Caffeine helps consolidate short-term memory

I’ve been drinking five to eight shots of espresso as my breakfast for many years. People laugh about it. But with this report on the efficacy of caffeine in consolidating short-term memory — what you are learning and dealing with each day — I can point to Science as a justification for my coffee abuse. The interesting thing about caffeine is that it does not have the same effects alone as coffee. All those alkaloids and oils are good, somehow.

Risk and empathy

Here’s why risk is hard to think about: It is deeply distributed across a population, so lightly does risk fall on everyone that it is easy to dismiss its impact on others. But when risk actually strikes, it comes like a nail driven through your flesh, it can feel like the sky falling on you.

Keeping an open mind to the potential risk in any endeavor, learning not to resent when risk strikes, and sharing the burden of unanticipated risk when possible are the key practices that allow a businessperson or bureaucrat to retain their humanity. Otherwise, it is easy to forget that risk is always shared in any relationship or endeavor.

The magic upside of global warming?

Perhaps it is the fact that every visit to the United Kingdom includes multiple comments about how few holidays Americans take or just the end of the last school holiday in my daughter’s high school career, but I’ve also noticed how hard we work in the States through the lens of a new source of days off, “severe weather closures.” Every season these days contributes a share to an annual dose of unscheduled days off due to extremes of heat, cold or storm fronts that bring too much or too little water all at once to a region. If you work in a large organization, you’ve probably seen email about office closures over the last week.

Weather so bad that it is dangerous to go outside may be nature’s way to tell us to relax a bit more. That said, I remember standing on the curb waiting for the school bus in Virginia, Minnesota back in the 1960s, when it seemed to be -30 degrees below 0 Fahrenheit. And it was uphill both ways to the house. Maybe we’re just soft.

Targeting habitable worlds for exploration

Think of where we are, just now. The journal Nature reports on research that provides a testable model for analyzing and, ultimately, visualizing remote worlds for the potential habitability of Earth-like destinations for exploration. Basically, using multiple observations of a planet as large as the planet Uranus in our solar system in transit of its star, the team has built a model that, if confirmed by the James Webb Space Telescope when it is deployed in 2018, confirms the model accurately allows us to predict — and refine our analysis of — the planet’s ability to host life, assuming there is not something on a habitable planet more dominant than ourselves that will annihilate us on arrival, and support colonization by humans or their machines.

Think about that. Like the Dutch company that this week announced it has about one thousand candidates it will send to Mars on a one-way trip, humans can start to make long-term bets on distant colonies by banking the claim represented by a ship or fleet headed off in some direction once it leaves. Even if that ship is not the first to arrive from Earth, it would still represent the initial claim to the planet. So, if space travel could be speeded to or past the speed of light and a later flight arrived first, the initial pioneers’ ancestors would retain their share of the planet, which could even be adjusted for future value as the first travelers’ confidence is reinforced by later followers, even if the followers got their first.

For most of my life, punctuated by my childhood fascination with space travel and the Moon, as well as in the 40- to 90-minute portions of my attention devoted in their hundreds and thousands to Star Trek throughout the past 50 years, I have not believed that man could leave the immediate neighborhood of this planet and its Moon. Maybe it is passing 50 years of age with some advanced aircraft-grade titanium cervical disc replacements. But I’ve come to see that the pioneering of space is the next shitty, but necessary, stretch of road humanity needs to walk in order to take any larger place in the Cosmos than it already has had the audacity to imagine.

Or, perhaps, this exercise in futurism will merely make it clear that mining my neck for its titanium is less profitable, but also much less risky than traveling to a planet orbiting a distant star, and I’ve sealed my own fate by enabling the short-sighted to consume the hearty and spirited men of their times for scrap metal. For anyone missing that this is meant satirically, titanium is not a particularly valuable metal. Really.

Happy New Year, one and all.