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William Mowers
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Comet hunters still have a chance to see comet 45P in the next few days using binoculars or a telescope. It’s the first of a trio of comets that will pass close to Earth between now and the end of 2018. More: http://go.nasa.gov/2kBxJRZ
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"When they are attacked by herbivores, many plants call in reinforcements. To this end, they emit odours. These odours attract wasps, for example, that are parasites and in search for host animals. The wasps lay their eggs into the caterpillars, thereby killing them: This means fewer butterflies and voracious caterpillars in the next generation. An international research team has tested the effects of twelve types of herbivores on field mustard (Brassica rapa). The researchers found that the plants consistently adapt the odours they emit upon attack to the characteristics of the respective herbivore. This helps the plant to specifically attract natural enemies that feed on the herbivores eating them. Most surprisingly, they emit different odour bouquets in response to exotic as opposed to native herbivores".

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Could severe solar storms and animal beachings be linked? New study will see if these solar storms, which affect Earth’s magnetic fields, could be confusing the animal’s internal compasses and causing them to lose their way. Details: http://go.nasa.gov/2kWE3Fa
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"Oetzi the famous "iceman" mummy of the Alps appears to have enjoyed a fine slice or two of Stone Age bacon before he was killed by an arrow some 5,300 years ago.
His last meal was most likely dried goat meat, according to scientists who recently managed to dissect the contents of Oetzi's stomach.
"We've analysed the meat's nanostructure and it looks like he ate very fatty, dried meat, most likely bacon," German mummy expert Albert Zink said at a talk in Vienna late Wednesday.
More specifically, the tasty snack is thought to have come from a wild goat in South Tyrol, the northern Italian region where Oetzi roamed around and where his remains were found in September 1991.
Mummified in ice, he was discovered by two German hikers in the Oetztal Alps, 3,210 metres (10,500 feet) above sea level.
Scientists have used hi-tech, non-invasive diagnostics and genomic sequencing to penetrate his mysterious past.
These efforts have determined Oetzi died around the age of 45, was about 1.60 metres (five foot, three inches) tall and weighed 50 kilos (110 pounds)".

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Where should our Juno spacecraft aim its camera during its next close pass of Jupiter on Feb. 2? Vote now! Learn how: http://go.nasa.gov/2jDzfTT
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448 million distracting social media posts per year

No, I'm not talking about Facebook!  I'm talking about posts put out by the Chinese government. 

They're often called 50c posts, since rumors say people are paid 50 cents for each post.  There's a huge army of people writing these posts!   I learned about them from this new paper, which did a lot of experiments to study them:

How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, not Engaged Argument

The Chinese government has long been suspected of hiring as many as 2,000,000 people to surreptitiously insert huge numbers of pseudonymous and other deceptive writings into the stream of real social media posts, as if they were the genuine opinions of ordinary people. Many academics, and most journalists and activists, claim that these so-called “50c party” posts vociferously argue for the government’s side in political and policy debates. As we show, this is also true of the vast majority of posts openly accused on social media of being 50c. Yet, almost no systematic empirical evidence exists for this claim, or, more importantly, for the Chinese regime’s strategic objective in pursuing this activity.

In the first large scale empirical analysis of this operation, we show how to identify the secretive authors of these posts, the posts written by them, and their content. We estimate that the government fabricates and posts about 448 million social media comments a year. In contrast to prior claims, we show that the Chinese regime’s strategy is to avoid arguing with skeptics of the party and the government, and to not even discuss controversial issues. We infer that the goal of this massive secretive operation is instead to distract the public and change the subject, as most of the these posts involve cheerleading for China, the revolutionary history of the Communist Party, or other symbols of the regime.  We discuss how these results fit with what is known about the Chinese censorship program, and suggest how they may change our broader theoretical understanding of “common knowledge” and information control in authoritarian regimes.

The conclusion is spelled out in more detail near the end:

Distraction is a clever and useful strategy in information control in that an argument in almost any human discussion is rarely an effective way to put an end to an opposing argument. Letting an argument die, or changing the subject, usually works much better than picking an argument and getting someone’s back up (as new parents recognize fast).

It may even be the case that the function of reasoning in human beings is fundamentally about winning arguments rather than resolving them by seeking truth. Distraction even has the advantage of reducing anger compared to ruminating on the same issue. Finally, since censorship alone seems to anger people, the 50c astroturfing program has the additional advantage of enabling the government to actively control opinion without having to censor as much as they might otherwise.

The paper is here:

• Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret E. Roberts, How the Chinese government fabricates social media posts for strategic distraction, not engaged argument, American Political Science Review, 2017. Copy at http://j.mp/1Txxiz1

The people who write these social media posts are often called the 50c army - but I doubt most of them wear uniforms as in this picture!

Thanks to +Lauren Weinstein for pointing this out!
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Friday the 13th isn’t all unlucky…here are 13 reasons to have an out-of-this-world day! Check it out: http://nasa.tumblr.com/post/155808196134/13-reasons-to-have-an-out-of-this-world-friday
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