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Fighting Poachers From the Lab

Wildlife activists have a new method for fighting Africa’s increasingly bold elephant poachers.  Historically, scientists and governments have struggled to determine whether a piece of ivory was poached illegally or was obtained before the 1989 international ban on ivory trading, which has left some African governments with enormous stockpiles of ivory to manage and protect.  But a team of scientists recently determined that it’s possible to use the amount of radiocarbon in an ivory tusk to determine what year the animal died — and, by extension, whether the ivory was illegally poached.  

“The amount of radiocarbon in the atmosphere nearly doubled during nuclear weapons tests from 1952 to 1962, which steadily dropped after tests were restricted to underground. This has been dubbed ‘the bomb-curve,’” explains a BBC article on the study.  The resulting significant variations in atmospheric radiocarbon allow for highly accurate dating.  Scientists also hope that the technique will help shed light on poaching hotspots.  Kevin Uno, the study’s lead author, told the BBC that the technique “would dovetail very nicely with DNA testing which tells you the region of origin, but not the date.”



Can Connectivity Kill?

The standard narrative around technology in the developing world usually focuses on the positive: cell phones make it easier to check crop prices, transfer money, and understand violence.  But a new study, summarized in Foreign Policy, finds that all this connectivity can also increase political violence in violence-prone regions and countries:

new study by Jan Pierskalla of the German Institute of Global and Area Studies and Florian Hollenbach of Duke University looks at the relationship between mobile phones and political violence in Africa. They found that from 2007 to 2009, areas with 2G network coverage were 50 percent more likely to have experienced incidents of armed conflict than those without. The clearest overlaps between cell coverage and violence were observed in Algeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.

The authors think that improved cell-phone coverage helps insurgent leaders overcome what’s called the “collective-action problem” — that people are reluctant to join group endeavors when there’s a high level of personal risk. But better communication helps leaders recruit reluctant followers, whether they’re demonstrating for higher wages or killing people in the next town.



Cookbooks and Economics

Writing for Foreign Policy, Tyler Cowen explains what cookbooks can tell us about economic development. Why is it easy to find Mexican food cookbooks, but impossible to find a cookbook detailing the recipe for Yemen’s mutafayyah dish? Here’s Cowen’s economic explanation:

Consider how cooking evolves: It starts in the home and then eventually spreads to restaurants and on to cookbooks, along the way transforming a recipe from oral tradition to commercialized product. In the home, recipes are often transmitted from grandmother to mother, or from father to son, or simply by watching and participating. I’ve seen this in rural Mexico, for instance, when an older daughter teaches her younger sister how to pat tortillas the right way. When societies get richer, you start to see restaurants, a form of specialization like auto mechanics or tailors (see: Adam Smith on the division of labor). Restaurants require that strangers — other cooks — be taught the process. That means simplifying or standardizing ingredients so they’re easier to work with and, in many cases, available year-round. This, of course, means writing down the recipe. Once a dish reaches these commercial milestones, cookbooks will follow.

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Another Explanation for Sex Selection in China?

In a podcast called “Misadventures in Baby-Making,” we explored China’s one-child policy as a cause of sex-selective abortion and, therefore, skewed male-female sex rations. A new working paper (abstract; PDF) by Douglas Almond, Hongbin Li, and Shuang Zhang points to another possible culprit: China’s economic liberalization. From the abstract:

Following the death of Mao in 1976, abandonment of collective farming lifted millions from poverty and heralded sweeping pro-market policies. How did China’s excess in male births respond to rural land reform? In newly-available data from over 1,000 counties, a second child following a daughter was 5.5 percent more likely to be a boy after land reform, doubling the prevailing rate of sex selection. Mothers with higher levels of education were substantially more likely to select sons than were less educated mothers. The One Child Policy was implemented over the same time period and is frequently blamed for increased sex ratios during the early 1980s. Our results point to China’s watershed economic liberalization as a more likely culprit.



FREAK-est Links

1. Movie tickets cost as much as $48; “Star Wars” creator George Lucas predicts that ticket prices are only going up. (HT: SM Fishman)

2. Name wars: Borghese Inc. fights the Borghese family for the right to market with the royal name.

3. Does dim lighting enhance creativity?

4. An interactive data map (in French) of Paris Metro lines crossed with socioeconomic and political indicators. Read More »



Liberals in Disguise?

Our podcast “The Truth Is Out There…Isn’t It?” showed that even very smart people can fool themselves into confirming their own beliefs, especially when surrounded by peers with the same beliefs. PSMag.com reports on new research that shows young Americans self-identify as more conservative than they actually are:

“Commentators have presumed that America is a ‘center-right’ nation,” write psychologists Ethan Zell of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and Michael Bernstein of Pennsylvania State University-Abington. “The present findings challenge this assumption.”

Their three surveys featured, respectively, 199 students at a Southeastern university, 360 adults recruited on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (with a mean age of 28), and 154 students from two universities. The final group was weighted so that there were an equal number of people in each of seven political categories, ranging from very liberal to very conservative.

In each case, participants revealed how they define themselves politically on that seven-point scale. They then completed a quiz developed by the Pew Research Center for the PBS Newshour, in which they indicated their views on 12 major issues, including welfare and gay marriage.

Results were consistent across the board: Participants rated themselves as more conservative than their positions on the issues would indicate.

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Couples Who Meet Online Have Better Marriages

A new study by the University of Chicago’s John Cacioppo finds that couples who met online went on to have more fulfilling marriages than those who met offline. They also divorced at a lower percentage:

“These data suggest that the Internet may be altering the dynamics and outcomes of marriage itself,” said the study’s lead author, John Cacioppo, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology at the University of Chicago.

The results were published in the paper, “Marital Satisfaction and Breakups Differ Across Online and Offline Meeting Venues,” in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Meeting online has become an increasingly common way to find a partner, with opportunities arising through social networks, exchanges of email, instant messages, multi-player games and virtual worlds, in which people “live” on the site through avatars. The research shows that couples who met online were more likely to have higher marital satisfaction and lower rates of marital breakups than relationships that began in face-to-face meetings.

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Are Socially Responsible Businesses Bad for Society?

Writing for Foreign Policy, Daniel Altman argues against socially responsible business initiatives such as the recently launched “B Team.”  For-profit companies, explains Altman, often think long-term:

As Jonathan Berman and I have written in the past, for-profit companies that take a long time horizon in their decision-making are likely to make more social and environmental investments. Things like training workers, bolstering communities, and protecting ecosystems can take a long time to pay off for private companies. When they do, the return — including a stronger labor pool, a wealthier consumer base, fewer working days lost to strikes and protests, and greater employee loyalty — can be comparable to other for-profit investments.

In fact, strictly for-profit companies can be among the best social investors because they apply the same discipline to these investments that they would to other parts of their core business. Energy and mining companies, for example, have some of the longest time horizons in the private sector, and they tend to be big social investors as well. Some European companies have actually stopped issuing quarterly reports to shift the attention of analysts to the long-term. And because they are still targeting a single bottom line, profit, there’s no loss of clarity about their mission or erosion of transparency for shareholders.

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