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Talk nerdy to me

Let’s talk nerdy about getting drunk without drinking, making mental health fun, the pitfalls of facial recognition, 1970s nukes, and more.

When home brewing goes too far

More than 1 million Americans brew their own beer. But a North Carolina man has taken home brewing to a whole new level. 

<strong>World’s smallest brewery?</strong> A 46-year-old man’s stomach began brewing its own beer after he took antibiotics for an injury. An overgrowth of brewer’s yeast in his gut converted carbohydrates he ate into alcohol. In 2011, the 46-year-old began experiencing personality changes, including episodes of depression and aggressive behavior. After being arrested for driving while intoxicated (DWI), tests showed his blood-alcohol level to be two times the legal limit for driving. The police and doctors refused to believe his claim that he had not been drinking.

Six years passed before doctors at Richmond University Medical Center diagnosed him with auto-brewery syndrome. The condition likely resulted from a long course of antibiotics that disrupted his gut microbes and allowed the fungus, Saccharomyces cerevisiae (also known as brewer’s yeast), to grow in his stomach. Every time the man ate carbohydrates, the fungus converted them to alcohol.

Happily, the man has been symptom-free after treatment with anti-fungal medication, probiotics, and a strict low-carbohydrate diet.

Gaming your mental health

Video games have come a long way since Atari’s Pong hit arcades in 1972. Today’s technology offers immersive gaming experiences that spill over into the “real” world. For example, flossing, popularized by Fortnite Battle Royale, has become the favorite dance move of thousands of elementary school children.

<strong>Neuroscience meets game play.</strong> Learning to control your heartbeat and respiration can improve mental health. Incorporating biometric feedback into video game play may make this something we actually find fun to do. Courtesy The Insight Project.So what if games could also help manage mental health conditions? Games developer Tameem Antoniades and Paul Fletcher, a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge, are teaming up to make that happen.

Antoniades and Fletcher are prototyping a new game that is played with biometric signals, such as your pulse, instead of a manually operated controller. Players win the game by learning how to control their states of anxiety or arousal, as indicated by their heart rate. 

Though the game has a therapeutic purpose, the pair hope to create something commercially viable and fun to play.

Gender at a glance    

Facial analysis technology is going mainstream. It’s used in malls to identify customers and track their shopping patterns. Or you can upload an image to a dating app to find someone with your most desired features. And of course, law enforcement is using it to prevent and solve crime— though you may have heard that facial recognition technology is not very good at identifying people of color. Now there’s evidence that the technology also misses the mark when it encounters transgender and non-binary individuals.

<strong>Facial misgendering systems.</strong> PhD student Morgan Klaus Scheuerman says commercial recognition systems have poor success rates for classifying transgender individuals—likely because they rely on outdated stereotypes. Scheuerman himself (shown here) was classified female 50% of the time. Courtesy Morgan Klaus Scheuerman/CU Boulder.Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder collected nearly 2,500 images of faces from Instagram that were labeled by a hashtag indicating gender identity. The images were analyzed by four commercial facial analysis services (IBM, Amazon, Microsoft, and Clarifai).

The systems identified photos of persons born female and identifying as female (cisgender) with 98.3% accuracy. Cisgender men were correctly identified 97.6% of the time. But that dropped to 38% for transgender men. The systems got it wrong 100% of the time for those who identified as neither male nor female (agender, genderqueer, nonbinary).

PhD student Morgan Klaus Scheuerman says that because the systems only understand the traditional male and female, it is impossible for them to correctly label a nonbinary person. Other mistakes likely arose from classifying attributes such as long hair or full lips as female when analyzing images, revealing that the systems rely on outdated stereotypes. 

Does egg color matter?

Scientists aren’t sure why bird eggs come in such a wide variety of colors, but new research has uncovered one reason why birds in northern climes lay darker eggs.           

<strong>The color connection.</strong> Birds lay eggs in many colors, but researchers found that dark colored shells are more likely in colder climates. Color may also play a role in whether a bird can successfully sneak its own eggs into another nest to be raised by parents of a different species. Courtesy Daniel Hanley.Daniel Hanley, a behavior ecologist at Long Island University Post, mapped egg color and breeding range data from over 600 bird species to see which colors occurred in different climates. They found that darker eggs were produced in areas where sunlight is scarce.

The researchers suspect that darker colored eggs are good at retaining heat. As a test, the group exposed different colored chicken, duck, and quail eggs to sunlight. They found that darker shells kept their heat longer than lighter ones.

For the next phase of the research, Hanley and his team plan to see what happens in the wild. They’ll monitor temperature change in different colored eggs with a thermal imaging camera. He’s also interested in whether egg color plays a role when a bird lays an egg in another nest to trick another species into raising their offspring.

A floppy defense

We can all breathe a sigh of relief. Thanks to a recent overhaul of the US atomic weapons arsenal, a computer system that uses eight-inch floppy disks has finally been upgraded.

<strong>Unhackable.</strong> The 1970s-era 8-inch floppy disk no longer upholds the US atomic weapons arsenal, thanks to a recent upgrade to solid state storage. Courtesy Dirk Haun. <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/'>(CC BY 2.0)</a>If you were born in the 1990s or later and have no idea what we’re talking about, read this Wikipedia article. In short, the eight-inch floppy disk was introduced in the 1970s and holds about 80 kilobytes of data—if you’re lucky that would hold about half of a photo snapped on your phone.

The Strategic Automated Command and Control System (SACCS) is a holdover from the 1970s that relied on floppy disks. In June, the SAACS floppy drives were replaced with a highly secure solid-state digital storage solution. The upgrade came after a 2016 US Government Accountability Office report found that several government agencies relied on “outdated software languages and hardware parts that are unsupported.” 

There is an upside to old technology, believe it or not. Tom Persky, who inventories and sells floppy discs at FloppyDisk.com, says that floppies are well-understood, extremely stable, and almost impossible to hack, since they aren’t connected to the internet. On the other hand, floppy disks are slow and expensive to distribute, and they rely on machines that are no longer being made.

The most surprising part of this story may be that a business called FloppyDisk.com still exists!

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