Word of the Day: Ephebophilia

I watched the movie Smart People recently, which features Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church and Ellen Page. After watching the film, I went to IMDB to get some additional information about it.

Like every other movie at IMDB, Smart People has a message board, and several of the most popular threads from that board are displayed at the bottom of the movie’s entry page. I noticed the following thread posted therein:

“Pedophilia and Ellen Page’s characters”

The person who started the thread had some concerns about some of the characters in Ellen Page’s movies – specifically, Mark Loring (Jason Bateman) from Juno and Chuck Wetherhold (Thomas Haden Church) from Smart People. In Juno, Mark and Juno have a flirtatious relationship that some might consider inappropriate; in Smart People, Page’s overachieving character develops a crush on her slacker adopted uncle, and actually ends up kissing him at one point.

While we could certainly argue over whether it’s appropriate for thirtysomething males to flirt with or kiss a 16 or 17 year-old girl, one thing is clear: that ain’t pedophilia.

Pedophilia is generally defined as “a psychological disorder in which an adult experiences a sexual preference for prepubescent children”. Ellen Page is 21 years-old in real life; in Juno she played a pregnant 16 year-old, while in Smart People she played a 17 year-old. Both of these characters are obviously past puberty, so the word the poster might actually have been looking for is ephebophilia, which is “the sexual attraction to adolescents (typically teenagers)”.

What makes ephebophilia interesting is that it just might be hardwired into the male brain.

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Teenage Murderers

Enjoy a new feature here at jimcofer.com: the Science Blog! When researching posts for the History Blog, I often come across things that interest me, but aren’t really “history”, so to speak. When I heard about the following story, I knew I just had to post it, but doing so would require a new category… and thus, the Science Blog was born!

It sounds like an urban legend about gang initiations: teenage males come together to form a pack, pick out a random victim, form a circle around him or her, then beat the victim to death… just for thrills. Sadly, however, it’s not an urban legend. It’s very real. But what might surprise you is who is doing this. It’s not inner-city gang members looking for “street cred”. It’s not packs of skinheads looking for an immigrant to beat up on. It’s not even drunken hicks looking for a gay guy to bash on. No. The perpetrators in this case are… bottlenose dolphins.

Modern American culture holds dolphins in high regard. And why not? They’re beautiful creatures. They’re highly intelligent. And it seems that, in many cases, dolphins like us. I’m sure you’ve heard stories of a pack of dolphins carrying a drowning man to the shore, or a pack of dolphins saving a diver from a shark attack. Since at least 1964 (when the TV series Flipper debuted), most Americans have thought of dolphins as friendly little sea creatures almost as smart as ourselves.

In the summer of 1997, however, marine biologists in Virginia and Scotland began finding the bodies of young bottlenose dolphins washed up on the beach. The bodies were in horrific shape, and the biologists initially blamed the deaths on the U.S. Navy (in the Virginia case) and an offshore oil rig (in the Scottish case).

The biologists quickly changed their tune after the young dolphins were autopsied. Their internal organs had been pulverized while the tissue surrounding the organs was left intact. What’s more, the internal organs appeared to be injured in order of their importance to the young dolphin – their hearts were almost completely destroyed, while their stomachs (while still perhaps fatally injured) where in much better shape, relatively speaking. These factors immediately ruled out any type of “shock blast” from the Navy or the oil rig, as any such blast from those sources would have injured the dolphins’ organs equally. The biologists would remain stumped until the smoking gun finally appeared: some of the researchers – who were now working together on both sides of the Atlantic – were able to definitively show that the victims had teeth marks from their fellow dolphins.

All this was confirmed as home video of “dolphin murders” started to make its way into the hands of the researchers. Several vacationers, on day trips to view dolphins or whales, began recording amazing footage of packs of dolphins isolating a baby, beating it to death, then playing with the corpse (much as a cat might play with a dead mouse).

The big question here is, of course, why the dolphins kill some of their young. The dolphins never eat their victims, nor is food lacking in the areas where the murders occur, so hunger cannot be the cause. Most of the victims appear to have been in good health before the beatings, so it does not appear to be a “kill the weaker so that the rest may survive” situation. Most of the victims are members of the murderers’ “family”, so it does not appear to be an issue of territory (especially since most animals, dolphins included, will simply chase any unwanted animals out of their territory instead of killing them). Some have speculated that it’s somehow about mating, since once a calf dies, a female dolphin is ready to mate again; this seems quite illogical (“Let’s kill your baby so we can make a baby!”) and scientists aren’t completely sure that it’s only males that take part in the murders.

The most popular (and obvious) hypothesis is that the young male dolphins are using the young calves – which are usually around the same size and age, by the way – as a type of “target practice”. After all, those young males may one day be called upon to defend the pod against an attacker. But that doesn’t explain the sheer brutality of the attacks, nor does it explain why the dolphins play with the corpses of the victims, often tossing it back and forth to each other like a soccer ball. However, this hypothesis might explain one of the more horrific aspects of the killings: the attackers use their ultrasonic capabilities to hone in on the victim’s vital organs!

Perhaps the greatest puzzle of all is why it only happens off the coast of Virginia and Scotland. Bottlenose dolphins are everywhere in the Atlantic, yet this bizarre behavior has only been spotted in those two places.

There probably is some reason why some dolphins kill their young. But until then, there are now two species on this planet that kill just for fun: man… and dolphins!

Fun With: Airport Codes

If you’ve spent any time at all traveling, you’re probably familiar with three-letter “airport codes”. If you’ve ever been on a frequent-flyer message board, you know that airport codes are tossed around like so much jargon by road warriors. And if you’ve thought about it, you might have wondered why some airport codes are obvious – like CLT for Charlotte, NC or ATL for Atlanta, GA – while others don’t seem to make any sense at all. MCO for Orlando, FL? MSY for New Orleans? Why are some codes simple and others mysterious?

Well, it all has to do with history. These “oddball codes” generally fit into four categories:

Laziness: Before there were commercial airports, the National Weather Service (NWS) used a two-letter code for most US cities. By the 1930s, commercial aviation began to take off, and some bureaucrat noticed the need for airport codes in cities that didn’t already have an NWS weather station. So a three-letter airport code system was adopted, and many cities simply took their existing NWS code and put an X at the end… thus, Los Angeles is LAX, Portland, Oregon is PDX, and Phoenix, Arizona is PHX, and so on.

Changing names: Most of the “oddball” airport codes fall into this category. The airport at New Orleans, Louisiana, now known as “Louis Armstrong International Airport”, was called the “Moisant Stock Yards” for years, hence the MSY code. Another Louisiana example is Alexandra, where the airport is known as ESF, for Esler Field. Orlando International Airport stands on what used to be McCoy Air Force Base, hence MCO. The airport in Columbus, Ohio was known as Columbus Municipal Hangar, so CMH. And Chicago’s O’Hare airport changed names from Orchard Field (hence ORD) to O’Hare to commemorate a Chicago-born WWII flying ace.

Other codes got in the way: As a general rule, most TV and radio stations east of the Mississippi River begin their call signs with the letter W, while most cities west of the Mississippi use the letter K. What you might not know is that the U.S. Navy claimed all the “N” codes, Canada uses all the “Y” codes, “Q” was once used exclusively for international communication, and the FAA itself reserved “Z” for “special uses”. This means that W, K, N, Q, and Z were off limits as first letters for airport codes, and airports that wanted to use those letters had to think of something else. Norfolk, Virginia, for example, couldn’t begin their code with “N”, so the folks there dropped the “N” entirely to get ORF. Newark, New Jersey had to make do with EWR, while Wilmington, North Carolina came up with ILM. Newport News, Virginia skated around the issue by using a code named after the airport – Patrick Henry Field (PHF).

A combination of the above: Because Washington, DC couldn’t begin any airport codes with a “W”, they chose to use DCA for Washington National Airport. However, when Dulles Airport came along, it was initially given the code DIA (Dulles International Airport). But this was a nightmare for baggage handlers, since DCA and DIA are so similar, especially since luggage tags were handwritten at the time. So DIA became IAD, which is almost impossible to confuse with DCA.

Airport names come and go, but their codes are rarely changed. This is because travel industry folks become used to using a code, and because reprogramming every computer with a new airport code would be a giant pain. New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport is one of the few to have changed both names and codes. It was originally known as Idlewild Airport (IDL), but when the airport was renamed for the slain president, the airport code became JFK. The three-letter code system is so pressed for codes that IDL was retired and eventually reused: IDL is now the airport at Indianola, Mississippi.

A Drive Through Uncanny Valley

In the early 1970s, Japanese researcher Masahiro Mori noticed something interesting. As someone who had spent most of his professional life working with robots, Mori noticed that the more lifelike a robot was, the more people liked it… but only to a certain point. Once the robot became too lifelike, people were repulsed by it. Some people felt physically sick when looking at extremely lifelike robots, while others ran away in fear. And while those were somewhat extreme responses, nearly everyone reported some measure of uneasiness or distress when viewing an ultra-lifelike robot. Dr. Mori, it seems, had unwittingly discovered “Uncanny Valley”.

Back when robots looked more like a pile of car parts than a person – think of the robot from Lost In Space – people looked at them as simple machines, no different, really, than a drill or garbage disposal. Which wasn’t a bad thing, mind you, but it didn’t engender any feelings of warmth for the robots, either. People felt the same way about video games and displays of “virtual people” (like, say a “virtual teller” at an ATM); as long as the representations of people were crude, people had no problem with it.

But technology marches on, and soon video games had people that looked incredibly lifelike. Japanese researchers developed robots that were almost indistinguishable from real people. Hollywood found that movies could be made solely with computer-generated people. And Internet companies developed “virtual people” that could work the customer service desk or be “online ambassadors” for companies. And all of these creeped people out. The question was… why?

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