Crazy gene names get an overhaul, children like lucky people, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers are the best band ever.

Doesn’t Cambode Well
While the bald eagle may have flirted with extinction in the late 20th century, Americans could at least take comfort in knowing that our national symbol did, at one point, exist. Not so for Cambodia, suggests a new study. According to a paper published in the Journal of Zoology, Cambodia’s national animal—a wild ox called a “kouprey”—not only went extinct long ago, but was probably never even a unique species. Researchers compared mitochondrial DNA from the kouprey—an animal first shot in 1937 and displayed by the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology in 1940—with mitochondrial DNA from the wild ox known as the “banteng.”

They found that the DNA was incredibly similar and concluded that the kouprey was most likely a domestic animal gone wild—a hybrid of two domestic ox species such as the mainland banteng and the zebubut not a species of its own. The kouprey has been the national animal of Cambodia since 1960, and while there is no official word on a new symbol, my money’s on the gryphon.

A Lunatic Fringe By Any Other Name…
“I’m sorry, sir, but there’s a deleterious mutation in your Indian hedgehog.”
“Impossible! Prashant is as prickly as ever!”

Not long ago, this sad conversation could have taken place between an embarrassed doctor and a confused patient, who is unaware that he has a problem with a gene that plays a role in bone growth. But now the Human Genome Organisation Gene Nomenclature Committee has decided to rename ten bizarre genes, including Indian hedgehog, radical fringe, and lunatic fringe. Most of the genes were initially found in fruit flies, and drosophila researchers are notorious for giving genes amusing names. But when researchers discovered the human equivalents of these genes, they transferred the gene names. While noting that a fly has a “problematic lunatic fringe” might give scientists kicks, it’s less amusing when actual people have skeletal-developmental defects. So the researchers have decided to call the human genes only by their initials, and if human equivalents are found for other funky fruit fly genes, like headcase or mothers against decapentaplegia, they’ll be given new names. Still, if Castro had a problem with his radical fringe, it might be just a little funny.

Sexagenarian Race
In Nazi Germany, SS commander and eugenicist Heinrich Himmler created a Lebensborn, or Fountian of Life, program, through which he is believed to have encouraged mating of SS men with “racially pure” Aryan ladies and kidnapped children who appeared to have desired physical traits. He set up facilities where the kids could be raised, with the hope that they would grow up to constitute a master race that would rule the world. To put it mildly, Himmler’s hypothesis, such as it was, was not confirmed. Last week, the Lebensborn children, most of whom are now in their 60s, gathered for mutual support and therapy. Not only do they look like a pretty average hodgepodge of aging people, but they also tend to have serious emotional issues and are now speaking out about their pasts. You see, people, this is why we have ethics committees. You must, a) debrief all of your subjects and b) not try to create a master race.

Environmentalism is Not Our Bag
While we Americans sit around doing proactive things like not signing the Kyoto treaty and designing inefficient cars, Zanzibar is actually making sacrifices for the good of the environment. Recently the islands banned the import and production of plastic bags. Zanzibar is located on one of the world’s foremost plastic bag routes, as plastic bags heading for the east African mainland must pass through its port. Zanzibar traffics in over 200 metric tons of plastic bags per month, and they contribute about $400,000 per month due to the ban. But as Director of Environment Ali Juma said, “We have to put the environment above everything.” The plastic bags damage marine life, Juma said. Plus, they’re really ugly, and tourism is at the crux of the islands economy. The country has enough problems getting rid of the 200 metric tons of garbage produced every day on the island, and eliminating plastic bags can only help.

Television Tunnel Vision
You must look at one of two things: a beautiful, smiling human face boasting centuries upon centuries of evolutionary refinement, or a blank television screen. If you’re a Scottish child between six and eight years old,  you’d look at the blank screen more likely than not . In a recent study of more than 200 children, researchers flashed two images before children: one of a face and one of a television set. The kids were told to press a button as soon as a chocolate bar appeared on the screen. While five-year-olds responded fastest when the bar was behind the face, kids aged six to eight responded most quickly when the bar appeared behind the TV set, indicating that’s where they’d been looking. Past research has shown that people look at faces first when they’re next to food, musical instruments, trees, plants, or other objects. The only other major case where people prefer an object to a face, the researchers said, is when alcoholics are shown a picture of a drink. The researchers say the results are worrying because they may indicate that children are not developing proper social skills.

Lucky in Cards, Lucky in Love
And speaking of small children with out-of-whack priorities, another recent study shows that kids aged five to seven prefer lucky people to unlucky people. The researchers say these innocent-looking classic schmos may help us understand the cycle of privilege and adult attitudes toward different social groups. Thirty-two kids rated how much they liked children in different scenarios: some where the kid intentionally brought about good in the world, some where the kid intentionally did something bad, some where the kid was lucky, and some where the kid was unlucky. Unsurprisingly, they rated kids who intentionally performed a good action highest and the kids who did something bad lowest, but they rated lucky kids only a little lower than the good kids, and the unlucky kids significantly lower than the lucky ones. Author Kristina R. Olson said, “Our experiments show the difficulties that confront youngsters as they make judgments of those touched by luck or misfortune.” Sure, Olson, when they’re elementary school children they have “difficulties;” when they’re adults they have “prejudicial attitudes that harm society.” Let’s call these kids the creeps they are, all right? We know you laughed when Billy fell off the monkey bars, kids. And we’re not laughing.

Band Aid
The Red Hot Chili Peppers are the best band around. No, seriously. A study says so. Analysts at Entertainment Media Research Ltd in London (it’s no MIT, but what can we do?) devised a system for giving each of 200 “active” groups a “popscore,” which represents the emotional connection fans have to the band. Marketers say they believe that the score reliably dictates how likely fans are to buy a certain group’s album. To get bands’ popscores, the group got 4,500 people between the ages of 13 and 59 to rank how much they knew about the band and whether they believed the artist contributed positively or negatively to the world of music. Bands that did well on both awareness and positive impressions got a high score. The Red Hot Chili Peppers got the highest popscore of 47, and U2 came in a close second with 46. Crazy Frog received the lowest rating with a pathetic minus 27. If you’ve never heard of Crazy Frog (I sure hadn’t), apparently it’s a hideous ringtone stolen from a computer animation. My English coworker vouches for the study. “Crazy Frog is the most annoying song,” she said. From the mouths of Brits…

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Originally published November 14, 2006


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