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New York Times helps promote book poorly reviewed by New York Times

In the past year, The New York Times Sunday opinion page has run three different columns by Moises Velasquez-Manoff, a writer whose new book argues that the hygiene hypothesis — the idea that over-cleanliness can make you sick — is the one true cause behind everything from autism, to celiac disease, to allergies. While the hygiene hypothesis, itself, is perfectly plausible, Velasquez-Manoff's extension of it to cover a host of hot-button disorders and cures for said disorders is much less plausible ... something that was pointed out in a negative review of his book that ran in, yes, The New York Times. Matthew Herper explores this strange dichotomy at Forbes. Maggie 8

How would you short London?

Here's a finance riddle: how would you short London's property bubble? House prices are up GBP50K in the last six months, our freeholder is making noises about either buying or forcing us out in order to build a giant tower, and they sold off Scotland Yard (!). They say the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent, and I've been marvelling at the irrationality of London's property market since I moved there in 2003. Just for the sake of argument, if you wanted to put a bet down on a property value crash, how would you make it? Cory 91

Bubblenomics: how the Beanie Babies speculators got it wrong

Buzzfeed's Hunter Schwarz revisits 1998's "Scholastic Beanie Baby Handbook," which predicted values of Beanie Babies in 2008, and compares them to the current-day eBay clearing price for these same speculative items. For example, the Stripes the Dark Tiger doll, which retailed for $5 and traded for $250 in 1998 was predicted to rise to $1,000. Today it can be had on eBay for $9.95. And the $4,000-$5,000 estimated 2008 value for the Violet Teddy was also way off, though Violet is today a $700 item ($700 was also what it traded for in 1998).

How Much Beanie Babies Were Predicted To Be Worth Vs. How Much They’re Really Worth (via Digg)

Three important takeaways from the "ladies like big penises" study

First: When shown images like the one above and asked to choose which men they found more attractive, women cared significantly more about body shape than penis size. (Also, it's worth noting that the image above is meant to show you an average, actual human guy in the middle and the extremes of body shape and penis size that were shown to the women on either side of him. In reality, the women were shown a full spectrum of images mixing different body types and penis sizes).

Second: The hypothesis (that human women sexually selected human males to have the larger-than-other-primates junk they are blessed with today) comes with some big questions, including the obvious — flaccid penis size does not correlate well to erect penis size.

Third: As Faye Flam points out at The Knight Science Journalism Tracker, the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences might need a new acronym (or, at least, different subject matter).

Here's a link to the actual study

NASA downplays still-unannounced findings from Mars

Just before Thanksgiving, the lead mission scientist for the Curiosity rover told NPR that his team had found something that would "be one for the history books." Naturally, we all began speculating about the presence of life, giant obelisks, and half-buried Statues of Liberty. Yesterday, however, a different NASA spokesman basically asked the world to not get its hopes up too high, revising the level of importance down from "earthshaking" to "interesting". So far, nobody has said what, exactly, was discovered. (Via Colin Schultz) 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

Fossils in storage: How do you sort through the backlog?

Yesterday, I posted about Pegomastax africanus, a parrot-like dinosaur whose fossil was discovered not in a remote waste in some far corner of the world, but in a rock that had sat in storage at Harvard University for 50 years.

In the post, I tried to explain why something like that could happen. The simple fact of the matter: A successful archaeological or paleontological dig will produce far more material than the original scientists have time (or money) to sort through, process, and examine. So lots of stuff ends up sitting in storage.

That led BoingBoing reader Matt Fedorko to some interesting speculation:

"...This seems like a perfect opportunity to exploit 3D scanning technology to put the shapes of fossils, at least, into some kind of digital storage area where other researchers could look at a dig's haul and start to work with them spatially, or beside any of the other data that is collected in the field or logged during the cataloging procedure."

Now, Charles Q. Choi, a journalist who wrote about the discovery of Pegomastax africanus, says that Matt's idea isn't all that far-fetched. In fact, scientists already do something like this with the fossils that do get closely examined.

Read the rest

Beware of neuro-speculation

Between the downfall of Jonah Lehrer, and Naomi Wolfe's new book that claims chemicals in women's brains force us to demand our lovers shower us with roses and candy and refer to us as "goddess"*, there's been some growing backlash against the long-popular idea of better living through neuroscience. You know what I'm talking about here: You (yes, you!) can succeed at work, be more creative, improve your relationships, and have a better sex life — all you have to do is read this one interpretation of the latest in neuroscience research!

Perhaps unsurprisingly, that pitch oversells the reality. What we know about how the brain works isn't really that clear cut. But more than that, the idea of scientific self-help quite often has to severely distort science in order to make any sense. The public comes away with a massive misunderstanding of what MRI does and doesn't tell us, what hormones like dopamine actually do, and what the lab tells us about real life.

There are two big essays that you need to read before you pick up another story or book that tries to make connections between cutting-edge brain science and real life. The first, in New Statesman, is by Steven Poole and the broad overview of why it's such a problem when neuroscience becomes neuro-speculation. The second, by Maia Szalavitz at Time Magazine's Healthland blog, focuses on Naomi Wolfe's new book and uses that as a springboard to talk about the bigger issue of brain chemicals, what they are, and what they aren't.

Read the rest

Great moments in pedantry: Winter is coming. But why?

A work of fiction doesn't have to be scientifically accurate. It just has to make sense. All it has to do is maintain an internal logic and consistency strong enough that you, the reader, aren't inadvertently thrown out of the world. If you're frequently frustrated by detail accuracy in fiction, that's likely your problem, not fiction's. Chill out. Breath deep. Smell the flowers. Experience some imagination and wonder.

I fully endorse all the sentiments outlined above. And yet. And yet. There are some fictional details that drive me crazy. Like the seasonal shifts in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, where winter and summer last for years—sometimes decades—and nobody knows exactly when the seasons will change. It's not that I feel a burning need to prove to Martin that this can't work. Instead, it makes me ravenously curious. I keep wondering whether, given what we know about astronomy, there's any way that this could actually work somewhere, in a galaxy far, far away.

A couple of weeks ago, io9's George Dvorsky put together a little round-up of five possible scientific explanations that would make Westeros' magical reality make more sense. I chatted about Dvorsky's list with Attila Kovacs, an actual astronomer who has a postdoc position at the California Institute of Technology. They've got differing perspectives on how unpredictable and ridiculously long seasons might work. Thanks to both these sources, I feel like I better understand our universe, and can read Martin more comfortably.

Read the rest

More evidence that financial speculators drive crazy food-price swings

A new study on the link between financial speculation in commodity markets and food-price spikes shows that the model can be used to predict future food-price spikes, strengthening the case that financial speculators (fleeing the collapse of the housing market) art the root cause of the violent food-price swings that have been blamed for global starvation, riots and political instability.

The new paper -- M. Lagi, Yavni Bar-Yam, K.Z. Bertrand, Yaneer Bar-Yam, UPDATE February 2012 — The Food Crises: Predictive validation of a quantitative model of food prices including speculators and ethanol conversion -- was produced under the auspices of the New England Complex Systems Institute.

In the new study, predictions made by the researchers’ original model are compared to actual food prices between March 2011 and January 2012. Placed on a graph, the lines match closely, and do so despite spanning a major change in price trends at the last bubble’s peak.

“If you have a straight line, extend it and say, ‘Aren’t we predictive,’ it doesn’t give that much confidence,” said Bar-Yam. “If it changes direction, that’s a much more severe test of what’s happening.”

Both the European Union and United States are now considering whether and how to limit commodity speculation. In the U.S., such limits are required by the Dodd-Frank Act, but have been fiercely resisted by the financial industry.

It’s expected that the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission will enact speculation limits by the end of 2012, though they might still be blocked in court. But even if the rules pass, they’re arguably weak, focusing on “position limits,” or caps on the maximum number of contracts a single speculator can hold. The rules won’t won’t prevent markets from being overwhelmed by speculation.

(But what's a little starvation and global upheaval when compared against the miracle of "enhanced liquidity"?)

Speculation Blamed for Global Food Price Weirdness

What is snot? And why do some people eat it?


The Stranger's "Ask Science" column offers a detailed explanation of just what, exactly, boogers are. It is simultaneously gross and mesmerizing:

Mucus, chemically, is quite fascinating. Sugar chains are attached to a protein backbone in mucus cells, with the contraption released out into the open. These glycoprotein molecules rapidly and aggressively suck up water until they are plump, slick, and slimy. To an invader, this is a nightmare to navigate: tangled chains of protein and sugar, with every nook and cranny crammed with water molecules. (Boogers are when these chains become ever more tangled, finally resulting in a rubbery ball of partially dried-out snot. Neat!) The body adds antimicrobial enzymes to this mix, which digest the invading organisms as they slowly attempt to chew through this barrier and reach the thin underlying lining of cells.

Which reminds me: Over the years, I've stumbled across some interesting discussions about whether picking your nose and/or eating boogers is a psychological or biological phenomenon. That is, when people do this, does it reflect some kind of psychological or socio-cultural issue; or is there a biological reason why booger-eating could be beneficial? 

The truth is, there's not been a great deal of research done on this subject, at least from the biology angle. We know about booger-eating as a function of human behavioral development. There's been some research into it from the perspective of evolutionary psychology (i.e., why do people think this is gross?). But analysis of whether or not there is a biological reason people engage in booger eating has been lacking. Perhaps unsurprisingly. It would be interesting to see the responses you'd get if you tried to recruit volunteers for that study. Especially considering the fact that, as I think about it, you'd probably want your test subjects to eat both their own boogers, and those of other people, to see whether that had any impact on any presumed immune system response. 

But I digress. If you are not totally grossed out yet, I'd recommend reading "Eating Snot – Socially Unacceptable but Common: Why?", a chapter in the book Consuming the Inedible: Neglected Dimensions of Food Choice. You can read most of that chapter on Google Books. Author Maria Jesus Portalatin focuses mainly on the better documented socio-cultural implications, but gets into a bit of the biology. One thing she points out, nasal mucus is about 95% water, so there's a possibility that you might expect more mucus eating in arid places. But nobody has ever done the studies necessary to test that hypothesis out. Her main hypothesis—also untested—is that eating mucus might help prime the body's immune system, allowing it to have more contact with weakened forms of potential pathogens so it can better detect and destroy those pathogens later. In other words, she thinks that eating your boogers is sort of like self-immunization.

Blame Tim Lloyd for sending me down this train of thought.

Image: BOOGER KING, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from aroundtheway's photostream


Did Neanderthals speak with a high-pitched voice?

Neanderthals had different bodies than we do. In general, they were stockier and shorter, for instance. And there were other physical differences, as well. It's hard to say what these differences meant in practice but it's fun to speculate. You could build up a pretty good about how those short, study bodies might have helped Neanderthals be better adapted to cold. Or, you could look at the shape of a male Neanderthal's voice box, and think about how that shape might affect the sounds that came out.

So that's what this video is about. I have no idea how widely accepted "high pitched voice theory" is. I couldn't find a lot of references to it outside of the BBC special this clip comes from. Here's what the BBC says:

Professor Bob Franciscus, from Iowa University, is part of a multi-national group attempting to do just that. By making scans of modern humans, he saw how the soft tissue of the vocal tracts depends on the position of the hyoid bone and the anchoring sites on the skull. Computer predictions were then be made to determine the shape of the modern human vocal tract from bone data alone. The same equations were then used with data from a Neanderthal skull to predict the shape of a Neanderthal vocal tract.

The Neanderthal vocal tract seems to have been shorter and wider than a modern male human's, closer to that found today in modern human females. It's possible, then, that Neanderthal males had higher pitched voices than we might have expected. Together with a big chest, mouth, and huge nasal cavity, a big, harsh, high, sound might have resulted. But, crucially, the anatomy of the vocal tract is close enough to that of modern humans to indicate that anatomically there was no reason why Neanderthal could not have produced the complex range of sounds needed for speech.

As long as you understand that context, that this isn't necessarily a given that Neanderthals spoke in high-pitched voices, I think you should see this video. Because the results of this theory are damned hilarious.

Via misspepper on Submitterator!

Video Link

A thermite reaction on 9/11?

Still think that something other than a mere plane crash brought down the World Trade Center towers? According to a Norwegian materials expert, you may be right. Just ... you know ... not in the way most Truthers probably expect.

Christian Simensen thinks the Twin Towers were ultimately felled by a thermite reaction.

"If my theory is correct, tonnes of aluminium ran down through the towers, where the smelt came into contact with a few hundred litres of water," Christian Simensen, a scientist at SINTEF, an independent technology research institute based in Norway, said in a statement released Wednesday.

"From other disasters and experiments carried out by the aluminium industry, we know that reactions of this sort lead to violent explosions."

Given the quantities of the molten metal involved, the blasts would have been powerful enough to blow out an entire section of each building, he said. This, in turn, would lead to the top section of each tower to fall down on the sections below.

The sheer weight of the top floors would be enough to crush the lower part of the building like a house of card, he said.

I honestly don't know how plausible an idea this is. It sounds reasonable to a layperson, but I'm curious what those of you with more engineering expertise think.

The AFP has a write-up about the theory. There's also a more-detailed explanation on the website of SINTEF, the Norwegian research lab where Simensen works. Finally, this appeared in the trade journal Aluminum International Today, and they've got an email address where you can request a copy of the story.

Earth's two moons

There's a big difference between the side of the Moon we can see, and the side we can't. Although it seems pretty pockmarked to the layperson, "our" side of the Moon is actually the smooth half. On the dark side, there's huge mountain ranges and much bigger craters.

There are lots of theories that seek to explain this disparity. The newest: Earth once had two moons. And the smaller of the pair eventually crashed into its larger sibling on the side that faces away from Earth. From the BBC:

Dr Martin Jutzi from the University of Bern, Switzerland, is one of the authors of the paper. He explained: "When we look at the current theory there is no real reason why there was only one moon.

After spending millions of years "stuck", the smaller moon embarked on a collision course with its big sister, slowly crashing into it at a velocity of less than three kilometres per second - slower than the speed of sound in rocks.

... In a commentary, Dr Maria Zuber from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, US, suggests that while the new study "demonstrates plausibility rather than proof", the authors "raise the legitimate possibility that after the giant impact our Earth perhaps fleetingly possessed more than one moon".

In other words, this isn't so much a proven thing, as the scientific equivalent of a plot bunny. The researchers hope to inspire studies that would either prove them wrong, or lend credence to their ideas. This could end up being the start of something big. Or it could eventually be regarded with about as much respect as the suggestion, "What if Moon were cookie?" We'll have to wait to find out.

Image: A mini-guide to our wonderful Moon, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from dingopup's photostream