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Super-Nice People May Be More Likely to Betray You

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When it comes to people, it’s the sickly-sweet ones you have to watch out for. That’s the conclusion of a study by a team of linguists and computer scientists, who analyzed the conversational patterns of people playing an online strategy game. 

As writer Rachel Ehrenberg explains in Science News, interpersonal conflicts like betrayal can be very difficult to study. It’s not as if you can bring two people into the lab, instruct one to backstab the other, and draw reasonable conclusions from their behavior while they’re being watched. “We all know betrayal exists,” computer scientist Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil told Ehrenberg. “But finding relevant data is really hard.”

So when Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil heard about the game Diplomacy, a lightbulb went off in his head. In this strategy game, which was invented during the Cold War, players compete to gain territories not with weapons or armies, but with words. The game has maintained a dedicated fanbase for more than half a century. Today, most games of Diplomacy are played online, with players conducting their negotiations, alliances, treaties, manipulations, coups, and, of course, betrayal from behind their keyboards. 

Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil realized that the transcripts of these conversations could be a data goldmine. He joined forces with fellow computer scientist (and diehard Diplomacy fan) Jordan Boyd-Graber, as well as computational linguist Vlad Niculae and data mining expert Srijan Kumar. The researchers compiled 145,000 messages between players and analyzed them in the hopes of finding what they called “linguistic harbingers of betrayal.” 

They found them, all right. “Sudden changes in the balance of certain conversational attributes—such as positive sentiment, politeness, or focus on future planning—signal impending betrayal,” they wrote in a report. In other words, if somebody starts being really, really polite or eager all of a sudden, it might be time to start edging away. 

An example, taken from a game transcript: 

GERMANY: Can I suggest you move your armies east and then I will support you? Then next year you move [there] and dismantle Turkey. I will deal with England and France, you take out Italy. 

AUSTRIA: Sounds like a perfect plan! Happy to follow through. And—thank you Bruder! 

“Immediately after this exchange,” the researchers noted, “Austria invaded German territory.”

It is important to keep in mind this study is only looking at players in a betrayal-centric game. It’s possible that the really super-friendly person in your office is legitimately super-friendly and not out to get you. We’ll have to wait on more research to find out for sure.

Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil and his colleagues presented their findings last summer at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Computational Linguistics. The acknowledgments section of their report [PDF] was both topical and pointed: “This work is dedicated to all those who betrayed us.”

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science
Geological Map Shows the Massive Reservoir Bubbling Beneath Old Faithful
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Yellowstone National Park is home to rivers, waterfalls, and hot springs, but Old Faithful is easily its most iconic landmark. Every 45 to 125 minutes, visitors gather around the geyser to watch it shoot streams of water reaching up to 100 feet in the air. The punctual show is one of nature’s greatest spectacles, but new research from scientists at the University of Utah suggests that what’s going on at the geyser’s surface is just the tip of the iceberg.

The study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, features a map of the geological plumbing system beneath Old Faithful. Geologists have long known that the eruptions are caused by water heated by volcanic rocks beneath the ground reaching the boiling point and bubbling upwards through cracks in the earth. But the place where this water simmers between appearances has remained mysterious to scientists until now.

Using 133 seismometers scattered around Old Faithful and the surrounding area, the researchers were able to record the tiny tremors caused by pressure build-up in the hydrothermal reservoir. Two weeks of gathering data helped them determine just how large the well is. The team found that the web of cracks and fissures beneath Old Faithful is roughly 650 feet in diameter and capable of holding more than 79 million gallons of water. When the geyser erupts, it releases just 8000 gallons. You can get an idea of how the reservoir fits into the surrounding geology from the diagram below.

Geological map of geyser.
Sin-Mei Wu, University of Utah

After making the surprising discovery, the study authors plan to return to the area when park roads close for the winter to conduct further research. Next time, they hope to get even more detailed images of the volatile geology beneath this popular part of Yellowstone.

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Animals
Why Do Female Spotted Hyenas Give Birth Through Their Pseudo-Penises?
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At the zoo, you can sometimes tell the difference between male and female animals by noting their physical size, their behavior, and yes, their nether regions. Hyenas, however, flip the script: Not only are lady spotted hyenas bigger and meaner than their male counterparts, ruling the pack with an iron paw, they also sport what appear to be penises—shaft, scrotum, and all.

"Appear" is the key word here: These 7-inch-long phalluses don't produce sperm, so they're technically really long clitorises in disguise. But why do female hyenas have them? And do they actually have to (gulp) give birth through them? Wouldn't that hurt … a lot?

The short answers to these questions are, respectively, "We don't know," "Yes," and "OW." Longer answers can be found in this MinuteEarth video, which provides the full lowdown on hyena sex. Don't say we didn't warn you.

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