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Newsletter. Issue 2009-22. October 24, 2009

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People Places and Things

Book Review: Connected -The surprising power of our social networks and how they shape our lives

Book information
Connected: The surprising power of our social networks and how they shape our lives
by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler | Published by: Little, Brown | Price: $25.99

The idea that everyone on the planet is separated by only an average of six degrees sounds a little too elegant to be true, and yet it seems to hold. The first experiment to confirm this came in the 1960s when psychologist Stanley Milgram asked several hundred people in Nebraska to send a letter to a stranger in Boston via someone they knew. On average, it took six people to get the letter to its destination. The experiment was repeated in 2002 by sociologist Duncan Watts on a global scale using email, with the same result. The world really is that small.

In their new book Connected, sociologist and physician Nicholas Christakis and political scientist James Fowler identify another immutable property of social networks that sits nicely alongside Milgram's: behaviours, habits and other traits "ripple" along chains of friends and are contagious at up to three degrees of separation. Thus, my actions and moods - whether I'm happy or depressed, fat or thin, whether I smoke, even whether I vote in elections - affect my friends, my friends' friends and my friends' friends' friends. Thereafter my influence fades away.

What is it about human society that gives it such an enduring structure? Why not seven degrees of separation, or four degrees of contagion? Christakis and Fowler do not quite answer this, but they provide an illuminating account of the pervasive and often bizarre qualities of social networks which, they claim, cannot be understood in terms of the behaviour or psychology of individuals within them. Rather, the networks have a life of their own. We like to think we are largely in control of our day-to-day lives, yet most of what we do, and even the way we feel, is significantly influenced by those around us - and those around them, and those around them.

Much of what is covered in Connected sounds obvious at first, an impression not helped by the authors' tendency to apply the tools of network science to issues that do not fully merit them. A main conclusion of the chapter on love - that people tend to meet their long-term partners through friends and families rather than randomly - is hardly revelatory. Dig a little deeper, though, and things are anything but obvious. Why, for example, are emotional states so much more contagious when passed on by friends and relatives of the same gender? Why do men married to white women suffer a significant decline in physical and psychological health when their spouse dies while men married to black women do not? The authors excel at drawing out the devil in the detail: their explanations of how the architecture of networks dictates their dynamics are compelling.

All this has profound implications, both for our ideas about autonomy and free will and for public policy, especially in matters of social inequality and health - something Christakis and Fowler flag up but might have given more attention. Given how triggers for illness (smoking and eating habits, for example) and for well-being (positive moods) radiate through social networks, should health authorities consider the effect of treatments on whole networks rather than on individuals alone? More particularly, given that well-connected people are likely to pass on health benefits to a greater number of people, should medical interventions be directed preferentially at social "hubs"?
Should medical interventions be directed preferentially at people who are social 'hubs'?

It is a difficult question, and ultimately a moral one. If anything, we should be helping rather than penalising those who are socially isolated as they are likely to be suffering more already. Yet as Connected demonstrates, targeting centrally placed individuals can improve the way people eat and reduce risky sexual behaviours. We should be open to the idea of using networks to address other social ills too, such as inequality and crime.

The science of social networks is alluring because it gives us another way of seeing the world. We will never fully understand people without understanding the links between them, the authors say. "Our connections matter much more than the colour of our skin or the size of our wallets... When we lose [them], we lose everything."

Michael Bond is a consultant for New Scientist


'Bright-Sided': When Happiness Doesn't Help

When author Barbara Ehrenreich was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was bombarded with wildly optimistic, inspirational phrases. But a cheerful outlook, she argues, does not cure cancer. In her new book, Bright-Sided, Ehrenreich explores the negative effects of positive thinking, and the "reckless optimism" that dominates America's national mindset.

"We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles," Ehrenreich writes, "both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking."

Read Excepts

Excerpt: 'Bright-sided'
by Barbara Ehrenreich

Americans are a "positive" people. This is our reputation as well as our self-image. We smile a lot and are often baffled when people from other cultures do not return the favor. In the well-worn stereotype, we are upbeat, cheerful, optimistic, and shallow, while foreigners are likely to be subtle, world-weary, and possibly decadent. American expatriate writers like Henry James and James Baldwin wrestled with and occasionally reinforced this stereotype, which I once encountered in the 1980s in the form of a remark by Soviet emigre poet Joseph Brodsky to the effect that the problem with Americans is that they have "never known suffering." (Apparently he didn't know who had invented the blues.) Whether we Americans see it as an embarrassment or a point of pride, being positive — in affect, in mood, in outlook — seems to be engrained in our national character.

Who would be churlish or disaffected enough to challenge these happy features of the American personality? Take the business of positive "affect," which refers to the mood we display to others through our smiles, our greetings, our professions of confidence and optimism. Scientists have found that the mere act of smiling can generate positive feelings within us, at least if the smile is not forced. In addition, good feelings, as expressed through our words and smiles, seem to be contagious: "Smile and the world smiles with you." Surely the world would be a better, happier place if we all greeted one another warmly and stopped to coax smiles from babies — if only through the well-known social psychological mechanism of "mood contagion." Recent studies show that happy feelings flit easily through social networks, so that one person's good fortune can brighten the day even for only distantly connected others.

Read more at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=113758696


New camera promises to capture your whole life
13:10 16 October 2009 by Kurt Kleiner

A camera you can wear as a pendant to record every moment of your life will soon be launched by a UK-based firm. Originally invented to help jog the memories of people with Alzheimer's disease, it might one day be used by consumers to create "lifelogs" that archive their entire lives.

Worn on a cord around the neck, the camera takes pictures automatically as often as once every 30 seconds. It also uses an accelerometer and light sensors to snap an image when a person enters a new environment, and an infrared sensor to take one when it detects the body heat of a person in front of the wearer. It can fit 30,000 images onto its 1-gigabyte memory.

The ViconRevue was originally developed as the SenseCam by Microsoft Research Cambridge, UK, for researchers studying Alzheimer's and other dementias. Studies showed that reviewing the events of the day using SenseCam photos could help some people improve long-term recall. Vicon's version will retail for £500 (about $820) and will also be marketed to researchers at first; it will go on sale in the next few months. A consumer version should be released in 2010.


Aryan-Dravidian divide a myth: Study
TNN 25 September 2009, 01:16am IST

There's a genetic relationship between all Indians. The "fact'' that Aryans and Dravidians signify the ancestry of north and south Indians might after all, be a myth, a study by Harvard and indigenous researchers says.

HYDERABAD: The great Indian divide along north-south lines now stands blurred. A pathbreaking study by Harvard and indigenous researchers on ancestral Indian populations says there is a genetic relationship between all Indians and more importantly, the hitherto believed ``fact'' that Aryans and Dravidians signify the ancestry of north and south Indians might after all, be a myth.

"This paper rewrites history... there is no north-south divide,'' Lalji Singh, former director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) and a co-author of the study, said at a press conference here on Thursday.

Senior CCMB scientist Kumarasamy Thangarajan said there was no truth to the Aryan-Dravidian theory as they came hundreds or thousands of years after the ancestral north and south Indians had settled in India.

The study analysed 500,000 genetic markers across the genomes of 132 individuals from 25 diverse groups from 13 states. All the individuals were from six-language families and traditionally "upper'' and ``lower'' castes and tribal groups. "The genetics proves that castes grew directly out of tribe-like organizations during the formation of the Indian society,'' the study said. Thangarajan noted that it was impossible to distinguish between castes and tribes since their genetics proved they were not systematically different.

The study was conducted by CCMB scientists in collaboration with researchers at Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health and the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. It reveals that the present-day Indian population is a mix of ancient north and south bearing the genomic contributions from two distinct ancestral populations - the Ancestral North Indian (ANI) and the Ancestral South Indian (ASI).

"The initial settlement took place 65,000 years ago in the Andamans and in ancient south India around the same time, which led to population growth in this part,'' said Thangarajan. He added, "At a later stage, 40,000 years ago, the ancient north Indians emerged which in turn led to rise in numbers here. But at some point of time, the ancient north and the ancient south mixed, giving birth to a different set of population. And that is the population which exists now and there is a genetic relationship between the population within India.''

The study also helps understand why the incidence of genetic diseases among Indians is different from the rest of the world. Singh said that 70% of Indians were burdened with genetic disorders and the study could help answer why certain conditions restricted themselves to one population. For instance, breast cancer among Parsi women, motor neuron diseases among residents of Tirupati and Chittoor, or sickle cell anaemia among certain tribes in central India and the North-East can now be understood better, said researchers.

The researchers, who are now keen on exploring whether Eurasians descended from ANI, find in their study that ANIs are related to western Eurasians, while the ASIs do not share any similarity with any other population across the world. However, researchers said there was no scientific proof of whether Indians went to Europe first or the other way round.

Migratory route of Africans

Between 135,000 and 75,000 years ago, the East-African droughts shrunk the water volume of the lake Malawi by at least 95%, causing migration out of Africa. Which route did they take? Researchers say their study of the tribes of Andaman and Nicobar islands using complete mitochondrial DNA sequences and its comparison those of world populations has led to the theory of a ``southern coastal route'' of migration from East Africa through India.

This finding is against the prevailing view of a northern route of migration via Middle East, Europe, south-east Asia, Australia and then to India.


Field Hockey -Canada defeated 3-1 by India in Game 5
Many positives to take out of Game 5 Loss

October 18, 2009 | By Omar Rawji

On a sunny Sunday afternoon in Surrey, B.C., the largest crowd thus far in the 7 Test Super Series showed up for the fifth test match between Canada and India, and some 2,500 fans were treated to an exciting show. The end result would be a 3-1 loss for Canada, bringing their record in the series to 0-4-1, however the Canadians knew they played better and deserved a win.

Back in net for Canada for his fourth start, was Vancouver’s David Carter, who played an excellent game that included a number of strong baseline challenges that thwarted a number Indian scoring opportunities. One of his best came near the end of the match in the 68th minute when he raced the opposing right winger to a stretch pass near the sideline and seemingly hit the ball cleanly out of play.

“It was clean. I’m sure the video will show the same thing,” said an adamant Carter. Unfortunately for Canada, the referee did not see it the same way as he called a deliberate foul on Carter, awarding an automatic penalty corner to India and a chance to put a 2-1 game out of reach. On the ensuing corner, Sandeep Singh, India’s most dangerous weapon, put away yet another goal, his second of the game on a laser shot high to the blocker side.

Early on in the game Taylor Curran made a quick run up the center of the field to take a stretch feed, but he met a strong defender who spoiled his attempt. In the 16th minute, Wayne Fernandes had a penalty corner flick labeled for the top corner of the net, but India’s keeper, Adrian D’Souza robbed him with a flash of his stick.

Despite losing, Canada was in a optimistic mood following the game.


Singapore creates world's first semi-cloned fish

SINGAPORE, Oct. 16 (Xinhua) -- A research team from the National University of Singapore (NUS) said that they have created the world's first semi-cloned fish, local media reported on Friday.

According to local radio 938live, the fertile female medaka fish named Holly, was created with the semi-cloning genetic approach, which uses a new and unpredictable combination of genetic traits from both parents similar to normal fertilization.

The radio said that Holly has gone on to produce many normal offspring that carry a genetic marker identical to hers and her parents. Researchers at the NUS said that this indicates that the technique retains genetic stability hence providing a powerful tool for transmission of genetic information to the offspring- similar to normal reproduction, adding that their findings have important implications for reproductive medicine and technology like for treatment of male infertility.

Their findings will be published in the Oct. 16 issue of Science Journal.

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