Men suck it up when the game is on, women are more fashionable when they're ovulating, and PETA tries to save the cockroaches.

mwcolumn.jpg MAGGIE WITTLIN  Column Archive

Boy Crazy
Beheading wives who fail to produce a male heir is so 16th century. If dear Henry were alive in these enlightened times, he would probably use a much less barbaric method to ensure a son: He would infect his wives with a cat parasite.  According to a study recently published in the journal Naturwissenschaften, women infected with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii can be more than twice as likely to give birth to a boy than to a girl. Researchers analyzed 1,800 baby records between 1996 to 2004 and found that likelihood of giving birth to a male increased in correlation with the concentration of Toxoplasma antibodies in the mother’s body. With peak antibody concentration, a mother’s likelihood of giving birth to a boy reached a maximum of 72 percent. The researchers posit that latent toxoplasmosis may suppress the immune system, increasing survival rate of male embryos. While Toxo infection is generally harmless, the parasite, which is often transmitted through cat feces, has been shown to correlate significantly with certain personality traits and has been linked to schizophrenia. So infecting yourself might come with risks, but hey, if you want to save yourselves from having to pay a daughter’s dowry, you’re going to have to make sacrifices.

Walk It Off
Either men are much healthier when they’re watching a football game or they’re just way too distracted to bother with their health. Many American men, a new study suggests, will put off a trip to the emergency room until they finish watching a game. Research out of the University of Maryland found that male emergency room attendance increases by 50 percent after the conclusion of a football game. Also, 30 to 40 percent more men check into emergency rooms after a baseball game ends than during the innings. And David Jerrard, a Terrapin emergency physician, looked at hospital emergency room visits around 800 regular season college and pro football, baseball and basketball games in Maryland to find this post-game attendance spike. Jerrard warns, “Men should not risk their health by putting off going to the emergency room because they want to see the final results of a football game. It could be the last game they ever see.” That’s true, Dr. Jerrard, but it could also be the last game the Lions ever win.

Hot Couture
Don your corset and powder your nose, ladies: An egg is about to drop from your ovary. A study published in the journal Hormones and Behavior concludes that unlike other primates, which display their fertility status through obvious behavioral or physical changes, female members of H. sapiens advertise their fertility through subtle shifts in fashionability. Researchers at UCLA photographed 30 women when they were both very fertile and very unfertile. Judges selected the ovulating women as “trying to look more attractive” 60% of the time, which the authors say is statistically significant. They also note that the closer a woman was to ovulation when her picture was taken, the more frequently she was tagged stylish. The researchers add that while women may have shown more skin in their fancy getup, they did not dress more provocatively, just more fashionably. Yes, ovulating women are label whores and label whores alone.

Don’t Feed the Plants
When visitors to the Botanical Gardens in Lyon, France, smelled something putrid they knew something was amiss. They complained to local botanists, who investigated—the French aren’t known for whining about smells lightly—and found the stench came from a carnivorous pitcher plant. Peering inside, the botanists observed that a mouse was slowly being digested in the basin of the pitcher. Until this murderous specimen of Nepenthes truncata devoured the rodent, scientists had no reason to suspect that its appetites extended beyond bugs. But with one fateful meal, the Philippine pitcher plant has shown up such insectivorous wimps as the Venus Flytrap and joined other members of its genus by earning the honor of Lethal Flora, First Class. Audrey II, you have just met your match.

Masculine Toast and Masculine Butter
To make a well-behaved piece of toast, one that refuses to succumb to Murphy’s Law by landing buttered-side-down, you need to show your bread a bit of tough love. In an episode aired in March 2005, television “Mythbusters” Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman found that the more vigorously you spread jam or butter on a piece of toast, the more likely it is that the toast will land gooey-side-up. They explain that putting some elbow grease into the spreading process creates an indentation in the toast. Much like falling leaves or dead bugs, curved toast will land with its convex side down and its curved edges up. Though the study was conducted over a year ago, it is only now getting its richly deserved media attention. The researchers took pains to be sure each slice in their experiment was heated to precisely the same temperature and that the experimental setup closely mimicked toast being accidentally knocked off the edge of a table. Savage and Hyneman dropped 50 pieces of vigorously buttered toast and found that in 29 of the drops, the toast landed butter-side-up. Thank you, Mythbusters, for solving one of the world’s greatest problems.

Saint PETA
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals are on another admirable crusade to save the most lovable animals from a cruel, inhumane demise. This time, the object of their efforts is none other than that cute-and-cuddliest of beasts: the cockroach. In honor of Halloween, Six Flags theme parks are staging a competition to see if anyone can break the world cockroach eating record. Participants will chow down on live Madagascar hissing cockroaches, which grow to between 3.8 and 7.6 cm long. The roaches were raised in sterile environments, and contest organizers insist that they are delicious and nutritious. (OK, maybe just nutritious.) Any park-goer who eats one Madagascar hissing cockroach can choose either free admission or line-jumping privileges as a reward. And anyone who manages to break the record of eating 36 Madagascar hissing cockroaches in one minute, set by Ken Edwards of Derbyshire, England, in 2001, will win a four person season pass to Six Flags for 2007 that includes VIP line-cutting status. PETA insists that insects do not deserve to be eaten alive. Six Flags claims the only complaints it has received about the contest concern the 18 North American parks that are not offering cockroach snacks.

We’ve Got Spirit, Yes We Do
Any old slob can deduce the presence of real people, but only the most sensitive, finely attuned folk can sense disembodied spirits. According to a paper published earlier this year in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research—a favorite periodical read in the afterlife—people who describe themselves as having a “sensitive” personality type (generally with respect to sensations and pain) are 3.5 times more likely to claim an apparitional experience than normal people are. Factors found to significantly contribute to the likelihood someone will be “sensitive” included being female, being ambidextrous, being a first-born or only child, being single, considering oneself imaginative, considering oneself introverted, recalling traumatic childhood experiences, and believing that one affects or is affected by electrical appliances in strange ways. Well, as a first-born, single, ambidextrous, imaginative, somewhat introverted woman, I eagerly await my first experience with a ghost. Halloween’s right around the corner, boys; bring ‘em on.

Or maybe I don’t want to be a “sensitive.” In Malaysia, ghost-buster Syed Abdullah Alattas spent about $1,350 on a sound detector to learn about the behavior of ghosts. Specifically, Syed Abdullah is trying to figure out how ghosts have sex. Abdullah has said of his experiences, “Some of it is so weird that I cannot tell you about it. It might also be dangerous for me.” He also claims that his process is 40 percent scientific and 60 percent spiritual. Babe, if your experiments are 40 percent falsifiable, you are doing very well for a ghost-buster.

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Originally published October 16, 2006

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