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January 28, 2008

Debunking "The Tipping Point"

collision detection: The death of "Influentials"

Don't get Duncan Watts started on the Hush Puppies. "Oh, God," he groans when the subject comes up. "Not them." The Hush Puppies in question are the ones that kick off The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell's best-seller about how trends work. As Gladwell tells it, the fuzzy footwear was a dying brand by late 1994 -- until a few New York hipsters brought it back from the brink. Other fashionistas followed suit, whereupon the cool kids copied them, the less-cool kids copied them, and so on, until, voila! Within two years, sales of Hush Puppies had exploded by a stunning 5,000%, without a penny spent on advertising. All because, as Gladwell puts it, a tiny number of superinfluential types ("Twenty? Fifty? One hundred -- at the most?") began wearing the shoes.

These tastemakers, Gladwell concluded, are the spark behind any successful trend. "What we are really saying," he writes, "is that in a given process or system, some people matter more than others." In modern marketing, this idea -- that a tiny cadre of connected people triggers trends -- is enormously seductive. It is the very premise of viral and word-of-mouth campaigns: Reach those rare, all-powerful folks, and you'll reach everyone else through them, basically for free. Loosely, this is referred to as the Influentials theory, and while it has been a marketing touchstone for 50 years, it has recently reentered the mainstream imagination via thousands of marketing studies and a host of best-selling books. In addition to The Tipping Point, there was The Influentials, by marketing gurus Ed Keller and Jon Berry, as well as the gospel according to PR firms such as Burson-Marsteller, which claims "E-Fluentials" can "make or break a brand." According to MarketingVOX, an online marketing news journal, more than $1 billion is spent a year on word-of-mouth campaigns targeting Influentials, an amount growing at 36% a year, faster than any other part of marketing and advertising. That's on top of billions more in PR and ads leveled at the cognoscenti.

Yet, if you believe Watts, all that money and effort is being wasted. Because according to him, Influentials have no such effect. Indeed, they have no special role in trends at all.

Breastfeeding may influence allergies

BBC NEWS | Health | Breast milk 'may be allergy key'

A study may have discovered why breastfeeding might help protect children against allergies such as asthma, scientists have said.

The French research, published in Nature Medicine, shows female mice exposed to allergens can pass them directly to their offspring in milk.

This allows the newborns to become "tolerant" of the substance.

However, in humans, the link between breastfeeding and reduced asthma risk remains unproven, say experts.

January 27, 2008

Lead linked to aging in older brains

Lead linked to aging in older brains - Yahoo! News

NEW YORK - Could it be that the "natural" mental decline that afflicts many older people is related to how much lead they absorbed decades before?

That's the provocative idea emerging from some recent studies, part of a broader area of new research that suggests some pollutants can cause harm that shows up only years after someone is exposed.

The new work suggests long-ago lead exposure can make an aging person's brain work as if it's five years older than it really is. If that's verified by more research, it means that sharp cuts in environmental lead levels more than 20 years ago didn't stop its widespread effects.

"We're trying to offer a caution that a portion of what has been called normal aging might in fact be due to ubiquitous environmental exposures like lead," says Dr. Brian Schwartz of Johns Hopkins University.

January 24, 2008

Science: people can determine someone's sexual orientation in less than a second

An Eye for Sexual Orientation -- Kaplan 2008 (118): 3 -- ScienceNOW

Talk about "gaydar." In just a fraction of a second, people can accurately judge the sexual orientation of other individuals by glancing at their faces, according to new research. The finding builds on the growing theory that the subconscious mind detects and probably guides much more of human behavior than is realized.

Humans are remarkably good at making snap judgments about others. In a hallmark study conducted by psychologists Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal in 1994, people shown 2-second video clips of professors teaching formed opinions about the professors' teaching abilities that were uncannily similar to evaluations written by students at the end of a semester. The results led psychologists to begin questioning what else people might detect in a glance.

Ambady and colleague Nicholas Rule, both at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, wondered about sexual orientation. They showed men and women photos of 90 faces belonging to homosexual men and heterosexual men for intervals ranging from 33 milliseconds to 10 seconds. When given 100 milliseconds or more to view a face, participants correctly identified sexual orientation nearly 70% of the time. Volunteers were less accurate at shorter durations, and their accuracy did not get better at durations beyond 100 milliseconds, the team reports in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. "What is most interesting is that increased exposure time did not improve the results," says Ambady.