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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Your cat could literally be controlling your mind, thanks to Toxoplasmosis

There's a solid chance your cat is actually brainwashing you, thanks to the power of biology.  Dog lovers listen up; this is prime fuel for your cats versus dog debates!

Meet Toxoplasma gondii: It's one of the most widespread parasitic protozoa in the world, with nearly 60 million people in this country carrying it.  Once an animal is infected by T. gondii, the parasite forms cysts in the animal's tissues.  Most infected organisms appear normal, until a compromised immune system allows the parasite to take over, resulting in a disease called Toxoplasmosis.  The only place it can reproduce is in the intestines of cats, where it produces millions of oocytes that are shed through the cat's feces-- and here's where the crazy part comes in.

T. gondii is capable of manipulating the behavior of infected individuals to an impressive degree.  Studies of rats and mice have found that while the rodents, under normal circumstances, want nothing to do with anything cat, those infected with T. gondii seem to be attracted to the scent of their predators.  The parasite may do this by attaching cysts to the host's amygdala, which is the part of the brain that is largely responsible for emotional responses (such as fear).  This is a smart move on the parasite's part, because a foolhardy rodent is much more likely to be caught by a cat, thus giving the protozoa a direct path to the sweet, sweet, life-giving feline intestines.

Pop science has asserted that the same fatal attraction that occurs in rodents also pops up in infected humans: some even claim that T. gondii is responsible for the "crazy cat lady" phenomenon, since women are more likely to be infected than men.

While those claims are largely without evidence, there has been some tentative research suggesting that Toxoplasmosis is linked to reckless behavior, and disturbingly, schizophrenia.  Others speculate that Toxoplasmosis may have had a role in forming entire cultures!

Before you panic, unless your immune system is compromised in some way or you are pregnant, there is no reason to fear.  Toxoplasmosis generally does not develop in infected but otherwise healthy humans.  However, pregnant women are advised to avoid cleaning litter boxes.

So, if you've always suspected that there was something nefarious going on in that grumpy cat's mind, you could very well be right!

Source: UPROXX

Written by Coral C., HW Assistant; Team Cat

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Best of Black Mirror

Black Mirror: a series of standalone episodes that considers the impact of technology on society, with complex themes ranging from the justice system to nerd culture. Season 4 was just released on Netflix, and for someone who is new to the show, picking which episodes to watch can be a hard choice. To make the process easier, here are a few of my own personal favorites (no spoilers!).

Season 4 Episode 1: USS Callister

USS Callister follows an antisocial programmer and founder of a massive multiplayer game, who takes out his bitter feelings over the lack of respect from his coworkers in an unorthodox way. 
As a spin-off of Star Trek, it examines misogyny and nerd culture. 

Season 3 Episode 4: San Junipero 

This episode is one of the most heart-warming episodes in an otherwise bleak show. It follows two young women in the eighties in a beach resort, and their sweet, Cinderella-esque love story. It considers hopefulness and nostalgia therapy.

Season 2 Episode 2: White Bear

White Bear is extremely disconcerting and thought-provoking. It follows an amnesiac who wakes up in a world where a transmitter turns people into passive voyeurs. The ultimate plot twist at the end makes it a stark analysis of desentisization by the media and the competing values of empathy and justice. 

Season 3 Episode 6: Hated in the Nation

Hated in the Nation follows two detectives trying to solve a series of deaths that seem to be connected to social media. It combines two different ideas - free speech on Twitter and Colony Collapse Disorder - in a powerful way.

Post by Swathi P., Homework Assistant

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

A Brief Introduction to the Orchestra, as told in stock photos

Disclaimer: this is for entertainment and not educational purposes.

1. Violin
Image result for violin stock photo
Note: this is NOT how you play the violin

Great instrument for persons of great skill and persons who think they have great skill.  Wonderful for narcissists and those who thrive on unhealthy competition.  Will constantly tell you that so-and-so is only good because they have an expensive instrument.  Always have the melody, even when they don't.

2. Viola
untalented viola player hitting a sour note Stock Photo
Titled: untalented viola player hitting a sour note

Exists solely for the purposes of viola jokes* and making violinists feel better about themselves.  Mostly played by third violinists who have given up.  All violists regret choosing the viola, though none will admit it.  A wonderful choice for those with ambition who do not wish to practice, ever.

*Q: What is the difference between a skunk that's been run over by a truck and a viola that's been run over by a truck? A: There are skid marks in front of the skunk.

3. Cello
Image result for cello stock photo
Be like this man.  Play the cello.

The best sounding of all the instruments.  Requires extensive eyebrow expression training.  Must be played with eyes closed.  If you carry your cello case around in public, people will think you are smuggling guns.  Fact: all cellists love airplanes.

4. Bass
Image result for double bass stock photo
There's nothing under that hair; just an endless void

For cellists who have made a grave mistake.  Almost as highly respected as the viola.  Exist mostly because orchestras are required to have them, and to correct the orchestra if it plays in tune by accident.  Largely enjoyed by masochists who don't see the value in having functional fingers or backs.  Fact: all bassists love stairs.

5. Harp
Image result for harp stock photo
This is how you play the harp.

The instrument everyone touches without permission.   Always the conductor's favorite person (they are never criticized, for fear they will join the competing orchestra).  They only exist so composers can put cool glissandos in their epic movie soundtracks.  For people with abnormally large cars.  Primary skills set: counting rests and amusing oneself while the rest of the orchestra plays.  Fact: like bassists, harpists love stairs.

6. Piano
Image result for piano stock photo funny
Seriously; they start really young.
Do you play the piano? So does everyone else.  In fact, there is a three-year-old on YouTube who is better than you.  Look it up.
The further forward you lean over the piano, the better you are.  All good pianists constantly look like they are in excruciating pain.  It is also very important to close your eyes and shake your head slowly at least twice per performance.
Fact: If you have a room in your house dedicated to housing your concert grand piano, you are better than other people.

Now that you know, which instrument will you choose?

Written by Coral C., Homework Assistant

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Love of Learning

Image result for education system
"Everybody is a Genius. But If You Judge a Fish by Its Ability to Climb a Tree, It Will Live Its Whole Life Believing that It is Stupid" - Albert Einstein

Image result for economy

Having the largest economy in the world, it would make sense that the United States has the best education system as well. Well, that was true in 1970, when we had the highest rate of high school graduation in the world. As the years went on, however, the United States has changed, but the education system has remained largely the same.

Image result for graduation

Now, the United States has an overall high school graduation rate of only 75%. That’s right, only 3 of 4 students will get their diploma. 

People who drop out of high school tend to have substantially harder lives; many of them are unemployed or under welfare and other social programs. That cannot be good for the young generation of America. So how can we change our education system to better prepare young people for life after high school?

Image result for learning

Although there are many solutions, my answer is simple: encourage the love of learning. As children, we are all excited to learn new things. This passion for learning is important because it makes life interesting. Imagine if you could never learn something new, but have to do the same tasks over and over again. Sounds pretty boring. But if you could innovate, if you could think creatively, then it could be fun. 

Think of a hobby or sport you like. These hobbies are things you do because they’re fun, not because you were forced to do it to get an A. To cultivate the love of learning, schools should focus more on students’ interests rather than a general education program.

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Take biology, for example. Some people love it. For others, not so much. Instead of schools requiring students to take biology specifically, widen the scope so students have the flexibility to take classes they really enjoy. When students have the freedom to learn what they actually want to learn, they can follow their passions without being bogged down by general coursework. Allowing students to follow their passions will certainly improve their love of learning.

How do you think we should reform our education system? Write your thoughts in the comments below!

Post Written by Howard W., Homework Assistant


Thursday, March 8, 2018

Fiber Optic: The Fastest Internet

Slow internet is one of the most common first world problems we deal with on a daily basis. Especially when many people are watching videos or downloading files at once, the internet can become very slow. Most people would be happy if their internet was twice as fast, or maybe even three times as fast. But what if I told you that you could get internet 50 times as fast? Yes, that exists. Welcome to fiber optic internet.
Image result for google fiber
Companies like Google already offer fiber optic internet. You can check out their website at:

What Is Fiber Optic Internet Service?
Unfortunately, Google Fiber, Google’s optic fiber internet service, is only offered in major cities like San Francisco. Even though fiber optic internet may not be as widespread as traditional copper internet, it’s sheer speed and capabilities put it far above copper. Fiber optic internet uses small fibers that transmit data at nearly the speed of light. As a result, it also has much less data loss than copper.

Able to transmit data at nearly 1000 megabits per second, compared to the average wifi speed of 10 megabits per second, fiber optic internet seems to be the future of wifi. What do you think about fiber optic internet? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Post Written by Howard W., Homework Assistant.


Wednesday, March 7, 2018


As you may have noticed, the City of Mountain View has started collecting kitchen food waste, along with the yard trimmings, for its composting program.  (In case you didn't know, you can pick up free compost at the SMaRT Station!)  This new development represents a big step towards mitigating one of the country's biggest waste issues: food waste.

Source: Foodtank
Food waste is the second greatest source of municipal waste in America, ranking only behind paper waste.  Not only is this an unnecessary waste of resources, but once organic matter ends up packed in a landfill, the anaerobic conditions under which it decomposes leads to the production of methane--a greenhouse gas 25 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.  This means that food waste is also playing a major role in the acceleration of global climate change.

That's why many people are turning to composting.  Composting takes advantage of nutrient cycling, whereby natural processes, such as decomposition, recycle nutrients through an ecosystem so that they can be used by the organisms that need them.  For example, your leftover spaghetti will be broken down by worms and flies, and the resulting nutrient-rich soil can be used by the basil plants in someone's backyard.

Obviously, the best solution to the food waste problem is to simply not waste food.  But for the stuff you can't eat, the compost bin provides a practical and environmentally friendly alternative to the trash can.

Post written by Coral C., HW Assistant

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

El Nino: what is it?

Image result for el nino
Source: The Sun

A couple of years ago, California was promised record amounts of rainfall thanks to a climate pattern called El Nino (sorry, I can't find the accents on this computer).  The lovely city of Mountain View did not exactly receive a great deliverance from drought, but that does not mean that this adorably named phenomenon does not play an important role in global climate patterns.

Image result for baby jesus
Source: Pinterest

El Nino is part of what is called the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO).  Due to the rotation of our planet, among other factors, there are wind currents called trade winds in both the northern and southern hemispheres.  These winds blow east to west along the west coast of South America.  Every three to seven years, the trade winds weaken, allowing nutrient-poor warm water to flow from the equator to the coast of South America, decreasing the productivity of the oceans and the fish population.  This is called El Nino, which means "the little boy," because El Nino often begins around Christmas.  In Southwest America (our area), this means cooler and wetter temperatures than normal; thus, we expect rain during an El Nino year.

This map depicts sea surface temperatures during an El Nino year. Source: USGS

La Nina is when the trade winds grow stronger, leading to a flow of cooler, nutrient-rich water along the coast of South America.  This is essentially the opposite of El Nino.  In Southwest America, this means hotter, drier conditions than normal.

Despite the harmless-sounding names of "El Nino" and "La Nina," ENSO has an important impact on human activities around the globe.  Since our wellbeing is still largely at the mercy of our local weather, it is important to pay attention to climate patterns and stay current as to weather you can expect rain or shine.  (Terrible puns are completely, 100 percent intentional.)

Written by Coral C., HW Assistant