Jan 2012

Here be Dragons

Despite being an opera singer, I’m not particularly superstitious. Unless, of course, you include the Chinese Zodiac in your definition of the superstitious. You see, I happen to belong to the most auspicious category, represented by the only legendary creature in the list: the almighty Dragon. Surely you don’t blame me, then, for holding onto the belief that my personality is best characterized by a giant, fire-breathing, winged beast*? I mean, really, can anyone argue that the following description doesn’t fit me to a tittle**?


Occupying the 5th position in the Chinese Zodiac, the Dragon is the mightiest of the signs. Dragons symbolize such character traits as dominance and ambition. Dragons prefer to live by their own rules and if left on their own, are usually successful. They’re driven, unafraid of challenges, and willing to take risks. They’re passionate in all they do and they do things in grand fashion. Unfortunately, this passion and enthusiasm can leave Dragons feeling exhausted and interestingly, unfulfilled. While Dragons frequently help others, rarely will they ask for help. Others are attracted to Dragons, especially their colorful personalities, but deep down, Dragons prefer to be alone. Perhaps that is because they’re most successful when working alone. Their preference to be alone can come across as arrogance or conceitedness, but these qualities aren’t applicable. Dragons have tempers that can flare fast! excerpted from http://www.chinesezodiac.com/dragon.php

Just reading that description gives my self-esteem a (clearly superfluous) boost. Being a scientist, however, I can’t quite commit to the belief whole-heartedly. And given that we’re about to enter another year of the Dragon on Monday, it’s only fair to look at the evidence. Is there any compelling proof that the Chinese zodiac predictions are worth considering?

First, the caveat. Being a skeptical person by nature, and a psychologist by training, my working hypothesis is that the signs appeal to the vast majority of people, because the traits associated with a given sign include virtues of personality that we all share, or revere, alongside their equally-universal vices. Take the dragon, for example: in general, most people aspire to success and are passionate about, well, something. Most people prefer to live by their own rules and take solace in the notion that because they have to follow someone else’s rules to some extent (either at work, home or play), they are not as successful as they could be. And sure, if you’re ambitious, driven, self-motivated and prefer to be alone, you are likely to be perceived as arrogant and you certainly will feel exhausted at times. Going through the list of personality traits on the Chinese Zodiac page of Wikipedia, I find myself represented to some extent by each one of the signs. That is, of course, if I indulge in my natural tendency towards searching for confirming rather than disconfirming evidence, which psychologists call the confirmation bias. If I assess the extent to which these description fit my character, rather than the extent to which they miss key components of my personality, I can become quite convinced.

But enough speculation. What do the data show? Oddly enough, there aren’t that many studies of the effects of the Chinese Zodiac on pubmed. But those brave scientists who have published such studies have made some pretty fascinating discoveries. Giving the importance and unpredictability of childbirth, it comes as no surprise that the Chinese Zodiac is often used to gage whether a woman will become pregnant in a given year, and what will be the sex of the child. To test whether the zodiac does indeed correlate with its own predictions, Jungmin Lee and Myungho Park investigated the sex preferences and fertility in South Korea in the Year of the Horse and published their results in 2006. The horse is associated with masculinity and, in South Korea at least, the year is considered inauspicious for girls, as they are thought to suffer unhappiness and misfortune. Certainly, these predictions have as much to do with the society in which these girls are born as they have to do with the moon: as the authors point out, ‘in patriachal and Confusionist societies, women are expected to be subservient to men’. (Pardon me while I expel some smoke via my nostrils). Is there any evidence that the year of the Horse correlates with a higher birth rate of boys? Is it such a strong force that women might avoid getting pregnant and show a decrease in fertility? The authors seem to think so.
I must admit that those years don’t strike me as significant outliers. But what about the year of the dragon? In many Asian cultures, the dragon is considered (ahem) the best sign (though not so much for the ladies). In Hong Kong, birth rates peaked in the 1980s and then started to decline, even though the numbers of married women of child-bearing age continued to increase. Every 12 years, however, a blip in births was observed, coinciding with the year of the Dragon. In 2002, Yip, Lee and Cheung published a study of birthrates in Hong Kong in the journal Social Science and Medicine. These data seem more convincing to me, especially because Taiwan and Singapore both saw large increased in birth rates in the two previous dragon years.


But how can we assess whether these effects are mainly driven by human behavior or by the orbit of the moon? Luckily, another study was recently published, which assessed the accuracy of predictions by the Chinese Lunar Calendar on 2.8 million Swedish births between 1973 and 2006. Such a huge database is pretty compelling and I’ll let the authors speak for themselves: ‘We conclude that the CLC method is no better at predicting the sex of a baby than tossing a coin and advise against painting the nursery based on this method's result.’ There you have it. Once again, you’ll see it if you believe it. That is, belief in the zodiac will alter your behavior, such that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Off I go then, to follow my ambitions and take risks. Happy Chinese New Year and best of luck in 2012!

*Some of you might (accurately but pedantically) point out that only the European version has wings: his Asian counterpart is more snake-like. Well, it’s my superstition so I get to imagine it just the way I please, thankyouverymuch.

**not Snoop Dogg speak. Actual derivation of the term ‘to a T’.


The Best Invention of 2011

It’s been a while since my last blog post and I must confess that with each passing day, my standards for the quality of the next post have grown higher and higher. Worried that these standards were reaching insurmountable levels, I began to panic today. As the universe registered my anguish, my silent prayers were answered with a bang by the unlikeliest of sources: Time magazine.

I was on a break from a job when I picked up a copy of the magazine, left open by a colleague. Touting the best inventions of 2011, the magazine brought to my attention what must, indeed, be among the best inventions ever. Let me present to you, The Necomimi.

Admittedly, I’m way behind the curve, since this video has already had over 2 million views. But let me highlight some of the great features of this extraordinary device. It is produced by the Japanese company Neurowear whose website alone provides a significant amount of entertainment. They have developed a business model which aims to make literal wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve. The term “Necomimi” was constructed by joining the Japanese words for cat and ear. Via a sensor placed on the forehead, the ears react to electrical signals that purportedly come from the brain. Simply by concentrating or relaxing, the wearer can manipulate the ears, mimicking gestures that cat lovers recognize as demonstrating alertness or comfort, respectively. But don’t listen to me, let the company speak for itself:

We created new human's organs that use brain wave sensor.「necomimi」is the new communication tool that augments human's body and ability.This cat's ear shaped machine utilizes brain waves and express your condition before you start talking.

2011 was, clearly, a banner year for technology. But lest you think that 2012 will never be able to top the Necomimi, allow me to reveal the Best Invention of 2012 So Far:The Baby Formula Banana Smoothie. This one was invented by my ever-resourceful husband. Have some leftover baby formula from visiting infants over the holidays? Just completed a 10K run across the Golden Gate Bridge? In a blender, start with some ripe bananas, add the leftover orange juice from the New Years Day Mimosa brunch, mix in yogurt and honey and top it all off with a healthy serving of baby formula powder. It’s almost as good as the Necomimi.

Now that I’ve broken the dry period, I promise to return to my regular blogging style, commenting on topics at the intersection of art and science next week. Until then, I hope that your creative juices have gotten a boost, and that you will find yourself thinking about other fashionable ways in which bodily functions might be harnessed,