What would have killed your 19th-century doppelgänger?

Slate is doing a series of articles on life expectancy in the United States, both how it's changed and why. It kicks off with a piece that gives a broad overview of the medical and public health factors involved in our increased longevity — from clean water and the germ theory of disease, to generally increased wealth and nutrition, to vaccination. But author Laura Helmuth also offers up a morbidly fun challenge, asking you to think about how many times you might have already died had you been born before all these revolutionary changes happened.

It’s a fun conversation starter: Why are you not dead yet? It turns out almost everybody has a story, but we rarely hear them; life-saving treatments have become routine. I asked around, and here is a small sample of what would have killed my friends and acquaintances:

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How to: Fake being a virgin (16th-century style)

You will need: 1 fish bladder, blood of indeterminate origin, and the motivation to shove both up your hoo-ha. Read the rest

Just having a college savings account can increase chances of a kid going to college

And that's true even if the savings account doesn't have enough money in it to cover a full degree — or even a semester. A study from Washington University in St. Louis has attributed this effect to aspirations. A kid who grows up knowing that their parents and others expect high education — and who grows up thinking about higher ed as an option for them — is more likely to go. That makes sense to me. Anecdotally, my grandparents sold a cow when I was born and put the money into a savings bond college fund. It wasn't much when I turned 18. But it was part of creating a family culture that made college something I planned on doing. The catch to this idea, of course, is the rising cost of college. I was lucky enough to attend school in a time and place (1999, Kansas) where my freshman year only cost me about $2000 a semester. Read the rest

The real problem with Curtis White's The Science Delusion

So, here's a new writing nightmare. What do you do if, after your book is published, and the reviews start to come in, it slowly dawns on you that you've accidentally written the wrong book ... a book which you would not actually agree with?

That's how I felt after interviewing Curtis White, author of The Science Delusion — a book that has been widely reviewed as containing some good points, buried under a lot of angry rants and straw men. According to White, however, those reviews have all completely missed what he was trying to do and trying to say.

All the invective? White thought he was just being funny and satirical, like Jonathan Swift. The over-generalizing about what all scientists believe and what the culture of science is like? He thought it was clear that he just meant the subset of scientists who don't think there's any value other than entertainment in art, that philosophy is dead, and that culture has no affect on how we interpret science or what we do with it. The weird, pseudo-Deism? He thought he was explaining that science is part of culture, that the questions being asked and the way answers are interpreted are culturally bound and and we have to take that into account. The humanities triumphalism and points where he totally dismisses science and acts like he doesn't understand why somebody would find meaning in being curious about how the mind works? Not what he meant at all, apparently. Read the rest

Hospitals ignore regulations meant to keep medical costs lower

A new study finds that out-of-network medical bills aren't just high, they're often illegally high — with hospitals ignoring regulations meant to keep you out of debt when you get sick out of state. Read the rest

Actually, it's good for low-income kids if their mom works

At the PsySociety blog, Melanie Tannenbaum looks at the meta-analysis cited by Erik Erikson of Redstate.com as proof that low-income families fare worse when mom works outside the home — and finds that it says exactly the opposite. This post is notable not only for deconstructing a "common sense" belief, but also for doing a great job of explaining what a meta-analysis is and why it matters. Also provides a full daily serving of Fox News schadenfreude. Read the rest

The tweets you should follow in a crisis aren't necessarily the most obvious

Some interesting research based on the Arab Spring uprisings suggests that the best people to follow on Twitter during a crisis are often not particularly influential on Twitter outside the crisis. Likewise, they aren't likely to have had many followers before the event. Essentially, it's evidence supporting the common sense idea that, if you want the most accurate and relevant information, your best bet is to find people closest to the source, rather than relying on third-hand accounts. Read the rest

What schools should really teach

Why learning to program is about more than a job, it's a way to make your whole life better.

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? Read the rest

I am itchy. You are itchy. We're all itchy together.

Some itches are caused by obvious physical triggers (OMG, there's a spider on your arm!). Others, though, have a more complicated source. Watching other people itch can make you feel itchy. In this piece at Scientific American blogs, Scicurious explains the neurobiology behind sympathetic itching. I got four paragraphs in before I had to scratch my neck. How about you? Read the rest

Happy Women Reading Comics in Public Day!

When I was about 10, I developed an obsessive love for The X-Men. It started with the Saturday morning cartoon show, but quickly became about comic books, as well. To this day, long-overwritten plot points from the Marvel universe take up a significant portion of my memory space (as my husband can attest). In my marriage, I am the one who is called upon to flesh out the backstory and conflicts with source material after my husband and I have seen an action-hero movie.

But I didn't own a single comic book until I was 19.

In fact, I'm not sure my parents or friends even knew I liked comic books. All my reading, for nine years, was done in secret. I'd slip into the comic book aisle at the bookstore when nobody was around to see, grab an anthology off the shelf, and spend the next two hours nestled in a corner somewhere — with the comics safely hidden behind a magazine or large book. I did the same thing at the public library. Never even checked one out. If I couldn't finish a library comic anthology in one afternoon, I'd hide it in a seldom-used section and come back the next day. (My apologies to the librarians of the world for that.)

Partly, that shame and fear came was about being labeled a nerd, in general. But there was, for me, also a pretty heavy gender component. Tall, clumsy, nerdy, ignorant of fashion or makeup, and definitely not "attractive" in the way that sheltered pre-teen and teenage society defines it, I spent a good chunk of my adolescence paranoid about my identity as a female. Read the rest

Domestic violence can happen to anyone

Four years ago, Jana Mackey, one of my college roommates at The University of Kansas, was killed by her ex-boyfriend. When I lived with Jana, I knew her as a music major and a really fun person. But she had a serious side that came to the forefront over the next few years. Jana went to law school, got involved in domestic violence activism, and became a lobbyist at the Kansas State Legislature trying to bring attention to women's health and safety.

Her work made her death tragically ironic, but it also drives home a point. Domestic violence (whether physical or emotional) isn't just something that happens to the naive, or the weak. It's not something you can write off as "somebody else's problem."

There's a picture going around Facebook right now, of a young woman holding a sign that says, "Society teaches, 'Don't get raped' when it should teach 'Don't rape.'" I think the same thing is true here. There's too much focus on finding reasons to criticize or distance ourselves from women who have been abused, and not enough of a focus on preventing abuse from happening—by teaching kids how to have healthy relationships, by encouraging family and friends to step in when they see someone they know being abusive, and by making sure cops and courts take domestic violence seriously.

Jana's family is trying to rectify this through a nonprofit called Jana's Campaign. The Campaign put out this video last winter. On the anniversary of Jana's death, I wanted to share it with you. Read the rest

Can a kid be a psychopath?

The New York Times has a fascinating (and, FYI, kind of disturbing) story about young kids who exhibit psychological symptoms similar to what you see in adult psychopaths. It's a complex subject because, while everybody involved agrees these kids could use some kind of intervention, nobody knows exactly what that intervention should be and definitely don't want to stick the kids with a terrifying label that will follow them for their whole lives. More importantly, what we do know is that half of these kids will grow into normal adults—though we don't know exactly why.

It's an awkward situation where the science hasn't yet caught up to the personal need. In a perfect world, you might not want to mess around too much with this until we can learn more. But on the other hand, you're left with families that clearly need help now—like the family profiled in the story that must navigate how to deal with a nine-year-old who oscillates between violent tantrums and creepy, logical chill.

When I first met Michael, he seemed shy but remarkably well behaved. While his brother Allan ran through the house with a plastic bag held overhead like a parachute, Michael entered the room aloofly, then curled up on the living room sofa, hiding his face in the cushions. “Can you come say hello?” Anne asked him. He glanced at me, then sprang cheerfully to his feet. “Sure!” he said, running to hug her. Reprimanded for bouncing a ball in the kitchen, he rolled his eyes like any 9-year-old, then docilely went outside.

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Unpacking the invisible knapsack

Seven years ago, I read an article that completely changed the way I thought about what racism is, and the privileges I experience as an upper-middle class white person. In honor of Martin Luther King Day, I'd like to share that article here.

I didn't know it at the time, but Peggy McIntosh's Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack is kind of a classic of anti-racist thought. The basic idea goes something like this: Racism does not begin and end with Jim Crow and the Klan. It's not just about obvious exclusion and oppression. Fighting racism isn't just about overturning blatantly discriminatory laws or cracking down on hate crimes. Racism, unfortunately, can be a lot more subtle than that.

Racism is also about whole social systems that confer privileges on some people, and deny those privileges to others. What's more, if you're one of the privileged people, the privileges you receive—simply for looking the way you do—are often completely invisible to you. So invisible, in fact, that you don't even think of those things as privileges, and you don't notice how they've made your life easier and better. So, when people who don't have access to those privileges don't live as easily and well as you, it's easy to blame that on some inherent moral or intellectual failing, rather than on the system that denied them privileges you've received since birth.

In the United States, there are many privileges that I get, simply for being white, that are denied to people with different skin tones. Read the rest

Does light make people safer? Maybe. Maybe not.

One of the cool things about LED lighting is that it provides opportunities to bring some of the benefits of big, modern infrastructures to developing countries without having to actually build the big, modern (and expensive) infrastructure.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a story for ArchitecturalSSL magazine about people installing solar-powered LED streetlights in remote villages in southern Mexico. Tying these places into the larger electrical grid would have been extremely difficult. But solar LED streetlights allowed the people who lived in those places to get the night light they wanted.

Now there's similar work happening in refugee camps in Haiti, where many people displaced by the 2010 earthquake still live. The change is undoubtedly useful: LED streetlights don't have to be powered by expensive gasoline generators, they're better on the lungs than fires, and the light level is bright enough to allow people to work and live far more easily. But what about physical safety? Surprisingly, there turns out to be a decent amount of debate over whether or not the extra light actually reduces violence and makes people safer. It's an interesting case study in how "common sense" doesn't always match up with reality and how difficult it is to attribute cause and effect in complicated social environments. From at story Txchnologist:

In recent months, the lights have come on at two camps through the efforts of aid groups, the Haitian government and the particular expertise of the Solar Electric Light Fund, or SELF, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that uses renewable energy to provide light and power in developing countries.

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Science Question from a Toddler: How ants evolve

Consider, if you will, the issue of sex and the single ant. Male ants are born into what is, essentially, a giant sorority house, vastly outnumbered by female workers. But that doesn't mean male ants are living out some Hugh Hefner harem fantasy. Most of those many, many females in the ant colony are completely uninterested in sex.

Only queen ants breed. During the course of their lives, they will produce all the baby ants born in the colony. In fact, in some (but, contrary to popular belief, not all) species, the drones' options are narrowed down to exactly one queen—effectively turning that sorority house into a sausage fest. A virgin queen goes on her mating flight, and the drones will get one shot to pass on their genetic material. Afterwards, the males die, and the queen uses their seed to give birth to daughters upon daughters ... most of which will be sterile workers.

On the surface, that system doesn't make a lot of sense. Evolution works because of natural selection, right? And that's based on sex—who manages to survive to adulthood and who manages to find a mate or mates. It's all about passing on your genes to the next generation.

So why would any species evolve a whole class of individuals who never have sex, and never have offspring?

That was basically the question posed by anonymous reader who asked, "If only the queen ant breeds, how does natural selection work for the other ants?" And it's a damn good question, something that confuses people far older than toddler age. Read the rest