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August 2012
Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper reports that Mzee Julius Wanyondu is having trouble getting coverage under the National Hospital Insurance Fund. The reason is that he's 128 years old, having been born in 1884. However, the NHIF's computers will only accept birthdates later than 1890.

Remarkably, the article doesn't address the obvious question: Does this guy have any proof that he's really 128? He has some kind of ID card that displays 1884 as his birthdate. But what evidence did he present to get this card?

The article says that Mzee Wanyondu has a son who's 70. Based on that, I'd say it's likely that he's in his 90s. Or maybe slightly over 100. 128? No way.

Categories: Health/Medicine
Posted by Alex on Mon Aug 27, 2012
Comments (6)
For 100 years, a package marked "May Be Opened in 2012" has been sitting in a museum in Otta, Norway. It was given to the town of Otta by a local resident, Johan Nygaard, back in 1912. There's been enormous speculation about what the package might contain. Money? A diary? Stock certificates?



Finally, last Friday, the 100-year-mark arrived, and the town gathered to open the package. There was a live video feed, so the entire world could share in the excitement. The mayor carefully opened the package, peeked inside... and it turned to contain: "not-too-valuable notebooks, newspaper clippings, community council papers, a letter, small drawing and other bits of paper." In other words, nothing of any value. [time.com].

Some of the newspapers were dated 1914 and 1919, which means someone must have opened the package after 1912 to put them in there. Perhaps they removed whatever was in there and inserted junk in its place.

The affair reminds me the bequest of Francis Douce. When he died in 1834, Douce, who was a wealthy collector, willed a box to the British Museum with instructions that it be opened on January 1, 1900 — in 66 years. The British Museum did wait, as instructed, but when they finally opened the box, it contained nothing but a bunch of worthless papers. According to rumor, there was also a note from Douce in the box explaining that he thought it would be a waste to leave anything of greater value to the philistines at the British Museum.

I wonder if Nygaard had heard of Douce's bequest? He might have read about it in 1900 and decided to do something similar. Probably not. But it's a possibility.
Categories: History, Places
Posted by Alex on Mon Aug 27, 2012
Comments (8)
Virginia news station WSLS 10 recently ran a 'myth buster' segment on whether putting a bar of soap between your sheets can ease nighttime leg and foot cramps. To my surprise, they concluded that, yes, a bar of soap does seem to help some people, even though there is "no scientific evidence" for why this would work.


Just to clarify, the claim is that merely having a bar of soap near your muscles at night can stop them from cramping. The brand of soap doesn't seem to matter much, though some people express individual preferences. (Irish Spring is a favorite.) The soap should also be in close proximity to the cramping muscle. Some people say that if cramping starts, they simply adjust their position so that the soap is making contact with the muscle, and the cramping and pain stops.


To say that there's "no scientific evidence" for this claim seems like an understatement. The idea sounds totally absurd. However, a quick google search reveals a large number of people who, despite initial skepticism, now swear by the method. Even Snopes lists the claim as 'undetermined'. So what could be going on here? Could soap actually have muscle-calming properties?

The most obvious theory is that the cramp relief is simply a placebo effect. People believe that it'll work, so it does. But it seems premature to dismiss the phenomenon in this way. Perhaps there is some strange bio-chemical effect at work.

Unfortunately, there's been very little scientific investigation of the soap phenomenon. The one relevant study I could find was published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Dr. Yon Doo Ough (of Beloit Memorial Hospital in Wisconsin) and colleagues investigated whether soap-scented skin patches could ease menstrual cramps. Their study was directly inspired by soap's use in preventing nocturnal leg cramps. They theorized that it was the smell of the soap, not the soap itself, that was having the antispasmodic effect. So they applied soap-scented oil to skin patches and tested them on women with a history of severe menstrual cramps. The women reported that the patches did help.

The researchers might be on to something with their scent theory. A few years ago, over at Weird Universe, I posted about a study published in the journal Clinical Neurology and Neurosurgery that looked at whether stinky shoe smell could be an effective treatment for epilepsy. For centuries, it's been part of folk medical practice in India to arrest epileptic seizures by forcing the person having the seizure to smell stinky shoes. The researchers concluded, to their surprise, that the technique worked. They wrote, "strong olfaction applied in the form of 'shoe-smell' did definitely play a suppressive role and thus exerted an inhibitory influence on epilepsy."

If a strong smell can suppress an epileptic seizure, perhaps it can also suppress the perception of pain and cramps. The brain works in mysterious ways. It would be interesting to test whether sleeping with a stinky shoe also eases cramps. In fact, will any strong smell have the same effect?

So until a better theory comes along, I'm willing to accept the possibility that soap between the sheets might ease cramps — perhaps because the smell somehow tricks the brain into ignoring the pain and suppressing the cramping response. Though the mystery is why applying the soap directly to the muscle seems to help. Would it be equally efficacious to put the soap directly to your nose?

As the WSLS myth-buster segment pointed out, the technique is cheap and harmless. So if you suffer from nocturnal leg cramps, I guess it's worth a try. There's nothing to lose. Though, inevitably, there are people trying to make a buck off this home remedy. Last year, one guy filed a patent for a pain-relief "soap cushion" (depicted below) that has compartments into which pieces of hard soap can be inserted. Is that really patentable?

Categories: Health/Medicine
Posted by Alex on Tue Aug 21, 2012
Comments (9)
Gullibility sometimes increases as people grow old. For which reason, the elderly are victims of financial scams in disproportionately high numbers. New research, published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, has now linked this age-related gullibility to deterioration of a specific area in the brain — the vmPFC (ventromedial prefrontal cortex).


The researchers showed a series of ads to 18 patients with damage to the vmPFC. Some of the ads were deceptive (and contained clues to that effect). For instance, one ad for a (fictitious) product named NatureCure described a 'natural' pain reliever that supposedly provided headache relief "without the side effects of over-the-counter pain relievers." But a disclaimer at the bottom of the ad noted, "This product can cause nausea in some consumers when taken regularly."

The patients with damage to the vmPFC proved twice as likely to believe the deceptive ads, compared to a control group of people who had damage to other parts of their brain and a group with no brain damage.

At the end of their article, the researchers point out an interesting implication of their study — that skepticism and doubt require far more mental work than belief:

This study adds to the growing evidence that belief and disbelief are not governed by balanced cognitive processes. Belief is first, easy, inexorable with comprehension of any cognition, and substantiated by representations in the post-rolandic cortex. Disbelief is retroactive, difficult, vulnerble to disruption, and mediated by the vmPFC. This asymmetry in the process of belief and doubt suggests that false doctrines in the 'marketplace of ideas' may not be as benign as is often assumed. Indeed, normal individuals are prone to misleading information, propaganda, fraud, and deception, especially in situations where their cognitive resources are depleted. In our theory, the more effortful process of disbelief (to items initially believed) is mediated by the vmPFC; which, in old age, tends to disproportionally lose structural integrity and associated functionality. Thus, we suggest that vulnerability to misleading information, outright deception, and fraud in older persons is the specific result of a deficit in the doubt process which is mediated by the vmPFC.

The article doesn't discuss the legal implications of the study, but I wonder if it might be helpful in cases where courts need to determine whether someone is no longer competent to manage their own affairs. For instance, middle-aged children often become worried about their elderly parents falling prey to scammers, and so they try to acquire guardianship over them. However, current legal tests of mental competence tend to focus on things such as arithmetic skills, not gullibility. So a test that could demonstrate deterioration of the vmPFC might have relevance in objectively assessing if guardianship is necessary.
Categories: Science
Posted by Alex on Mon Aug 20, 2012
Comments (1)
A Lausanne-based researcher, Pedro Pinto, has developed an algorithm that can quickly trace rumors back to their original source. From eurekalert.org:

"Using our method, we can find the source of all kinds of things circulating in a network just by 'listening' to a limited number of members of that network," explains Pinto. Suppose you come across a rumor about yourself that has spread on Facebook and been sent to 500 people – your friends, or even friends of your friends. How do you find the person who started the rumor? "By looking at the messages received by just 15 of your friends, and taking into account the time factor, our algorithm can trace the path of that information back and find the source," Pinto adds.

I wonder if this algorithm will finally confirm what's long been suspected — that the folks at Snopes have been the ones all along starting the internet rumors.
Categories: Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Sun Aug 12, 2012
Comments (1)
Indian newspapers are reporting the exposure of a major scam involving emu farming. Thousands of people were promised that in return for a modest investment in an emu farm, they soon would be earning thousands of rupees every month. They were led to believe this on the basis of the supposedly massive demand for emu meat and emu-oil cosmetics. The scam was exposed when investors realized that their monthly payments were failing to materialize. [thehindu.com, indiatimes.com]
Categories: Animals, Scams
Posted by Alex on Sun Aug 12, 2012
Comments (2)

Justin Young and Brian Bushwood, of the NSFWshow podcast, were intrigued by the success of the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey. They were particularly impressed with how many books were selling well for no other reason, apparently, than that they looked Fifty Shades of Grey. So they decided to conduct an experiment — to find out whether an ebook could succeed simply by resembling Fifty Shades of Grey.

They came up with a title for their novel, The Diamond Club. They also sketched out a rough outline of a plot:

When Brianna Young discovers that Roman Dyle, the man she built a relationship and a multi–million dollar company with, has gotten married to another woman behind her back, she embarks on a journey to realize her dreams of professional and sexual revenge for everything she had endured at the hands of Roman.Brianna seeks her romance from The Diamond Club, an exotic gathering of the Bay Area's most attractive and interesting people, from angel investors and airline pilots to world–famous chefs and dubstep artists.

They singled out three qualities their novel would need to succeed:
  1. a cover that looked like 50 shades of grey
  2. lots and lots of sex
  3. characters with trendy jobs.
They attributed their novel to a fictitious author, Patricia Harkins-Bradley. But they enlisted the help of their readers to do the actual writing. In this way, none of the authors had read the entire book, and there was little cohesion between chapters. So they could guarantee that the novel wouldn't gain readers on the basis of its great writing.

Finally, and this was a key part of the experiment, they asked all their listeners to buy the book, priced at an affordable 99 cents, in order to push the book into the top 10% at iTunes. Their theory was that once the book broke into the top 10%, momentum would take over, and people (who weren't listeners of their podcast) would buy the book simply because other people were buying it.


It looks like their experiment has succeeded. The book has been hovering around in iTunes Top 10 List. It's also available for the nook and kindle. Reportedly, it's already earned Young and Bushwood close to $20,000.

Similar literary experiments have been conducted before. Back in 1968, Mike McGrady and his friends at Newsday first proved that a crowdsourced book could become a bestseller with their sex-filled novel, Naked Came the Stranger.

And even earlier, in 1956, deejay Jean Shepherd and his listeners proved that publicity alone could create demand for a (non-existent) book — I, Libertine.
Categories: Literature/Language, Sex/Romance
Posted by Alex on Fri Aug 10, 2012
Comments (1)
Bad news for hoaxers -- A new scientific study reports that lying less results in better health. (Links: apa.org, eurekalert.org)

The study hasn't been peer-reviewed/published yet, but preliminary results were reported at the 120th Convention of the American Psychological Association. The study tracked 110 people, half of whom were instructed to tell fewer lies for 10 weeks, and the other half received no special instructions about lying. At the end of 10 weeks, the non-liers reported significantly better health.

What I wonder is how the researchers could know that the no-lying group wasn't lying about lying less. The researchers said they gve the participants regular polygraph tests, but those tests aren't exactly reliable.

Also, ten weeks is a fairly short span of time. The apparent effect might disappear over one or two years.
Categories: Science
Posted by Alex on Thu Aug 09, 2012
Comments (2)

The first image (above) transmitted by the Curiosity rover from Mars was kind of blurry and unexciting. So the folks on Twitter and Tumblr substituted a more dramatic shot (below). It's circulating with the caption: "NASA just landed a rover on Mars, this is the very first picture. This JUST happened minutes ago."

It actually is a picture of Mars, but it was taken by the Mars Spirit rover in 2005. (link: gawker.com)

Categories: Photos/Videos
Posted by Alex on Mon Aug 06, 2012
Comments (1)

image source: megafon
A study reported in the journal Laterality (Mar 2005) found that people are significantly better at detecting lies with their left ear than their right ear. The reason is that left-ear information is processed by the brain's right hemisphere, which apparently is better at detecting deception than the left hemisphere. (For instance, studies have shown that people with right-hemisphere damage have trouble detecting lies.)

In the ear study, 32 participants listened to 112 pre-recorded statements, using either their right or left ear, and then were asked to determine which statements were true or false. The results, from the study:

Participants were significantly more accurate when statements were played through the left ear (M = 61.33%, SE = 1.26) than the right ear (M = 56.41%, SE = 1.09). These data suggested a general right hemisphere advantage in deception detection...
We also examined the possibility that certain participants were over-responding. For example, if a participant gave all true responses, s/he would be correct for all the true statements and incorrect for all the false statements. To test this possibility, we examined individual participant responses. Two participants were identified as "over-responders" using an outlier analysis (Tabachnick & Fidell, 2001, p. 67). One of them provided significantly more "yes" responses and the other significantly more "no" responses (ps < .05). When the data were re-analysed, similar results were obtained. There was a significant main effect for Ear (p < .007) and Truth/Lie (p < .001), but no significant interactions. Therefore, the results were likely not a result of response bias...
In conclusion, there was a left ear advantage when detecting statement veracity. Participants were significantly more accurate in determining the truthfulness of a statement when hearing it through the left ear. These data support the hypothesis that the right hemisphere is involved in detecting deceit. Further, they extend the literature on the possibility of using ear advantage as a gauge of hemispheric involvement.

I'm not sure if this has any practical applications. Although I wonder if poker players might gain an advantage if they put an ear plug in their right ear, forcing themselves to listen to other players with their left ear.
Categories: Science
Posted by Alex on Fri Aug 03, 2012
Comments (4)