Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Birth Control Pills Might Alter Mate Selection

Yahoo News runs a story about some studies which may indicate that the birth control pill influence women's choice of mate. Researchers at the University of Sheffield in England predict that "offspring of pill users are more homozygous than expected, possibly related to impaired immune function and decreased perceived health and attractiveness." The idea is that women who are ovulating tend to be attracted to Manly Men, but women on the pill are hormonally in a state similar to perpetual pregnancy. Therefore, the claim goes, that women on the pill will be less likely to date the captain of the football team, and instead hook up with president of the role-playing club. It is important to note that the "impaired immune function", et cetera, of the predicted offspring are not a result of the woman actually taking the pill, but because of the 'less reproductively sound' mate she chose because the pill clouded her judgment.

Not everyone agrees, however. Dr. William Hurd of Case Medical Center is skeptical:
If you don't take into account society maybe we're all animals, but in social situations I don't think there are many women who change who they would mate with at different times of the month. It might change desires or perceptions but, gee whiz, that's a long stretch to changing who you would date, or even who you would go to dinner with.
Also, I may be wrong here, but I would think that many women taking the pill are doing it because they are already in a relationship (and therefore have chosen their "mate").

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Net Neutrality and Pirates

CNN reports that the FCC voted last week to begin studying new rules to protect an open internet. These "net neutrality" rules would limit the way internet service provides could limit access to the world's series of tubes. Specifically,

the proposal itself uses the FCC's open Internet principles as a foundation and would forbid network operators from restricting access to lawful Internet content, applications, and services. It would also require network providers to allow customers to attach non-harmful devices to the network.

Two additional principles were added, which would prevent network providers from discriminating against particular Internet content or applications, while at the same time allowing for reasonable network management. Internet access providers would also have to be transparent about the network management practices they implement.

What exactly is the problem the FCC is trying to address? Well, say for instance you got your internet from Time Warner Cable. Back in the day when people actually used AOL to search the internet, TWC might want you to use that service rather than Google or Yahoo. So they might make it hard for you to access From what I can understand, the original 2 principles the FCC considered prohibited the ISP from outright blocking the content, and the additional principle makes it so they can't slow down access to select sites either.

Seems like a good idea, no? Well John McCain, who is the nation's biggest beneficiary of Telco/ISP money (by far), has introduced the ironically named Internet Freedom Act of 2009 (because it keeps the internet "free from government interference"). Nevertheless, I think net neutrality has a good chance of passing (eventually). In fact, Verizon and Google have become unlikely bedfellows and issued a statement of support for net neutrality.

In the US, this issue is just taking off, and even so is taking a back seat in the public eye to health care reform. In Europe, however, it is a major issue. It is one of the main agendas of the Pirate Party, founded recently in Sweden, and now the country's 3rd largest political party. In fact, the party received enough votes in the 2009 European Parliament elections to get 1, maybe 2, seats in Parliament.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Monkeys with Skills Earn More than Senior Monkeys

Physorg (among others) has a story about a test involving groups of vervet monkeys. The group was in a room with a barrel of apples that none of them knew how to open. None of them, that is except for one low ranking female who wasn't getting much attention or income. (What is monkey income you ask? Getting groomed by other monkeys.) However, once this skilled junior would open the barrel and hand out apples, she suddenly became much more popular (and groomed). This proves that in the monkey world as well, girls like guys (or girls) who have skills (although not in this case nunchuku skills, bow hunting skills, computer hacking skills).

But it gets really interesting when the researchers introduce a second skilled monkey to the group. Suddenly Barrel-cracker #1 no longer has a monopoly on the apple market. The invisible monkey hand reacts to the adjusted supply and demand, and the additional apple-getter drives down the 'price' of apples, so now each of the skilled monkeys gets groomed some intermediate amount: more than a normal junior-rank monkey but more than if they were the only barrel-opener in the bunch.

It's interesting that such price reduction takes place even without language, showing how ubiquitous basic economic theory is.
A change in price - grooming for less long if there is another monkey that supplies apples - is only possible if a negotiation process takes place. Many economists assume that such negotiations can only take place if they are concluded with a contract. However, the vervet monkeys do not have the possibility to conclude such binding contracts and yet they still succeed in agreeing to a change in price for a service.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

One of the most clever XKCD comics I've seen recently (not that they're not all good):

Microsoft should take a cue from the industrial economist, Clarence Edwin Ayres, who said
A little inaccuracy saves a world of explanation."

Friday, October 2, 2009

Reverse Evolution?

The New York Times has an article questioning if evolution can run backwards.

The Belgian biologist Louis Dollo was the first scientist to ponder reverse evolution. “An organism never returns to its former state,” he declared in 1905, a statement later dubbed Dollo’s law.

To see if he was right, biologists have reconstructed evolutionary history. In 2003, for example, a team of scientists studied wings on stick insects. They found that the insects’ common ancestor had wings, but some of its descendants lost them. Later, some of those flightless insects evolved wings again.

Yet this study did not necessarily refute Dollo’s law. The stick insects may indeed have evolved a new set of wings, but it is not clear whether this change appeared as reverse evolution at the molecular level. Did the insects go back to the exact original biochemistry for building wings, or find a new route, essentially evolving new proteins?
What follows next is a fairly high-level summary of Dr Thornton's U of Oregon research on changing protein receptors. Basically, what he found was he could change forward "ancestral" proteins by altering a limited number of receptors. However, to change backward modern proteins, additional modifications needed to be made. He deduced that during evolution, in addition to specific changes to ancestral proteins that actually account their ability to do new things, there are also "silent" changes (that evolved by chance along with the significant changes) that don't actually affect the behavior of the modern ones. However, they do prevent the modern proteins from going back to the original function (unless they too are removed). Since the ancestral proteins can go forward with or without the silent changes, but the modern proteins only work in the ancestral form without the silent changes, reverse evolution is far less likely to occur.

In other words, if our kids start having tails, it's not because we are not going back to monkey-style tails, but rather whatever new configuration happens to be most beneficial to our survival. Sorry, Jonathan Coulton, but we're not De-Evolving.