Not compatible with life or I can die now

A Scientific American interview with Martin A. Samuels, chairman of the neurology department at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, examined the phenomenon of being “scared to death.”  (Via post in Boing Boing.)  It was prompted by a criminal case going on now:

A Charlotte, N.C., man was charged with first-degree murder of a 79-year-old woman whom police said he scared to death. In an attempt to elude cops after a botched bank robbery, the Associated Press reports that 20-year-old Larry Whitfield broke into and hid out in the home of Mary Parnell. Police say he didn’t touch Parnell but that she died after suffering a heart attack that was triggered by terror.

Samuels explains that the “fight or flight response” can cause the heart to “go into abnormal rhythms that are not compatible with life.”  When asked if “other emotional states besides fear could lead to these fatal heart rhythm,” he responds:

Any strong positive or negative emotions such as happiness or sadness. There are people who have died in intercourse or in religious passion. There was a case of a golfer who hit a hole in one, turned to his partner and said, “I can die now”—and then he dropped dead. A study in Germany found an increase of sudden cardiac deaths on the days that the German soccer team was playing in the World Cup. For about seven days after the 9/11 terrorists attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon there was an increase of sudden cardiac death among New Yorkers.



An article in The Economist (via Arts & Letters Daily) examines the fact that today, 150 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, Darwin’s ideas are still rejected by so many people.  The article produces a chart showing the level of acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution in various countries.

The article comments:

In the United States a Gallup poll conducted last year found that only 14% of people agreed with the proposition that “humans developed over millions of years”, up from 9% in 1982. Acceptance of evolution varies around the world, with the most ardent believers being in Iceland, Denmark and Sweden (see chart). In general, as you might expect, a country’s belief in evolution is inversely correlated with its belief in God. But there is an interesting twist.

Gregory Paul, an independent researcher on evolution, and Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist at Pitzer College in California, have argued controversially that a belief in God is inversely correlated with the level of what might be described as the intensity of the struggle for existence. In countries where food is plentiful, health care is universal and housing is accessible, people believe less in God than in those countries where their lives are insecure. A belief in God, and rejection of evolution, they suggest, is most valuable in those societies that are most subject to Darwinian pressures.

Poor Mr. Woo

Gizmodo reports that hard economic times has forced the incredible Mr. Woo (see the video from a previous post Mr. Woo and his creations) to sell off some of his remarkable creations.

TMQ says:

Why Are Taxpayers Paying Lavish Bonuses to Retain the People Who Screwed Up AIG? American International Group, the insurance giant that has swallowed $152 billion in federal subsidies in just a few months, “plans to pay $503 million in deferred compensation to some of its top employees, saying it must tap the funds to keep valuable workers from exiting the troubled insurance giant,” Carol Leonnig of The Washington Post reported a few days ago. I suspect all the gold being shoveled to AIG is a colossal blunder by the George W. Bush administration. Money to reinforce Fannie Mae or to buy stock in banks may or may not be a wise decision, but at least there is accountability regarding where the funds end up. The money being shoveled to AIG is simply vanishing — AIG isn’t even telling the Treasury Department what the money is for. When the General Services Administration buys pencils, many layers of auditors check the deal. Isn’t it a tad naive to think $152 billion can be entrusted to a firm with a demonstrated track record of financial mismanagement and that money is not going to be looted? The Treasury Department’s handling of AIG appears to be spectacular irresponsibility with public money.

Now, about the $503 million in tax-subsidized bonuses to prevent “top employees” from “exiting the troubled insurance giant.” The top employees of AIG are the ones who drove the company into the ground by making crazy deals, taking on bad debt or promising to insure bad debt when they knew AIG lacked adequate collateral. Those “top employees” at AIG are either cheats or incompetents — we want them to leave! They haven’t demonstrated any financial expertise. Yet the same AIG top managers who did a terrible, terrible job are set to receive huge bonuses: an example of the problem that corporate bonuses are awarded regardless of performance.

Management-suite types often rationalize huge bonuses by threatening to jump to another job. What job exactly would a top AIG employee jump to? The financial services industry is contracting; lots of well-qualified people with strong résumés are out on the street; no financial firm in its right mind would hire a failed manager from AIG over the fully qualified financial managers looking for work. AIG top employees have no career options right now; it is inconceivable any other financial firms are offering them lavish raises to hire them away. So “retention bonuses” aren’t necessary. But either the Treasury Department is too dim-witted to realize this or it doesn’t care and is merely trying to redistribute wealth from the middle class to the rich by allowing tax-subsidized bonuses that the giveaway team at Treasury knows perfectly well are not merited.

Side note: You might think, “How could the fancy-degree top people at Treasury possibly be that completely, utterly stupid?” But Treasury officials have a self-interest in maintaining the assumption that financial managers should receive gigantic bonuses regardless of performance. Almost everyone at the top of Treasury came from the firms being bailed out, plans to return to such firms and wants to pocket gigantic bonuses regardless of performance. So not only is the Treasury Department acting irresponsibly with tax money but its top executives have a personal stake in irresponsible action.

TMQ (Tuesday Morning Quarterback) aka Greg Easterbrook via ESPN Page One

Absolutely annoying

The Telegraph has an item about the ten most irritating phrases or expressions as determined by some researchers at Oxford University.  Is the list accurate?  Absolutely!  I personally found the list on the mark; nevertheless, what each person finds most irritating is probably fairly unique.  I confess that I am also guilty of sometimes using some of these phrases; I try to be on my guard but it’s a nightmare trying to be so vigilant 24/7.  In fact, at this  moment in time, I’ve already used phrases I shouldn’t of.  With all due respect, the research is not rocket science, and, at the end of the day, does it really matter?  But here is their list anyway:

The top ten most irritating phrases:

1 – At the end of the day

2 – Fairly unique

3 – I personally

4 – At this moment in time

5 – With all due respect

6 – Absolutely

7 – It’s a nightmare

8 – Shouldn’t of

9 – 24/7

10 – It’s not rocket science

The color of dreams

An article in The Telegraph relates this fascinating tidbit:

Research from 1915 through to the 1950s suggested that the vast majority of dreams are in black and white but the tide turned in the sixties, and later results suggested that up to 83 per cent of dreams contain some colour.

The article presents the results of research done by Eva Murzyn, a psychology student at Dundee University that attributes this change to whether we were exposed to color television as children or only to black & white.  She notes, “What is even more interesting is that before the advent of black and white television all the evidence suggests we were dreaming in colour.”

Her research confirms the t.v. hypothesis.   Her results showed

Only 4.4 per cent of the under-25s’ dreams were black and white. The over-55s who had had access to colour TV and film during their childhood also reported a very low proportion of just 7.3 per cent.

But the over-55s who had only had access to black-and-white media reported dreaming in black and white roughly a quarter of the time.

Wrong yet again

We all know of course that horizontal stripes make you look fat and that to appear thinner you should wear vertical stripes.  Well, like so much we think we know, it appears we were wrong yet once again.  According to an article in Cosmos magazine (via SciTech Daily)

While investigating variation in the architectural design of columns in the temples of Paestum, Italy, Peter Thompson, a psychologist from the University of York, came across an illusion whereby the direction of the stripes determines the overall illusion of height and width.

“It is supposed to make the columns look straighter than they actually are. You might expect these columns to be cylindrical but they rarely are,” he said.

After looking into it further, Thompson discovered that this so-called ‘Opel-Kundt’ illusion was described by a German physiologist Hermann von Helmholtz in the mid-19th century. He found that if two identical squares are drawn side-by-side, one with horizontal stripes, the other with vertical stripes, then the square with the horizontal stripes looked taller and narrower than the other with vertical stripes.

“I found that this relates to clothing too,” said Thompson. “In HelmHoltz’s Handbook of Physiological Optics he noted that ladies’ frocks with cross stripes on them make the figure look taller, so this idea has been around for a while.”

To test whether the illusion held true today, Thompson showed drawings of two women, side by side, to 20 individuals. One woman wore a dress with horizontal stripes and the other in a dress with vertical stripes.

After around 200 repetitions over which the body size of either woman was varied, he concluded that the horizontal stripes made the figure look taller and narrower.