Sunday, November 28, 2010

Podcast Playlists in iTunes 10

Do you listen to a lot of podcasts? I do, and sometimes I get behind, and want to put them into a playlist so I don't lose them.

I was planning to drive to Grandma's over Thanksgiving, and ran into the problem of how to make a playlist for podcasts in iTunes 10.  This has changed from how it was done in earlier versions.

At first I was sure that Apple was withdrawing support for podcasts as some attempt to get us to buy more paid content. And there still maybe some of that. However, it is really just done differently.

In the past, one just made playlist (File-New), and dragged the podcast into the playlist. This probably still works on the iPod Classic if you set the iPod to transfer your whole library automatically. For smaller iPods, the procedure is different.

In iTunes 10:

1. Creates the playlist with the File >> New Playlist menu item.

2. Click on the iPod in iTunes, and select the Podcast tab.

3. Check the box on the iPod's Podcast tab to enable transferring the playlist to the iPod.

4. If you have music on the playlist too, click the playlist's box on the Music tab as well. Similarly for TV Shows.

The new confusing part is that playlists with music and podcasts are on the Music tab and the Podcast tab. You should to check that podcast on both tabs to have it work correctly.

I did not figure it out in time for Thanksgiving this year,  but I had a good time anyway.  Nonetheless, life is better when I can find things on the iPod.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

21th Century Humans are the Weakest Ever

Writer Peter McAllister in his book Manthropology, claimed that men are physically weaker than our ancestors. McAllister does not say "people" he says "men," maybe to be provocative, or maybe because Australians are not so politically correct.  

McAllister says "for some reason our muscle fibers got weaker over time."  He argues primarily for nurture rather than nature, saying that  a lifetime of hard work induces stronger muscles and bigger bones.  For example, he points out the Nepalese hill porters are much stronger than "modern men."  Seems racist to me; aren't Nepalese guys modern? I suppose he means Nepalese porters are stronger than journalists from Western Australia.

Normally I favor nurture over nature in debates like this, but nature has alot on its side. There are three factors, smaller arms, and  two disabled genes.

First, chimps have relatively bigger arms than humans. Anyone can see their arms nearly reach to the ground. Longer arms mean they can have longer muscle fibers, and they can work over a longer range of motion. This alone could double the strength of the arm.

Second, chimps have two genes that are deactivated or relatively rare in people, one codes for weaker jaw muscles. Speculation ties this to the development of cooked food. Chimps literally spend hours a day chewing.

Third is the ACTN3 gene which has been found to be enriched in Olympic sprinters. Most people have a non-functional version of this gene. This gene makes the muscle react faster. Africans are most likely to carry the gene, and Asians are the least likely.

It is unclear why ACTN3 is mainly deactivated.  Alan Walker, of Penn State, suggest we are wired for fine muscle control instead. He sites differences in the spinal cord as seen by Ann MacLarnon. 

This all reminds me of devolution, and an old favorite song, Jocko Homo by Devo. People are deevolving in that we are physically weaker, but we are evolving to adapt to other traits too.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Why Not Alcohol and Caffeine? Curmudgeonly FDA Bans New Products Keeps Old Ones

By now you may have heard that pre-packaged drinks that have alcohol and caffeine are prohibited by the FDA. 

Why? FDA is the Food and Drug Administration, and they keep our chicken free from bacteria, and medicines "safe and effective."

The reason isn't really medical; it is behavioral. The drinker does not feel as drunk, so s/he drinks more. Officials claim the feeling of the caffeine is an illusion, and the  drinker is really extra drunk. 

I think there is self-selection going on. Last night I drove to a restaurant in midtown, and so I only had one drink -- it was a craft-brewed stout.  If I were going to get drunk, well, maybe I'd drink something caffeinated so the night did not end too early. 

Here is what the FDA says;

"FDA does not find support for the claim that the addition of caffeine to these alcoholic beverages is 'generally recognized as safe,' which is the legal standard," said Joshua M. Sharfstein, the FDA's principal deputy commissioner. 

"To the contrary, there is evidence that the combinations of caffeine and alcohol in these products pose a public health concern."

 Tellingly FDA is not banning Kahlua -- hard to understand how a regulation can ban a low alcohol product like Four Loko, and not a higher alcohol liquor. Strikes me as protecting the entrenched sellers.  It is hard to see how this regulation will survive a court challenge because it is so arbitrary. 

Four Loko is made by little guy Phusion Projects, while Kahlua comes from international conglomerate Pernod Ricard who makes Seagrams and Absolut.

My issue is that FDA should protect us against hazards in food and medicine. There is no medicinal interaction between caffeine and alcohol, so they don't have the basis to act. 

Even though the FDA is banning pre-mixed drinks, you can still pour vodka in your Red Bull.  Rum and Coke  is still OK.

While most people may need a curb on their behavior, this is not what the FDA is for. This strikes me as a curmudgeonly  reaction against something new.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Cheese Nips, Neuroscience, and Free Will

On Tuesday I threw out a box of Cheese Nips because I believed I would eat to many of them. Having them in the house, being tempted by them, I knew I would eat them -- even though I did not want to. Was I out of control? Was I eating involuntarily? Is there no free will? 

What is will and what is a mind anyway?

Although some metaphysical types disagree, I am convinces that my mind is in my brain, and the chemical reactions in the brain interact with the body to produce thought, muscle control, and volitional action.

This appealing Wikipedia article takes up the topic. This research field is pretty old, about 25 years. It started with electrodes on different brain areas, rather than newer MRI based techniques.

Basically, researchers watched electrical polarizations in the brain in areas associated with motor control, and then were able to predict what subjects would do up to ten seconds before they acted.

And then they raised big-picture questions about the nature of volition and free-will.

In some of the early work, volunteers were asked to record when they felt the impulse to move, and that was compared with the polarization in the brain.

This work seems misinterpreted today because it is not clear how the volunteers reported the timing of their intent to move. This was tenths of a second after the electrical polarization of the brain, and pretty hard to make a big deal about. In other words, the self-reporting muddled the results.

Newer work with better instruments seem to show that thinking about an action can cause the brain to fire neurons as if it is acting. This muddles the interpretation of the 1980's era study. Secondly there seem to be multiple decision making centers in the brain that interact. Motor movement is initiated in the front of the brain (where the higher level thought is), and moves to the back.

In regard to free-will, some behaviors are involuntary like yawning, coughing, and more significantly Tourette's Syndrome tics. Most people can control these things within limits. Of course people with schizophrenia don't believe they are in control of their bodies.

If a drummer is trying to play a fast rhythm, the hands are controlled in a different way. Sometimes I wonder at how quickly my hands can type out a word that I am not quite sure that I can spell right.

People with "alien arm syndrome" are a special case. Strange as it seems, MRI work on people with "alien arm syndrome" seems to show an atypical pattern of brain activation prior to movement. In this case, people don't feel like they are controlling the arm, although their brain really is controlling it. The portion of the brain responsible for the arm is not interacting well with the rest of the brain.

There are limits to the control we have over our bodies, and some decision-making is "sub-conscious." In "normal" people, large strategic activities are under our control, but the details are fuzzy, and how the brain works is less deterministic than it seems.

My brain uses some kind of committee process to decide when to eat Cheese Nips. Sometimes, when my more diet conscious-brain parts leave the room, the rest of my mental committee votes to eat Cheese Nips, or used to.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Twinkies and McDonald's Hamburgers that don't Rot

Different kinds of aging burgers
It is an urban myth that Twinkies don't rot; even Wall-E knows that.

Kenji Lopez-Alt did a test. He took different kinds of hamburgers and left them on the counter. It is pretty entertaining, so I thought I'd put up a link to it.

He showed that smaller portions dried out, and "mummified," before they were infested by mold and rotted. Larger burgers did rot.

It may also be true that the commercially prepared food had fewer mold spores to start with, and that delayed onset of rot.

Twinkies are supposed to last a month until they get stale and tough. They supposedly last a long time because of they are non-dairy, but no one knows.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Microsoft Office: Mac 2011 Review -- A Huge Improvement

Office: Mac 2011 is the product that Office: Mac 2008 should have been. I ranted about how bad Excel 2008 was.  Office 2008 was a light version of Office that was not worthy of the name or the price. Office 2011 for Mac is what I expect the premium and market leading software to be. Office is expensive, but it suppose to work well, and have all the features.

Excel 2011 has Visual Basic Macros back!!   This is the biggest news to me, though I know most people don't care. I kept trying to find other spreadsheet software that ran macros, before I gave up, and tried to learn Applescript. The macros are back in Word too.

I found my old Macros from Excel 2002 and reinstalled them, and they all run.

The second biggest change in Office 2011 is a better, expanded Ribbon, which is a second enhanced button bar or toolbar. The Ribbon displays different buttons based on context. The Ribbon is easier to use than my customized tool bars that I use at work in Office 2003. Microsoft has moved many of the important commands into buttons. They took away the formatting palette which served many of the same functions as the Ribbon. The palette made Office feel more like an Adobe product.

I am stressed that the Analysis Toolpack is not available in 2011 as it was not in Excel 2008. Instead there is a third party app called AnalystSoft. This is a problem in that the aforementioned macros can't call a regression routine for example, but maybe not too serious. Of course, AnalystSoft is trying to get people to buy the upgrade to AnalystSoft Pro. I promise that I will put a review up after I get a chance to play with it. Ownership of AnalystSoft is unclear.

Pivot tables continue to work real well, and now have an improved Pivot Table Builder.

The chart editing is easier with easier connections to the data. Chart editing in Excel:Mac 2008 was cumbersome and buggy.

Powerpoint feels much the same as the old version. The Ribbon being the biggest change that I notice. There are more objects to insert, and many have been upgraded -- for example the org chart app is easier and more flexible.

All versions of Powerpoint handle tables more poorly than Excel or Word because they are graphics. In the 2011 version, there are more canned table formats that helps to address this problem. I will probably continue to paste Word tables into Powerpoint though.

I used Word to make some labels, and it behaves as expected. The Ribbon being the most observable change.

I found a bug in Word and Excel: the keyboard shortcut to Paste-Special does not work in either application. So that is a little annoying. There was no keyboard shortcut for Paste-Special in Excel:Mac 2008 at all.

Microsoft is also offering service on Windows Live, and one can edit documents with the web-app, and then edit them with the desktop version, and vice versa -- though I suppose there are limits to that.

Overall, I am very pleased with Office:Mac 2011. It is a welcome experience after spending three tough years with Office:Mac 2008.

See the follow-up post on Excel Macros.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Does Giving Blood Make Me Tired When I Exercise?

I like to give blood because it feels good, and because I can lose a pound of body weight in about fifteen minutes.

I have been worried that giving blood makes me tired sooner so I can't exercise as hard.

There have been a number of studies on this question. One by Birnbaum et al at College of St Scholastica showed that oxygen absorbed decreased by 10% the day after blood donation.

Another article shows 9%. In this article, an exercise that would tire college students in 11 minutes, now tires them in 10.1 minutes. So this means at the end your workout, you are going to feel tired for those last few minutes.

How long does this decrease in performance last? Strangely, it seems to last a long time1.  In women, half of subjects did not recover their original blood iron content in four weeks, however most recovered faster when given megadoses of iron. In men, recover took between 20 and 59 days, with the average being 36 days. That is, the effect of blood donation endures for sometime, and be sure to take iron pills. The effect of gender seems hard to measure. Presumably menstruating women who are prone to low iron, have an especially difficult time recovering from blood donation. 3

A related topic is blood doping, which is transfusing oneself with extra red blood cells so that the blood carries extra oxygen, and presumably this reduces fatigue. There is not good evidence that this actually works because the body removes the extra blood cells quickly. More specifically, capillary pressure removes liquid from the blood increasing its viscosity. Total blood volume equalizes within an hour or so, and blood viscosity rises. There is also a problem with maintaining the stored blood in prime condition.

The same article talks about natural adaptations of endurance athletes, and these include relatively higher blood volume especially plasma volume, so that iron concentration is actually relatively lower. On the other hand blood viscosity is lower, and this improves heart stroke volume, and oxygen transfer. Faster blood flow also aids cooling of the body.

All this is going to slow me down in donating blood. And if I do, I am going to double up on the iron pills.