July 15, 2008

Does this British statistic make me look skinny?
Apparently it’s not just Americans who are clueless about their own weight. In 2007, just over half, or 53%, of the UK population had a body mass index in the overweight to obese range. But only 75% of those people realized they were overweight. That’s worse than in 1999, when 43% of Brits were overweight and 81% realized they were. Researchers at the University College London told BBC News that part of the problem is that as more and more people tip into the overweight category, the perception of what's “normal” changes. Or it might be the media’s fault. Articles about overweight people tend to include photos of the extremely obese, which may lead the slightly chubby to conclude they’re doing just fine.

Gas prices: Pay more, live longer
Turns out there may be a silver lining in four-bucks-a-gallon gas. University of Alabama at Birmingham researchers are predicting a significant drop in auto-related deaths because of fewer drivers on the road and a general tendency to drive slower. The analysis of historical data suggests that auto-related deaths drop 2.3% for every 10% increase in the price of gas. For drivers aged 15–17, there's a 6% drop in deaths, according to the Associated Press. With roughly 40,000 auto-related deaths in the U.S. each year, the researchers think higher prices could save 1,000 lives a month, or 12,000 annually. Great—now, where's the silver lining for higher-priced grocery bills, utility bills, and just about everything else?

Laser show permanently blinds Russian ravers
An all-night rave party north of Moscow went horribly wrong when a powerful laser that normally points up into the sky caused retinal burns and partial vision loss in at least 12 attendees. Due to heavy rains, organizers erected tents over the Aquamarine Open Air Festival in Kirzhach, which caused some of the laser light to refract into the ravers’ eyes. Focused laser light can damage eyes almost instantly; a Moscow laser-rental company told Reuters that the incident was caused by "illiteracy on the part of technicians."

Warning: Kidney stone epidemic ahead
Global warming has been implicated in the spread of a variety of health woes, from tropical diseases to shellfish poisoning. Now University of Texas researchers are predicting that a hail of kidney stones may rain down on our collective urinary tracts. Why? Extra-hot days cause dehydration, which promotes the crystals that form the excruciating little rocks, according to the study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. There’s already a vast “kidney-stone belt” running across the southeastern U.S., which the researchers predict will expand into the upper Midwest as the planet heats up, possibly by as much as 30% in some areas.

Your computer can hear you sneeze
It's not as if computer science has solved the problem of complex speech recognition, but as New Scientist reports, researchers in computer science and biomechanics in the UK have already moved on to "nonlinguistic" sounds: laughs, sobs, yawns, and, yes, sneezes. (No word yet on burps and farts.) A computer sorts through the noises and translates them into matching facial animation sequences. The technology will come in handy in creating life-like computer avatars and animated cartoons. Could this be another step in the evolution of the personal computer into virtual nurse, nanny, and on-the-go-diagnostician?

Japanese take us one step closer to designer genes
Japanese researchers have sewn “DNA thread” using highly focused laser beams that stretch out the DNA, attach it to tiny hooks, and even thread it around tiny spools known as microbobbins. The diminutive tailoring job is an effort to counteract DNA’s tendency to tightly coil into a structure called the chromosome, and instead, to expose the genetic code to the kind of probes used to detect chromosomal disorders, such as Down syndrome.