Stories tagged computer simulation


Neanderthal skulls: They're speaking to each other, but we can't understand. Or we don't want to.
Neanderthal skulls: They're speaking to each other, but we can't understand. Or we don't want to.Courtesy leted
Imagine how a Neanderthal would have sounded. Do it.

Maybe something along the lines of Darth Gorilla? That was my thought. Anyway, hold that sound in your head… and forget it. Here, for the first time in 30,000 years, you can hear a single syllable of Neanderthal speech. Click here, and listen to a voice from the depths of time…

Um, what? Let’s try that again. The ghosts of the distant past whisper their secrets to us

I see… Well that was a little… underwhelming. Underwhelming and vaguely familiar… What could it possibly be that I’m thinking of? What could I have heard in my short life that might sound anything like a might Neanderthal? What indeed?

Well, like it or not, that mind-blowing audio simulation is the product of a recent study by an anthropologist at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. Based on skeletal remains, Dr. Robert McCarthy has reconstructed Neanderthal vocal tracts to simulate what their voices might have sounded like.

While it’s likely that Neanderthals could speak (there’s some evidence that they used pigments to decorate themselves, which suggests at least basic communication), McCarthy says they would have sounded a “bit different,” and would have been unable to produce “quantal vowels.”

Quantal vowels are the basis for much of human speech, and allow, for example, us to distinguish a word like “beat” from a similar word, like “bit.” So here’s the same type of simulation with a human voice producing an “E” sound.

And, once again, here’s the stentorian bellow of the Neanderthal, attempting to produce the same sound. The Neanderthals must have lived in a confusing world, with fate being put in their shoes, and sandwiches full of mate.

Even though people would probably have a difficult time understanding each other without the use of quantal vowels, many anthropologists believe that the anatomy of the throat and mouth is less important for language than the “neuronal control over it.” Even if Neanderthals were physically unable to speak quite like modern humans, that doesn’t necessarily imply that they were less effective communicators. In fact, Neanderthals have been shown to share the gene “FOXP2” with humans—something other primates don’t possess. When a person is missing a copy of FOXP2, they suffer from language and speech disorders, leading some to believe that its presence in Neanderthals is an indicator of the capacity for speech.



A new way to help: Therapists in England are using a new computer game -- Fearfighter -- to work with the backlog of patients who have long waits getting appointments of psychological treatments. Patients are getting off the couch and logging on to a computer for help. (Flickr photo by semi-awesome)
A new way to help: Therapists in England are using a new computer game -- Fearfighter -- to work with the backlog of patients who have long waits getting appointments of psychological treatments. Patients are getting off the couch and logging on to a computer for help. (Flickr photo by semi-awesome)
A post a while back about the potential for becoming addicted to playing video games is still generating comments. Now comes word from England that psychological help is being offered through a video game.

It’s a new concept for dealing with an overloaded therapy field. People in England wanting to see a therapist may have to wait up to six months before they can get an appointment.

Now along comes “Fearfighter,” a psychiatric computer game that allows users to download their problems and issues into the online computer game. A British health group has endorsed the program as a way to deal with panic attacks, mild depression or phobias. And the British National Health Service will pay for people to use the service.

The treatment is especially effective for people dealing with phobias. Regardless of what they’re afraid of, they receive much of the same treatment and questioning from a therapist. The new computer game handles a lot of those routine tasks, allowing patients to deal with some of their issues while they’re waiting to have an actual appointment with a person.

Getting people over those problems often involves getting the patient to think in a new way. Through questions and responses, a computer can be programmed to help people turn their viewpoints around.

Another strength to “Fearfighter” is that it is anonymous. Patients who might be shy about opening up their thoughts to another person find they can be much more upfront with a computer.

Through the program, patients learn how to recognize the signs of things that trigger their fears with the thought that they’ll then be able to know how to avoid those traps in the future. Another component of the treatment, patients watch actors going through scenarios of problems they face and see new ways of coping with them. The program can also give directions on how to cope with the fears patients are dealing with. “Fearfighter” gives patients homework, assignments on how to deal with the things that they’re afraid of.

Health professionals monitor the activity and are available to communicate with people using it who need immediate professional help. So far, a couple thousand patients have received treatments through the program and the British therapy community figures it should enable them to reach twice as many patients.

Do you think this is a good way to help people deal with their problems? Share your thoughts here with other Science Buzz readers.


Corrupted Blood ravages the WoW: Don't worry though. If you use protection, it's very unlikely that your blood will be corrupted. I recommend mithril armor.  (Image from Wikipedia Commons)
Corrupted Blood ravages the WoW: Don't worry though. If you use protection, it's very unlikely that your blood will be corrupted. I recommend mithril armor. (Image from Wikipedia Commons)
If only real life were more like computer games. We could go around casting spells (zap!) and slaying monsters, and then search through their bodies for gold and potions and stuff. Kicking over trashcans and searching them for valuables isn’t nearly as fun, even if you are dressed as a night elf (although that helps a little). I can’t seem to level up, no matter how many hours I put into life, and as often as refer to myself as Pussywillow Bloodtalon, my mother still insists on calling me JGordon.

Yeah, real life could stand to be a little more like videogames. It seems ironic, then, that epidemiologists have recently been turning to computer games to see how they could be like real life.

These epidemiologists (scientists who study the factors effecting health and illness of populations) have proposed using “massively multiplayer online role-playing games,” like World of Warcraft, to simulate the spread of serious diseases through large populations, and to see what might be done to effectively control them. (For those of you who aren’t familiar with them, World of Warcraft, and other online role-playing games, allow thousands of players to interact with each other in the same game world. There are monsters and swords and things too.)

The idea surfaced back in 2005, when the developers of World of Warcraft created a new area for the game. In this area, players’ characters could catch a disease called “Corrupted Blood.” Corrupted Blood would rapidly drain a character’s health, and the idea was that weaker characters would be “killed” by the disease, while stronger, more experienced characters could keep themselves alive until the condition passed. However, the disease was programmed so that it could be passed from character to character if they got too close, or from a player-controlled character to a non-player controlled character, or to a pet, who could then pass it on again to other players (just like influenza or the plague, which can be spread by animals). Before long, the Corrupted Blood disease left its original area, and moved into large cities in the game, carried there by players and their pets. The cities were rendered uninhabitable (as far as one can inhabit a virtual city), and players began avoiding any area with large groups of other players, for fear of their character becoming infected. The game developers attempted to set up quarantine areas to halt the spread of the plague, but ultimately had to shut down the game servers and reboot them with the disease changed so that it was unable to spread between players.

Epidemiologists, who have largely had to rely on mathematical models to predict the spread and “behavior” of serious diseases, are fascinated to see how people actually react to a plague like this (even if it was just a virtual plague for virtual people). The Corrupted Blood scenario, and others like it, could help show how people might actually react to a quarantine, and to what extent they would be willing to cooperate when scared.

Skeptics have argued that people would probably treat a real epidemic much more seriously than one confined to a game. Others argue that, with the amount of time and effort players put into their gaming alter-egos, they become emotionally invested in protecting their characters, and would therefore still be useful for modeling behavior during a real outbreak.

As I suggested earlier, I think the scientists have it completely backwards. Their effort would be better spent developing more effective life potions and healing spells. And, as horrifying as the prospect of catching Corrupted Blood may be, the epidemiologists are ignoring the very real threat of dragons and rogue level 70 players. Far be it from me to pass judgment, though. I’m about done here anyway – I’ll be starting a quest to the bathroom in a moment. It promises to be a tooth whitening adventure.


Just out for a jog: Can you run at 18 mph?  (photo by mcdlttx on
Just out for a jog: Can you run at 18 mph? (photo by mcdlttx on
For the younger Science Buzz readers – it’s very important that you understand how cool the Tyrannosaurus Rex is. Super cool. The adults reading this, of course, already know this fact. It’s one of those things you just pick up, and it sticks with you – like riding a bike, or what it feels like to be hungover. You never forget.

However, kids, as you go through your little lives, you will also occasionally encounter those doubting Thomases and sassy Williams who will try to lead you astray, who will try to tell you that the Tyrannosaurus Rex did not, in fact, evolve with the sole purpose of being a reptilian Fonzie. Ignore them! (The major difference between the tyrannosaur species and Arthur Fonzarelli is a simple lack of thumbs. This is barely enough to scientifically distinguish the two.)

These doubters and killjoys will tell you, among other things, that the lizard king was not a running, hunting, killing machine, but more of a flat-tired Cretaceous garbage truck – a scavenger, not a hunter. Part of this argument has to do with dinosaur’s velocity; to be a successful hunter, the T. Rex would have to be able achieve a decent top-speed, if only for a short while. In Jurassic Park, you might remember, the T. Rex was shown galloping along at about 30 mph. The joyless haters have argued that for the tyrannosaurus to reach anything like this speed, the majority of its body mass would have had to have been in its leg muscles, which was almost certainly not the case. The Rex, they say, would more likely have lumbered around looking for already-dead animals to feast off of.

This argument, however, is modeled on the body structure of extant bipedal animals (like flightless birds). Scientists at the University of Manchester have pointed out that the tyrannosaurs weren’t really built like the bipedal animals living today, and have recently developed a new and probably more accurate method of measuring their top speed.

The Manchester researchers developed a computer program that uses the given muscle and bone structure of an animal, and slowly works out the creature’s optimum movement patterns and top speed. They fed data for five dinosaur species (including the T. Rex), as well as that of several existing bipedal animals, into their supercomputer. The scientists had to make an educated guess as to the muscle strength and density of the dinosaurs, but used the same modeling techniques for the dinosaurs as they did for the living animals.

The computer took about a week to work out what each animal’s optimum running gait and posture would be, but finally yielded some interesting results. According to the program, an athletic human’s top speed should be about 18 mph, and an ostrich’s about 35 mph. Both of these are pretty accurate, if just slightly on the slow side (Some Olympic track and field athletes can reach about 29, and ostriches can get to about 40). For the dinosaurs, they found that the famous velociraptor could probably reach about 24 mph, the compsognathus 40 (pretty good for such a little guy), an allosaurus 21, and that the tyrannosaurus rex could do about 18 mph.

18 mph. I think that’s pretty respectable. More than respectable, actually - it’s cool. I mean, I’m fairly cool, and I can’t run 18 mph. And while I’m willing to cede that the tyrannosaurus might have scavenged as the opportunity presented itself, I think 18 mph is more than enough to ambush a hadrosaur or triceratops now and again. At the very least. Also, let’s not be too judgmental over the whole scavenging thing. Who doesn’t, really? I ate half of a potato chip off of my floor this morning. Does that make me a scavenger? No, it makes me an efficient consumer. And it certainly doesn’t mean that I’m not a hunter. Come to my neighborhood and count the rats, and we’ll see who’s a hunter.


A shark, doing it's best: Mostly he just wants to be left alone.    (photo by Mshai on
A shark, doing it's best: Mostly he just wants to be left alone. (photo by Mshai on
Scientists in New South Wales and Florida are testing a new method of measuring the biting force of a great white shark using computer models.

Attempts have been made to measure sharks’ biting force underwater, in captivity and in the wild, although these are known to provide inadequate results. Sharks will generally do weak a “test bite” before applying the full force of their jaws, and these test bites are generally all that’s measured.

In this new experiment, researchers are dissecting a 2.4-meter long great white shark, in part to make an extremely accurate computer model of its anatomy, and in part to drive home the point that the animal should have just allowed them to measure its bite while it was alive. Advanced computing methods, originally developed for “calculating stresses in structures such as bridges,” will then be applied to the model, and should provide a much more accurate range of the shark’s biting force.

This process contrasts sharply with my own, I believe, much more elegant test of shark biting power. There are several simple steps involved in my method: Step 1 – gather a variety of small to medium sized objects. Step 2 - Rate the hardness of these objects, not on an objectively quantified scale, but relatively (for example: The kitten is harder than the pillow, but not as hard as the dictionary). Step 3 - Take these objects to your nearest shark. Get the shark to bite the objects (this can be difficult, but the right combination of chum and verbal abuse should do the trick). You will then have a simple and easy to understand scale of shark biting strength (for example: the shark could crush the pillow, the kitten, the dictionary, and the cookie jar, but not the lawn mower engine). If you still feel, at this point, that you need a measurement that uses more universally accepted units, you can then crush similar objects by yourself, far away from the shark, using free weights, or forty-pound bags of dog food. These can then be easily converted into newtons, or pounds per square inch, or whatever your physics teacher requires.

If the computer model method proves to give reasonably accurate results, I suppose it will then be up to individual researchers to choose that method or mine. It will just depend on whether someone doesn’t want to get their hands dirty, or if they care about style and integrity.