By Brooke E. O’Neill, AM’04, and Burke Frank, ‘11
Photography by iStockphoto

For schoolchildren given new computers, video games trump homework.

The perils of technology

Campaigns to bridge the digital divide may be misguided. In a study of more than 3,000 low-income families in Romania, Chicago economist Ofer Malamud and Columbia University economist Cristian Pop-Eleches found that home computers often serve more as distractions than as learning tools for school-aged children. Roughly 65 percent of households participated in a government program that gave families a voucher toward a computer purchase. Once they had a machine, children played games almost daily, but they spent 2.3 fewer hours per week doing homework than did other low-income peers. Although their computer skills improved, grades in math, English, and Romanian fell significantly. Malamud reported his findings in a January 2010 National Bureau of Economics Research working paper and will publish the study next year in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. The good news: parental supervision and rules about computer use may help counter some of the negative effects.

Battle scars

Before Vietnam, there was Korea. Commonly known as the “forgotten war,” the conflict occupies a tenuous place in America’s cultural consciousness. But in The Korean War: A History (Modern Library Chronicles, 2010), Chicago historian Bruce Cumings argues that the events between 1950 and 1953 irrevocably shaped U.S. foreign policy. Delving into previously classified documents, including a little-researched North Korean archive, he traces the conflict to long-simmering civil strife amplified by American and Soviet involvement. McCarthyism dominated the U.S. home front, as brutal violence left more than 4 million Koreans, two-thirds of them civilians, dead. The effect on U.S. policy persists to this day, Cumings writes, as the practice of military containment is replaced by “an ongoing and seemingly endless global crusade.”

Idle hands are sadder hands

Money can’t buy happiness, but busywork just might. People engaged in tasks, even pointless ones, are happier than those who sit idle, according to Chicago Booth School of Business professor Christopher K. Hsee, lead author of a study published in the upcoming issue ofPsychological Science. In his experiment, participants filled out a survey and afterward were told they had 15 minutes before the next survey would begin. They could choose either to deposit the form nearby and wait, or they could go to an equivalent location farther away, keeping them walking for the whole 15 minutes. Those who went the distance were found to be happier than those who stayed put. Researchers offered candy at both locations and found that when the candy was the same, participants tended to avoid the long walk. But when different choices were offered, subjects generally chose the farther location. Hsee attributes the difference to participants’ justifying the walk because of the new candy.

Make the grade

A serious lung disease could be caused by a gene-regulation disorder rather than aberrations in the genes themselves, according to Chicago researchers. A study published in the June Circulation found that pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH), a blockage of blood vessels in the lungs, is caused in animal subjects by DNA methylation—a form of epigenetics, or the regulation of gene expression—and not a gene mutation, as previously thought. Medical Center cardiologist Stephen Archer and his team found that a methylated protein in fawn-hooded rats inhibits the expression of the SOD2 gene. When the protein SOD2 produces was administered to the rats, the PAH-like symptoms disappeared, improving the rats’ scores in treadmill testing. If a similar mechanism operates in human PAH sufferers, researchers could treat a disease that causes tens of thousands of U.S. hospitalizations each year, and from which 15 percent of patients die within a year of diagnosis.


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