Why animals hurt the same way we do

Animals are often surprisingly like us.

Johnny Cash’s incredibly powerful song Hurt narrates a person’s self-destruction in the depths of sorrow.

You’d think depression and self-mutilation are uniquely human things, but they’re not.

Caged birds that are not allowed to get out and indulge their instincts sometimes obsessively pluck their own feathers out, in an echo of human self-mutilation.


Picture by Kathy Milani of the Humane Society

Most parrots sold in the U.S. are bred in captivity in inhumane conditions. The Humane Society reports:

These highly social creatures are usually kept alone and rarely allowed to fly—many parrots’ wings are clipped. Often their relatively small cages have little in the way of stimulation and “enrichment,” or toys. For an animal that’s as emotionally complex as a chimpanzee or dolphin, it amounts to an unimaginably bleak existence.

It’s surprising how much animals can have in common with us. In the excellent 2012 book Zoobiquity, cardiologist Barbara Natterson-Horowitz explores the intersection of human and animal medicine:

Dinosaurs suffered from brain cancer. Koalas catch chlamydia. Reindeer seek out narcotic escape in hallucinogenic mushrooms. Stallions self-mutilate. Gorillas experience clinical depression.

All living things are different branches of the same tree, so there are bound to be similarities.


Barbara Natterson-Horowitz’s point is that, given these similarities, doctors and veterinarians can learn from each other:

“Animals suffer from almost all of the diseases that human beings do, but veterinarians and physicians never talk about this,” she said. “Physicians have not typically, traditionally, seen veterinarians as their clinical peers and that’s unfortunate.”

What an old Patriots NFL game reveals about Amazon Prime Air

Amazon recently announced plans to try to develop the ability to deliver packages with autonomous flying machines. It’s funny, I blogged about the same idea back in April. The venture will face huge challenges. One of them is safety.

Thirty-four years ago today, a fan was killed at a Jets-Patriots game by a flying lawnmower.

No, really.

Some nut combined a lawnmower’s body and a model airplane’s machinery for the half-time show. It crashed into the stands and hurt two people, killing one of them. I don’t think this is the one that was at the half-time show, but it probably looked a lot like this:


(Links via Bob’s Blitz. The Jets won, by the way.)

The point is that these things can be dangerous, especially if there’s no one piloting it. Amazon’s promo video at the top shows the drones delivering things in perfect weather, but there’s no mention of how it would handle strong wind, rain, snow, vandals or thieves. Drones also raise important privacy concerns. Lawsuits about faulty or misused drones are inevitable. (The Jets were sued for having such a dangerous halftime show.)

Despite the challenges, there’s definitely a place for drones in the private market. Amazon is also testing out using robots for warehouse sorting and loading. This year Mesa County, Colorado saved almost $10,000 by doing an annual air survey of a landfill with a drone instead of a piloted craft. There are places where drone delivery can definitely be useful: In Alaska, things often have to be delivered by air anyway.

A hundred years ago, it would have seemed crazy to suggest that mail could be delivered through the air. Today, regular first-class interstate mail is delivered by airplanes every day. All mail is Air Mail.

The military has already begun to use drones for delivery.

What the world really looks like Part 2: Every map tells lies

Recently I blogged about VSauce’s guide to “what the world really looks like.” Something I didn’t touch on yet is that every map of the world necessarily twists things because they try to make a round world flat. The most common map projection distorts the world so badly that relatively tiny Greenland looks like it’s the same size as the whole continent of Africa.


Here, a silhouette of Mexico is moved north and distorted as much as Greenland is, while Greenland is moved as far south as Mexico. Moving Australia just a little to the south makes it almost unrecognizable. You can play around with the way the Mercator projection distorts things here.

If a human head was distorted the way the Mercator map is distorted, it would look pretty weird.

A graphic artist named Eric Testroete made himself an awesome Halloween costume a few years ago: A 3-D image of own head, made unnaturally huge.


Eric Testroete is an amazing artist.

Eric made a polygon map of his own head, the same way Robert Buckminster Fuller made his “Dymaxion Map” out of polygons. The Dymaxion Map is famous for minimizing distortion of the shapes and sizes of the continents:


The landmasses are distorted as little as possible. But doing the same thing with a human head shows how weirdly changed they really are:



Every map of the world you’ve ever seen is at least as bizarrely distorted as this. Weird as that is, the sizes are less distorted than the Mercator projection.



From now on, my reaction to every world map is: Man, that is so gross.

National Geographic now uses the “Winkel tripel projection” because it’s the best compromise of distortions. Even the best projection is still all out of wack:

National Geographic has a one-minute guide to the weirdness of maps.

What the world really looks like

The science show VSauce presents a bewildering hail of facts that change the way you look at the world. They might even change the way you look at looking.

I’ve posted before about the fact that the spectrum of light we see is only a tiny fraction of light’s total spectrum, but I never realized how tiny.

If the entire practical spectrum of wavelengths was laid out linearly from New York to Los Angeles, the visual portion we see would only be the size of 100 nanometers.

This chart necessarily distorts the scale. The rainbow in the middle should really be so tiny you can't see it.

This chart necessarily distorts the scale. The rainbow in the middle representing visible light should be so tiny you can’t see it.

So there’s the light we see, and then there’s light that we can’t see. Radio waves and microwaves are really just different frequencies of light, or what scientists call “electromagnetic waves”. The full spectrum goes from a wavelength of 1,000 meters (extremely low-frequency radio waves) to 0.0000000000001 meters (gamma rays). Visible light goes from .0000004 meters (purple) to .0000007 meters (red). The difference between 400 nanometers and 700 nanometers is nothing compared to the size of the whole spectrum.


If the whole crazy rainbow of electromagnetic waves had a chart as big as the distance from LA to New York, the visible light part of the spectrum would be the size of the AIDS virus (green dots), and it would be about nine feet from the start of the line.

So that’s how small a fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum we see.

Then again, maybe just laying out the full range of practical wavelengths doesn’t really give a meaningful idea of how “big” the spectrum is. It could be that visible light is a bigger sliver than this visualization would suggest. I’m no physicist, so correct me if I’m missing something here. Or just tell me what you think.

Another surprising thing:

A cell-phone camera can reveal that your TV’s remote control is really a flashlight that shines an invisible color. Take video of the remote’s tip while you press its buttons, and you’ll see it lighting up on the cell phone’s screen even though you can’t see it with your own eyes. It’s shining an infrared color that’s invisible to our eyes.

Why ancient treasure is buried beneath your feet

Construction workers keep accidentally turning up important archaeological finds all over the world just by digging. One minute it’s just a shovelful of dirt and crud; the next you have a priceless artifact.


Just this year:

Discoveries like this happen several times a year nowadays. We’re just beginning to wake up to what’s right under our noses.

Paul Mullins has some great insights on the contrast between the banality of parking lots and the excitement of discovery: What seems ordinary in one age becomes a priceless artifact in another. “There is a story to be told in all of these non-descript parking lots,” he says. “In the end it is not as banal as it might seem on first glance.”

The explosion of new discoveries goes beyond archaeology, too. For example: We’re just starting to realize how common meteor strikes are. We know that shooting stars happen every night, but only recently have scientists realized that 60 meteors have detonated in midair air since 1990 with enough force to register on devices meant to listen for nuclear bomb explosions. They usually go unnoticed at the time, happening over unpopulated areas.

The Guardian Newspaper collected records of every meteorite strike recorded since 861 AD and made this awesome animation from it. (And a global map). You can see that it’s only in the recent past that mankind has begun to notice and remember these things.

We’re living in a miraculous age.

How to: Deactivate a cat

via io9

I just found out that most cats suddenly become nearly immobile when you pinch the backs of their necks.

I knew you could pick them up that way, but I haven’t done it because it seemed like a mean thing to do. But it turns out that the back of a cat’s neck is kind of like your elbow: Try pinching your elbow and see if it hurts. Unless you pinch and twist really hard, it won’t. Even then it hurts much less than any other area of skin. Cats are like that on part of the back of the neck.

It doesn’t hurt the cat; if it did, it would loudly let you know.

Some scientists think the reason why the Vulcan Nerve Pinch works for cats might have something to do with the fact that that’s the way their mothers carry them.

The effect is amazing. This might make it easier to give a cat a bath or some medicine. An important consideration is that you have to be sure to hit the right spot on the back of the neck, and it may not work on all cats.

Is it cruel? Would you try this with your cat?