

Sunday, February 6, 2011


When I first heard about Number Stations on an NPR Story of the Day podcast, I was very curious.  Then I listened to some audio files.  Very interesting.  I started this blog a week ago, but I was home alone and listening to the sound bytes made me so nervous I had to stop.  Now my husband is here in the same room and I can proceed.  (Yes, I am a wimp, and I have never denied it!)

Shortwave radio refers to the HF (high frequency) portion of the radio spectrum.  The waves are shorter than those used in ordinary radio.  They can travel a great distance, even to other continents.  It is often used to communicate to ships and aircraft, or to remote areas where the wired communication is either not available or too expensive.  It became popular in the 1920's with amateurs communicating with each other.

During the cold war in the 1980's, shortwave radio stations came into being that have no call letters and are not identified.  They just broadcast letters or numbers 24 hours a day and some of them have music interspersed.  The music sounds like it is coming from an ice cream truck.  The purpose of these Number Stations, as they are called, is to give information to spies.  They are encrypted with something called a one-time pad, which is unbreakable code.

One-time pads are very mathematical, and are only used one time.  If they are done correctly, they cannot be cracked.  If you want to learn the math behind them, or how to make your own, here is a Wikipedia article to read.

There is a man in Britain who came up with The Conet Project, which consists of 4 hours of recordings of these Number Stations on 4 CDs.  They actually became a cult hit.  If you want to listen to any, this is the web site.  Scroll down a bit and you will find links to many audio files of these Number Stations.  (They all have the name irdail in the title.  This is the name of the company who produced the 4 CDs.)  Of those I listened to, the one I found most creepy is the one called the "swedish rhapsody irdial."  It is first on the list.  In it there is a bit of music and then a little girl counting in German.  

There was a news story done in Salt Lake City, Utah that is on Youtube. If you want to see it, here is the link.  In this newscast, they claim that "according to a British Official, Number Stations are illegal to listen to."

Whether or not they are illegal, they have no pull for me.

Now you have heard something interesting.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Of Migraines and Blind Spots

As an occasional sufferer of migraines, my ears perked up when Chris Smith, host of the podcast "The Naked Scientist," started talking about the pain effect bright lights have on a person with a migraine.  The word is photophobia. It is not a fear of light, but a description of eye discomfort in bright light.

There are blind people who have photophobia when they have a migraine. This intrigued some scientists at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.  They conducted a study and found that the only blind people who could experience photophobia were those who could tell night from day.

At the back of the eyeball is the optic nerve, sometimes called the blind spot, which carries information from the eye to the brain.  This information about light is carried to the brain and causes electrical stimulation there. When there is already pain and disturbance in the brain from a migraine, this extra electrical stimulation increases the pain.

Those whose blindness involves damage to the optic nerve not only cannot distinguish light and dark, but have a hard time regulating their nights and days.  Light sets our circadian rhythm - telling our body it is time to sleep or wake.

Maybe you have taken a "blind spot test" before.  Here is one you can perform at night outside. Look at the moon.  Gently cover your left eye and continue to look at the moon with your right eye.  Slowly move your gaze to the left.  You might have to adjust your gaze up or down slightly. Soon you will not see the moon anymore, but just the halo around it.

Each of our eyes has a blind spot, but in each eye it is off center enough that the loss is compensated for by the other eye.  Our brains do a good job in filling in the details and we don't really notice what we are missing.

If you would like to read more about the study, you can find it here.

Now you've heard something interesting.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

What do cats, deer, and wolf spiders have in common?

One of the many podcasts that I listen to on a regular basis is called BrainStuff.  It is well written by Marshall Brain and only lasts 4 or 5 minutes.  There is one episode from October 2010 that really interested me. 

Marshall took a head lamp outside one night.  It was around his head and he turned it on and started looking around the yard.  There was a pile of dirt and it seemed to be sparkling.  Many, many points of light.  He could not figure out what it was.  So he got closer and found that it was many, many wolf spiders.  The light from his headlamp was reflected in their eyes.
It turns out that wolf spiders have the same thing that deer, cats, dogs, and raccoons have in their eyes.  It is called tapetum, a shiny layer behind the retina. Light passes into their eye, hits the retina, reflects from the tapetum and hits the retina again.  This makes things look much brighter, making it easier to hunt at night.  It also makes their eyes seem to glow when light hits it.

The light shining from the head lamp reflected off the spider's eyes and returned again to its source.  If Marshall had been holding a flashlight down by his waist, he would not have seen this reflection. 

(Hmmm.  This is a little like the last post, where light bounces off a corner cube reflector on the moon.)

Have you ever wondered whether a spider is poisonous?  The answer is no. So far as I know, there are no poisonous spiders. There are venomous spiders. Venomous means that the creature's bite or sting is toxic. Poisonous means that it is toxic if you eat it. 

Now you have heard something interesting.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Mirror, Mirror on the Moon

When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon more than 40 years ago, I was just a youngster and don't remember it at all.  Most assuredly my mom explained to me the historical event that was happening, but it just didn't stick in my memory banks.  I just learned something about that trip that I had never known before.

Just about an hour before the end of that famous Apollo 11 mission on July 21, 1969, these two astronauts put down a 2-foot wide panel of 100 mirrors. 
 It is called the Apollo 11 lunar laser ranging retroreflector array.
 "Here's how it works: A laser pulse shoots out of a telescope on Earth, crosses the Earth-moon divide, and hits the array. Because the mirrors are 'corner-cube reflectors,' they send the pulse straight back where it came from. 'It's like hitting a ball into the corner of a squash court,' explains Carroll Alley, the projects principal investigator during the Apollo years.  Back on Earth, telescopes intercept the returning pulse--'usually just a single photon,' he marvels."
If you arrange 3 mirrors in a shape like the corner of a rectangular box, with the reflectors on the inside, then any light which hits the reflectors, at essentially any angle, will bounce off each mirror and end up heading back exactly the direction from which it came. This makes such a mirror arrangement very useful, because you always get a nice strong reflection.

Here is another image that shows two different paths of light.  Even though the source is from two different places, the beam is returned to the source of the laser.

Scientists still use these mirrors on the moon.  They have learned some interesting things.  First, that the moon is spiraling away from the Earth at a rate of 3.8 cm per year.  The NASA web site says the ocean tides are responsible.  As the moon orbits Earth, it creates a bulge of water that travels round the planet behind it. This bulge - which we experience as tides - exerts a gravitational pull on the moon, slowing it down as it circles Earth at a distance of 240,000 miles. As a consequence of being held back by this pull, the orbit of the moon becomes altered and it moves slowly away from Earth

Second, it is now believed that the moon has a liquid core.  They have also learned that the universal force of gravity is very stable.

There are a total of five of these mirror arrays.  Apollo 11, 14, and 15 missions each placed one, as well as two Soviet Lunokhod landers.  They don't work as well as they used to work.  Dust has accumulated on them and sometimes light doesn't come back, and when it does it is much fainter.  The mirrors are losing their ability to reflect back laser light precisely, which hinders accurate measurements.

Now you have heard something interesting.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

What rhymes with beige? Why, bacteriophage of course!

Bacteriophages are small viruses that infect bacteria and kill them by multiplying and essentially filling the bacterial cell to bursting.  Here is a small animation of the life cycle of one bacteriophage.  The word lytic means that the cell is destroyed by the process.  After the phages reproduce inside the bacteria cell, they burst out and the cell is demolished.  Adsorption is the gathering together of the phage on the surface of the cell.

The bacteriophage has attachment sites on it that correspond with receptor sites on the bacteria.  In other words, they don't attack just any cell, only specific cells.  So a bacteriophage that is meant to destroy e. coli (these are called T4 bacteriophage) will only attach to an e. coli cell and then multiply, destroying the e. coli cell.

These viruses are much smaller than the bacteria that they destroy. Each time a phage invades a bacteria cell, it produces between 50 and 200 new phage viruses within the bacteria cell.  Once the host bacteria are destroyed and are no longer present, the phages die off, too.

Phages are found all over the planet.  Anywhere that bacteria live and thrive phages will be found.  They are especially abundant in water.

Phages have been known since ancient times.  There have been documented reports of river waters having the ability to cure infectious diseases, such as leprosy. In 1896, Ernest Hanbury Hankin reported that something in the waters of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in India had marked antibacterial action against cholera and could pass through a very fine porcelain filter.

They have been used for over 60 years as an alternative to antibiotics in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.  They are seen as a possible therapy against multi-drug resistant strains of many bacteria. 

Phages were discovered to be anti-bacterial agents but the medical trials performed in western countries in the early 1900's were poorly conducted and the scientists really didn't understand what a phage was.  Many of the trials were conducted on totally unrelated diseases such as allergies or viral infections.  So phage therapy was ruled as untrustworthy.  Soon antibiotics were discovered and widely used.  They are popular because they can treat a wide range of diseases and are easy to manufacture and then store. 

Development of phage therapy was largely abandoned in the West, but continued throughout the 1940s in the former Soviet Union. It was used for treating bacterial infections throughout the country, including the soldiers in the Red Army.  The literature was published in Russian or Georgian and so it was not available for many years in the United States.  It is still used in the country of Georgia and other Eastern European countries.

In August, 2006 the United States FDA approved using bacteriophages on cheese to kill the Listeria monocytogenes bacteria.  In July 2007, the same bacteriophages were approved for use on all food products.

Government agencies in the West have for several years been looking to Georgia and the Former Soviet Union for help with exploiting phages for counteracting bioweapons and toxins, such as anthrax and botulism.  There are many developments with this among research groups in the US.

There seem to be many advantages of developing bacteriophages for use in many fields, including clinically.  But there are a few downsides, also.  One is getting the phage to the bacteria.  If used orally, some might not pass the stomach acid without being destroyed.  If used as a cream or as an injection, it still needs to get to where it is going without the body's immune system seeing it as a foreign threat.

A more non-scientific downside to the use of phage therapy is that due to intellectual property laws and the fact that currently its use is public, so the technique of phage therapy would not be patentable. The development of drugs is very expensive and larger pharmaceutical companies have no motivation to go through the complicated and costly process if there is no patent protection on the products they may create.

Now you have heard something interesting.