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Donglegate

The fight against ingrained sexism in tech culture is gruelling indeed; but what do you do when an off-color joke about "dongles" leads not only to internet drama, but everyone—including the claimed victim—getting fired? Ars Technica sums up "Donglegate". Adds Amanda Blum: everyone lost.

Tesla vs. Edison vs. The Myth of the Lone Inventor

We're going about this feud all wrong says Matt Novak, who blogs about techno-history at Paleofuture. "The question is not: Who was a better inventor, Edison or Tesla? The question is: Why do we still frame the debate in this way?" Novak asked in a talk yesterday at SXSW. He's got a damn fine point. The myth of one guy who has one great idea and changes the world drastically distorts the process of innovation. Neither Tesla nor Edison invented the light bulb. Instead, the light bulb was the result of 80 years of tinkering and failure by many different people. Novak's point (and one I tend to agree with): When we buy into the myth, it gets in the way of innovation today. I've only been able to find a couple of small bits from this talk — a write-up by Matthew Van Dusen at Txchnologist and a short video from the Q&A portion where Novak talks about Tesla, Edison, and the Great Man Myth with The Oatmeal's Matthew Inman. But, rest assured, this is something you'll see more of at BoingBoing soon.

Five stages of grief: Do they exist? Does it matter?

The idea of grief being expressed in predictable emotional stages dates back to the 1960s, writes Claudia Hammond at the BBC. But recent studies in the last decade suggest that reality is seldom so neatly defined. Her story is an interesting history of the science behind a popular idea, but also makes me curious. Is there a value to the five stages of grief even if they aren't strictly 100% accurate? For instance, if it gets average people to accept their own emotions or to understand that grief can be expressed in different ways, is that valuable socially ... even if the exact framework isn't valuable scientifically?

Interactive explorations of history

The University of Oregon's Mapping History site could easily suck up all your productivity for a day or two. Filled with interactive graphs, charts, and timelines, it allows you to explore history in the United States, Europe, Latin America, and Africa. The US section is particularly robust, allowing you to trace everything from the development of railroads, to connections between the growth of the cotton and slavery industries, to changes in life expectancy. Fascinating and fantastic.

Coming in late summer — human baby season

There is definitely a seasonality to human births, writes Beth Skwarecki at Double X Science. The complicated bit is that human baby season isn't necessarily the same (or as strongly expressed) from place to place and culture to culture. In the United States, significantly more babies are born in July, August, and September. Meanwhile, in Europe, babies seem to make their way into the world in spring. So there's clearly a cultural component to this — but culture doesn't explain it, entirely. Skwarecki's piece explores a messy place where culture, genetics, and circadian rhythms intersect.

Baltimore hair stylist tries her hand at archaeology

Here's a nice reminder that an expert is only "an expert" in their specific, narrow field, and (more importantly) everybody in an expert in something. A Baltimore hair stylist has helped archaeologists better understand how Roman and Greek women achieved some of the complicated, towering hairdos depicted in sculpture and paintings. How? She experimentally demonstrated that the word most scientists had been translating as "hairpin" probably should be translated as "needle and thread".

Indie rock, class, race, and culture in America


Martin Douglas's "The Only Black Guy at the Indie Rock Show" is a fascinating longread about race, culture and class, partly a memoir of Douglas's life as a young black kid in a North Carolina housing project who loved indie rock; partly a critique of the way we think about what blackness, whiteness and culture are.

The black kids of my generation and the ones before it were raised with the notion that it’s essential to hold onto one’s “blackness,” and that venturing outside of those boundaries meant you were trying to assimilate to white society, to “be more like one of them.” But essentially every African-American child growing up has an intimate knowledge of some version of the black experience, and the way we dress or the music we listen to still won’t hide the color of our skin. I never saw my interest in alternative culture as a way to obfuscate my racial identity. Aside from the annoyance of being typecast as a fan of a band purely based on superficial concerns, that conversation overlooked the one substantial reason why there are a lot of black people who relate to TV on the Radio’s music: They are a band primarily consisting of African-American men who often explore what it means to be African-American. For a generation of alternative music fans made to believe we were betraying “what it means” to be black, a band had finally come along that made that very idea a theme in its music.

But as TV on the Radio started to grow in notoriety, it still created a schism in my initial attraction to rock music; here was a band that was, for all intents and purposes, “socially acceptable” for black people to like. This falls into my earlier point about young children emulating people who look like them. I imagine if the band were around when I was younger — with their overtures to shoegaze, incisive and smart lyrics, steadfast commitment to experimentalism, and Kyp Malone’s beard — they probably would have been my favorite band throughout my entire childhood. At the very least, I wouldn’t have felt like such an outsider for loving alternative music.

The Only Black Guy at the Indie Rock Show (via Andre's Notes)

This is why your office feels too cold

There is no single definition of comfort. My newest column for The New York Times Magazine explores the different cultural definitions of pleasant living, how those traditions affect energy use in different countries, and how globalization changes both the culture and the fossil fuel consumption. Fun fact: Engineers have a unit of measurement that helps them account for clothing when they're trying to figure out what temperature an office building should be. It's called the Clo, and 1 Clo is equivalent to one full business suit. As I discovered, that fact has a big impact on women, business people in the tropics, and basically anybody who doesn't wear a suit to work.

Great moments in pedantry: Canada puts the wrong maple leaf on its $20 bill

Hey, that's not a Canadian sugar maple leaf! That is very clearly the leaf of the invasive Norway maple.

What your New Year's Resolutions tell us about the way you think


It's a little late, but I kind of love these 2013 props made by PaperandPancakes on Etsy.

How did you write your New Year's resolutions? I don't mean, like, the tools you used — pencil and paper vs. tablet and bluetooth keyboard. What I'm talking about is how you put the goals into words — how you described what it was you wanted to do.

There's more than one way to make a resolution.

A couple of weeks ago, I ran across a great example of this in an old sociology paper from 1977. Researchers had collected New Year's resolutions from two groups of 6th graders — one of average middle class kids, and another group made up of Amish and Mennonites.

The researchers meant to study differences in gender. They were trying to figure out how different cultural backgrounds affected behavior that we tend to associate with one gender or another. But in that data, they noticed something odd, something they couldn't easily translate into statistics. The Amish kids' resolutions were different from those of the "normal" children.

Read the rest

What you can learn from the million-dollar tuna

On Saturday, a bluefin tuna was sold at Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market tuna auction for $1.76 million. Which is a little crazy. (Also crazy, the size of the fish in question.) But the amount paid for this specimen of a chronically overfished species doesn't really represent simple supply and demand, explains marine biologist Andrew David Thaler. It shouldn't be read as a measurement of tuna scarcity, he says, but rather as an artifact of culture (and marketing).

How humans evolved to explore

Boldly going where nobody's gone before. In a lot of ways, that idea kind of defines our whole species. We travel. We're curious. We poke our noses around the planet to find new places to live. We're compelled to explore places few people would ever actually want to live. We push ourselves into space.

This behavior isn't totally unique. But it is remarkable. So we have to ask, is there a genetic, evolution-driven, cause behind the restlessness of humanity?

At National Geographic, David Dobbs has an amazing long read digging into that idea. The story is fascinating, stretching from Polynesian sailors to Quebecois settlers. And it's very, very good science writing. Dobbs resists the urge to go for easy "here is the gene that does this" answers. Instead, he helps us see the complex web of genetics and culture that influences and encourages certain behaviors at certain times. It's a great read.

Not all of us ache to ride a rocket or sail the infinite sea. Yet as a species we’re curious enough, and intrigued enough by the prospect, to help pay for the trip and cheer at the voyagers’ return. Yes, we explore to find a better place to live or acquire a larger territory or make a fortune. But we also explore simply to discover what’s there.

“No other mammal moves around like we do,” says Svante Pääbo, a director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, where he uses genetics to study human origins. “We jump borders. We push into new territory even when we have resources where we are. Other animals don’t do this. Other humans either. Neanderthals were around hundreds of thousands of years, but they never spread around the world. In just 50,000 years we covered everything. There’s a kind of madness to it. Sailing out into the ocean, you have no idea what’s on the other side. And now we go to Mars. We never stop. Why?”

Why indeed? Pääbo and other scientists pondering this question are themselves explorers, walking new ground. They know that they might have to backtrack and regroup at any time. They know that any notion about why we explore might soon face revision as their young disciplines—anthropology, genetics, developmental neuropsychology—turn up new fundamentals. Yet for those trying to figure out what makes humans tick, our urge to explore is irresistible terrain. What gives rise to this “madness” to explore? What drove us out from Africa and on to the moon and beyond?

Read the full story

Photos of a simpler time ... in North Korea

Retro DPRK is a blog that collects images of North Korea from the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Getting into North Korea from the United States and Western Europe is not easy today. But up until the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was even more difficult. If you weren't also from a Communist country, chances were good that you weren't going to get even a glimpse of the place.

But, at the same time, North Korea was also promoting itself through propaganda, and as a tourist destination for citizens of the USSR. Christopher Graper — who leads tours into North Korea today from Canada — has scanned scenes from postcards and tourism brochures — rare peeks into the little-documented history of a secretive country.

The collection blends familiar scenes that wouldn't look terribly different from American advertisements of the same era with an amusingly odd sensibility (who wouldn't want a whole book of postcards documenting every detail of Pyongyang's new gymnasium?) and quietly disconcerting scenes like the one above, where a seaside resort town appears eerily empty — like a theme park before opening time.

Retro DPRK

Thanks for pointing me toward this, Gidjlet!

Green women, fat livers, and the cultural side of disease

Once upon a time, there was apparently a disease called chlorosis. (There is, still, a plant disease of the same name, but we're talking about human chlorosis, here.) It existed in young women from the U.S. and Europe. It turned their skin turn green. The diagnosed cause: Excessive virginity. Prescription: A husband and, for best results, babies.

The thing with chlorosis is that the actual biological parts of it — the green skin — really did exist. It was the culturally influenced medical interpretation that was all off. In 1936, researchers proved it was actually just a type of anemia — an iron deficiency that could happen in males and females. The greenish tinge to the skin happened because the red blood cells were suddenly a lot less red.

Medicine isn't just anatomy and biology. It's also how we cultural interpret the importance and meaning of what we see in anatomy and biology. That's the point made by Druin Burch in a really interesting piece at Slate.com, where he compares chlorosis to a modern scourge — fatty liver disease.

Fatty liver disease affects up to a quarter of us. Its harms—a significantly increased risk of death among them—are taken seriously by hepatologists and other doctors. But it may not be a real disease at all ... Those with fatty liver disease won't know for certain they have the disease without a scan, be it ultrasound or some other modality. Usually fatty liver disease causes no symptoms. Yet those who have it are more likely to suffer heart attacks and strokes, more likely to develop liver cirrhosis, more likely to have high blood pressure and diabetes. Their health is improved from lowering their blood pressure and cholesterol levels, from dieting and exercising, and even (if they're particularly obese) from having a gastric bypass or similar surgery to help them lose weight.

The problem comes into focus when you realise these same hazards and recommendations can be invoked for any other manifestation of being overweight. Take fatty elbow disease. As far as I'm aware, I'm the first to describe it, but I think it could take off. It's associated with being overweight and underactive and it carries with it the same range of real risks. Sufferers are often asymptomatic, unaware of their illness, although I admit that it can be picked up without much use of an MRI scanner. Shortly I'll be writing to the New England Journal of Medicine to expose the problem. I'll demand action to raise the profile of fatty elbow disease, with programs to screen elbows nationwide and make patients aware of their affliction. I'll accept lucrative posts advising drug companies and seek out a celebrity patient or two. I'll attend so many lavish conference dinners I may develop the disease myself.

Read the rest

Image: Sean & Sarah, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from duncanh1's photostream

The natural history of the European werewolf

Where did the European werewolf come from and why did this particular mythology become so powerful that we're still telling stories about it today?

In a fascinating talk recorded at Skepticon 5 last month, Deborah Hyde discusses the history of lycanthropy and its various roles in European society. Lycanthropy was more than one thing, Hyde explains. It functioned as a legitimate medical diagnosis — usually denoting some kind of psychotic break. It served as a placeholder to explain anything particularly horrific — like the case of a French serial killer. And, probably most importantly, lycanthropy went hand-in-hand with witchcraft as part of the Inquisition.

Hyde is the editor of The Skeptic magazine and she blogs about the cultural history of belief in the supernatural. As part of this talk, she's tracked down cases of werewolf trials in the 16th and 17th centuries and attempted to understand why people were charged with lycanthropy, what connected those cases to one another, and the role the trials played in the history of religious liberty. Great stuff!

Read Deborah Hyde's blog

What it's like to be a journalist in China

In Foreign Policy magazine Eveline Chao writes a fascinating, insider account of working with Chinese censors and trying to do the job of a journalist in a place where your entire staff can be fired for the crime of accidentally having a Taiwanese flag in the background of a photograph.

Every legally registered publication in China is subject to review by a censor, sometimes several. Some expat publications have entire teams of censors scouring their otherwise innocuous restaurant reviews and bar write-ups for, depending on one's opinion of foreigners, accidental or coded allusions to sensitive topics. For example, That's Shanghai magazine once had to strike the number 64 from a short, unrelated article because their censors believed it might be read as an oblique reference to June 4, 1989, when the Chinese government bloodily suppressed a pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square. Many Chinese-run publications have no censor at all, but their editors are relied upon to know where the line falls -- i.e., to self-censor.

... Business content is not censored as strictly as other areas in China, since it seems to be understood that greater openness is needed to push the economy forward and it doesn't necessarily deal with the political issues Chinese rulers seem to find the most sensitive. English-language content isn't censored as much either, since only a small fraction of the Chinese population reads English. (As foreigners reporting on non-sensitive subjects in English, we could worry much less about the dangers -- threats, beatings, jail time -- that occasionally befall muckraking Chinese journalists.) And, in the beginning, most of Snow's edits were minor enough that we didn't feel compromised. We couldn't say that a businessperson came back to China from the United States after "Tiananmen," but we could say "June 1989," knowing that our readers knew the significance of the month. We couldn't say "the Cultural Revolution" but could write "the late 1960s and early 1970s," to allude to then Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong launching his disastrous campaign that sent millions of intellectuals to the countryside. Writing that a company planned to expand into "foreign markets like Taiwan and Korea" was forbidden because it suggested that Taiwan was a separate country from China, but we could say "overseas markets," since, according to Snow, Taiwan literally is over a body of water from the mainland.

Read the full story at Foreign Policy

Via Marilyn Terrell

Fraud, failure, and FUBAR in science

Here's an issue we don't talk about enough. Every year, peer-reviewed research journals publish hundreds of thousands of scientific papers. But every year, several hundred of those are retracted — essentially, unpublished. There's a number of reasons retraction happens. Sometimes, the researchers (or another group of scientists) will notice honest mistakes. Sometimes, other people will prove that the paper's results were totally wrong. And sometimes, scientists misbehave, plagiarizing their own work, plagiarizing others, or engaging in outright fraud. Officially, fraud only accounts for a small proportion of all retractions. But the number of annual retractions is growing, fast. And there's good reason to think that fraud plays a bigger role in science then we like to think. In fact, a study published a couple of weeks ago found that there was misconduct happening in 3/4ths of all retracted papers. Meanwhile, previous research has shown that, while only about .02% of all papers are retracted, 1-2% of scientists admit to having invented, fudged, or manipulated data at least once in their careers.

The trouble is that dealing with this isn't as simple as uncovering a shadowy conspiracy or two. That's not really the kind of misconduct we're talking about here.

Read the rest