8/28/2009 5:23:57 PM
Having the option to order a salad makes people more likely to order the double bacon cheeseburger or the least healthy item on the menu. And the more self control people have, the more likely they’ll be influenced to eat unhealthily, according to Psychology Today. There are often two competing goals when people order off the menu: The long-term aspiration of eating healthy, and the short-term desire to indulge yourself. Just looking at a healthy option on the menu can be enough to vicariously satisfy the healthy-eating goal, making people more likely to run for the indulgent foods.
According to the study in Psychology Today, “Twice as many subjects tended to choose the least healthy item when the choices included a healthy option, compared to when one was not available.”
The salads at fast food restaurants serve as a “denying the denier” item, according to Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He writes, “These healthier menu items hand the child who wants to eat fast food a sharp tool with which to chip away at his parents objections. ‘But Mom, you can get the salad…’” The new research from Psychology Today shows that “just because consumers say they want to see healthy foods on a menu doesn’t mean they will order them.”
Source: Psychology Today (article not available online), The Omnivore’s Dilemma
8/28/2009 3:10:20 PM
Jeff Clark makes my brain hurt, but first he makes me laugh. He's been charting word density on Twitter at his blog Neoformix, and the resulting line graphs are fabulous. You must see his time of day word correlations, where he picks a "word of interest" (in the exaple above, it's "drunk") and shows two words with a positive correlation and two with a negative correlation—all organized by time of day.
8/26/2009 2:11:01 PM
For the past two years, tech-geeks around the country have applied to the Sunlight Foundation’s Apps for America contest with new ideas to make government data useful. This year, the judges have narrowed the field down to three government-transparency boosting, accountability-promoting web applications. The finalists are:
GovPulse.us – This website makes the information from the Federal Registrar comprehensible. Users can track all the rules and notices from federal agencies and executive orders and presidential documents. The application breaks the information down by agency or place mentioned.
ThisWeKnow.org – Every city in the United States is made a little more transparent by this site. Users can type in a zip code and find information including demographic numbers, environmental pollutants, and employment statistics. The website also tracks how many bills were introduced about any given location, including what the bill was about and who introduced it.
DataMasher – When people make connections between seemingly disparate sources of information, the result can be illuminating. DataMasher lets people compare gun ownership numbers to high school graduation statistics or health care coverage to age demographics, and then it maps the results by state.
Users can now vote for their favorite application, and the winners will receive up to $10,000 as a prize.
Source: The Sunlight Foundation
8/25/2009 4:43:26 PM
World governments may be militarizing biology and other life sciences to make strange and disturbing weapons. A 2007 report by the British Medical Association warned of a “slippery slope” in using drugs as weapons that could lead to “intentional manipulation of peoples' emotions, memories, immune responses or even fertility.”
Biologists are allowing this militarization to happen, according to Malcolm Dando in Nature, through an alarming lack of engagement. For example, research into the hormone oxytocin—which has been shown to increase people’s trust when taken in a nasal spray—could easily be co-opted by the military. Existing chemical weapons treaties are inadequate, according to Dando, and biologists need to step up and make sure their research isn’t used to harm.
8/22/2009 11:49:58 AM
There are two types of people in the world: people who are automatically honest and those who aren’t. An article in Seed magazine explains that researchers are using brain scans to determine which parts of the brain are involved when people lie. For some people, the decision to tell the truth takes no extra brain activity. For others, “both deciding to lie and deciding to tell the truth required extra activity in the areas of the brain associated with critical thinking and self-control.” The article refers to these two types of people as automatically “honest” and “dishonest,” but does not make any estimates of what percentage of people belong to which category.
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8/21/2009 10:44:34 AM
On October 26, Yahoo will pull the plug on the online community web hosting site Geocities. Though it is mostly remembered as a hideous, antiquated, pre-internet boom startup, it was one of the most popular websites of the 1990s. The community-policed “cities” allowed users to create individualized web pages, and was, in some ways, a precursor to the more modern corporate-owned online communities like MySpace, Facebook, and Blogger. “The demise of GeoCities is not just the disappearance of a gif-riddled online ghost town,” Phoebe Connelly writes for the American Prospect, “it's the death of a pioneering online community.”
Now that the website is shutting down, groups like the Internet Archive are scrambling to preserve the information that GeoCities once held. The struggle reminds users, according to Connelly, “that just because something is published on the Internet doesn't mean it will last forever.” And when the information is published on a corporate-owned website, the choice isn’t really up to you.
The American Prospect
8/20/2009 10:39:30 AM
First let’s get this out of the way: Emperor penguin droppings are visible from space!
More amazingly, inventive researchers are using satellite images of the fecal stains to keep tabs on the notoriously elusive penguin colonies. In satellite images of the Antarctic ice, emperor penguin scat appears as “brown patches blazing against sheets of pure white,” Conservation reports. When researchers analyzed images of the entire Antartic coastline, they identified 38 emperor penguin colonies—10 of which were previously unknown.
“This sort of scatological spying is good news for penguins, a species vulnerable to rising global temperatures and melting ice,” Conservation observes. “Previously, scientists regularly monitored only a select few colonies because of difficulties gaining ground access. With the ability to map out penguin movements from afar, scientists will now be able to better track and hopefully conserve this iconic bird.”
Image by lin_padgham, licensed under Creative Commons.
8/18/2009 11:13:25 AM
An Israeli company has created blood and saliva samples that contain fake DNA evidence, and the modification is undetectable in standard lab tests, reports Technology Review. Tel Aviv-based Nucleix demonstrated that it can replicate DNA from samples or produce new DNA based on a person’s genome sequence. The phony DNA goes into donor blood or saliva, scientific magic happens, and voila: fake crime scene evidence.
The company, conveniently, also has designed a proprietary test to distinguish between naturally shed DNA and its counterfeit cousin. All the same, this very falsified-evidence scenario has been “cited as a concern for those who make their genome sequence public,” Technology Review notes. It’ll be a concern for those who don’t choose to make their DNA public, too: Just this spring, the FBI expanded its collection of DNA to include people awaiting trial (who may well be acquitted) as well as detained immigrants.
Source: Technology Review
Image by Darren // DA Creative Photography, licensed under Creative Commons.
8/17/2009 2:17:25 PM
Do you have nine minutes for the miracle that is the squid? Evolutionary biologist Casey Dunn of Brown University has enlisted his students in the creation of a video podcast called CreatureCast. The first episode is up now and it's wonderful. The subject is iridescence in squid and the treatment—simple line drawings with the occasional splash of color—is transfixing. Enjoy!
(Thanks Boing Boing.)
8/11/2009 2:48:06 PM
Researchers unlocking the secrets of our DNA may be sparking a new Romantic Age, Freeman Dyson writes for the New York Review of Books. The years between 1770 and 1830, often referred to as the Romantic Age, were characterized by an explosion of both scientific and artistic achievements. Dyson wonders if that billionaire technocrats—like Craig Venter, who led the charge to map the first human genome, and Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway—might play a role similar to “the lightened aristocrats of the eighteenth century.”
What today's revolution lacks, according to Dyson, is poetry. “Poetry, the dominant art form in many human cultures from Homer to Byron, no longer dominates.” He suggests that biology could become today’s dominant art form, and that creating new kinds of plants and animals could combine art with science.
Enter Christian Bök. In an interview with the Believer, Bök talks about his plans to implant a poem into “an organism that is widely regarded to be the most unkillable bacterium on the planet.” He’s working with scientists to translate a poem into a genetic sequence, that would then be implanted into a portion of the bactirum’s DNA. If it works, Bök’s project, which he calls The Xenotext Experiment, could become “a book that would still be on the planet Earth when the sun explodes.”
Bök told the Believer, “I guess that this is a kind of ambitious attempt to think about art, quite literally, as an eternal endeavor.”
To hear Christian Bök talk about The Xenotext Experiment, watch the video below:
The New York Review of Books
8/10/2009 4:15:55 PM
When English isn’t good enough, innovative inventors set out to create their own languages. Most fail miserably, but every once in a while, a newly formed language will take on a life of its own. “Every time an invented language has found success,” language expert Arika Okrent told Failure magazine, “it has been an unexpected success.”
Okrent, the author of In the Land of Invented Languages, thinks that most would-be language inventors tend to view their new form of speech as a product, while most speakers don’t think of it that way. The most successful invented languages are Esperanto and Klingon, which have both changed far beyond their original intents. Okrent advises potential inventors:
Put your language out there in the world and then let people take it away and ruin it for you. If you try to hold on too tightly you’re going to have problems. If you want people to use it, you have to let them use it, but they are not going to utilize it the way you want them to.
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8/9/2009 5:19:33 PM
Outdated crime laboratories housed inside U.S. law enforcement agencies contribute to wrongful convictions, says Steve Weinberg in the July/August issue of Miller-McCune. He cites a recent study titled, “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward,” and the results are overwhelmingly clear. He writes:
Law enforcement crime laboratories are underfunded, filled with poorly trained and/or technologically backward staff, beset by quality control problems and, too often, complicit in wrongful convictions because criminalists unintentionally misread evidence or intentionally lie.
Weinberg warns that until crime laboratories are updated with current technology and removed from police headquarters, forensic examiners are more likely to succumb to pressure from prosecutors to provide conviction-worthy evidence. “One incompetent or dishonest criminalist,” he writes, “can infect hundreds of cases in a crime laboratory, with some of those cases mutating into wrongful convictions.”
Image by billaday, licensed under Creative Commons.
8/7/2009 12:53:16 PM
A wise person finds things to learn in his or her mistakes, but when it comes to research published in journals and magazines, successful studies understandably get more play. The Journal of Spurious Correlations seeks to amend this missed opportunity, specifically in the realm of the social sciences. Writing in Foreign Policy, journal cofounder David Lehrer explains:
Editors and readers don’t dwell on—and may never see—findings that are inconclusive, fail to confirm the researcher’s hypothesis, or can’t be easily explained by existing theories. These so-called “negative results” get buried because it’s simply bad marketing to publish wrong answers. But this is a shame, because we could learn a lot from seeing all the evidence.
The data buried in unsuccessful studies can challenge conventional wisdom. Lehrer points to one that “failed” to correlate women’s presence in government with lower levels of corruption—thereby calling into question the widely held belief that women make less crooked leaders than men. Such a negative result would have a hard time finding a home in a conventional journal.
“Publishing rigorous, informative results that seem unsellable will, we hope, give them the prestige and the audience they deserve,” Lehrer explains. “It will help update a scientific culture that prefers the simple and conclusive to the complex and open-ended, and often misses out on valuable information as a result.”
Source: Journal of Spurious Correlations, Foreign Policy
8/4/2009 1:09:07 PM
Need a physics fix? You're in luck: Following up on a fascinating column about why wooden houses withstand earthquakes, the Economist tech blog looks at why so few Japanese pagodas have ever fallen down:
What has mystified scholars over the ages is how these tall, wooden buildings cope so well with the earthquakes and typhoons that plague Japan. Many have been struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Others have been torched by marauding warlords. Fire was a perennial hazard in Japan when wood and paper buildings were the norm. But, remarkably, only two of the country’s hundreds of wooden pagodas have collapsed over the past 1,400 years as a result of violent shaking.
Despite having a central pillar that sometimes doesn't even touch the ground and floors stacked on top of one another "like a pile of hats," a Japanese pagoda is a resiliant creation.
...why don’t they topple over at the first tremor? For two reasons. First, as the structure begins to sway, the heavy-tiled roof covering the extended eaves of each storey acts like the long pole with weights on the ends that a tightrope walker uses to steady himself. In both, the large “radius of gyration” means the shaking has a lot of inbuilt inertia to overcome.
Second, as the loosely stacked storeys slide to and fro—with each consecutive floor moving in the opposite direction to the one above and below—they collide internally with the trunk-like shinbashira dangling through the central well of the building. With each collision, they dump more of their kinetic energy into the massive column—trying vainly to make it swing like a pendulum ... How clever of those Japanese craftsmen to figure it all out 14 centuries ago.
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8/4/2009 10:47:56 AM
Type-2 diabetes has reached epidemic levels in the United States and is particularly destructive in low-income and immigrant communities where, according to a New American Media report, language and education barriers affect “the patient’s ability to read food labels, track blood sugar levels, assess insulin amounts, record meal schedules and communicate with clinicians.”
A new program in San Francisco helps low-income and immigrant patients manage their diabetes over the telephone. Participants who enroll in the project—Improving Diabetes Efforts Across Language and Literacy (IDEALL)—aim to better control the disease and its associated health problems by receiving weekly phone calls from an automated telephone support system. Each call is delivered in the patient’s native language (English, Spanish, or Cantonese), and depending on his or her responses, the system generates information “regarding issues ranging from symptoms and taking prescribed medications to diet, physical activity, and self-monitoring of blood sugar.” If necessary, a nurse calls back for a “live” chat.
Dr. Dean Schillinger, director of San Francisco General Hospital’s Center for Vulnerable Populations, which runs the project, told New America Media: “We were really impressed that diabetes patients with limited literacy and limited English proficiency, who many health care workers consider to be ‘hard to reach,’ were the most likely to use this communication tool. . . . We found that better communication between a public health care system and the vulnerable populations they serve yielded concrete benefits.”
It looks like San Francisco wants to expand the program, and not a moment too soon: The University of California at San Francisco estimates that 3 million Californians—about 1 in 10 of the state’s residents—have the disease.
Source: New America Media
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