Right Now in Stuff You Should Know

There's an interesting article from yesterday's New York Times about a school in the Bronx that's experimenting with splitting up the girls and boys in its fifth grade class. The goal is basically to see what happens in relation to behavioral improvements, testing, etc. It turns out that there's even a national movement going on to split up boys and girls in public schools. There are more than 400 such classes around the country, thanks to a federal regulation passed in 2004 that gave schools the right to do so. There isn't enough test data yet to suggest that the move has academic benefits, but teachers and students alike have good things to say so far. Both male and female teachers feel that it's bonding them to their students more and that the students are bonding to each other.

Thanks to the fMRI (the wonder machine), neurology is beginning to get a handle on what regions of the brain control what processes. Show a PTSD sufferer photos of mutilated bodies and the amygdala lights up. Boo-ya! (Two neurologists high five in a dark lab somewhere.) But the wonder machine only provides a map of what brain regions receive blood during a specific function. MRIs say dig here. Still, the technology represents a huge leap in brain research. What really keeps neurologists, philosophers and all manner of other thinkers up all night is what's called the mind-brain problem. As NPR reporter Jon Hamilton recently put it, "How could a bunch of cells produce such complicated mental processes as consciousness or subjective experiences?" It's not like our brain cells rub together really, really fast and produce what we consider our minds like two sticks rubbed together produce fire.

Sometimes a story comes along from the sporting world that makes so much sense you wonder why more people didn't think of it first. Consider the case of Jason Belmonte, the two-handed bowler. This guy has been profiled by the likes of The Wall Street Journal and "Good Morning America" simply because he does what came naturally to him. From a young age, Jason bowled with both hands and because of his early success, he never sought to change his ways. Over the years, Belmonte was criticized by various bowling coaches (yes, they exist) but he stuck with the odd technique. He bowled his first perfect game by the age of 16 and has been a professional bowler for six years now. Although he's not a member of the PBA tour yet, he did get exemptions from the league to participate in two tournaments this season, something that has chaffed one-handed purists.

One can imagine my dismay upon realizing recently that I may not have developed correctly in the womb. After my glasses disintegrated on Sunday I opted for contacts, since they're cheaper. Everything was going swimmingly until I took a good long look in the mirror and thought, "Huh, I don't remember my eyes being that close together."

Who owns the oceans?

International waters cover 71% of the Earth's surface, and a separate set of laws and regulations govern human activity on the seas. But who actually owns the oceans? Listen and find out in this podcast from HowStuffWorks.com.

If you have a hairy belly, then you're familiar with the fun of belly button fluff. Most people probably think that this lint is just tiny bits of cotton collected in the navel from the clothes they wear. Well, that's partially true. But an article last week in the London Telegraph reveals that belly button fluff is a little more complicated than that. A chemist spent three years studying his own navel fluff as well as talking to other people about their own. He found that while it's largely cotton lint, it also contains fat, sweat, dust and dead skin. The small hairs around the navel curve inward and act like tiny hooks, pulling in the funky concoction to lay at rest in the belly of your belly. How's that for some Monday water cooler talk?

This fine morning, Reuters is reporting that over in Vietnam 80 percent of the vodka consumed is produced at home. Just four percent of the vodka found in the steamy Southeast Asian country is imported. The homemade liquor the Vietnamese are making is distilled from rice or corn, which may or may not make for some truly horrible vodka. It's not like the Vietnamese have much of a choice; a series of fake liquor rings have been busted by the government. In the face of a loss of trust that liquor bought at stores actually has alcohol in it, can these people be blamed for making their own? Here's an even better question: Why don't hard drinkers the world round take a cue from our Vietnamese brothers and sisters and make our own booze? Funny I should ask; Chuck and I covered this...

This week on Stuff You Should Know, Josh and I had the pleasure of talking about a couple of real oddities. Alien Hand Syndrome is a very rare disorder in which a person's hand takes on a life of its own, without the knowledge of the owner. The offending hand performs purposeful actions like tearing paper or unbuttoning a shirt. It's so rare that there are more fictional cases in movies and on TV as there are real cases. Think "Evil Dead" and "Dr. Strangelove." It's very interesting stuff that science can't fully explain and we had a lot of fun with it. Tuesday's show was about the so-called "thinking cap." This is a device that attaches to your head and sends magnetic pulses directly to the brain and has resulted in some fascinating findings.

Down Mexico way, border towns have long been a lure for Americans looking for a place where we can enjoy slightly laxer enforcement of rules concerning underage drinking, prostitution and marijuana consumption. Sure, it's always been a good idea to keep one's guard up when spending a weekend in a border town, but the welcome sign's always been out.

Trekmovie.com reported yesterday that jewelry manufacturer Genki Wear is releasing three Star Trek colognes and perfumes based on the original TV series. Genki Wear is known for selling officially licensed sci-fi replica jewelry -- think "Buffy" necklaces and the like. The scent venture is no doubt an attempt to capitalize on press generated by the soon-to-be released Trek "prequel" from director J.J. Abrams. The fragrances are named for various facets of the Trek universe -- "Tiberius" "Red Shirt" and "Ponn Farr." Genki Wear calls the Tiberius scent "difficult to define" which sounds like a great marketing tag if you ask me. Red Shirt is named for the countless Enterprise crew members that were introduced only to quickly be killed away. (Apparently they were known for wearing red shirts.) Ponn Farr is named for a "Vulcan mating ritual" -- another great tag.

It's a nervous time to be a past or present national leader 'round the world. The Detroit Free Press is reporting that here in the States, the Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, is mulling over creating a panel to investigate possible human rights violations carried out in the name of counterterrorism by the Bush administration. The concept has set off a flurry of criticism; chiefly, would prosecutions of high-ranking government officials -- the very same people who ran the world just a few months ago -- open the door for human rights indictments by bodies like the International Criminal Court? The ICC's not a paper tiger. Since it was permanently established in 1998, it's been responsible for indicting and prosecuting leaders like Bosnian Serb leaders Dragomar Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic, Liberian president Charles Taylor, Rwanda's Jean Kambanda and countless lesser government and military officials ...

How Alien Hand Syndrome Works

When a person has alien hand syndrome, his or her hand can move involuntarily, and seemingly of its own volition. Tune in and learn more about this misunderstood syndrome in this podcast from HowStuffWorks.com.

MSNBC reported yesterday that a fertility clinic in Los Angeles (shocker) is now allowing prospective parents to pick and choose certain physical characteristics of their baby-to-be. Yes, this means that if you have the cash, you can order a baby with blonde hair and blue eyes if you so desire. The clinic claims it's already gotten half a dozen requests for these "designer babies" and expects to roll out the first line next year. The method used to screen for these characteristics is called preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). It's been used since 1990 to help couples avoid passing on serious genetic diseases to their babies. It's also been used to help create "savior siblings" -- babies that are a good genetic match for older brothers or sisters that might need some blood or bone marrow, for instance.

Thank you to our brothers and sisters at Xenophilia for pointing out an article in New Scientist from last December about Japanese researchers in Kyoto who have managed to recreate images words and numbers that subjects in a fMRI are looking at by scanning their brains. The team, based at ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories and led by Yakiyasu Kamitani, showed a group of words and numbers on a 10-square grid while scanning their brains. The scans were recorded to determine the activity present in the brain based on the perception of white and black pixels. Put together, the contrast of light and dark forms an image we perceive visually, but the brain picks this contrast out pixel by pixel. For example, the pixels that are blacked out in a square to form the letter "n" are different than those that form the letter "w."

This morning I came across an interesting story on MSNBC.com that revealed the discovery of a 300 million year-old fish fossil. Ordinarily this wouldn't be the biggest deal in the world. It's not the oldest fossil on record -- that distinction belongs to an ancient sponge believed to be 635 million years old. It's not even the oldest fish fossil on record. That honor goes to a fossil found in China in 1999 that's estimated to be 530 million years old. The cool thing about the recent find is that it's a fossil of a brain. This makes it an extremely rare find and the oldest brain (fossil) on earth. Most ancient fossils are from bones, not organs or soft tissue. There's been some fossilized muscle tissue found here and there, and fossilized kidneys have also been discovered.

Having been a kid for a little while, I think I'm qualified to speak on how squirrelly they are. I can tell you that kids may eat scratch-and-sniff stickers that have laid on the ground for awhile. They also may cross streams with other weird kids in the bathroom...

Could a 'thinking cap' make me a genius?

When Allan Snyder discovered that transcranial magnetic stimulation produces strange cognitive changes, he believed he'd stumbled upon a "creativity-amplifying machine." Learn more about the real-life thinking cap in this podcast from HowStuffWorks.com.

We all know the familiar bedtime mantra -- goodnight, sleep tight and don't let the bedbugs bite. I remember hearing this as a child and thinking, "That's nice... wait a minute, did you say bedbugs?" Nobody ever informed me just what a bedbug was. In my mind it was a fearsome bloodsucking creature. Turns out I wasn't too far off. I didn't have much to worry about though, since bedbugs were largely eradicated during the 1950s. Since that time these pests have made quite a comeback. The Guardian in England reports today that bedbugs have risen anywhere from 300 to 1,500 percent over the past six years in some parts of London. There are fears that the problem could get as bad as it was in the 1930s, when one in three homes were infested with bedbugs.

This week on the Stuff You Should Know podcast we discussed a couple of interesting topics. Yesterday's show was about how to stop junk mail, which is something everyone definitely should know. Tuesday's show was a gem called "Can people really die of fright?" It was based on a stellar article by staff writer Molly Edmonds. Josh and I delved a bit into the science of fear and the potential medical issues that could arise if you were really scared -- aka the "Baskerville Effect." We also looked at some interesting studies. One took a look at the death rate of people in China and Japan on the fourth day of the month, four being an unlucky number in much of Asia. They found that there was a 13 percent increase in heart failure on the fourth of each month compared to a Caucasian control group. So there's something to be said for chilling out on the fourth if you're Chinese or Japanese.

Here at HSW headquarters, we have the Captivate Network, a newsfeed broadcast on little televisions embedded in the elevators, since it's beyond imagination for humans not to be distracted at every possible moment of our lives. I actually made a New Year's resolution not to pay attention to the TVs, but that went the way of disco and this morning I read of a change in the government's stake in Citigroup. CNN Money reports that the Treasury converted its 8 percent holding in the form of Citigroup preferred stock into a 40 percent stake in the form of common stock. At the same time, the bank announced a $9.6 billion goodwill impairment charge. "What the heck's a goodwill impairment charge?" I asked another man in the elevator, figuring he was just some schlub like me. I'm a pretty friendly guy, on the order of Golden Retrievers, just making conversation.