7 Quick Takes (7/13/12)

7 Quick Takes (7/13/12) July 13, 2012

— 1 —

Any given week, there are usually enough interesting science stories in my Quick Takes folder to do an all-geek Takes, but usually I like to cover a range of topics.  But this was an especially awesome week, apparently, and the science backlog is getting big, so let’s have the “I Love Charts” song lead us into a data-rich link roundup:


But I’m compelled to point out that, if you want to raise your kids right, you’ll steer them away from 3D pie charts.

— 2 —

While drafting this post, I accidentally wrote that the video above would lead us into a date-rich link roundup.  I don’t have enough empirically-minded discussions of online dating to fill up seven takes, but I do have enough for one.   John Millward made a bunch of OkCupid profiles so he could track the difference in unsolicited message volume for male and female profiles.  Then he took a look at the content of the messages and drew on the dataset to craft messages that would stand out when sent from his own profile.

A fun read, but I’m still languishing for updates from OkTrends.


— 3 —

If it were not for that freudian typo, pride of place in this list would surely have gone to xkcd’s new physics blog: What If? Every Tuesday, Randall Monroe will be mulling over and illustrating a reader-submitted question.  Topics covered so far: What if everyone who took the SAT guessed on every multiple-choice question? How many perfect scores would there be? and What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90% the speed of light? Re that last one, Monroe writes:

The ideas of aerodynamics don’t apply here. Normally, air would flow around anything moving through it. But the air molecules in front of this ball don’t have time to be jostled out of the way. The ball smacks into them hard that the atoms in the air molecules actually fuse with the atoms in the ball’s surface. Each collision releases a burst of gamma rays and scattered particles.

These gamma rays and debris expand outward in a bubble centered on the pitcher’s mound. They start to tear apart the molecules in the air, ripping the electrons from the nuclei and turning the air in the stadium into an expanding bubble of incandescent plasma. The wall of this bubble approaches the batter at about the speed of light—only slightly ahead of the ball itself.


— 4 —

My patience with top ten lists wears thin, as always, but I did quite enjoy some of the ten weird rules for naming planets and planetary features that io9 aggregated.  Among my favorites:

Small Crater, Small Village
Martian craters measuring less than 60 km in diameter must be named after villages of the world with a population smaller than 100,000 people. This is the rule that gives us such excellent names as the adorable-sounding and strangely fitting “Tooting crater,” named after the eponymous London suburb. (There is no mention of what happens when a town grows to a population of more than 100,000, but the logical conclusion is that we either blow the crater up, or force people to leave the village. DO NOT QUESTION THE IAU ABOUT ITS RULES.)

Big Valley? Just Call it Venus.
Venusian valleys more than 400 km long are simply called “Venus,” but in a different language. This is where we get awesome sounding feature names like Apisuahts Vallis (Apisuahts being the Blackfoot/Algonquin name for planet Venus); Citlalpul Vallis (Aztec for planet Venus); and Kallistos Vallis (Ancient Greek name for planet Venus). Smaller vales, in contrast, are named after river goddesses.

— 5 —

Meanwhile, there’s a big ol’ BOOYAH for this epidemiology nerd via Ars Technica: “Just 6 years later, HPV vaccine may already provide herd immunity.”

The study screened for the presence of HPV in two populations of sexually active teens and young women at two points: before the introduction of the vaccine in 2006, and four years after its introduction (in 2010). The populations were small (only about 400 at each time point), but still large enough to produce statistically significant results. A bigger problem was that the demographics of the two populations were quite different in terms of several factors associated with risk for HPV infection. The authors used an adjustment factor to control for this, but also provided the raw, unadjusted data.

Given that several clinical trials had shown that the vaccine is effective, it’s no real surprise that the rate of infection with the four strains targeted by the vaccine (the ones most commonly associated with cervical cancer) went down significantly, dropping by about a third. (Many of the residual infections may result from not taking a complete course of the vaccine or having started it after the onset of sexual activity.) The big surprise is that the rate also dropped in those who hadn’t been vaccinated, going from over 30 percent to under 20 percent. Adjusting for risk factors made the drop even more significant.


— 6 —

I always enjoy the Olympics, despite my general antipathy to exertion.  I like watching the gymnastics, the synchronized high dive, and the intensification of debates about transhumanism and philosophy of embodiment.

First there was Pistoris (the double amputee sprinter who runs on carbon fiber blades) and now io9 reports that cloned horses have been cleared for the Olympics and other international events.  There won’t be any cloned horses in this cycle of the Games, but keep your eyes peeled for the future.

During the Winter Olympics two years ago, I did a piece for HuffPo on the IOC’s attempts to quantify gender and I’ve excerpted it below:

The idea of trying to titrate an athlete’s hormones down to level the playing field is, at best, hideously complex and, at worst, impossible. How do you know when the hormone level is ‘fair?’ Once the athlete stops winning? All athletes are physically and genetically exceptional, drawing advantages from differences in height, metabolism, sleep requirements, or anything else that could have an impact on training or performance.

The I.O.C. can require these women to reduce the amount of testosterone that they produce, but it should not pretend that it is doing them a favor. A woman is referred to doctors by other players or coaches (the panel did not specify) who suspect that she may be of ambiguous gender. These women are not seeking out medical remediation for their “conditions;” indeed, the assumption is that their genetic abnormalities are giving them an advantage in their chosen field.

The new recommendation defines people who are intersex or of ambiguous gender as deficient and requiring treatment. Any abnormalities are defined as problems, not by the people whom they affect, but by external groups who are distanced from any experience of them. Even more worrying, the new recommendation medicalizes not only genetic abnormalities but any testosterone level that deviates from the norm. It suggests that all women should fall within a certain range of hormone expression in order to be women; it implies that deviance requires intervention.

Read more


— 7 —

And for a fun challenge this weekend, check out Julian Sanchez’s discussion of xor decryption.  Give it a bit of a think, but you have my permission to look at the comments without shame, since it turns out a lot of the proposed solutions turned on knowing some properties of ASCII characters that I didn’t know.  I did quite appreciate the discussion conceptually, though!


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  • Too bad we can’t just eliminate the un-marrieds herd mentality of “Everybody’s Doing It”; perhaps get everyone into the herd mentality that sex before marriage hurts; that would really help with HPV.

    • There are several reasons why a person who intends to be monogamous might want to get the vaccine.

      1. One can only control their own sexual behavior. If a spouse cheats and gets HPV, your own fidelity will not protect you from the disease.
      2. If your spouse dies and you remarry, your second husband or wife may have HPV.
      3. If you or your spouse is the victim of a sexual assault, you could get it that way.

    • Dianne

      perhaps get everyone into the herd mentality that sex before marriage hurts

      Question 1: If sex outside of marriage hurts, does that mean you support equal marriage rights for gays or that you want to hurt people for daring to be born different from you?
      Question 2: Do you really think that sex outside of marriage inevitably hurts someone? Why? Some people (as in, IIRC, 30% of Swedish couples) have monogamous relationships that are not structured as “marriages” for one reason or another. How are they being harmed?
      Question 3: Assuming you are correct and sex outside of marriage is harmful, why do you oppose measures that reduce the harm?

      • Ted Seeber

        @Diane: Question 1: Sex outside of marriage hurts because it isn’t procreative and unitive (see Theology of the Body). Since homosexual sex is NEVER procreative, it ALWAYS does harm- and if you truly loved your partner, you wouldn’t do it.

        Question 2: This is a biggie, but it has to do with the evolutionary purpose of physical biological gender. When you misuse that, you’re doing harm to the other person by preventing them from using THEIR sexuality properly. Nature uses sexually transmitted diseases to punish this, the Church just preaches the right way based on a couple of thousand years of doing it the wrong way (see the Chestnut Banquet in history for a *really wrong way* that a *really evil Pope* did it once).

        Question 3: The only way to reduce the harm, once you understand what the harm actually is, is to not do the behavior that causes the harm.

        Following the rules is always smarter than not following the rules- especially when you don’t have enough information by yourself to understand why the rule exists (and there is ALWAYS a reason why the rule exists).

        • Dianne

          Sex outside of marriage hurts because it isn’t procreative and unitive

          That’ll be a surprise to all the “single” couples raising kids out there. I assume you also oppose marriage (and sex) between people who are not fertile together. Do you favor annulment of infertile marriages? How about forced annulment (i.e. if the spouses want to stay together must they still separate because of their mutual infertility?)

          Following the rules is always smarter than not following the rules

          Really? Then shouldn’t Jesus have followed the rules and not opposed Rome? Nor tried to change the rules about things like eating shellfish? Should the martyrs have followed the rules and burned some incense at Jove’s temple? These rules existed for a reason, you know.

          • Ted Seeber

            “That’ll be a surprise to all the “single” couples raising kids out there. I assume you also oppose marriage (and sex) between people who are not fertile together. Do you favor annulment of infertile marriages?”

            I favor trusting God rather than doctors. But homosexuality isn’t just “not fertile together” it is “connecting reproductive system to digestive system to use another person to get sexual pleasure without any intent of joining together with that person to create a new life”. But you’d have to be Catholic to understand that one.

            ” How about forced annulment (i.e. if the spouses want to stay together must they still separate because of their mutual infertility?)”

            God decides fertility (this is a teaching that goes way back to the time of Abraham- after all, Sarah was considered to be infertile). One should NEVER disobey God.

          • Dianne

            I favor trusting God rather than doctors.

            If God can miraculously make a post-menopausal woman pregnant, why can’t he also miraculously make a lesbian pregnant? Or a gay man, for that matter? Or get a woman using birth control pregnant? It seems to me that the Catholic argument that birth control thwarts the will of God depends on God being awfully ineffective.

          • Dianne

            God decides fertility

            And yet, apparently, a few millimeters of latex or plastic can thwart him. Interesting…

            Also if God hates gays and controls fertility, how come lesbians get pregnant from sperm banks all the time.

            One should NEVER disobey God.

            Not sure why, given how apparently, er, impotent he is.

          • Dianne

            On reflection, I think I’ve gone over the line in this conversation and am starting to get offensive. I apologize.

          • Ted Seeber

            @Dianne- yes, he could choose to make a lesbian pregnant. The fact that he doesn’t- speaks a lot more to the nature of lesbian relationships and a lot less about God.

        • Dianne

          the evolutionary purpose of physical biological gender

          Evolution doesn’t have a purpose. Evolution just is. Biological gender evolved because it was an at least reasonably efficient way to spread genes. (Not that mitosis is a bad way, mind you…as untold numbers of bacteria indicate.) Evolutionarily, whatever gets you grandchildren is, for a given environment, “good”. For example, consider an environment where marriage is definitively and always for life, with no exceptions and no way out. Now, consider two couples. Both the men are infertile. One woman is completely faithful to her spouse. She has no children. The other cheats. She has children. In that environment, cheating is evolutionarily good.

          Nature uses sexually transmitted diseases to punish this

          Complete nonsense. STDs aren’t there to punish anyone, they’re just there to reproduce like everyone else. The spirochetes that cause syphilis have no malice and no righteous wrath. The RNA of HIV is only looking for a nice set of DNA to integrate into and would be just as happy-happier (as far as a virus can be “happy”) to not harm its host. (Question: What do you call a successful retrovirus? Answer: A gene. Quite a lot of the human genome started out as retroviruses.)

          • Ted Seeber

            And what best gets you grandchildren is, gasp, heterosexual mongamy, at least if you are a human being. Everything else is a failure by comparison- you end up getting grandchildren that aren’t worth having.

            ” For example, consider an environment where marriage is definitively and always for life, with no exceptions and no way out. Now, consider two couples. Both the men are infertile. One woman is completely faithful to her spouse. She has no children. The other cheats. She has children. In that environment, cheating is evolutionarily good.”

            Except for of course, you just taught the children to cheat. On purpose. Sins have a tendency to run in families like that.

            “Complete nonsense. STDs aren’t there to punish anyone, they’re just there to reproduce like everyone else.”

            Everything in Theistic Evolution has a purpose beyond reproduction. But since you only believe in atheistic evolution, you can’t even be sure that the rules will hold true tomorrow.

            “The spirochetes that cause syphilis have no malice and no righteous wrath. ”

            Then why do they cause illness?

            “: The RNA of HIV is only looking for a nice set of DNA to integrate into and would be just as happy-happier (as far as a virus can be “happy”) to not harm its host.”

            So in your world view, HIV is the dominant species on the planet, and we should all succumb to it? Always knew that scientists were scientists because they sucked at philosophy!

          • Dianne

            So in your world view, HIV is the dominant species on the planet, and we should all succumb to it?

            Don’t be silly. HIV is a crappy retrovirus. It provokes an immune response, kills its host, and has provoked the wrath of the modern medical establishment. It’s doomed. Other retrovirsuses have been more successful and are already part of your genome. They don’t cause you the slightest inconvenience, in fact they are part of you. That’s the way it is, like it or not. But HIV is unlikely to ever become part of the human genome. Too dangerous.

            Then why do they cause illness?

            Because they live on humans but haven’t co-evolved enough to become symbiotic. All sorts of bacteria live on and in your body. Most of them aren’t a problem because we’ve evolved to get along and even depend on each other. (Try sterilizing your gut and see how happy you are after that, for example.) There’s no malice involved, just bacteria trying to live like everything else. A lion doesn’t kill zebras because it hates them but because it wants a meal. Bacteria don’t cause disease because they hate you but because their metabolism disrupts yours. (Yeah, it’s not that simple: there are lots of ways bacteria cause problems, but none of them involve malice or the wrath of God or even the wrath of nature.)

            you end up getting grandchildren that aren’t worth having.

            Good to know that you hate some people so badly simply because of their family structures. Very, um, pro-life of you to say that some people aren’t worth “having”.

          • Ted Seeber

            It isn’t just their family structures- it’s what they choose to do after they’re done with the family structure- like murder, rape, and crime.

  • Emily

    Nice HuffPo piece. I will point people to it next time I get upset enough about this that I have trouble explaining myself (happened a lot last time, but it doesn’t seem to be coming up as much this round).

  • Alex Godofsky

    @7: this is one reason these ciphers are generally paired with (pre-encryption) compression, which limits the effectiveness of this attack.

  • deiseach

    While I have absolutely no interest in online (or offline) dating sites, I did see this story which amused and interested me.

    I think it’s the “dropped it down the back of the sofa” element which appeals to me; ‘so, we had this rock just sitting there on a shelf for three years and…”


  • #2 was hilarious. What a world.

  • Ted Seeber

    The Dating Sites bit is one of my pet peeves about standard capitalism, and one of the reasons why I lean towards strong dictatorship distributism instead. I believe Dating Sites will be engaging in false advertising until they release independently audited three dimensional introduction/marriage/divorce ratios based on at least 25 years worth of data and after-marriage couple tracking.

    Until then, there’s no way to say, evaluate E-Harmony vs Catholic Match vs OKCupid or whatever.

    • leahlibresco

      The main benefit of dating sites isn’t their matching prowess, it’s that it gives you a venue to ask people out at all. I don’t run into that many new people in a day.

      • Joe

        I had no idea how lonely I was, as a single man, until I moved in with my wife. Being married is totally awesome!! I have heard nothing but good things about online dating. I know quite a few married couples that met through the kind of dating sites you’re talking about. I’ll keep you in my prayers. You should give some of the people you already no chance though too, ya know!

  • MumbleMumble

    Some of the comments on this blog are a bit….interesting. In particular, a commentator who argued here (and backing up their arguments with theological doctrine) that homosexual sex is always harmful and should never take place, and elsewhere who argued that contraception is worse than AIDS because AIDS will eventually eliminate immoral populations (not sure about the Catholic Church’s position on that argument).
    I find these comments to be very troubling on a variety of levels, but I am curious about something. How do you feel seeing comments like that? I don’t know you and I don’t know what your beliefs are or anything, and I don’t want to presume. All I sort of know is that you used to be kind of an atheist, and now you’re kind of a Catholic (or something? I’m not sure). I am not questioning your beliefs or attacking them in any way. I’m just wondering if you are comfortable now taking moral cues from an outside entity (ie. the Catholic Church)? And if statements made by the current Pope or previous ones go against what you personally believe, how do you reconcile that with your religious beliefs?

    • leahlibresco

      You know how sites like Megavideo explicitly said they weren’t checking every video for copyright violations, because if they were, they’d be liable for policing them? That’s the approach I take to comments. I don’t call out every commenter I disagree with because (a) it would be exhausting and (b) silence on any comment would be interpreted as an endorsement. I tend to reply to things that make me think interesting things (as I did in yesterday’s post) or where I think that someone’s highlighted an important tension I want to address or answering their question will help me clarify my position.

      The comment you are referring to did none of those things, so I ignored it. ‘AIDS wipes out people who deserve it’ is not the teaching of the Catholic church, so I have no more obligation to reply to something this stupid and hateful than I would if the person who said it was a fellow member of my knitting circle. I might rebut if there were an argument that it seemed important to rebuke, but there was just a well-nigh self-refuting assertions. You won’t see me respond to it or similar comments in the future. It’s a waste of my time to write and a waste of yours to read.

      • MumbleMumble

        Thank you for responding.
        I certainly wouldn’t expect you to respond to everyone on here, and some threads are clearly lessons in futility. I am still wondering about the broader question, though. I hate to ask, because I’m sure you’ve been asked it a million times already and have spent time considering it, but how do you feel when the Catholic Church takes a stand on something you disagree with? I’m not expecting that there’s a quick response to that question, but I am hoping that you will do a blog post on it at some point in the future. If you have already, do you mind posting the link?
        Thanks very much.

    • Ted Seeber

      I’ll respond to this since you’re talking about me:
      1. I am pointing out that cultures that spread AIDS are simply not evolutionary viable. You are getting disturbed over your own biases, not mine.
      2. Being Catholic, of course I back up my assertions with my worldview- just as you back up your assertions with your worldview. Why should you expect otherwise? I certainly do not.

      What is the position of the Catholic Church isn’t, of course, that we just just let immoral people die of AIDS- they are Imago Dei too. But all human beings are MORTAL. That is a fact that atheism will never be able to change. Everybody dies. EVERYBODY suffers. While we can comfort those who are, it is absolutely certain that everybody will die, and it is stupid to ignore that fact.

      The person who is Same Sex Attracted is somebody to be PITIED, not OPPRESSED! Something has harmed them. I do not believe in genetic homosexuality (nobody has tracked the gene down yet, and if they did, it would just become a reason to abort same-sex attracted babies in the womb, like they now do with Downs Syndrome Children) but I do believe it is something innate that the individual cannot fully control- like all sin. NOBODY is good. There isn’t a single good human out there, so why would we expect homosexuals to be more virtuous than the mess heterosexuals have made of marriage in America? The real danger was when we allowed divorce to begin with- all else is just running down the slippery slope to barbaric moral relativity.

      • Well, the evolutionary viability is not the point. It’s just sheer bad luck. And funnily enough you can easily find information on how Evolution is actually helping us understand and combat HIV:
        Atheists are quite comfortable with Mortality; it’s your lot that likes to get people paranoid about the afterlife. You seem to think that the comfort you offer (conditional though it is), is the only comfort out there.
        And the Catholic Church is letting people die of AIDS. All the people that would have been saved if it hadn’t spread misinformation about condoms, that’s the fault of the Catholic Church; if it had kept out of it they could have lived instead.

        So to the Vatican let it be said: By their fruits shall ye know them!

        I can’t let that “immoral people die of AIDS” thing go, either. If you happen to be born with the HIV virus, or received it through a transfusion, at what point were you immoral?

        As for the rest of your rant, I don’t approve. You’re not one for getting their facts right; I’m sure the facts will get you.

        • Ted Seeber

          Zack, since you don’t even know where the Silk Road was, I have a tendency to discount anything you have to say about facts.

          And if atheists were so comfortable in their mortality, why do they keep trying to live forever?

          • With the Silk Road I think you’re harking back to my comment Jesus was sent into the middle of nowhere. My point was there were more literate societies he could have gone to. As an all powerful God, he could have sent himself to all societies. He’s God, why make it hard on himself and why give us a sparse record? Why does he have a Chosen People? But I have a tendancy to discount anything you have to say since you’ve swallowed so much religious Doublethink and I don’t think it’s good for you.

            We keep trying to live forever? It’s more that we try and advance medical science. And where would you be without trying to live forever? Literally…

            I guess you don’t want people extending their life on Earth because you believe it interferes with God’s will? The trouble with that is that those are your beliefs, not everyone else’s beliefs too.

  • Hibernia86

    The dating site test was interesting, but it was also another case of “science proves what everyone already knew.” I think that in the online dating world, as in the real life dating world, the men are usually expected to be the ones to ask the women out on dates. The question, though, is how much of that is nature and how much is nurture. If we somehow had a culture that didn’t give any expectation about who would ask the other gender out on a date would we see the same pattern of men still doing most of it or would there be a more balanced distribution?

    As for the post about gender and the olympics, I see your point that it would be difficult to set a “correct” level of testostorone, but there needs to be some standard to differenciate men from women. Otherwise, why have two groups at all? You could have one group for everyone, but then the men would win pretty much everything due to the fact that men on average have more strength. In order to include the women, you need to have some definition for what a woman is.

  • The dating site experiment was interesting to me not because it proves something that was already common knowledge (pretty people get more attention) but because it shows how HUGE the gap it. That was a little disturbing. And I’m not sure how I feel about his conclusion that men’s and women’s experiences on the site are different but equivalent; if I understood him correctly he seems to be basing that on the thesis that the difficulty of having fewer unsolicited contacts to choose from is equivalent to the difficulty of having to wade through thousands of them. I’m not sure I buy that.

    I ended up following a link from that piece to another one of his projects, on analyzing the last words of Death Row inmates. Intriguing but sad, and now I’ll be depressed for the rest of the day :/