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How Buildings Learn

Last week I mentioned The Long Now Foundation, the progenitor of a series of interesting experiments in long-term thinking (such as The Clock of the Long Now and The 10,000 Year Photograph). Stewart Brand was a Long Now founder, and still co-chairs its board. He's an interesting guy -- a former Merry Prankster, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, and much more.

In 1994, Brand wrote How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built. The book is an extended argument about architecture and construction, trying to single out what factors make great buildings great, and what makes failed buildings so bad. Why do some buildings seem to improve with time and adapt to change, while others seem doomed from the beginning? In 1997, the BBC produced a three-hour documentary based on Brand's book, traveling around the world to examine various buildings and interview stakeholders about how they work. Brand has now posted the BBC documentary in its entirety online (in six parts) via Google Video. If you're interested in architecture, history, or sustainable design, this will be an interesting way to spend your afternoon. Here's the first segment:

See the whole thing: part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, and part six. Keep in mind that because this is Google Video, you can download the videos in standard MPEG-4 format, playable on iPods or other video players -- just click the "download video" link on the right side of the links listed above.

(Via Kottke.org.)

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Brain Training Could Help Combat Hearing Loss, Study Suggests
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Contrary to what you might think, the hearing loss that accompanies getting older isn't entirely about your ears. Studies have found that as people get older, the parts of their brain that process speech slow down, and it becomes especially difficult to isolate one voice in a noisy environment. New research suggests there may be a way to help older people hear better: brain training.

The Verge reports that a new double-blind study published in Current Biology suggests that a video game could help older people improve their hearing ability. Though the study was too small to be conclusive, the results are notable in the wake of several large studies in the past few years that found that the brain-training games on apps like Luminosity don't improve cognitive skills in the real world. Most research on brain training games has found that while you might get better at the game, you probably won't be able to translate that skill to your real life.

In the current study, the researchers recruited 24 older adults, all of whom were long-term hearing-aid users, for eight weeks of video game training. The average age was 70. Musical training has been associated with stronger audio perception, so half of the participants were asked to play a game that asked them to identify subtle changes in tones—like you would hear in a piece of music—in order to piece together a puzzle, and the other half played a placebo game designed to test their memory. In the former, as the levels got more difficult, the background noise got louder. The researchers compare the task to a violinist tuning out the rest of the orchestra in order to listen to just their own instrument.

After eight weeks of playing their respective games around three-and-a-half hours a week, the group that played the placebo memory game didn't perform any better on a speech perception test that asked participants to identify sentences or words amid competing voices. But those who played the tone-changing puzzle game saw significant improvement in their ability to process speech in noise conditions close to what you'd hear in an average restaurant. The tone puzzle group were able to accurately identify 25 percent more words against loud background noise than before their training.

The training was more successful for some participants than others, and since this is only one small study, it's possible that as this kind of research progresses, researchers might find a more effective game design for this purpose. But the study shows that in specific instances, brain training games can benefit users. This kind of game can't eliminate the need for hearing aids, but it can help improve speech recognition in situations where hearing aids often fail (e.g., when there is more than one voice speaking). However, once the participants stopped playing the game for a few months, their gains disappeared, indicating that it would have to be a regular practice.

[h/t The Verge]

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11-Year-Old Creates a Better Way to Test for Lead in Water
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In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, a Colorado middle schooler has invented a better way to test lead levels in water, as The Cut reports.

Gitanjali Rao, an 11-year-old seventh grader in Lone Tree, Colorado just won the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, taking home $25,000 for the water-quality testing device she invented, called Tethys.

Rao was inspired to create the device after watching Flint's water crisis unfold over the last few years. In 2014, after the city of Flint cut costs by switching water sources used for its tap water and failed to treat it properly, lead levels in the city's water skyrocketed. By 2015, researchers testing the water found that 40 percent of homes in the city had elevated lead levels in their water, and recommended the state declare Flint's water unsafe for drinking or cooking. In December of that year, the city declared a state of emergency. Researchers have found that the lead-poisoned water resulted in a "horrifyingly large" impact on fetal death rates as well as leading to a Legionnaires' disease outbreak that killed 12 people.

A close-up of the Tethys device

Rao's parents are engineers, and she watched them as they tried to test the lead in their own house, experiencing firsthand how complicated it could be. She spotted news of a cutting-edge technology for detecting hazardous substances on MIT's engineering department website (which she checks regularly just to see "if there's anything new," as ABC News reports) then set to work creating Tethys. The device works with carbon nanotube sensors to detect lead levels faster than other current techniques, sending the results to a smartphone app.

As one of 10 finalists for the Young Scientist Challenge, Rao spent the summer working with a 3M scientist to refine her device, then presented the prototype to a panel of judges from 3M and schools across the country.

The contamination crisis in Flint is still ongoing, and Rao's invention could have a significant impact. In March 2017, Flint officials cautioned that it could be as long as two more years until the city's tap water will be safe enough to drink without filtering. The state of Michigan now plans to replace water pipes leading to 18,000 households by 2020. Until then, residents using water filters could use a device like Tethys to make sure the water they're drinking is safe. Rao plans to put most of the $25,000 prize money back into her project with the hopes of making the device commercially available.

[h/t The Cut]

All images by Andy King, courtesy of the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.

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