NOTICE: Posting schedule is irregular. I hope to get back to a regular schedule as the day-job allows.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Brief Explanation [Full link to blog for email clients.]

Sorry folks, I really haven't meant fo rthis blog to languish, but there's been a small development that has afected the content I had planned this fall.

I am currently contracted to two different projects that will involve writing content quite similar to what I normally post here.  One project is under Nondisclosure until after Jan. 1, after which I will do my part to assist in the promotion.  The other project involves the "Interfacing the Brain" topic that I had planned to post within the past couple of months.  That project was put on hold due to the similarity to a a couple of articles for Baen Books.  The first of these should appear in February, and I'll post here with links when it is up.

Sorry to be such a slacker, but I promise that I really am working on some good content, and trying to figure out a direction for this blog in 2013.

If there's any topic in particular that you'd like to see covered here - even if it's been blogged before and you want a different perspective, please let me know.

In the meantime, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah. Joyous Solstice, Blessed New Year and everything in between -

- from Speaker and the Lab Rats.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Review - Darkship Renegades [Full link to blog for email clients.]

Sarah A. Hoyt's newest book is out: Darkship Renegades

Earth had been ruled by tyrants, madmen, murderers and cut-throats.  It had never been ruled by a saint. Heaven help us all if a saint ever did.

Jarl Ingemar was neither Devil nor Angel, but the gene tamperers of old had designed him to rule Earth. He did not seek out power, but it was his DUTY.  Athena Hera Sinistra knew just how far the power-hungry would go to rule Earth or even her adopted home, Eden, but when an accidental chain of events ends up given her husband the memories and personality of his 'ancestor' Jarl Ingemar, Athena knew he had to be stopped.

Earth and Eden depended on Thena stopping the transformation.

And she wanted her husband back.

Dark Ship Renegades is Sarah A. Hoyt’s rollicking sequel to the Prometheus Award-winning Darkship Thieves.  DSR is Space Opera at its finest - a canvas the size of Earth and Eden; a revolution in the making; the love of Athena Sinistra’s life in danger; and the combined populace of two words standing in her way. 

'Thena is a hero for fans of strong female characters. She knows what she wants [her husband back] even if she has to wreak havoc wearing nothing but her birthday suit and various improvised hammers and knives.

It is not necessary to read Dark Ship Thieves to make sense of DSR, but it wouldn’t hurt.  Sarah Hoyt has created a future world with problems not unlike our own – power-hungry bureaucrats, rebellion against corrupt rulers, and an unusual case of mistaken identity.

Watch the interview: 

Read Sarah's Christmas Story featuring Jarl:

...and my science tie-in article:

Friday, November 23, 2012

Black Friday - Repost [Full link to blog for email clients.]

[Originally published Black Friday of 2011]

 An Open Letter to U.S. Retailers:

You wouldn't allow your employees to be intoxicated at work.

Why are you encouraging them to work while sleep-deprived?

The frank truth is that lack of sleep produces many of the same mental effects as being drunk or high, and Black Friday will be staffed by employees operating on too little sleep.  The busiest retail day of the year is also the day when clerks and shoppers both are at the greatest risk of making serious judgmental errors at potentially high costs.

The factors that could lead to serious lapses in judgment include:
  1. Sudden shift from working during the day to working during normal sleep hours.
  2. Long work hours
  3. Difficulty in sleeping during the day
Many stores are opening at very early hours on the Friday after Thanksgiving.  Shops which normally open at 8, 9 or 10 AM will open at Midnight, 3 or 4 AM.  The employees will have to report to work 5-8 hrs early than normal, in fact, they will start work during the times of the day when they are usually asleep and all bodily functions are at a minimum.  It is as if they had suddenly traveled from the U.S. to Europe, with all of the symptoms of jet lag, without the elapsed time.

[2012 Update - this year some stores opened 8PM Thanksgiving Day with many more stores joining the "midnight opening" than in 2011.]

To make matters worse, many of your employees will attempt to go to sleep in the afternoon or early evening so that they get a decent amount of sleep before getting up and going to work.  The human body's daily cycles and rhythms involve 6-10 hours of sleep, followed by 16-18 hrs awake.  Most people find it difficult to sleep when they have been awake for less than 12 hours, thus even if the employee tries to go to sleep at 6 PM (to be up at midnight and at work at 2 AM) they will spend a lot of time trying to sleep, but not succeeding.  For those stores opening midnight or earlier, most employees will choose not to sleep, resulting in them working when they have been 24-30 hours without sleep.  It is a well known factor of "swing-shift" workers that it takes about a week for a worker to adjust their sleep schedules from day to night shifts (or vice-versa) [scientific reference: Kolla and Auger, Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, October 2011, volume 78, number 10, pages 675-684].

So now your employees have disrupted sleep cycles, are working during the time of night when their body is conditioned to be asleep, and they are sleep-deprived. What does that mean for their ability to function at their job?  Sleep deprivation slows reaction times, impairs memory and alters judgment.  A study in primates a few years ago demonstrated that following a single night of lost sleep, critical brain areas showed reduced activity, while other brain ares have to work harder to compensate [scientific reference: Porrino et al., Public Library of Science - Biology, September 2005, volume 3, number 9, page e299].  When sleep deprived, it is difficult to form and use short term memory - such as ringing sales and making change.  It is also difficult to make critical decisions, such as identifying shoplifters or when to allow exceptions to sale terms.

Essentially, people who are sleep deprived show many of the same impairments of a person with a legally impaired blood alcohol level even though they do not show the same physical effects [scientific reference: Citek at al., Journal of Forensic Science, September 2011, volume 56, number 5, pages 1170-1179].  While factories, shops and offices that normally operate evening and night shifts have employees who are accustomed to working in the dark hours of the morning, most retail employees (and shoppers) are not.  Thus, not only are your employees working impaired, your customers are shopping and driving while impaired.  The increase in traffic incidents and police responses on Black Friday is commonly attributed to the size of the crowds, however, the increasing trend of early opening and sleep-deprived public has to be be compounding the problem. 

Finally, the trend of increasingly early opening is robbing your employees of the very holiday and family time that is provided by closing businesses on Thanksgiving day In order to attempt the sleep necessary to be at work at midnight or 4 AM, your employees have to shut their families out and attempt to sleep or nap during the afternoon or early evening hours.  As described above, they may make the effort, but the likelihood of success is low.

It is a nice sentiment to close your business to allow employees to be at home with their families, but it all rings hollow when you steal the time back in order to be the first store open the next day - particularly with employees who are working while impaired..


This is not a rant against retail or capitalism.  For many years I shopped on Black Friday because it was the only time to shop for the kids, without the kids.  I understand that retailers are depending on increased volume of sales at discounted prices in these economic times.  From personal experience I know that Black Friday crowds mean that most shoppers will be able to visit only one or two store, thus early opening is an incentive to get shoppers in your store first.  

My wife works in retail - store-level administration & operations support - and reported for work at 10:30 PM Thanksgiving Day.  Their store opened at Midnight, and she will be busy from then until about 8 AM onward fixing the problems that are guaranteed to occur on Black Friday.  Thus, I will be out in the early hours of Black Friday driving my wife to and from work to ensure that she does not drive while sleep deprived.  She got no additional sleep, and will have been awake for more than 26 hours by the time she returns home in the morning.  I on the other hand, have a sleep schedule which allows me to function appropriately after midnight, a luxury not afforded to employees working day-light shifts on any other day.  

Please understand that this is a reasoned appeal, backed by scientific evidence, to reverse a trend that encourages Americans to work, shop, drive and make decisions under conditions that impair all of those functions.  We may not be able to reverse the trend, but at the very least I hope that by understanding these effects we will be better informed if/when incidents occur due to sleep deprivation. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

MAILBAG: A Question regarding stroke [Full link to blog for email clients.]

I recently received the following question in an email.  I started to answer - in email - and realized (a) I needed illustrations, (b) the question fit the scope of this blog, and (c) I needed to get off of my duff and get back to blogging...

Speaker, you may or may not know the answer to this question, but: Can a stroke be survivable but severe enough to leave the adult at little more than a young child’s capabilities? Motor movement mostly unimpaired (a listing shamble, maybe), perhaps with an ability to obey simple commands, but intelligence, emotional control, and higher reasoning abilities destroyed? I *believe* I’ve heard of such cases, but at least a few cursory searches haven’t given me much in the way of conclusive results.

Great question!  I think I can answer this with a number of different possibilities, but first let's get the brain parts back up here...

Let's talk about the functions, briefly, then get to the question of what could happen with a stroke in each of the different areas.

Occipital lobe is the primary vision center.  Parietal lobe has a lot of the processing areas for the senses - not necessarily what we call primary sensory cortex - but the regions that interpret complex information and combine senses.  The Central Sulcus is an important landmark - on the Parietal side is the Somatosensory Cortex - the region that handles the sense of touch for the body (i.e. "tactile" sensation) and knowledge of body/limb position ("proprioception").  On the Frontal side of the sulcus is the Primary Motor Cortex that controls voluntary muscle movement.  The Frontal lobe is involved in motor and behavior planning, decision making, assessing risk vs. reward, and is also involved in personality.  The Temporal lobe contains the Primary Auditory Cortex along the "top" surface (Sylvian Fissure).  Deep inside the Temporal lobe are the Hippocampus - responsible for memory processing, Amygdala - involved in emotional and "historical" context for memory, and the Pyriform Cortex - involved in taste and smell.

The striped gray area at the back of brain is the Cerebellum, involved in movement coordination and coordinating motion with sensation (sight & sound).  The white "stick" at the bottom is the lowest extent of the Brainstem and Midbrain, which contains most of the "automatic" (technically termed the "Autonomic") functions of involuntary muscle movement.  The latter includes breathing, swallowing, reflexes, heart rate, blood pressure, plus body temperature, and other "maintenance" functions.  There are also some "junctional" specializations:  At the junction of Temporal and Parietal lobes is Wernicke's area involved in language; while at the junction of Temporal and Frontal lobe is Broca's area involved in speech.

A stroke can occur anywhere in the brain.  The process usually involves blood clot forming somewhere else, breaking loose, then traveling through the larger blood vessels until it lodges in and blocks a smaller blood vessel.  The effects of the stroke can be predicted by understanding the principal functions handled by each candidate brain area.  Thus a stroke in the Temporal lobe would likely involve memory - in the Occipital lobe may affect vision - along the central sulcus would affect movement and touch sensation.

Some brain regions are *more* likely to suffer from stroke due to function, blood flow and size of the blood vessels - these include the motor cortical and somatosensory areas, Temporal lobe and Brainstem.  Severity of the stroke also depends on the brain area and how large a region is affected.  Remember that small blood vessels generally only cover a small area.  Quite frequently "ministroke" or Transient Ischemic Attacks (TIAs) result from very small clots and blockages, or even spasms of the small muscles surrounding blood vessel (to regulate blood pressure).  These can indeed be quite minor and even temporary.

Major strokes - such as to a large vessel or just about anything involving brainstem - are likely to result in DRT - "dead right there" with little hope of survivability (or recovery if survived).  TIAs and small stroke can be almost unnoticeable unless they affect a major function that itself only occupies a small area (such as the center of the visual field or a speech/language center).  Even large strokes to the Parietal or Frontal lobe may not have apparent effects if they do not directly involve the motor and somatosensory regions.

And thus we come to the heart of the question - is there a  type of stroke that is survivable, and basically just affects the "mind" or the patient?

Yes.  The information above should help the reader build up to the understanding that much of what we consider "mental" capacity is based on memory, decision-making, "executive function" (sort of like decision-making, but more broadly including judgement, selection, assessment), and personality.  Frontal and Temporal lobe strokes fall directly into this category.  Such a stroke in Frontal lobe would have to cover a large area to be noticeable - increasing the risk that it would include motor cortex, Broca's area or other lobes of the brain.  Temporal lobe strokes can also impinge on language and speech areas in addition to memory and emotional processing.  Parietal strokes can result in the inability to fully process and integrate sensory information even though the senses themselves are unaffected.  Such as result could manifest as seeing an apple, describing it as red and round, but unable to speak the name (while possibly even being able to write the name!). 

The probability of a stroke severe enough to affect personality, memory and decision-making, but not affecting the more noticeable triad of motor-speech-tactile is low.  Generally a stroke severe enough to affect the "mind" is pretty severe and will be evident in other signs.  That likely results in the inability to find much in internet searches. The secondary cause for lack of information goes back to the bloodflow into those areas of the brain - some areas get blood flow from two different directions - reducing chance of a single clot causing a stroke.  Frontal cortex is one of those areas, so again, the incidence of  something severe enough to be noticeable and survivable is low.

SO, I hope that answers the question.  As always, I welcome questions and will answer them here when I get the chance.

Please check back for the final installments of The Lab Rats Guide to the Brain:  Interfacing the Brain - coming soon to this blog!