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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. Maggie

Friendly, trusting Japanese system for lining up for sports tickets

Murdo sends us a video showing "an Englishman in Japan showing how the Japanese queue for local football games. They stick sellotape to the ground with their information on it, marking their places in the queue so that they can return to that point in the future. They even do it the night before the actual queue forms!"

Japan Culture Shock! Unbelievable lining up queue system at Japan sports events! MUST SEE!

Crowds aren't stupid. Crowds aren't smart. Crowds are people.

We have this idea that physical crowds are stupid herds. Give them half a chance, and they'll form a stampeding riot mob driven by emotion. Look at history, though, and you'll see many examples of large groups of people being perfectly well-behaved. In fact, in disaster situations, like on 9/11, crowds can even organize themselves in practical ways to help others to safety.

Meanwhile, we tend to talk about virtual crowds — the kind that form online, or between physically distant members of a professional community — as smart. But if that's always true, why do these groups get caught up in financial bubbles and why isn't Twitter a more reliable place to pick up breaking news?

Physical crowds and virtual crowds are different things. But our stereotypes about them stem from a common problem. In both cases, we tend to treat "the crowd" as if it's a distinct entity — as if, at some point, individuals in a group stop being themselves and start to become limbs of a crowd creature. In my latest column for The New York Times magazine, I learned that that's not the way people work in real life. As Clark McPhail, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told me, "Crowds don't have a central nervous system."

Gustave Le Bon was one of the first people to write about crowds as entities separate from the people in them. His 1895 book, “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind,” shaped academic discussions of human gatherings for half a century and encouraged 20th-century fascist dictators, including Benito Mussolini, to treat crowds as emotional organisms — something to be manipulated and controlled. (Perhaps a Le Bonian understanding of crowds makes us feel more comfortable about the atrocities of the 20th century.) But “The Crowd” was more a work of philosophy than of science, McPhail told me. Le Bon’s ideas were based on armchair analysis of past events, not on carefully documented studies of crowds in action. In the 1960s, sociologists began to study protests and public gatherings, and they realized that the things they believed about crowd behavior didn’t align with what took place in the real world.

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Image: Crowd, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from jamescridland's photostream

The social science of Middle Earth

The Lord of the Rings Project collects and analyzes data on all the characters inhabiting Middle Earth, to produce statistical comparisons of life expectancy, age distribution, population, and more. Maggie

The kids dig minor keys: How pop music has changed since 1960

While 85% of Billboard Top 100 songs of the 1960s were written in a major key, that preference no longer holds true today. Minor key songs have become the majority, representing about 60% of modern hits. Scientific American's Helen Lee Lin delves into this, and other documented changes in musical preference. The research is totally interesting, even if the scientists don't seem to have a good idea of what it means. Maybe we're depressed. Or maybe we're just trying to sound more mature. Here's the original paper. (Via ScienceGoddess) Maggie

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.

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Sociology Student Sheep have fun-ruining epiphanies

Holly curates a Tumblr called FUCK YEAH SOCIOLOGY STUDENT SHEEP, featuring a wide variety of symbolic Soc students having ironic epiphanies, and whose motto is "Time for some motherfucking Sociology." I love having my fun ruined!


Why some technologies fail, and others succeed

My second column for the New York Times Magazine went online today. It's about the history of technology and the forces that determine which tools end up in our everyday portfolio and which become fodder for alternate history sci-fi novels.

The key thing to remember: The technologies we use today aren't necessarily the best technologies that were available. We don't really make these decisions logically, based solely on what works best. It's more complicated than that. Technology is shaped sociocultural forces. And, in turn, it shapes them, as well. The best analogy I've come up with to summarize this: The history of technology isn't a straight line. It's more like a ball of snakes fucking. (Sadly, I couldn't figure out a good way to reword this analogy for publication in the Paper of Record.) One of my big examples is the history of the electric car:

There are plenty of reasons Americans should have adopted electric cars long ago. Early E.V.’s were easier to learn to drive than their gas cousins, and they were far cleaner and better smelling. Their battery range and speed were limited, but a vast majority of the trips we take in our cars are short ones. Most of the driving we do has been well within the range of electric-car batteries for decades, says David Kirsch, associate professor of management at the University of Maryland and the author of “The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History.” We drive gas-powered cars today for a complex set of reasons, Kirsch says, but not because the internal-combustion engine is inherently better than the electric motor and battery.

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The social science of IUDs

IUDs are the weird form of birth control. We don't really know exactly how they work, for instance. And they've been largely unpopular my entire lifetime—really, ever since a couple of poorly designed IUDs set off a mini-panic in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But IUDs are effective birth control. The ones that you can buy today are safe. And, more importantly, they represent birth control that you don't have to think about, and birth control that is really hard to get wrong.

If you've ever done research on the effectiveness of various methods of birth control, you'll notice that the statistics usually come with a little asterisk. That * represents a concept that few of the people who rely on birth control ever think about—perfect use. Let's use condoms as an example. With perfect use, 2 out of 100 women will get pregnant over the course of a year's worth of condom-protected sex. Without perfect use—maybe you don't use a condom every time, maybe you don't put it on right when you both get naked—the number of accidental pregnancies jumps to 18 out of 100. The same basic problem affects birth control pills, as well. Ladies, did you know you're supposed to take those things at the same time of day every day? That's the kind of use error that can make a difference between 1 out of 100 women getting pregnant in a year, and 9 out of 100 getting pregnant.

In contrast, IUDs represent a fit-it-and-forget-it method of birth control. Which is a big part about why they're up there with outright sterilization as the most effective means of birth control available. Bonus: Depending on which kind you use, you can avoid hormonal side effects. This, experts say, is why IUDs are experiencing something of a resurgence in popularity. In an article at Wired, Jennifer Couzin-Frankel writes that 5.5 percent of American women who use birth control use IUDs. That's up from only 1.3 percent in 1995.

Somewhat unbelievably, no one is quite sure how they work, but the theory goes like this: The human uterus has one overriding purpose, which is to protect and sustain a fetus for nine months. If you stick a poker-chip-sized bit of plastic in there, the body reacts the way it does to any foreign object, releasing white blood cells to chase after the invader. Once those white blood cells are set free in the uterus, they start killing foreign cells with efficient zeal. And sperm, it turns out, are very, very foreign. White blood cells scavenge them mercilessly, preventing pregnancy. In copper- containing IUDs, metal ions dissolving from the device add another layer of spermicidal action.

... Most modern IUDs incorporate copper, which has an assortment of benefits, including increased durability and effectiveness. They’re also free of hormones and can be made cheaply, a boon for women in developing countries. But copper IUDs can cause heavy menstrual bleeding and cramping. The Mirena solves that problem by forgoing the metal for a synthetic version of the hormone progesterone. Here again, the mode of action isn’t completely understood, but researchers suspect that the hormone thickens cervical mucus, which makes it nearly impossible for sperm to swim upstream. It may also thin the uterine lining, rendering it inhospitable to an embryo should fertilization occur. The hormone-based IUD has the opposite side effect of the copper ones: It sometimes leaves women with little uterine lining to shed, so they hardly get any period at all.

... Even though many more doctors are comfortable with the IUD, a generation of doctors didn’t get practice inserting it. And if they don’t know how to put one in, they’re less likely to recommend it as an option. Also, the devices are expensive—the ParaGard costs $500, the Mirena $850. “It’s absolute highway robbery that these companies charge so much,” Espey says. “If you went to Home Depot and got the raw materials for a copper IUD, it would cost less than 5 cents.” And the hormones don’t contribute much more to the cost, she adds. In fact, amortized over years of use—10 for the ParaGard and five for the Mirena—an IUD is far cheaper than birth control pills, which can cost $30 or more a month. But the initial outlay is difficult for some women to manage, and it’s not always covered by insurance.

Read the rest of the story at Wired

Read more about different kinds of birth control, their effectiveness, and how to use them correctly at Planned Parenthood

Via Scicurious

Image: X-Ray showing an IUD in place. Photo taken by Wikipedia user Nevit Dilmen, used via CC license.

Designer vaginas

Melissa Hogenboom reports on women who turn to surgery in pursuit of the perfect vagina:

Jessie said she used to spend hours flicking through magazines looking for women with similar labia to hers. She did not find any. She said it was "another piece of evidence that there was something wrong with me" and made her feel like a "complete freak". She experienced recurring dreams where she would imagine her labia as a scarf that would wrap itself around her neck. "There would be people standing around laughing and pointing."

Stories from the world's first sex survey

This woman, Clelia Duel Mosher, conducted the world's first sex survey—a series of interviews with 45 American women, most of whom were born before 1870. She conducted the surveys off and on between 1892 and 1920, but never published on them. They were found in 1973, and present an interesting take on Victorian and Edwardian-era women's sex lives, something we usually only hear about from decidedly biased sources from that time period that often claim women didn't like sex at all.

The surveys show that wasn't the case. More interestingly, they tell the story of changing expectations about marriage and sex.

Slightly more than half of these educated women claimed to have known nothing of sex prior to marriage; the better informed said they'd gotten their information from books, talks with older women and natural observations like "watching farm animals." Yet no matter how sheltered they'd initially been, these women had—and enjoyed—sex. Of the 45 women, 35 said they desired sex; 34 said they had experienced orgasms; 24 felt that pleasure for both sexes was a reason for intercourse; and about three-quarters of them engaged in it at least once a week.

Unlike Mosher's other work, the survey is more qualitative than quantitative, featuring open-ended questions probing feelings and experiences. "She's actually asking these questions not about physiology or mechanics—she's really asking about sexual subjectivity and the meaning of sex to women," Freedman says. Their responses were often mixed. Some enjoyed sex but worried that they shouldn't. One slept apart from her husband "to avoid temptation of too frequent intercourse." Some didn't enjoy sex but faulted their partner. Mosher writes: [She] "Thinks men have not been properly trained."

Their responses reflected the cultural shifts of the late 19th century, as marriage became viewed as a romantic union, not just an economic one, and as people began to dissociate sex from procreation, says Freedman. One woman, born in 1867, wrote that before marriage she believed sex to be only for reproduction, but later changed her mind: "In my experience the habitual bodily expression of love has a deep psychological effect in making possible complete mental sympathy & perfecting the spiritual union that must be the lasting 'marriage' after the passion of love has passed away with the years."

Read more about the survey and Clelia Mosher in the Standford Alumni Magazine.

Thanks to Jennifer Ouellette for linking to this story!

TEDx Meta

The New Yorker's Nathan Heller looks at five of the most popular TED Talks of all time and uses them to explain why, exactly, this series of public lectures is so much more popular than all other public lecture series. Maggie

Test, Learn, Adapt: using randomized trials to improve government policy

"Test, Learn, Adapt" is a new white paper documenting the ultimate in evidence-based-policy: government policies that are improved through randomized trials. It's co-authored by Laura Haynes, Owain Service, Ben Goldacre and David Torgerson. Ben Goldacre elaborates:

We also address – and demolish – the spurious objections that people often raise against doing trials of policy (like: “surely it’s unfair to withold a new intervention from half the people in your trial?”).

Trials are widely used in medicine, in business, in international development, and even in web design. The barriers to using them in UK policy are more cultural than practical, and this document will, I hope, be a small part of a bigger battle to get better evidence into government.

More than that, the paper describes several fun examples of trials that have been conducted in UK government over just the past year, reporting both positive and negative findings. The tide is turning, and there are lots of smart people in the civil service.

Anyway, I think (I hope!) that the paper is readable and straightforward, like the Ladybird Book of Randomised Policy Trials, and I really hope you’ll enjoy reading it.

It’s free to download here.

Here’s a Cabinet Office paper I co-authored about Randomised Trials of Government Policies

Meritocracies become oligarchies

In The Nation, Christopher Hayes has a brilliant article on the way that "meritocracy" inevitably turns into oligarchy, and what that means for our society today. Hayes's account of the transition from meritocracy to oligarchy isn't just about self-delusion ("I am on top, and I am superior, therefore we live in a meritocracy") but also about the way that those who move to the top cement their position by changing the rules. He relates this to the end of economic mobility in the US, the concomitant concentration of wealth, and the way that these factors were a harbinger of collapse in other societies.

In order for it to live up to its ideals, a meritocracy must comply with two principles. The first is the Principle of Difference, which holds that there is vast differentiation among people in their ability and that we should embrace this natural hierarchy and set ourselves the challenge of matching the hardest-working and most talented to the most difficult, important and remunerative tasks.

The second is the Principle of Mobility. Over time, there must be some continuous, competitive selection process that ensures performance is rewarded and failure punished. That is, the delegation of duties cannot simply be made once and then fixed in place over a career or between generations. People must be able to rise and fall along with their accomplishments and failures. When a slugger loses his swing, he should be benched; when a trader loses money, his bonus should be cut. At the broader social level, we hope that the talented children of the poor will ascend to positions of power and prestige while the mediocre sons of the wealthy will not be charged with life-and-death decisions. Over time, in other words, society will have mechanisms that act as a sort of pump, constantly ensuring that the talented and hard-working are propelled upward, while the mediocre trickle downward.

But this ideal, appealing as it may be, runs up against the reality of what I’ll call the Iron Law of Meritocracy. The Iron Law of Meritocracy states that eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility. Unequal outcomes make equal opportunity impossible. The Principle of Difference will come to overwhelm the Principle of Mobility. Those who are able to climb up the ladder will find ways to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies and kin to scramble up. In other words: “Who says meritocracy says oligarchy.”

Hayes goes on to interview various Wall Street titans and hedge fund managers, and gets their own account of how they feel that they are innately superior -- the smartest guys in the room -- and how great it is that the nation takes its cues from them.

Why Elites Fail

Of hermit crabs and home sales

In 2005, my husband I bought a house in Birmingham, Alabama. I was working for mental_floss and we thought we’d live there for a few years.

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