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Human penis-shape and sperm competition

In The human penis as a semen displacement device, a 2003 paper published in Evolution and Human Behavior, a group of SUNY Albany psych researchers investigated the shape of the human penis to discover whether it could aid in "sperm competition," driving sperm out of the vagina prior to its own deposit -- something already observed in damselflies.

They devised an ingenious experiment.

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OccupyMLA: the true tale

Mark Marino writes, "At the 2013 MLA Convention in Boston, I revealed that I and my writing partner Rob Wittig created the fictional protest movement OccupyMLA. What started out as a single Twitter account evolved into an elaborate fiction about a hapless trio of adjuncts, trying to fight for their place in the academy. Often fighting just as much against one another, the members of Occupy MLA struggled to reach the very bottom rungs of the academic ladder in a professional ecology that has stratified the administration, the tenured, and the adjuncts, with a chasm between each domain."

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Feds spend more subsidizing undergrads than undergrads pay in tuition


Here's an analysis of the New America Foundation's Federal Education Budget Project, a wide-ranging and thorough look at the way the government spends on education. It shows that the total take from American universities in tuition for undergraduate programs is $62.6B, while the Federal government is spending $69 billion on grants, aid loans, tax breaks and other funding.

The implication is that it would be cheaper to give away university education than to charge for it, but that's not quite right (federal education funding pays for more than tuition -- it also includes housing, food and other expenses, and the feds are already subsidizing colleges out of their $69B spend). But it does suggest that the education system is really screwed up, an expensive boondoggle that is optimized for paying bondholders who own student debt, rather than turning out an educated, resilient and adaptable nation.

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Dogs poop in line with Earth's magnetic field

A paper in Frontiers in Zoology claims that dogs can sense the Earth's magnetic field, and preferentially align to it when pooping. (via Sean Bonner) Cory 25

America is in love with its libraries: Pew report


The Pew Internet and American Life Project released a new report today entitled How Americans Value Public Libraries in Their Communities (PDF), that shows a very large majority of Americans value libraries, viewing them as critical to their communities and vital to providing services that ensure equality of opportunity for people who would otherwise be at a terrible disadvantage in life.

This is in contrast to a few privileged blowhards who've opined that the library is an obsolete institution in the age of the Internet -- and worse, an unaffordable luxury in a time of austerity and recession. The mission of libraries is to help the public navigate information and become informed -- a mission that is more important than ever. As Eleanor Crumblehulme said, "Cutting libraries in a recession is like cutting hospitals in a plague."

Read on for the study's key findings.

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Capturing images of bystanders by zooming in on pictures of corneas


In Identifiable Images of Bystanders Extracted from Corneal Reflections, British psychology researchers Rob Jenkins and Christie Kerr show that recognizable images of the faces of unpictured bystanders can be captured from modern, high-resolution photography by zooming in on subjects' eyes to see the reflections in their corneas. The researchers asked experimental subjects to identify faces captured from these zoomed-in images and found that they were able to do so with a high degree of reliability.

The researchers used 39 megapixel cameras, substantially higher-rez than most people's phone-cameras, but low-cost cameras are making enormous leaps in resolution every day. What's more, the researchers suggest that the determining factor for identifying a face isn't resolution; it's having a viewer who is already familiar with the subject. It's an interesting wrinkle on the problem of information-leakage, and implies that future privacy-filters will have to scrub photos of reflective surfaces (especially eyes) of identifying faces before they're posted.

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Theses distilled to one (snarky) sentence

Lol My Thesis invites PhD candidates to submit snarky, one-sentence summaries of their theses ("Female condoms are cool. Also, Foucault." -- Anthropology, Brown; "We dug a lot of holes and still don’t know if measuring beryllium in dirt is useful, but it does cost a lot of money." --Geology, Amherst College). This is surprisingly funny. Feel free to summarize your term papers, theses, and dissertations in the comments.

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Euroteens embarrassed to be seen on Facebook

But their parents insist they use it, so their personal lives can be scrutinized by the olds. They'd prefer to be on Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and Snapchat. "Facebook is basically dead and buried," says Daniel Miller, who led the extensive study. Cory 21

NSF study shows more than 90% of US businesses view copyright, patent and trademark as "not important"


In March 2012, the National Science Foundation released the results of its "Business Research and Development and Innovation Survey" study, a rigorous, careful, wide-ranging longitudinal study on the use of trademark, copyright, and patents in American business. The study concluded that, overall, most businesses don't rate these protections as a significant factor in their success (in 2010, 87.2% said trademarks were "not important"; 90.1% said the same of copyright, and 96.2% said the same of patents).

What's striking about the survey is that even fields that are traditionally viewed as valuing these protections were surprisingly indifferent to them -- for example, only 51.4% of software businesses rated copyright as "very important."

In a very good post, GWU Political Science PhD candidate Gabriel J. Michael contrasts the obscurity of this landmark study with the incredible prominence enjoyed by a farcical USPTO study released last year that purported to show that "the entire U.S. economy relies on some form of IP" and that "IP-intensive industries" created 40 million American jobs in 2010. The study's methodology was a so sloppy as to be unsalvageable -- for example, the study claimed that anyone who worked at a grocery store was a beneficiary of "strong IP protection."

The NSF study doesn't merely totally refute the USPTO's findings, it does so using a well-documented, statistically valid, neutral methodology that was calculated to find the truth, rather than scoring political points for the copyright lobby. It's a study in contrasts between evidence-based policy production and policy-based evidence production.

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Royal Society appoints a Wikipedian-in-Residence

Richard writes, "I work for Wikimedia UK - the UK charity that supports Wikipedia - and we just managed to get the Royal Society to hire a Wikipedian! The job description is here and the person chosen is Johnbod - a rather long-term Wikipedian from the UK. Thought you might enjoy this. He'll be talking at Wikimania 2014, in London in August, with a bit of luck!"

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Deriving cryptographic keys by listening to CPUs' "coil whine"


In RSA Key Extraction via Low-Bandwidth Acoustic Cryptanalysis [PDF], a paper by Daniel Genkin and Eran Tromer of Tel Aviv University and Adi Shamir, the authors show that a sensitive microphone (such as the one in a compromised mobile phone) can be used to infer a secret cryptographic key being used by a nearby computer. The computer's processor emits different quiet sounds ("coil whine...caused by voltage regulation circuits") as it performs cryptographic operations, and these sounds, properly analyzed, can reveal the key.

It's a pretty stunning attack, the sort of thing that sounds like science fiction. But the researchers are unimpeachable (Shamir is the "S" in RSA), and their paper is very clear.

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Elsevier censors self-publication by papers' co-authors


Joly writes, "Sauropod specialist Mike Taylor notes growing concern among scientists about the heavy-handed takedown practices of academic publishing company Elsevier, including serving DMCA notices on contributing authors who also self-publish their papers. (Thanks, Joly!)

Study shows removing DRM increased music sales


Intellectual Property Strategy and the Long Tail: Evidence from the Recorded Music Industry [PDF], a new working paper from University of Toronto Strategic Management PhD candidate Laurina Zhang documents the rise in sales experienced by the music industry following the abandonment of DRM in digital music offerings.

The paper compares sales of 5,864 albums from 634 artists from before and after the music industry eliminated DRM, and finds an average rise of 10 percent in overall sales (though back-catalog experienced more of a lift compared to front-list titles). As TorrentFreak reports, "This effect holds up after controlling for factors such as album release dates, music genre and regular sales variations over time."

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"Huh" is the universal word

"Is 'Huh?' a universal word? Conversational infrastructure and the convergent evolution of linguistic items is a new paper in PLoS One by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. The authors propose that "Huh" is a word, and that convergent evolution has driven multiple, unrelated languages to produce it. The key findings summary shows just how special and interesting this is: "Huh" is not innate (other primates don't say it), but the circumstances of its use (needing to quickly and briefly prompt another speaker to repeat herself) are universal, so languages that share no commonalities still converged on this word.

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Dance Your PhD finalists announced, vote now!

The annual Dance Your PhD contest challenges grad students to dance their dissertations, interpreting their science with awesome, kinetic, expressive body-language. The 12 finalists have been announced, and are up for your voting. From "Sperm competition between brothers and female choice" the "Multi-Axial Fatigue for Predicting Life of Mechanical Components" (above) and all the others, they are spectacular.

Dance Your Ph.D. Finalists Announced!